Eurolog III: Ever Neat

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I slept like a freakin’ log, banking nine solid hours and not budging an inch until 8:05 when the hotel’s complimentary breakfast arrived at our door with a knock.  

When we checked in the day before the hotel clerk gave us a rundown of the establishment’s rules and amenities, all in thickly accented English.  

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, “Where did you say we go to find the complimentary breakfast?”

“Of course we have no extra space for a dining room,” the clerk responded with a wave of his hand, “so you will eat breakfast in your room.  We deliver it at five minutes past eight.”

And right on time: knock, knock, knock said the door.

I pulled on a t-shirt and turned the handle and outside I found yesterday’s clerk with a plastic cafeteria tray in his hands.  “Here is your breakfast,” he said.

“Thank-you,” I mumbled in a gravelly morning voice, grabbing the tray and eyeing it curiously.  

I sat down on my bed and divvied up our bounty.  We each got a Glad baggie containing three slices of plain white bread, a pad of butter and a little plastic tub of jam each to decorate them, and a couple of small tetra-pacs of orange juice.  There also were two hard-boiled eggs, and we each got a vacuum-sealed bag containing two slices of salami and another holding a single slice of cheese.  Another tray littered with instant coffee packs, creams and sugars, and a small kettle was already in the room.

I handed over the eggs to Alan and he gave me his cold cuts and cheese in return.  We each made sandwiches and spread the butter and jam on our last slices of bread.  It was certainly no grand meal and a meagre introduction for Alan into European breakfast stylings, but it was better than nothing and the timing ensured we got a good jump on the day.

Our first stop was Anne Frank’s house, located surprisingly close to our hotel just a couple hundred metres away.  When we got there we discovered that tickets were (temporarily) only available on the internet, but (we were told) there were indeed still tickets available for later in the day should we manage to get online.

Right next to the large lineup waiting to explore Anne Frank’s famous annex sat a large, impressive church.  Buried in a pauper’s grave beneath the church’s floor lie the remains of Rembrandt, his exact location lost to history.  His son is also buried there, and ironically they know exactly where his body is.  I guess by the time his son passed away the late Rembrandt had started making a name for himself.  

Our hotel was so nearby that we decided to go back to the room and try for online tickets to Anne Frank Huis.  Man, those stairs were a killer!  Resting at the halfway point I did some quick math in my head and discovered that if we manage to climb the stairs to our room twenty-four times over the course of our four-night stay in Amsterdam then we’ll have climbed the equivalent of going up the stairs of the CN Tower.  And I can tell you from experience, the stairs at our hotel were much, much steeper than those in the CN Tower.

Anyway, we made it to the top, checked the internet and found that not only were tickets already sold out for the day, almost every day for the next two weeks were similarly sold out.  Holey-moley, this girl is popular!  The website confirmed that 20% of each day’s tickets were withheld and released on the morning of so I vowed to keep my eye on it and logged out.  I flipped through my Amsterdam guidebook in search of an attraction attractive enough to replace our inaugural outing, found something and down the stairs we went.

Just a block away was Dam Square, an impressive collection of architecture that we were already becoming quite familiar with.  Making up the most impressive end of the square was the Paleis Amsterdam – Amsterdam’s Royal Palace – flanked on one side by the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church (which was built in the 1400’s – you should see the Old Church!) and on the other side by a large, grand structure that housed the city’s own instalment of Madame Tussauds House of Wax.  For now our target was the Palace.

We each paid our ten euro admission and picked up audioguides.  And then I began my first ever museum tour with my brother.

The Palace was built in the mid-1600’s and was originally Amsterdam’s Town Hall.  in the early-nineteenth century Napoleon’s brother had the place converted into a palace and moved in, though his stay in the city was pretty short.  When the building was ultimately handed back to the city the king of The Netherlands decided to keep it as a palace and moved in himself.  And while the palace has been open to visitors for almost ten years it is still used as a Royal residence.  

Amsterdam was built on a swampy peat bog, with much of the city lying several metres below sea level.  Of course this meant you couldn’t build a massive building just anywhere; its weight would inevitably sink it into the soft, moist earth.  And so the Paleis Amsterdam was built upon a foundation made up of countless thick wooden pillars that were meticulously pounded into the soft earth with 17th century pile-drivers.   

