Some cities I love because they're full of things I like to do. Tokyo, Shanghai, and Budapest, for example. Others I love because of how they feel, but I don't always know what to do with myself there. Amsterdam is one of those cities. I love walking along the canals, I love seeing people biking, and I love the great art, but those things don't necessarily fill my days.
This morning my friends were going to the museums. Great choice, but I'd been to the Rijks and Van Gogh museums recently and wasn't particularly excited see the modern art museum. Most western European countries don't have much for tea, but I figured I'd take a shot in the dark and see if there was anywhere I could go sit and have some nice tea while writing or pondering my future.
One place stood out: Formocha. It wasn't clear whether it was actually a tea house or somewhere that just sold tea, but it would be a nice one-mile walk along the canals regardless.
The sun was out, which I noticed only because I hadn't seen it the whole time we were in Budapest. I walked along the sunny side of the canals, enjoying seeing the drawbridges and houseboats. But when I arrived at Formocha, it was closed.
Through the big windows I could see a beautiful tea room, so I pressed my face against the glass and looked around a little bit. I'm a sucker for teaware and tea tables, so I figured I'd least take some inspiration after walking all the way there. Then I saw movement-- the owner, Amanda, was in the back.
I waved in apology, but she came to the door to say hello. I explained that I didn't realize she was closed and didn't want to bother her. I was only here for a day, but would come back next time I was in the city.
"You're already here. You should have some tea."
So she invited me in and asked what sort of tea I liked. I mentioned a few of my favorite oolongs, and she chose two from her collection and began to brew them in traditional Chinese tea ceremony style.
That's how I spent my morning: sitting in a closed tea shop with Amanda, an extremely knowledgeable and warm woman, talking about tea and travel and life. It occurred to me that there are some great experiences you can try to have, but that the best are often unexpected.
Both teas were fantastic, and so was the company and the view of the canals out the big storefront window. I learned about the history of tea, how it migrated from China to Japan, as well as the trends she noticed from her customers. They're mostly male, 30-50, and generally writers or artists or musicians. She used to have a tearoom where people could buy tea by the pot, but she switched to just selling loose tea so that she could be selective about who drank tea in the store. She only wants people who love tea; many people with no interest in tea or tea culture come because it's trendy.
As we got up to leave she asked which tea I liked better, and filled up a beautiful Formocha tin with it for me to take home. I wanted to pay, to express gratitude, but she was so friendly and welcoming that I felt it would have been rude, like trying to pay my mother to cook me dinner. So I thanked her and promised to send a copy of my book, and to visit again next time I was in the city.
I walked past her old dog, the one whose eventual death will allow her to travel again, and back into the sunny streets of Amsterdam. I smiled, glad to have had the perfect morning in Amsterdam, and happy to now have something to do next time I'm here.
Would be interested to know if "less practical" posts like this are interesting to people or not. I won't be offended if not-- just want to make sure that the posts I put up are what readers want.
Currently waiting to board a flight to Tokyo. Very much looking forward to seeing my friends there and buying a few cables/adapters that can only be found in Japan.
Guess what? I've got a new book out. I hate all the launching and promotion sort of stuff, and I'm not sure it actually helped my last book, so I'm going to do things the old-fashioned way and just quietly announce it here.
A little over a year ago I wrote a story about visiting a tea shop in Amsterdam. There was no moral to the story and no lesson, it was just an attempt to capture a really nice day that I had and an interesting person that I met. People loved the story, which made me think that maybe I should write a book full of travel stories.
So I did. The Amsterdam story is the only one I copied from the blog. The rest I wrote from scratch, and most of them have never even been mentioned on the blog, so they'll be new to you. Leo proofread the book for me and thought that the Amanda story was one of the least interesting, so if you like that one, you'll probably love the book.
I had a lot of fun writing the book and felt good making a tribute to all of the people who have contributed to my travels over the past eight or so years. All of my favorite memories while traveling are because of the amazing people I've met, and most of those memories are captured in these stories.
The old lady was staring at her. She knew it.
Four months ago, Julia had married the love of her life. Her husband, Mike had just been named head curator at the art museum where he was working in. She was three months pregnant with a boy they would call Joey and after Joey is born she would quit that stressful writing job of hers to be a full-time housewife. Nothing could go wrong in her perfect life.
The day it arrived, Julia and Mike were busy unpacking their luggage from their trip to Venice when the doorbell rang. Julia ran out to get the door and when she opened it and looked down, there it was.
The package was encased by a bubble wrap, with an additional layer of plastic over it. At first glance it was about two feet tall and one foot wide. Julia carried it into the living room and unwrapped it. The rectangular wooden frame in the package was old, but kept in good condition. Flakes of the golden paint that coated it were coming off but it was still a beautiful frame, with very fine carvings of flowers at its corners. But Julia didn’t notice that, her eyes were fixed on the painting in the frame.
It was a portrait of an old lady who looked almost in her eighties. She had a sharp chin and high cheekbones and her pale skin was weathered and covered in wrinkles. The old lady’s graying hair was tied up in a bun and over it she wore a white bonnet. She had a hooked nose, almost too big for her face, with a sharp tip like the beak of a hawk. Below that nose she had very thin and dry lips. The edges of her mouth slanted slightly upward, giving her a smile that looked more like a smirk to Julia.