As many of you will already know, Lawrence’s Mum died suddenly and unexpectedly early on Saturday morning.

Even though Lawrence and I have been good friends since Nightshift days, I never had the pleasure of meeting his Mum.  But from my contact with him, I know that Lawrence was lucky enough to have a Mum who was, amongst all the other things Mums are, his best friend; a rare and precious relationship.

Please remember Lawrence in your thoughts over the coming days.  Better still, get in touch with him if you can - perhaps on Facebook. 

Love knows not it’s own depth until the hour of separation....

The road ahead will not be easy, Lawrence, but there are those around you who love you and will not let you fall.

Take care, my friend.


Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 17 May.  If this date is hopelessly inconvenient for you, please get in touch.

A number of venues suggest themselves:  the Newcastle Art Centre on Westgate Road, Saltwell Park in Gateshead, Birkheads Nursery, the Tanfield Railway and others.  If you have any favourites, contact me.


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This is what I wrote in my notebook as I sat, a few minutes later, at the feet of a statue of Goethe and looked out at the Holocaust Memorial across the road.

I make no apologies for its content or style.  The words seemed to flow onto the paper and I did nothing to stop them.

'We wander into dark places where we become not ourselves, inhabiting the shadows and dank, hidden passageways of human nature - our own and others’.  We almost seem to die when we are there because the smiles of the sun and of good things are not visible to us there.  There is no light where so many of our predecessors have been and where we follow.  So there are no flowers there and birds do not sing.

Sometimes even flowers and birds seem to know what we have yet to discover about ourselves and they leave us to our own hapless devices. 

It’s so dark and overgrown with melancholy there that, looking, we are blind and, though hearing, we are also deaf.  We are bewildered at the vigour of our frailty, at the sheer power we can exert when we are at our weakest.  We grope helplessly for a way to understand why, time and again, we are utterly defeated by our own humanity; why we cannot overcome our baser selves and, instead, constantly bequeath guilt and horror to those who follow us.

These are the unhappy places where we weep because we know that we will never learn.  No will in the world is stronger than the will of we who inhabit it but we know that, too often, its strength has led us very, very deeply into those unlit places where desire and will do not belong.

These are the places where beauty and grace, thought and compassion, lie dead and rotting at our feet.  And we know they belong to us and so we know that the stench is of us, too.  

We block the pathways to these places with grand monuments and memorials.  We have pretensions to remember our sins without being able to acknowledge the reasons for the torture, misery and death of which we ourselves are the wellspring.  And we do this because we cannot see, and have no desire to find out, where the soundless tracks behind the memorials lead us.

So we lead lives of quiet desperation and we look the other way.  That’s the way of it.

These awful places are not to be avoided, though.  The power of memory and of our own inadequacy ensures that, sometimes, there is no other direction in which to look.  This, too, is the way of it.  Our history compels us to look ourselves in the eye and in the heart; and, worst of all in this terrible place into which our conscience leads us, in the soul.

And, in the shadow of art and culture and civilisation….I stared terror and despair and death in the face and saw them as my own.  And the coldly mechanical means of slaughter  - the unspeakable, the unthinkable - were mine, too.

We conceal our guilt well, don’t we?  Moving from one day of getting and spending to the next would be impossible if we did not.

But, stripped of these everyday imperatives and naked in the shadow of a statue, I wanted to ask everyone - everyone passing by and everyone I know and everyone else - what would you have done?

Look inside for just a moment.  Dim all light and be silent for a while.  Do this and you will hear the screams as I did and you will see the starved and beaten bodies.

What would you have done?

What would you have done as the cattle trucks trundled by, full of silently terrified Jewish people?

What would you have done when you saw the unburied corpses of gypsies at the street-corner?

What would you have done as gay people were rounded up and beaten to death before your eyes?

What would you have done as the blind and deaf and disabled cried out to you from behind barbed wire?

It was not one person.  Nor was it a group of people within one nation or even that nation itself. 

It was you and I.

The most pernicious events in history - events that would have been impossible were humanity as enlightened as it believes itself to be - were devised and carried out by men and women as vulnerably human as you and me.

We were there, too. 

There is no pain like grief and we all died a little with the six million.

And those who follow us will descend into these terrifying depths again and there is nothing on Earth we can do to stop them.

In the end, they too will ask...What would you have done?

And no-one will answer because no-one knows.'