Did I say countless wooden pillars?  My mistake.  In fact, there are exactly 13,659 wooden poles supporting the palace, and I didn’t even have to look that number up.  As our audioguide explained, every schoolchild in The Netherlands remembers the number of pillars under the Paleis Amsterdam because it is the amount of days in the year (365) proceeded by a “1” and followed by a “9”.

So there, you learned something.

We learned tons.  Gotta love them audioguides.  They turn a jaw-dropping barrage of gilt, carvings, and ornamentation and turn it into a comprehensive educational romp of history, symbolism, and meaning.  (Although they do turn all us visitors into silent, obedient museum zombies.)

The first room we encountered was the main hall, a vast, impressive space adorned on all sides and in every corner by a myriad of larger-than-life statues.  Most impressive though was the floor, embedded into which were three enormous maps shaped from marble, ivory and ebony.  The maps on either end depicted the two hemispheres while an astounding celestial map lay in the middle of the floor, replete with all of the signs of the Zodiac and much, much more.  

It was interesting to note that these maps were inlaid into the floor a half a millennium ago, and while it’s amazing to ponder how much we knew about the universe way back then it was curious to see how much of the New World was still a complete mystery.  

No surprise that major fishing colonies like Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were already very accurately depicted, but it’s funny how much of New Brunswick was still in question, with distorted borders that melted into what they knew of Quebec and Maine.  And Western Canada?  Not even on the map.  Not far beyond the rudimentary shape of the Great Lakes the atlas just faded to nothing.

Speaking of Atlas, the Greek Titan featured prominently in the Paleis.  Not only was he depicted above the main hall hoisting the Earth (as is his habit), the large sculpture was copied outside the building as well, standing conspicuously atop the centre of the delicately carved rooftop.

Once our guides had led us through the significance of every carved figure in the hall we moved on to the smaller rooms in the palace.  I soon realized that we were walking a wanton route and pulled the museum’s floor map out of my back pocket.  Getting my bearings, I suggested we backtrack and go through the place systematically so we wouldn’t miss anything.  Alan agreed.

And while the rest of the place was pretty interesting and a never-ending parade of eye-candy, after poking our heads into stateroom after stateroom containing velvet ropes, vast canvases, and period furniture we both agreed that despite all it’s stunning alcoves and impeccable furniture, the main hall was clearly the best thing about the place.  More specifically, those three maps that were inlaid into the floor.  Man, those were something else.

Second place had to go to the Justice Room in the basement, a brightly lit chamber lined with sculptures that rivalled those in the main hall and the place where prisoners were sentenced to die.  Or not, on a case-by-case basis of course.  

(The unlucky prisoners were actually executed elsewhere.  In the square outside of the New Church I would imagine.)

I’m sure it was a very surreal experience to be condemned to death (or not) in such a finely crafted room of repentance.  Before the shackled prisoner stood four women glumly holding up the roof, their heads hung in shame.  Between these pillars of gloom were three beautiful panels, each depicting a notorious Biblical scene.  On the left was the story of Zaleucus, (representing mercy) showing the man who created the “eye for an eye” law sharing his son’s punishment by getting his own eye poked out, in elegant relief.  In the centre was the Judgement of King Solomon (representing wisdom), showing the Biblical monarch asking two pained mothers which half of the contested infant they would like to take home with them, artistically rendered to the minutest detail.  And on the right was the Judgement of Brutus (representing justice), the Roman legend shown standing idly by as his own sons are beheaded for treason, all of it in vividly carved stone.

But to be honest, having visited the War Crimes Museum in Saigon, the torture chambers in Vlad The Impaler’s castle in Romania, and the horrors of the dungeons that lie underneath the slave-trading forts in Ghana, well, let’s just say there are certainly worse places to have had your life stolen from you. 

Most important, Alan loved our visit.  Like, loved it.  He read every panel, listened to every word coming out of the audioguide, and wasn’t willing to skip a single room.  He had no museum fatigue whatsoever; I was impressed.

We left to have lunch and sat down at a nearby Subway.  Over sandwiches and sodas Al he said if not for the need to feed he could have stayed at the palace for two more hours.  And to think, he thought he didn’t like museums!

