I hiked back across the Southwark Bridge, munching on some candied, roasted peanuts, and got on the Circle line over to Hyde Park, through which I walked towards the Serpentine Gallery. Along the way, I stopped to watch a woman and her daughter feeding some soft white bread to ducks and geese, as well as the occasional pigeon willing to wade in an inch or two for wet bread. The girl was excitedly throwing large pieces by the handful, shouting weird incomprehensible gibberish, like “Maaaaaaaaahnge!” The woman asked if I’d like to feed them too. I politefully declined and quietly watched, and listened, as they fed the water fowl. I figured they must be French. “Vous etes françaises?”
She didn’t know what I was talking about, but that’s just as well, because they were Kazak. She asked if I knew where that was, “Oh yeah, the big one in the middle.”
It is just as well that I got detained watching them feeding the ducks, because the Serpentine Gallery was closed, because they were installing the new exhibit. They’d be open again next Wednesday, but I was to be in Amsterdam.
So, I figured I should check e-mail before heading home, and hopped on the Central Line towards Tottenham Court Road. Alas, there was “a person under the train” at a station up the line, so we were encouraged to take other means of getting to our destinations. Okay, let’s give the buses a shot.
I couldn’t decipher the signs at first, so I just hopped on a double-decker bus that was going down the street I’d have otherwise walked on. A wee bit down, I hopped off to try again, and started to understand that there were a handful of buses that were going to Tottenham Court Road, but not all buses stopped at all stops. It all started to come together – the tube connecting with different suburban rail services, the rail lines at Clapham Junction sitting fourteen through tracks astride, the double-decker buses skipping stops in order to serve a population of seven million, plus tourists, plus another 700,000 in the next fourteen years, and I suddenly dug that London was so insanely complex that nobody could ever hope to understand it. Somehow the British had rigged it up so that it still worked pretty darned well anyway, and I dug that that is how you get away with running an empire upon which the sun never sets.
As far as I can tell, the Greater London Public Transportation system is a wild, insane Wonder of the Human World.
I thought of the simple fact of double-decker buses that were too short for me to stand on, but which could carry, say, twice as many people in the same space. Hong Kong, built by the British, has such buses. But Hong Kong runs its crazy systems in Chinese.
And then I thought of what a mad, crazy, foreign-language treat Tokyo will be.
Duncan lives in Richmond. Today I slept in, and then wandered in to town, looking for a nice place to work on the journal. I wandered, looking for a place with a nice view, that wasn’t too crowded, and I find myself now on the bank of the Thames, munching on a scone, and sipping my way through a pot of tea, for under £3. Happen you to be in the area, I recommend the Tide Tables Cafe. Just wander down to the Richmond riverbank and have a look around.
It was a great rush of excitement as the plane approached the continent. Everything was going super. I was originally going to skip London, but when Duncan invited me to visit, I had changed things to arrange a one-week stay. When I checked-in at Heathrow, I mentioned the £25 I owed to change the ticket. The agent offered that I must have paid with credit card, or that he was otherwise unaware of the charge.
Actually, “are you in a hurry to get to Amsterdam?”
“Can’t say that I am.”
I agreed to be placed on a contingency list, that should it come to pass, I’d volunteer my seat for one on the next flight, a few hours later, and be rewarded with £50 for my easy-going nature.
Come boarding, I was indeed asked to stand aside and wait, as all of those uncomfortable middle seats, including my own, had filled up. In the end, I was placed in first class, and treated to tea, sandwiches, a biscuit and jam.
As I disembarked at Shiphol, a clean, efficient testament to Dutch cuture, which stood in stark contrast to the adventuresome catacombs of Heathrow, I felt downright giddy, ready to pronounce loudly that I had arrived. As it would be rude in a uniquely American way to do this, I refrained, containing the giddiness within myself.
I think that the exciting part was not only that I was on a new continent (well, Britain is sort of Europe, but hey …) but that I had left that part of the world where English is the primary language.
To ease this transition, it was handy that most Dutch speak English. An easy switch, especially among those who deal with tourists. The airport signs were all bilingual. Once I got to Amsterdam, though, everything was in Dutch, along a series of twisting little streets, each named something like Globenbleispedelstraat.
