Sunday, December 03, 2006

A pleasant stay in Amsterdam

Friday 6 October 2006, Amsterdam, 13:30 CET

I visited Amsterdam for a conference, which was not very good. It was held in a hotel in the business park near the airport. The hotel was very nice, luxurious and had all the conveniences, services and facilities one would expect in a modern business hotel. The staff were efficient, friendly and helpful, but not over-familiar. The food was OK but not great, although the breakfast choices were good. At €180 per night – and that was conference rate – one would expect no less.

The hotel had one major drawback: it was in the middle of a business park, surrounded by corporate offices and other hotels. It was really isolated from the city and offered no opportunities to savour the life of Amsterdam. Of course, a taxi or shuttle bus could be arranged; but the former costs about €40 while the latter service ends at 11 p.m. So I spent two days totally bored and isolated in the hotel. It made me make one firm decision: I will never again attend a conference that is not held in a city location, or within very easy reach of the city.

The contrast when I moved into the city of Amsterdam could not have been more marked: a thriving, lively, buzzing city with lots of people and plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs to visit. But, at the same time, I found it a quiet and relaxed city. It is very people-friendly and bikes are everywhere. Vehicular traffic takes second place to pedestrians and bikes so there is a calmness in the city. In complete contrast to Ireland, of course, Amsterdam has a fantastic system of public transport with trams, metro, trains and buses. It works brilliantly and is so easy – and cheap – to use.

Again, in contrast to the luxury of the airport hotel, my second hotel is a budget establishment on Prinsengracht, which is on the fourth canal to the west of the city, but still within walking distance. The hotel is on the canal and consists of a number of houses that have been amalgamated into a single hotel. The buildings are traditional narrow-fronted properties rising to three or four stories. Due to their narrowness, there are no lifts; just very narrow staircases which make it a challenge to haul a big heavy suitcase up them! For this reason, almost every building has a hoisting hook near its top to enable large and heavy items to be hoisted up to the higher levels.
I observed a builder hauling up a bag of cement and later saw some people moving into a flat on the third floor of another building. So they are very practical devices. Living in a bungalow, as I do, I would have very little use for a hoist, I think.

The room I am in is tiny – probably about 8 feet by 10 feet. It has a shower and toilet separated by a studded wall. In the room is a washbasin and shelves with plenty of towels, soap and shampoo. There is a pole on which to hang clothes; no fancy wardrobes and trouser presses here! The bed is very narrow so it is lucky I did not “get lucky” because it would be impossible to fit two in the bed! Instead of a dresser, there is a formica-topped shelf about 15 inches deep, over which is a mirror. The room is overlooked at the rear, so I have to keep the curtains closed all the time. Am I painting a bad picture? Well I don’t mean to. For the €60 a night, including breakfast and taxes, it is great value and I am very pleased with it. Given that all I am doing is washing, sleeping and storing my stuff there, it is great value and I would recommend the place, once one did not expect luxury facilities.

Breakfast is 100% self-service and there is a good choice – once you don’t expect a full English or Irish breakfast! And you could probably do without that anyway! The hotel offers juices; cereal; boiled (hard) eggs; cheeses; salami; cold meat; sweet, sticky bread; jams and marmalade; white and brown bread (toast it yourself!), and tea and coffee. No fruit or yoghurt, but after you have eaten your fill of the above you probably won’t need them anyway. The dining room is very bright and airy, but very 60s! And the young Alsatian dog even comes in to greet all the diners!

Staff in the hotel are friendly but not familiar, courteous, and informative when asked. The hotel is old and old-fashioned, but it is clean. I am very happy with the hotel and would stay here again.

Jordaan, the area where the hotel is situated, is a really lovely and somewhat Bohemian area. Keeping with the theme of contrasts, it is very different to the city centre and the red light district. I think Jordaan is probably more typical of continental Europe and Amsterdam than the red light district. There are artisan shops; boutiques; many restaurants; quaint bars and lots of specialty shops. Lying within a network of canals, Jordaan is very charming and my preferred location in Amsterdam. It is definitely a good daytime location.

I had intended visiting a few museums and galleries but there were queues at them all. With only a day and a half in Amsterdam, I did not want to spend all my time queuing so I will leave them for another trip. I am more a people and pubs person anyway and really enjoyed the buzz and cut-and-thrust of human interaction, especially with foreign people in their own countries. I think I enjoy being an outsider!

