It is early in April, warm enough we think to get started on our European trip

It is early in April, warm enough we think to get started on our European trip. We fly from the Dominican Republic, where we have been hiding from the Pittsburgh winter, to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, because for some unknowable reason it is a cheap destination from the Dominican Republic. To get over jet lag we decide to spend a night in an airport hotel there before flying south. In the initial planning stage Amsterdam was not even on the horizon; when we began we saw it simply as a convenient and inexpensive air hub for the rest of Europe. But when we got there we found there is a train connection to the city right in the airport, so the next morning Trish, who has a good deal more energy than I do, decided that we should spend a morning to see just what Amsterdam is like—it's only about ten miles away. I of course, being the convivial sort that I am, cheerfully went along with this program.

In the morning we buy tickets from an automated machine for the round trip and get aboard. The train lives up to its European billing: it is clean, smooth and quiet enough to talk in a whisper—not like the Chicago Burlington & Quincy from Naperville to Chicago, almost the only other train I’ve been on in my long life. There is no conductor and no one ever asks us for a ticket, going or coming back. Tricia read somewhere that this is done on the honor system, but that sometimes they actually do a spot-check to see if you have really purchased a ticket or are just riding for free. The main train station, in Centrum—the center of Amsterdam of course—is from Gilbert and Sullivan, as, we gradually discover, is much of the rest of the city. It is barely spring, and we are entranced already. Since we don’t have reservations to go anywhere else just yet, we think about staying here for a while.  This could be our first experiment in dynamic reprogramming.

Just across from the train station it is difficult not to notice an elegant old hotel, the Victoria. We decide to check it out just for fun. At an internet café—unlike in Latin America this one is more café than internet, one small computer tucked in a corner of a bar—Tricia finds a good rate for this classy hotel, $160/night. On a lark we decide to stay for a night or two, or three; we’re in no rush. But at the Victoria’s reception desk we’re told the rate is $300/night.

Trish says to the receptionist, “We just checked on the net and it’s $160 for a superior room.”

“Well,” she replies, somewhat taken aback in this staid environment by mention of high technology, “we can’t give that rate to walk-ins; you would have to make your reservation on the internet.”

“But we’re here now,” she says, “Can’t you just give us that rate?”

“No.” End of story.  Good discipline here in Europe. We know we’re no longer in Latin America where rules are taken more as suggestions than rock-firm, solid stumbling-blocks.

So it’s back to the internet café; me for another beer and Trish to make the reservation, then we traipse back to the hotel. Now we’re in; we followed the program to a T. It’s a nice enough room, but small. Superior, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.

After some experience at this, it is my sense that some hotels treat the internet as an integral part of their reservation system—like a travel agent, except that they don’t have to pay a commission. Other hotels like the old Victoria, are still more or less experimenting with the net and don’t precisely know what to do with it yet. It is as though their management has said to themselves, Well, we know we have to be on it, so let’s give it a whirl.  Only gradually do we find out that the Victoria treats the Internet as kind of a loss leader, selling their lower priced rooms on it, not really expecting any of their normal clientele to use it, just picking up the occasional stray, like us.

For some reason Internet cafes here are as ubiquitous as they are in Latin America, but they are much larger.  We went to one that had 600 stations.  This one operated on a rather unusual scheme: one goes to a special machine and keys in how long one wishes to use an Internet station. Somehow the system calculates how many people are using stations at that very moment, that is, how busy they are. If they’re not very busy the price for the ticket is quite cheap, but if they are very busy the price per hour might be double or triple that price. Once you find out the price, you put your money or your credit card in the machine and you’re given a ticket and assigned a particular station. When your time is up on that computer, it instructs you either to get another ticket or tells you it will shut down in so-and-so many minutes.  This technique is called yield management and it operates in a fashion that was originally designed for airplane flights and, unfortunately, is still with us. Coca-Cola once field-tested a similar vending operation: the price of a Coke at any given moment depended upon how hot is was. The hotter the day got, the more the price went up. I suppose that at about four in the morning one could get a coke for about a nickel. That particular scheme somehow didn’t make the big time.