As the more preferred hostels were hard to even telephone from England, I hit the pavement, sort of following my guidebooks and inquiring at promising places along my routes. After some false starts, I found a very friendly receptionist at the Crown, which is an English bar with dorm rooms above. I paid, to my recollection, €21 for the night.
There was one sink, shower, and toilet for the fourteen of us, which was actually adequate, for there was no place to socialize, so everyone in the room kept to themselves and came and left at their own timing.
I had a hard time sleeping. In part, there was this steady ringing in my left ear, which seemed a touch louder than it had been in London, or Denver, when I first recalled hearing it on Amtrak. Ah well, I think I was just restless with being along and disoriented in a new place.
I wandered down to the bar for a shot of rum, measured out by a computerized dispensing gadget that the bars in Amsterdam all seem equipped with. I munched on the remainder of the bread that I had swiped from Duncan’s place on the understanding that he was not a big bread eater, and bread is a conveniently portable snack. I continued my way towards the end of the _Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass_, when one of the bar’s few remaining patrons, a Dutch gentleman polishing off a Heineken and a cigarette with his girlfriend, asked me what I hoped to get from reading something so old. I answered something along the lines of a greater insight into the human condition, and perhaps some comfort from vicarously weathering a condition so much more difficult than my own present challenges. He blathered something about America being obsessed with the past, which only lasted 350 years, whereas the Chinese, of 5,000 years, we had to spy on and couldn’t even admit to it. I suspect he was regurgitating some old, half-remembered editorial piece, and I suspect that he he had such a pereception as well, as he then apologised about his drunken rambling, and was subsequently chased from the bar, as it was closing time. I, as a hotel patron, got the dreary music videos alone to myself.
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A snake on a staff admonishes the Dutch to conserve power, at the Amsterdam Hospital OLVG.
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Copious bike parking, and a pulley to get stuff to the top floor. This scene is typical for Amsterdam.
Sometime in the morning a new, lower tone entered my ear, and instead of the museums, I sought out the local hospital. The beautiful, polite intern who examined me explained that people hear rings, and we rarely know why. It could be tenitus, and it would be useful to have an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist take a look when I return to the States. Also, I could arrange with a General Practitioner to clean the peanut butter from my ears.
After some mediterranean kabob thing and chips topped with ketchup and mayonnaise, I rode back to Centraal, where I’d stowed my luggage in a locker, as hostels have a 10AM checkout. I found another hostel from the guidebook, the Kabul, which had many rooms up a twisty flight of stairs or two. I dropped my stuff off there and trammed over towards the Van Gogh museum. I started with the modern art gallery next door. You know, because it was there. I left disappointed. I guess the thought of dropping €5 on a dinky little modern art gallery with very little good stuff in it at all was all the more frustrating because just a few days ago I’d been through the happy monument to modern art that is London’s Tate Modern.
The Van Gogh place had a line outside, I figured I’d hit it good and proper in the morning, and wandered through town, vaguely looking for a place I might connect the laptop for an upload session. No such luck.
I got back to Kabul, and wrote Janet a letter, and wandered out in search of the elusive Paradox coffeehouse that the guidebook reccommended as a good place to smoke. I figured that this expedition would have the educational bonus of requiring me to explore a different part of town.
I purchased €5 of some sort of grass, and proceeded to roll myself a pathetic joint that burned something crazy and fell apart as I tried to inhale it. I scraped the good buds together and returned them to my bag, and approached the bar for advice. A kindly patron consoled me with the cruel fact that “we all gotta learn sometime” and then allowed further that this was perhaps not the most admirable skill that one could be an expert at, as he deftly demonstrated How Things are Done.
The second joint went a lot smoother, as I finished off Fredrick Douglass. I wanted to try my own hand at things, and experimented with rolling a filtered tobacco mix from the remains of a Marlboro that my table-mates had left. I was unpractised, high, and totally frustrated at how to roll the filter in, so after a few sad tries, I scraped the mixture and the filter in to my bag and wandered down to a pub where I had a bland dinner of veal and a small Dutch beer for less than €10. The group at the bar started talking about the career tension of writing your own code versus maintaining someone else’s versus blackbox testing, when the barkeep asked them for advice on his recent trouble reading the Excel spreadsheet attachment with the football scores from his e-mail account.