Part of the throng at Winterfeldmarkt


Having had to abseil precariously down the hotel stairs in Amsterdam the previous day, it came as a blessed relief on this sunny Saturday morning to be able to use stairs banked at a more conventional angle; the neighbouring lift was pure luxury.  Like hills and cycling proficiency tests, lifts do not seem to have caught in Amsterdam just yet so I took full advantage of civilisation by using the lift here to descend two whole floors.  After spending a day in armed conflict against an overloaded and warlike suitcase, it also felt good to be unencumbered and prosaic.

It felt less good to be so hungry so I made for the bakery across the road, ordered whatever coffee the owner thought I might like ‘and a couple of those things there’.  Those things there turned out to be home-made apfelnussrollen, apples and hazelnuts wrapped and cooked in a long thin pancake roll - a local delicacy of the first water.  Two weren’t nearly enough to sustain me for the day ahead that I’d planned.  I had six.  And another two coffees.  I was in 'sheep as a lamb' territory, a landscape I know well.

That little street-corner bakery was to become my home for the next three days

I looked at my local street map whilst the stewed apple dribbled contentedly down my shirt front and, having overindulged like a condemned man, I staggered to my feet and headed around a few corners to the Winterfeldmarkt, the most celebrated Saturday market in Berlin.

It covered an area about the size of a moderately busy bus station and was, as they say, heaving.  Progress was difficult - and sometimes impossible - because the stalls were so close together and attracted so much attention, such was the unimaginable variety of goods, chattels and provender on offer. 

My tour of the market went from dried flowers and pot-pourri at one end to German open flans with indeterminate but vaguely disgusting ingredients at the other, via fish and meat (fresh and cooked), fruits and vegetables enough to feed everyone there, breads and cakes of extraordinary variety, cheeses from any country you could name (except England)….

There was hot, cooked food, too - to feed the natives of not only Germany but France, Greece, the Lebanon, Japan, Scandinavia, China, South America, the Caribbean, Turkey...

There were shoes and socks.  Scarves and coats.  Plants and crafts.  There was jewellery, umbrellas, hand-made soap, coffee and even tea.  There was a bicycle repair team and, for all I know, a man who would take the stones out of horses’ hooves for a fee.

It was enormous and crowded and great, great fun.  Eventually I gave up making notes about it all, bought a carton of blood-orange and pomegranate juice that was squeezed from the fruit itself right before my eyes and which tasted exquisite and looked at the bar of lemongrass soap I had just bought.  It was made in the colours of the German flag.

I felt satisfyingly touristic.  Which meant that it was time to get serious; to do the kinds of things that people visit Berlin to see and do.  It was time to sober up, as it were.

If I didn’t know it already, I was about to find out how sober the sights of Berlin can be.


Potsdamerplatz had been one of the city’s busiest and most colourful squares before the Second World War.  But its proximity to German High Command - Hitler’s bunker was just round the corner - meant that it was virtually obliterated by the Allies.  Its final humiliation was to be split in two by the occupying forces - the Berlin Wall passed right through its heart and killed it stone dead.

I discovered, from the explanatory boards in the square, that the ‘deadening’ effect of the Wall was felt along its entire length.  A ribbon of ‘no man’s land’ 30 yards wide bisected the old centre of the city and forced normal day-to-day life to move away to its west and east.  This effect is still apparent today; Berlin has two centres and no centre.

The six columns of the Berlin Wall (the 'Berliner Mauer') at Potsdamerplatz; the 'Border Guard' selling 'passports to the West' for charity is under the green umbrella

The entire route of the Wall is marked along the ground by a line of cobbles and there are six columnar remnants of the Wall itself in Potsdamerplatz.  Tourists photograph each other in front of them and a mock East German border guard sells ‘passports to the West’ for ten euros.  I didn’t really mind this light-hearted treatment of a brutally repressive monument.  On what is once again a busy and lively square, it seemed to put the Wall in its proper place somehow.  Visitors are laughing at the ludicrous - though sadly often successful - attempts by the Communists to oppress and imprison their citizens.

I was reading a panel about the heroic attempts made by many East Berliners to get over the Wall - some successful but most ending in capture or death - when loud peals of incongruous laughter brought me four-square back to the present.

Two beer-bikes had appeared. 


It’s not easy to say why these forms of locomotion are quite so ridiculous, or even to describe them at all.

Imagine an ‘island’ bar the size of a large dining-table with a dozen or so drinkers - mostly men, of course - sitting around it on bicycle seats and each equipped with pedals.  All of them are pedalling furiously (and drinking) and the whole contraption moves along the road at slightly more than walking pace.

