Category Archives: Around the World Travel

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”


Art, Torture, Laundry, and Wallpaper in Ghent, Belgium – More Fun Than You Think

For me, Ghent was just a day trip from Brussels, but if you want to stay in Ghent, here is a complete list of hotels in Ghent with user reviews and multi site price comparisons. Ghent, Belgium Rafael was kind enough to pick up some maps from a very cool tourist office so the next day I took a shorter train trip to Ghent, a very hip, very cool little town. Ghent Wallpaper

Ghent has the coolest wallpaper store in the world. Wow.

Mango Ghent Sadly, it rained all day, I woke up with a sore throat, and it seemed there was immense construction going on, Ghent toilet historic as a result of some or all of the above, it seemed that just about everything was closed…maybe because it was Monday. Ghent, Belgium Anyway, I brought my dirty laundry and found a laundrymat, then I explored the Gravensteen castle Ghent Gravensteen Castle Gravensteen Castle which had an excellent torture museum. Waterboarding, old school style Ghent Torture Museum plus a guillateen which was used for numerous executions. Ghent Torture Museum Took a lot of pictures, Ghent walked around in the rain with my laundry, Ghent felt my flu getting worse, had some Belgian Fries and then headed back to Brussels, hoping that I didn’t have swine flu. I didn’t really care if I had it, but I didn’t want to pass it on to Raphael and his daughters. Ghent ashtray

Ghent also has the coolest ashtray I’ve ever stuck a butt in.

for some interesting Ghent History: (Originally published 08 October 2009)


Vagobond in Paris – Penniless Culture in the City of Love

Paris is good for families!

I saw much of the tourist Paris without going to the Louvre, taking a trip up the Eiffel Tower, visiting museums, or going to a burlesque show. No tours, no museums, and no cafes with overpriced food. I’m not complaining though, actually, I’m glad I was able to see Paris the way that I have seen her.

I don’t think Paris is as exquisite a city as Barcelona. Granada has better graffiti. Since I’ve spent time in Morocco first, sometimes it’s hard not to think that Paris cafes are strange versions of Moroccan ones where the women join the men smoking cigarrettes in crowded rows of chairs looking only one direction: outward.

I arrived in Montparnasse station with a few hours before I could check in at the hostel, so I decided to drag my bags around and see if I could get lost for a while and in the process find my way to where I was going. Of course as mentioned before, my debit cards were shut off and the euros in my pocket were to pay for my hostel in Montmartre. So a taxi or the metro weren’t really options anyway.

I’ve dragged my bags around a lot of cities and never run over anyone’s toes with them but in Paris somehow I managed to run over a dozen people’s toes in a single afternoon. This didn’t happen in New York, Chicago, Boston, Barcelona, Fez, Marrakech, or anywhere else. I have no idea why, perhaps French people have a unique ability to jam their feet underneath my bags. In any event, I expected to be assaulted in uptight French each time it happened because of the many stories about hostile Parisians I’ve heard in the past from foreigners and French alike, but no. Instead, each time I would look back and say excuse me and instead I would be greeted by hurt, droopy sad eyes as if they were saying to me “Why would you run over my toes like that?” In one situation I ran over a very large thuggish looking man’s toes and he simply looked at me pointed at his eyes and then at the ground, I was relieved as I really thought I might be done when I saw whose toes I had run over.

Parisians like New Yorkers have a totally undeserved bad rap. I don’t think the character of a people can change so completely and rapidly that this is a new thing. Nowhere in Paris did I find a person that wasn’t willing to help me, polite, or gracious. My poor French was accepted and even complimented. There are many things one can love about Paris, but I think her people may be at the top of the list.

Cleaning up toxic American assets?

To be honest, dragging bags around isn’t really the best way to see anyplace but still, crossing the Seine, getting my first look at the Eiffel Tower, wandering into Concorde, and just feeling this incredible sort of chaotic energy that exists was a nice introduction to a city that I’ve known existed for as long as I’ve lived. I think perhaps the first movie I remember seeing was Lady and the Tramp and as I recall, it takes place in Paris. Not to mention George Orwell, Tom and Jerry Cartoons, and every other cultural tic that gave a nod towards the city of lights. Actually, I might have seen Herbie the Love Bug before Lady and the Tramp but I don’t think that has anything to do with Paris…

Finally I made it to the Hostel, moved my bags to my room, used the free wi-fi to tgry to unravel my financial nightmare and then went to a grocery store where I bought the essentials with most of the rest of my money. Bread, cheese, salami, cigarettes, and wine.

I took a short walk out to see the Paris night but I was exhausted after dragging those bags around all day and so I went back to the hostel ate a salami sandwich, had a glass of wine, and crawled into my bunk before any of the other three occupants of the room had made themselves apparent. I put in my earplugs and slept like the dead until morning.

The hostel itself was somewhere in the middle. 25 Euro a night and included free breakfast. Had free wifi and only four people per dorm room. Cool funky place, nice location, and friendly staff. On the negative side, I was on the 4th floor (which is really the 5th floor in Europe since the ground floor is zero here) and there is no elevator. Not really a problem but a bit of a pain in the ass if you forget something in the room. The other downside was that the common area and kitchen are incredibly small and allow for perhaps two people at a time to prepare food.

