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Brussels and Amsterdam

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The following paragraphs are taken from my diary of a trip to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam in early February 1988. I was living in London at the time. It will start at the point of arrival in Brussels. If you would like to read about my impressions of Paris, see the Paris travelogue.

Belgium Flag

[Brussels: February 1988]

I left Paris on the 10:25 a.m. train to Brussels. The trip took about three-hours and was full. By chance, an American young man about my age named Philip Noyes sat next to me on the train, and we talked almost the whole way to Brussels. He said he was a graduate of MIT and was living in London, doing some sort of social work for an organization called "Simon" that helped homeless people. Philip was traveling fairly light for winter, with only a thin coat, a dark sweater, jeans and a small backpack. I sort of felt sorry for him because he seemed to be short of funds, and smelled as though he hadn't bathed in a week. He was tall and thin, had hollow cheeks, and was fairly articulate. He didn't seem to be on drugs or anything, but I couldn't figure out why a guy from MIT would travel looking so skint. He was going onto Amsterdam, but I was getting off at Brussels. What a strange encounter, I thought. (I did get his London phone number before we parted, and tried to call him a few weeks later. He was a worker at the Simon Community alright, the person on the phone said, but he was not there presently, and was supposed to be returning to the States soon. I got a hold of him the next day, but he said that he was busy getting ready to leave the country. I never saw him again, but sort of validated his story, at least.)

Well, I thought Brussels would be a breeze compared to Paris, since it was smaller and I'd been there once before. Not so, at first! I made a hasty decision to get off the train at Midi Station (since the only station my rail ticket bothered to mention in Brussels was Midi Station), which was not as good as it would have been to get off at Central Station, but since I wasn't sure the train would go there, I alighted and ended up wasting time because I found the underground system to Central Brussels to be irritatingly confusing. This caught me by surprise (I had never felt so disoriented in London or Paris), but I made it to Central Station in due course, and started my search for a hotel room on foot. To my slight disappointment, it took over an hour by this method, mainly because I was looking for something cheap. This was not as easy as I had expected, but at the same time I was encouraged by the fact that hotel personnel were more approachable in English here than they were in Paris. I walked to about five or six hotels before I found one that I could afford, and ended up staying three blocks west of the Grand' Place (Central Square) in a real two-star dive called the "White Horse Hotel." The place seemed to be run by, and chiefly inhabited by Turkish people. I wasn't exhilarated by the conditions, but the location was very convenient to the sights I wanted to visit, so I thought that one night would be all right.

Next, I re-acquainted myself with the odd cobbled streets, the well-preserved Hotel de Ville, and the interesting old facades of the guild houses in the Grand' Place. In May, of the previous year, Randall Nelson and I had visited Brussels on the last leg of a Cosmos tour that we went on together. I remember that we had set our belongings in our room at Hotel Du Rhin, which was located close to Gare Du Nord, with an extraordinary view of the train tracks outside the window (so close that it looked like you could touch a passing train with a short stick), ate a quick dinner in the dining room and hurried on-foot to the center of town, with just a little bit of daylight left, to see what was there. We were racing against darkness, and didn't know what to expect of Brussels. We were totally impressed by what we saw when we got to the Grand' Place. It was magnificently enchanting to our inquisitive eyes! We looked around in wonderment, and I thought to myself, "Why didn't I know about this place before?" At first, I mistook the monumentally gothic Hotel de Ville to be a church, because of its tall steeple, but later figured out it was the town hall. The steeple was built in 1449, and underwent restoration in the 1840s. It makes the whole scene quite stunning. In addition, we explored the tiny lanes adjacent to the Grand' Place, where quaint shops and restaurants are jumbled together like a little Belgian-bohemia, on Petite Rue des Bouchers. Then, we ambled over to Rue de l'Etuve, a side-street on the other side of the Grand' Place, and happened upon the "Manneken-Pis" statue. We had never heard of this little boy tinkling before either. With a glance inside of a souvenir shop it was obvious the Manneken-Pis was a big deal to the tourist trade, and I bought one of those little souvenir replicas. After it had been dark for a good while, there was a laser-light show at the Grand' Place, set to classical music. There were a lot of people gazing and it seemed rather voguish--like a symphonic disco. These delightful memories left me with an agreeable disposition towards Brussels.