That’s a beer bike.  And when two of them appear, the effect is, firstly, shock; secondly, bewilderment; and thirdly, gales of laughter from puzzled onlookers.

Nothing could have relegated the Berlin Wall more effectively to its ignominious place in the city’s history than the appearance of these perfectly contrived movable jokes.

The fact that these bizarre machines are permitted to hold up the traffic in one of Europe’s busiest cities is a very great credit to Berlin’s sense of humour and its recognition that city life can be enriched by the absurdly unexpected.


The past, though, is not forgettable.  I have met many people who would not visit Berlin under any circumstances because of it.  And, as the beer-bikes headed west into the sunshine and street-theatre of modern Berlin, I wandered away from Potsdamerplatz into one of the darkest places that humanity has ever been in its whole history.

The laughter died away quickly and, much sooner than I’d expected, I became a wanderer who would much rather have been lost than contemplating what stood before me.


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Walking out of Berlin’s central station - its Hauptbahnhof - is like walking from one man’s vision of paradise to another’s vision of purgatory.

It’s the kind of supersonic, glass-and-steel concoction normally dreamed up for Doctor Who.  Because trains arrive and leave on five different levels, escalators disappear up and down from the enormous central glass atrium into which the Angel of the North would fit at least three times - and all directions.

The atrium and passageways are lined with light and activity; shops, cafés, information and help desks.  It is of airport dimensions but, importantly, without the accompanying stress and impersonality.  You can get where you need to be quickly and in style - and without being herded, harassed, hindered or otherwise harrumphed.

And it’s just as flash from outside.  It’s the 21st-century version of a mediaeval castle gateway.  Two glass towers rise on each side of the ‘barbican’ canopy - multicoloured lasers are beamed out from their tops across the city every night.

All in all, I thought to myself as I looked at it, an impressive example of Berlin’s post-wall rebirth and of Germany’s ongoing determination to - as it were - ‘rise from the ashes’.

Then I turned round.

When I think about this moment with the benefit of hindsight, I partially ascribe my plummeting emotions to psychology.  My researches, and many of the people I’d spoken to, had waxed enthusiastically and voluminously about the wonders of Berlin.  Its skyline, its monuments and buildings, its people and its atmosphere.  I suspect that, after the interesting and exciting journey I’d just had from Amsterdam, I was fully expecting to step out into an urban version of the Elysian fields full of optimistic, liberal - and probably gay - people enjoying life in a luscious city of avenues, boulevards, cafés, statues and uplifting art galleries.

What actually confronted me as I emerged from the station was a building site of Olympic proportions as far as the eye can see.

A huge and utterly featureless paved square is bordered by makeshift railings that would put Spennymoor to shame.  Beyond it, on all sides, are cranes.  Not the feathered kind, either.  I could easily have coped with those.  At least a dozen building cranes, thoughtfully of different colours, rear up like giant - er...cranes all along the horizon.  At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be one completed building in view, except for the broken-down tenements to the east of the station.

In front of the station exit is a helpful row of ugly little concrete blocks for people to sit and cry on.  I shambled over to one, sat on it and wondered why I had allowed myself to be talked into visiting what looked like a Teutonic version of Leeds.


Fleetingly, I wondered if Patricia had been right.

Patricia had been my travelling companion for part of my journey.  We both boarded the train at Hilversum. 

(For reasons best known to the God of Railways, international trains between Holland and Berlin start not in Amsterdam city but at Schiphol Airport.  Adoptive Amsterdammers like me and Patricia have to change trains at Hilversum.  In this way, I discovered that the name on the old valve-radio dials was actually a Dutch town.  I even saw the broadcasting mast itself and celebrated with one of the nicest cups of coffee I had on my travels - from an Albert Hein supermarket; the Dutch equivalent of Asda.)

Patricia was a businesswoman of very strong opinions and intimate knowledge and love of this part of Holland.  As we sped through the countryside, I took mischievous pleasure in interrupting the vital work she was doing on her laptop by asking her the names of villages and streams, or about the area’s history - or to help me spot windmills, of which there were worryingly few.  (Eventually, we counted five.)

Spring had arrived in Holland like something being said.  The rich, bright green of her fields, outlined with the darker, moodier green of hedges and everywhere the silver ribbons of drainage ditches glinting in the sunshine.  The picket-fenced farms that looked like inhabitable flapjacks or liquorice allsorts, many of them with a couple of favoured sheep and a cow grazing sleepily in a small paddock. 

