Eurolog IV: Cards, Canals, Contusions

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Easily forfeiting our early-morning breakfast tray, my brother and I slept until well past noon.  When we finally got up I pulled back the curtains of the large floor-to-ceiling window back to reveal a beautiful day outside.

Swinging the windows open wide jarred my memory: In the middle of the night I had gotten out of bed to use the bathroom and had stumbled over my suitcase, which was lying open on the floor near the window.  I had tripped and fallen directly into the window, pushing it fully open in the process and darn-near falling all the way out!  We’re not talking about a waist-high window here; the sill was only about fourteen inches from the floor and the two hinged windows opened outwardly right down the middle like barn doors.  My body had fallen at least halfway out the window before I caught myself.  “Phew!” I thought at the time, closing the window and making my way to the toilet.

Looking out the window in the morning light it became immediately obvious that I could not possibly have survived the five-storey plummet.  I related the story to Alan.  He mentioned how he would never have known what had happened to me, and that he would have sat waiting and waiting for me to come back, adding that he would never have thought of looking out the window for me.

I took the pondering even further, suggesting that when my shattered body was discovered (which probably wouldn’t have taken very long) our mother (not to mention the local police) would be forced to wonder whether I had committed suicide – which is a very, very unlikely scenario – or if Alan had murdered me.

Oh, it would have been such a family mystery!

As it happened, I had made it through with a good story and nary a scratch; another victory!  

Also a victory was the fact that I had awoken feeling much better than I had when I had woken up in the middle of the night, and feeling much, much better than I deserved to be feeling after the self-pummelling I had dished out and received the night before.

I turned on my computer and did a search for Anne Frank tickets only to find the entire day already sold out.  Curiously, slots in the following week had opened up significantly, whereas they had all been sold out when I had looked just a day earlier.  So obviously things could change.  I debated whether or not we should wait and see if Saturday or Sunday tickets would open up but Al urged me to just go ahead and book a Monday morning slot (the day we were due to check out), so I did.

I took a comforting shower in the small washroom and by the time we were ready to get moving the day was more than half gone.  Al was itching for breakfast/lunch so we settled on a quick trip to a nearby McDonald’s.

“Hey, I think that’s live music,” I said to Alan as we turned towards Dam Square.  “Actually,” I panted, quickening my pace, “It sounds like a calliope!”

And it was!  I was amazed.  I had never actually seen nor heard a calliope before, but I had read enough about them to know one when I did hear one, even from afar.  To save you from googling it: a calliope is a wind-driven self-playing orchestra that is generally (and ingeniously) housed in a decorative, moveable cart.  The contraptions play notes selected by punched-out folds of thick paper (like piano rolls) and they are usually hand-pumped by the owner/busker.

Entering the square, before us stood a fine, colourful calliope that included several cymbals and drums among it’s many wind-pipes, as well as three moving puppets in the front that played their own little bells.  After marvelling for a full song I threw a euro in the proprietor’s coffer and we continued on towards the McDonald’s.

(Only to encounter two more calliopes also plying their sonic trade in the square along the way!)

Alan got the Big Mac deal, priced at seven euro.  I opted for nothing.  I usually don’t eat until several hours after I wake up so it was shaping up to be a one-meal day for me.  I’m simply unable to manage three meals in a day, so I consigned myself to merely keeping Alan company for the odd breakfast and/or lunch.  He eats dinner an hour or two before I do as well, but that’s an adjustment I can easily make, especially if I skip lunch.

Over (Alan’s) lunch we discussed booking onto a canal tour when we somehow hit upon the idea to rent paddleboats instead.  We had noticed a row of them lined up alongside the canal outside of Anne Frank’s House, which meant they were close to our hotel.  We strolled over there and found the tour booth.  We went down the list of all the tours and options available and decided to stick to our guns.  We laid down ten euro each along with a twenty euro deposit and were pointed down the gangplank where our craft was waiting.

Alan literally leapt into his seat.  “I’m driving!” he announced excitedly.  

“It’s a paddleboat Al, we both drive,” I said dryly, taking my seat.

And we were off.  Alan did indeed take the bulk of the controls, claiming to be an old hand at this sort of thing.

“You’re an old hand at maneuvering paddleboats through European canal systems?” I asked as we veered back and forth.

“Well, I’ve ridden one at Centennial Park back in Moncton,” he explained.  “It’s the same thing.”

“When did you last do that?” I queried.

“Oh, twenty or thirty years ago…”  So that’s what he meant by “old hand”!

We had a great time.  It was really cool to see the city from the canal’s perspective and our controlled speed was just the right pace to take in the amazing views.  

After just ten minutes or so I settled back in my seat in search of a more comfortable posture and in doing so I pulled my steadily pumping legs up just a little, teensy bit further than they should have been.  And…bam!  

