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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.

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