It’s always good to make a journey with someone who knows and loves the road ahead.  With Patricia’s help, I saw, for example, the two lineside cottages she always looked out for as she passed this way.  One of them had a garden startlingly festooned with old railway signalling equipment. The other had a garden full of brightly-painted, life-size sculptured cows that quite took me by surprise in the picture-book sobriety of the countryside.  They looked wonderful, and I said so.

I continued to happily disturb her concentration until the train passed over the wide, shimmering River IJssel and into the pretty little town of Deventer.  I felt sad because I knew she would be getting off the train here, just before it crossed the border into Germany.

As she packed away her laptop, I told her how much I’d enjoyed seeing so much more of her country than just Amsterdam.  It had been a first for me and I’d loved it.  I told her how widely I’d smiled when I saw a graffito scrawled hugely along the entire length of a train: it had said ‘I'm Number One - so you will just have to try harder!‘  Something of a justifiable slogan for the whole country.

She leaned over in a deeply conspiratorial way and almost whispered…’I know why you love Holland’ she said. ‘It’s cosy, comfortable and friendly.’  She moved even closer. ‘Germany, on the other hand…..isn’t’

Although I was well-used to a certain level of Dutch ‘dislike’ for their German neighbours, I was genuinely surprised to hear it expressed, however wanly, by a woman like Patricia.

As she waved the train away, I was seriously lost in thought about the rights and wrongs of her attitude.  I wondered if it was evidence of straightforwardly pernicious prejudice or whether Dutch people - or at least quite a few of them, judging from my experience - have long and unforgiving memories.

Or are the worst and most despicable of mankind’s self-inflicted horrors too dreadful to be forgiven, even if the will to forgive is there?


We had already passed through places with such wonderfully homely and Dutch names as Apeldoorn, Amersfoort and Weesp - little boating lakes and lots and lots of people on bicycles exploring the Dutch springtime - and now the train was calling at places with mysteriously Italianate sounding names - Hengelo and Almelo.

We passed through a deep forest which led, in turn, to a cutting.  A cutting means rising ground; we were passing through Holland’s only real range of ‘hills’ - all of 20 feet or so high.

The forest faded away from the trackside, the farmhouses were suddenly a little bigger, and hills appeared in the distance for the first time since Amsterdam.

The train pulled into Bad Bentheim, which is a lot less pervy than it sounds.  We had crossed the border somewhere in that cutting and we were in Germany.  They changed the locomotive from a yellow Dutch one to a German red one.

Robinson’s German Journey had really begun….


There was still a long way to go to get across northern Germany and I was keen to see how it looked; how it ‘felt’.  I tried to be a good tourist - looking with great interest out of the window at the passing fields, farms and villages and making notes in my little book.

But I remember very little about the countryside we were passing through, and made almost no notes at all, because of Hildegarde and Gunther, a presentably middle-aged and almost unnoticeably conventional couple who boarded the train at a place called Rheine.

They sat across the aisle from me and, fuelled by their very obvious and very recent ingestion of schnapps or schlitz, proceeded to show how upsettingly unconventional they actually were.

It started innocently enough.  Holding hands led to kissing and cuddling and touching, all of which became more and more prolonged the nearer we got to Osnabrück.  I began to wonder if lovemaking had been criminalised in Osnabrück and that Hildegarde and Gunther were milking every drop of pleasure from their final permissible moments of affection.

I was wrong though.  By the time we’d reached Hannover, the snogging had become stroking and groping - there’s a lot more room on German railway carriage seats than there is on ours - and my fellow-passengers and I were being treated to an extraordinarily exuberant example of on-board pornography.

By the time we’d reached Wolfsburg, Hildegarde had unzipped Gunther’s flies.  Her left hand was having a party in his underwear - a party that was interrupted only by the ticket inspector, to whom she offered their travel documents with her other hand.

I had dispensed with my English sensibilities miles back and, like everyone else, had decided that the view inside the carriage was much more interesting than that outside.

But the ticket inspector had broken their rhythm, as it were.  As the train drew out of Stendal station, Hildegarde and Gunther disappeared into the toilet and were never seen again.  At least, not by me...


It had been a long and unexpectedly ‘diverting’ journey but I’d made it.  I’d recovered from the melancholy I’d felt at my first view of Berlin.  I’d negotiated the metro and had arrived at my hotel.

The evening was warm and sunny and at my feet lay a city of legendary complexity.  I couldn’t wait to go for a wander and find out what all the fuss was about….

