Europe 1998 ????????????????????

Kosy in Kloveniersburgval

After breakfast, I said my goodbyes to Jeannie, who tragically had to go to work that day. Then after I packed up all my stuff, Richard and I set out for Brussels’ Midi station (which had nothing to do with computer music, if you’re wondering) and bought my ticket to Amsterdam on the 12:28 service of the very phallic-sounding Thalys express train. A bargain at only 1200 francs, especially as there were severe disruptions to most of the slower services to Amsterdam due to flooding.

Then we caught the Metro back to the King’s Palace, and it’s worth pointing out for the people back home in Melbourne that Brussels’ Metro ticketing system is almost identical to Melbourne’s. The tickets are the same except in French, the validators are the same, the way loads of people don’t bother to buy a ticket is the same, in fact the only differences are that (a) you buy the ticket off a human instead of a machine, and (b) there seems to be no controversy over any multi-million dollar/franc contracts to get it installed, and I suspect it’s because they didn’t pay that much for it.

The Metro itself, with only two lines, is a bit sad and pathetic, but the ugly orange trains get the job done, and the Perrier vending machines in the stations add a touch of class.

We took a look around the beautifully manicured and colourful lawns of the King’s Palace, before going inside. We didn’t have to pay anything to get in, but we did have to surrender our multitude of cameras. There were lots of serious looking police in and around the palace, and going in, you could see why. It was very luxurious – loads of furniture that looked antique, expensive and without doubt devilishly uncomfortable.

There were also plenty of paintings and statues, as well as displays explaining some of the history of Belgium’s royal family. We didn’t spot King Albert himself, but of course I could’ve passed him in a corridor and not realised.

Boarding a Thalys train in Brussels, 16/9/1998
Sleek, streamlined, smooth, and about as sexy as a train can be: Thalys.

It was getting on for midday, so we headed back to the flat so I could get my backpack, then we headed back to the station. We eventually found the platform, and found the train waiting up there too. It was very streamlined, high-tech looking, coloured white and dark red, and about as sexy as a train can be.

After thanking Richard profusely for his and Jeannie’s hospitality, I boarded and found my seat. Before long we were cruising out of Brussels, heading towards Antwerpen. The train was incredibly smooth. If you didn’t look out the window, you wouldn’t have been able to tell it was moving.

Leaving Antwerpen, we kept going through northern Belgium, and from time to time we found ourselves crawling through flooded areas, the water obviously reaching the tracks, but not thankfully coming high enough to actually prevent the train getting through.

Every time we approached a new city, the conductor would announce it, in about half a dozen different languages. This could take anything up to five minutes, but sounded so cool that as we were coming into Rotterdam, I recorded it on video.

The conductor was female; does that make her a conductress, or does that just sound too silly? She probably had an official name designated by the marketing people, like Customer Service Captain or something.

I watched the European countryside go by, and munched on some chocolate I’d got on the BA flight into Belgium a few days before. By the time we got into the Netherlands, I had started to notice the canals and things, though I didn’t spot any “traditional” old windmills, just the more modern wind turbine-type devices. Probably much more efficient, but a bit lacking on the romance.

We got into Amsterdam a little late, but I could only imagine how much time it might have taken had I skimped and got a stopping train. I probably would have found myself stuck somewhere in northern Belgium with water up to my armpits. So I happily made my way out of Amsterdam Central Station, stopping only for a lengthy queue to change some money over to the local flavour.

When you walk out of Amsterdam Central Station into the Stationsplein, Amsterdam really hits you in the face. Bicycles and trams are everywhere – not a car in sight. There are canals right outside, and swarms of people walking in all directions. I was already booked into one of the nearby HI Youth Hostels, and walked slowly through the square outside the station, just basking in the atmosphere, and looking for a map.

While I was getting my bearings, no less than two blokes approached me and asked if I needed accommodation. I guess with a pack on my back, a camera in one hand and a bit of paper with an address on it in the other, I had “backpacker” written all over me. One of them cheerfully directed me to the VVV (it means tourist office, though I don’t know what it stands for) where I found a map, determined where the hell I was going, and bought a multi-use transport ticket, better known as a Strippenkart.

It was no trouble talking to people, because just about everyone there seemed to speak English – in fact most of them spoke English better than people from English-speaking countries. And with the exchange rates, the money wasn’t confusing, because one guilder was worth about one dollar.

I got on a tram which zipped down what looked like the main street, Damrak, and I got out and walked for a couple of minutes down Kloveniersburgval, a lengthily named, awkward to pronounce street which like many in Amsterdam is split in two by a canal down the middle. It must make doing U-turns rather inconvenient. I found the hostel, checked into the enormous dorm, stuffed my belongings into a locker, and headed out to explore.

I walked around and around and up and down the streets of Amsterdam, poking my head in shop windows, trying without success to keep track of the number of bicycles, and continually stopping to enjoy the very scenic canals.

Something I noticed was that there seemed to be much fewer phones in central Amsterdam than almost any other city I had visited. Edinburgh, London, even Inverness had heaps of phones, you could hardly walk down the street for bumping into them. But in Amsterdam they were relatively scarce, though given their metallic bright green appearance, maybe somebody decided that they don’t want more of them on the streets because they’re kind of ugly.

I had bought a phone card, and stopped every so often to try and phone Brigitte, a Toxic Custard reader who had said she’d show me around Amsterdam. Now this is the embarrassing bit, which I didn’t even tell her when I finally reached her, but I’m a safe distance away that I won’t be able to hear her laughter when she reads this: I walked around for a couple of hours trying to call her from different phones, finding it continually engaged, before I finally realised that had the number wrong. I was missing out on the area code. Bad move. Once I even left a voicemail, expressing my frustration at the continual busy tone!

It started to get dark, and it started raining, but I kept trudging around the streets, watching people going about their business, and generally enjoying myself. In fact, at one point it started pouring down with rain, and during this torrential downpour I spotted something that will live with me always: a brave Amsterdam soul, riding his bicycle down Vijzelstraat, one hand on the handlebars, the other on an umbrella.

Amsterdam really does appear to be a bicycle-friendly city. A lot of the streets are one way, and single lane, and don’t allow car parking, which of course isn’t a problem for bicycles, which seemed to be chained to just about anything that wasn’t moving.

Amsterdam canalI found dinner, which was traditional Dutch lasagne and garlic bread and a drink, at a very traditional Dutch restaurant named “New York Pizza”. After munching it down, I found a phone and wisely decided to try Brigitte’s number with the area code. Needless to say I got through first time.

We agreed to meet at the Central Station, and about an hour later I found myself waiting outside the bank in the station, looking out for a woman in a blue raincoat with a koala attached to her collar. I almost got thrown completely by the seventy-ish granny who came down the hallway wearing a blue raincoat and some other kind of furry animal on her collar that was quite plainly not a koala.

The real Brigitte turned up as promised and we caught a tram to Leidseplein, and found a pub and had a beer. We chatted about Amsterdam, and what there was to see. The Van Gogh museum was closed for renovations, so I wouldn’t be seeing that, but I did take the opportunity to ask a genuine Dutch person how to pronounce Van Gogh. She said to pronounce it as “Gock – with a bit of phlegm.”

We walked across the road to the Alto Jazz cafe, which was packed to the rafters with humanity, and took in some great music (and a little more beer) for a bit. Then we walked around for a bit, but it was getting late so we headed back to the Central Station and Brigitte caught a train home, and I headed back to the hostel and dropped asleep with great speed.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.