The Netherlands and Belgium: September, 2018

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090518 I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

The plan had been hatched long before.  It had come like a dream, and as the plan formed out of the ether of my mind I saw that it was not only possible, but very, very likely to come to fruition.

And finally it was all happening and I found myself sitting right up front on one of Air Canada’s many daily flights from Ottawa to Montreal, waiting for takeoff.

I love to travel and I always have.  Even as a little kid my greatest memories were those few times that I was allowed to accompany my dad on trips in his 18-wheeler.  I believe it happened twice, both times from Moncton to Toronto.  Man, did I love those trips.  Just me and my dad and the excitement and mystery of the open road.

Halfway through my university education I started travelling in earnest, first to South Korea and Thailand, then to Taiwan and Vietnam, then Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Ghana, South Africa, Peru…I suppose I’ve visited about thirty countries so far, and more keep getting added to the list all the time.  Likewise, my mother is a big travelling aficionado.  The two of us have travelled together a couple of times (first to Zambia and Namibia, then to Romania), and we had a great time.

But for some reason my brother Al (or as I call him: Alan) never got bitten by the travelling bug.  Sure, he likes going back and forth between his home in Moncton and his winter house north of Tampa, but when it comes to international travel the farthest he’s gotten has been Hawaii, and in a North American sense that’s not really international travel is it?

(My dad never liked travelling either.  Mom dragged him to Europe once a long, long time ago and he hated it before he even left home.  I guess criss-crossing the continent countless times behind the wheel of his tractor-trailer gave him his fill of travel.)

Anyway, I figured it’s not that Alan doesn’t like travelling, he just hasn’t really done it.  Hence, the plan.

When I’ve questioned my brother as to why he doesn’t travel, he pointed out a couple of reasons right away: 1) he had no interest in walking around looking at boring museums all day, and 2) that time he went to Hawaii he wasn’t too pleased about sitting in the little airplane seat for all those hours.

Well, I had an answer to that (and that).  1) In The Hague sits the Louwman Museum, the oldest (and in my experience, greatest) automotive museum in the world.  When I visited the place several years ago I hit the gift shop and purchased a coffee-table book containing their entire collection.  I gave it to Alan for Christmas that year and I just knew he would be astounded if he were to actually visit the Louwman Museum himself someday.

And 2) as we share a very generous mother who seems to collect an inordinate amount of aeroplan points, I figured if I suggested Alan and I go to The Hague together that she might just sponsor the trip by giving us enough points to fly business class – where the seats are large and the service is comfortable – and I was right.

As a matter of fact, when I told my mom about my idea to lug Alan around Europe for a couple of weeks she thought it was a great idea, which – as I just mentioned – was part of the plan.  

So Christmas came around, I placed copies of The Diary Of Anne Frank (“Is that the lady who refused to sit at the back of the bus?”) and Lust For Life, The Van Gogh Story under the tree for Alan (each with a twenty euro bill inside, which I thought was pretty nice of me), mom gave us not only the necessary points for business class but $500 spending money each besides, and we started ignoring making plans.

Finally, I decided to stop ignoring making plans and we made them.  I had wanted to go on the trip in the Spring, Alan wanted to go in the Fall.  Okay then, I wanted to go in the late Fall, but Alan wanted to go as early as we could in September, specifically because he wanted us to rendezvous with his Florida golfing buddy who actually lives in Belgium. 

So I booked our flights to leave on September 5th.  Alan would have to wait about eight hours at the Montreal airport for his first connection, but we would be flying together from there on out.

I got busy booking the hotels and did a pretty great job.  When I described the bookings to Alan he was quite surprised that the rates were so high.  Admittedly, Amsterdam is a notoriously expensive city to stay in, but when I rechecked rooms a month later I found prices at least 50% higher across the board.  Checking again a month before we left everything had at least doubled in price compared to the rates I had managed to snag, and most places had tripled.

So the whole thing was booked and booked pretty well – we wouldn’t be staying in any castles but we wouldn’t be bunking down in any hostels either – and I was left with nothing to do but to wait patiently for September 5th to come around.  And summers being summers, it came around pretty fast; out of nowhere it was already time to get to the airport.

It had been a hectic time for me leading up to the trip.  It seems I’m always saying that at the beginning of these travel missives but it’s true (as it always is: if I write it, it’s so).  Just two weeks previously I had all but bought a beautiful house on Random Island, Newfoundland.  M’lady and I departed for a Phish festival in upstate New York on the official closing date, though we had gotten word that the actual closing date would be backed up by a few days.  

After spending one night at the festival the whole weekend got cancelled.  We ended up with a superb Plan B and had a great impromptu weekend at a friend’s godfather’s lakeside cottage with a dozen others, and we arrived home on Sunday only to discover that the whole house deal had fallen through.  We were crestfallen.  Then we had another cottage to visit and an Insane Clown Posse concert to attend before flying straight to Denver for five nights for some more Phish concerts (ones that actually happened this time), only to arrive back home on September 4th, the evening before my European departure.

So like I say, things had been a bit hectic, and I was pretty happy to finally be on my way.  If a bit sleepy.

I was later getting to the airport than I intended and as a result I had only a few moments in the business class lounge before boarding my flight.  Time for just one drink and a quick bowl of soup, the heartiest food they had available.  After a turbulence-filled journey that pre-empted any and all cabin service I met Alan in the Montreal airport’s business class lounge, where he had spent the whole day casually drinking Bacardi and Cokes and reading the Diary of Anne Frank that I had given him.  (If he enjoys it I think I’ll get him a book on Rosa Parks next year.)

I found him surprisingly sober.

I had forgotten how shaggy he had let his hair get, and he had doffed his beard too.  Funny, I had just got a haircut that morning.  I wonder if I look as much like our dad as he looks like our mom?Probably.  

Which is a bit strange, I suppose.

(I mean, with his long hair Alan looks pretty much exactly like mom.  It’s weird.  But then, sometimes when I look in the bathroom mirror I’m shocked to see my dear old dad looking back at me with a shocked look on his own face, which is also pretty weird.)

We spent the next couple of hours chatting about our vacation plans in between bouts of reading, while I busied myself to catch up with him in the Bacardi department.  Eventually our Lufthansa flight was called, we boarded and sat ourselves down in the very comfortable but not over-the-top business class section.  The seats weren’t super-amazing like what you’d find in Air Canada or Air Ethiopia’s business class but they could fully recline, which is all that really matters, especially on an overnight flight such as this one.

I plugged myself into the new Star Wars movie as quick as I could, enjoyed a splendid dinner that came an hour later, and fell sound asleep about twenty minutes before the film ended, which was perfect.  I had already seen it four times.

I slept much of the rest of the trip to Munich, where I knew we would be waiting almost another four hours before catching the last leg of our journey, a short jaunt that would have us arriving in The Netherlands at about 2pm local time.  As our plane touched down on the Germanic tarmac I was already raring to get to the ‘Dam.

090618 Stairway to Heathen

We did indeed arrive in Munich, both of us feeling not too shabby thanks to our sweet spots up in business class.  With a four-hour layover to endure we headed straight to the lounge, combed lightly over the food available, poured ourselves some drinks and dug in for some comfy downtime.

It was my first time stopping over at the Munich airport so I did a walkabout in search of a mini-building to add to my vast collection of mini-buildings.  I found one.  I have no idea what building it was a miniature of, but it was unquestionably a miniature of some authentic building in Munich, and with no magnet nor built-in pencil sharpener attached I deemed it worthy of joining the hundred-odd other minis I have arranged on a trio of shelves back home.

Back in the lounge I found Al sprawled out across the cushioned bench having a nap.  I grabbed a bowl of potato chips and a glass of whiskey and slid in quietly beside him.  Soon enough he woke up and rubbed his eyes open, and shortly after that it was time to board our last leg to Amsterdam.  Finally!

Our seats weren’t so luxurious on the final trek but that didn’t matter; we were barely an hour in the air.  At Schiphol Airport we whisked right on past the luggage carousels pulling our carry-ons behind us and headed straight towards the “Nothing To Declare” tunnel.

I turned to Alan and said, “Watch this.”

When we emerged from the tunnel and into the public section of the airport Al turned to me and asked, “What?”

“Well, that was us going through Customs,” I replied, smiling.

Al looked back at the empty hallway we had just walked through.  The only international borders he had ever encountered before were either American or Canadian.  I doubt that he had ever crossed one without seeing any border guards or Customs officials present.

“You’re kidding…” he said, shaking his head.

We went up to a kiosk and quick-as-anything printed ourselves a pair of train tickets to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station.  We checked the signboard, found the next departure and made our way to the appropriate platform.  Minutes later we were sitting on an older but comfortable train, whisking through the graffitied countryside towards our destination.

Alan was already craning his neck to look at the cars driving along the highway beside us.  “That looks like a Toyota but it doesn’t look like any Toyota I’ve ever seen before…”  This was the type of statement I was about to get very, very much accustomed to hearing.

Arriving at Centraal Station, we disembarked and headed straight outside and into a cloudy day.  Our hotel was just over a kilometre away and I was pretty confident I could find it.  I suggested (with a little trepidation) that we walk there and Alan was 100% on board.

It took a while for us to get away from the station and on the the Damrak towards our hotel because Alan was twisting this way and that trying to take it all in.  “Look at that train station…” he said, and I don’t blame him.  Amsterdam is a remarkably beautiful city, and their castle-like main train depot is quite a site to behold.  

And it’s big too.

Eventually we got on our way, but again the going was slow, for the same reason: Al was looking around at everything.  No worries at all, I was happy to be patient and very, very pleased that my brother seemed to be having a great first impression of Europe.  Besides, I had acted exactly the same way when I landed in Hong Kong a year earlier.

By the time we arrived at the front door of our hotel (found it first try!) it was already clear that bringing Alan to Europe was a great idea.  Then we opened the door.

Half of our ascent

Not that I’m saying that the stairway up to our room detracted from the trip at all, but it was pretty ridiculous.  I’ve seen some tall, steep staircases in Amsterdam but this one was a doozy!  I mean it went straight up, and our room was on the top floor.  That meant seventy-three steps of sheer ascent every time we went home for the next four days.  

The first time we went up – with our luggage in tow – we almost had a couple of heart attacks.  At least I almost had a couple of heart attacks; Alan seemed to fare pretty well.  Suffice to say, we quickly adopted a habit of taking a nice liesurely break at the halfway point.

By the time we sat ourselves down on our little narrow beds and officially ended of our trans-Atlantic journey it was almost 5pm local time.  It had been a solid twenty-four hours of traveling for Al (what with his extended layover in Montreal and all), and just about nineteen hours for me.  I walked across the street to a store to buy some Cokes and poured us a couple of well-deserved drinks from my Duty-Free bottle of Jack Daniels.  This ain’t my first rodeo.

Soon enough we were back out on the street (the stairs were much more manageable on the way down, but you wouldn’t want to traverse it after too many Jack & Cokes.  Not without ample training at least).  With nothing at all in mind we walked aimlessly through the streets, having a great time taking in the sights despite an on-again off-again (but mostly on-again) drizzling rain.

Al was constantly pointing out things that were different from back home, and they were mostly things that I wouldn’t have otherwise paid much attention to.  Aside from all the cars – and my goodness, every single car was different than the ones Alan was used to and thus worthy of attention – he mentioned things like the style of the hinges on the bathroom stall at the train station, and different construction crew procedures and other things that just wouldn’t normally jump immediately to my eye.  He took a bunch of pictures with his phone, including the window display at a very explicit S&M shop, which he got a big kick out of.

He also got a pretty big kick out of the comical postcards that lined the racks outside of every giftshop in town (of which there were many).  I had no idea he was into that kind of humour.  Later on we came across a professional busker doing his thing in Dam Square.  He was a juggler/unicyclist who – like others of his ilk – spends 95% of his time building a crowd and cracking well-tested jokes and only 5% of his time actually performing his “big trick”.  As a former professional street balloon animal artist myself I’ve seen this type of act a thousand times.  

But clearly Alan hadn’t.  He stuck around for the whole thing and really seemed to enjoy it.

One thing’s for sure, he was already having a great time on this European Experiment, which meant I was too.

We walked for hours, circling this way and that until we finally stopped at a small food kitchen near our hotel, where we each ordered burgers and fries.  We wolfed them down proper and retired to our room by 8pm.  

Tired but excited, we stayed up and talked over JD & Cokes for a few hours, managing to stay awake as late as 10pm.  Which was pretty admirable, all things considered.

A sliver of this building housed our hotel

090718 Ever Neat

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 twin 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.

090818 Cards, Canals, Contusions

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 checked for Anne Frank tickets, only to find the day already sold out.  Curiously, the next week had opened up significantly, where it had been sold out when I had checked the day before.  I debated waiting to see if Saturday or Sunday tickets would open up but Al urged me to book the Monday morning slot at 10:45, 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.  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.

090918 Anti-Science Cruise-aide

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!

091018 From the Annex of War to the Palace of Peace

Like clockwork, our breakfast tray arrived promptly at 8:05am once again, and with the same consistency.  Once more we found our tray held the same plain white bread, butter, jam, yogurt, salami, cheese, and hard boiled eggs as it had every morning.  Without a word I handed Alan my egg and he handed me his vacuum-sealed salami and cheese, we made our now-standard sandwiches in silence and we both munched away quietly, each of us eyeing the kettle as it came to a slow boil.

At some point after breakfast the hotel’s fire alarm went off, but you’d hardly know it.  We heard a slight, muffled ringing that sounded like someone’s ringtone coming from the hallway.  “That can’t be the fire alarm can it?” Al asked.

Just then our breakfast deliveryman knocked on the door confirming that yes, it was indeed the fire alarm but there was nothing to worry about.  Good thing.  It was also a good thing we hadn’t rushed needlessly down (and back up) that epic staircase.  We had very few stair-climbs left – one, actually – and we weren’t at all interested in adding any more if we didn’t have to.

Once we had killed enough time we packed up and checked out, leaving our bags in the hotel’s small office.  As we descended our Stairway to Hell for the penultimate time I stopped and clicked a photo of our reflection in a large hanging mirror.  You can tell that we are on our way down because we’re not grimacing.

Please take a moment to savour this picture.  It turned out being the only photo I took of the two of us together throughout the whole trip.

Out on the sidewalk we turned left and embarked on our short stroll to Anne Franks House, where we sat by the canal waiting for our 10:45 entry time.  Once inside we were handed audio guides and were left to weave through the museum/memorial/annex at our own pace.   

As part of Alan’s European Christmas Surprise I had placed two books under the tree for him (each containing a twenty euro bill, which I thought was pretty generous of me), Lust For Life and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t gotten around to reading the wonderfully engaging biography of Vincent Van Gogh so he wasn’t familiar enough with Van Gogh’s incredibly compelling story to be willing to chance a visit to Amsterdam’s unbelievable Van Gogh Museum.  Otherwise he might have gained an appreciation for the genius of one of history’s greatest artists.  But alas, he had yet to crack the spine.  Pity; this was the first time I’ve visited Amsterdam and not viewed the Van Gogh collection and I would eagerly return again and again.

Alan had, however, spent his prodigious layover in Montreal reading Anne Frank’s diary, and I was very jealous that he was able to visit the museum and annex with her words still so fresh in his mind.

We all know the story: a young girl and her family are holed up in an attic for two years hiding from the Nazis until they are finally discovered and shipped off to die in the concentration camps.  

But Anne didn’t know the story.  As she was writing she could only imagine having a future that we all know she didn’t have.  The book is so very tragic because it is so full of hope. 

As she wrote page after page, practising to become a writer one day, she didn’t know how long she would be in hiding.  A week?  A month?  It couldn’t last a year, could it?  She had no idea that her family and friends would be sold out by one of the employees working in the adjoining warehouse (a rat whose identity is lost to history), though I’m sure she feared exactly that potential outcome every day.  As she listened to the pealing bells emanating from the church across from her secret apartment she couldn’t have known that she would soon be separated from her family in Auschwitz and would die an unceremonious death in the horror camps of Bergen-Belsen, just like thousands of others.  

I’m sure Anne Frank couldn’t have imagined (let alone known) that Hitler and his followers would be responsible for the horrible, merciless death of six million Jews, a million and a half of them children, each life snuffed out for no good reason at all.  I know I can’t imagine it, no matter how I try.

And she certainly didn’t know that her humble little diary would become a universal best seller translated into more than sixty languages and would go on to inspire millions around the world.  And really, that’s one of the biggest tragedies.

The tour included lots of artifacts and pictures.  I’m not always the biggest fan of audioguides but in this case I was happy that everyone was using them.  It made the whole experience much more solemn; we all moved at our own pace and the utter lack of human interaction left each of us alone with our own thoughts and reflections.

