After getting into Amsterdam in the late evening I headed to the Leidseplein, a big square full of pubs and restaurants, to meet up with my sister Amber. Once I found her I was greeted with a full force ocker Australian accent – though it wasn’t Amber’s. Rather, it belonged to her Dutch friend Tryn who she was staying with, which just goes to show the effects that living in Tasmania for a year as an exchange student can do to you, even six years on.
It was a beautifully warm and still night and the various bars and pubs were packed with people glued to TV sets watching different European qualifying games for the 2006 soccer World Cup, though there was much other entertainment going on for the crowds sitting at tables outside in the square. Most notably there was the emaciated looking fire breather having a few hassles with the heat of the flames and doing a good job of burning off what was left of his eyebrows, and the old man doing climbing tricks on a long rope, dressed in nothing but a very loose g-string and thereby giving the crowd his own very special ‘Dutch Wink’ as he twisted and turned around and around.
When Tryn and Amber were ready to go home I was still nowhere near ready to sleep and so, with wanting to spend the least amount of time in my hostel as possible, I meandered along the streets of the city for a good while after midnight. It must be said that I had never felt a great desire to return to Amsterdam since my first visit in 2000. To be fair it had come at the very tail-end of a marathon four week Contiki bus tour when fatigue, failing group dynamics and the inevitable focus on de-criminalised hooch and hookers may have clouded my better judgment, but I had left then with the lasting impression that Amsterdam was good for those wanting a weekend bender and not much else. Indeed, the whole point of this current visit was for Amber and I to spend a few days seeing some of the rest of the Netherlands outside its tourist-saturated focal city, and we were leaving Amsterdam first thing the next morning. But now as I passed by the busy cafes, stopped to snack on croquettes from the Febo wall of food vending machines, carefully avoided getting run over by cyclists stealthily riding home in the dark and ambled along the dark and peaceful streets of the concentric canal network, past classy brick townhouses and catching glimpses into their stylishly decorated lounge rooms complete with crammed floor-to-ceiling bookcases, I was struck by how comfortably familiar it all was and just how contented I felt to be here.
This quiet at-ease continued even as the streets I walked along became busier once again, African guys stage-whispered “Pssst! Coke?” to everyone passing by and the women in the many windowed booths showed off their wares with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I had of course wandered into the red light district, and my most pressing thought then was that spending all night in the booths flood-lit by the harsh fluorescent red lighting can’t be pleasant, as they were giving me a headache just walking past them. I’d be getting onto Workplace Occupational Health and Safety if I was working there, although, let’s face it, that would be the least of the work environment issues.
Amber and I met outside Amsterdam’s Central Station at 9:30am and after a bit of time tossing up different train ticket combinations we decided to drop any pretence of any long term planning for the weekend and started with an open ticket just for the day. Then, perhaps indicative of our eagerness to see the rest of the country, we chose a departing train almost at random and found ourselves on our way to The Hague.
The mere mention of that city’s name conjured up images to me of the Dutch national parliament and the International Court of Justice, so not too long after our arrival finding a long, golden sandy beach and pleasant promenade was a huge surprise.
Though the strength of the sun’s rays were a far cry from the peak of summer and it would have been crazy to brave the water, it was great to spend the middle of the day under blue skies by the sand and sea – especially as one of the principal drawbacks of choosing to live in Europe for me is suffering from beach withdrawal.
On our way back to the station from the beach we both liked the sound of Madurodam, a miniature village full of Dutch landmarks. It was billed as a great attraction for the kiddies, but forget about them, it kept us two kiddies in our mid-twenties thoroughly absorbed for pretty much all afternoon. Like giants we walked amongst the Amsterdam’s canals, Utrecht’s cathedral, railway bridges, windmills, a traffic-laden freeway and all manner of other features. Ravens perched on the roofs of parked cars and pecked at them like from some kind of horror movie, and a larger bird with long bandy legs and a generous wingspan flew in and came to land right on Amsterdam Airport’s runway.
As the day drew to a close we decided to get the most out of our train tickets and travel as far across the country as we possibly could. So after taking three different trains, including making a tight ninety second connection across platforms in Eindhoven, we ended the day in the extreme south-east corner of The Netherlands, right by its borders with both Belgium and Germany, in the town of Maastricht.
The slight morning drizzle did not hamper us from exploring the centre of Maastricht, and it felt nice to be amongst the local goings-on in the busy market square. But, although we were enjoying being in the midst of life on the other side of the world from where we were born and raised, Amber and I soon got a surprise reminder of home. In a park on the edge of the town centre there were a number of different animal statues set around the bottom of an old concrete enclosure. After coming across a dog-like creature with a striped back, we jokingly pronounced it to be a Tasmanian Tiger, looking up at us in recognition of spotting two of his own. Despite the uncanny resemblance we dismissed it as something more European, like a fox or a wolf or something, until with some amazement we saw that the sign on the black iron fence above the enclosure confirmed it was indeed a ‘Tasmaanse Buidelwolf’.