Pumping away, I slammed my right shin hard into the metal frame of the boat and instantly screamed out in pain.  I mean it really, really hurt, and I could tell there was some bleeding going on under my pant leg.  As I cowered in groaning agony I felt fortunate that at least some good was coming out of my pain: Alan was laughing uncontrollably.

“Oh, that was funny,” he gasped when he finally caught his breath.

I felt compelled to disagree.  “No, it wasn’t,” I insisted, rubbing my aching shin.  He kept paddling and steering and laughing, bringing at least a little mirth to the situation, if one-sided.  Plus (I reasoned, trying to remain firmly on the bright side) the scar would stand as a free, lifelong souvenir of the day (though when I checked later I found the gash had completely obliterated an old scar I’d had in the same spot, so I guess even permanent things can change).  After a good five minutes of whimpering I was able to rejoin the paddling.  For the rest of the hour I was much more mindful of my posture.

We pedalled and marvelled, I did my best to take lots of pictures and Al did his best to keep us safely out of the way of the rest of the canal traffic.  We both did a fairly good job.

(“Every time I let go of the steering thing the boat goes haywire,” Al said whenever we would find ourselves heading towards one of the canal walls.  “Then why do you keep letting go of it?” I somehow resisting asking.)

We cruised the waterways and admired the looming architecture, steering clear of a myriad of water traffic at every turn and gaping at the unreal brickwork as we cruised beneath dozens of arched bridges.  We consistently avoided bumping into countless astounding houseboats that were moored along the sides of the canal and lackadaisically soaked up the whole experience. 

Near the end of our cyclical route a motorized boat containing a half-dozen or so tourists passed us, and like many before they called out to us with a wave and jokingly challenged us to a race.

“You got any beer for us if we catch you?” I yelled out.  One of the guys smiled, reached down and pulled out a couple of frosty cans, holding them high.  “Sure,” he yelled out.  “Come and get them!”

Without a word and in an instant Alan and I both went into super-high gear, virtually pulling the front end of our boxy paddleboat out of the water.  I swear, we accelerated so fast that could have easily towed someone on waterskis.  

Truthfully, I don’t think the other boat even needed to let up on their gas-powered throttle but I think they did.  Either way, we quickly caught up to them and were indeed handed a pair of beers for our effort.  We waved in thanks and I cracked mine open.  

(After a few healthy gulps I cracked the other one open too.  Alan doesn’t drink beer.)

Overall it was a really fun ride and a great way to spend the waning afternoon.  When we got back to our rental dock Alan insisted on backing the boat in to it’s spot.  Of course, rudder positioning being what it is, paddleboats are essentially uncontrollable when you paddle them backwards, something we had found out many times during the previous hour, so it took a while.

But I gotta admit, he eventually got it.

Back on solid ground we did some meandering, Alan continued pointing out the make and model of every oddball vehicle he saw, which were many (surprisingly I had still not come close to tiring of this), and eventually we decided to head back towards the Leidseplein where we could pick from the plethora of restaurants that blanketed the area.

We were only halfway there when we noticed an Argentinian steakhouse and decided to stop in.  The waiter handed us menus and we ordered drinks.

“Um, do you have the specials we saw on the sign outside?” Alan asked the man when he brought our drinks.

“Yes we do sir,” he replied.  “But the specials contain smaller portions and you are such a strong man,” he added (very, very diplomatically), “that I decided not to bring that menu to you.” 

In the end we did order off the special’s menu; we both had the chicken schnitzel.  It was great, it was surprisingly affordable, and it did indeed fill us both up, even my big, strong brother.

Heading back towards the Leidseplein (by this time I had remembered the proper way to get there) we headed straight for the Hard Rock Cafe, at my insistence.  I just love perusing the rock memorabilia that lines their walls and I make it a habit to visit the franchise whenever the opportunity presents itself.  Just before we got there we passed by a storefront art gallery and, whilst waiting for the traffic light to change we peered through the windows.  Inside I spotted the most amazing thing – a perfectly round Volkswagen Beetle.

I know what you’re thinking, all Beetles are round.  No, I mean this thing had been twisted into a near-perfect sphere.

“Hey Al, check this thing out!”

We were both amazed, hopping from one window to another to take in all the available views.  “Now that’s art!” Alan remarked.  He was enamoured.

Unfortunately neither of us had a camera on hand so I made a point of remembering the name of the exhibit (“The Shape Of Things Today”) and googled it later.  Turns out the piece was created by an Indonesian artist named Ichwan Noor, and in addition to an astounding array of fascinating sculptures he has actually created several examples of his Beetle Sphere.

Moving on, we soon came upon our quarry.  However, I took one look at the very-busy and crowded Hard Rock Cafe and decided that I didn’t really need to visit it after all, so we went into the Holland Casino right across the street, which is actually where we had been headed to in the first place.