After all - nicht alle, die bummeln, sind verloren.


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Somebody, somewhere - probably a suitably august arm of the United Nations (which God preserve) - should draw up a list of the world’s most surprising or strangest or simply most bizarre countries.  And whatever criteria are applied to countries for inclusion on the list, the Netherlands would definitely be on it somewhere - arguably, at the top.

Its geography alone qualifies it hands-down.  No country in the world changes its shape as often, or as wilfully, as the Netherlands.  15% of it has come into existence during my lifetime; not through land-grabbing from its neighbours but by draining away the sea itself, Canute-like.  Towns, villages and farms now thrive on land that was permanently underwater 50 years ago.

‘Netherlands’ means ‘low countries’ but it comes as quite a shock to realise just how low you can get round here.  Almost none of the Netherlands is more than 4 or 5 feet above sea-level and over a quarter of it lies below sea-level - including Schiphol airport.  A third of its population lives on land that, but for Dutch engineering ingenuity, would be several feet under the North Sea.  An enormously complicated and frankly rather grand system of barrages keeps the sea at bay; if they ever failed, both Amsterdam and Rotterdam would be inundated.

In fact, the fear of rising water levels behind the barrages - global warming is no joke here - has forced the Dutch to pioneer designs for houses that will float.  Thus is necessity the mother of Dutch invention.
Dutch floating houses

The country’s shape is a bit weird in other ways, too.  Its border with Belgium is a switchback of criss-crossing lines which, in the tiny village of Baarle Hertog, descend into irredeemable lunacy.  The frontier runs through gardens, bars, shops and even through people’s front doors.  Walking up the main street entails 5 border-crossings.
A confused cock crossing the Belgian/Dutch border at Baarle Hertog

Surely only the Dutch could shrug contentedly and get on with their lives under circumstances of such topographical instability.  And they do.

Even the country’s name merits it a place on the list - because it has two.  Technically, 'Holland' refers only to a part of the country.  Fortunately, the Dutch don’t seem to mind which of the two names you use and happily use both of them themselves.

Another criterion for inclusion on our putative list could be a nation’s idiomatic reputation - and the Netherlands excels at this, too.  The English language has cursed its inhabitants with Double Dutch, Going Dutch, Dutch Uncle, Dutch Oven, Dutch Courage, Well I’m A Dutchman and even a Flying Dutchman.

And just in case even more evidence is required for the Netherlands to be in at least the top three of the world’s most startling states….

The Dutch changed the colour of carrots.  In the wild, they’re purple.


The Dutch are the tallest people on Earth.  The average Dutch man is 6’ tall, the average woman 5’ 7”.

You actually notice this when you’re sitting in hazy morning sunshine drinking strong coffee and dunking a croissant in it, as I was on this Thursday morning.  It was the second day of Spring and it felt like it as I watched tall and necessarily slim Dutch people cycling in unpredictable directions all around me.

I’m sure someone buzzed passed me on a motorised, three-wheeled skateboard too, but they’d gone before I could make sure.

It was seductively pleasant just sitting there and doing nothing but ingesting.  The broad and calm canal lined with houses built like the people who live in them - tall and slim.  Florid and ornate gable-tops looked down on me like benign upraised eyebrows and the constant friendly hum and clang of the trams lulled me into an entirely real and reliable sense of security and comfort.


The Floating Flower Market is one of the more obviously understandable tourist destinations in Amsterdam.  Even its name makes it sound seductive and irresistible, which is precisely what it is.  A line of cabins half a mile long runs scenically between two of the city’s busiest little squares on the edge of the Singel canal.  This is where Amsterdammers themselves come to do their horticultural, window-box shopping.

It was a sunny Spring morning and the market was crowded with locals and tourists gawping, as always, at the colours, smells and sounds all around them.  Naturally, there are bulbs of every description - this is the Netherlands, after all.  Tulips in full variety - from closed-cup to Rembrandt, splashed and striped with colour; daffodils and jonquils, crocuses, irises, peonies, fritillaries, aconites, bluebells. 

And there are dozens of anemones and pansies, both of them much favoured by Amsterdammers to bring colour and life to what are often quite small and cramped flats and balconies.  For the same reasons of scale, bonsai is much in evidence, too.

The beauty of the blooms is, sadly, not matched by the temperament of the vendors themselves, almost all of whom look at you as if you drown puppies for a living.  If you point a camera at them they become positively bellicose and pull faces.  There must be a lot of repatriated Japanese tourists with some very strange ideas about Dutch physiognomy.