Perhaps in a bid to prevent the Dutch caging us up like our presumed-extinct local friend, we decided to flee from the Netherlands entirely, though just for the rest of the day. After hiring bicycles we had barely pedalled our way out of the western edge of the town before a small cursory road sign confirmed we had crossed into Belgium. It was an absolute pleasure to ride along the flat bike lanes attached to each and every road, a far cry from the stress and angst of riding alongside vehicle traffic in Australia, and we kept going for a good 25km or so to the town of Genk.
Genk itself was a fairly non-descript place, but when in a local supermarket we were each able to appreciate Belgium’s two greatest commodities. After we picked our lunch items from the one-third of the supermarket aisles dedicated to groceries, Amber got side-tracked admiring the second third of the aisles, all dedicated to chocolate, while I went AWOL in the last third of the supermarket, eyeing off all the shelves stocked with beer.
We cycled back the way we came to return once again to The Netherlands, though it must be said that after riding over 50km in the day it was not a comfortable finish to proceedings, our numb bums not appreciating leaving the smooth bitumen roads for the cobbled streets of Maastricht’s centre.
We rested on our sore rear-ends for the evening at an Indonesian restaurant. Another of the drawbacks I’ve found about living in Europe is the lack of good South-East Asian food but, thanks to all that Dutch colonial imperialism in the then Dutch East Indies a few centuries ago, spotting Indonesian restuarants in the Netherlands was about as difficult as spotting druggies at a rave party. And if this particular restuarant is indicative of the others then finding a superb meal is no more difficult – even though the Dutch menu didn’t give us too many hints on exactly what we were choosing.
From the very south-east of the country we spent the entire morning on four separate trains getting to the very north-east, ending up in the university town of Groningen. We enjoyed the afternoon in customary fashion, traversing the town’s squares and parks and passing by the rusty old boats crammed end-to-end along the canals.
It was my last night in the country and I had a hatchet I wanted to bury before I left. As kids, both my sisters and I had gone to schools originally founded by Dutch immigrants to Tasmania after the Second World War, and two generations later the cultural ties within the schools were still strong. I remember as an eleven year old at the school fair tasting Olliebollen, a kind of fried doughnut without a hole, but was so overwhelmed by the awfulness of it that even after all these years I could not bear to go near one again.
But in the spirit of reconciliation and letting by-gones be by-gones, I was willing to relinquish my long standing gripe with the Dutch delicacy by having another crack at it. Unfortunately it didn’t even seem to exist in its homeland. I had tried to find it along the beach promenade in The Hague and at stalls in the market square in Maastricht without any success. Now my last chance was here in Groningen and when I went into a takeaway shop as a last resort, the man behind the counter looked at me with such an incredulous glare it was as if I’d asked him for a lap dance. Had the people at my school been making this whole Olliebollen thing up? Had they thrown together any old household refuse they could find into balls, deep fried them, covered them in icing sugar and dished them out to unsuspecting non-Dutchies like myself as some sort of joke? It was only after I returned to Geneva that I found out the truth, Amber had done some more research and e-mailed to tell me that Olliebollen do actually exist, it’s just that they’re only served in Holland as a treat at New Years. That being the case my bigotry against Olliebollen will now probably continue for a while yet.
I was due to fly out of Amsterdam in the evening so our hope was to head west to the island of Texel, then south to Den Helder and onto Amsterdam, thus completing a whole anti-clockwise circuit of the country. After listening to our plan and doing his best to comply by looking at many different train and bus combinations, the man at the train station ticket counter apologised profusely and suggested that with a plane to catch it would just be cutting it too fine. I definitely have to say, as an ignorant only-English speaking tourist, the people I have come across in The Netherlands have been by far the most unfailingly polite, patient and courteous in all of Europe, and it has made travelling through the country an absolute delight. Except maybe for the bloke in the takeaway shop in Groningen, but hey, that hardly counts.
It was best if we returned to Amsterdam by the most direct train route, though it gave us the time for a couple of other sightseeing stops along the way. The first was in Zwolle, a picturesque town built inside old city walls and a star-shaped canal. It was Sunday morning and nothing was open. There was no traffic, clog-shaped pedal boats sat listlessly dormant in the canal, and there were barely a handful of pedestrians anywhere around us. It was eerily quiet, the intense kind that if it lasted day-in and day-out would drive you to jump off a bridge just to put an end to it. I may well have not been the first person to think that. As we crossed the footpath of a bridge over the canal we had to step around an elderly person’s walking frame and a toddler’s tricycle, both tied together with rope to the side of the bridge, abandoned right over the middle of the canal. There was no-one to be seen around us and so I had to lean over and peer down into the water just in case I could glimpse any bodies.
Utrecht was much more alive. A lot of visitors milled about the cathedral, the low mist giving the tall church towers a ghostly presence, and the city’s distinctive sunken canals were crammed with people pedal-boating. I would have really liked to have joined them, but unfortunately time was not on our side.
And so, as our final train pulled into a suburban station on Amsterdam’s outskirts, we went our separate ways. I had to get off there to make a connecting train for the airport, while Amber was continuing on to the city, spending a couple of days back with her friend Tryn before then heading off to Africa and potentially the most climactic chapter of her travels. Though it would be over a year before I would see my sister again, our farewell as I alighted the train was necessarily brief. But in keeping with our Amazing Race style of travel together with our grandmother through Switzerland, its surrounding countries and Ireland over the previous two months, it was a very fitting way to cross the finish line.