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Friday, September 17, 2010

On Irishmen and Bicycles

I was back in Amsterdam, returned from my three day sequester in Arnhem, standing in the forecourt of Centraal Station amidst a sea of bikes.  The Dutch love bikes, of that there's no doubt.  Every town has extensive bike paths, separate traffic signals at intersections for them and every bus and rail station has a vast amount of space set aside for bike racks.  The most frequent petty crime in Holland is bicycle theft.  At times, not even the whole bike will be stolen and Amsterdam lamp posts are often decorated with the remains of a securely locked frame, the tires, gears and handle bars having been stripped clean.  Because of this, Netherlanders typically go in for one type of bike, a utilitarian number with a single gear and coaster brakes.  A flashy Schwinn or Raleigh would only result in a heavy investment in thin air.  All bikes in Holland, then, are essentially the same, which as an effort to deter thieves from your bike as it is no better or worse than any other to be stolen also makes recovery of property difficult.  Fleur, the staffer at the Brinker had hand painted her bike with a multiplicity of colourful  blossoms and vines.  It personalised her property, and no self respecting thief would want to be caught trying to make a getaway on such an eyesore.  As for the Brinker, it was that hotel, and not the bike farm in front of me I was considering.  I wasn't sure if I was going to head back there or try to book another hostel.  The VVV was just across the way, beyond the tram stops, but I hadn't made my way there yet.  I suppose I had stood out with my luggage at my feet looking the lost tourist long enough for Avi to approach me.

With dark, dense curly hair, a ragged looking wool sweater and fashionably torn jeans, he appeared to my initial assessment as too clean to be a beggar, but too disheveled to be up to much good.  I put myself on guard, and surreptitiously put my foot down on my duffel's strap to make a bag snatch on his part a difficult notion.

"Do you have a hotel?" he asked

"No."

"Well, you must come to the Globe.  I am Avi, I will take you.  Here."  He thrust a business card at me from the stack in his left hand.  It advertised The Globe Sports Bar and Hotel and promised a discount on a nights stay.  Avi was a runner.  Many youth hostels take on itinerant workers, travelers who need to earn a bit of money while living abroad.  In some places, the bar staff, kitchen and housekeeping are mostly made up of these working holiday makers whose compensation is usually not much more than room, board and a pittance of cash per week.

I had done much the same in London the year before, spending six weeks as a live in barman at a working class pub in Northolt.  These schemes are often illegal, allowing the business owner to maximise profit by keeping labour costs low.  If I figured my wage at The Furrow plus estimated cost of room and board against hours worked I was making less than a minimum wage, not to mention the owner not having to submit taxes and benefits on behalf of these migrant workers.

Runners were much of the same, but their job tended to be commission based.  The idea was that they'd hang out at the train station and offer accommodation at their hotel and receive cash for each paying guest.  The card with the discount was numbered and could keep track of an individual runner's pull.  Avi would probably have to bring a half dozen guests to the Globe just to pay a night's accommodation.

"Sounds alright," I said, still a bit cautious.  It would not be uncommon to be led down an alleyway on the promise of a cheap hotel only to be set upon and separated by force from your belongings.  "I'll follow you."

Avi nodded, and moved off quickly, forcing me to shoulder my duffel in a snap and shuffle after him.  "I could carry your bag, if you like," he cheerfully offered.  Not on your fucking life, I thought, explaining to him I had been in the Army and could carry my own.  That, and I didn't want to be obligated to tip him.

"Ah, yes, the army.  I am Isreali, and I should go to army, but I will not."  The statement neatly encapsulated Avi's raison d'etre in Amsterdam.  He was a latter day draft dodger.

Now, how best to describe The Globe?  I hit Trip Advisor to refresh my memory.  I'm not going to pretend that it was either suave or well appointed, the place is a dive and a hole.  I don't however, have any stories regarding vermin, which seems to be the most current complaint.  In the past ten years, it seems The Globe has backslid from an already low standard.  Beds were rented on a premium based on the time of week.  On a Thursday, your 35 Guilder bed appreciated in value 15 Guilders the following night.  Comfort and customer service were as absent here as they had been at the Brinker.  Clearly a money making venture alone, I noted that the only change in pricing between 2000 and when I came back in 2002 was replacing the Guilder symbol with that of the Euro, effectively doubling the rate.  The bar was open twenty four hours a day, the rooms had no locks and it was located in as shady a neighborhood you could ask for in Amsterdam.  Right on the edge of the Red Light District, beggars, crackheads and drug dealers were steps away from the front door and in substantial numbers.  I made up my mind to be very careful and keep my wallet and passport close to hand.