Brain cells primed themselves. The mind of an IT Systems Administrator, that has spent some time with e-mail administration, client issues, and MIME technology, jumped reflexively at the situation. The lack of useful diagnostic information was all that helped me to keep my mouth shut, for the most part.
One of the guys at the bar asked what part of California had I been from, which is always a tricky question of scale, so he offered “Obviously, Silicon Valley, right?” And I smiled, yes, Mountain View is roughly ground zero. He’d worked there these past few years, before losing his dot-com illusions. “Do you know of Molly Magees?”
Yes, I know of Molly Magees. People aren’t quick to admit their affiliation with this divey place, but I have been there aplenty, for it is all about location, and he explained that he was one of the guys who hung out in the back all night.
I explored a super market on my way back to Kabul, picking up a small loaf of raisin bread. Back at the ranch, there were two Spaniards, a Japanese, and two English girls bathing it up for a night out. The group had also begun enjoying alcohol and pot as I had been.
I produced my leftovers and offered to share, if someone could roll. Antonio admitted that he was a poor roller, and left such tasks to his older cousin. I conveyed the story of my own frustrated attempts that day, and we concluded that a rolling primer should be included in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Upon return from the shower, one of the English girls rolled up a beautiful spliff that we passed around. The elder cousin came by, and contributed more joints. We found ourselves in a convenient coffeeshop, rolling, smoking, and drinking. I purchased some Afghan Border hash, which the older cousin explained that you made in to tiny pieces and rolled in tobacco, handing me a cigarette.
I rolled a pretty good hash joint. I was quite pleased with myself, though I had difficulty finding my way smoking what felt like a cigarette. I explained that for many Californians, marijuana is far easier to relate to than tobacco.
The English girls wanted to see a peep show, so we went off in search of a place that would allow small groups to share in the experience. I lost the group when I leapt in to a bar to pee. I wandered up and down the red light district, exchanging smiles with with the girls in the windows, wearing out my feet. Shigeru found me innocently admiring a pretty, brown-skinned girl standing in the window who had, in my opinion, a perfect body. Alas, I was more lonely than horny, and found more pleasure in the relatively inexpensive companionship of a fellow traveller, rather than spending upwards of €50 on fifteen minutes with a woman, for some quick ejaculation. I prefer to spend my energy on pleasing beautiful women, taking personal pride in the long work of well-done foreplay. I would just as soon get paid for such activity, and contribute to my financial welfare, though I have to admit that I don’t live in such a world, and must instead derive my revenue from debugging e-mail attachments. C’est la vie.
I checked out of Kabul and left my luggage at Centraal, discovering the smaller lockers that ran €2.50 instead of €4. Yay. I hopped on the tram for the Rijkmuseum, but as I wandered through the galleries of art, I found that I was completely fucking exhausted, and couldn’t stand all the museum walking, and while the pictures were quite nice, compared to yesterday’s museum, I just had to go … to Haarlem!
At Haarlem station I phoned the hostel, which had a school group that day and was full. I thought I’d try my luck with the indifferent ladies at the VVV, who would be happy to book me accomodations, for a fee, give me a list of hotels, for a fee, sell me a map … well, here, look at the map / hotel guide.
I just didn’t want to. After Amsterdam the last thing that I wanted to be was a tourist. I took my notebook to the payphone across the street, and phoned the two other hostels that the friendly lady at the Haarlem hostel had given me.
The Heemskerk hostel had room. For about €2.50, the cost it would have been to book a room at Haarlem, I took the train up to Heemskerk. I’d been instructed to alight at the station before, Beverwick, but I didn’t realise this until after I had thoroughly dug the quiet, open landscape at Heemskerk station, with its beautiful clouds drifting crisply on the clear sky.
I asked a lady for advice. The trains run twice an hour. I asked her how far to walk back to Beverwick. “Thirty minutes. For a man, maybe fifteen.” I smiled and pointed at my bag, “For me, twenty.”
Maybe it was the rest on the trains, or the spirit of adventure, but the same young man who couldn’t suffer walking around the Rijkmuseum was ready to hoof it around the Dutch countryside with a heavy pack.
Actually, I wised up and phoned the hostel for the address, and found a map, and made my way there directly, instead of walking to the next town over and taking the bus that I would have taken had I gotten off there as instructed.