We had picked up coupons at our hotel that waived the five euro entry fee (imagine paying to get into a casino!) and gave us a free drink besides.  The check-in process was detailed and lengthy.  Indeed, it felt more like a border crossing than the welcome desk of a casino.  We had to wait while the clerk typed every bit of information in our passports into his computer.  I opted to join their rewards program which gives me lifetime free entrance and (more importantly) allows me to fast-track through their inconvenient entry process should I ever decide to return, which of course slowed things down even further and even necessitated a photo.

No worries though, I figured (wrongly) that we wouldn’t be at the casino for very long anyway, so I was fine with anything that slowed us down.

After a quick tour of the main floor we discovered a handful of tables and dealers downstairs.  I quickly lost fifteen euro on a roulette spin that felt luckier than it was and joined Alan at the bar.  He ordered his usual rum & Coke and I got my standard Heineken.  We found out too late that our free drink coupons didn’t extend to hard liquor, so Al had to shell out for his Bacardi.  At least he was able to use his coupon for the Coke (yes, when you order a mixed drink in Europe they charge you for the liquor as well as for the can of mix, and Cokes can be pretty expensive ‘round here).

The barkeep told me that the tables down in the basement were meant to introduce beginners to the different games and that the dealers were pretty casual.  Of course those tables had the lowest minimum bets in the house – starting at five euro per bet – and they were closer at hand than the big-boy games that were underway two floors above us, so we found a pair of empty chairs at the nearest Blackjack table and bought in.

The dealer was pretty casual alright, constantly dishing out strategies and advice to the timid players with affable humour.  And man, was he dealing some sweet cards to Alan.  I can’t tell you how many times he dealt Al a Blackjack, but I know at least twice Alan had a $45 bet on the table when it happened.  I can also tell you that we were a full three dealers in before I got my first Blackjack.  By the time the first guy switched out for another dealer Alan had easily tripled his $100 buy-in, while I had barely managed to stay even.

The second dealer pummelled me hard but Alan managed to stay way up, and probably added even more to his pile.  

In addition to the dealer’s near-constant jovial advice to the other players, Al was pretty quick to point out when the people around us did something wrong.  “No, you never do that!” he said whenever someone hit twelve or more when the dealer was showing a six or less.  “You should have split that,” he advised when people opted to hold on to their pair of tens against the dealers deuce.  “Stupid, stupid!” he insisted when people were unwilling to hit their sixteen despite the dealer holding a face card.  He even started making hand signs on other’s behalf, indicating when they should hold or take another card.

The oddest part of it is that Alan ‘played from the gut’ and ignored standard Blackjack protocol on many occasions, like sticking at sixteen in the face of the dealer’s nine or doubling his bet by splitting face cards while the dealer held a face card of his own (he did that twice in a row).

And the most amazing part of that?  He won almost every time, odds be damned.  Including both of those face-card splits.

When I asked him the next day about his habit of administering advice at the gambling table he said, “Yeah, some people don’t like it when you do that,” which leads me to believe he always does it.  Curious.

When I suggested that he often didn’t follow his own advice, like those times he split the face cards he said, “I didn’t do that!  I would never split a twenty hand if the dealer was showing a face card.”

“Why then did the dealer say to you, ‘What, you have no respect for my queen?’” I posited.

“I do remember him saying that,” Al said, drifting off.  “It must have been about something else…”

Back to the Holland Casino: I had by this time borrowed 150 euros from Alan’s stack, so I was literally playing on borrowed chips.  Luckily I found the third dealer was a charm.  Finally my fortune had changed and I rocked it, swiftly rebuilding my stack.  Unfortunately I could see that Alan’s luck had turned as well, and his prodigious pile of chips was steadily decreasing.  

Luckily, the loan I had taken from his stack was his buffer insurance.  I kept a close count on things and as soon as I had recouped Al’s 150 euro, my own initial 100 euro investment, plus the fifteen euro I threw away on the roulette wheel and the ten euro had I spent on drinks – and found myself a further five euro ahead – I scanned Al’s chips and suggested we get out of there, right then.  He agreed and we chipped up.  

Though he would have done much better to have left an hour earlier, Al still walked out of the casino having won a hundred and fifty euros.  I had pocketed five euros myself (and stomached several drinks) so we were both ahead of the game.  By the time we finally left we had been in the casino for more than three hours.  It turned out being a very economical way to spend the evening.

We walked back to the hotel feeling pretty great, passing crowds of weekend partiers most of the way.  A couple of girls even accosted us for a ‘street interview’ pretending to be from CNN, asking questions and filming us on their iPhone.   We soon left the hoards behind and found ourselves climbing our epic staircase towards a duty-free nightcap from a bottle of Jack Daniels that was somehow still hanging on.

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