Thursday, October 17, 2019

Traveling Around Europe Like It's 1999

As I noted in an earlier post, exactly 20 years ago, Janis and I were traveling around Europe on our Grand Adventure.  In this pre-blogosphere, pre-Facebook era, we sent emails back to our friends and family with stories of our shenanigans.  I'm occasionally sharing some of those stories, and here's what we were doing 20 years ago today ...

                Monday, October 18

We made it to Holland and are now safely settled into our newest temporary home.  It's a "vacation park", which is a property with a bunch of small bungalows, a restaurant and bar, laundromat, and small store.  We're in the woods near a couple of small villages.  In all, it’s a pretty nice place to stay for a while.

We left London early last Wednesday and drove to Dover.  We took a ferry across to Ostend, Belgium.  The ferry was pretty neat.  It's a catamaran with two vehicle decks and two people decks.  It moved out pretty good, too.  The trip took three hours and the seas were flat calm.  Immediately upon arrival, they dumped us off the boat and onto Ostend’s streets.  Ostend's signs leave a lot to be desired, both in quantity and it accuracy.  At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.  We first took a rather creative way out of town but quickly found the right road .... at least, we found one that went in the direction we wanted to go.  Unfortunately, we wound up traversing Antwerp right at rush hour.  Somehow we got back onto the freeway (don't know what they call it here yet), then the last 50 km (36 miles) to our park took us two hours because traffic was awful.  There weren’t any accidents, there were just too dang many cars on the roads.  We now hear that's true all over the Netherlands.

Our bungalow is small and cute.  The whole thing is about 20 feet square.  It has a small kitchen, living room, and bathroom.  There isn't a bedroom per se.  You open up what looks like a cabinet in the wall (with little heart-shaped holes cut into the doors, no less) and find a queen-size bed tucked away in there, along with a window looking outside.  The whole thing is comfortably furnished.  It has Dutch TV, which means a bunch of stuff in a language we can't understand, but it also means CNN.  Yes!  Real news!!  No more BBC!!!  On the outside, our bungalow has stucco walls painted white and a real thatched roof.  It's set in a wooded area and cars are parked in an area out near the front of the facility.  It’s very quiet and very nice.  We have enjoyed our stay here.

The only drawbacks are that there was no phone in the bungalow and we've not been able to find any internet access.  This has been a bit frustrating, but I guess that's life.

We have explored a couple of towns near here.  The Netherlands is very different from England.  The Dutch go to great extremes to make sure that their houses, streets, villages, yards, and towns are attractively designed, clean, neat, and well presented.  Things here are immaculate.  Houses are usually brick and have flower boxes in the windows.  Most yards are small but extremely well landscaped.  We've seen a number of people out washing their windows ... now how often do you see that in the States?  Stores are very attractive and look well stocked.  There is little, if any, outdoor advertising.  Most streets in the villages and towns are brick, and the bricks are laid in attractive patterns.  Roads are often bordered with trees set equidistant apart (many with their bark ripped off by errant automobiles).  The Dutch are big into plants: we've seen tree farms everywhere, and there were more nurseries and garden shops in the village than there were grocery stores. 

Village life seems to be a bit slower than in England.  Everybody rides bicycles, much like in Japan, only here they ride a variety of different types of bikes.  We had a wonderful lunch in a restaurant in Oss, and I noticed that there was a group of businessmen in there spending the afternoon playing cards, while another group was having a very loooonng lunch.  We even found a good art gallery in Oss, which surprised the heck out of me since finding a good gallery in London (a major art market) was so difficult.  Nobody seems to be in a hurry unless they're driving, at which time they're all trying out for the Ferrari Formula 1 team.  (Our Range Rover is outclassed: it has all the responsive handling and acceleration of a Chevy Suburban, so we can often be found leading a long train of impatient cars).  Drivers aside, the Netherlands is a classy, civilized, and friendly country.  All this comes with a price: land and houses are expensive, apparently starting at around $200,000 and going up. 