I had a hard time finding the place, as it was set off the road a bit, and it was a castle, which had a wedding winding down as I walked past it the first time. I was thwarted as well by the Dutch signs that warned of trespassing, and the NJHC logo of the Dutch part of Hostelling International, of a little house with a tree, that read to me as “camp site for some group that you should leave alone.”
Anyways, I found myself in the castle, with a couple of dozing, stoned Italian guys who spoke no English, and a pretty pair of Dutch-sounding girls in the next room over. I wandered in to town, explored, and had a snack at a little place that gave you a complimentary bonbon with your coffee. I also bought a couple of apples, one of which I ate for dessert, while I wandered back to the castle.
One nice thing about Heemskerk, is that I am finally some place new. I am occassionally questioned by someone, and have no idea what they’re saying, so my answer is to smile, and ask, “Spreche English?”
That evening I drifted down to the bar to work on my journal. As I was writing about the weed I’d smoked in Amsterdam, a large party consisting mainly of middle-aged Canadian women, with a few husbands thrown in for good measure, occupied the opposite end of the room. One or two apologised for being noisy during my work, but I said that it was no big deal, and anyway, my hearing was bad just then because of the ringing, so it was easier for me to ignore such distractions.
When life hands you a lemon … right?
I later discovered that they were a group of forty of a 100-women chorus from Vancouver, Sweet Adelaide. They capped the evening with a set of their four-part harmony. I found this to be extremely pleasant.
I caught the hostel’s complimentary breakfast this morning: bread, cheese, lunch meat, coffee, tea, orange juice, and various accoutrements. I sat across from a Vancouver couple that had a young kid and a baby, the only members of their vast party younger than thirty. The father explained that after the chorus gig, they would rent a car and visit, among other places, Copenhagen. Sounds familiar, as I am to meet the family there on 29 September.
I was sufficiently pleased with the good night’s sleep in the cool, clean country air, and the nice breakfast spread, that I paid for another night, and an HI membership. The membership card ran €17, and immediately saved me €5 on the two nights’ lodging. The reception set to the task of scheduling me a doctor’s appointment to get my ears cleaned, which was then set at 1440h.
Which kind of killed the idea of a 7km walk to the beach. Ah well, bummed around Heemskerk’s Friday market, acquiring socks, and grazing on Dutch snacks, you know, as a cultural experience. I dropped by the Bibliotheek, which had Internet available for the modest price of €1 per hour. Unfortunately, it was not actual Internet access, but web access on a terminal so locked down that there was this scary-looking locker device in the disk drive itself.
I asked whether there might be a place, somewhere, to hook up a laptop. The staff had to admit that Heemskerk was not the most Internetty place, but that there ought to be some flavor of Internet cafe in Beverwick. I attracted a minor crowd, as I left, of a few locals who had hoped to prove helpful, but to no avail. The journal, or even the secure shell client that I require merely to check my e-mail, these can wait. After all, I am on holiday.
The doctor was a very pleasant guy who cleaned my ears out with some sort of high-powered water-pick thing, then was able to see that they were infected, and write me a prescription for some ear drops. The ringing stopped on the next day.
A quartet of middle-aged women joined the Italians and me in our room, joining the Canadian chorus, although they themselves were Swiss. This was readily apparent from the Swiss flags that they posted on their beds, as the Canadians told them that they themselves would proudly be displaying their own red-on-white-banner at every possible opportunity. The Dutch-sounding girls in the next room over turned out to be Germans, and as they shared a bottle of Champagne with me their new roommate strode into the castle, a young Brazilian lady.
The German girls are in college. Stefi is studying to be a teacher, which in Germany pays pretty well, after a two-year internship. They were looking to drive on to Utrecht, where Stefi was to visit her boyfriend, whom she had met in France at this monastic retreat thing called Taize. Her companion and best friend, Maya, is big with the scouts, and is helping to staff the International Jamboree in Thailand in December.
The Brazilian lady, Nagi, was just off the plane, on a one-month vacation, which features a three-day conference on environmental engineering in Oslo. I’m joining her early tomorrow to check out the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.