After lunch we strolled back through the square and Al immediately set his sights on Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.  I’d created a monster!  I wasn’t at all interested in Madame Tussauds – not a smidgen – but all I said was, “All right, let’s go!” and we walked over.

When I saw that the tickets were almost thirty euro per person I put my foot down.  “Hey Al, let’s find something else to spend our money on, okay?

“I mean, I don’t want to spend almost fifty bucks just to stand around saying ‘Wow, that looks just like Johnny Depp,’ and ‘Wow, that looks just like Michael Jackson,’ because really, that’s all it’s going to be.”

Luckily Alan was easily swayed, and just like that we were sixty euro richer between us.

“Hey,” I suggested, an idea flashing through my mind.  “How about we go check out the prices of that Chinese massage place near our hotel?”

Alan had been mentioning a sore back and I had been telling him how therapeutic I had found the reflexology sessions I had experienced in China the year before.  That was all he needed to hear, though when push came to shove he opted for an hour-long deep tissue massage instead.  I stuck with the foot massage.

In the end we spent about the same as we would have dropped at the wax emporium, and while my reflexology session was pedestrian at best (gosh, I crack myself up sometimes) Alan said he felt like a new man after his backrub, so it was clearly the better option and money well spent.

(Actually, Al would go on to mention throughout the entire trip how much that massage had helped his back, and how he would have had a hard time with all the walking and standing we ended up doing if he hadn’t gone for that treatment.) 

We had been thinking about a canal tour but decided to save it for another day, and after a bit more walking about we went back to the room to decompress over a couple of drinks and decide whether or not to make plans for the evening.

I was really excited at how much Alan was already enjoying the trip.  Aside from his great experience at the Paleis Amsterdam he was forever pointing out everything around him.  “Ever neat…” was his constant mantra, whether he was staring up at the dates chiseled onto every old building, gaping at the patience and efficiency of the street traffic versus the prodigious amount of cyclists, marvelling at the canals and the stonework on every bridge and arch, and especially all the cars.

“Ever neat…”  

I was worried that I would eventually get tired of him pointing out pretty much every car on the road, but I didn’t.  His enthusiasm easily outweighed any hint of tediosity.

We seemed to have successfully leapt over our jet-lag in a single bound the previous night so we were feeling well enough to go out on the town, for a while at least.  Alan said he was still up for more walking so we descended our dramatic staircase and walked to the Leidseplein.

I was still getting my bearings of Amsterdam’s arced roads and canals.  I had visited the city several times before and was pretty confident I could lead us to the popular square a couple of kilometres from our hotel, but I was wrong.  I stopped a guy who looked local and asked which way to the “LIDE-splain” .  He was baffled.

“Let me put it in my phone,” he said.  “How do you spell it?”

“L-E-I-D-S…”

Oh,” he said, looking up.  “You mean ‘LEEDS-uh-plan’?

“It’s just over there,” he said, pointing down the block.  I had gotten us pretty close to the Leidseplein but had somehow overshot it.

Our first stop was for food.  We walked down a street that was simply slathered in restaurants and sat down inside a fish & chips place which we both eventually agreed wasn’t too bad at all.  This was the area I had stayed in on my first trip to Amsterdam and I knew it pretty well, so I took Al on a scenic walkabout until we ended up in the Leidseplein Square itself.  Flanked on all sides by tourist-friendly bars and restaurants we selected “bar”: The Watering Hole in particular, a live music club that specializes in good-quality local cover bands and a place I have spent many, many nights in.  Cover charge was just two euro, and that’s only because it was the weekend.  On weekdays it only costs a single euro to get in.

I bought us a couple of drinks, still blissfully unaware that Al’s Bacardi & Cokes were invariably costing three or four times what I was being charged for my Heinekens (which generally went for two, maybe two and-a-half euro – sometimes even less).  We found a spot on the dancefloor just as the band started their set.

The drum kit was encased in clear plastic soundproofing, a rare treat in such a small venue that usually leads to good sound at a reasonable, talkable volume, as it did in this case.

