Eurolog V: Anti-Science Cruise-aide

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We actually went to the trouble of setting the alarm so we would ensure we would be awake in time for breakfast delivery, which arrived promptly at 8:05am.  Setting the meagre plastic tray on my unmade bed and divvying it up the same as before I had to ask myself, was it worth it?

Who knows?  But at least I could ponder it over a little breakfast.

We puttered around the room surfing the internet and drinking coffees and teas for an hour-and-a-half while the TV droned on in the background (or was it the foreground?).  Al laid down and started to nap right around 9:30.  No wonder, he had lain awake watching television until at least 3am the night before.  It’s too bad, we’d had the jet lag whipped on day one, but our late night at the Watering Hole and subsequent oversleeping had thrown us back off the timetrack.

I waited until ten o’clock before telling my sleeping lump of a brother that I was going out for a walk.  He opened one eye and told me to come get him at 11am and the he rolled over and immediately went back to sleep.  With little on my mind I descended the prodigious staircase and wandered in the direction of a nearby church.  

It was the church across from the building that housed the attic of Anne Frank.  In her writings Anne mentioned that listening to the carillon bells from this very church as they permeated the walls of their hiding place in the annex was one of her few daily pleasures.  That was until the Nazi’s dismantled the handcrafted bells and melted them down to make bullets.  How horrifically ironic.  

The (new) bells were chiming as I sat there.  Somewhere inside the church a musician busily pounded and kicked the carillon, a musical process that pulled and maneuvered a complex series of levers that were hooked to ropes and pulleys which set in motion a set of giant bells swinging way up there in the towering belfry.  Funny how random and cacaphonic the carillon always seems to sound despite the fact that they are sounding composed pieces played by trained musicians.  (In fact, my alma mater Carleton University offers a course in carillon playing.)

I wonder if Anne Frank had heard the story about Rembrandt and his son being buried just across the street?  

Outside the church was a trio of large pink granite triangles.  One was embedded into the old stone courtyard; I sat myself down on another that was built up out of the ground, standing about two feet tall and serving as a large, three-sided park bench.  The final triangle was built into a platform that jutted out into the adjacent canal.  

The three triangles were themselves triangulated, and together they made up the world’s first memorial dedicated to the persecution of gays and lesbians worldwide.  The area was called Pink Point and the triangles were an installation entitled Homomonument that was designed to “inspire and support lesbians and gays in their struggle against denial, oppression and discrimination.”  It was also the first monument in the world to specifically commemorate gays and lesbians who were killed by the Nazis, a fitting memorial given its proximity to Anne Frank Haus.  Exploring Pink Point was a rather poignant way to pass a peaceful hour.  

As I sat there I pondered my coming day.  Al had been all about the science museum ever since someone at the bar the other night had recommended it.  I hummed and hawed any time he mentioned it, mentioning things like how I doubted it would be at all Amsterdam-specific and how it would be similar to any science museum anywhere, and that it would inevitably be chock-full of sticky smelly children running around hogging all the cool stuff (the perpetual bane of science museums everywhere), but nothing seemed to sway him.  “How far away is it, anyway?”  I had to think of something else…

But what was shiny enough to distract him away from the science museum?  Not the Van Gogh Museum (not flashy enough) nor the Rijkmuseum (that would definitely be asking too much), but c’mon Todd, there had to be something…

And I came up with…nothing.  Finally I gave up and went back to the hotel where I climbed those damned stairs once again (surely I was getting close to the top of the CN Tower by now) and woke up my brother shortly after 11am.  With stalling as my sole tactic I was happy to linger in the room while he slowly readied himself for our daily excursion.

Once we left the room I remained extra-patient as we slowly meandered towards the waterfront.  As I had discovered on our initial jaunts around Amsterdam, Alan walks at a much, much slower pace than I do.  Suffice to say, he walks just as much slower than the average person as I walk faster than the average person, which is a lot.  As a result I had been spending a lot of time over the last few days looking over my shoulder and making sure he was still with me.  But not today.  With time-killing on my mind I made a point of staying behind him as we strolled through the busy Damrak amongst the noon-hour crowds, relishing every extra minute it took us to get downtown. 

When we finally arrived we found the waterfront itself was actually pretty darn cool so we lingered even more, checking out all the crazy buildings.  Most of Amsterdam is hundreds of years old so these newfangled, wacky architectural wonders were vastly different from most of the buildings we had seen so far.  So like I say, we lingered.

