In art museums, when are selfies ever cool?

An article I just read triggered a deep-seated pet peeve of mine. It’s not about how super it is that summer’s almost here, which really gets my goat, because I loathe summer. And it’s not about the astonishing nincompoopery going on in Washington right now. 

It’s more important than all that. It’s about patrons taking selfies in the world’s greatest museums, standing like glassy-eyed dolts before masterpieces by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, all the while blocking the paintings for others as they stage strenuous fake smiles at their cell phones without actually studying the monumental artworks hanging mere feet away. Pose, smile, snap, leave.

Recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I was looking forward to truly absorbing Rembrandt’s grand, justly famous “Night Watch.” It had been years since I’d seen it in the flesh, and this time I read up on it, prepared for a more immersive, enlightened viewing. 

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Mobs of viewers before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” this month in Amsterdam.

Not a chance. The painting is quite gigantic and still, when I got to it, a crush of phone-wielding zombies were cluttering up the view. I jostled and elbowed, to no avail. Details I wanted to drink in, such as the fuzzy little self-portrait of Rembrandt peeking out from between two watchmen, had to be quickly glanced before some dunderhead, camera in fist, bumped me away. 

Cell phones and those mortifying selfie sticks abounded, with people actually pointing cameras at themselves, plastering on gargoyle grins and snapping themselves in front of a masterwork they couldn’t care less about except for how it will look on Instagram. Can you imagine how those shots turned out? The mind reels. The stomach turns. 

A few sublime Vermeers prominently adorn the Rijksmuseum, but if you want to see them, really see them, wait until the Selfie Squadron gets its fix. Watch as it rushes up to gentle tableaus of sun-splashed domestic life, framing and snapping pictures, then summarily rushing to the next painting, like it’s a contest, some kind of desperate relay.

The selfie epidemic is even uglier at the Louvre with Da Vinci’s magnetic “Mona Lisa.” 

The way many patrons “interact with the 500-year-old painting exemplifies how differently the digital generation experiences art,” says The New York Times article I read. “Most of the roughly 150 people crowded around the painting were taking photographs of the piece, or of themselves in front of it. In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.”

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The “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza.)

This disgusts me, and it probably shouldn’t. No, actually it should. And this is why:

“Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.”

Hasn’t everything been reduced to this, a crass photo opportunity? Even at Starbucks, I see people satisfying the urge to take selfies of themselves with their massive milkshakes that pass as coffee drinks, tongues hanging out or lips pursed, fingers making a peace sign. Who but the takers wants to look at these images?

It’s too easy to blame unchecked narcissism, yet that’s surely a contributing toxin. As someone who’s almost pathologically camera shy, I can’t fathom this slavering need to record oneself every 15 minutes until dizzying repetition nullifies any semblance of originality. The pictures all look the same; only the “zany” faces vary. People love to look at themselves. As the center of the universe, their self-adoration knows no bounds. It is, I think, a sickness. The camera-clicking hordes in museums reveal a kind of twisted vanity.

Think about it. Your mugging face, beaming, and in the far background, lost in the clamor, is “The Night Watch” or the “Mona Lisa.” What then? The shame.

Running the Red Light

As we strolled by the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, Amsterdam’s mecca of live sex shows, our Red Light District tour guide, an American expat with an aptly ribald air, offered the small group a couple of tips. 

“I strongly suggest you go to a live sex show, where you see people actually having sex on stage. And I think you should try the nearby peep show, where you can watch various sex acts through a little window at a cost of 2 euros for two minutes. It’s a riot.”

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Red Light District canal lined with lust and live sex shows. The fabled Casa Rosso on the left.

She chuckled at her naughty proposals, but she wasn’t kidding. While others in the tour vacantly snapped photos, she took me aside and stressed what a kick the peep shows are in language I won’t share on this page. 

Of course I took the bait. I was in Amsterdam last week and, as always in my travels, I strive for an immersive experience. I’d already caught one of the live sex shows during a previous visit to the city years ago. (It was one of the least sexy spectacles I’ve ever seen.)

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Perhaps the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam, The Bulldog, where pot and hash are sold and smoked. It’s also the most touristy.

So I went for the peep show, because at 2 euros ($2.37) there’s little to lose. The peep show theater is like most of the live sex show venues on the lip of the canal — dark with black walls and a few colorful lights. I walked into a broom-closet-size booth, dropped a coin into the slot, and a small window slid open. The whole thing smelled of disinfectant.

