Report from Amsterdam: Bruidstranen (Bride’s Tears)

By Robert Israel

A view of the Prinsengracht canal, Amsterdam, Holland.

(dedicated to Jeremy Chase-Israel)

The canals were swollen from the rain. I crossed the footbridge and heard runoff gushing from drainpipes, emptying into the canals below.

I sought refuge inside a grocery store. I dry wiped my eyeglasses and the first thing that came into focus was the smile of a milkmaid hawking Droste’s baking chocolate on the wall opposite the frozen food aisle. Beside it hung a historical plaque that explained that the Nazis had once commandeered the store as Gestapo headquarters. To offer further proof, two framed, black and white photos hung beside the plaque, one showing a swastika in the window, the other a S.S. sentry in mufti, standing by the entrance I had just walked through.

Nearby I had toured the Anne Frank “secret annex” on the Prinsengracht, the place where she and her family hid, until the Gestapo – no doubt the same thug shown at parade rest in the photo — arrested them, tipped off to their whereabouts by rat-bastard collaborationists. Anxiety overcame me. I quit the store hurriedly. Yet I could not lose the images of the Nazi scourge. The streets offered no relief. Fatigue, amplified by the sound of my own footsteps sloshing alongside the canals, prevented me from retreating to a dry, familiar place in my mind.

Amsterdam, like so many European cities once overrun by jackboots, is moody even in bright sunlight. Forced gaiety scarcely conceals these scars. Public drunkenness, stoners exhaling hashish fumes, and prostitutes with lipstick smiles embracing customers in red-lit storefront windows for all to see amplifies this atmosphere of recklessness. On a sodden night, the city is a Walpurgisnacht carnival. Dark spirits are afoot.

Even before the rain fell, my visit had not augured well. The museums had long lines and tourists rubbernecked to catch glimpses of Vincent Van Gogh’s torturous self-portraits: his psychotic eyes followed me from gallery to gallery. My hotel was schlecht: upon checking in the night before, the ceiling light – a single chord with a bare light bulb and pull chain — crashed to the floor when I went to turn it on, followed by sparks and broken glass. The day manager, once informed, told me to leave my luggage with him until a new room could be made up. “Go to dinner, have a beer, and I’ll take care of everything,” he said. Returning an hour later, my luggage was missing, the manager had gone off duty, there was no note directing me to a new room, and, while the broken glass had been swept up, the lock on my door was jammed. That night, I lay awake fully dressed, fearing someone would come in to violate me. The next morning the day manager found my missing luggage but refused to refund my 65 Euros. With a maniacal insistence that surprised even me, I leaned over the counter, grabbed him by his lapels and threatened to thrash him, prompting him to quickly fork over the bank notes from his suit coat pocket. Dinner that night was impossible: the Dutch invite their dogs to sit tableside, and the place smelled like a kennel; I ate hurriedly lest a brindled mastiff, glaring at me from an adjacent table, his jowls drooling with spittle, might grab the medallion of undercooked beef from my fork. Wandering alone down the streets to the docks of the Leidseplein, where tourists depart for booze-fueled tours of the foul canals, I happened on a monument to Jews once herded from their homes and forced onto boats that took them straightaway to the furnaces of Hell.

I had made up my mind to quit the city altogether on the first flight bound for the States out of Schiphol airport, but first I had to get out of the rain.

Passing through a foyer constructed from oaken wine casks, I entered a public house. A barmaid welcomed me in English. She gestured for me to sit at a table near where a gas fireplace sputtered bluish flames. She asked what I might like to drink. I stammered: I need to dry off, I’m having an awful night.

She considered my response. She crossed the barroom, fetched a jug, and returned with a shot glass that had been tucked into her apron, placing it on the table before me.

“This drink is called Bruidstranen,” she explained. “It means Bride’s Tears. Please accept this on the house.”

With the jug resting in the crook of her arm, she leaned over and poured a portion of thick syrup. Gold and silver flakes suspended within it swirled lazily like tinted snowflakes, settling in a heap on the glass bottom.

“The bride serves this to her husband after they’ve had a quarrel,” she explained, “to remind him of their wedding night.”

I tasted it before swallowing, then knocked it back. It numbed my tongue and scorched my throat. I blinked away tears. It had the opposite affect of the concoction the boy says he imbibes in “Love Potion Number Nine,” a song from my youth. I didn’t fall in love “with everything in sight.” Instead, I became pleasantly anesthetized and in that benumbed state, my anguish subdued.

The barmaid approached my table again.

“The musicians at the table just there,” she pointed, “they sent me to ask, would it please you to join them? Is this agreeable?”

So I sat with two men and a woman at their table, they played guitar and mandolin with spoons for percussion, we sang folk songs in English and French, and the barmaid kept filling our glasses. The rain stopped.

At dawn I made my way back to the Leidesplein. The rain had washed the schmutz into the fetid canals. I checked into a room facing the public square at the Hotel Americain. The sheets were dry, the blankets warm. I threw my wet clothes into a heap in the corner. Locking the door behind me, I fell into a deep sleep.


Earlier versions of this piece were published in New Paper (Providence) and in The Jewish Advocate (Boston).


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