Later that day, after visiting the Rembrandts and Vermeers at the Rijks-museum, we stopped at Small Talk, a cafe on Van Baerlestraat that serves wonderful apple pancakes. Often signs in English signal a touristy waste of time, but not here. The place always seems to be filled with Dutch people ordering pannekoeken, which is exactly what I was hungry for.
"Two days," he teased. "You want it? You want to take time? Should I place order?"
It was worth a good bit more than the 25-minute wait. Tender chunks of apple were delicious in a large, thin pancake, sprinkled generously with powdered sugar.
Next we visited Albert Heijn (Holland's favorite grocery store) across the street, and noticed a good price on French champagne. We stocked up.
That evening, people poured into squares throughout the city, particularly the Dam, Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein and Nieuwmarkt, where the Chinese community puts on a superb fireworks show that can last two hours. In Leidseplein, where we went to meet the Russells, bottle rockets streaked through the air while the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" blasted from speakers. The square was one enormous party, complete with lasers, street performers, sparklers, dancing and fire eaters. There were also bottles of champagne being shared with strangers, an Amsterdam tradition.
There were no entry charges, no corporate sponsors and, as far as I could see, no regulations. The police were there only to discourage violence and theft, not to spoil the festivities.
But we had dinner to worry about. As suspected, the Russells had not made reservations. But it pays to be a loyal customer, and their favorite restaurant, Granada, promised to squeeze us in. I don't know how they jammed another table in for us. The place was packed.
After eating delicious tapas, we ordered paella, which usually requires advance notice. We were the last customers to leave, well past 11.
Outside, the city was sizzling. Bursts of light filled the sky. Firecrackers were going off by the pack. In Leidseplein they were still passing around bottles of champagne. With no official countdown to midnight, no gong, no ball drop, the crescendo seemed to build like a wave; then it held, as revelers checked their watches, realized the year had changed and grabbed someone to kiss.
For Kira, Kim Russell and their friends, the night was young and the party stretched across the city. But for the elder Russells and me, it was time to retreat. As we left the madness behind, a low fog rolled in. We crossed the canals, struck by how, only a few blocks away, the crackle and boom of fireworks could fade and mellow. Even on this rowdy night, the city offered pockets of tranquillity.
The slumbering city
On New Year's Day, Amsterdam sleeps in. At 11 a.m. Jan. 1, the city was as silent as I have ever seen it. No one stirred. The loud bangs had stopped. The fireworks were finished, leaving black streaks and scorched confetti on the sidewalk. The Pancake Bakery on Prinsengracht was rumored to be the only restaurant open.
Kira and I planned to catch a bus to a friend's house, but even the bus drivers were missing in action. We waited 50 long, cold minutes before one came.
But this is a city that knows how to recover from a hangover. By evening, trams were running, the streets were clean, shops were open and people were out -- ready to party again, I'm sure.
Carole Christie, a freelance writer, now lives in St. Louis.