On view was a young woman in a thong bikini writhing on the floor, occasionally shaking her tush at my window, then writhing some more. Immediately bored, a tad nauseated, I lasted about 52 seconds. It was unsexy, unsavory, underwhelming. Moral qualms weren’t at play; aesthetics were. Yet I didn’t feel burned as I left. I didn’t know what to expect, although the tour guide promised miles more than what I saw. Glad I missed it.

Next to the fierce, hands-on-hips prostitutes rapping their glass windows to get my attention, that was the extent of the “sexy” side of the Red Light I endured on this visit. I skipped the ultra-raunchy Sexmuseum Amsterdam (I did that on the last trip; one word: bestiality) and the softer Erotic Museum, and eschewed the glut of tawdry sex shops selling so much rubber, leather and latex, eye-popping erotica so loony it was comical.

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Red-lighted brothel windows where sex workers showoff their merchandise.

Shot through with Instagram-ready canals and curling medieval alleyways, the Red Light District is so iconic it’s practically a cliché. Pot-peddling coffeeshops, bondage and condom stores, coitus and cannabis museums — a cornucopia of no-no’s that happen to be gleefully and legally A-OK. It’s a degenerate’s playground, a voyeur’s wonderland, and an exotic otherworld for the blamelessly curious.

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Oude Kerk

Rinsed of its notorious junky past, the Red Light is safe, clean and aggressively touristy. It can be enigmatic, and incongruities abound: Next to the Princess Juliana Nursery School, where children of sex workers attend, are not only brothels, but also the gothic 14th-century church De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), once Catholic and now a bastion of Dutch Protestantism. It’s the oldest building in Amsterdam. Around the corner is the city’s comparatively staid Chinatown, crackling with ethnic eateries, whole cooked ducks dangling in windows.

While pot-smoky coffeeshops and party-hearty bars lace the neighborhood — see The Bulldog chain — hidden gems are nestled amid the mild mayhem. Just off a canal, tucked in a snug alley, sits the jenever (Dutch gin) tasting tavern Wynand-Fockink, a 17th-century distillery of international renown that packs ‘em into its W.C.-sized room. 

The flavored and unflavored jenevers — scores of varieties line the back wall — are poured liberally in tulip glasses for free tastings. I tried a range of five, settling on a lemon-infused concoction that was as refreshing as lemonade, but with snap. 

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Some of my samples at the jenever tasting at Wynand-Fockink.

Frankly, it had more bite, imagination and personality than the pallid peep show I stumbled out of moments earlier. A good stiff drink is always a powerful antidote to a spirit-sucking sex show.

The Red Light District can’t quite transcend hard-stuck stereotypes. Yet physically it’s startlingly pretty, graced with old, skinny gabled houses, tree-lined canals and cobblestone pathways. It’s one of the city’s homiest hoods. Bicycles asphyxiate streets with a collective smile, wind-blown hair and the musical clangching of tiny bells.

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The District bristles with fast food stalls and it’s prime for the mandatory frites, or fries, drowned in mayo. A mad confusion of tourist shops tout the gamut: T-shirts and postcards, psychedelic mushrooms, pot-infused lollipops, trip-happy Space Cakes, bongs, pipes and papers, condoms and cock rings.

You can’t help smirking at this uninhibited XXX Disneyland, which broadcasts its checkered past in blazing neon and, with equally cheeky pride, trumpets a checkered present aspiring to smutty heights. Yet if it knows no limits, it’s clear that most of its visitors do. (As you’d expect, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.)

The District is hardly running amok (see these safety measures for sex workers), even if some imaginations do. With few exceptions, the place is shrink-wrapped, condom-coated, safe and, counterintuitively, good, clean fun. It’s naughty, but nice.

 

Heineken’s museum of Hell

Before I travel, I prepare like a madman, and my outstanding trip to Amsterdam last week was no exception. One night, fueled by wide-eyed, butterfly-stomach pre-travel excitement, I purchased a few advance museum tickets online: the Rijksmuseum (all majesty and splendor), the Van Gogh Museum (strong, if a tiny bit disappointing) and, in a snap of psychosis or addled hastiness, an 18 € ($21.50) ticket for the Heineken Experience, billed as a “sensational interactive tour” set in the original Heineken brewery turned museum in Amsterdam’s city center.

