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Old World Days III: Amsterdam

Blog post 16. (22/11/2019) - Unexpectedly, Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Centraal seen over the waterways, courtesy of Amsterdam info.

I’ve never been as close to my distant family as I would have liked and being so close to my distant aunt and cousin was a godsend. For most of my life, many of my aunts and uncles, cousins and second-cousins have existed for me as faint etchings of people, blurry memories from my earliest childhood or hallway photographs. I had no memory of my aunt Anne at all, having seen her and my cousin Sjoerd at one and three respectively. There was a good reason for that- they live in a small town in the South of Holland, Gorinchem.

But Gorinchem did not seem so far away with a Eurail pass in my hand and the North European Plain outside my window. Everything had been scheduled yesterday, the bags were packed back home and I had spoken with my bosses at the Trade Department about leaving my internship early. Those of you who have been following this blog long enough know that things went south immediately afterwards. I was standing on the platform with an overcoat on and bags in hand at 1 o’clock. The waiting reminded me that all of those hours of pre-planning aren’t very helpful when your train is half-an-hour late. To make matters worse, we picked up more delays as we grinded through Winsen and Harburg.

No matter. By the time I made it into Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, rushing down those platforms I now miss so much- my connection was already gone. The train schedule was already cramped between my internship and the last trains of the day around midnight. I would have to negotiate a new route quickly and without internet access. Putting the outgoing train schedule and my mental map together, I realized the train that left for Frankfurt in two hours was my best option. So I hunkered in the “Nur Hier” Cafe with a cup of coffee, mineralwasser and a fruit cup. I hooked my laptop up to the nearest wifi spot and ran the computer’s battery out (no outlets in sight). With the perpetual grey dreariness of late fall outside, I propped open my volumes of old German poetry and got to writing fairy stories.

The new game plan had me arriving one hour later in Amsterdam and it felt very clever- and very tenuous. A few slight delays would disrupt it completely. I think I realized that flaw as I looked out at night time Hamburg, whose lights were popping on in the fading 3 pm twilight. It was getting late… and I was propped up on my suitcase in the crowded, narrow hallway between cars. The train was full to the brim and my plot of standing room was shrinking at every stop. Worse, it was pitch black outside by dinnertime.

The ICE train may have been rushing through Niedersachsen at 200ish kmph most of the way, but the delays and long-stops made it feel like a crawl. The train was two hours late by the time I stumbled out at Rheine near the border. I gave my aunt a quick call to discuss my arrival. Obviously, I wouldn’t be making it to Gorinchem tonight. I decided I would just spend the night in the nearest hotel in Rheine. But my aunt surprised me with an excellent offer- she would cover one night at the Park Plaza Victoria in Amsterdam. She was worried about my safety, I would have probably ended up in a crowded hostel somewhere. That fear was very foreign to me by then, after so many run-ins with vagabonds (Barcelona), drug traffickers (Marseille), gangsters (London) and even criminal-minded clowns (Hamburg). But the Park Plaza Victoria was a three-hundred euro godsend, warm, secure and replete with a free-mini bar! Oh, and it was also a rather famous hotel, formerly host to Billy Graham, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Katy Perry, Marilyn Manson, Iron Maiden and so on. Amsterdam was looking pretty attractive by now. As I waited for my train, I prowled around Rheine until I found the old town, which is my favorite haunt in every Hanseatic city. I made my way through narrow alleyways towards a towering monastery complex, a late-gothic looking structure rising into the gloom. It sadly locked, so I said a prayer outside the walls and passed out of the old town and over the Ems river. Even a ‘little’ town like this was full of history new and old. After all, didn’t they meet in Bad Ems before the Franco-Prussian war? World history was decided at one point or another in old merchant towns like Rheine.

The Rheine Monastery at night, a photo of mine.

Miracle of miracles, I had found a seat. It took some hassling to get and some argumentation with a Pakistani family over reservations- but I got it. The train ride into the Netherlands was colorful. My car was full of young people about my age, talking loudly and acting boisterously even before we crossed out into the Netherlands. The conductor announced that we had crossed into the Netherlands, first in Dutch, then in German. This was greeted by a loud chorus from the other youths in the car, who stood up and burst into song. They formed a line and congoed up and down the aisle, pausing now and then to raise a cheer or throw some high kicks. If they wouldn’t let me sleep, at least I could consider it my in-train entertainment.

Amsterdam by morning. You know it's mine by the low resolution of the photo.

The next and final train had its own surprises in store. About half-way from Hengelo to Amsterdam, an announcement wafted over the loudspeakers; there were several pickpockets on the train and they were making their way down the cars. That confirmed my creeping suspicion that I attract thieves every time I travel. The rest of the ride was a little tense, but the tension broke after I stepped into the fresh sea-side of Amsterdam Centraal. Somehow the station seemed even better-kept than the German Bahnhöfe, something I didn’t think possible. I remember meandering around the station after that and although I never saw those train pickpockets, I did have two crime-related experiences during the half-hour I was in the train station. In hindsight... maybe my aunt’s caution about Amsterdam was warranted.

The first happened when I popped out of the other side of the sub-platform tunnel. A whole mob of yellow-vested policemen had surrounded three or four men with their hands up against a train. I learned from a bystander that these men were part of some hard-drug-smuggling ring. That went against my poor understanding of Dutch drug laws, but I assure you that arrests were made that night.

What I think was a second experience caught me in a convenience store elsewhere in the train station. I was trying to buy some bread when a man and I got into a sign-language argument over my suitcase. He was pointing, rather insistently, at my suitcase which was blocking access to the bread-stand. I mistook him for wanting the bread, but his gestures were following the suitcase. He never said a word but we were gesticulating back and forth at each other about what he wanted. I would move my suitcase one way and his pointing and open-handed gesturing followed. We must have looked like a pair of Italian mimes, waving, pointing, clenching and flourishing at one another. Was he politely asking me to hand over my suitcase? Or was he trying to point out that my suitcase wheel was broken? I don’t know, but he left eventually. The difference between serious thieves and pickpockets is that pickpockets can be dissuaded from their crime by a knowing glare. Comfortable in that knowledge, I spent some of my travel money on Stroopwafels and kiwis.

The sign at Park Plaza Victoria. Also mine.

Soon I was jostling over the dark glimmer of the waterways. Just a moment later I was in the gold-fronted lobby of the Park Plaza Victoria, thankfully just across the canal from the station. I tucked in my shirt and unfrumpled my overcoat, trying to look as stately as possible in what I took for a five star hotel (really just four stars). After such an exciting day, it was heaven to step into a bedroom of any kind.

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