She has the world on her shoulders

Breakfast was stellar and included juice, cereal, bread, jam, honey, croissant, petit baguette, coffee, and chocolate. Each day I ate two bowls of cereal and kept my breadgoods and condiments for later in the day.

My first full day in Paris, I decided to take a long walk and see what I could see. I walked through Montmartre.

Next I snapped photos of Madellaine.

I strolled through Concorde and down the Champs Elysees.

The Arc de Triumph was much larger than I expected. And it had less traffic than I expected from National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

Incidentally, Europe is filled with many ancient wonders but most of the major sights (except those that are of Arabic origin or leftovers of the dark ages) aren’t much older than the things you find in North America. In fact, lots of them are more recent. So I think it is time that Europeans who like to say that America has no sense of history or ancient origins should shut the fuck up. The Pueblos are as impressive as stonehenge and the famous landmarks of Europe mostly date from far to recently for anyone to have their nose raised into the air in such a manner. So for those of you who like to use this argument, I’d like you to shove it. However, I think the Arab world is completely justified in the same argument since they effectively ushered in the enlightenment and rescued Europe from the dark ages. Honestly, the most beautiful things I’ve seen in Europe have come from the Moors.

Now that my small rant is done, I can tell you I continued on and reached the Eiffel tower overlook next to the Museum of Man, which is probably an excellent museum of anthropology but which had an admission I couldn’t pay. I found a protest calling for something from someone at the overlook.

Then I did my best to capture photos that would be unique of one of the most photographed objects in the world.

I walked along the Seine’s banks.

I visited Invalides but was unable to visit the tomb of Napolean because of an admission fee. Like I would pay to visit a dead man.

I strolled along the left bank and found the interesting used book dealers who have small lockers there which they open up and then when the rain starts or the day is done close with a padlock.

To be fair, there are free museums in Paris, but I have seen enough museums in these past months and I didn’t care to visit them.

I walked around the Notre Dame Cathedral and avoided the gypsy women with twigs of rosemary by pretending to speak only Hawaiian.

I entered a free museum, but only to use the toilet.

I walked in a circle around the Bastille monument. The Bastille was the prison which the French destroyed on July 14, 1789 before declaring independence like their siblings across the water had done 13 years before. I don’t know that either country would be happy to hear it, but France and America are two sides of the same coin. Both arrogant, slutty, and beautiful. Both evil and high minded at the same time.

Oscar Wildes tomb is covered with lipstick kisses and sadly, someone broke the dick off his monument.

I visited the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Not to visit Jim Morrison’s grave but to visit the grave of Oscar Wilde. I made a salami sandwich and sat in a part of the graveyard that wasn’t filled with guidebook wielding tourists. I have mixed feelings about tourism in general but tourism centered on the dead and buried strikes me as even stranger. There were many, many tourists. I was one of them, after all, even as I sat and arrogantly contemplated them.

It hit me that the voices of the living are the voices of the dead. We just don’t know we are dead yet, but we are. Everyone is. I found the cemetary to be the best part of Paris I had seen yet. the tourists sometimes carried colorful brochures advertising where the famous dead lay, incredibly strange and fascinating.

A long walk back to the hostel took me through Bellemont where a weekly souk that looked like it came straight from Morocco was going on. I’m glad that Paris reminds me of Morocco and not the other way around.

For dinner, another salami sandwich and a small salad of lettuce and tomatoes I picked up in the market. Several hours of internet use, the earplugs in again, but this time I met the other residents of the dorm room before going to sleep. A Russian, a Chilean, and a Mexican. Young guys, but nice.

The next day, as mentioned before I was raped by the money changers and then panhandled a bit and visited the Montmartre Cemetary.

I took a walk down side streets after dark and found an incredible little jazz club where six guys were creating some of the grooviest jazz I’ve ever heard. I don’t know the name of the place or the name of the group, but I opted to spend three and a half of my last Euros to buy a beer and sit there until they finished for the night. I nursed that beer. I know, I’m not the best Muslim, but if Allah didn’t exist between those notes then I’ve no idea where else he might be.

What is she telling these boys?

Incidentally, I think that the prohibition on alcohol is a good rule that is misunderstood. The point of not drinking is that when you drink too much you lose the ability to tell right from wrong and thus are unable to fathom the will of God. To my mind, there is no doubt that the will of God was for me to sit for hours in that little cafe, nurse that beer, and soak up that jazz.And as a Muslim, I am someone that willingly submits themselves to the will of God.

Back to the hostel where the dorm room was vacant and I sat writing while looking out the balcony window at the lights of Paris below. Sitting in that cafe and then looking at those lights are what made me see the true beauty of the whore that is Paris.

I woke the next day, emailed my friend Laila in Rotterdam that I was on my way and was overjoyed to find that my bank accounts were unfrozen. I took the Metro to the bus station and then it started to rain, just as I was leaving. This was a nice change from the rain beginning when I arrived and hearing all about the sunny day before.

So this is Vago’s Paris.

For those interested in seeing more photos you can go here.

(Originally posted 20 April 2009)