Friday, 8 October 2010

A rainy day in Amsterdam

I visited Amsterdam for the first time in 1972. The Swinging Sixties had just given way to the Cynical Seventies, though traces of the naivety of the old decade could be seen in the collection of hippies in front of the American Express office, trading airline tickets to wherever. It was just two or three years after John and Yoko’s pre-marriage bed-in honeymoon for peace at the Amsterdam Hilton, and about the same time after the Fab Four had split up for good. Soon we would all have to get used to the values of the new decade, and in particular its cynicism. No great problem for me, I have to say, as I was a born cynic. I haven’t believed in many things in my life, in fact I’ve always acted out of convenience rather than conviction, but one thing I do believe is that there’s too much optimistic stupidity in the world. So on paper I should have been overjoyed as we entered the Seventies, one of the most miserable decades in the history of the human race. But that’s another story which I can’t be arsed enough to relate. Suffice to say that I liked Amsterdam in 1972, and was looking forward to seeing it again 35 years later, the 6th of March 2006, to be precise, on a one-day flying visit.

The plane touched down at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and taxied for about 15 minutes to the terminal building. Despite its size and importance, Amsterdam Schiphol has only one terminal, which means that it’s big. It is also quite unique for airports on continental Europe in that the signs around the terminal are in one language only - English. At all other European airports they are in English and the language(s) of the country. This, of course, is for sound good reasons, recognizing the widespread use of English in the world. But it is also my belief that Europeans, basically, no longer like their own languages. Say something to them in their language and they invariably reply in English, even if their English is far from perfect. I once met a man who’d mastered the art of speaking English without the use of prepositions. And during this visit to Amsterdam I heard two young Dutch guys talking together in English. I asked them why they spoke English and not Dutch and was told by one of them that Dutch is boring. And it may be a sentiment which is shared by many Dutch people. At Schiphol Airport, for example, there is space called Schiphol Plaza. All around the plaza there are cafes and bistros with names in English, French, Spanish and Italian, but not a single one in Dutch. Tant pis, to quote a foreign language.

I needed to buy a train ticket for Amsterdam and went to a ticket machine, but it wouldn’t accept my Visa debit card. I needed a credit card, a man kindly told me in English. So I queued at the ticket desk, bought my ticket and got on the train.

Outside Centraalstation

In 1972 I’d stayed in a hotel opposite Centraalstation and I wanted to see if it was still there. I remembered the railways station, too, and I was looking forward to seeing its grand façade. But upon stepping out of the station, not only was it pouring with rain, but the station façade was covered in tarpaulin. This, in fact, is typical of my travels. At almost every destination there is either building or maintenance works taking place. How do they know I’m coming? Is it a conspiracy? Neither was I accosted at the station by drug pushers and hustlers, which the travel guide I’d looked at had assured me I would be. Nothing so far was going to plan. But my hotel, I‘m pleased to report, was still there. I’m not actually sure which one it was, but there were several, side by side, and it had to be one of them. And the trams were there too, blue and white ones, just as I remembered them.

The rain continued to pour down, but it didn’t deter the cyclists, who were everywhere. I saw one who was riding his bike while holding an umbrella over his head. Nature adapts. I bought a map, which was soon soaking wet, making it difficult to read. So instead I just wandered aimlessly, hoping to stumble upon something of interest. But there was nothing! I couldn’t even find a canal. Neither were there crowds of people everywhere. Where were they all? Hiding from the rain? Luckily it was dinner time, so it made it my mission to find an Irish pub for some Irish stew. But the Irish pubs I found were all ‘themed’ pubs. Their only connection with Ireland appeared to be that they sold Irish beer. Big deal! So I ended up in an Italian restaurant, where the customers all ordered in English, and the Italian waiter replied in English. The food wasn’t fantastic either.

And still the rain came down! I wandered some more and finally came across a canal. It was a big one, too, and may have been the Amstel, though I wouldn’t want to swear to that. I had no desire to visit any of the tourist attractions in the city, but I did want to ride in a tram, so decided to take one back to Centraal. Buying a ticket for public transport on the continent is always a challenge as every country has its own system. In Italy you buy a ticket before boarding the bus or tram, either at a bar or a tobacconist or some other licensed vendor. In France you buy a bus ticket on the bus, but not a tram ticket, which you have to purchase before boarding. The tickets are at a fixed price for one journey of any length, though you can also purchase a day or week ticket, what the French call un pass. In Switzerland you buy a ticket before boarding, though the price depends upon the length of journey. In Amsterdam you can purchase a tram ticket when you board the tram, and the price also depends upon which zone you are travelling to. They also have conductors seated at tables onboard the trams. On the tram that I boarded the conductor (?) was a young guy with heavily tattooed arms, no uniform, and an expression that said that he would sooner be somewhere else. Though he did speak English.

Back at Centraalstation I consulted my soggy map and discovered that the famous Red Light district was not far away. So I set off to look for it, and when I got there found that it was full of people. So this is where they all were! And I can quite understand why they were there….apart, of course, for the obvious thing. For it is, in fact, a very nice place, with lots of narrows streets, and peaceful canals with picturesque humped-back bridges. So I wandered around, did a little window shopping with all the other tourists, then realised that it was time to head back to the airport.

The rain was still pouring down when I reached the airport. I self-checked in, with the help of a passing air hostess (or do we have to call them cabin crew?), then went to the Plaza. I bumped into an English gentleman: sixties, well spoken, aristocratically scruffy. He asked me for thirty euros for a hostel for the night. I gave him five and a cup of herbal tea. Sitting together in Grand Café drinking our tea, I got quite erudite as I pushed my nostrum on globalisation and how they won’t be happy until every last vestige of local culture throughout the world has been eliminated and we’re all talking the same mono-gibberish and drinking our coffee and eating our cheeseburgers in the same architecturally identical restaurants and coffee bars, but I don’t think he gave a toss. And I’m not really sure how much I did either. So I left him to cadge another 25 euros and went up on the airport roof and stood in the rain and watched the puddles forming on the tarmac.

Schiphol Plaza

The flight was called and I was the first passenger to arrive at the boarding gate where two hostesses were talking together… Dutch! What were they thinking of? Hadn’t they heard that it’s illegal? In fact, it was the first Dutch that I’d heard spoken all day. More passenger turned up, then the plane did, and we all clambered on board. We taxied 15 minutes to the runway and then were airborne and on our way back.

I liked Amsterdam. The people were friendly enough and polite, and the cyclists didn’t seem to mind a bit when I wandered into their cycle lanes making them swerve and fall in the canals. Would I go back? Oh yes. And maybe, just maybe, one day in another 35 years time, I will!

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