Alan was moving slowest of all, taking in every word, reading every description thoroughly and gazing intently at every exhibit, which was all a-okay with me.  Eventually the rest of the 10:45 shift got well ahead of us and with the 11:00ers still behind we were free to linger alone for much of the tour.

Of course the main attraction of the whole experience was the secret annex itself, which begins as you pass through the famous bookshelf that hid hideaway’s entrance.  If you’re like me, you always think of Anne Frank hiding out in an actual attic, and though she and her fellow captives did have to be careful not to alert the unwitting employees working below their hiding spot, the annex itself is actually a three-storey apartment of sorts above an addition that was built behind Mr. Frank’s warehouse.  The addition is joined to the larger warehouse via a raised corridor that houses the hinged bookshelf (and secret entrance).  After all, “annex” means to attach or to add, especially to something larger, so it makes sense that the annex is part of an addition to the original structure.

Don’t get me wrong, it was still a pretty tight space for eight people to spend nearly eight hundred days in, cowering in fear from the Nazis the whole time.  We went from room to room with our ears pressed firmly to our audio guides, barely able to comprehend the terror we were being asked to imagine.  

Eventually the tour led us to The Book, Anne Frank’s actual, original diary, safely stored under glass.  In an adjacent room there was a row of benches arranged in front of a screen.  Flickering on the screen was a video featuring cameos of some of the world’s most famous people, all praising the life and work of Anne Frank.  

Most poignant to me was the quote from Nelson Mandela:

“On Robben Island, some of us read Anne Frank’s Diary.  We derived much encouragement from it.  It kept our spirits high and reinforced our confidence in the invincibility of the cause of freedom and justice.”

To think that the great Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners imprisoned a world away on Robben Island drew hope and inspiration from the personal writings of a thirteen-year-old girl; from words written in a simple book that sat just a few metres away from me in that small room.  It was overwhelming.

Under that pane of glass lay proof of the incredible power of the written word.  Even a young child – armed with nothing but a pen and some paper – can have an enormous, unimaginable impact on the world. 

A pair of quotes near the end of the video stood out as well, but for an entirely different reason.  One of Anne Frank’s childhood friends said she attributed her fame to “…the cult of personality,” adding flatly, “Anne isn’t the only one who died.” 

And then there was a man describing his experience searching through the list of those that died in the Holocaust.  “Underneath Anne’s name in the book of the dead are four Aron Frank’s,” he noted.

“Where, I ask you, are the museums and memorials for them?”

Six million human beings had died a horrible, merciless death at the hands of a madman and his followers, each life snuffed out for nothing.  Nothing.  The lives, the stories, the innovations, the truths, the love that was forever lost…it’s simply beyond comprehension.  Thankfully.  I don’t want to possess a mind that can truly comprehend such horror and tragedy.

Lost in my reverie Alan lifted the cloud of reverence in an instant when he announced, “Burger King sounds good for lunch, dunnit?” patting his belly and adding for emphasis, “Home Of The Whopper!”  

All-righty then!  We breezed through the gift shop and out onto the street.

I was a BK fan but scanning the menu board I just wasn’t feeling it.  I left Alan with his Whopper meal and checked a few nearby places.  Subway would be more food than I could handle.  McDonalds?  No.  I walked into the Febo that sat next door to the Burger King and nearly slid a coin into a slot for a quick burger just because I could, but even the glory of Febo couldn’t excite my taste buds.

I guess my stomach was still clenched tight from the sad memory of Anne Frank.  And Aron Frank, and Aron Frank, and Aron Frank…

I joined Al as he was finishing up and told him I had a Febo burger.  It was an easy lie for him to believe and a harmless one besides, and I really didn’t feel like trying to explain my lack of appetite.

Then it was time to move for the first time on this trip.  We retrieved our bags from the hotel and off to Centraal Station we went, our luggage tuk-tuk-tukking behind us as we maneuvered between and around a thousand other tourists, many of them tuk-tuk-tukking along their own luggage.

Arriving at the beautiful train depot, we took one last gaze at Amsterdam and went inside.  I scanned the board and found two different trains leaving shortly for The Hague, just ten minutes apart.  I wasn’t convinced that the obvious choice would turn out to be the best choice and, seeing that the man manning the nearby info booth was just sitting there twiddling his thumbs I stepped up and asked his opinion.

Turned out if we waited the extra ten minutes we would actually arrive in The Hague a full twenty minutes before the earlier train.  Victory!   

Fifteen minutes later we boarded our super-modern train and opted to sit in the upper level.  I whipped out my computer to do a little writing before we pulled out of the station and was surprised to find that no only did the train offer free internet, but when the screen popped up it told me what train I was on, where the train was headed and where it would be stopping along the way, plus there was a clock counting down to our departure time and every scheduled stop too.  And of course everything ran on time, down to the minute.  These guys really got things figured out! 

Train travel is just the best.  

It’s a smooth ride with comfy seats, lots of room to move around, and big windows that deliver the countryside in an expansive blur.  Just outside of Amsterdam we passed through Harlaam, an area I’ve always meant to visit but never managed to.  I’ll make a stronger effort the next time I’m in The Netherlands; it looked quite beautiful as we skimmed through.

Our train was almost an express – with just a few stops between A and B – and when it got moving it really got moving.  Once we got far enough from the city the view became mostly flat fields of greenery dotted with hamlet-style homes and a smattering of livestock, but every once in a while the train would rush past strips of vivid colour: tulip farms.  Pinks, blues, purples, reds, yellows; Holland has long been famous for its tulips and here they were, flashing by like a blurry kaleidoscope.

It looked like they were farming rainbows.

Right on time we pulled into The Hague.  Stepping out of the station we found our tram stop right outside the main entrance and looking up at the super-convenient digital sign (every tram stop in the country seems to have one, which is so great), we discovered that our tram would be arriving in just one minute.  

It did, we got on, sat down and enjoyed a pretty tour of the city before hopping off just a few steps from our hotel.  It was just so blatantly convenient.

Even better, as we were taking those few steps to the hotel we passed a pharmacy.  Al could buy himself some bandages to help with his blisters.  “Oh, I’ll be all right,” he said.  

“No, you’d better get some,” I suggested, not-so-subtly mothering my big brother.  “I’ll sit here and watch your suitcase.”  We still had quite a bit of vacation left to go so I figured that his feet still had a lot of trauma coming.  The pharmacy was on a roundabout that outlined a pretty little park complete with a fountain, plenty of benches, and a ring of manicured shrubbery.  Happy mothers pushed babies in carriages, smiling dog-owners strolled lazily behind pulled leashes, kids whizzed past on bicycles, laughing with their friends; it was all so idyllic.

Alan emerged with his box of plasters and joined me on the sidewalk.  Our hotel was just on the other side of the roundabout so just a few tuk-tuk-tuks of luggage wheels and we were there.

We were happily surprised to find that not only did we only have to scale a mere fourteen stairs to ascend to our room (okay, we were quite ecstatic about that), but we had also scored a really nice, proper hotel room.  High ceilings, a couch, a table and chair, a bathroom larger than a broom closet, and two wide, comfortable beds.  We celebrated our good fortune by emptying my Duty-Free bottle of Jack Daniels once and for all into a pair of final drinks, which we enjoyed without ice. 

Alan laid down for a nap and I busied myself with some quiet computer time.  After an hour or so we roused ourselves and went for a walk.

It was a beautiful evening outside.  We started at the pretty roundabout and jutted off to the right.  We soon found ourselves on a narrow winding street lined with tiny cars parked bumper-to-bumper in front of charming, picturesque houses, each decorated with hanging flowers and similar niceties.  After a few twists and turns through equally alluring neighbourhoods we arrived (by my design) at the Peace Palace, a stunning, arched castle that stands tall in the centre of The Hague and looms large on the world stage.

The Peace Palace was built more than a century before as the home for the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and it now houses the International Court of Justice.  Yes, the building was created  specifically to end wars and promote principled law and integrity for the entire planet.  This is where people like Muammar Gaddafi and Uhuru Kenyatta get their comeuppance.

And not only is the building admirable for it’s peace-spreading, tyrant-defeating purpose, but it’s also strikingly beautiful.

Especially at night.  

Unfortunately it was long past visiting hours so we were left to admire the Peace Palace from just beyond the fence, our faces pressed up against the iron bars like prisoners (which seemed a bit ironic).  There were some park benches out there with us, along with a few abstract sculptures (representing Peace and/or Good Will I assume) and an eternal flame encased in a marble obelisk.  We sat on one of the benches and contemplated world peace.

And where to eat dinner.

We had taken the backstreets to get to the Peace Palace and we hadn’t passed a single restaurant along the way.  We started back along a wide, busy road lined primarily with office buildings until it crossed the bottom of the street that our hotel was on.  

We had only seen a tiny bit of our street but it seemed to me like it was the right kind of area for bars and restaurants.  I suggested we turn left but Al was unconvinced.  We trudged on for several more blocks and found nothing but a few shuttered diners that had closed their doors when the briefcase crowd ended the business day. 

We hung a left up another hopeless street and soon looped back around to our hotel, where we found an Italian place just a few doors down that offered excellent plates of pasta (or pizza, if you preferred; we didn’t) for only five euro each.  We weren’t halfway through our meal when Al said, “We’re coming here again tomorrow night!”  I was happy to see he was finally happy with his dinner.

After feasting we wandered back down our street and found a bar.  We went in for a drink but it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.  Just a few tables taken up with sullen-looking locals staring at either a) their cellphones or b) the video monitor that was playing an endless stream of headache-inducing rap by the likes of P-Boy Slippy, Ladyday J-Ron, or Heavy D-Q-Tip, or some such thing.  

We had one drink and got out of there.  We found another place with a similar vibe and turned on our heels.  We soon ended up back in the shadow of our hotel.  We considered calling it a night – we did, after all, want to get a good night’s sleep in anticipation of the next day’s excursion – but it was still pretty darn early so we decided to give it one more shot.

And lo, on the very next corner was a good-sized, well-lit drinking hole with about a half-dozen men sitting around a pair of tables and a barkeep silently wiping down highballs behind the bar.  We grabbed a pair of drinks (a seven euro Bacardi and Coke and a two euro Heineken), sat down, and were instantly welcomed by the small crowd.  We drew our chairs around to their table and spent the next three hours soaking in each other’s culture.

Two or three were locals, one was a very talkative Russian who had emigrated to The Netherlands two decades before, and the rest were all replanted natives of Suriname.  It hadn’t occurred to me (or it had slipped my mind) that Suriname is one of the many Dutch colonies scattered around the planet, but it is.  I also learned that the baked concoction of cheese, vegetables, and french fries called capsilon that I thought was a Dutch creation was actually Turkish, and the reason the poutine-like dish was so prevalent in The Netherlands is because Turkish immigrants are so prevalent there.

The drinks kept flowing, the laughter and conversation just grew and grew, and it was just a whole pile of fun.  We talked about hockey, soccer, Dutch laws and customs, Santa Claus versus Sinter Klaus, Canadian history and geography, and so, so much more.  The conversation was easy and ever-flowing.  We never had such a great time learning so much.

When we bid our new friends goodnight it was obvious that they still had plenty of Monday night left in them, but we had an early-ish start planned for the morning and we wanted to be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for it as we possible could be (the evening of steady drinking notwithstanding), so we managed to pull ourselves away and got out of there before it got too late. 

We were back in our hotel room sharing a large bag of chips and watching crappy television by 11pm.  As I set my alarm for our morning wakeup I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep.  Not because of the droning television set; I had earplugs and an eye mask for that.  

No, the reason why I (correctly) guessed I would be doing more tossing and turning than dozing and snoring was because tomorrow was the day we had been waiting for, the day that the entire trip was centred around, and I was pretty excited.

091118 The Breathtaking Louwman Automobile Collection

1932 Duesenberg Model SJ Lagrande Dual-Cowl Phaeton
This car cost about $20,000 at a time when a new Ford was priced at $500. Only 35 examples of the SJ were produced.

The Louwman Museum (It turns out “Louwman” does not rhyme with “ploughmen” as I had previously thought.  Rather, it rhymes with…uh…Roman.) was founded in 1934 making it (I believe) the oldest car collection in the world.  It is also – in my opinion – by far the greatest automobile museum imaginable, and trust me, I’ve visited many.  The collection is not only vast and immaculate, but every car on display has some unique, quirky provenance that launches it from ‘prohibitively expensive’ to ‘virtually priceless’.  I mean, they have first-off-the-factory-floor models, winners of every famous race you can think of, one-of-a-kinds galore…In short, their collection is unimaginable.

1932 Bugatti Type 54 Bachelier Roadster

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I concocted the plan to get my brother to Europe a visit to the Louwman Museum stood as the centrepiece of the trip.  Ostensibly, seeing this car collection was the reason why we came to Europe at all.  During my initial visit to the Louwman Museum in 2013 I bought Alan a book in the giftshop that contained pictures and descriptions of every piece in their collection, and car-guy that he is and always has been, he loved it.

I knew he would be blown away if he could see the place in real-life and of course I was right.

And can you believe we almost made it to the museum in time for their opening bell?  After snagging a breakfast, a tram, and a bus we walked into the impressive building at 10:30, just a half-hour after they opened their doors for the day.  

(When we arrived I was parched so I went straight to the cafeteria and asked for some water.  She charged me about four euro or so and handed over a tiny glass bottle containing perhaps 250ml of liquid.  As I motioned to leave the cafeteria she informed me that no food or drink was allowed out of the room.  I took a single swig, turned and placed my empty bottle on the counter and joined Alan to start our day.  It was hands-down the most money I’ve ever paid for H2O in my life.)

2008 Lincoln Sedan Delivery Deco Liner

We lingered in the lobby drooling over a dozen or so four-wheeled masterpieces before beginning our chronological weave through the perfectly-curated collection.  We started at literally the world’s first car and continued past restored works of beauty that dated from the late 1800’s.  We marvelled at the rows of steam, electric, and yes, even hybrid cars from the first decade of the 20th century.  It amazed me to ponder how modern world history would have evolved if the earliest car manufacturers had dispensed with oil and gas right away and concentrated on electric vehicles.  Oh, the wars we would have avoided!

1886 Benz Patent Motor Car
This three-wheeler designed and built by Karl Benz is the world’s first patented motorcar.
1908 Baker Electric Roadster
The fastest electric car on the market, Baker halted the production of electric cars in 1916.

Al stopped at every display and read every panel on every vehicle, and they were all extensive.  After an hour or so I saw him skip a car.  “Aha!” I thought.  “He’s beginning to get museum-fatigue!”  But I soon (and happily) realized that I was very mistaken.  He obviously had missed that one vehicle by mistake, because for the entire rest of the day he continued to read every panel in its entirety.  I was impressed.

So, obviously, was he.

We broke up the day with a weird, overpriced and under-satisfying lunch in the very well-appointed cafeteria.  Though there weren’t many items on the menu that could have possibly interested Alan in the first place, his eventual disappointment was actually my fault.  I suggested he order the beef croquettes, accidentally mistaking them for “beef brochettes”.  So (of course) instead of getting skewers of meat with a side of hollandaise sauce – which I’m sure he would have enjoyed on at least some level – he received a few small rolls made from vegetables and minced meat fried in breadcrumbs, which he certainly didn’t enjoy on any level.  My bad, as the kids say.  

The fact that we were wholly unsatisfied with our onsite lunch made us that much more eager to get back to the collection, so we called for the bill and resumed our afternoon of plowing through the collection.

Jaguar XKSS
A total of only 16 Jaguars XKSS came on the market, one of which was once owned by Steve McQueen.

The oldest known Toyota in existence (discovered in a barn in Mongolia), the bullet-ridden sedan from The Godfather, the very strange and compelling Swan Car that shocked India, Maseratis, Ferraris, racecars, kit cars, the world’s largest collection of Spykers (a long-lost brand of automobiles manufactured in The Netherlands), century-old vehicles with original paint jobs that looked almost new…the whole place was astounding.

1903 Spyker 60-HP Four-Wheel Drive Racing Car
This was the first car in the world to be equipped with a six-cylinder engine, the first petrol-driven car with four-wheel drive and the first car with a braking system connected to all four wheels.

For some reason, I mistakenly recalled the collection being split in half between the building’s two wings.  As a result, as we approached what I thought was merely the half-way point of the collection we were in fact closing in on the end.  One one hand, it’s good we didn’t have to race through half of the cars with just a half-hour to go before closing.  On the other hand, I mighta kinda rushed us through the last little bit, only to have us finish our tour with a bit of time to spare.

As I headed into the gift shop Al said, “I’ll be right back,” and promptly disappeared.  After I went over every item up for sale twice I finally went to look for him, and found him nowhere to be found.  I actually started to panic a little (needlessly, of course), checking outside, rechecking the gift shop, going back through the end of the museum’s collection, checking the gift shop once more..before Alan finally emerged.