It’s really too bad that neither of us thought to bring a camera along.

(My favourite was a stark, square, windowless building that was probably the most boring, uninteresting structure imaginable.  Except that it was jutting out of the ground at an obscene angle of at least forty-five degrees, a simple twist which transformed it into the most eye-catching building on the harbour.)

Eventually we found ourselves walking up the platform that led to the entrance of the admittedly very impressive-looking science museum (which was very reminiscent of the huge vehicle the Jawas drove through the deserts of Tatooine in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope).  The stalling was over, and even though it was well past 1pm Alan clearly still wanted to go in.  I gave up and led the way up the ramp.

“Hey, wait a second,” Alan said, stopping abruptly.  I turned around searching for a glimmer of hope.

“We’ll probably be in the museum all afternoon,” he observed.  “Okay, this was good!” I thought tentatively.

“Maybe we should find some lunch first,” he said.  You never saw a guy turn around so fast.  “Sounds great!” I yelped, “Let’s go!”

We found a patio along one of the nearby plazas that was serving food and sat ourselves down.  We each ordered steak sandwiches and when I settled on a hot chocolate to drink Al told the waiter that he’d have the same.

It’s funny, for all of our obvious differences I had started to notice a lot of blatant similarities between my brother and I on this trip.  “Would you like white bread or brown bread for your sandwiches?”

“White” we both answer.

“Whip cream in your hot chocolates?”

“No,” we reply, as one.

“Fries or salad?”  You get the picture.  I had been surprised to discover the night before that we even have the same nearly-unique and ever-deadly technique for killing houseflies.

After lunch we dawdled on the rail of the nearest canal.  It was a special day in Amsterdam, a day that was to see thousands of locals swimming through the canals in an annual charity race.  Unfortunately recent heavy rains had made the water too contaminated for swimming and the event had been called off.  There were, however, several long boats of rowers in matching costumes who were plying their craft along the waterways instead, which was fun to watch.

As we were getting set to head back towards the dreaded museum once and for all a tour boat went by just below us.  In it were perhaps twenty tourists – many holding frosty Heinekens – and a young tour guide who was speaking into a microphone and making everyone laugh.

“That looks fun!” we both said in unison.  “Let’s do that instead of the museum,” I suggested, noting the name of the tour on the side of the boat.

“Okay,” Alan said.  Success at last!

We went to Centraal Station where almost all the tours seemed to depart from and we booked ourselves on the next available boat.  We had an hour and a half to kill so we wandered around the nearby church and did a couple of rounds window shopping through the surrounding alleys before ending up at a cozy pub for a drink or two.  Just before our appointed time I ducked into a small variety store and bought myself a few frosty Heinekens to enjoy during the tour and we returned to Centraal Station to catch our boat.  

We ended up amongst the last of the fifteen or so passengers to board.  Al headed straight to the front of the boat and sat in the middle facing backwards towards the rest of the boat, his arms outstretched.  I urged him to sit along the side so we could see forward but he was having none of it.  All-righty then, I joined him at the bow and it actually turned out to be a pretty good spot.  We could semi-stand up with our knees on the seat which gave an unobstructed view looking forward, or we could sit comfortably and take in the views of where we had been.  

Our captain, host, guide, and the sole company representative aboard was Peter, a thirty-something local with a solid Dutch accent and a very squelchy microphone.  Peter proceeded to lead us on the craziest, most political boat tour ever.  He was very, as the kids would say: “random”.

In between pointing out many standard highlights such as the narrowest house in Amsterdam (the city used to tax homeowners on the width of their houses rather than the overall square footage), several important churches, and some of the more impressive houseboats that are permanently moored along the canals, Peter talked about abortion, about how the thirst for oil directly causes perpetual war in the Middle East, he talked about marijuana, euthanasia, how Heineken isn’t really beer; it’s pilsner (and though it’s true that a Heineken bottle doesn’t mention “beer” on the label anywhere, pilsner is in fact pale lager that takes it’s name from the Bohemian – now the Czech Republic – city of Pilsen, where it was first produced in 1842.  So it is beer), and he spoke rather extensively about the little-talked-about slave trade that was often dominated by the Dutch throughout history.  And all of this on what we thought would be a normal, innocent open-boat tourist canal cruise.

