Sunday, December 02, 2001

Reflections on Holland

Reflections on Holland

If you happened to notice that Saturday is missing, you did not lose a day; there was nothing of great interest to share with you. It was one of those days of running around getting the chores of daily living out of the way, like laundry and an Internet café that had computers that worked. My old stand-by had let me down yet again, so I had to do the old search of cafés and then get creative since none had Word on them. Saturday, being World AIDS Day, I was interested in what was going to happen, but there were no signs of anything spectacular in the public areas and it was not until today, on Sunday that we noticed a poster for a charity event.

We are leaving Holland tomorrow and this is always a sad time for me. It would be sadder if we were heading to an airport to return to the States any time soon. If that were the case, I would be too hysterical to be typing this. It isn’t that I don’t like the States. There are plenty of fine places to visit, but the European lifestyle makes my soul restful even when my body and mind are weary. Today, I started reading McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy. Pete, if I may call him that since we were never properly introduced, is from England, but his mother is from Ireland. He has felt this compelling desire to be more Irish than English and makes a number of jaunts to Ireland to see if he has some genetic memory that is pushing him to move there. I have had the same feeling about Holland for many years, but not so much genetic as in a Shirley McLaine sort of way. Perhaps, I am one of the fellows in the Nightwatch painting or Jan Vermeer in a former life. If I was, I probably had too much spiritual luggage to carry and had to leave the art talent behind, because it certainly did not filter through in this life.

So tomorrow is Germany. We are taking the 11:05 train from Amsterdam to Cologne. We went to the railroad station and had our Europass validated for the trip. The Europass includes France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland as the normal countries one can travel through. We added the Benelux countries, which are The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, plus Austria and Hungary. We have eight days of travel of our own choosing for a two month period from our first trip.

I would never have picked Cologne to visit myself. I have been here once for one day, ten years ago and that seemed like enough at the time. It did not seem likely that ten years would make that much difference. Ron wanted to come here since his grandfather was from this area or close by. Ron has a need to touch base with his roots, which is fine by me, since I have been to every country that I have roots in too. I just wish his roots had been transplanted to a more interesting city in Germany, like Munich or Berlin even. This did provide us with the opportunity to stay in Amsterdam longer. It was easier to find a hotel in a city where we already were than to hunt for one on the Internet for a weekend reservation. On short notice, finding a weekend reservation at a hotel is a draining mental experience even with the Internet.

Well back to the moment at hand. Ron is off to church to a Dutch mass that he can only follow due to his years as a priest, though the homily is still beyond his grasp. He has very loose rules about how much of a mass he needs to attend to feel the obligation was fulfilled, so I have no doubts that he left early to go wander around, have a cappuccino somewhere, sneak in at communion and then leave again. For me, the best part of an unscheduled day is to go to breakfast, then go back to bed for another hour. Today, I decided to be somewhat more productive and return to the room to read “McCarthy’s Bar”, while waiting for the more pious one to return to the room.

The more time we spend in this room, the more we appreciate the other hotel. The television only gets one channel in English and it is not CNN and the color fades into black and white. Thursday night when we returned to our other room for the last night, there were envelopes with each of our names on them and each of us had a present. There was a letter stating how much they appreciated having us as guests, wished that we had a wonderful stay in Amsterdam, and of course hoped we would grace them with our presence again. The present was a box of ten Dutch chocolates individually wrapped in Dutch theme paper. We each received our own box. That was class and the room was less expensive than the place we are at now. In the future, screw the view and go to for the class act and nicer room!! If you need a view, walk out the door.

Ron returned to collect me more than an hour and a half later than I had estimated him to need to leave after communion and walk back. I was ready to take off on my own and leave him a note when he walked in. He had to wander around the parks and assorted other areas not realizing that I would notice something was missing from the day’s agenda, namely him. We were going to go to our last museum and headed out. When we reached a turning point, I went one way and he another. We both turned and said, “Where are you going?” He said, “The Nemo museum is this way.” to which I replied, “I thought we were going to the Archeological Museum.”