As I walked past the Christmas Shop - ‘open all year - NO PHOTOGRAPHY’ - I noticed a couple of twentysomething blokes walk by hand-in-hand.  What struck me quite forcibly was that no-one else seemed to notice them at all.

This quiet, liberal, deep-rooted ‘each to his own’ maturity is only remarkable to outsiders like me.  To Amsterdammers themselves, no other attitude is even remotely conceivable.  Such things are not given a second thought. 


I caught a Number 4 tram just to see where it went.  Disappointingly, its destination was a trading estate of stultifying sterility.  While I was there, though, I took the opportunity of practising my Dutch.  Such chances arise only rarely in Amsterdam, where everyone from the tramp I chatted to on Koninksplein to Queen Beatrix herself speaks English in a perfect, Home Counties accent.

In a cafe there, a woman called Julietta tried to teach me how to say ‘Have a nice day’ in Dutch.  The resulting garbled mess served only to humiliate me and amuse my fellow-patrons.

My language encyclopedia tells me that the Frisian dialect of Dutch is the direct ancestor of Modern English.  You could have fooled me.


In the evening, I walked alongside silent canals and restaurant-noisy streets to Rembrandtplein, one of my favourite squares in the city.  It’s been beautifully refurbished and, as I sat clutching a ‘white beer’ and practising my wayward Dutch, I realised that it was my schoolboy German I would be needing from tomorrow….


For the moment, though….Niet iedereen die dwaalt is verloren


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An Amsterdam tram struggling along the busy - and very narrow - Leidsestraat
In this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day One
* The World:  A Truckshunter Geography
Now read on…


When you travel as a couple, it stands to reason that the person you are most likely to talk to is the person you’re travelling with.  You will exchange comments and idle chit-chat between you and be less likely - however marginally - to communicate with the total strangers all around you; in the plane, the bus or the tram; in shops, bars, museums and galleries; and even in the street.

It works the other way round, too.  Those around you will perceive you as a couple - as a kind of ‘sealed unit’ - and will thus be much less likely to communicate with you.

But travelling alone is a different kettle of fish altogether.

In the first place, you’re doing it because you have a sense of adventure and curiosity.  This in turn means that you will almost certainly be unable to resist the temptation to talk to whoever you bump into - buying a coffee or a beer, asking for directions or information, or simply being alongside them in the train or the street.

And that’s one of the things I love most about my solo journeys:  being at ease and relaxed about engaging with strangers, and knowing that they are, too.  Wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve almost always found that people rather like me being inquisitive and nosey about them and their lives.  In return, they are almost always just as inquisitive and nosey about me.

Thus do people get to know and understand each other, however superficially and fleetingly.

As if to illustrate the point, my first such encounter happened less than ten minutes after I left my front door and set out on my journey.

On the bus to the Town I sat next to a pensioner who commented on how heavy my suitcase looked.  I told him a little about my upcoming German journey and he smiled broadly and warmly.  He told me that he had served in Vienna just after the War ( - he’s 83 now - ) and how much he had enjoyed it.  As often happens when memories are jogged, story followed story as if recalled for the first time in decades.  The hair-raising Jeep-driving style of the US GIs; the ‘sleepy sadness’ (as he called it) of the Viennese people; food that was beyond exotic for a ‘common’ Geordie lad like him.

We got off the bus and sat talking in Eldon Square for a few minutes.  He wanted to know more about my journey plans and, as I got up to leave, he told me how envious he was.  ‘Go for it, bonny lad - go for it!’

That ‘bonny lad’ made me smile as I walked to the Metro.  And it sharpened my appetite for the many more encounters I was hoping to have along the way.


As everyone settled down on the plane, the couple directly in front of me fidgeted nervously, constantly reassuring themselves that ‘we’re going to be fine, pet - remember, we’re only in the air for an hour or so.  There’s got be a first time, pet - and remember how much you’re looking forward to seeing our Ben at the other end’.

They were in their mid-fifties and neither of them had flown before.  They fumbled with the seat belts and made mutually comforting noises.  As the plane taxied to the runway end and stopped - that moment after which the engines are fully-engaged and roar you into the air - I could feel their tension.