1926 Rolls-Royce 40/50HP Phantom Barker Torpedo Tourer
This car was used for carrying members of the British Royal Family, including the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VIII.

“Where were you?!?” I gasped, like a worried mother finding her lost child at Disneyland.

“In the bathroom,” he replied, as nonchalantly as a grown man would when telling his hyperactive younger brother that he had just been in the bathroom.

Anyway, our visit to the Louwman Museum had been an astoundingly great, unforgettable time for both of us.

(Of course I saved my ticket stub, chronic stub-collector that I am.  Inexplicably – to me at least – Alan refused to take his.  Well, that’s not true.  He explic-ed it like this: “I’m not the one with the albums full of ticket stubs.”

So I saved both ticket stubs.  You never know, he might want his back one day.)

Back on the street we waited for the bus, switched over to the tram and jumped off at the roundabout park near our hotel.  We walked to a nearby shop where Al picked up a bottle of Bacardi and I got a 26er of Canadian Club.  Handing Alan the bottles I rushed off to buy some mix at a nearby grocers, telling him to “just keep walking towards the store.”  I had the sole hotel key (and no cell phone of course) so if we split up we had to co-ordinate.  I had become rather familiar with his, shall we say “measured” walking pace so I was confident I could stroll back past our hotel and further to the store where I could buy the mix and make it back to the entrance of our hotel in the same time it would take Al to simply walk to the hotel.  If he beat me then I would inevitably meet him between the store and the hotel.  No problem!

Instead, he opted to go into the hotel’s lobby and wait for me there.  Of course I had no way of intuiting this new plan so I was inspired to launch another flurious search, going up and down our street looking into one shop after another wondering where the heck he had gotten to this time.

Then finally he was the heck on the sidewalk next to our hotel entrance.  We went upstairs and christened our new bottles before returning to our favourite little Italian place a few doors down for another five-euro dinner.  This time I ordered a pizza while Alan opted for the penne with bacon sauce, which I had ordered the night before.

We both really enjoyed our meals again and we relaxed over a leisurely after-dinner drink.  Going out the door we could only think of two options.  We could turn left and go back to our hotel room where a short evening of cheap drinks and potato chips under the blueish din of CNN was surely on hand, or we could turn right and go back to the corner bar that we had discovered the night before, where slightly pricier drinks and potentially great conversation would be the order of the evening.

We chose right(ly).

Walking inside we found the same group of men (and a couple more) sitting around the exact same tables where we had met them the previous night; it was like they hadn’t left.  The bartender welcomed us back with a broad smile and a pair of strong handshakes and our group beckoned us to join them as if we were all old friends.  The bartender even offered Alan a complimentary shooter!

And thus ensued another evening of great company and great fun.  Though we were both pretty tuckered out after spending nearly six hours on our feet at the Louwman Museum we pretty much closed the place, lasting until well past two o’clock in the morning.  

As a matter of fact, it was so late (early?) when we got back to our room that I felt compelled to set my alarm for 11am to ensure we would make our noon-hour checkout time.

1922 Joswin Town Car

091218 From the Strandbeests of Delft to the Streets of Rotterdam

Unfortunately breakfast wasn’t included with our hotel stay in The Hague, but then, as late as we slept we probably would have missed it anyway.  We checked out and found a cafe around the corner that was still serving breakfast.  Alan ordered the Hangover Breakfast: scrambled eggs on toast with a croissant, tea, orange juice, and bacon.  “Make sure the bacon is well done,” Alan said to the friendly server.  When his breakfast arrived it came with three round slices of bacon, cooked almost black.  It was the closest thing to a ‘normal’ breakfast he’s had so far on this trip.

I ordered an Americano coffee and a croissant with jam, but only so Al wouldn’t have to dine alone.  It was the lightest-looking item on the menu and I wasn’t hungry in the least.  I’m rarely hungry first thing in the morning.

The meals actually became a bit of a struggle for me.  I just could not bring myself to eat three squares a day while Alan couldn’t do without them.  I skipped a few meals here and there, but being social I ended up joining him for many of these extra (to me, at least) meals.

Funny, Alan mentioned a few times that with all the walking we’ve been doing he expects to have lost a considerable amount of weight by the time he gets home whereas with all the extra calories I was taking in I, on the other hand, was dreading my first meeting with the scale when I got back home.

After breakfast we returned to our pretty little roundabout and endured a slightly drizzling rain while we waited for the #16 tram.  We rode the tram past the central station and got off at the end of the line, where we crossed the road and waited to board bus #15.

Our schedule had us travelling to Rotterdam for a three-night stay and though the most direct route would have had us disembark at central station and switch over to an express train, I had a deviation in mind and I was extremely pleased that Alan was 100% on board.

So instead we rode the #15 to the outskirts of Delft until we got off the bus in front of a string of car dealerships.  Fortunately the nit-picky rain had stopped by this time.  We plick-plick-plicked our luggage through the oversized parking lots for about a kilometre-and-a-half until we arrived at a massive Asian grocery store.  Beside the grocers was a small green hill, the only hill in Delft as far as I could discover when I had been hunting for this place on google maps several years before.  Coming around the corner I could see a small workshop on top of the hill, and it was surrounded by strandbeests.

“This is the place!” I cried triumphantly.

A few trips to The Netherlands ago I had done some sleuthing and discovered this very workshop on this very hill.  Y’see, I had seen a random clip on youtube of a guy named Theo Jansen who had made it his life’s work to create a brand new life form out of PVC tubing (yes, you heard me right).  And though it sounds like he might be, Mr. Jansen was no kook.  His creations are brilliantly executed works of living art and they have garnered much attention on the international stage, appearing in galleries and museum around the world.

In the youtube video Theo mentioned that he lived in Delft and he worked on his strandbeests at his workshop on a hill.  As I mentioned, google earth only shows one hill in Delft, and it can barely be called a hill at that, rising just seventy feet or so up from the sidewalk (The Netherlands on the whole is notoriously flat, which is why it’s called that).  So I found the hill and I discovered the genius busy at work on his latest innovations.  It was a fun visit and I hoped to return one day.  This was that day.

I had sprung the idea on Alan the night before, showing him the same youtube video that first got my interest.

“Cool,” he said.  

I explained to him that Delft was between our hotel in The Hague and destination of Rotterdam, but that it would be a bit of a hassle to get there and we’d have to take several busses instead of the train and that we’d have to lug our luggage for several kilometres and then carry them up a hill and that the forecast said it would probably be raining and and and…

“I’m okay with going,” he said, disregarding all my warnings of potential inconvenience.  I was thrilled!

So up the hill we went.

We found the workshop locked up tight; unfortunately Theo Jansen was nowhere to be found.  Luckily he leaves all of his past projects out in the open for all who care to visit so we were surrounded by different examples of strandbeests (“strandbeest” is Dutch for “sand creature”: Theo’s vision is to set his homemade critters free on the beaches of The Netherlands so they can roam freely and live lives of their own).  There was an early centipede-style creature, many models (species?) with wings that could make them move independently, several strandbeests that featured stomachs (which is what Jansen called the rows of plastic 2L Coke bottles that stored air pressure built up by the beest’s undulating wings), and even one that was set up for visitors to interact with.

There was a sign on the sample beest granting permission to pull and push it around the yard (“…but please leave it near the shed when you’re finished”).  We both took turns walking it around and marvelling at the intricacies of Mr. Jansen’s creatures at work.  His biggest challenge (he told me on my previous visit) had been how to make the beest’s feet move flat along the ground.  Of course making the feet arc around in a complete circle was simple enough, but how to make them lift off the ground, rise up, move ahead and come down again, and then rather than dig into the earth as a circular motion would do, how to then make the feet move evenly along the ground, gaining the most distance and traction possible, before lifting up and arcing forward yet again?

And after just a dozen years or so he came up with a seven-point system that completely worked, and it’s a system that is integral to the movement of every one of his strandbeest designs.  He refers to the seven-point system as the beest’s DNA, and he has uploaded the formula on his website for free access in hopes that people around the world will take his idea and make beests of their own.  “This is how my creations will evolve,” he told me (again, when I met him the last time I visited).

Alan and I spent about forty-five minutes playing with the strandbeest and exploring the boneyard (it was amazing how much the PVC tubing actually looked like skeletons, whitened and cracked as they were after several years of exposure to the elements – it truly looked like a boneyard).  Finally, after I had slipped a small note of my appreciation, admiration, and thanks under Theo’s workshop door, we pushed our pet beest back to it’s nest beside the shed, took a last look around at the collection of sleeping strandbeests that represented the progression of a lifetime of work, picked up our bags and started back down the hill.  A whole bunch of sidewalk puck-puck-pucking and we found ourselves back at the bus stop where we waited at least twenty minutes before continuing our journey towards Rotterdam.

We passed the time talking about how glad we were that we had come to Delft to see what we had just seen, and how it had been well worth the small inconveniences.  We passed the rest of the time discussing where the heck the bus was, and why hadn’t it come already?  For once, our stop didn’t have a digital sign telling us when the bus would be arriving (which seemed rather inconvenient).

But arrive it did, and it eventually dumped us at Delft’s train station.  We were struggling with the ticket machine trying to secure passes for the next train to Rotterdam when a nice lady behind us in line offered to help.  Under her guidance we soon got the machine to spit out a couple of tickets.  We thanked her and went to our platform, where she found us and told us she was going to Rotterdam as well; it was home for her.  Did we need any more help or suggestions?  

I just love how many nice people there are in the world, and how many you meet when you’re on the move and need just a little help.  Travelling reminds me that kindness is everywhere; it’s surprisingly prevalent.  Travelling as much as I have has convinced me that kindness is the human default mode, and anything other that kindness requires significant work and practise.  Which is why it can seem like a lot of people are mean: the only reason mean people sometimes seem to be so common is because the mean ones have to practise their meanness so much, otherwise they’d fall back to being nice.  It makes them hard to ignore.

We declined the lady’s further help with earnest thanks and soon hopped on our train.  Though we sat on the other end of the train car, far from our helping stranger, I made a point of keeping her in view, just in case we found we needed help when we arrived in Rotterdam after all.

We didn’t.

Emerging from Rotterdam’s ultra-modern futuristic train depot, we tock-tock-tocked along a broad pedestrian strip past rows of urban trees and along a narrow, sculpture-lined canal until we got to our cross street.  As was my habit, I had used google street-view the night before to get a visual idea of our walking route to the next hotel, so when I saw a large statue on the corner of a gnome holding a…was it an ice cream cone? I recognized our turn and confidently led us down the next alley before quickly finding us lost.

First time that’s happened this trip.

A couple of local teenagers were walking by.  I stopped them and asked for directions.

“Do you know where Breitner Straad is?” I asked.

“Um…” they both said, their heads turning this way and that.  “I’ve heard of it,” one of them said.  “I think it’s around here somewhere.” 

“Okay, thanks,” I said, befuddled at how things could have gone wrong.  And then…Aha!

“Oh right, it’s this way,” I said to Alan, marching us back out to the street.  I had recognized our alley from google, but back on the street I noticed the first three alleys all had identical arches above them.  “I took us down the wrong alley,” I said, calling over my shoulder.  “It’s the second one!”

And it was.  Up that second alley just fifty metres or so was the beginning of Breitner Straad, and curiously enough, from the corner of Breitner Straad and our alley I could easily see the spot where we had queried those teenagers, and it was only about twenty metres away, through a small parking lot.  Geez!

Our hotel was right there, and we were soon checked in by a very, very friendly receptionist who took the time to lead us through the cozy-looking bar so she could show us where the included breakfast would be served.  And you know, it looked like breakfast might not be too shabby, with a proper restaurant, lots of room for plenty of food options, and even a toaster.

You can travel an awful long time in Europe without seeing a toaster, so like I say, breakfast was looking pretty hopeful.

Back at the desk the receptionist gave us a tourist map of the city and pointed out a million things worth seeing, circling everything we took an interest in.  “And just a few blocks away is Vit Devitt,” was her closer.  “It’s a very nice little street with lots of restaurants…”

“Then that’s where we’re going first!” Alan said enthusiastically.  She double-circled it.

Truth be told, first we went up to our room where Alan laid down for a nap and I dug into the internet and a few rye and Cokes.  But when we did finally go somewhere it was Vit Devitt.

Which, upon scrutinizing the map, I discovered was actually spelt: “Witte de With”.  Of course it was.

It was indeed nearby, it was indeed an obvious tourist strip (though a very nice, homey one), and it was indeed lined on both sides with (de with) inviting-looking restaurants.  We found Ter March, which we had been told had the best burger in town.  Their menu mentioned that all the burgers were cooked medium-rare.  “I’m not eating a hamburger that’s only cooked medium rare!” Al exclaimed.  I assured him they would probably have no problem making his burger to order and I was right.  He ordered well done, I took mine as offered: medium rare.

Mine tasted great, but I think it would have held together better had it been cooked a little more.  Al’s was cooked through, and he seemed to enjoy it.

For dessert we crossed the street where Alan tried his first ever Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  I abstained (I’m not really a ‘dessert’ guy), but eagerly accepted a free sample when I was offered one (I’m also not an idiot).  I don’t know how the fellow managed to balance an entire peanut butter cup on my tiny little sample spoon the way he did, laden as it was with all that mocha ice cream and the drooping gobs of caramel, but he did, and I felt blessed.  The sample made me a) want much, much more, while simultaneously making me b) full enough that I didn’t need anymore.  

I suppose such a conflict generally leads most people to having more.  But most people aren’t as cheap as I am.  I savoured the flavour and maintained my abstention.

On my suggestion we went home soon afterwards, where after a quick drink we turned in around 10pm, which was great.  We had really been going at it since we’d arrived in Europe and I was happy for a fairly easy day and an even easier, relaxing night.

Plus there was a free breakfast full of promise slated for the morning, and we wanted to be up and at it before they shut it down at 10am.

091318 The Cube Houses of Rotterdam (and the Markthal and and and…)

After an epic, amazing, and well-deserved eleven-hour slumber my brother and I made it to breakfast just before they packed up for the day.  We perused the offerings and both sat down with plates of bread, cold cuts, and cheese in front of us.  Not too bad, I thought.

Once we had dug in with earnest the lady who had been putting away the breakfast things stopped by our table.

“How would you like your eggs?” she asked, like an angel.

“You’re making eggs to order?!?” I asked, as pleased as I was stunned.

“Yes, of course,” she said with a smile.

“Could you make me an omelet?” I asked, hoping against hope.

“Yes, of course,” she said again.  I was really starting to like this lady.

“And could you have them put cheese in it, and onions?” I implored.

“And maybe ham too?” she asked.  What, was she trying to come on to me or something?

“Yes!!!” I cried.  “And anything else that’s in the kitchen.  Tomatoes, peppers, anything!”

“Yeah, I’ll have that too,” Alan said.

When she plunked the single omelet between us she said “The cook had already shut down for the day but he made this special for you,” and I almost fell in love.

Though it was unusual that we were sharing a single omelet the thing was huge; stuffed thick with cheese, ham, onions, peppers, and everything.  And it was delicious.  

“First proper breakfast of the trip,” Al managed between bites, and while he was right about that I’d certainly been enjoying the Euro-style deli-tray breakfasts that had been de rigueur thus far.

At the end of our breakfast I got impatient with Al for the first time of the vacation.  We had finished eating and he was hoping to get a larger cup for his tea.  Our server was busy closing everything down and rushed past every time Al tried to get her attention.

“Just get up and ask her,” I suggested, twice.  Instead, he kept trying to wave her down and she kept not noticing him.  Finally I stormed out of my seat, asked her if she could please bring a larger cup for my brother’s tea.  She was happy to do so and she delivered one promptly along with that helping smile of hers.  

“Did it bother you that much?” he asked as I sat back down.

“No, it’s just that…” I said, trailing off.  “Oh, forget it,” I concluded, thinking if this turned out being our biggest conflict of the journey then we were doing pretty good.  We are brothers, after all.

Plus, it wasn’t a conflict; it was simply me losing my patience (I have plenty of patience but I am sometimes loath to waste it, especially on petty things).  But I know better than that; patience is really, really important, particularly when one is travelling.  Perhaps my abruptness was partly influenced by Al’s shirt-of-the-day, which read: “Sorry I’m late…I didn’t want to come” which didn’t seem to me like a very friendly shirt for a tourist to wear whilst on vacation.  Regardless, my bad (as the kids say).  

Utterly satisfied with our fantastic breakfast we set our for a busy day of sightseeing.  We started with a stroll along the main road near our hotel, which ran parallel to the much-more-famous strip along Witte de With and was just as nice, and lined with just as many tourist-friendly shops and restaurants.  It was a lovely European boulevard but without the cachet of a witty (vitty?) name like Witte de With it had just a tiny fraction of the tourist traffic.