Although I reveled in seeing it again, it was cold and I was becoming very hungry by now. It had been a long time since breakfast in Paris, so I was just interested in finding some place to eat that was convenient. I opted for a Pizza Hut, since it was on the way back to the hotel and not too crowded. Once the hunger was abated, I retired to my room armed with a copy of the USA Today for evening entertainment. The 1988 Winter Olympics were in full swing at the time, and I wanted to catch-up on what was happening with the medals, plus Brian Boitano's article on the figure skating competition seemed fetchingly relevant at the time. An odd thing about my hotel room, apart from the musty smell, was that it had a bidet. I had never stayed in a room before with one, and this room only had a single bed. Besides that, the bidet didn't even work! I was told that a shower was located down the hall.

The better weather was in the earlier part of the week, because by the next morning (Friday), it was colder, and rainier, with occasional hail. After washing myself in the sink in my room (the shower down the hall was occupied) and eating some greasy eggs for breakfast in the hotel dinning room (so much for Belgian waffles), I checked out and went on a morning coach tour of the city. Brussels may not be a huge capital, but it has a fair amount of respectable architecture, even though Belgium has been repeatedly fought over and controlled by the Spanish, the French, the Austrians, the Dutch and the Germans. Perhaps it is because of such diversity that Belgium has been an enthusiastic supporter of the UN, NATO, and the EEC (the European Economic Commission, later called the EC, for European Community, and now EU, for European Union). Brussels is Europe's center for economic union and international organizations, such as NATO, and the Benelux Union. On the tour I saw a lot of sights, plus a small silk and lace factory, and the Atomium, a large remnant from the World's Fair hosted in Brussels in 1956, which is shaped like a giant molecule. In the afternoon I went to the city museum which is located in an ornate house on the Grand' Place, called King's House, which contained a fine amount of history and at least one good painting by Peter Bruegel the elder, who lived in the area in the mid-1500's. But the greatest spectacle was the wardrobe of Manneken-Pis!

Alas, I did not feel compelled to see everything, because on my last visit to Brussels, Randall and I had been to St. Michael's Cathedral, the authentic old Arcade, the somewhat over-stated and voluminous Palace du Justice, and the Ancient Art Museum, where the main attraction was David's painting of the "Death of Marat" (1793), who was stabbed in a Paris bathtub during the Revolution. Unforgettable! So, not wanting to over-stay my welcome, I planned to leave on the 5:53 p.m. train to Amsterdam. I would be arriving at about 9:00 p.m., which seemed risky, I thought, considering I would be hitting the street in an unfamiliar city on a Friday night without a room reservation. Well, "not to worry," I was assured by a fellow traveler, named Brian. Due to my difficulty mastering the Brussels underground, I decided to leave for Midi Station with plenty of time to spare, and arrived two hours early. I changed my Belgian Francs to Guilders, and looked around for a place to spend my excess change. Then I met Brian, a young American chap from Boston, who had been traveling around Europe for three months. Wearing a long coat and looking well-groomed, he gave me the impression that he'd been everywhere, and done just about everything. He was resourceful, and had even worked the odd job or two to fund his activities. He was on his way to Italy and we had a long conversation while I waited for my train. He knew Amsterdam well, and recommended Bob's Youth Hostel, which was located about a half-mile from the Central Station. As we parted, I offered Brian my day-old USA Today and he gladly accepted it. "To see what the weather is like in Boston," he said.

Netherlands Flag

[Amsterdam: February 1988]

The train ride was three uneventful hours through the night, as I read my little Berlitz pocket guide to Amsterdam. As the train slowed for its approach to Amsterdam, it was very dark. All I could see were dimly-lit windows and dark roof-tops, for the night air was cold and a little bit foggy. Upon arrival at Central Station, I immediately followed the directions Brian gave me to find the hostel. He didn't remember the name of the street, but by the basic directions he gave me I was able to find it. He said it would be, "Wild, but cheap." Incidentally, it was located at 92 Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal Street, and it was a strange sort of place all right. It had a funky sign that read, "Bob's Youth Hostel," over the front door, with young backpackers coming and going, a minimum amount of security, and the odor of marijuana throughout, but it was cheap. I figured one night would be ok. The check-in desk was a hub of activity, and the lady on duty looked a bit stressed out. The rooms were filled with bunk beds (about a dozen people to a room), and the bathrooms were unisex with separate shower stalls. The whole arrangement was a bit out of my comfort-zone because I had never stayed at a hostel before. Being mixed in with a lot of strangers of both sexes was new to me, but it is very common among youth hostels the world-over.