The reception was fronted by an older, severe faced woman whom I paid for a bed up to the weekend.  She summoned another staff member to show me upstairs to room number one.  The room was divided in two, a small upper room with four beds and lockers where I would be staying that overlooked the lower room.  Much larger, it ran the length of the building and had twelve bunks.  There was only one shared toilet and shower between us all.  The room wasn't close to being full at the moment, but I was assured it soon would be.  The staff member showing me the room informed me that most of the beds in the lower room were booked for a bachelor party arriving from Dublin the day after next.  The following few days would become a drunken, drug hazed blur, but as I settled into my new space, I hadn't any idea what I was in for.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In A Hurry to Move Further East

I stayed on at the Brinker for about ten days, but there isn't really much I remember in great detail about the latter half of my stay.  Once Sue had gone, and shortly after the Italian girls followed, I was reassigned to another room, the one I had been in having been guaranteed to a single party of six.  My new room was of the same standard, but way in the back corner of the hotel.  This cur down the noise level from the lobby and adjacent bar, notwithstanding the closer a room is to the end of a corridor, the less traffic it gets.  Considering that drunken stoned teenagers and twenty-odds have a habit of being loud, and a select few of those to an obnoxious level, an isolated piece of real estate could be welcome.  Except that by now it was mid week and business had slowed down just enough to be lively as opposed to raucous.

My roommates, I never saw.  They existed as only towels hung to dry on the iron bed frame and the odd piece of clothing left laying about.  My final days in this part of town had grown into a routine.  I would wake up, shower and dress and be gone by nine thirty.  Getting up this early make the queue at reception for re booking the bed a lot easier to manage.  Breakfast was included in the tariff, but I usually went round the corner to the McDonald's right by the busy square for a McMuffin and coffee.  After that, I'd stop at a newstand for an English paper and head to The Dolphins for another coffee and a smoke.  My paper read, and feeling bored, I'd usually head back to the Brinker to read in the bar, have a nap in the early afternoon and get some drinking in after dinner.  Routines are good, but this was one I grew tired of quickly and so made up my mind to leave Amsterdam for a bit. 

This had been my pattern before.  In '99, after my initial four days in the city, guest at the severely bargain priced Bob's Youth Hostel (as an example, you could save a good amount if you were willing to sleep on the floor, avoiding the bourgeois distinction of a bed) the 'Dam had left me overwhelmed an my psyche screamed out for a more pastoral setting.  That year I had headed out to Appeldoorn, a town to the south-east, just about kissing the German border.  In 2000, I opted to head out for Arnhem.  Historically, it holds a lot of affinity for me as it was there that the British First Airborne Division fought and lost a hard desperate battle to secure a bridge over the Rhine in September of 1944.  Thinking that this would be a cool thing o go see, my mind was made up.  Early on my last morning, I packed my belongings, checked out of my room and made my way to the train station.  I'd be back in Amsterdam in a few day's time, but not to stay at the Brinker.  I'd find it again five years ahead and realize that not much had changed except myself.

There is something to be said about being prepared.  The only information I had about Arnhem's part in the war had been taken from the film "A Bridge Too Far."  A grand example of cinema and a fantastic story told well, it is hardly accurate to true history.  At this point in my life, I hadn't even read the book on which the movie was based.  I was going to seek history without knowing where to find it, and what I thought I knew was more likely fiction than true.  Given another seven years and much more thorough research I would return to Arnhem and vindicate my inner historian.  At this point all I could do was book into a tremendously expensive hotel across from the train station and wander aimlessly through a part of the city known as the Old Town.  I admired the Middle Age architecture without even realizing that most of it was reconstructed.  When the war came to Arnhem, it had been destroyed. Fact is, Arnhem was never liberated in the traditional sense. The fighting over the ten day engagement between British Paras and SS Panzer Grenadiers had so completely ruined the town it had to be evacuated, civilians not permitted to return until after the war was over.  It was a Sunday, and the whole place seemed asleep.  The next few days would be relaxing for me, giving respite for the frenzy that was Amsterdam, but not taking true advantage of the opportunity to fully experience Arnhem.

My hotel was far too expensive to stay on at.  One night had cost me near to what one week at the Brinker would have.  On the plus side, I had my privacy which was to be highly sought after following the communal living I'd just been through.  Though, the room was tiny, more like a berth on board a ship than a proper hotel.  I found Arnhem's VVV the next day and asked them to find me something cheaper.  I got a room at the Sports Hotel, part of an athletic complex well outside the centre of town.  After a failed attempt to rent a car, in that the salesman doubted my ability to drive a standard transmission (he was right, by the way), I got a taxi to take me out three and essentially isolated for  two days.  It was refreshing to be on my own, even for that short time, but living in single rooms wasn't something I could do perpetually.  A quiet few days behind me and I was ready to attempt Amsterdam again.  I would have an even wilder and unimaginable time out of this return, experiences that would pale what I'd seen and done so far, and then I would have to face a hard reality. 

I was running out of money. 