Just a little farther along we came to the Markthal, one of Rotterdam’s more recent (and visually jarring) architectural wonders.  The horseshoe-shaped building contains some of the city’s most sought-after condos and offices and while the massive grey structure looks almost bleak from the outside, inside it’s anything but.  Enclosed within its huge arch the Markthal houses a busy food market chock-a-block with countless stalls selling cheeses, bread, vegetables, and even full legs of…were they lamb? 

And all of it underneath an all-encompassing ceiling decorated with a massive, brightly-coloured mural depicting oversized fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish, a piece of art that stretched to a staggering 11,000 square metres.  Yes, the mural was more than two and-a-half acres big, and twice as astounding.  

We perused every booth and scrutinized every aisle, but strictly as tourists; we weren’t shopping.  Okay, one of us might or might not have have bought a donut at one of the booths, but that was it.  

Despite the building’s domineering size and style, outside on the street the Markthal barely stood out against all the other outstanding architecture that not only surrounded the market but stretched throughout the city.  No matter where we looked we saw something remarkable.  Rotterdam had been all but destroyed during WWII, losing most of their heritage buildings and leaving the city to completely rebuild.  The city took the challenge and turned it into an opportunity.

The other cities was had visited in The Netherlands had been characterized by centuries-old buildings, streets, and neighbourhoods.  We saw so many amazing homes, ancient churches and town halls, old shops and warehouses, Gothic statues and antique sidewalks, and, well, everything that the countless historic wonders that permeated our cobblestoned landscapes almost started to go from “old” to “old hat”.  But in Rotterdam almost all of those things had been wiped out during the war.  Throughout the entire downtown core only two buildings remained standing after the devastating air raids.  Everything else had been charred beyond recognition.

And so, instead of being amazed by seventeenth-century stonework and overly ornate window dormers we were instead gaping at astoundingly modern, boxy, glass edifices that relied on artistic creativity for their beauty; buildings that leaned on their stark originality and blatant uniqueness as much as they leaned on their gravity-defying girders and trusses. 

It was all so very, very cool.  I was quickly falling in love with Rotterdam (and not just because of the breakfast).

Around the corner we decided to check out something the helpful lady at our hotel had suggested, Rotterdam’s Cube Houses.

And if I hadn’t completely fallen in love with the city yet I was about to, and I was about the fall hard..

In the late 1970’s Rotterdam was looking for ideas for a covered walkway in the downtown core.  Architect Piet Blom submitted a daring design that would feature a walkway all right, but it was to be covered and surrounded by fifty-five elevated Cube Houses, each of them upended at the most implausible angles imaginable.  

And Rotterdam being Rotterdam, they went for it (though the city council trimmed his plan down to just thirty-nine Cube Houses.  “Fair enough,” thought Piet Blom, or so I would imagine).

Apparently Blom was thinking about Mother Nature when he designed the Cube Houses, shaping the pedestaled domiciles into the basic form of a forest of trees.  I can’t say I really saw that, but what I did see was a whole lot of amazing.

I just couldn’t believe these houses.  The whole neighbourhood stood above a lovely atrium that boasted a few shops and a lot of Escher-like staircases that led up to the Cube Houses at the oddest of angles.  I craned my neck and stared and gawked…I was completely smitten.

Luckily one of the houses is open as a “museum” of sorts, admitting entrance to one of the three-storeyed wonders for a mere three euro.  I was dying to see a Cube House from the inside and so was Alan so we shelled out our six euro and started up the stairs.

It turns out the architect left the inside of his Cube Houses quite bare, challenging residents to design their own layouts.  That said, they are all divided into three floors, with each floor boasting a modest hundred square metres of floor space.  And the houses all feature the same staircases and angled windows, and each one has a small outdoor balcony.  

The one we visited had the kitchen, dining room and a small sitting room on the first floor – which meant the walls angled out as they reached towards the ceiling.  The kitchen was pretty small but it seemed quite functional, akin to a galley on a hobby craft.  On the next level we found the bedroom, the main living room and an office space, all with wonderfully wacky angles and slants.  The top floor was a single pyramid-shaped room full of windows, and to my mind it was the true gem of the place.

Gosh, I loved it so much.  I walked through the whole house twice, lingering everywhere.

On our way out I asked the guy who had taken our admission how much the Cube Houses sold for.  Not only were they relatively large and situated in a prime downtown location in an obviously affluent metropolis, but they were also singularly unique and one of Rotterdam’s premiere tourist attractions; they are featured on almost every postcard in the city.  And there were only thirty-nine of them!  Surely it would cost well over a million euro to own one?

“Well, three have sold so far this year,” he told me, which was a surprise.  But the real surprise?

“And one of them sold for as much as 300,000 euro.”

What?!?!  

“Wow, that seems pretty cheap,” I responded.  “What are the condo fees?”

“Oh, there are no condo fees,” he replied.

I was flabbergasted.  I would be lying if I told you I haven’t been lying awake dreaming about lying awake in one of those Cube Houses.  You never know…

After a final, marvelling gaze at the forest of upended homes we circled back to our hotel – admiring amazing Rotterdam the whole way – and laid down for a rest.  We planned to rent bicycles from our hotel for a twenty-four hour block and weren’t in a big hurry to start the clock ticking.  And so we lounged lazily.

Once three o’clock reared its head we got up, gave ourselves a shake and went down to the lobby.  Moments later we were off on our first tentative bike ride, slowly and carefully familiarizing ourselves with how the ubiquitous bike lanes (complete with their own rules and traffic signals) interacted with the many cars, buses, and trams, and especially the incessant busy foot-traffic that seemed to converge at every corner.

Our steeds were old-fashioned (but new) granny-style bikes and they were great.  We had noticed that North American-style 18-speeds with their sleek lines and curved-down handlebars were almost nonexistent in The Netherlands, and it looked to us like none of the bikes we saw zipping through the streets had shiftable gears at all.  We were certainly wrong about that.  

Our bikes featured enclosed chains and wheel hubs that concealed a hidden gearbox; we could shift through seven gears with our right handgrip.  And even though we were poised in such an unintuitive way with our backs straight up we were both surprised at how easy and immediately comfortable the ride was.

Soon we were zipping along the bicycle freeways like old pros.  We even went through a bike lane roundabout!  It was really, really fun.

“We should have done this everywhere we went,” Al called out over his shoulder.

“You’re absolutely right!” I responded with a yell as I pulled out to pass.

We cruised through parks and alongside canals that were littered with nifty sculptures and breath-taking views.  We rode to the old part of the city (the small section that had escaped the bombing) and criss-crossed tiny bridges until we discovered the area’s old windmill (allowing us to finally check “windmill” off our tourist checklist).  

Then we zig-zagged back through the city with no plan at all, just turning left and right on a whim.  When we got hungry we doubled back to a busy neighbourhood and hummed and hawed until we finally selected an upscale-looking cafe on the corner with a big patio.  It didn’t look ideal but it was something.  

As we started across the street I noticed that we had just locked up our bikes in front of a Papa John’s.  I had never eaten at one before but I recognized the logo and I knew it was an American chain.

“Hey, did you notice we were just standing in front of a Papa John’s?” I asked with a chuckle.  Al immediately spun on his heels, turning around as we were halfway across the street, right in the middle of the intersection.

“That’s where I’m going!” he yelped, rushing past me.  Of course I turned around and joined him.

They had a cheap deal on a pop and a medium pizza so we each ordered one, though in retrospect we could have just as easily shared one.  I think we even ordered the same kind of pizza.  Our food was ready pretty quick; they obviously use a Pizza Hut-ish fast-cooking dough.  We pulled the only two stools in the tiny storefront pizzeria up to the only table in the place, set our molten hot pizza on the small semi-circlular table that jutted out of the wall and dug in.  

I don’t think I’ll go again.  To me it tasted pretty much exactly like McCain’s Deep ’N Delicious Rising Crust pizza, and I don’t need to go out to eat frozen pizza.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pizza snob.  I like me some Pizza Hut just fine.  But you know what they say: bad pizza is still pizza, and our Papa John’s certainly filled up my hunger-hole.  I even took most of mine away with me and a slice or two of Alan’s as well, taking advantage of a very convenient and well-designed plastic takeaway harness the shop offered, the likes of which I’ve not seen before.  It allowed me to get the pizza back to our hotel room in perfect condition, and while riding a bike no less.  I can’t imagine why pizza joints in North America don’t use them.

After a quick drink in the room we decided to find a place called Easybar that someone along the way had recommended, apparently it was somewhere along the main drag.  I figured if we were going out for a night on the town then we might as well just walk, but Alan disagreed.  “If we have bikes we might as well use them,” he reasoned, and it turned out he was right.

We rode up and down the street and couldn’t find the place for the life of us, but it sure was a lot of fun riding back and forth looking for it.  Of course we passed a hundred other bars during our search so eventually we just shrugged off our quest and popped into one of them.

It was okay but not worthy of our entire evening, so we decided to head back past our hotel and look for another bar we had heard about, a place called Tiki’s just off of Witte de With.  We had a hard time finding that place too – mainly because I had gotten mixed up and kept asking people for directions to “Kiki’s” instead of “Tiki’s” – but we eventually found it.

There were two small tables outside with eight or ten chairs squeezed around them, and plenty of room inside.  It was a nice night out and there were a couple of empty spots at one of the outdoor tables so we sat down and ordered drinks.

Turns out we had parked ourselves next to three friendly local guys and we proceeded to spend the next three or four hours having just the greatest time hanging out with them.  We blabbed and blabbed, they blabbed and blabbed, the drinks kept flowing at a somewhat alarming rate, and it was awesome.

Those guys taught us so much about Rotterdam that we never would have discovered on our own.  For example, we had noticed red lights embedded into the sidewalk in certain areas that lit up at night and we had no idea what they were for.  The guys informed us that the lights outlined the parts of the city that had been bombed during the war.  

They also told us that until just a few years ago university was free for all Netherlanders, provided you graduated.  If you didn’t finish school or didn’t pass then you had to pay back what the tuition would have cost.  What a great incentive!  We also learned that having medicare is mandatory, and it costs about a hundred euro per month, and also that anyone living in a European Union country can move freely to any other European Union country to live and work without requiring a permit (which should have been obvious, but hadn’t occurred to me).

They also told us that the big gnome statue near our house that is holding a…was a it Christmas tree? is known locally as the Buttplug Gnome.  

Oh, we learned so much!

Alan remarked that none of them were spending any time on their cellphones, and how he had noticed much less cellphone addiction here in The Netherlands compared to back home.  They were mortified when we described how prevalent cellphone use is in North America, and they agreed that it can get to be a problem.

Indeed, the only time any of them pulled out a phone all night was when a girl had texted one of them.  The three of them ended up putting their heads together in consultation and cooperated their efforts to create the best, most strategic responses in hopes that the guy could snare a date.  Even when they used a cellphone it was something they did together!

Eventually it got too late for them or us – I forget which – and we got on our bikes and headed for home.  Luckily a) it wasn’t very far and b) we didn’t pass any RIDE programs.

When we got back to the hotel I noticed one of those foot-brushes outside that are shaped like a…what were those critters called agin?  I stared at it for a good thirty seconds trying to come up with…

…Oh yes.  “Hedgehog,” I said out loud.  Which made the thing move.  It wasn’t a foot-brush at all, it was a real hedgehog!

I tell you, if I wasn’t so tight I would have jumped out of my skin.  It still gave me a pretty good start.  For his part, the little guy just lumbered away like he hung around doorways impersonating foot-brushes all the time.

Upstairs I set my alarm in anticipation of another great breakfast, laid down and pondered the day we’d just had.  Gosh I loved those Cube Houses.  I think they were my favourite thing on the trip so far (I lay there thinking), and it’s going to take a lot to beat them.

091418 Bridges, Bikes, Boats, and Cars, Cars, Cars…

We woke up to the sound of my alarm, which was set nice and early in anticipation of another solid breakfast and another big day enjoying all Rotterdam had to offer.  After the previous night’s revelling the day was starting a bit too early for me, but not Al.  While I rolled over and hugged my pillow aching for a few more precious moments of slumber my brother’s anticipation had him out of bed, dressed and ready to walk out the door in an instant.  I’m not sure if he was more eager for the day’s adventure or the promise of another huge omelet, but either way the guy was a big ball of fast-moving morning energy.  

“I’ll meet you downstairs,” I mumbled, turning my head and prying my eyes open just in time to see the door close behind him.  I swear, he flew out of the room like he was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with papers and debris flapping in the wind behind him.

I was inspired to rise up! and hit the shower – affording me a modicum of humanness – before racing down to meet my brother at the breakfast table.  I found him drinking tea from a soup bowl (“They were out of large cups”) and waiting for his omelet.  I grabbed a coffee and a couple of cold cuts and returned to the table just as Al’s eggs were delivered.  Instead of the large, fully-stuffed omelet of yesterday he was served a couple of plain eggs folded over into a square, with no toppings or fillings whatsoever.  His face looked exactly like how a sad trombone sounds.  

I ordered my eggs scrambled and when they arrived I stirred in my own cheese, tomatoes, and ham nicked from the deli counter.  Along with a couple of slabs of dark toast it made for a pretty solid meal.

By then 10am was looming.  Our 24-hour bike rentals were only good until about 3pm so we quickly finished up breakfast we got right to it.  

And boy, did we have a great day!

We started down the road that leads away from our hotel, passing pretty housing rows and quaint old shops until the winding street met up with one of the grass-lined canals that pierces the city.  Up and down we went, traversing from green-space to green-space along an endless network of bike paths until we found ourselves in Het Park, which was it’s own self-enclosed green-space full of never-ending bike paths.  We checked out every nook and cranny, taking in the perfectly manicured park at a very slow, meandering pace.  

We rode to the top of the bluff and sat on park benches looking out over the wide waterway.  Container ships and smaller vessels ran continually in both directions, while two large tankers sat idly moored below us, doubtlessly waiting for their call to the dock.  

On the other side of the waterway lay a whole other chunk of Rotterdam, an area with a high concentration of remarkably designed, gravity-defying skyscrapers, complexes, bridges, and squares, and that’s were we were headed to next.  The map told me that we should ride across the city’s iconic bridge which, aside from being a lot of fun, would also be easy to find, with it’s countless massive pure-white cables stretching artistically up to its tall, arcing pure-white tower.  But fortunately the clerk at our hotel that morning told me something the map had been only hinting at.

Turns out there was a tunnel running under the water, or more accurately two tunnels, one for pedestrians and one strictly for bicycles!  “That would be more funny, I think,” said the clerk when we scrutinized the map together (It’s comical that Europeans often use the word “funny” when they mean to use the word “fun”.  You’d think the words would be basically interchangeable but it turns out in practise they rarely are.  It’s fun when it happens.  Err…funny when it happens.  Heck, it’s both).  

“As I was saying…” the clerk continued, eyeing me with curiosity.  “What would be more funny I think would be to ride one way through the tunnel and return on the bridge.”

And he was right!

We rode to a small building that housed a pair of steep escalators, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists.  We went down the appropriate escalator (no, we didn’t ride our bikes down, though that would’ve been awesome) and at the bottom we mounted up and rode along a well-lit, rounded tunnel towards the other side of the water.  It was pretty far, maybe a kilometre and-a-half or so, and in our direction it was downhill almost the whole way across.  What a great bike-riding experience!

At the other end was an even steeper escalator.  We rode up to the surface (again, no…) and emerged from the Maastunnel at a literal crossroads of treed bike paths that beckoned us invitingly in all directions.  It didn’t matter which way we went, it was all great.  We know that because we ended up doubling around and riding all of them.  

We started off by cruising the waterfront and taking in countless huge sculptures that dotted the shoreline.  We rode down a myriad of paths through park after park, and all of it on dedicated bike lanes.  We rode past the SS Rotterdam and around each and every wacky building that jutted out of the horizon until finally we swung back through a busy industrial area that led us past a huge cookie factory and through the delicious, mouth-watering aroma that emanated through its walls.

That was enough to trigger lunch so we looked around until we found the Fenix Food Factory, an urban market that had been recommended as a more down-to-earth alternative to the huge tourist draw of De Markthal. 

It was one of those waterfront warehouses that’s been (barely) converted into a hip, semi-upscale food emporium and it was busy.  When the place had been recommended we were told that on Fridays and Saturdays they set up a barbecue grill outside and that was all we had to hear.  To be honest, we had planned the timing of our bike rental specifically to have us cycling to the Fenix at lunchtime on Friday.

And here we were, but there sure wasn’t no barbecue being grilled outside nowhere.  Instead, we found booth after booth inside selling weird meats and cheeses, strange soups and over-named salads, and some other things that I just couldn’t begin to describe.  Basically, we were surrounded by food but there wasn’t really much to eat.  