I thought the whole thing was awesome, though I was a bit embarrassed when I got singled out for drinking Heineken the whole time.  But to be fair, nobody else was even drinking at all, so at least I had that on my side.

Somewhere along the day Alan found a forgotten five-euro casino chip in his pocket; he had obviously missed it when he’d cashed in his winnings the night before.  Of course (Alan insisted) the only way to raise his overall take from 150 euro to the 155 that he actually deserved was to go back to the casino and cash it in.

Ugh, thought I.  Walking all the way back to the Leidseplein and spending a third consecutive night in the same neighbourhood didn’t seem like it was worth five euros to me.  As a matter of fact, I figured it was worth five euros to me to not walk back to the Leidseplein again, so I offered to buy the chip off of Alan and save us both the trouble.  But of course: nothing doing.

“I’m going to turn this chip into a thousand euros,” he stated firmly, refusing my offer.  “I can feel it.”

It’s hard to argue with that sort of overconfident lack of logic so we headed towards the casino.  

Along the way it occurred to me that while I had signed up for the membership when we couponed our way in to the casino last night, Alan had not.  That meant he was going to have to pay the five-euro cover charge to get in the casino, which would of course negate our reason for going there in the first place.  We needed to get him one of those free-entry coupons like the ones we’d used the night before, but we were already too far from our hotel to go back and get one.

We soon came to a nice touristy square replete with statues, benches and an obligatory street performer.  I had recently discovered that Alan quite enjoyed these kind of acts so I told him to watch the show while I ran off to find him a coupon.

I figured (probably quite rightly) that every low-to-mid-budget hotel in Amsterdam would have the same local attractions coupons hanging on their lobby wall as our hotel did, and I set off to find one.  Turning the corner I noticed a Radisson hotel and started towards their front door where a moustachioed valet waited in top hat and tails.  I slowed my pace.  Looking through the windows was enough for me.  There’s no way a hotel that fancy was going to have a display of boat cruise and Madame Tussauds coupons ghettoing up their lobby.  I turned around and saw a Marriott across the street.  That would be exactly the same.

Glancing this way and that I could see that this was not at all the area for low-to-mid priced hotels.  In my failure i thrust my hands into my pockets and turned on my heels to go retrieve my brother.

What’s this now?  Pulling out my right hand I discovered that I’d had a leftover casino coupon in my pocket the whole time.  Great!  I ran back and pulled Alan away from the tired act of the old busker, who had clearly not yet done any tricks at all in my absence and was still a good ten minutes from getting out of those stupid chains of his.

“Did you find me a coupon?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, I got one,” I said victoriously, making sure to add no further details.

When we got to the Holland Casino I breezed inside with my shiny-new membership card and waited for Alan to cash in his coupon and go through the whole belaboured entry process again.  Though he did get a free drink out of the deal, so maybe I wasn’t so smart after all.  Again.

The basement gambling area was closed so went went upstairs for the first time and checked out the main floor, which was pretty big and very busy.  Unfortunately none of the Blackjack tables up there had minimums low enough for a single five euro bet.  Alan considered pulling out his wallet but I convinced him to drop his wayward chip on a roulette table instead, where five-euro bets were more than welcome and hitting one could pay off as much as 175 euro on a spin.

Alan pondered for a moment and placed his bet on twenty-two, the number he’d always painted on the side of his car back in his racing days.  It turns out that the correct answer in this particular case would have been the number eight.  Oh, how we would have celebrated!

As it was, a minute later we were back out on the street, neither winners nor losers as far as I could tell.

Done with the Leidseplein, we meandered back in the direction of our hotel with no plans other than eating.  We stopped at one of the many Argentinian steakhouses (our second visit to one) and ordered dinner and drinks.  The only other party in the small restaurant was a very friendly and talkative couple from Memphis who were seated next to us.  He was a pilot, flying big, big planes around the world for FedEx and had lots to say about that, but their main talking point was their hobby/obsession: barbecued ribs.  Together they led a team of Memphis “ribbers” who regularly won their state rib championship and have twice been featured on the Food Network.  

The funny thing about it is that whenever they travel (and they travel a lot) they always seek out somewhere that they can eat ribs, and they always hate them.  

“Oh, the ribs are almost never as good as ours,” she told me, “but every once in a while we find something really special and we try to learn from it to so we can make our own ribs even better!”  Gotta like that attitude.