It was overcast at the airport when we took off but, as the aircraft lifted us up, their anxiety suddenly disappeared.  They gasped with amazement at the view of the river and of distant Newcastle as we climbed into the clouds.  And when we emerged above them, into startlingly bright sunshine and with the crystal-white down of clouds spread out infinitely below us, their excited astonishment made several of their fellow-passengers look out of the windows and smile with sympathetic pleasure.  Including me.

They were going to be alright and they knew it.

I can even report (being a nosey old git) that Ben was at Schiphol to meet them and gave his Mam the biggest, tightest hug of her life….


Beautiful though it is, Amsterdam has a very big problem.  Its hotels.

This is, remember, one of the most visited cities on Earth - which gives carte-blanche to even its crummiest, crampiest and most bedraggled hotels the right to extort charges that require wealth of lottery-winning proportions to afford.  Although this is not always the case - see below, Day Eleven - it certainly was today.

For a start, my hotel had the steepest stairs in Christendom - and no lift.  A crampon and ice-pick would have been genuinely useful as I manhandled my suitcase three floors up the narrow, sheer rockface of that staircase.

Opening the door to Room 15 was like entering a sideboard.  If the hotel cat had not been so enormously fat, I would have tried to swing it in there - and failed.  You could stretch out your arms, Angel of the North style, and touch both walls.  The en suite bathroom was, in fact, bigger than the bedroom itself so that’s where the suitcase had to stay.  Unpacking a pair of socks and my toothbrush would have blocked the fire escape.

Thus do great and momentous journeys begin…
A rare exception to the Amsterdam Hotel Rule - the lovely art-deco American Hotel


To be honest, though, it didn’t really matter.  I would have slept in my suitcase itself just to be back in Amsterdam. 

It’s not a monumental city, like Paris or Rome or London.  There are no grand boulevards or avenues and no great and mighty buildings to overawe the peasantry.  Its rather dowdy Royal Palace and weirdly phallic National Monument sit uncomfortably and apologetically in Dam Square, as if excusing themselves for not being in The Hague.

And that’s another oddity about Amsterdam.  It’s the only capital city in the world which is not the seat of government or the Head of State - both of which keep a safe distance at The Hague.  (The Hague - Den Haag - is one of the Netherlands‘ trickiest place-names.  The ‘h‘ and ‘g‘ of Haag are both pronounced like the ‘ch‘ in Scottish loch, which means that, if you try to show off and say it in Dutch, you end up spraying those around you in several gallons of spittle.  The same applies to Van Gogh or Groningen.  Only the Dutch can pronounce these words without drenching their audience.)

So what is it about this place that mesmerises me - and several million other visitors?

Well, the sheer lack of monumentality must have something to do with it.  Amsterdam doesn’t feel like a capital city that wants to overpower or belittle you.  You can walk, quite lazily and quietly, from one side to the other in twenty minutes.

You would walk along the narrow, tram-crowded, cosmopolitan streets that radiate out, like wheel-spokes, from the Dam, and along the silently graceful canals that link them.  You would wander past countless tall, floridly-gabled houses, all of which lean outwards slightly, as if sighing and nodding sleepily with the pleasure of old age.

And you would notice that its own citizens take an obvious pleasure in the cosiness and easy accessibility of their city.

They also appreciate its flatness - because they all ride bicycles.  Which, to the Amsterdam newcomer, can be the biggest danger of all, trams in narrow streets notwithstanding.

Simply putting one foot in front of the other without looking in all four cardinal points of the compass can be lethal here.  Huge throngs of cyclists will bear down on you, ringing their bells and not slowing down.  None of them wear helmets.  They may have heavy shopping dangling from the handle-bars or be carrying it in one hand and steering with the other.

They may be chatting on their cellphones or carrying an extra passenger balanced over the back wheel - or both.  They may be pushing or pulling a home-made bucket on wheels with a child in it.  Even worse, they may be cycling in twos and threes, chatting happily to each other whilst completely ignoring your foolish presence and preparing to run you down.

At night, they will not carry any lights.

And they are everywhere.


I performed my Amsterdam rituals.  I had my favourite falafel on Leidsestraat, mingled with the tourists on Leidseplein, drank a very strong coffee with some thick, stodgy, sweet Dutch apple cake and had a ‘white beer’ in one of my favourite ‘brown cafés’.  It’s called De Pijper and I love it.

(Another language note:  In Dutch, ij is pronounced to rhyme with piePijper sounds like - and actually means - ‘piper’.  Interestingly, the Dutch regard ij as one letter.  So proper nouns that start with it - like the River IJssel - start with two capital letters (as you can see)).