Oh, and every single counter also had a big, trendy lineup. 

Al zigged one way and I went the other.  I found an interesting-looking sandwich at the bottom of one of the countless chalk-written signboards and placed my order.  I was waiting across the way from a cozy bar that boasted fifty beer taps, but I didn’t stand there waiting for long.  

Instead, I bellied up to the bar and kept my eye on the waiting couple who had been in line ahead of me at the sandwich counter.  They had both ordered the same sandwiches I had so they were my canaries in the coal mine.  When I saw them receive their wax-paper sacs I pounded back my second IPA and quickly ordered a third before sauntering back across to the lunch counter.  

“Number forty-two?” the man asked just as I strolled up.  Sometimes life can be so sweet.

I found Al outside sitting at a picnic table frowning down a bowl of soup.  “It was the only thing that looked safe,” he said.  My spicy Dutch sausage on focaccia was no home run either but it definitely looked better than his soup.  

After our less-than-satisfactory lunch we continued on our more-than-satisfactory bike tour of Rotterdam.  We found a geodesic dome jutting into the water that was surrounded by floating picnic areas, we rode in the shadows of a dozen architectural wonders, and we ultimately spanned that iconic, white bridge back to our hotel where we managed to return our trusty bicycles right on time.

Back in the room I did an internet search for Rotterdam tourism ideas and after a surprisingly small amount of shoulder shrugging we agreed on a boat cruise.  We returned to the waterfront – on foot this time – making it to the boat just in time to join their final cruise of the day.  It was a pretty large vessel, with a two outdoor decks and a sizeable indoor restaurant/sitting area.  Al asked a porter where the best views were available and was told to sit inside by the big windows at the bow, near the front of the restaurant.  I grabbed us some drinks from the bored and lackadaisical barmaid and joined Alan at the table where we spent a pleasant hour revisiting our morning’s bike journey.

Half of the tour took us through Rotterdam’s massive shipping ports, which we hadn’t seen yet.  For a good half-hour we passed crane after crane busily unloading enormous ships piled high with colourful, neatly stacked shipping containers.  Not too long ago this was the busiest port in the world, and though it can no longer lay that claim it still processes nearly 13,000 commercial vessels every year, which isn’t too shabby.

The other half of the tour was a water’s-eye review of the eye-popping structures we had spent the afternoon circling on our bikes.  And while I agreed that our table in the sparse restaurant did offer nice views and was certainly very comfortable, the streaky windows made for pretty lousy pictures so I grabbed my camera and finished the tour outside on the upper deck.

Walking back to our hotel after the canal cruise we ambled slowly among the endless patios on Witte de With looking for something to eat.  Living as he does in the east coast, of course Alan was intimately familiar with the mighty donair but I was surprised to discover that he had never heard of a shawarma before, much less tried one.  And even though I’d come to realize that Al was quite particular about his food I knew this was sure to be a slam dunk.  I insisted that a couple of shawarma (yes, “shawarma” is the plural of “shawarma”) would be a quick, easy, economical and very tasty answer to our dinner search and Alan agreed to give it a shot.

Of course everywhere you go in the world you’ll find a shawarma place (except, I suppose, Eastern Canada) and whattya know, we found one right on the next corner.  We ordered him a beef shawarma (though the place spelled it “shoarma”) while I ordered nothing for the moment.  I suggested Alan have a bite first and if he didn’t like his shawarma I would have his and he could eat something else.  If, on the other hand, we determined that he liked it I would then order my own.

Handing him the sandwich, he unwrapped the foil and took a bite, right there at the counter.  “How do you like it?” I asked hopefully, trying to read his eyes.  “Should I order my own?”

“Yeah,” he said between chews, walking towards a table.  “This’ll do.”

I ordered myself a shawarma and we filled our bellies.  “Mmm, that was gooood,” Al said, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin and patting his quenched belly.  I’m guessing it won’t be his last shawarma.  Ah, the culture.

We weren’t far from our hotel so we went back to relax for a spell.  We sipped drinks, surfed a little internet and discussed our options for the coming evening.   

“I thought you wanted us to go to that concert?” Alan asked.

I had struck up a conversation along the way with someone about the local music scene in Rotterdam.  She had suggested I check out a place called Jazzcafé Dizzy so I did.  Their spotty online entertainment calendar listed an upcoming show that looked like it might be pretty interesting (to me at least); a hotshot American guitarist named Allen Hinds who has played with several of the bigger jazz-fusion guys.  The cover charge was cheap and it looked like a viable possibility if we didn’t have any other plans for our last night in Rotterdam.

But the more I thought about it the more it sank in that Allen Hinds just wouldn’t be Al’s thing.

“Well yeah, but what if we didn’t go?” I asked.  “What could we do instead?”

We hummed and hawed, poured a couple more drinks, got distracted by our internets and didn’t bother to think of any other options.  As time marched on it was looking like it was the band or nothing; if we didn’t get out soon we were destined to spend our final night in Rotterdam watching Dutch CNN.

“All right, let’s do it,” I announced, standing up.  

We got to the bar a little before 9pm.  The band hadn’t started yet and it clearly wasn’t going to sell out.  Looking inside I could see the place was a bit posh.  It seemed like the type of joint that served weak, overpriced drinks in a stiff, cheap atmosphere.  

“It’s probably going to be at least a half-hour until they start,” I said.  “How about we go somewhere else first?” 

Just a few doors up from the nightclub a proper Irish pub sat on the corner with a couple of empty tables out front.  I ran in and grabbed us a round.  We sat down and gazed at the busy Friday-evening traffic.

When I had heard about the show I did a little research and discovered that Allen Hinds was a Berklee guy and an instructor at the Musicians Institute – a legendary institution in Los Angeles that caters to fast-fingered electric axe-grinders with big hair and flashy wardrobes – leading me to conclude that Hinds was one of those cerebral players that jumps from one mode to another with impossible instrumental leaps and bounds that thrill guitar geeks and wannabes while boring and baffling their spouses (and older brothers).  On certain days and in certain ways this sort of skilled chordal romp is right up my alley but as I say, I figured it would be a pretty hard pill for Alan to swallow.  

Hearing the music start up, I finished my beer and left Al to keep his eyes on the intersection.  I wandered up to the front of the bar and aimed my ear inside.  Just as I expected, I heard round after round of bass solo into guitar solo into drum solo into guitar solo into bass solo, and all of it over chord progressions that took giant steps from one challenging tonal centre to another.  

In other words, it was awesome and Alan would’ve hate it.  I looked back towards the corner and saw him sitting there with his arms crossed, his head still scanning from one car to another.  I wonder how long he would have to be here in Europe before he became blasé about all the different cars?  

I glanced back into the bar.  Hinds was ripping through the Phrygian mode like it was Dorian, flashing through angular chord shifts like he was swinging from a six-string trapeze.  Really (I started to think), it was only seven and-a-half euro to get in.  Even if we only stayed for the first set…

But y’know (thought I), this was to be our last night in The Netherlands and of all the great things we’ve done on this trip hands-down the best parts had been the times when we were just sittin’, lookin’, drinkin’, and talkin’.  Sure, taking a seat in one of the nightclub’s cushy booths and letting a dozen notes shower over me in a thousand different ways for a glorious hour of great live music would be awesome, but sipping beers on that street corner and staring at the world in my brother’s company would be pretty awesome too.

Actually (I concluded), it would be even awesomer.  Much awesomer.  I walked back to the pub, grabbed a couple more drinks from the bar and rejoined Al at the table outside.

“There’s another Citroën,” he said as I handed him a Bacardi and Coke.  

“Mmmm,” I replied, sitting down beside my big brother.

“And another Tesla.  I swear I’ve never seen so many Teslas in my life.”  

“Uh-huh.”  I smiled.  I took a good pull on my beer and never gave Allen Hinds another thought. 

“There’s another one!  I can’t believe how many Teslas there are…”

Besides, the band was pretty loud and I could still hear them okay from where we were sitting.

We ended up staying there for, what, two more hours, maybe three?  Just watching the traffic and occasionally chatting.  We saw a scooter fly through a red light, swerving right and left through the intersection and narrowly missing a car with each swerve.  Then without decelerating one bit the dude rode right up onto the sidewalk and continued on his merry, suicidal way.  Crazy.  There was another guy on one of those three-wheeled motorcycles who was his own brand of crazy, zipping back and forth through the traffic wantonly for at least an hour.

Alan has a skill where he can cut through the din of traffic sounds and zero in on a particular engine’s revs.  “That’s a six-cylinder Chevy,” he’ll say, turning his head to look.  And sure enough, a moment later a Chevy (which very well could have six cylinders…how would I know?) would rumble by.  He’s like an automotive Rain Man, mumbling a steady stream of car makes, brands, and vintages, and all of it (probably) accurate.

And luckily, I never got tired of it.  It was an indication that he was still having a good time and that’s all that mattered to me.  I would say that I learned a fair amount about cars too, but I wasn’t really paying much attention.

And so went our night.  When we had finally seen all the cars and drank all the beers we strolled easily back to our hotel and fell into our beds exhausted.

091518 Off to Belgium We Go

My brother and I woke up just in time to catch breakfast and we both opted for scrambled – generally the safest bet of the ova options – before going back to our room to pack up.  We had another travel day ahead of us but we had made pre-departure plans too.

Somewhere in our travels we had heard about Walls & Wheels, a one-day hot-rod and graffiti festival that was taking place just a block from the station where we would be catching our train to Belgium.  We figured we could check it out for a while before leaving town and with our luggage clak-clak-clak-ing behind us we left our hotel at the very stroke of 11am and made our way there.

Shortly after we departed a guy walked by with a big, beautiful dog on a leash.  Alan stooped down and held his hand out to the animal, as he had done a dozen times before on this trip.  But this time the dog tried to bite him!  Luckily Alan’s ninja-like reflexes saved the day (not to mention his fingers) and we were soon back on our way.  Al grumbled something about how the owner should have known his dog was going to be aggressive, and how he should have said something.

I just shrugged and remarked that the dog didn’t try to bite me.

“But you didn’t stick your hand in his face,” he said.

“Exactly,” I replied.

We stopped in a small park along the way so I could use the bathroom.  When I emerged from the public toilet I ran back to where Alan was waiting with our luggage.  “Man,” I exclaimed, tugging at his shoulder.  “Even if you don’t have to go, I highly recommend that you give that toilet a try!”

The small, metal cubicle was fully automated.  To enter, one pushed a button which caused a handle-less door to instantly slide open, Star Trek-style.  Inside, everything was shiny chrome and totally futuristic.  The toilet flushed itself (of course) and a pair of hand-dryers were conveniently placed under the vanity on either side of the sink, which meant that both hands could be dried individually, and much more quickly than with a regular air-dryer.  

To escape the bathroom one merely opened the door with a wave of the hand (or whatever) over a sensor.  Start-to-finish there was no need to touch anything.  The niftiest part of the whole affair was the toilet-cleaning mechanism.  At regular intervals (and only when the bathroom is unoccupied, obviously) the toilet automatically spun around like a secret bookcase in a cheesy horror movie, revealing another toilet in its wake; one that has been washed, dried, and sterilized in the enclosed compartment hidden behind the wall.

Brilliant.

You know, one of the things that one soon notices in Europe is how they offer ample public toilets, and in a myriad of styles too.  They know people will need to go and they don’t want people randomly peeing in the streets, so they take the appropriate measures.  Once you start using these things it’s plain to see how asinine it is that North American cities don’t follow suit.  What, do people not pee in North America?

The cities back home simply put the onus on local businesses to allow the public to use their private restrooms.  So if you gotta go, you’d better be prepared to buy something.  It’s a strategy firmly in-step with North America’s ubiquitous corporate presence and abject consumerism.  Curious that North America has no problem creating and maintaining free public restrooms so long as they are alongside highways and accessible only by car.

It’s silly.

Anyway, we found Walls & Wheels and started with the hot-rod component, which was comprised exclusively of Volkswagen Beetles.  There were maybe ten cars in total but they were all in great shape and most of them were completely tricked out with cool wooden racks, surf boards and that sort of thing.

The main attraction was clearly the “Walls” part.  A temporary plywood wall had been erected, stretching entirely around and enclosing the square and countless graffiti artists were busy applying their trade to every inch of it.  Six-packs of spray paint were available for sale at the merch tent so I guess participation was wide open, which was pretty cool.  

Al and I split up and took in the scene on our own time, eventually meeting up again on a park bench in front of a guy who was just getting to work on his stake of the “canvas”.  With time to kill before the next train to Antwerp I pulled out my camera and filmed the guy as he painted for the next twenty minutes – with a plan to speed up the footage, add some cool music and post it on the internet – while Alan did one more walkabout.  

He came back raving about a guy who had been painting a wizard.  My camera’s battery had just died so I went with him to check it out.  The guy was talented all right, and he was only one in a crew of equally talented artists working together on an epicly large fantasy piece.  I looked around at the entire square and realized that we were here at the wrong time.

Though Walls and Wheels began at 11am the food kiosks were just starting to fire up their grills and the beer tents had yet to open.  The stage where the DJ was currently dishing out electronic versions of ’70’s funk hits was still being set up.  Most of the graffiti artists were just at the point of outlining their ideas, while many hadn’t even started yet.  

“Imagine what this place is going to look like tonight,” I said to Al, “when all of this art is finished!”

It was only then that I noticed a sign advertising Rotterdam’s Street Culture Weekend, which was happening that very weekend.  It was all making sense.  We had passed a punk band presiding over a popup skate park on a corner near our hotel the night before, plus there was Walls & Wheels and we had also seen signs advertising a street art festival.  And here we were leaving town on Saturday afternoon!

But alas, we were.  We made one more quick round to check the progress of our favourite pieces before racing towards the nearby train station with little time to spare.

Entering the large, modern depot I was surprised to find a full, professional orchestra playing classical hits in the lobby.  No time to stop, we ran to a ticket kiosk.  

I fumbled once and had to start over, printed the tickets and through the turnstiles we went, scanning the ceiling for any sign of Platform #3.  There it was, next to a clock that showed we had just fifteen seconds to go.  By this time I had given up rolling my suitcase.  I grasped it under my arm and took the stairs two at a time, only to see our train slowly pull away just as I reached the top of the staircase.  

A few moments later Alan’s head appeared over the escalator’s horizon.  “Was that our train?” he asked.

“That was indeed our train,” I replied, wiping a bead of sweat from my forehead.  Back downstairs I checked the board and discovered that the next train to Antwerp wasn’t leaving for another hour.

We considered returning to Walls & Wheels, but as we had already scanned our tickets I was pretty sure we couldn’t leave the station without forfeiting them.  I tried to find an info booth to verify this but wouldn’t you know it, the info booth was on the other side of the turnstiles.  For me to find out if I could leave I would have to leave, and I wasn’t about to risk a sixteen euro train ticket.  

I consoled myself by getting as close to the foyer as I could without breaching the turnstiles where I strained to hear the last half of the last piece by that orchestra, which was quite good.  Fortunately there were several food options in the station and we both hit the Starbucks for hot drinks.  Then we bought warm oatmeal cookies at a bakery next door and Alan got himself some KFC.  I abstained.  I eat a lot of junk but I draw the line at Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Not a crumb of their wares has crossed my lips since 1992 and I intend to keep it that way.

Plus the coffee and the cookie provided plenty enough to keep me going.  I was still energized from our hotel breakfast.

The hour went by pretty quickly after all and soon we were on our way to Antwerp.  I bought a beer from the porter and leaned back into my seat as the train drifted backwards into Breda.  After our first stop the train surprisingly headed off forwards, quickly arcing heavily to the left as we continued on our way to Belgium.  It was such a pleasant trip; man I love travelling by train!

Despite the fact that we had crossed from The Netherlands into Belgium, when we arrived at Antwerp’s central station we disembarked with nary a sign of either a border guard, customs agent, or Alan’s friend Karl, who was scheduled to meet us upon arrival.

But we hardly noticed any of that.  We were both much too busy gazing at the incredibly ornate artwork that took up every finely crafted nook, arch, and cranny of the stunning building we had arrived inside.  It was hard to believe that this was a train station and not one of Europe’s celebrated castles or churches. 

We gawked and gaped, craned our necks this way and that, and finally decided to get serious about finding Karl. or more accurately, getting him to find us.  I figured it would be most practical to wait outside, in front of the main doors.  I was wrong – Karl was indeed looking for us inside the station – but we enjoyed the view outside as we waited for him.  Antwerp was pretty, that was for sure.

Alan pulled out his cell phone and Karl found us in short order.  It was my first time meeting Alan’s Florida golfing buddy and he made a great first impression.  A strong, stocky man covered in tattoos, he shook my hand with a big smile and was friendly, funny, and immediately likeable.  How can you not like a guy who’s nicknamed “Banana”?  After quick introductions and a modicum of small talk we were soon following Karl to his van.