The room was filling up fast with backpackers and I felt a bit lonely, but fortunately, circumstances improved slightly when I met a young Japanese guy who got there right before me, and was sharing the same bunk. His name sounded like "Saki," so that's what I called him. He was shy at first, but we talked for a long time and he began to feel comfortable with me in conversation. He said he only knew a little English, but he underestimated his ability because we didn't have much problem communicating. I didn't know any Japanese. He was a very intelligent guy, and had lots of travel reference material printed in Japanese and English in his backpack. He had just visited London and Paris, and was going to check out Amsterdam on his way to Germany. He was an Art student, so his main priority was to visit art museums. He explained that he had sacrificed buying a new car in order to visit Europe and see some of the famous art, because, according to him, there were "no good paintings in Tokyo."

While talking to Saki I felt that he was a trustworthy person, just nervous at first, so we became friends quickly, and made plans to look for a hotel first thing in the morning and split the cost. We didn't want to spend another night in these cramped conditions. That worked out fine. We found a double room in a two-star hotel just a little ways down the street from Bob's, for roughly the same cost per person, but with more privacy and a better breakfast. The hotel was dingy, but at least it didn't have quite as strong an odor of marijuana. One of the hotel attendants, a blond woman in her late 20's or early 30's, said she used to live in London (Balham to be specific), and spoke with a mixed London-Dutch accent. A couple of times she asked, "where did you go today?," but did not make any sightseeing suggestions. The room Saki and I stayed in was on the top floor, with two single beds, two chairs, two small tables, and an interesting view of a church out the window (photographed below). The bathrooms and toilets were located down the hall and were a bit damp and echoey, but tolerable. This hotel was still a vast improvement over "Bob's" because it was less crowded and hectic, and the staff made a better effort to make you feel welcome.

View out my hotel window.

The three days I spent in Amsterdam were the most interesting of my trip. It has a distinctly unique, somewhat shabby-chic character of its own, and the people, personality-wise are a cross between Englishmen and Germans. The central area is like a lived in 17th and 18th century museum. Row upon row of gabled houses lean dozingly against one another along a network of tree lined canals. Super tall steeples stand out in compact neighborhoods, and houseboats parked between drawbridges are almost as common as bicycles. I have to say that the more a capital is like Amsterdam, the more identifiable its charm and conviviality, compared to mega-capitals like London and Paris. And, spoken English is as common as rain.

Unfortunately, Amsterdam also has a seedy side that rivals the lowest one can find anywhere. It's a shame that Amsterdam's "red light district" and drug culture have to coexist alongside all its dignified memorabilia, in my opinion. One drug pusher, a black guy in his twenties, saw me three or four times at different locations and tried to sell me drugs, against my obvious refusals. The last time, I said "No" loudly, and he got angry and told me not to talk to him like that. I saw enough of the "red light district" to satisfy my curiosity, but I did my best to see the good side of Amsterdam, and went on a few excursions. At first opportunity, I toured the canals by boat which is a delightful way to see the historic neighborhoods and get an idea of how important shipping was to the formation of Amsterdam. Nearly every house was like a private warehouse or wharf, and I never grew tired of admiring them. I was also impressed with the tour guide, for he was fluent in English, German, French and Spanish! The sights are just too many to detail, but Amsterdam is called "Venice of the north" for good reason. The canal system is an enchanting throw-back to a time when ships ruled.

I also toured the city by bus for about four hours. Luckily, it included a peek inside of the Rijks Museum, where I saw Rembrandt's "Night Watch," and several other great works by Dutch painters. The tour included a diamond-cutting factory, and the Anne Frank House. It was not very hard to imagine what it must have been like for the Frank's to be hidden away in the secret annex of the house, but to be stuck there for two years, eight people all-together, having to be as quiet as mice during Nazi occupation is unconscionable. In the end, they were captured, and seven of the eight died in concentration camps. Only Anne's father survived.