Dutch is an interesting language.  It sounds like a cross between German and Swedish, and you'd be surprised at how much you can understand once you get the hang of it.  "Huis" means house, for example; and "eet huis" is .... well, you figure it out.  Most Dutch speak excellent English, and we have had no problem with language barriers.

If people in the Netherlands speak Dutch, and people in France speak French, does that mean that the people in Belgium speak Belch?  Just a thought.

We spent two days wandering around Amsterdam.  We took the train there and back.  Trains run on time and are pretty well equipped.  Amsterdam itself is a great city.  The old town and city center are easy to get around in.  It's laid out in a rough semicircular fashion with roads and canals running everywhere.  Many buildings are old, up to 400 years, and there are ancient buildings side by side with new ones ... which more or less are in harmony with their older brethren.  There are no skyscrapers in downtown as there seems to be an upper limit of about five or six stories in height (more for church towers and domes).  Amsterdam is essentially built on landfill and over the years many of the old buildings have settled in rather odd ways, so many of them lean forwards or backwards, and there are even whole blocks where they all lean sideways.  Maybe that's why Amsterdam is so lenient on drugs: their whole city is a bit wonky, so maybe the drugs help straighten it up? 

Streets in the old section are narrow.  Many are in use by trams.  There were surprisingly few cars in town; most people get around by public transportation or by bicycle.  (Trivia: there are 700,00 people living in Amsterdam and there are 600,000 registered bicycles).  Tour boats make up most of the traffic in the canals, but canals are also used by regular people for daily comings and goings.  Houseboats are everywhere.  These got their start after WWII when there was a shortage of housing.  Now people live on everything from old canal boats to modern-style houses built on barges to what looks like a West Virginia tar shack on floats. 

We spent one day just wandering around sightseeing, and another day visiting the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums.  The Van Gogh museum was outstanding: well laid out, well lit, with over 200 of his paintings on display at any one time.  I could've spent all day there.  The Rembrandt museum wasn't as good.  They had restored his house to the way it might have looked when he lived there.  They didn't have very many of his paintings, etchings, or drawings there, and the displays were poorly lit and difficult to look at.  Janis visited the diamond museum while I was looking at Van Gogh's - she said it was pretty good.

Amsterdam's tourist industry is huge, and two big draws are drugs and sex.  Marijuana and associated cannabis drugs are legally available in cafes and other places.  We wandered into a number of places where the smoke raised our blood THC levels a couple of notches just by breathing the air.  We don't know whether this "let it be" approach is keeping other drug problems under control.

But the most interesting thing about Amsterdam was the people.  You could spend all day sitting on a bench watching the people go by, and it would be a day well spent.  The most entertaining ones were the druggies. 
- We walked by a cafe/cannabis bar where a couple of wasted dopeheads were having great difficulty rolling another joint.  Right then an even more wasted waitress stumbled out and said something like "yeeaahooomogalaaaagumdum" to them (they didn't appear to understand it, either) and then she turned around and stumbled back into the cafe.
- We found a nice little place with a deck on a canal to have lunch in.  The waitress was a very pretty girl who's smoked one too many funny cigarettes.  Nice girl, just a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  The name of the place was the Grasshopper .... duh, don't you think we should've had a clue?
- Our tour boat guide was multi-lingual.  He had to say everything four times: once each in Dutch, English, French, and German.  He couldn't really pass along too much information since it took forever to say it!
- We walked through part of the red-light district and it really does have red lights.  It also has some hideous practitioners.  They might be attractive if you (a) hadn't had any in the past six years and (b) were blind.  Woof!
- Amsterdam has the same street mimes that Edinburgh and London had.  Come to think of it, they have the same Peruvian bands on the street, too.

Tomorrow we’re going to take the train in to Brussels.  Then on Wednesday, we’re going to leave for Germany.  We’ll stay at an American military hotel in Wiesbaden for a week. After that, we'll head to Prague in the Czech Republic. 

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