The next morning we take breakfast in the hotel’s dining room. We understand it is included in the room rate, typical of most European hotels. It is a breakfast unlike any I have previously had. It is arranged buffet-style and includes items such as: a clear soup that tasted as though it were made from corned beef; pickled herring; meat balls; a bewildering array of sliced meats and cheeses, and other things I did not recognize; breads of every description; warm, semi-hard boiled eggs in the shell served in small egg cups, German style; and numerous other delectables that I have forgotten. We are presented with a bill for about $40; breakfast, we find, is not included with internet reservations.

 

The Amstel river empties into the sea here. At least it was supposed to. Sometimes though, because the country is so low, the sea occasionally misbehaved and used to come into the Amstel river, not the other way round as ordained by God in his specification concerning rivers and oceans, and this always made a big mess of things. So sometime in the seventeenth century the good burghers, having had enough of all this, solved the problem by taking matters into their own hands and causing a large earthen dam to be built across the river thus putting a firm stop to it.  Then much of the city was built directly on this huge dam. Now why the Amstel doesn’t back up and flood everything I don’t know. I’m sure there is a sophisticated hydraulic reason why, but I didn’t go into it. Anyway, the name Amsterdam comes from Amstel + dam. Why it’s not called Amsteldam is another thing I don’t know about and didn’t look into. Dutch is a tricky language with lots of gutturals and with your tongue getting considerable exercise in the natural process of speaking. Maybe the language just couldn’t bear Amsteldam. It takes a lot of spit to talk Dutch.

Like Venice, Amsterdam is a city of canals, canals going both ways in a rectilinear fashion. (Maybe that’s what they figured out to do with all the water.) Just alongside each canal there is a narrow cobblestone street on each side for pedestrians, bicycles and their cute miniature cars. The cross-streets go over the canals on beautiful old stone bridges.  Then, just alongside each street, rows of houses have been built, typically they are four or five stories high, and built right next to each other. If you live in one of these homes, you’ll probably have your little boat tied up at the edge of the canal near a set of stone stairs built into the walls of the canal every block or so. Some of these “homes” are actually businesses.  You would have trouble telling one from the other but for a discreet little sign board announcing the name of the business.  There are no sky-scrapers here; when you’ve got such an investment in old, you really don’t want anything looking too modern: takes away from the quaint. Right now the trees along the edges of the canals are just beginning to bud, adding a slowly expanding overall green haze, and the whole presents a most beautiful and colorful panorama. Quaint, quaint, quaint; any way you turn, bingo, it’s a postcard.

We once took a short trip on a canal boat to get the full effect of canals. These completely glassed-in boats, with seats for tourists, are long, narrow and low enough that they can get under the stone bridges at the end of each block. The boats are so long that turning into a narrow side-canal is a tricky business: the pilot has to overshoot the intersection a little, stop and back up, turning a little in order to then go forward and make the sharp right-angled bend without breaking the boat in two. But he or she has done this so many times that it’s now just routine.  As you travel slowly down the canal recorded messages tell you about the sights: “This was the Jewish quarter, it was built in the1650s,” say; “here you can see where they built wooden locks in 1700, but they are no longer used; here you see floating restaurants, monuments, … ” and so on, each message repeated in English, German and French for the tourists—you wait for your language to come round.

 

Along many of the larger streets in Centrum there are cafes with outdoor tables. It’s just getting warm enough to sit outside now and people seem to have spring fever. Sitting out, but wearing jackets or coats, they drink coffee and beer, looking pleased with the world as it is shaping up.

I think I do not exaggerate much if I say that everyone in Amsterdam speaks English, even the cab drivers. I guess that’s the problem with having a small country and a unique language like Dutch. Especially if your country is a tourist magnet. Even the street signs and general informational signs are rendered in English and not in Dutch. No thought of dual languages here, as in Canada.  Dutchmen just go with the flow.  Great for us; easy to get around. And now they have thrown out the Guilder in favor of the Euro which, at the moment, is worth about 85¢, and so it is quite easy to get the prices about right as well.