The next morning (Sunday), I went to the city history museum, which was a gem, and I had it all to myself. Then, in the afternoon, I went on a tour to a windmill and saw a wooden shoe-making shop, which included a visit to the town of Edam, where Dutch Edam cheese is made (one of my favorites). As we walked through Edam, the guide encouraged us to "look inside" the windows of the houses along the main street to see how impeccably decorated they were; each one with curtains open and a cat in the window! This excursion was even more interesting than I expected, and local children with the most cheery smiles followed us on bicycles, chatting in English. A century ago, Holland had 9,000 windmills, and today less than 1,000 remain. Windmills are amazingly well crafted machines. They are much more eco-friendly than our modern factories, and oh, so cute!

I thought the guided excursions I went on were very well operated. One could certainly see a lot more of Amsterdam and environs that way. Of course, I was visiting during the dead of winter, and during the Olympics to-boot! I've heard that during the summer, Amsterdam is so crowded that one cannot find a room except in the outer realms and in towns some distance away. Even though I was visiting during off-season, most, if not all of the paid excursions I went on were well endowed with customers! Keep this in mind next time you plan to visit Amsterdam.

On Monday morning Saki and I parted ways, for he was on his way to West Germany. Or so I thought! Turns out we ran into each other at the Stedelijk Museum around noon. When I saw Saki he had a slightly worried look on his face and was talking to an older man who kept patting him on the back. When I met the older man (he looked about 70) he said he was from the States, and hastily said that he had to go make a phone call. As I stood there with Saki, he looked very glad to see me because he had been trying to get away from the old man and couldn't. He thought the man was overly friendly and might have been an "old poof," so I had rescued Saki from an awkward situation. At this point I parted from Saki for the last time, and looked around the museum a while (it was a museum of modern art), but since I was getting hungary, I left to find some lunch. Even though I only knew Saki for a couple of days, we got along very well and knew that we could trust one another. He was a good friend, if only for a short time. I wished him well on the rest of his journey.

With one more night to look forward to in Amsterdam, I decided to find a single room in a nicer hotel (the Delta Hotel) for my last night, closer to the train station, so I could reach my train back to England quicker on Tuesday morning. I mostly walked around on Monday afternoon, admiring the buildings, and looking for souvenirs. I took a picture of the "narrowest" house in Amsterdam. It was literally the width of a standard-sized front door! I also went on one more canal boat-ride tour. There are just so many interesting views to see from the canals that I couldn't resist.

Monday night was a lot cozier at the Delta, which might have been the best two-star hotel I've ever stayed in. My room had a TV, better heat controls, and a private bathroom. I sampled some of the programs on Dutch television, such as a public safety commercial about the proper way to put on a condom, for instance. I had never seen that on TV before, but I soon fell asleep, exhausted from so much walking today.

On Tuesday morning, I enjoyed a continental breakfast at leisure because I was just a short walk to the train station (just the way I had planned it to be). I left on the 9:32 a.m. train to slowly make my way back to London. The train moved along the flat lands through a few cities such as Den Haag, Rotterdam, and finally Hoek van Holland, where I boarded a sparsely crowded ferry for Harwich, England. This was the longest and bumpiest crossing I've ever had. It took six hours to cross, through choppy, unsettling waters. I didn't get out of my seat much, or eat anything because I felt a bit queasy.

The train to London was crowded and cold. I mean there was actually COLD air coming through the vents! Compared to the continental trains, BR seems to be a little sub-standard. The train would stop ever-so-often for no apparent reason, and it arrived at Liverpool Station 35 minutes late! This was no cause for alarm to the patient Brits, however. It's hard to believe it, but it took twelve hours to go from Amsterdam to London by train and ferry! That's a distance of just a little over 200 miles, as a crow flies. Never, never, never underestimate how long it takes to get around in Europe!

Well, I learned a lot on this trip, because I did it all on my own, with little preparation. Traveling alone forces you to communicate with people and to decide what to do and when. I wouldn't say that it was ideal, but it was better than not going at all. You have to be able to adapt to change easily, and you don't have to go far over here to see real changes and variations of culture. I saw examples of extreme exclusiveness in Paris, to the opposite extreme of openness in Amsterdam. I look forward to being able to make more trips by train in the future, and hopefully, meet interesting people.

Atomium - Brussels
Bob's Youth Hostel; and a Review of Bob's Youth Hostel
Fine Arts Museums of Brussels
Anne Frank House
Rijks Museum
Stedelijk Museum
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