It was quite late as I leant on a bridge railing and looked along the canal.  In Amsterdam, the canal bridge arches are outlined with semi-circles of friendly, yellow lights at night and these are reflected in the water - just to double the undeniably romantic effect.

It always works.

I was dreamily, tiredly and contentedly on my travels again.  

Not all those who wander, I thought, are lost.


It will soon be time for us to make another call on our uniquely irreverent tour of the world’s countries.  This time, it will be to Armenia.

So far, some of the small states we’ve visited have proved to be the most surprising and eccentric - think of Albania, Andorra and Antigua/Barbuda.  I reckon that Armenia will prove just as rewarding; it is, after all, one of the smallest countries in the world to have its own alphabet!

Email me any wayward, intriguing or otherwise unexpected information you can find.

Get to it!


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So that’s that then.  The feast of tastes and sounds and sights is over.

No more trundling my suitcase noisily behind me along cobbled, continental streets.  No more scanning train timetables or distant, foreign horizons.  No more wondering what the next hotel is going to be like as I gaze out of train windows at unfamiliar scenery.

For the moment at least, there are no more friendly strangers anxious to practise their English on me - and defeated because of my anxiety to flex my linguistic muscles on them.  For the time being, there are no more trams, buses and metros heading for strange-sounding destinations and no more streets, avenues and boulevards named after noble statesmen from Our Great National History.

To the many people whose paths I crossed, I am now just a memory - as they are to me.

To them, I am the weird, ageing Englishman who spoke the worst conceivable German and - despite considerable effort from several quarters - never learned any Dutch at all.

To me, they are smiles and broken English learned at school and handshaking and wine-glasses; they are fingers pointing me to the metro, the right street, the train I’m trying to catch.  They are the kind laughter of natives hearing their language mangled as never before.

And, over all the infectious bustle of big cities - of the delights to be found in their exploration - lies the gentle birdsong and quiet Spring sunshine of Munster, the diamond at the heart of this journey. 

Two years ago, the depth of my feelings of ‘deflation’ and melancholy at the end of my Grand Tour took me by surprise; so I ought to have been much better prepared this time round.

But I wasn’t.  Once again, my head teems with memories of anticipation and excitement that will keep my sleep fitful for many nights.  Which is, I suppose, exactly the way it should be.

I did make one attempt to pre-empt this strange sadness that lingers at the end of a great adventure.  I wrote myself a postcard from Hamburg.  This is what it said…

Dear Ian
OK - you’re home again and feeling sorry for yourself.  BUT just remember the cold, the wind and the SLEET in Hamburg and you’ll be fine.
Here’s to the next time

It arrived this morning, amidst the cold, the wind and the sleet.  I’d brought Hamburg home with me.


The hotel I stayed in in Hamburg has fostered close links with that city's 'House of Literature' and each guest is given a rolled, beribboned parchment with a quotation written on it.  I have mine in front of me now.

'Is it true that every beginning contains a little magic?

For me, the magic is in the journey and each arrival in a new place relieves me of the burden of permanence.  Here, I will not stay forever, or even for very long, and I need not pretend otherwise.  Instead I can live in the temporary and the provisional, my true home, in so many ways.  And even when the clock overtakes me - the next train, the next taxi, the next plane - I know I am travelling on to another place much like this one - a place with its own magic, its own shifts and slants of being.

Now that the clock is calling, I carry away another memory of home - the home from home....'

Here are some more quotations about travelling and travellers.  Somewhere in here are the reasons I love it so much - and why I’ll be starting to plan the next one very soon.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness - Mark Twain

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page - St Augustine

There are no foreign lands. It is only the traveller who is foreign - Robert Louis Stevenson

No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow - Lin Yutang

All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it - Samuel Johnson

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move - Robert Louis Stevenson

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things - Henry Miller

A traveller without observation is a bird without wings - Moorish proverb

When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in - DH Lawrence

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world - Dame Freya Stark

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover - Mark Twain

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware - Martin Buber
We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open - Jawarhalal Nehru

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going - Paul Theroux

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted - Bill Bryson

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might as well stay at home - James Michener

A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles - Tim Cahill

Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey - Pat Conroy

Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen - Disraeli
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends - Maya Angelou

Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind - Seneca

What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re travelling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road - anon

To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries - Aldous Huxley

When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable - anon

Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realise that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white - Mark Jenkins
A ship in harbour is safe, but that's not why ships were built - anon


Not all those who wander are lost.

Here’s to the next time….


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