I visited a few bars – even one or two gay bars – and really enjoyed them. One bar was run by a guy from Northern Ireland and he knew the area I lived in back in Dublin. He had a great interest in motor bikes so we had a great chat about that. I enjoyed myself there.

In the gay bar, the barman spent a lot of time trying to figure out where a restaurant I had visited some years ago might be. Everyone in there was very pleasant and friendly and – in case you are wondering – I left with my virtue – and everything else – intact! They don’t actually try to jump you or have sex with you the second you walk into a gay bar, it seems! I was chatting to a guy called Bram, so that led on to a conversation about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Stoker lived very close to where I lived in Fairview, Dublin and I played in a park we called the “Crescent” opposite his house, which was in a terraced crescent. I had to explain what a crescent was to Bram and told him there were good examples in Bristol and Bath in the UK.

Bram and I also talked about the relationship between the Dutch and the loyalists in Northern Ireland; the siege of Derry; the Battle of the Boyne; the Apprentice boys; sectarianism in Derry and a 3-some gay sex session he had with a guy from Northern Ireland and another Dutch guy one night! Apparently, the Dutch guy offended the Northern guy, who turned out to be of the “orange” persuasion (and thus a fitting partner for 2 Dutch guys). Despite his nakedness, the Northern guy became extremely aggressive and argumentative. It made an interesting piece of imagery: 3 naked queens arguing over politics and religion in Northern Ireland, having just shagged the shit – literally – out of each other! I never got to find out how the story ended, unfortunately!

I know you are wondering did I visit the Red Light District. Well of course I did, dear reader. Not to have done so would have been like going to Pisa and not seeing the tower; going to Rome and not seeing St. Peter’s; seeing Naples and not dying … well, you get the picture. I am sure that everything that could possibly be written about the Red Light District has been written, so what can I add? I find it an interesting and decadent place – but there has always been a place in my heart for Bacchanalian decadence. Look at any web site about the Red Light District and you will find out all that is on offer there. I found some of it interesting (the beautiful women); some of it strangely fascinating (the chicks with dicks); some of it compelling (the fetishists, nurses, secretaries, mistresses, school teachers); some of it repulsive (the fat uninterested ones); some of it a real turn off (the pregnant ones) and, finally, some if it rather worrying and upsetting (the seemingly very young girls, many of whom seemed to be from Eastern Europe). Anyway, in the true tradition of the best in reportage, when I encountered these sirens, I made my excuses and came!

The Dutch strike me as a very pleasant people. Their services seem to work; their lifestyle seems more relaxed that the Irish or British; they rush less and – of course – they cycle everywhere, even in the rain. Many cycle while holding up their umbrellas, which I find somewhat charming. And they have bikes especially adapted for carrying kids, tools, equipment, etc. Some have elaborate boxes attached at the front while others have trailers. Many have luxury seats for their kids, often carrying two or three on a bike. And I even saw bikes decorated with abundances of flowers!

Observing the Dutch life – albeit for a short time – and having seen the Danes, French, Spanish and Portuguese living somewhat similar lives at a far slower pace, I really wonder whether it is they, rather than us in Ireland, Britain and the USA, who have the formula right. I am inclined to believe that our future should be definitely more Berlin than Boston, more social democratic and less liberal capitalist. Sadly, the monster of capital – driven by US globalisation and cheapening of everything – seems to be winning out. We should resist this “Boston” model so beloved of Mary Harney and, with it, US and British aggression in the world. The European model appears to me to be a gentler, fairer model that, at its core, puts people at the heart of its policies and beliefs. In Ireland, I think we have sold out our children’s futures for economic success. We have made a big mistake.

Two downsides of this trip – but ones by which I was not affected – were the British “Bulldog” pubs everywhere with their constant Sky Sports, English breakfast, chips with everything and raucous customers and the other, sadly, Irish pubs that have as much connection with Ireland as Outer Mongolia. I gave neither type of establishment my custom but did look in the door of one so-called “Irish” pub. It was as expected: dark, loud, multi-Sky-Sports-screened and, ironically, had a blackboard with a complete list of all the English premiership matches that were to be shown that week on Murdoch’s Sky. The customers were loud and vulgar and not my type. These pubs – both English and Irish – are a blot on the landscape of almost every major holiday destination in the world. The sooner we get rid of them the better.