As it is now 11PM, we suspect that the Italianos are stoned senseless in Amsterdam, and will not make it back to their gear before the midnight curfew. I myself, the Swiss ladies, and the German girls are minutes away from what we hope will be a solid night’s sleep.
The Italians did make it in last night. Nagi and I walked over to Heemskerk train station, and €4 later were in Amsterdam, sharing a €4 locker at Centraal. A tram over to the Van Gogh museum, and we had a marginal, crowded art museum experience for €7 each.
I think that Amsterdam is easily missed.
We had a long, pleasant stroll, the long way around the city, back to Centraal. Walking, talking, taking photos, enjoying each other’s company. For lack of better plans, I was inclined to join her in Den Haag, and lend a hand in reviewing her conference presentation, as she wasn’t entirely confident with the idea of a public address in English, which she usually only reads. Alas, the hostel there was full, so I saw her off at Centraal.
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For my Illinois friends, who have a very different idea of a store called Meijer’s
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As an architect, Nagi chose to be photographed at this nice doorway.
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For my Tellme friends.
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That red building may look a bit sketchy, but the buildings in Amsterdam lean forward by design. See that winch hanging out at the top of the building? Well, when moving items through the front windows via winch, the merchants didn’t want to scuff up their nice facades, so the buildings lean forward.
There was an awkward moment when she surprised me by leaning in to kiss me on the cheek. I certainly wasn’t offended, but I hadn’t thought I had made such an impression! Thinking on it later, I figured that she kissed me not because I’m such a hottie, but because she is from a Latin culture, where kissing friends on the cheeks comes naturally. I hope that next time I am in that situation I can engage the cultural norm appropriately. Whatever the purpose, exchanging kisses on the cheek is something I favor.
I took a moment and considered my next adventure. High time to break out the rail pass, I figured. Time to see … well, Paris. On a Saturday night? C’est foux! C’est une adventure!
The hostels, on the phone, weren’t crowded, but neither did they take reservations: first come, first served. Okay, I’ll just come. It didn’t sound nearly as terrible as the situation had been in Amsterdam.
Once I found the International Train Ticket area, located intuitively at Platform 1, I had a special treat in Hell’s Waiting Room, as gaily dressed Dutch casually joked among each other, and an international menagerie of passengers waited for their numbers to be called, so that they could reserve a seat on a premium rail service. A board displayed what numbers had been called to what counter.
It seemed that I had thirty numbers before me. I consulted my timetable and saw that, were my interpretation of the funky symbols correct, there was a Thalys direct to Paris departing in forty minutes. Assuming that they process one waiting person per minute, no problem. After some patient waiting, and observation, and wondering why it was so difficult for people to book rail tickets, I saw that I had ten minutes and twenty numbers ahead of me. It was harder still to reckon how fast things moved, as half the numbers were in a different sequence from my own.
Anxious, I returned to the girl who passed numbers out, who explained that the train that I was anxious about was not running that day, and then gave me a number from the other sequence, which was the “last minute” queue, and I was seen immediately. I ended up with a Sneltrain to Brussels, from where a Thalys would take me to Paris Nord. The Thalys, however, required a €21 supplement.
Apparently, Thalys is about the only high-speed rail service that requires a supplement. I was annoyed, but inclined to pay it, since I love trains, and could thus find value in experiencing Thalys. After that, I could avoid it, and save money by selecting TGV, ICE, and friends.
Thalys was cool. I wandered in to Paris’ Gare du Nord station hall and began looking for a phone card. I noticed that not only were all the signs in French, but that all anyone spoke was French, unlike the Netherlands, where nearly everyone knew English. I recalled Stefi’s lament that French, Italians, and Spanish all sucked because they never spoke English. This might seem a queer complaint for a German to make, but I’ve noticed that in my travels, English is the common language in which us travellers negotiate our way through foreign countries and customs, whether we are German, Brazilian, Japanese, or American, Canadian, or British.
Next, I noticed a booth that sold phone cards. I negotiated for the cheap one with my fingers, and was approached by an old bum who reeked of liquor. He seemed to want to take my change, hold my bags, take my phone card, and in the end contented himself by lightly brushing my buttock as I turned to walk away. I gave him a brief parting glance that expressed, “you have definately crossed the line and entered the realm in which you may be subjected to public embarassment or violence.” I thought that he was a magnificently offensive introduction to France, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with him a bit; Drunk bum in a train station, lonely for whatever it is that drunk bums in train stations get lonely for. Was it affection, or a desperately clumsy attempt for my wallet, which I don’t keep in my back pocket.