I'd arrived in Holland with a fair bit of cash on hand, and had a reserve in my bank account that I had begun to draw against, as well as cash advances on my credit card.  I wasn't keeping track of the money as I got it and had no way of determining how much remained.  Going to the bank machine began to feel like playing the slots, never knowing what the payout would be.  Only a matter of time separated me from carefree traveler to penniless foreigner, but as long as that machine spit bills at me during my morning withdrawals, reality was always something best put off until tomorrow.  I suppose I was ignoring the harsh truth that I would run out of tomorrows, and I hadn't even imagined how I would cope.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lesbians and the Leidseplein Part Three: The One That Actually Deals With Lesbians in the Subject Matter

I'll say that the Hans Brinker rarely disappoints.  They set the expectation of high standards purposefully low, so any good that comes from your stay is really treasured.  With the constant turn over, and being a favorite stop for on again off again tours, the wait is never long before there was a whole new crowd, all ready to drink and smoke as much as possible as they are only there for a few days.  Everyone is there for a party, and that's just fine.  The only other place I've heard of that's remotely as pure fucking awesome is The Clown and Bard in Prague.  I've never been, but the word of mouth is fantastic.

Along with the large groups were pairs and single travellers.  After the weekend came to a close, the English boys headed for home.  Now on my own and seeing no need to take my custom elsewhere, I was booked into a six bunk dorm that was home, for the time being of some of these odd socks.

A pair of Italian girls shared the rack across from my bed.  It turned out they were from the far north, on the Alpine border with Austria, and spoke German.  Only one spoke any English of note and conversations were difficult at best.  I'm sure they were nice enough and they did invite me out to go bong smoking or some such thing, but I could only think about not being able to have a good chat.  Fortunately my upstairs neighbor was a delightful, sweetly attractive Kiwi called Sue.  She was half Maltese, and had skin of the sun-kissed, deep brown eyes and could pack away pints without destroying her curvy, leggy, athletic form.  What a cool chick.

The rooms at the Brinker offer little joy.  The walls are white plastered concrete, bare concrete floors, sets of old, banged about lockers, the three sets of bunks and the separate white tiled bathroom.  I was under the impression it had another function before becoming a hotel.  I thought perhaps it may have been a hospital, but now rather fancy it was a barracks.  I've stayed in, and have heard of a few former prisons in use as youth hostels, but I discount this notion in the case of The Brinker.  It's in far too public a place, and could never have been a secure building.

You could, however, billet reservists, who would then have the large public square to drill on.  It makes so much sense to me.  I've written a review on Trip Advisor, but it's too early to tell whether they'll publish it.  The action is not much more than another small grade stunt to get my name out there. 

Sue and I started in drinking early on, palling up with two Aussie blokes, one a florist here on buying business, and another I can not rightly recall.  In the early afternoon we all headed down the street to The Dolphins, a relaxing dreamy little coffee shop that is a pleasure just to hang out in, breath the air, take on caffeine and THC while the hours while away.  This was back before all this progressive crap: the smoking ban and the mushroom prohibition.  Time was the Smart Shop Conscious Dreams, with the chill out lounge across from the hotel sold at least six different varieties of 'shroom.  I had bought some earlier, and wasted my money on a sham product labeled "herbal ecstasy".  If it were anything, it wasn't powerful enough to be detectable above my constant inebriation.  The mushrooms would be different altogether, and with patience, I would finally get a real E buzz.

The four of us made it back to the Brinker in time for its famous happy hour.  Drinks on the half, breaking every now and again to smoke a blunt in the darkening light of a late summer's eve.  I began to really dig Sue, but there was also Fleur, a curly mopped redhead of a dynamic energy and fine figure, who was on the hotel staff.  We had chatted earlier in the day as I sat at the bar reading Joe Sacco comics I'd bought from the store a few doors down.  English books were hard to find but the ones they did have were superb.

Now that she was off work, Fleur was just as into the party as the rest of us, and I were feeling fine myself.  It was a great night so far, and I was hanging out with two very fine women.  The sun had long since gone down, I remember, we had all been down to the stuffy little club they had in the basement.  There I was, on the restive little street, many hours gone, pulling on the last fire of the evening.  Movement caught the corner of my eye, and turning my head I saw Fleur leaning in towards Sue, who had her back against the building's wall.  Perhaps a little presumptive at first, edging on forceful, Fleur split Sue's lips with hers and playfully plunged her tongue into her startled open mouth.  The initial shock over, Sue fell into the kiss and explored Fleur in a precociously sensual way.  One of the hottest things I've ever witnessed.

A little disappointed in my luck, I finished up my smoke and took myself to bed, after Sue suggested I do so once they caught me staring.  Later on, Sue got back to the room and related her experience to me.  She had never been inclined to experiment with her own sex, and Fleur, who turns out to be a card carrying Sapphyte

Sue was off and running the day after next, going to visit family in Malta.  I was offered the chance to go with her, accommodation would have been taken care of.  It was an intrigue, but I really couldn't afford to go.

We spent the next afternoon stoned in the park near the Van Gough Museum.  A man approached an outdoor cafe on a bicycle.  He was dressed in a green and orange superhero get-up, including mask and cape; a guitar was slung across his back.

Dismounting, he announced to his new audience that he was "Superman, the one song singer."  True to his word, he played and energetic number, then passed around the hat.  In no time, he was back on his bike, and gone from the scene.  Yep, Amsterdam can be like that.