As we walked by the grand old station and the nearly-as-impressive buildings that surrounded it Karl was already in tour-guide mode, pointing out everything with a brief explanation before pointing out everything else.  This was going to be great!

It was a quick drive to his home in in Zandvliet, just outside of Antwerp.  More precisely, it was a quick drive to his bar, where we stopped first.

Okay, if we’re going to be precise it’s not a bar, it’s a cafe.  But it looks like a bar and everyone there was drinking beer, so there you go.  And more precisely still, it’s not his bar…er…cafe.

It used to belong to his wife Chrissie who ran De Dry Claveren with her brother, but she had sold her stake in the place and now she simply helped her brother run the place.  I found all this out shortly after we arrived at the small, clean, and very welcoming bar (cafe) when I was introduced to Chrissie, a lady who was clearly going to be just as fun to hang out with as her husband.

Karl, Chrissie, Alan

She sat my brother and I down and began serving us an endless stream of drinks – anything and everything we wanted – as the pair of them grilled us about our time in Europe so far.  We told tales of our adventures and soon four large plates full of delicious, steaming Belgian stew were placed before us, fresh from the kitchen.  The stew was nothing but tasty chunks of beef soaked in a think, brown gravy – not a carrot, pea, or potato in sight – served with a plate of golden french fries to mix in with it at will.  It was hands-down the best meal we had eaten since we left Canada.  “Well, there was that Italian place we went to those two times in The Hague,” Alan said.  “That was real good.”

“You’re crazy,” I said without looking up from my plate.  “This is amazing.”

The place wasn’t too busy, just the other bartender hanging out on his night off, a couple who mostly sat outside smoking cigarettes, a fellow playing a pinball-like gambling machine, and the four of us.  Chrissie was behind the bar and she kept serving us freely.

(It was almost embarrassing when one of the regulars sat down at the bar and in short order bought Alan and I a round.  I was pretty sheepish when Chrissie poured our next ones for free…again.)

I got up and watched the pinball game with curiosity.  I’ve since looked it up and it’s a style of gambling called bingo-pinball.  Unlike a standard modern pinball machine there were no flippers, just a bunch of rubber bumpers surrounding thirty or so numbered holes, one of which the ball would inevitably fall into, and of course a spring-loaded plunger that the player used to launch the ball into play.  One wagers what they wish, selects one of the many (very similar) games available, and is given a random series of four or five “lucky” numbers.  If you get a ball in one of these numbers you win.  If you get balls in two of them you win more, and so on.  It was initially pretty confusing and seemed to not have a whole lot of skill involved, but then, neither do most gambling machines.

There was so much beer getting poured down my throat that we started getting creative.  I tried some of the beer combos that were popular in the bar (and presumably throughout Belgium), like beer mixed with Coke (which was called a “diesel”), beer mixed with grenadine (you’ll forgive me if I don’t remember all the names), beer mixed with more beer, oh it went on and on.

Karl, Toddman

And why not…these were fun people!  Need an example?  Are you sitting down?

Every January the good citizens of Zandvliet suit up in matching smocks bearing their village colours and take part in a very, very odd tradition that pits their reigning champion against the reigning champions from nearly a dozen nearby villages in the annual Goose Pull, and the competition often occurs in the very square that sits just outside the front door of De Dry Claveren.

(Oh, how I miss the days when I had no idea what a Goose Pull was.  Are you sure you’re ready?  If you’d rather maintain the bliss of ignorance you can just skip the next three paragraphs.  It’s okay, nobody will think any less of you if you skip them, and if you do you’ll probably thank me.  Oh, and just because I know you’ll always wonder if you do indeed skip ahead allow me to allay your fears: you can rest assured the goose is already dead.  Apparently they used to use a living goose, but that was like a hundred years ago or something.  Anyway, do skip ahead.)

The first thing you need for a Goose Pull is a gallows (“Did you just say “gallows”?” I asked, startled.  “Yes, like where they might kill a man.”  “Okay,” I replied, eyeing the storyteller cautiously, “Go on…”) from which hangs a goose, upside down.  A contestant then rides a horse around the square, picking up speed until he comes upon the dangling goose, at which point he attempts to grab on to it and pull the poor thing’s neck fully away from its body as he rides furiously past.  Meanwhile, thousands of drunken revellers – each wearing smocks decorated in their own tribal colours – cheer on their local favourites, and pick a lot of fights.

Of course the first person to pull the animal apart wins (in a manner of speaking).  You know the old saying: You can’t pull off a goose’s neck twice.  “But doesn’t the first or second rider sometimes win before the other guys even get a shot at the goose?” I asked.  “Oh no,” was the reply, “Pulling the neck off a goose is a lot harder than you’d imagine.

“Especially while you’re riding a horse.”  And I guess he’s right.

So like I say, they were fun people.

When we finally called it a night and staggered the absurdly short fifty-metre distance from the cafe to Chrissie and Karl’s house I was somehow still sober enough to completely appreciate how fantastic their place was.

First, the house was surrounded by a brick wall that enclosed a beautiful, treed courtyard in the front that instantly brought to mind the mental images I conjured up of The Secret Garden when it was read to class by my fourth grade teacher.  The house itself was a large, stoic two-storey structure with an attic-like third half-floor jutting out of the top.  Karl and Chrissie rented the house from the local church – who still used two rooms on the ground floor – and they got it for a steal.  

Inside, the ceilings were easily fifteen feet high, the staircase that led up to the main living quarters was wide and sturdy, and they had decorated the place perfectly.  It was a dream home.  

And a place in which to dream as soon as possible!  Karl showed us where the bathroom was located and then walked us to the spare room, where Al and I would be sharing the large queen-sized bed.  Okay, it was actually Karl and Chrissie’s room, but they had been kind enough to give it up for us while they crowded into a tiny bed in the actual spare room.  

That was a blessing.  I certainly was starting to like this Karl and Chrissie.

091618 Beautiful Antwerp

I really can’t remember the last time Alan and I shared a bed; it wouldn’t take much for me to swear that it’s never happened before.

It turns out we both had plenty of room.  Matter of fact, we both hugged our own respective edges so close you could have fit a rhinoceros between us.  Though I doubt the rhino would have gotten much sleep.

Alan and I spent the night snoring each other awake.  I woke up first, so I guess he won.  When Al informed me that my snoring had kept him awake until 3am (sure it did buddy…) I silently decided that for everyone’s benefit I would be spending the following night on the couch. 

When we finally got up and around – at least an hour behind our very-loose schedule – we found Karl and Chrissie in the kitchen waiting for us with a wonderful European breakfast spread out all over the table.  There were fresh buns of all kinds and croissants too, a tray full of delicious cheeses and another tray laden with an array of fresh cold cuts, plus yogourt and really great coffee…and not an egg or a single piece of hot, crispy bacon in sight.  Poor Alan!

He put on a brave face though and ate his fill (I’m sure Al would get used to cold, Euro-style breakfasts in no time if he had to), and one more coffee later we were all ready to pile into the car for a day trip to Antwerp.  

Weaving through Karl and Chrissie’s little town further proved how great of a life they have in Belgium.  Zandvliet is such a pretty little collection of streets and quaint houses and yards and green-spaces and…oh, it’s just so wonderful.  Soon we were on the highway racing south, with Karl pointing out a million things along the way.  

Not the least of which were Antwerp’s massive dockyards, zipping by in the distance.  Karl had recently retired from his job in the dockyard, where he operated one of the cranes that loaded and unloaded the huge container ships that constantly pour through what is the busiest port in all of Europe.  Nowadays he just does a little tattoo work here and there and concentrates on enjoying life to the fullest, or so it seems.

As we neared the centre of Antwerp a police barricade stopped our progress, forcing us to find a nearby (and free) parking spot.  It turns out that this was the one day of the year that every major city in Belgium had made their city-centres completely car-free.  Lucky us!  

I was surprised to learn that despite living in a small village on the outskirts of Antwerp it had been a long time since Karl and Chrissie had been there.  Like, years.  I found that pretty odd.  I mean, Zandvliet is really nice and all, but here you’ve got a spectacular, world-class city right in your backyard.  What, was it a twenty minute drive, tops?

Oh, and did I mention that Antwerp is obviously and at first sight a spectacular, world-class city?

Our first stop was a huge, old and very grand church, which broke ground in 1352 and was finished in…well, it’s not really finished yet.  Well, it is.  It’s not like they are still working on it or anything, but it was originally intended to have a pair of matching bell towers and…well…they got one tower built just fine – like I mean super-fine, it’s really quite a sight.  But the other tower – while just as ornate – is only half as tall, victim to a funding crisis from God.

It’s still a really, really nice church, don’t get me wrong.  The half-finished bell tower kind of gives it a bit of cred, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Anyway, it was still too early on a Sunday for the church to be accepting visitors, though we pagans were allowed to stick our heads in the foyer and glance into the huge chapel, where real-live worshippers were doing their thing.

Gosh, it was a beautiful building.  And chock full of paintings by Antwerp’s own Paul Rubens too (who’s preference for voluptuous models gave us the euphemistic term “Rubenesque”).  Outside the church was a really interesting sculpture built right into the brick sidewalk.  It depicted a famous local legend about a poor child who befriended a dog, and in this tale the two would sit together in front of this very church waiting for an opportunity to go inside and sneak a peek at Ruben’s paintings.  With no home and no money for food, the pair eventually died in each other’s arms and paws on the street outside of the church.

And there they sat in statue form, with the very sidewalk itself pulled up over them like a blanket.  Nice art.  Great story.     

Around the corner from the church we found ourselves in the middle of the town square.  While the square itself was certainly very impressive it’s the statue in the centre of the wide space that instantly catches the eye.  The large monolith depicts a young man in the act of throwing a severed hand.  I turned to Karl and Chrissie for an explanation.

“That’s Brabo,” they said.  “And he’s throwing the hand of the evil giant Antigone into the river.

“That’s how Antwerp got it’s name.”

Um, I still needed a little more explaining:

“A long time ago there was a giant named Antigone who would charge a tariff of anyone who wanted to cross the bridge over the River Scheldt,” Karl told us, the historian in him taking over.  “If someone didn’t pay, Antigone would cut off their hand and throw it into the river.

“Of course everyone hated Antigone.  Finally this young Brabo came along and killed the giant, cut off its hand and threw it into the river!”

And so it is that Antwerp (from the Dutch: ‘handwerpen’ meaning hand throwing) was named.

The backstory made the already eye-catching monument that much more impressive, as backstories tend to do.

Next up was the only planned stop on our tourist itinerary, and after getting turned around a few times along the winding streets (a situation that was caused and remedied courtesy of Karl’s ‘best friend’, AKA his iPhone) we arrived at Vleeshuis, Antwerp’s musical instrument museum.  The night before I had plucked one of Karl’s guitars off of a wall-hanger in his living room and idly strummed a few chords.  An instant later Karl declared that we must visit the instrument museum.

Ever the thoughtful guest, I headed straight to the admission counter and asked for four tickets, pulling out a twenty-euro bill.  The lady asked if any of us were locals.  Chrissie and Karl fished out their IDs and were granted free admission.  I love it when museums are free for citizens of the host country.  I wish Canada would do that.

I put away my twenty euros and pulled out a ten.  “Are either of you teachers?” she asked.

“Why yes,” I stammered, taken aback by the question.  “I’m a music teacher.”

“Then you can come in for free as well,” she said, adding, “That will be five euro please.”

I was shocked!  This marked the first time I was ever granted any privilege whatsoever for being a teacher (aside from going to the washroom whenever I liked).  I’ll admit I’ve always felt a tinge of jealousy when military personnel are allowed to board airplanes first, a bit of resentment when police officers are punished by receiving suspensions with full pay, heck, you wouldn’t believe how upset I was when I heard Berkeley had designated some of it’s choicest parking spots specifically for Nobel Laureate’s.  

Finally, finally I was recognized for my decades in the teaching trenches, toiling tirelessly in the face of a parade of ignorance.  And at a musical instrument museum no less.  How apropos!  

Housed in a gorgeous 500-year-old building that used to serve as the butchers guild, the museum boasted a collection of ancient pianos, harpsichords, violins, trombones, guitars and more going back at least four centuries.  There were also a lot of quirky, rarely-seen instruments on hand including a glass harp, a calliope similar to the ones we saw back in Dam Square, and a real carillon that visitors were allowed to play!  Okay, the sound was digital and could only be heard through headphones – it’s not like I was clanging actual bells or anything –  but I still jammed out that carillon like a fist-pounding Mozart and had a blast doing it (with a little atonal help from my brother on the bottom end).

A nifty perk of the museum was the ability to hear the sounds of many of the instruments in the collection via your cellphone (or in this case, via Karl’s cellphone).  So in addition to admiring the astounding artwork painted inside the lid of the pair of harpsichords on display (for example) we could also hear them in action, and it’s no surprise that the sound produced by those musical masterpieces was equally as good as the artwork embedded in them.  The early pianos, the rudimentary horns, the aged ‘cellos; it was so neat to actually hear them.  Unfortunately we couldn’t get the app to play the glass harp for us.  Maybe nobody has ever had the patience to get the thing in tune.

The basement was mostly taken up with a recreation of the foundry of local bell-making legend Van Engelen, a display which got short shrift from us.  The main feature of the basement for me was the fore-mentioned calliope and an unusually large spider that I spotted slowly making it’s way across the floor.  I pointed it out to Chrissie, who recoiled in fear.  Next to notice it was Karl, who joined me in getting close and marvelling at the size and shape of the giant arachnid.  

Finally we got Alan’s attention, who had been plugged into a sound display on the other side of the room.  He walked over to see what we were on about, looked down at the big fellah and promptly and casually stomped it dead before walking back to continue his display on the other side of the room. 

“What?” he said, looking back at the shock on our faces.  “You guys like spiders?”

I looked down at the squished specimen.  He looked even bigger when he was all stepped on like that.  Someone was definitely going to have to clean that up.

Back out on the street we wandered and meandered until we decided we might as well eat something.  And if we’re going to eat something (we further reasoned), we might as well eat something cliché.  So we found a Belgian waffle place.  

Or as they call them in Belgium, “waffles”.

In addition to all the sorts of waffles we North Americans might expect, the place also had lots of savoury waffle options on offer as well.  I, for example, selected the Mexican waffle, complete with salsa and jalapeños.  Alan surprised me by ordering the hamburger waffle which of course was simply a burger that swapped out the bun for a pair of waffles.  

I barely finished mine, full as I was still from our excellent breakfast.  Alan only got through half of his waffle, but I’m not sure it was because he was full.

When we returned to the main square it was packed with a rush of tourists and locals alike enjoying the car-free day.  There were booths set up with DJ’s, food and drink, arts and crafts…there was even a marching band riding around on a seven-seat bicycle!   Heading off towards the waterfront we passed another square packed tight with booths and activities, including a Segway and scooter obstacle course and a paddleboat simulator competition that Alan and I would certainly have dominated, had we cared to enter.  

Ambling lackadaisically along the waterfront we stopped into a weekend-long skateboard competition and made use of their toilets.  Next we continued on past the castle Het Steen; the oldest building in Antwerp whose first stones date back a thousand years.  The edifice was undergoing renovations and not accepting visitors, but I stopped to admire a statue of a giant that stood tall just outside the ancient structure.  It was Lange Wapper, a shapeshifting Flemish folk hero who often shifted his shape into that of a giant, allowing him to walk from one village to another in a single step.  

He didn’t look that big to me, but perhaps the statue wasn’t built to scale.  Or maybe the villages are really close to one another.

Finally we ended up at Antwerp’s largest museum, the Museum aan de Stroom.  MAS, as it’s called, is a ten-storey block-shaped architectural feat that was built in 2011 to house the city’s massive art collection.  Outside we encountered a huge BMX/trampoline/motocross exhibition reaching it’s final stages of the day, obviously another popup in keeping with the national car-free event.  

After a quick look-see at the extreme sports action we went inside and found that our 4pm arrival would only afford us an hour to see what was clearly at least a half-day’s worth of art.  However, we also discovered that entrance to the rooftop lookout was free, so we shunned the ticket booth and started up the escalators that ringed the curious structure.

As we continued up up up I admired the walls of the escalator alley, which were covered with overly artistic photographs.  After a few flights it became clear that the photos were modern mock-ups of select paintings from the museum’s collection.  There were still-life’s, portraits, a few nature scenes, and lots and lots of nudes.  Again, these were modern, current photographs of young, pretty and naked models, posed to mimic centuries-old oil paintings.  It was very cool, and very, very bold.  It was certainly the kind of thing that would never fly in North America.  Try this at the Smithsonian and I guarantee there would legions of angry and disconsolately offended mothers and other prudes lined up to register their offence on day one.  But in Europe?  No problem.

