Amsterdam is, of course, a city of canals, the most iconic of which are the four semicircular, concentric canals constructed during the city’s Golden Age (roughly the 17th century): Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht, and Singel(gracht). As you can guess “gracht means canal (sort of).  It has a hard g, rhymes with the first syllable of October and is said as if you were clearing your throat and hiccuping at the same time.
 !7the C houses along Prinzengracht
Alongside the canals, the prosperous mercantile class built tall, narrow brick houses that have central stairways that will not allow the passage of overweight humans, let alone furniture and other bulky household items.  These stairways so caught the fancy of Amsterdamers that they have replicated them in most of the housing they have built over the last 400 years–which is why the typical 20th century 5 story apt house, like the 17th century canal house, has a girder with a hook sticking out of the eves which allows for a pulley to be attached so that residents can hoist up their couches, TV sets, and fridges and swing them through windows.  But I digress
 Canal Zone Houses
Aside from the four famous canals the city is crisscrossed by dozens of other canals (see jpeg of city map), some tiny and have personal craft tied up along the walls.  Amsterdamer use these to put around the city.
Some are large enough to allow for the current generation of 100 foot flat bottomed freighters to carry fuel, building materials, and every other type of good into the city.
Mostly, though, the canals are lived along, played along, lived on and played on. All but the largest canals have boats tied up along their walls: open boats to putt around in, houseboats to live in, and retired canal freighters to use as houseboats.
Small canal in the centrum
Many of the freighter/houseboats are elegant as are some of the just plain houseboats.
There are, however, more than a few exceptions
tobacco row houseboat
 Actually, there are a lot of exceptions.  There are the houseboats that look like motels
motel houseboat
And there are houseboats built of materials one wouldn’t think appropriate for something that needed to float
A brick houseboat?
The canals also serve as music venues.  We were fortunate enough to be in Amsterdam during the Grachten (remember to swallow and hiccup) Festival which featured classical and jazz performances along the canals.  We attended several.  Two favorites were a clarinet performance on a boat top
Houseboat concert
And a vibraphone performance on a floating stage
Manly, however, the canals are places, along which to sit, socialize, and eat and drink –which Amsterdamers seem to start doing soon after they wake.  Mary Paula and  felt it important to sample the experience.
at Cafe t' Smalle, Jordaan

Hello from Istanbul

Hello from Istanbul.

We have been here for close to two weeks, living in a city that is wonderfully chaotic, colorful, and multicultural but also decidedly Islamic and with a very strong sense of its central place in the Turkish nationality and Ottoman history. This blog post is meant as a short introduction to it.

Istanbul is a huge city, one of the world’s most populous with 14.2 million residents.  It is divided into three parts by the great inland waterways of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.


To the west of the Bosphorus are the two sections of the European side of the city. In the south is the old city (where the major mosques, palaces and most historic and touristic sites are); in the north is the new city.  New, of course is relative, since an icon of the new city is the 9 story Galata tower, built in 1438 to replace a tower built previously.  To the east of the Bosphorus is the Asian side of the city, which extends for miles beyond the border of the above map and is home to a majority of Istanbul residents.

We live in the new city, in Beyoglu, the district just north of the Golden Horn.  Specifically,  our immediate stomping grounds include the hip neighborhoods of Cihangir and Cucurkuma, and are about ten minutes walk from both Taksim Square (site of massive protests the last few years) and Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s great shopping street and site of the recent march by 1,000s protesting the violence in Ankara.  May change our minds if tear gas clouds start rolling in, but for now we are in love with our neighborhood.  It is chock full of cafes, small restaurants, coffee and tea shops, bakeries, and an occasional place to get a beer or glass of wine


(this is, after all a Muslim country).  As in Amsterdam and Berlin, social life, especially for the young, revolves around the cafe; but here the drink of choice is coffee or tea.

Like most neighborhoods in Istanbul, ours contains 100s of small shops, open from early morning to late at night, and selling everything one could possibly use or eat.  Its like a giant open air market.  We are especially fond of the produce markets which are everywhere and are both amazingly bountiful and inexpensive.Five dollars buys what would cost fifty dollars at Whole Foods  We go daily to one about 40 yards from our door and have become friends with the guys who run it, despite the fact they speak no English and our Turkish is limited to hello and thank you.


And if we decided never to go out we wouldn’t starve because there are plenty of entrepreneurs who travel through the neighborhoods selling out of the backs of their trucks (both pictures taken from our window)


Our apartment building, like every other building in Istanbul, except those situated on the narrow floodplains flanking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, is on a steep hill

Apartment & Galata twr

That means that when we leave our apartment we walk either up or down.  It also means that getting back to the neighborhood from the main thoroughfares along the water requires some climbing, either up steep winding roads or pedestrian stairs.  The stairs are quicker but, as you can see in the accompanying photos, require some effort.

Stairs up to GihangirStairs up 2

In case you are wondering, the first stairway has 318 steps (yes, I counted them) and several inclines; the second has slightly less than 400 steps.  Gets the heart pumping.

Down below are the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn which meet at a point spanned by the Galata Bridge.  The bridge is a major auto and tram thoroughfare between the new city  and the old, but it is also a major pedestrian promenade and fishing pier.


At any given moment of the day or night, several hundred men stand along the bridge’s rails patiently (and it seems often futilely) waiting to hook 6 inch long fish.  That MP and I don’t get it must have something to do with our being too goal oriented.  Walking across the bridge (which we have done often) puts one at the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, which serve as city thoroughfares as much as any of the roads and streets.  At all times of the day and seemingly the night dozens of ferries of all sizes crisscross both waterways transporting thousands of people back and forth between the three sections of the city


That’s about it for this post.  A couple more, on the beauty of old and new Istanbul, will soon follow

Biking in Amsterdam

As Amsterdammers will tell you with just the appropriate amount of north central European moral smugness, they ride bikes. The declaration is meant to convey that, unlike most of the rest of the West’s urban inhabitants, they are committed to a simple, green yet efficient form of getting around. They are not against automobiles but don’t see why they should use one when a bike is a far superior form of transportation when the distances are short.  And, of course, they live in a city with a leadership progressive enough to have put dedicated bike paths on all the major roads and most of the minor ones

So in Amsterdam’s central city, most people (and especially those under 50) commute to work on bike, transport their kids on bikes (in ways that might shock safety conscious Americans), go on dates on bikes (holding hands while they swerve through crowds), ride in the rain on bikes (they are good at biking while holding umbrellas), and transport all sorts of things on bikes. Yesterday, we saw a guy riding along balancing a full-size wing chair on his back. And btw, no one—not even young children—can be spotted wearing a bike helmet.

According to, an estimated 800,000 Amsterdammers (63% of the total metropolitan area population) use a bike on a daily basis. One result is that 32% of the traffic in the city (48% in the center city) is by bike, compared to 22% by car and 16 % by public transport. Another is that there are parked bikes everywhere. Parked bikes are to Amsterdam what piled garbage is to Naples: a combination of indigenous urban sculpture and sidewalk sited obstacle course.

Anyway, here are some photos

1) Amsterdammers commuting to work

bike commuters

2) Transporting the Kids

Kids & Bikes

3) Seats for three plus basket

double kiddie bike

4) A safer and roomier kiddie transport

Kiddie transport in use

5) the four kid model

double kiddie transport

6) the deluxe model

delux kiddie transport

7) a bike scrum in a central city square

bike scrum

8) canal side bike sculpture

canal-side bike park

9) Bike parking structure at Central Station

Bike Parking Central Station2