Of course they had ordered ribs (and only ribs); just a small half-rack to share.  They hated them.  Al also got the ribs (a full rack) and he loved them.  He shared one with me and I had to side with him.  Oh, the torture this poor couple must endure.

After loitering over post-meal drinks we resumed our slow stroll towards the hotel.  With dinner out of the way we had no plans whatsoever so we stopped into a friendly looking bar to mull over our options over a few more drinks.

Spoiler alert: Our mulling quickly faded into just straight-up drinking, and sitting at this bar ended up being exactly and solely what we ended up doing for the rest of the evening.

We met a couple of guys who were on a quick jaunt from Scotland – oh, how nice it would be to fly to and from Europe’s greatest cities so quickly and affordably – and we chatted with them for an hour or more.  They taught me that “Nova Scotia” means “New Scotland”, so there you go.  Eventually they got up, paid their bill and moved on and more strangers soon took their place.  

We ended up passing a long and talkative night raising more and more glasses with more and more friendly vacationers which is, of course, one of the great joys of travelling. 

When we finally bid the bar leave and made it back to our hotel I suggested we run across the street first and buy a couple of Cokes to accompany my amazingly-still-going bottle of Duty-Free Jack Daniels.  It was late enough that the store was closed so we ducked into a small diner and plucked a few Cokes out of the cooler.

Glancing at their menu board I saw they served bitterballen, and we still hadn’t tried any.  I ordered some and the proprietor dropped a dozen of the gooey, meat-and-flour flavoured balls into his fryer.  Two minutes later he handed me a box containing a dozen steaming crispy spheres.  I loaded up one corner of the container with garlic sauce, grabbed a pair of forks and our Cokes, and across the street we went.

And up those crazy, crazy stairs.  I would say we were getting used to those seventy-three steps of dramatic ascension by now, but I can’t because to do so would be a blatant lie.

In the room I poured us a pair of drinks, Alan bemoaned the inevitable lack of ice (turns out Al really, really likes ice), and I dug into my first bitterballen in years.  The carnivore-friendly ball of goodness melted in my mouth.

“Wow, what’s not to like!” I exclaimed, popping another in my mouth.  I extended the box to my brother.  “Try one!” I insisted, extremely confident that he was going to love them.

He did indeed try one, and he had a couple more too, but he didn’t love them.  He wasn’t entirely sure whether he liked them or not, which I’m sure sprang from the conflict his taste buds were having with his palette.  Like, the flavour was undeniable, but the texture was quite unlike anything we would normally eat back home.  It was squishier than a chicken ball or even a cheese-stick; it almost had the texture of a meat-driven cream puff.

In other words: tasty but weird.  I easily finished the box while Alan concentrated on tending to his growing blister collection.  We’d been walking an awful lot these last few days, and it wasn’t gonna be letting up anytime soon.  We were going to have to find him some Band-Aids.

Before we turned off the lights I set the alarm for breakfast (again) and to ensure we’d be up in time to pack before our morning tour of Anne Frank’s House.  Sitting next to my bed was the list we had made on day one of our trip outlining the Amsterdam attractions we’d wanted to hit while we were in town.  I picked it up and went down the column.  

On it was a canal tour, the Heineken Museum, the Red Light District, the Old Church, a real-live windmill (I suggested we check this off with a visit to Brouwerij, the city’s only windmill-bar), and Anne Frank’s House.  Along the way I had personally nixed the Heineken Museum – I had done the tour before and enquiring with other tourists confirmed that it was still just as cheesy and lame as always – and same with Brouwerij.  I was confident that we’d come across a windmill or two in our travels without having to walk five kilometres each way to what was, after all, really just an overpriced bar – and I was right.  It was Alan who had nixed a quick tour of the Old Church earlier in the day when we were waiting for our boat cruise, in favour of people-watching from barstool perches.  Which was another good decision.

But we’d succeeded in doing everything else on the list and a whole lot more, like Paleis Amsterdam, renting paddle boats, and taking the casino for a ride (once, anyway).  We had also rocked the Leidseplein’s funnest live music venue pretty hard and we’d put dozens and dozens of quality kilometres randomly meandering the city.  

(I’m guessing the science museum was probably pretty world-class and I’m sure it would have been a lot of fun too, but I’m still glad we had skipped it.  I feel the same about Madame Tussauds.)

Amsterdam had been great and we had both had a blast.  Plus we still had one more morning to go!

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