The band was pretty good – I remember 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday among the well-selected set of covers – but it was most fun getting to know all the people around us.  There was a newlywed couple who had met in Windhoek.  I chatted their ear off about Namibia and told them about how Instruments For Africa got started during my first trip to the country.  They were live music fans and suggested a few other places in town I might want to check out (I never did but I’ll make a point of dropping in on at least one of their suggestions – Bourbon Street – the next time I’m in Amsterdam).

We also met several locals including a really cool guy who was a regular at The Watering Hole as well as a couple of girls (one Romanian and one…Irish?) who had been living in Amsterdam for years.  I spent most of that conversation trying to recall the names of the towns I had visited on my trip to Romania a couple of years before in between running back to the bar for several more rounds of Bacardi & Cokes and Heinekens (which was getting quite expensive).

After a half-hour or so one of the girls asked Alan if he was married.  When he answered in the affirmative the girl followed up with a one-word follow-up question.

“Happily?”

“Yes, of course” replied Al.  The two girls abruptly got up and left.  I was shocked!  I turned to my brother, “Omigawd, they thought we were trying to pick them up!”  Heck, we were probably the oldest two guys in the place…what were they thinking?!?  Man, we laughed about that.  

Luckily it didn’t take long to find more people to talk to, including a really friendly guy from Curaçao (a small island that lies about fifty kilometres off the coast of Venezuela and one of the many, many Dutch colonies scattered around the globe) and a girl who was happy to keep talking to us even after I told her we were both happily tethered.  

By this time I had pretty much drank the bar out of beer, and after one or two more rounds I was getting pretty loopy.  I told Alan that I felt it was time to go.  “All right,” he said, we finished up and got out of there.  

As we started off I was quite surprised to notice how much more sober Alan was than I.  How could that have been?  He was equally surprised at how drunk I kept insisting I was (I can get surprisingly far along and still walk straight and talk pretty).  “So…” I asked rhetorically, “I guess we’ll head back to the hotel, huh?”

“I don’t really know why we even left the bar,” he said, countering my rhetoric with a surprise answer that stopped me in my tracks.

Alan starts to get fuzzy in The Watering Hole

I looked through blurry eyes at my three brothers.  When they finally settled down into one guy standing there, I could see that that guy had been having the time of his life back at the bar and he was not even close to being ready to call it a night.  I pulled up my big-boy drunky socks and turned us both around.  “Well, then let’s go back to The Watering Hole for another round or two,” I said, and we did.

It was more of the same, that is: more good music and more Bacardi & Cokes and more Heinekens and more super-fun conversations with people from all over the world.  I gotta admit, it was a pretty good time and I’m glad we went back in.

That said, I still got us out of there (once and for all) well before Al hit his limit, and I pointed our shoes in the direction of our now far-off hotel.  Before we had gone very many steps I stopped into Febo, a fully-automated fast food chain in The Netherlands.  I put a couple of euro into a coin slot, opened a little plastic door and pulled out a hot, fresh cheeseburger – which I wolfed down before I had gone five more steps – and all of it without a moment of human interaction.  I don’t know why I like that part of Febo so much, but I do.  Maybe it’s because every time I see an employee at a fast food joint they never seem to be very happy, and I’d rather not encounter that kind of sadness if I can avoid it.

Instead of zigging straight to our hotel, at the halfway point I zagged us towards the Red Light District.  I had unilaterally decided that we were exactly drunk enough for a saunter through one of Amsterdam’s most notorious tourist attractions.  You know what they say, “When in Rome… 

(…buy a ticket to Amsterdam and go check out the Red Light District.”)

It took me a few twists and turns to find it – each of which took as past bar after bar teeming with late-night weekend revellers – but find it we did.  We strolled a couple of rounds up and down the collection of narrow alleys but found most of the many, many neon-lit glass doors had their curtains pulled tightly closed.

Clearly we had arrived at a very busy time of day.  It’s not like those little rooms were empty, I can assure you of that.

Finally (finally!) we headed for home, culminating our long, arduous day with a gruelling, four-limbed climb up our hotel’s formidable staircase.  We made it back to our room sometime around 3am.

Gosh we had done a lot of walking.  I bet Alan hadn’t taken that many steps in a day since…well probably forever.  If he had been wearing a FitBit it would have had a heart attack.

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