Robert Walter is the popular mayor of Amsterdam, married to Sylvia, father of Diana. Robert, the narrator, makes a point of pointing out the prejudices that Dutch people have about people from “the south,” which is where Sylvia is from. He claims that “those” people have a history of temperament, hot-headedness and taking matters into their own hands, rather than let the local agencies deal with dispute or crime. These prejudices keep coming up as the book unfolds. The central plot line introduced on page 1 is Robert’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair with a “green” alderman. I’m not sure if this is tongue-in-cheek, but Robert maintains that climate change is the current day Fascism, and he declaims about it for several pages. A subplot is Robert’s best friend Bernhard’s foggy scientific theory about the infinity of the universe and the mystery of death. Another is his ninety-plus year-old parents’ plan to end their lives at a time of their choosing in order to go out while they are still in possession of their faculties and relatively healthy. He has been instructed on what to do, and must be prepared for the call when he receives it, even though he has no idea when that will be, except that it is in the imminent future.
In the end I had to reread the epilogue, and I’m still not sure what happened. Did Sylvia have an affair? Did her brother know if she did? Did Robert ever hear from Bernhard?
The best part of the story for me was when Robert, who was in the habit of relaxing in the garden, was sitting out there taking in the scenery shortly after his mother’s funeral. A female finch (I guess he could tell by her coloring) lighted on the back of a chair at the the table where he was sitting. She looked him squarely in the eyes, and sat there for a period of time that seemed unusually long to him. Thinking of his mother, he wondered…
At one point, Robert was invited to lunch with the director of the Rijksmuseum. The first half hour consisted of a crash course in art history, obviously a warming up for something else. The something else came as the second bottle of wine was poured. “The pictures of President Obama in front of The Night Watch were seen all around the world,” the museum director was saying. “Fantastic free advertising for the product Amsterdam. Why not make use of that? A cookie tin and a t-shirt with Obama and The Night Watch as a background. Who wouldn’t want to have one of those?” When Robert expressed concern over using the image without the president’s permission, the director, jumped on that, noting that there had appeared to be a definite chemistry between Robert and Obama, and wouldn’t Robert contact the President to get his permission? The director said he certainly wouldn’t ask the prime minister to do something like that!
The food is actually the drink. One night Robert was alone in the garden, smoking a cigarette because both his wife and daughter were out, when his daughter Diana surprised him. When he commented on the cigarette, she admitted that she’d known he’d started smoking again since Christmas. He invited her to join him and asked her to bring the bottle of Grasovka from the freezer, and during the conversation that ensued, she told him she had just broken up with her boyfriend. A very sweet father/daughter moment.
Grasovka is a Polish vodka infused with the flavor of bison grass that grows in the Bialowieza national park on the border between Poland and Belarus, where Europe’s last bison still graze.
Grasovka wasn’t available locally, so I used, instead, Zubrowka. At first we tried it chilled stright up to taste the uniqueness of the bison grass flavoring. Then I served it on ice with Stella Artois Cidre, for a refreshing summer cocktail.
There was even a strand of bison grass inside! A deliciously different flavor.