Saturday 7 October 2006, Amsterdam. 14.00 CET

I am back in the pub where I wrote yesterday’s journal. I will be heading to the airport soon on my journey back to Dublin.

The hotel worked out to be perfect to my needs. They even cleaned the room, changed the used towels and made the bed. Now, for €60 a night, that is not bad. I will be back!!!

I ate in a great Italian restaurant last night, directly across the bridge from the pub where I now write. I had minestrone soup, an enormous Lasagne and a pint of Heineken, all for €16.50. It was well worth the money.

After that, I went to the bar close to the hotel where I had been in the afternoon I arrived. It is a lovely bar and seems to be frequented by trendy – but not very young – people. The guy behind the bar was the image of Ralph Fiennes and I reckon he could make money as a double. Every feature and every expression on his face was so like Ralph that it was quite remarkable.

I wrote yesterday that I like being a stranger and what I experienced yesterday – especially in that nice pub – pretty much confirmed my feeling. I was surrounded (the pub was very packed) by 20 and 30 somethings and none of them was speaking English. Since I can’t even pick up a word of Dutch, I was very much alone and the outsider. But I felt very comfortable and at ease. I could even tell that they were talking about me but felt relaxed about it. In the end a young girl felt the need to tell me what they were saying about me. They had seen me drinking pints of Heineken instead of the more normal small beer. She told me that they thought that guys who drank pints had small dicks!!!!! I refrained from giving her the opportunity to see that she was wrong.

I got talking to a more senior citizen – an Amsterdam native named Joke. It is pronounced YO-KA. She was very nice. We had a great chat about Amsterdam and Dublin and the merits of both cities. We spoke about our kids and how they were getting on, etc. She has a new partner now, her marriage having broken up many years ago. I think I am becoming something of an exception because nearly everyone I met here and meet in Dublin is in a second or third relationship. Strange, really. But, with all its faults, I still prefer to be married to the same girl I walked down the aisle with almost 25 years ago. Through ups and downs, ins and outs, and trouble and strife, we have managed to stay together as have most of our friends, who also got married about the same time. But it seems we might be a dying breed!

Having seen and stayed in Jordaan in Amsterdam, the Red Light District pales into insignificance. What a pity Amsterdam is known more for the latter than the former. Jordaan is a fantastic place full of culture, chic and elegant, relaxed ambience. This is Amsterdam! Situated between Jordaan and the Red Light District is the main shopping area with H&M, Levis, Foot Locker, McDonalds, etc. Avoid it unless you absolutely must go there. Yesterday I had to buy an umbrella, so there I went. But it is like Grafton Street (no longer a wonderland), Oxford Street, Strøget in Copenhagen, and every other corporate-owned city centre in the world. So stick to the outlying areas; and in Amsterdam, that is wonderful Jordaan. This is a place to which I will return.

I went back earlier yesterday to the pub I was in that was run by the Northern Ireland guy, Brian Campbell. He’s a nice guy. This time I met a couple from Australia, Karl and Ruth. Karl was 59 and worked in construction. Ruth was about the same age, or a little younger, and worked in a hospital in Fremantle. They were very nice and chatty. Karl, who left Yorkshire when he was two years old, has been in Aus all his life and loves the country. He comes to Europe every year for about six weeks. Both he and Ruth are in a post-previous-marriage relationship. And it is funny, because we talked about kids again (Jaysus, I must bore people when I am away!). They could not wait to get theirs out of the house, whereas I can’t bear the thought of mine leaving, even though they are adults.

In the Dutch pub I am now writing in, there is something else I really like about it. They draw a plan of every table and bar space in the pub and write down – in longhand – every drink and meal served. That’s the tab! I also saw this in another pub and found it fascinating.

By tram and train, I got to the airport from the city centre in about 30 minutes, at the princely cost of €5.20. One cannot help but be impressed at the efficiency of the Dutch transport system. It is absolutely marvellous and – on the theme of contrasts – so different to what passes for a public transport system in Ireland.

My trip to Amsterdam was really marvellous and I hope to return in the not too distant future.