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.