I grossly miscalculated.

The Heineken Experience was so massively lame, such an appalling and transparent marketing apparatus, that I was actually embarrassed to be there. You don’t go to be enlightened but to have “interesting” factoids about the Heineken family and the titular beer’s recipe recited to you by overexcited twenty-somethings wearing skinny headset microphones á la Beyoncé. If you have any idea how beer is made, the tour is old news.  

I should have known better, that a beer tour that includes two and a half “complimentary” drinks would attract mostly frat boys, their sorority cohorts and Euro trash, all of whom seemed glazed with boredom by the broad and vacuous explanations of how hops, water, barley and yeast make beer, and didn’t even seem terribly impressed by the stable of eight black horses, the so-called famous Heineken horses that stood there looking equally bored, sad that they didn’t get to also imbibe the scrumptious brew.

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One of the blush-inducing “interactive” delights at the Heineken Experience.

When the informational part of the tour ends, the museum falls back hard on high-tech filler that you can’t believe, from a ride in which you become a beer bottle to laser-lighted basketball hoops; a room pumped with blaring electronic dance music and strafed with green (the brand color) lasers, to a large photo-booth room where people sit on stationary Heineken bicycles while street scenes of Paris are projected on back-screens, so it looks like you’re pedaling through the French capital. Imagine that! People were having a good old time on those bikes, smiling at their own images as if they really believed they were in Paris. And they hadn’t even drank yet.

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Selfies, unaccountably huge here.

By then I was practically jogging to the final room, the bar pouring “free” beer. I sipped my beers with the faintest scowl, while trying to pretend I wasn’t altogether repulsed. My fellow chumps were laughing, taking endless selfies, shaking to the music, which veered from nauseating EDM to friendly pop rock. 

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A drum kit made of beer kegs! He looks elated and not at all a little confused.

All I could think was: There isn’t enough Heineken suds in this entire old brewery to numb me enough to believe this was a good idea. And then there was this: As in all museums you exit through the gift shop. But once you leave this emporium of baldly branded gear, guess what? You hit another gift shop, which is when I sighed to myself, Get me out of this Heineken hell. I felt violated, ripped off. Worse, those beers didn’t even give me a buzz. 

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A disproportionate amount of weak to bad museums litter otherwise wonderful Amsterdam — from the pot museum, prostitution museum and cheese museum, to the sex and erotic museums to the canal museum and, yes, the dopey Heineken predicament.

The antidote is to choose wisely. You can’t miss with the aforementioned Rijksmuseum (Rembrandts and Vermeers adorning a knockout space) and Van Gogh Museum (beautifully curated and suavely laid-out), plus the fine modern art collection at the underrated Stedelijk Museum, where everyone from Picasso to Damien Hirst are represented by canonical works. I’d gladly trade those 2½ beers for just one look at this ravishing blue doozy by Yves Klein at the Stedelijk:

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Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts, those Vermeers and the cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.

Art exhibit’s visitors in a nude mood

The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this dude doing here?”

This dude (yours truly), fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women.

Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by artist George Krause.

m5x00046_9Recently at an urban art gallery, a bevy of nudists came to a nude art show. The nudists, an informal tribe of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?

The gallery owner was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. His singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.

Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.

“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”

One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Livestrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.

The nudist group has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.

There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.

“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”

Morgan has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.

“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”

Human figures, so creepy, so astonishing

For many, Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on one very important body, the one that rose from the dead to make thunderous proclamations and upend the world forever.

For me, Easter Sunday, a few days ago, was a time to reflect on scores of bodies congregated in a Manhattan museum, a reflection that furnished its own transcendence, its own religious experience, if you will.

These bodies — from the gorgeous to the gruesome; the hyper-realistic to the freakily figurative — comprise the knockout exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)” at The Met Breuer, through July 22.

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The old and the new, juxtaposed.

“Like Life” nimbly and epically presents some 120 works spanning 700 years, from classical Greek to contemporary bad boy Jeff Koons, and oodles in between: Donatello, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rodin, Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Isa Genzken, Charles Ray, and so many more.

The show’s thrills (and chills) include an awesome array of wax effigies, reliquaries, mannequins and anatomical models — including graphic autopsy depictions — plus tiny-scale sculptures from the Renaissance and beyond. There is lots of nakedness.