I noticed another interesting phenomenon here in Amsterdam and, as I was to see later, it seems to hold all across Europe: each bar usually carries only one or two types of types of beer, draft beer. In Amsterdam, for example, Amstel is the local beer, and nearly every bar will carry it, but they will usually have one or two other beers as well, including even Budweiser, which tastes nothing like the Budweiser in the states.  In bars here, beer is not ordinarily served in large, heavy glasses or steins, but rather in elegant stemmed glasses emblazoned with the brewer’s mark, and very likely displaying the date some centuries ago that his endeavors at fermenting grain began. One may take beer served in glasses like this in small, medium or large sizes. I like this. One of my pet peeves in The States is the ubiquitous 16oz chilled glass for young people that seems actually to weigh 16oz, much too heavy for an old man with few glasses ahead of him.

Travel in Amsterdam is multi-vehicular; pedestrians compete—and at a disadvantage—with motorcycles, motor-scooters, cars, trucks, trams, bicycles and now even people wearing in-line wheeled skates or pumping along on high-tech, aluminum scooters. While the Dutch seem otherwise quite an orderly people, in Centrum all of these are moving helter-skelter over a very wide and a more or less common ground. The idea of separate sidewalks for people, and roads for everything else, seems not to have permeated Dutch thinking. Here “pedestrianized” streets often have fast-moving trams clanging their bells at the walkers who, quite unlike US pedestrians, smartly get out of the way, as though aware of battles lost in the past. We follow their lead.

Amsterdam is a city of bicycles, thousands and thousands of bicycles. We once came upon a two story parking garage just for bikes! These are not sleek, delicate sports models with thin racing tires, they are the sturdy bikes of my childhood, useful for getting around, and they can take a beating. Young boys and girls, old men and women and even teen-agers ride bikes. Well-dressed women in long skirts often ride what we, in that picturesque world that existed in my childhood, before all women began wearing pants, used to call “girl’s bikes.” Bicycle riders, just like riders of heavier wheeled vehicles, relish participation in the jazz-the-pedestrian game and require all the bicycles to be outfitted with little bells on the handles to tinkle-out their superiority. In many places bicycles have lanes reserved just for them. Woe the pedestrian who gets in that way.

 

Everywhere in Europe it seems, people smoke cigarettes as we once did in the US, which is to say nearly all of the time. As I write, the notion of smoke-free rooms or smoke-free areas in restaurants does not seem to have made the voyage across the Atlantic ocean.  Marijuana is ubiquitous in Amsterdam as well. In our hotel, a rather upscale place after all, it seemed, walking down the corridor, that the smell of marijuana came from just about every other room. People smoke dope openly on the streets. No one cares.  There are “coffee shops” here, which in fact are bars (most bars in Europe serve espresso, mineral water and soft drinks, as well as beer and liquor), where joints are sold openly and quite legally, and these are not the crude, home-rolled little fags that a few of you readers may have seen, but huge conical joints, professionally encased in clear plastic tubes, for about three bucks a hit.

Now, every big city has its art museums, it’s natural history museums and so forth, and so does Amsterdam.  But here there is an especially wide variety of other sorts of museums. We went to a very interesting museum dedicated to the Dutch commercial trade in the seventeenth century. It had full size replicas of complete ships from that era. What I look away from this exhibit was that it must have been a rather nervous trip to Dutch East India on one of these small barques. For such a small country it is remarkable that at one time they were world leaders in commerce, technology, exploration and exploitation. 

So far, so normal.  But here in Amsterdam we have the Hash and Hemp Museum, a collection one does not see in every city one visits; a museum entirely devoted to sex, forthrightly called The Sex Museum, which focuses on prostitution in Amsterdam over the ages (I was unable to discern whether they were repenting those lustful days or glorying in them); and finally, only a few blocks away, one can tour The Torture Museum with examples from the past of the diabolical instruments once used to test people’s truth and stamina. My, how the Europeans have changed. Altogether the richest assemblage of subculture I have seen altogether in one city.

 

The Train Station
Along the Canal
Alfresco