I next acquired a carnet, which is a book of ten €1.20 metro tickets for €9, and took the metro to Le Fouconnier hostel, which was this unexpectedly pretty castle in the middle of Paris. My room was down several dark hallways on the third floor, and was extremely pleasant, very clean. It ran me near €25 for the €21 room and the €2.50 membership card, as they’re not affiliated with HI. They only allowed guests under thirty years of age, and the place was crawling with many a young’n. I ducked out to enjoy my first French cuisine, which was the Bouef Plat du Jour atop fried rice at a Chinese place. The meal came in under €6 with a Coke, and tasted pretty good.
I set out towards the nearby Bastille, in search of a night club, but all the ones I could find opened at 11PM and cost €15. Given the Fouconnier’s 1AM curfew, I couldn’t justify it.
The night was spent in the company of two Japanese boys, one with a cool, punky look, and the other gaunt, pale, and subdued. Both were pretty quiet, occasionally speaking with each other in comfortable Japanese. Our fourth roommate was allegedly a Belgian, though none of us ever saw him awake.
The next morning was a baguette buffet, with butter, jams, orange juice, and a tasty café au lait. I sat across from an American who asked if I spoke English, then told me about a wonderful, cheap hostel in Normandy. That’s my short list for aprés Paris.
I thought I’d try my luck at a cheaper HI hostel. The highly-reccommended, centrally-located, Auberge Jules Ferry was full. I found myself at the allegedly decent, slightly distant, but with plentiful facilities warehouse of a hostel Auberge Le D’Artagnan instead. You can’t check in until 3PM, so I had to add €2 to store my bag, to my €19.50-with-HI-membership bill. No curfew.
The showers on our floor were broken. Later that evening, I went a floor up and found a working shower with a clogged drain that filled the floor basin with water. The shower stall door hitches were all busted. I’ll have to find another place tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll head back to the castle.
Down at the metro station, I saw signs in French about some equipment anciens that was being exhibited this weekend, from what I could tell, to promote a future transit museum. I didn’t read the station quite right the first time I saw this sign, and so I couldn’t find the destination. Instead, I just wandered around the Tour Eiffel, snapping some pictures. Back at the metro, I saw another sign for the transit museum crowd, and made my way over to Port D’Ivry, where they had parked a handful of old equipment right in the middle of the metro station. Superb!
There were signs in French, with interesting pictures, and staff explaining any number of fascinating things, in French. I found some model train geeks, and after some miscommunication as to the nature of Samedi, which I thought was Saturday, which it actually is, I found myself on a lovely ride on the RER to the suburb of La Varenne Chennevieres.
At my destination, there was nowhere to supplement the downtown ticket from the carnet, so I followed another’s example and hopped the turnstile to leave. Outside, I saw a ticket window and tried to set things right. After all, I’d seen a video camera watching the turnstiles. I was lectured that I was supposed to take care of the ticket business downtown, and that at this point, it really doesn’t matter.
The model railroad club was locked, because they do their open house on Samedi, and this was Dimanche, le jour aprés. I chilled out by the fountain, sharing some of my Dutch graham crackers with the local pigeons.
Usually, when you feed a group of pigeons in this manner, you soon notice the one with the missing or lame foot. They always carry themselves well, and I always try to make sure they get some extra food. Sometimes you can tell that they understand that they are special. Today my friend with the lame foot would hover in front of me, flashing his colorful crest as if he were a hummingbird, and then perch off to my side, awaiting his chunk of graham cracker.
I wandered in to what seemed a reasonably-priced, trendily chill restaurant, and was quickly seated by a friendly, efficient waiter, who not only spoke English but seemed to tolerate my French. I dropped €5.65 on a salami baguette and a vin rouge, which left me feeling quite good and amenable to a creme brule, which brought the bill to €10.25. It was worth it. Back at the AJ D’Artagnan, I entered the six-digit code to get in to my room, and found four beds, one of them occupied by a guitarist, napping in a white undershirt, and the aroma of wet towels.
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