When we finally reached the top of the building we were treated to a panoramic view of the city that stretched out as far as the horizon would allow.  I had no idea Greater Antwerp was so big, but it is.  The proof lie before us in all directions.

Back down on terra firma there was nothing left but to circle around and find the car.  On the drive back to Zandvliet dinner plans were discussed and immediately quashed.  “We’re taking you guys out to dinner tonight,” Al said, acting on our pre-made plans.  “You pick the restaurant and we’re paying.”

Well, actually he said, “I’m paying,” but I’m sure it was a slip of the tongue.  

Of course we stopped in at De Dry Claveren when we got back to Zandvliet, where we pulled up four stools and sat at the bar enjoying a few drinks and going over the day’s adventures.  Chrissie went in the back and came out with a meatball for Alan and I to share.  Unlike any meatball a North American might envision, this was a crispy-fried Spam-like conglomeration of meat that was cut up into hot, steaming slabs and served with a ketchup-like sauce on the side and a pair of toothpicks in lieu of forks.  

I dug in and found the meat pretty tasty if a bit odd, and solid; a few bites filled me up fast.  Alan wasn’t too crazy about them so I was left to eat up most of the serving, though we did share the final two slices to finish it off.  After a couple more drinks (at least two of which were sent over by strangers sitting at nearby tables) we walked back to Karl and Chrissie’s house were Alan laid down for a nap while the rest of us discussed dinner reservations.

With a big breakfast, a Mexican waffle and now a large meatball filling my stomach I had already eaten well past my daily quota, but we booked a table for four at a place one village over called…well, I don’t know what it was called, but if had been transleated from Flemish into English it would have been called The Nose.

With a bit of time to kill I joined Karl outside and kept him company while he swept up the many, many nuts that had fallen from the trees in their front courtyard.  He told me it was a regular chore that had become obsessive, and I don’t blame him.  The trees literally rain nuts.  Big, inedible nuts.  You don’t have to stand in the courtyard very long to have one fall on you, but I’ll be darned if I could catch one in my hand.

On and on Karl swept the wide stone walkway, while I stood staring up at the trees with my palms optimistically open.  Finally he got far enough ahead of the game to call it a night.  I helped him scrape the nut piles into a shovel which were dumped into one of three large compost bins he keeps at the ready.  “I’ll take care of the nuts on the grass tomorrow,” he said as he returned the shovel and broom to one of the house’s large side-rooms.

“You sweep up the ones that land on the lawn too?” I asked, stupidly.

“Oh yeah,” Karl replied.  “You don’t want these things to take root, they’re almost impossible to pull out.”

For proof Karl pointed to a foot-long sprout near the base of one of the trees.  “Go ahead,” he dared.  “Try to pull that out of the ground.”

I bent over and gave it a quick yank, almost severing several fingers from my right hand in the process.  I instantly believed what Karl had been telling me, but just to be a good sport I grabbed that little plant again with both hands and pulled with all my might.  And you know what?  That plucky little sprout didn’t budge.  

After about a half-hour it was time to wake up Alan and get to the restaurant.  He had barely laid down and obviously could have used at least another hour or two, but reservations are reservations so off we went.  As we arrived at the restaurant Karl questioned a lady who was walking out the door.  “She didn’t have a reservation and they are all booked up,” he said, translating for us.  Good thing we had called ahead!

It was a nice, old building with a cozy atmosphere, great service, and a wonderful-looking, extensive menu.  Alan had settled on the ribs long before we even sat down, so his decision was made.  I was too stuffed to even ponder the menu so I ordered the oven-baked spaghetti, thinking it might be one of the less-filling items on offer.  

Oh boy.  

When the waiter arrived with our food I was horrified!  My bowl of spaghetti was positively enormous, at least three inches high and a foot across, the bowl must have weighed two pounds, laden with thick, meaty sauce and topped with a quarter-inch of parmesan cheese baked crisp.  

Good thing I didn’t order the ribs though!  Alan’s plate had nothing on it except one long rack of ribs, covered in sauce and tons of roasted garlic.  It literally looked like the order of ribs that causes Fred’s car to tip over in the opening credits of the Flintstones.  The ribs were huge, and man, they looked delicious.  Almost as a culinary afterthought, the waiter plopped a plate of fries down in front of my brother to accompany his meat.

With trepidation I started picking away at the cheese that topped my pasta while Al tore off a couple of ribs.  A minute later Alan announced that he was done eating and he would meet us outside in the car.  He got up and left, leaving his meal untouched save three short ribs taken from one end.  

That was weird.  

The three of us continued with our dinner – though I never got past the cheese and the sauce; I couldn’t fit a single strand of spaghetti in my swollen belly – and discussed what could possibly have been up with Alan.  We were concerned that he might have started feeling ill, but he had looked okay.  Maybe he was just tired?  He seemed to like the ribs…

Anyway, we finished up and opted to skip dessert.  I settled the bill, Chrissie and Karl took care of the tip, and when all was said and done the waiter offered us a complimentary round of lemon digestif shooters that were delicious.  These Europeans are so darned civilized.

Out in the car we found Alan laying across the back seat sound asleep.  He woke up and insisted he was fine – he certainly wasn’t sick; I’ve seen him sick and this wasn’t that – we handed him a carry-away box full of his ribs and drove back to Zandvliet.

As soon as we got back to the house Alan headed straight to bed and was soon fast asleep.  Chrissie went off to the cafe to clean up for the night (her daily chore whether she’s working or not – which means she’s always working), leaving just Karl and I to entertain ourselves.  No problem.  I sat down in the living room and pulled one of Karl’s many guitars off the wall.

Soon he had me run the gamut of his instrument collection, including a super-fun workout on his electronic drum kit.  Eventually we settled into a pair of guitars and before long I was giving Karl a lesson in the The Blues.  I showed him the twelve-bar shuffle but what really turned his crank was the soloing.  Once he got that five-note pentatonic minor scale under his abbreviated fingers he was off and running.  We jammed until our eyelids finally gave out on us.

As we were putting away the gear I noticed several photos of two dogs along one wall.  I remembered both Chrissie and Karl mentioning their former pets several times.  They don’t have kids, I don’t have kids…I can understand the affection a couple can have for their pets.

“These were your dogs?” I asked.  Karl nodded.  There were quite a few pictures, and they were all very nicely framed.  “You must have loved them a lot,” I remarked, sitting back down on the couch.

“Love?” Karl said, standing up and reaching for his belt.  “You want to see some love?!?”

“Um…” was all I could muster in response as the man they call Banana stepped toward me and unzipped his fly.

Well, this was a surprising turn of events.

Pulling down his trousers, Karl proudly pointed to a pair of tattoos near the top of his right thigh.  It was the faces of his two dogs and they were beautifully done; they were unmistakably his dogs.  “These are the only tattoos I have given myself,” he said wistfully, pulling up his trousers.

With the reverberations of Alan’s deep sleep rattling from across the hall (and through two closed doors) I easily kept my secret promise to myself and bunked down for the night on Chrissie and Karl’s big, long, comfy couch.  Karl brought me a pillow and a blanket and that was all I needed.  

And I tell you, I slept like a log.  I didn’t budge until 9am, not once.  I’ve slept on a whole lot of couches over the years.

Shocking fact: Alan still insists that he is taller than Toddman

091718 The City of Brussels

I woke up feeling fantastic.  I stretched and came to life, hopped in the shower and emerged to find an endless supply of wonderful coffee at my fingertips, thanks to Karl’s nifty home-brew machine.  Chrissie went off to open up the pub while Karl made Al a pair of fried eggs.  I opted to skip breakfast and just concentrate on the great coffee.  After a long, lounging sit around the table we threw our luggage into the car and walked to the pub to say goodbye to Chrissie.

And to have a beer or two of course.  It is a pub after all.  Okay, it’s a cafe, but it looks and acts like a pub so I treated it as such.

Finally it was time for hugs all around, and with a last look around at the beautiful village of Zandvliet my brother and I hopped into Karl’s van and enjoyed the pretty hour+ drive to The City of Brussels.  (Which is, incidentally, the official name of the capital city of Belgium, the borders of which reside within the Brussels-Capital region, which itself is the official name for the area that most people simply call “Brussels”.  In actual fact, there is no such place that is officially called just “Brussels”.  Unless one is referring to Brussels, Wisconsin of course.  Though with a population of barely a thousand people it’s doubtful that many people are referring to Brussels, Wisconsin when they say “Brussels”.  I won’t even go into the fact the Belgium is officially called the Kingdom of Belgium, with apologies to the fifteen hundred kind souls who call Belgium, Wisconsin home.  In case you haven’t guessed, Wisconsin holds the highest population of Belgians in the USA, and they obviously like to name things after home.  Almost.)

Arriving in The City Karl pulled into a parking spot just outside of our hotel, which I had booked online so long ago that I had forgotten that the entire place was automated.  Which in this case meant they offered no early checkin nor a baggage storage service.  Okay, both were available but not without paying a fee, and computer kiosks are not very keen on listening to your story and finally agreeing – with a smile – to give you a break on the extra charges.  

No worries, we just left our luggage in Karl’s van and went for a walkabout.  Our main goal was to find a nice thank-you gift for mom, who was of course fully responsible for getting Alan and I to Europe in the first place.  

The first thing we encountered was a mall.  I didn’t have much hope but we went in anyways.  Luckily it wasn’t too big; after quickly perusing a couple of gift-like shops and walking past a thousand clothing stores – how can it be that women’s apparel shops outnumber men’s apparel shops at a ratio of at least 30-1?  I mean, men wear clothes too, right? – we hit the bricks again.

Literally.  We were on pedestrian sidewalks the whole day, and all of them made of centuries-old brick.

I had an idea.  I borrowed Karl’s phone and used google maps to find the nearest tourist info booth.  I had no intention of asking for information, I just figured that a tourist booth would be in the middle of where all the tourist shops were, and it turned out that I was right.

Google led us straight to Brussels Town Hall located in the middle of an astounding, eye-enveloping square called the Grand Place.  The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe, and I believe it.  All around us towered the most impressive architecture.  Every crevice of every building was a mastery of art that required countless hours of highly skilled labour.  The Town Hall itself (dating back to 1602) is adorned with hundreds upon hundreds of statues covering its ornate façade, and each one is a masterpiece.  I swear, the square was easily as impressive as even the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and c’mon now, that’s saying somethin’.

Behind us stood the King’s House (now a museum), which was no slouch either with twenty imposing columns rising up towards the sky.  And the buildings on either end of the square did a fine job keeping up with the neighbours, their stone arches framing intricately-carved windows and reaching up to overtly ornamented rooftops that rival some of the greatest churches in the New World.

One of the buildings even had a Starbucks in it!  Those Starbucks dudes know how to scout out good locations.

This was unquestionably the right area for tourist shops, so after gaping and gawking at the square and picking our slackened jaws up off the bricks we ventured forth and browsed. 

In between sticking our heads in one shop after another we came across Manneken Pis, the world-famous statue/fountain of a little naked boy peeing.  Belgium’s answer to New York’s Statue of Liberty, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, or Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, the Manneken Pis is way, way smaller than you could possibly imagine.  Standing barely two feet tall, it makes Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid look like a giant.  

Despite it’s small stature the statue was remarkably easy to spot, surrounded as it was by the obligatory crowd of tourists posing for selfies, the same crowd you’ll find crowding around the Mona Lisa or, say, Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid (which, sitting at a height of over four feet positively towers over Belgium’s little pisser).

The statue that stood before us was actually the third incarnation of the small bronze boy.  The original dated from at least 1451, only to be replaced around 1619.  The third and current version was erected (ahem) in 1965 and seeing as how the earlier versions are stored in the museum back at the Grand Place – that we didn’t go in – this is the only one we saw.

Or didn’t see, actually.  For some unholy reason, it has always been that tradition (and I mean always, this goes all the way back to the original statue) to dress the Manneken Pis up in a different costume every few days.  Well, back in the old days they would only dress him up for special occasions; he was reported at one time to have as few as four costumes in his little bronze wardrobe.  He must have a massive walk-in closet nowadays because at last count the little statue had amassed almost a thousand different costumes, and if I’m to understand this correctly he is never displayed without being donned in some silly dress-up, so you never ever get to see the unadorned statue anymore.

When we were there the Manneken Pis was covered head-to-penis in some leopard/Where The Wild Things Are sort of getup, with a hole conspicuously left open for the faux-urine to gush out.

Weird town, this City of Brussels.

Anyway, we resumed our search for our mama-gift and by this time we had settled on finding a lace shop like one we had seen in Antwerp.  Those lace things were pretty particular to Belgium and they weren’t cheap, and the ones we had seen all framed up nice in that shop in Antwerp seemed like they might hang real nice on one of mom’s walls, so we searched.  

About half the tourist shops we walked into had a few overpriced and under-quality pieces of lace scattered amid countless snow-globes, t-shirts, and mini-monuments (I had a field day, adding three more tiny buildings to my increasingly vast mini-monument collection), so we looked up every alley hoping to find a specialty shop.  Finally we found two shops dedicated strictly to lace, both of them just a few doors down from each other.

We scanned through the shops and zeroed in on a pile of antique handmade lace pieces set in oval frames.  We each picked out our favourites and selected the only one that made both of our lists.  At the last minute I added a small 100+year-old sample set into a necklace for m’lady.  She’s not crazy about it.

Satisfied that our mission was successfully complete we bee-lined it back to that Starbucks on the square and settled in for some hot drinks on the patio, where we continued our gawking at the endlessly-stunning Grand Place right where we had left off.  As I scanned around trying to settle my eyes on the finer details of the grandiose view I spied a familiar sight far off on the other end of the square.  Pulling out my zoom lens I used my camera as a one-eyed monocular and determined that yes, that was definitely a Hard Rock Cafe just across the way.

I mentioned as much to Karl and he nearly hopped out of his seat!  Turns out he’s a collector of HRC t-shirts and as soon as we finished our ‘Bucks we bee-lined from one franchise to the other.  I love the Hard Rock Cafe (though I gave up my own t-shirt collecting many, many Hard Rock’s ago) and why wouldn’t I?  They own the single largest collection of pop music memorabilia on the planet and they keep it well-curated in venues (that serve alcohol) all over the world.  Other than the food, what’s not to like?  

(Seriously, don’t order food at a Hard Rock.  Ever.  You’re welcome.)

I meandered throughout all four floors of the surprisingly well-stocked restaurant (their Antwerp outlet had been disappointingly small) and was especially taken with the hand-written lyrics from Springsteen, Johnny Cash and others as well as their collection of paintings created by famous musicians such as Jerry Garcia, John Entwistle, Stuart Sutcliffe, Slash, John Lennon and more.

They had a setlist from one of Elvis’ Vegas shows and even his service hat from when the King was in the army.  Of course there were guitars hanging everywhere, most notable was Andy Summers’ second-ever stringed instrument, plus they had stage outfits from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols.

While I was taking all of this in Karl was in the gift shop selecting the forty-first HRC t-shirt in his ever-expanding collection.  (He received his forty-second in the mail after I visited New Orleans a few months later).  After I completed my perusal of every item on display I found the two of them waiting patiently outside, both still staring up at the incredible architecture.

We surmised that the time on Karl’s parking meter was nearing its end so we started back towards the car.  Along the way we stopped into a chocolatier and bought some meringues and other treats to pack into our luggage.  Except for Karl.  He bought a meringue the size of a loaf of bread and from the look in his eyes I doubt it was going to survive the drive back to Zandvliet.

Back at the car Al and I retrieved our luggage and bid our friend/host/guide farewell, with handshakes and mannish half-hugs all around.  Off he went and just like that my brother and I were once again on our own in a foreign land.  

Man, hanging out with Chrissie and Karl had been great.  Not only were they fine, fine people, but it was so nice to have an actual home as a home-base for a change, not to mention having a pair of knowledgable and fun local tour guides who were eager to share their culture and history at every turn.  Especially Karl, history buff that he is.  Though we spent just a fraction of our time in Belgium we learned so much more about the country than we had gleaned about The Netherlands.  Museum displays and audio guides can only teach you so much; there’s nothing like having an actual person on hand to answer every question and explain every nuance.

And did I mention how wonderful they both were?  Chrissie was so much fun and was all smiles all the time and Karl was an unending ball of energy with a wealth of knowledge constantly at the ready.  And anything Karl didn’t know off the top of his head his “best friend” google informed him in an instant.  I swear, the guy told us a hundred facts a day and googled a thousand more.  Not a building went by without its age and provenance revealed, not a statue was admired without its sculptor and composition explained, not a conversational fact went by without being completely footnoted and googlefied.  

