Sunday, 4 December 2016

Let’s All Go to Amsterdam!


Now that the kids are pretty much grown-up and independent, it is nice to be a bit selfish and please ourselves.  Which is exactly what we did a couple of weekends ago when Mr V turned fifty-one.
          ‘What have you bought for my birthday?’ asked my husband rubbing his hands together with anticipation.
          ‘Ah, that would be telling,’ I said.
          ‘Give me a clue then.  Can I eat it?’
          ‘Nope.’
          ‘Can I drink it?’
          ‘Nope.’
          ‘Can I wear it?’
          ‘Nope.’
          ‘I give up.’
          ‘Book a couple of days off work either side of the weekend.  We’re going somewhere.’
          My husband’s smile wobbled.  He’s not really one to embrace the great outdoors unless it involves a golf course.
          ‘Don’t you think the weather is a bit, well, chilly to go off wherever?’
          ‘It’s not the North Pole,’ I grinned.  ‘But you will need to wrap up warm. Oh, and make sure you have comfortable shoes for walking in.’
          ‘Right,’ said my husband trying to look enthusiastic.  ‘We’re going to the North of England, aren’t we?’
          ‘Maybe,’ I nodded.
          As the weekend drew closer, Mr V was convinced we would be trekking around the Yorkshire Dales and roughing it overnight in hostels.  So he was pleasantly surprised when I accidentally blurted that we mustn’t forget to buy some Euros for Amsterdam.  Why am I the world’s worst at keeping a secret?
          ‘Brilliant,’ he beamed.  ‘I won’t need trackies and trainers now.’
          ‘Yes you will,’ I assured, ‘warmth and comfort is all when sight-seeing.’
          The taxi arrived to take us to Southend airport.  I didn’t even know there was an airport in Southend until recently when at my son’s place, a sky-high apartment in Leigh-on-Sea.  I was staring out of his top floor window admiring the lofty views when an EasyJet plane whizzed past the window so close I could almost see the pilot.
          ‘Flippin’ heck,’ I squeaked, ducking down behind the window sill.
          ‘The airport is just over there,’ my son pointed.  Inching up, my eyes followed the flight path of the plane’s orange tail as it dipped over some trees and dropped onto a runway.
          Southend airport is small.  It has one WH Smith with limited stock, a virtually empty duty free shop because it’s awaiting refurbishment and one restaurant-come-bar, the latter named after Freddie Laker who launched cheap flights back in the seventies. We sat at a fake marble-topped table eating our full English breakfast whilst waiting for our flight to be called.
          Schipol airport, on the other hand, is enormous.  A mini city of ceramic tiles, steel and glass, it is littered with inviting bright modern shops. We walked through the airport under soaring rafters decked with festive lights dangling like giant crystal droplets.  To one side, a twenty-foot-high fir tree plastered in tasteful matching lights glittered away.  We made our way to the taxi rank where a driver whisked us off to the welcoming Bilderberg Garden Hotel.
          The following morning we headed to the Van Gogh museum. At this point I would like to give a top tip.  Pre-book your tickets on-line!  We stood in driving rain and wind for ninety minutes.  I was as warm as toast in my fleece-lined trackies, ski jacket and hat.  Mr V, possibly being a stubborn Italian male, had opted for style over warmth.  So whilst the wind tugged at the hems of his Boss jeans, blew into the gaps of his flimsy Armani jacket and his toes went numb inside his Italian leather shoes, I told him he at least looked cool.  Which was true.  He was so cool his ears had turned an unfetching shade of mauve.
          Inside the Van Gogh museum it was blissfully warm.  Huge glass windows looked out onto rattling trams, hardy cyclists and cold pedestrians, necks huddled into collars, gaily coloured umbrellas held aloft and frequently blowing inside-out.
          First stop was to warm up at the museum’s coffee shop.  We sat at one of the long trestle-tables drinking hot cappuccino.  In the background the coffee machine repeatedly hissed like a dentist’s suction machine as it doled out cups of foam and froth.