The Nemo museum is on the other side of the Central train station and is past the Botel. Ah, what is a Botel you ask? It is a hotel boat that is permanently docked with over 200 rooms. On one of our tours, the guide mentioned that he thought is was tacky looking from the outside and one of the tourees responded with the fact that he is staying there and it is tacky on the inside too. After passing the tacky Botel, there is the floating Chinese restaurant. This is obviously a Chinese restaurant that is floating on the canal. It was designed by an architect from Hong Kong and was meant to seat over three hundred and fifty people. However, architects from Hong Kong do not take into consider the proportions of the European person in relation to the Asian person and the restaurant had to be converted to seat only two hundred and fifty people. Finally, at the Nemo, the museum is like a Discovery Zone for children with a lot of hands on science experiments so we chose not to go in at all. The walk was pleasant and the weather was cooperating for this hour, so we were able to see some neighborhoods we had not explored yet. It worked out for the best, but I never did get to the Archeological museum.

Since this was our last chance to use our Amsterdam passes, we felt compelled to get our free broodje. God and the Dutch only knew what it was, but it was free and had some nutritional benefit, we hoped. We found the restaurant after passing the tiny little street several times, not realizing it was a street and not a back alley where mysterious transactions are made between seedy looking men with greasy hair, tattoos, multiple piercings on their faces, and tattered clothing. From the looks of the patrons in the restaurant, it was quite respectable and was probably favored by the locals for their sandwiches. The interior was bright and clean, so trying a free broodje was not an experiment that we would later need to seek a rehabilitation clinic. Ordering our two free broodjes and tea, we were presented with hamburger type roll with some sort of dressing that was not a color we recognized as mayonnaise or mustard and on top was a croquette roll split in half. The inside filling was as undistinguishable as any other mystery meat in white sauce with assorted tidbits of color that resembled vegetables in their former life. The inside consistency was that of a chicken potpie, but without any evidence that a chicken was anywhere nearby when it was made. We could not figure out how they kept the glob still to coat it with the crusty outer coating. If they squirted it into the crusty outer coating like a jelly donut, then how did they keep the crusty tube from collapsing since both ends were solid also and had not trace of a hypodermic needle being inserted to stuff the thing. Another Dutch mystery!

Being gluttons for anything free, we had to redeem our coupon for our free Jenevier gin sample. It was only a half a mile from the crusty, gooey sandwich to the establishment that was offering the gin sample, but it was free, so why not? We expected that this would be a liquor manufacturer offering the sample and had trouble finding this little street also. It was off of a major pedestrian shopping area and we had passed the street a dozen times at least, but never paid much heed since at the time we did not realize there was free gin waiting for us there. It was not a liquor company, but a small local bar that was filled to its tiny little brim with locals. The place could probably stuff in fifty people in it if four went to the bathroom and stayed there until four walked out the front door. One wall was lined with beautifully aged wooden casks with gold spigots on them. They must still be used as they each had a lock on them. Each one was labeled with something different, Bols Royal something Dutch. Ron turned in our coupons to the very young bartender. You could see the thought bubble over his head, “More cheap tourists that come in five minutes before closing on a Sunday for their free drink before leaving town.” He must have been a mind reader, because that is exactly what we were doing. However, it did not temper his generosity in the least. The ‘shot’ was about four ounces and filled to the brim of a little tulip glass. Being so full, we had to set it down and slurp up the first taste from its steady place less we try lifting it to our mouths and spill a drop. Even without taste buds, I could tell this was smooth stuff that was meant to be savored and not gulped down. With that thought, the bartender started locking the wood panels that cover the glass on the doors, and other patrons start getting their coats on to leave. Must be closing time, which means gulping may be in order in a few moments.

For our last night fling, Ron wanted an authentic Dutch Indonesian dinner, one of the specialties of Amsterdam restaurants, though any cuisine is not difficult to come by. We had scoped out a couple of places that I was familiar with from the past and targeted this area for later. With the gin to keep us warm, we roamed the streets of Amsterdam for one more night view of the buildings that give me goose bumps at any time of day or weather. We walked in the direction that Mr. Map was sure that we needed to go to reach the restaurant, but I knew it was wrong. Keeping my mouth shut is always the best recourse, since when I do open it, I get the chuckle and smirk that says, “Oh, you are so cute when you think you know your way around, but you always get lost.” About thirty minutes later, I hear what I seldom ever hear, “I give up, I am lost.” A choir of angels descended from the heavens to sing a Hallelujah chorus, while I was pricking his finger to draw blood with which he wrote that he was wrong. Everyone mark this day in your date book as a red-letter day. It won’t be long before it is forgotten in this farm boy’s mind and I need all of the witnesses I can muster. Without a showy flare, I quietly said, “Would you like me to show you the way now.” With the utmost confidence, I turned one hundred and eighty degrees and led the way without hesitation to the right place where the restaurant was located.