(Including my incredibly embarrassing and utterly inaccurate correcting of Karl when he mentioned that The Smurfs were Belgian.  “No,” I countered, confidently patting his shoulder like a teacher correcting a schoolboy, “The Smurfs are Danish.”  

“No,” he responded, confidently shrugging off my sympathetic hand and whipping out his ‘best friend’.  “They are Belgian.  

“See?” he remarked triumphantly, turning his phone and showing me a Flemish wikipedia page.  

I don’t read Flemish so I just quietly nodded, remarking only that when the Smurfs were in their heyday I was a big fan, boasting a nerdy collection of over sixty of the pricey little blobs of blue plastic, and two mushroom houses. 

Later at the Starbucks I pulled out my computer and got on the wifi to do my own research.  With a shocked and demure look on my face I turned to Karl and extended my hand.

“I’m sorry for doubting you Karl,” I said.  “You were absolutely correct, the Smurfs are from Belgium.  I’d like to apologize to you as well as thank you for setting me straight. 

“I’ve always thought the Smurfs were from Denmark and I’m glad now to know the truth.”

Of course man that he is, Karl warmly accepted my apology.)

Anyway, they were both the best hosts one could hope for and my great memories of our time in Belgium will always be inextricably wrapped up in warm memories of both Karl and Chrissie.  From Alan and I, thanks to both of them.

But now they were gone and as I say, we were left to fend for ourselves.  No worries, after nearly two weeks of romping through Europe together we were now one seasoned traveller leading another seasoned traveller.  We simply clak-clak-clak-ed our suitcases across the street and checked into our hotel for the final night of our glorious trip.

As I mentioned earlier, the Maxhotel was fully automated.  I self-checked us in utilizing one of two touch-screen kiosks in the small foyer, which eventually spit out a room key that I swiped to open the automatic doors gaining us entry into the hotel itself.  

Around the corner from the entrance we passed a little room containing a little man sitting in a little chair facing a large wall of video monitors and panels containing countless buttons and levers and things.  Obviously he was controlling every operation of the automated hotel like some bespectacled Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain.  In one way seeing him there added a bit of a human-ness to the otherwise wholly impersonal experience but in another way he eveoked exactly the opposite feeling, appearing out of the corner of my eye like a mad-scientist hotel manager using secret surveillance and merciless machines to carry out his nefarious and dastardly deeds.  

The first floor of the hotel (which is what we in North America would call the second floor) was a common area composed of extra bathrooms and showers, a small lounge, storage lockers, and several vending machines holding everything from food and drink to razor blades, shampoo, and condoms.  Exiting the elevator on the fourth floor (in North America: the fifth) I was happy to note that the hallway lighting clicked on and off by way of motion sensors, and the spartan but efficient room had one of those slots that you have to put the key into in order for the electricity to come on.  It was the first time Alan had seen these awesome energy-saving features that are rather common outside of gluttonous North America.

It didn’t take long before we got restless enough to go out walking again, and maybe find something to eat.  The pedestrian sidewalk beside our hotel was part of a network littered with restaurant choices.   We soon ducked down a wide alley that was lined with dining patios along either side as far as we could see.

The first place had a hawker outside who gave us a verbal tour of their menu, and further promised us each a free beer if we chose to sit down at his establishment.  Then a second hawker hit us with the exact same offer (and menu), as did a third.  Looking down the curved lane I could see a dozen hawkers in front of a dozen patios, each one leaning hopefully in our direction,.  I grabbed Alan’s arm and directed us right back to the first place.

We did indeed get free drinks to start but they were small, that’s for sure.  Mine was maybe a half of a small beer.  Maayyybe.  No matter, the food was good enough; Alan ordered the spaghetti and I got a pizza.  It was plentiful enough as well  Neither of us finished our meals and I even took a few slices of ‘za back to the hotel with me for a late-nite snack. 

Which didn’t take long.  After a brief pause at our table letting our meals settle and people-watching my brother and I agreed that we had seen about all that we were going to see of The City of Brussels on this trip and we slowly and lazily strolled back to our room for the night.  I stopped at a shop along the way and picked up a few beers, one of which I enjoyed during the walk (I find public drinking so darn civilized) while the other two soon paired perfectly with my leftover pizza.  

After we both got packed up in readiness for our early-morning departure I scouted the route to the airport, set my alarm and arranged for a wakeup call, and let the droning TV lull me to sleep.

Though The City of Brussels was really nice – and to be fair we didn’t see very much of it – it might have been my least favourite stop on the trip.  It was dirtier than anywhere else we had been (though not filthy by any stretch; it’s just that everywhere else we’d visited had been squeaky-clean), and it was the only place where homelessness and begging were commonplace.  

On the other hand, Rotterdam was shockingly great.  Boy, did I like that city!  The people, the vibe, the architecture, the bike paths; I can’t wait to go back.  And Antwerp had been amazing as well; it’s a really, really great city.  But I gotta say, I think my favourite place of all was Karl and Chrissie’s little hamlet, Zandvliet.  It was so quaint and beautiful with its winding streets and ancient houses, majestic church and pretty little square (that occasionally hosts one heck of a goose pull).  And then of course there is De Dry Claveren, which swiftly became one of my favourite drinking holes on planet Earth.

Oh, I’ll be back Zandvliet (and especially De Dry Claveren), I’ll be back!

Tourists

091818 The End, with a Custom Epilogue

The Atomium

Our wakeup call came right on time at 6:30am.  “Thank-you,” I said – just in case – to which a real human being replied, “Good morning!  This is your wakeup call.”  That was quite a surprise actually, given that the entire hotel was run automatically.  At 90% of hotels nowadays the wakeup calls are made by robots, but here in the fully-automated MAXhotel it seems to be pretty much the only human-to-human interaction available.

To be honest, I was ready for the call because my own little alarm clock had gone off right on time at 6:28am; you can never be too careful on a flight-day.  But really, I was ready for my alarm to go off because I had awoken a few minutes earlier of my own accord just like I always do on flight days, slave as I am to my internal-clock superpower.

It interesting to note that our grandmother never, ever used an alarm clock.  She was so confident in her own internal clock that even for something important like a flight day she just set her brain to wake herself up at a certain time and that was all she needed.  If it ever didn’t work she sure didn’t tell me about it.  

I have a feeling I could get away with doing the same thing.  I mean I always, always wake up just before my alarm clock goes off if it’s set to ring for something important.  But I just don’t have the guts to try it.  Plus I’ve convinced myself that it’s the act of physically setting the alarm that triggers my internal alarm to go off in the first place, similar to how writing a cheat-sheet one time back in high school caused me to not have to look at it once.  The very act of writing it all down made me remember everything on the page.

But I digress.  The point is we were both up and at ‘em bright and early and we auto-checked out right on time.  We stepped outside into a dark, warm and beautiful morning and began rolling our luggage along the tuk-tuk-tuk bricked sidewalk towards the train station, which proved to be a pleasant kilometre-long stroll through the slowly awakening streets.  I just love walking through city streets early in the morning.  We stopped at a large, spectacularly architectured Starbucks along the way where Alan stopped for a tea-to-go and we made it to the station with plenty of time to get the first train to the airport.

We more than made it: the train was running almost a half-hour late.  

No matter, we rested easy knowing that we were scheduled to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare and we remained confident that we would be checking in right on time, late train bedamned.  Al sipped his tea calmly and I twiddled my thumbs while the sun rose over the urban horizon before us, morphing the din into a bright blue sky.

Our train came, we hopped on and managed a couple of back benches to ourselves, and we both stared out our own private windows as the train pulled out of town.  I was happy to catch a glimpse of the Atomium, a giant landmark in Brussels that I had been hoping to see.  It’s an enormous chrome atom that was built for the World’s Fair back in 1958 and it stands over a hundred metres tall.  Interior escalators take visitors from one giant room to another, but on this trip I only managed this fleeting glimpse (and a blurry pic taken on the move that challenged my zoom lens to its fullest capacity).  Next time I’m in town I’ll be sure to visit it proper.

At the airport we checked in easy-peasy and right on time.  I was scheduled for what appeared to be a wholly unnecessary 6+ hour wait in Montreal so I killed a few dozen minutes attempting to change my Ottawa connection to either of the two earlier flights Air Canada had on their schedule.  I was told that I could likely switch to the 2:40pm flight once I arrived in Montreal providing that I didn’t check any luggage, so I didn’t.

With more that two hours to kill before boarding Al and I went straight upstairs to the lounge.  We had been told that Air Canada used the Brussels Airline Business Class Lounge and I was expecting the home-town lounge to be pretty upscale.

Boy was I wrong(-ish).

We showed our boarding passes and were ushered into the plainest airport lounge ever (pun intended, of course).  Just a square, white room holding thirty or so square, leatherette easy chairs with a small serving area offering up only the most spartan food and drink options.  I dispensed myself a coffee from the machine while Alan got a hot chocolate, and I attempted to quench my gnawing hunger with a piece of plain bread with cheese and some salami.  

After my meagre breakfast I decided to explore the airport in search of some souvenirs.  Leaving the lounge I turned left and headed towards the stairs, passing the Brussels Airline Business Class Lounge along the way.

Huh?

I turned on my heels and went inside for a look.  Turns out we had been sitting in their overflow lounge, where we had in fact been whiling away our time just a dozen metres from the ‘real’ lounge.  I ran back and grabbed Alan, and in no time we secured a pair of overly comfortable chairs directly in front of a monitor running the CNN feed.  I set out to resume my souvenir hunt, which proved wholly unsuccessful.

Back at the lounge we took advantage of their much-upgraded snack offerings, I delved into the New York Times and poured myself a fairly large number of Bacardi and Cokes in fast succession while Al busied himself bouncing between the internet and the TV monitor and stuck to non-alcoholic drinks.  Soon enough it was time to head to our nearly-adjacent gate and settle in for seven hours of pampered pleasure in our individual Air Canada business class pods.  

It was glorious.

Unlike the overnight trip on our way over to Europe, this time we were travelling by day.  Indeed, with the time change we arrived in Montreal at just a little past noon, despite leaving Brussels at 10:45 in the morning.  While we were in the air I watched a couple of really good movies and a mile of TV documentaries, ate chicken stuffed with asiago cheese and spinach, enjoyed an after-dinner port and cheese tray, and even enjoyed pre-arrival lunch, with another number of cocktails poured for me (an even larger number this time), and all of it while relaxing all cozy and comfortable under a wool blanket with my seat pitched to about thirty degrees.  

Did I mention that it was glorious?

When we landed in Montreal I was feeling great (in more ways than one, I suppose), and as we joined the swath of passengers heading towards customs I was happy to see a gentleman sitting at a nearby Air Canada help desk with nothing to do.  I ran towards him, calling over my shoulder to Alan that I would catch up with him shortly.  The guy at the desk was friendly, helpful and quick, and after initially telling me he could only put me on standby he asked, “Do you really want to get on that 2:40 flight?” and badda-boom, he booked me into seat 7d.

Buoyed with my easy success I turned and saw Al had already gotten his customs printout from one of the touchscreen kiosks and he had entered the winding line to customs.  I rushed to an empty kiosk and had my printout in hand within thirty seconds flat.  I rushed to get in the customs line but found myself about a row behind Al.  When he got to the front he seemed to be talking to the Customs guy for a little while before finally getting waved through.

Or did he get waved though?  I couldn’t quite tell, but was it possible that he had actually been directed to go to the office?  From my vantage point about twenty people behind him I couldn’t be sure.  

I finally reached the front of the line and made it through in no time, and walking down the hall I came upon two ladies armed with handheld scanners.  I got my boarding pass scanned and was directed to the right, where a short hallway quickly dumped me out of the secure area and directly in front of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge.

And my brother was nowhere in sight.

Maybe he was in the bathroom?  Despite him having a good three or four minute headstart on me I waited there for maybe five minutes.  Eventually it occurred to me to duck into the lounge…how stupid, of course he went straight into the lounge!

But he wasn’t in there.  He couldn’t be, as it turned out this wasn’t ‘our’ lounge; the business class lounge for domestic fliers (which we now were) was in another wing altogether (look at that, another airplane pun…).  I waited back out by the door another couple of minutes longer until I convinced myself that Alan must have simply went to his gate.  He only had an hour or so to get his connection to Moncton.

But then, what if he had been pulled into Customs after all?

My mind raced and I stood still.  Finally I decided to go check his gate.  I ran off at a full trot, pulling my luggage behind me.  The domestic wing was quite a distance away (it turned out), and included a tricky little u-turn that seemed easily missable.  

I arrived at Al’s gate huffing and puffing and found no Al.  I stood there catching my breath and pulled out my computer.  I tried sending him a couple of facebook messages and then figured I’d better go check that domestic business class lounge.  He was probably in there having a quick Bacardi before his connection.  The lounge was about halfway back to where I had started.  I ran back, ran in and found Alan nowhere.  Maybe (I thought, scrambling for answers) he had missed that missable u-turn?  I went to the tricky spot and waited there for a while before running back to check his gate again.  His plane was boarding any minute – he had to be there by now.  Either that or he was stuck at Customs for sure.

By this time I arrived back at his gate my shirt was almost soaked through with sweat.  I watched his plane board and saw the lady going through her passenger list.

“Are you missing anyone?” I asked her.

“Yes, I am,” she replied.

“Snelgrove?” I asked, pretty much rhetorically.  “Alan Snelgrove?”

“Yes…” she answered, going down her list.  “…and three others.”

“That’s my brother,” I told her.  “I don’t know where he is.”

“Well, I don’t either,” she said after a few clickity-clicks on her keyboard.  “The computer doesn’t show him getting through Customs.

“But he only has eight minutes to get here to the gate before we close the doors.”

I was standing next to a payphone.  I whipped out my credit card and dialled Al’s number.  

No answer.  I left a message.

I ran back to the lounge as fast as me and my luggage could run, dashing up a double-staircase when confronted with a pair of packed escalators.  Still no Alan.  I could think of nothing else to do so I ran back to his gate.  Shortly after I got there the lady apologized and told me she had to close the gate.  I arranged with her to have Al pre-booked on the next flight to Moncton (two hours hence) and she was off.

I plugged my credit card back into the payphone and tried to catch my sister-in-law before she went to the Moncton airport and found my brother not aboard.  I couldn’t reach her so I tried my mom a couple of times too, leaving her a pair of messages suggesting she get in touch with Al’s wife to let her know that he had missed his flight.  And I tried Al again of course.

Had I known that each call was costing me $16.17 I might not have been so frivolous.  All together I spent $100 on a half-dozen ten-second phone calls.  I guess with hardly anybody using them anymore the payphone people have to make their money somehow!

I slunk back to the Maple Leaf Lounge and poured myself a strong drink.  Opening my computer, I was surprised to find a response from Alan on facebook.  I downed my drink (and another; I knew he had a good two hours before his new flight left) and semi-rushed off to find him at his new gate.  When I did, he explained what happened.

Directly after Customs, at the spot where I had my boarding pass scanned and had been been directed through the door to freedom Alan had been directed the other way.  He found himself…somewhere…where he stood waiting for me.  As he waited he noticed he was still holding the printout he had received at the Customs kiosk and he (inexplicably) threw it into a nearby garbage can.  When he realized that I wasn’t coming he continued on his way, only to encounter a customs officer who’s job it was to – you guessed it – collect kiosk printouts.  

Al explained to the guy what had happened and that he could go back and dig the printout out of the garbage can – it was just down the hall – but the officer was having none of it.  As a result Al got pulled in and had his stuff searched.  After he was finally sent on his way he came across yet another official who also insisted on searching his bags.

In fact, by the time he was finally ejected into gen pop Alan had been pulled in three times.  (I’m a little bit fuzzy on the details of his third encounter, but I was pretty tired by then.  Plus there were those two stiff drinks…)

By the time he finished relating his tales it was time for me to rush off to board my own plane.

“All-righty then,” I said.  “I guess I’m off.”

“Okay,” Al replied, adding: “Thanks, bud.”  

At least that’s what I think he said.  He might have said “Thanks, Todd,” I’m not sure.  But there was definitely a “thanks” in there, and that was all I needed.

Sitting in 7d with my newspaper already read and my crossword as done as I was going to get it, I had nothing to do but to sit back, close my eyes, and mull over the previous two weeks.

I lay there meditating and playing the trip back through my memory.  Bit by bit I relived all the highlights – the Anne Frank Museum, the Watering Hole, Karl and Chrissie’s bar, the Cube Houses, the car museum…everything.    

Then it occurred to me that here I was already reminiscing about the trip I took to Europe with my brother and I wasn’t even home yet, and I just knew that Alan was sitting on his flight doing the same thing.  A big smile spread across my face.  We’ve never had something like this to share before.  And now we’ll have it forever.

“And it was a whole lot of fun too,” I thought to myself.  

Best Christmas gift(s) ever.  Thanks Mom!

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