          What can I say about Vincent’s art?  “Stunning” doesn’t really sum it up.  There is a very over-used word that my kids use for almost anything – from describing a bar of chocolate to what sort of day they’ve had.  Awesome.  Well these pieces were awesome in the true sense of the word.  Gazing upon such mood changing images that filled canvas after canvas after canvas conveyed the troubled artist’s frame of mind at the time of painting.  He continued to paint while in a mental asylum and even when injured after shooting himself in the chest.  It took him two days to die from his wounds.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.  What an intriguing human being.  And what a premature loss. But what a wonderful collection he left behind.  I had two favourites: The Pink Orchard and The Pink Peach Tree.
          Many hours later, we ventured outside.  Finding our way to the nearest viaduct we spent a peaceful couple of hours gently cruising through Amsterdam’s centuries old canals.  We glided past hundreds of long and narrow houseboats, gazing upwards at the beautiful architecture of ancient patrician houses gabled with richly decorated cornices against a backdrop of towers and churches, all the while absorbing the quaintness of the many bridges strung like beaded necklaces with hundreds of padlocked bicycles.
          Amsterdam is also known for its permissive atmosphere and alternative lifestyle.  That evening we took the tram to Dam and walked past shops selling anything from fashion to huge cheeses and drugs.  Dipping down a side-street we came out into an open area where yet another canal divided a rat-run of narrow streets.  These were lined with elegant houses, most of which sported soft red lights or other pretty coloured beams.  All flagged up the same wares.  Prostitutes.  These streets were heaving with tourists scurrying like ants, eyes darting from left to right to gawp at the ladies of the night.  We fell in with the crowd.
          Obviously you hear about this, and you read about this. But nothing quite prepared me for actually seeing this.  Imagine quaint shops with dimpled glass windows like Giuseppe’s charming workshop in the Disney film Pinocchio, but instead of wooden puppets displayed to passing customers, those cutesy windows showcase semi-naked women.  It’s both surreal and bizarre.  All the girls were young and beautiful.  They stood, like mannequins, modelling skimpy underwear showing off their surgically enhanced assets.  All wore bored expressions and all were chatting on their mobile phones, possibly to each other, whilst waiting for a customer to knock on their door. And then I felt overwhelmed with sadness that such gorgeous ladies were availing themselves.  I was old enough to be a mother to all of them and was surprised at how the maternal instinct reared up.  I wanted to punch the lights out of one creep who knocked on a door.  Instead I gave him a filthy look and continued with the flow of the crowd.
          Despite being outside the air was thick with the smell of cigarettes and weed.  Clouds of smoke billowed up to the tops of the old-fashioned street lamps, which added a touch of spookiness.  The haze cloaked every narrow street and all the way along the embankment, and the pong stuck to your hair and clothes.
          We were desperate to grab a hot drink somewhere, but the coffee shops in Dam are not to be recommended unless you aren’t fazed about passive-smoking cannabis and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with others, many of whom appeared to be stoned. I guess we’re too old to be up for any of that!  For us it was back to the hotel for a nightcap and a hot bath to thaw out.
          On the second day we simply wandered and did what we always do best.  Got lost.  Several times over.  I’m not sure how many tram rides we took but it was quite a few and encompassed visiting the Rijksmuseum, the flower market, Rembrandt Square, Vondel Park (where we’d hoped to cycle its forty-seven hectares but had to abandon due to visiting Storm Angus blowing people off their bikes) and finally arrived at Anne Frank’s house.
          Despite the weather, die-hard tourists were lining the streets with a two-hour queue.  However, time was no longer on our side.  A security guard kindly let us go through a barrier so we could take a picture of the famous house that once hid a young Jewish girl and her family for two long years when Amsterdam was invaded by the Germans.  Privately I was relieved not to go inside. Friends had told us they’d found the experience quite harrowing. Their advice had been firm. ‘If you go in, have a stiff drink when you come out.’
          The following morning Storm Angus had passed over Amsterdam leaving a trail of crumpled bicycles with misshapen wheels, uprooted trees and many roofs with gaping holes.  I was relieved the high winds had gone and the thirty-five minute flight back to Southend was reasonably calm.  As the plane sailed past my son’s block of flats, I gave a cheery wave just in case Rob was standing at his kitchen window washing up.  Which reminds me.
          A blonde rang up an airline.
          ‘How long are your flights from Southend to Amsterdam?’ she asked.
          ‘Just a minute,’ said a voice at the other end of the phone.
          ‘Thanks,’ said the blonde. And hung up…