Thinking we knew exactly what we were going to order, we told the very pregnant waitress that we would have the special. “The rice platter?” she questioned. “Yes!” we said in unison. The special that we had in mind included soup, fifteen dishes of different foods one of which was rice, and coffee. The soup never arrived, but the rice and thirteen dishes of assorted foods did. There was chicken on a skewer with peanut sauce, two types of beef in different hot sauces, chicken cooked in a coconut sauce, chicken cooked in a hot sauce, vegetables, shredded coconut, crushed nuts, glazed walnuts, and a huge platter of rice. The couple at the next table was French. We could hear them speaking in French and heard the accent when they were screaming at the waitress about getting their order wrong. In actuality, she was correct, they just did not recognize tomato sauce Indonesian style and thought it was peanut sauce. The poor waitress looked like she was going to go into labor right there due to the tension. The more she rubbed her stomach, the more I wished I had not worked in a medical environment for the last fifteen years. Being a midwife was never one of my aspirations. As she left their table for the forth time of being harassed, she gave me a look like “I wish my water would break on their laps.” With all of this commotion, it was not the most appropriate time to say we did not get our soup and there are two courses missing from our dinner. There was still plenty to fill both of us even if I still had my old ravenous appetite and there was food left over.

When the bill was requested and received, it was not itemized, a custom that is common in many countries that we still find unnerving. The total was far higher than what we had anticipated, since it was a set menu with a set price for two people. Treading lightly since now we could see the baby trying to escape from its watery prison, we said there must be a mistake with the bill. The mistake was ours in semantics. We did order the special indeed, but we did not specify that what we really wanted was the tourist special. Non-tourists have to fork over an extra twenty guilders for less food and drink. It doesn’t make sense to us either, but before we were godparents, we left it alone, paid the bill and left.

As we walked, Ron made the observation that ninety-five percent of the Dutch are attractive. Then he clarified that not all of the men are handsome and not all of the women are beautiful, but five percent shy of all of them are attractive. And he wondered why I love this country for so long? There is no escaping beauty regardless of where you go whether it is human or human made.

One of the things that I really respect the Dutch for as well as the Germans is their cleanliness. It was not unusual to see people of all ages and genders outside their doorstep in the morning washing the steps, sidewalks, or windows. The Dutch are pristinely clean and always cleaning. When you go into a store or restaurant it is rare to see an employee standing around or sitting down doing nothing. They are always cleaning something. There are huge vacuums that street cleaners use to vacuum up the streets and pedestrian malls. When I notice people littering, it is usually someone that is speaking a language other than Dutch. It is not uncommon to see the Dutch walk out of their way to throw litter in a bin. They have a pride in their surroundings and country that other populaces should emulate.

With all of the water around, you would think that this city would be a haven for bugs. For all of the times that I have been here, I have never seen one roach, oops, yes, I have, but it did not have legs and was usually in someone’s mouth. Seriously, they are remarkably pesky insect free. Even mosquitoes are not as much a problem as we have some summer in California.

There is one word of caution for tourists though. Dutch toilets are very different. Not intolerably different like the stand, squat, and hope you don’t lose your balance kind of Asia, but different. The bowl of the toilet has the water filled opening in the front, not the back like North American toilets. The mechanism to flush is built into the lid top. So, almost everything you produce while sitting sits on a ledge until you stand up and flush. I have tried flushing before having to stand and inspect my progress, but I put my back out twice and refuse to try again. It seems to me that the toilet was invented by someone who had a familiarity with flooding of the land. The way I see it is, the little ledge is the land. What falls on the landing is the town. When you flush, the tides come forth in great waves from under the rim, sweep the town down the hole, which is the sea, all based on Dutch history. Clever, huh?

Now here is my tourist warning when sitting on a Dutch toilet, which I was doing one day, smoking a cigarette. I finished the cigarette and threw it behind me in the toilet. The paper that was sitting on the ledge caught fire and the rest is up to your imagination.

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