An Amsterdam tram struggling along the busy - and very narrow - LeidsestraatIn this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey: Day One
* The World: A Truckshunter Geography
Now read on…
ROBINSON’S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY ONE
WEDNESDAY 21 MARCH 2012
NEWCASTLE TO AMSTERDAM
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 pie. Pijper 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.
THE WORLD: A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
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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