My visit was a promenade amid faces and bodies, hands and limbs and heads, some bloody, some immaculate. Many of the life-size bodies, often made of wax, are so realistic I practically did double-takes. Once in a while I flinched and muttered, “Christ.

Juxtapositions with ancient and new figures are clever and provocative, almost none of them without wit and wonder. Throughout, spellbound, I contemplated mortality and deformity, the genius of art and the supremacy of the visionary. Gladly, I was just as often captivated as creeped-out. It’s a sweet and savory affair.

Below is part of the population crowding the best show I’ve seen since the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met last summer:

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Detail from “The Whistlers” (2005), a sculpture by Tip Toland. Jarringly realistic, profound and whimsical. Just look at that face.
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In “The Digger” (1857), is this skinless man shoveling his own grave? In the background, an especially grisly crucifixion from medieval Germany.
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Faces from the ages: Center is the ethereal “Mask of Hanako, Type E” by Auguste Rodin (1911). At right is “Self,” a frozen-blood self-portrait by Marc Quinn (2006).
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“Housewife” (1969-1970) by Duane Hanson. Commentary that is both witty and withering, this snapshot of quotidian, housebound tedium is a diorama of depression.
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“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. A porcelain monstrosity that’s actually pretty hilarious depending on your mood and/or critical perspective. (I think the consensus is that it’s hideous.)
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“To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll” (2016) by Goshka Macuga, a speaking, moving android that pontificates with chilling verisimilitude about life, death and global concerns for 38 minutes. Eerie and mouth-agape mesmerizing, he’s the spiky, intellectual counterpoint to Disney’s anodyne animatronics.
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“Self-Portrait with Sculpture” by John De Andrea, 1980. These are not real people. The frontal view is firmly R-rated, the tableau slightly disturbing and thought-stirring and so true-to-life, it makes you start. (Can you name the extremely famous painting in the background, left? It’s a beautiful juxtaposition with the sculpture. Answer: “Pygmalion and Galatea.)
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I don’t know who this is, or who made him. But he emanates a special brand of banal magnificence.

Budapest or bust. (Likely the latter.)

With no travel planned for the near future, an empty, aimless feeling kicks in, and I’m like: Now what? My wanderlust is muscular. The urge to move pulls hard. I would like to hit the road — or, more accurately, the air — and be transported to a new land with new people, new sights, new food, new thrills.

Today I was aroused by a travel story about Budapest on The New York Times web site. “36 Hours in Budapest” unfurls a highlight reel of things to see and do in the Hungarian capital in a brisk day and a half, from famed thermal baths to a burgeoning modern art scene; from brand-new, extremely well-stocked artisanal bars to Michelin-rated eateries. I’m revved about all of it.

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Budapest. Perhaps. Or not.

I almost hopped a plane to Budapest a few years ago. In fact, I wrote in a December blog entry: “I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip.”

Bite my tongue.

Yet maybe Budapest is a bust. Then again, that article sheds entrancing light on what it calls “a regional powerhouse in terms of art, design and cuisine, home to a dynamic fashion scene and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the former Eastern Bloc.”

Cool. But it’s so much pie in the sky. I won’t be going to Hungary any time soon. Funds aren’t robust and it’s rather short notice. I curse the Times article for enticing me, like a mouse to cheddar in a trap. Fiends.

My brother pointed me toward a $300 round-trip flight to Paris in October on budget-friendly Norwegian Air. That’s amazing. But it’s also seven months away, and I went to Paris for the fifth time a little over two years ago. I need something more novel and less trodden. (Anyway, I’ll always have Paris.)

In my December blog, which echoes this one in its anatomization of pesky wanderlust, I mulled where I might travel next:

“Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm. … I’m picky. Some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.”

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Amsterdam wants me.

Ireland seems increasingly attractive. A reader nudged me toward Northern Europe (I forget what country exactly, perhaps Norway). I prefer a place where I have to wear a light jacket. Amsterdam, though I’ve done it a couple times, intrigues. (I never tire of the Rijksmuseum or Van Gogh Museum. Or those, um, fragrant cafes.)

Then again, Budapest. It beckons, quietly if firmly, no matter how much I know it won’t happen. I recently returned from an eventful stretch in Chicago, so it’s time to relax, sit still for a while.

That’s a tall order. Sitting still is not my style, unless it’s during a nine-hour flight to Wherever-land, soaring to the next adventure, not a little intoxicated on the fumes of giddiness.