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A Near Miss
When my wife and I arrived by train from Paris to Rotterdam, we were only a few miles from the car rental agency at the local airport. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to get there, we asked an English-speaking Hollander for directions via train: we figured that a bus ride would take too much time, for we needed to meet with our home-exchange couple as soon as possible. He said he would personally accompany us to the correct counter. It was a long grueling walk, with him and my wife way ahead of me (I had volunteered to carry most of our luggage).
We eventually arrived at a self-service booth that didn't accept our credit card. So the young man led us upstairs to a room jammed with travelers and a few ticket agents. A sign stated that it cost 33 Euros to take any express train. I felt that this price was too steep for such a short trip, but it seemed that we had no choice.
My wife got in line while I stayed at the front of the entrance, holding the bag (s). While I was making sure that our belongings were safe, my lively wife soon began entertaining a group of travelers with her always inventive and infectious chatter. For over fifteen minutes, I remained vigilant while my wife schmoozed.
Then it hit me. The airport that we were getting tickets for was another one much further away, probably in Amsterdam; that's why it cost so much to get there. Exhilarated with my discovery, I frantically gestured to my wife, who was partly obscured by an archway. Finally I got her attention.
Regretfully leaving her audience, she meandered over to me, gave me a moment to blurt out my insight, and then revealed that she had had the same thought. But she cautioned me that we still had to wait our turn. Talking to the ticket agent would help us expeditiously get to the right airport.
Soon my wife got her chance to speak to the agent, who was amused by my wife's account of our difficulties. Her advice was simple: All we had to do was to go across the street and take a bus (for only 2 Euros total) to the Hertz dealership at the nearby Rotterdam airport.
With no further snags, we obtained our Fiat, put our GPS in gear, and easily found our home exchange locale 10 miles away. Luckily, our hosts were not upset that we were delayed because of a few minor setbacks. How gracious they were! How silly I was to fret about how late we would arrive. Hey, I'm not Chevy Chase on a European vacation, or am I?
My wife and I put our GPS on pedestrian mode to locate the main attractions in Amsterdam. But first, we wanted to eat at a Thai restaurant. According to the GPS, there were many of them nearby, all on the same street close to our arrival point, Centraal Station, and only one block from the Red Light District, our final destination.
Finding a Thai restaurant, however, was inexplicably futile. For whatever reason, our usually gabby GPS just pointed to off-the-wall, off-the-beaten track directions that led us outside mainstream Amsterdam. Along the way, we did see lots of suburban local color amid untrammeled canals and unpretentious homes, sights that most tourists miss. And if we weren't so intent on eating Thai, we would have been content to further explore these unheralded areas.
Temporarily giving up on Thai, we by chance ended up at the Liedesplein, a spot near a quirky canal boat excursion that was high on our agenda for the afternoon. But we couldn't locate the sign-up sheet; nor could we find out where the boat docked.
Instead of going on a different canal ride, we decided to stroll along the other major city squares, ignoring our GPS and relying on a low-tech, un-interactive alternative, a good old-fashioned map. Perhaps along the way (where my wife took scads of pictures in the historic heart of Amsterdam) we'd bump into a Thai restaurant.
Just as our hunger pains peaked, we came across a street featuring Asian cuisine, the same street that we were searching for earlier. In fact, there were five Thai restaurants we could choose from. The one that we selected had outstanding food. The only drawback was that I got locked in the cramped men's room for a few minutes before a burly kitchen worker could set me free.
It was getting late, an ideal time to gawk at the celebrated Red Light District. How bad could it be if grannies and little children, plus tourist groups, watched window shopping for prostitutes who were no more indecently dressed than alluring young ladies at the beach? We must have plodded through dozens of side streets where the prostitutes paraded about behind glass doors. A few of them were unattractive; a few were gorgeous; others (more than you would have thought) had the innocent-girl-next-door look. None of them made any outrageously obscene gestures. In fact, some prostitutes waved at us as if they were on a New Year's Day float.
The only incident that disturbed us occurred at the end of our visit. In a main street window, a fully clothed under-aged female moved her hips and gestured for me AND my wife to join her in a threesome. That appalling scene prompted me to check more diligently on the internet about legal prostitution in the Netherlands. I discovered that behind the hoopla allegedly lurked a brutal criminal underground that trafficked in white slavery (mostly from East European countries) and used girls who were just barely teenagers.
If I had more extensively researched Amsterdam, I might have avoided the Red Light District altogether. Nonetheless, with more of a smile than a scowl, we will never forget our adventure in Amsterdam.
Of course, I must admit that our memories might still be clouded because we inhaled so much second-hand cannabis smoke from the ubiquitous (and perhaps iniquitous) coffee shops.
A Dutch Masterpiece
Delft is highly renowned for its pottery, and rightly so, but the town should also be noted for its glittering neo-gothic Catholic church built in the 1870's, the Maria van Jessekerk. My wife and I were captivated by the medieval and Renaissance churches in Paris and Chartres. How could a relatively modern church in Holland rival those masterpieces? Well, it does so admirably. Its multifaceted crystalline stained glass windows are as dramatic as the biblical pageantry that they depict. The statuary and paintings of saints are full-blooded, bold, and luxurious; they glow with intensity. The streamlined pillars are voluptuously smooth. And the restored organ has classy aristocratic contours. Being enveloped in this spectacular church was truly a Dutch treat.
The Windmill Maestro
My wife and I didn't know much about Holland before we stayed there for a couple of weeks at the end of our two-month European vacation. But there was one thing that we did expect to see: lots of old-fashioned windmills. It may be that the Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe (as of 2008), but we discovered that this statistic doesn't include windmills as well.
After a few days exploring the countryside, we couldn't locate even one of them; it was like tilting at windmills. Then we learned that there was a bunch of them at Kinderdijk. We got there at closing time. A group of people were leaving through an opening in front of one of the windmills. My wife, ever curious, dashed into the entrance, gesturing for me to follow.
I reluctantly followed her up a couple of stairways before a man shouted for us to come down. What startled us besides his voice was what we saw in our abbreviated self-tour: a fully furnished home on all sides of the stairways. Were people actually living there or was it just for show, a Dutch version of a Potemkin village?
We had our answer soon enough. The man we met at the foot of the stairs told us that he had been renting that particular windmill for years. It was his only home. In fact, he said that many more windmills in that area also had permanent residents: it was the best way for the government to keep these national treasures and the few other remaining classic windmills in Holland from becoming endangered species. He then rattled off an array of the technical data and historical windmill sketches.
But something else convinced my wife and me that this man was for real: he comfortably wore wooden shoes. How about that for authenticity!
Oh, it's true that we later found in Seidam the largest windmills in the world; one of them had an extensive museum, and one had its bottom floor converted into a restaurant. But we will always particularly cherish our encounter with the windmill veteran of Kinderdijk.
I went to another organ concert last week, this time in the Netherlands (Delft). An excerpt from Bijster's Variaties op. een Oud-Nederlands lied and Batiste's Elevation no.6 in A were pedestrian; Franck's Choral No. 2 en si mineur was awfully lugubrious. But I was very fond of Guilmant's Offertoire sur 'O Filii' and his Sonata No. 5 en ut mineur. The last work especially moved me. It had fast-paced, vibrant, rousing sections alternating with wistful, poignant interludes. The organist, Jaap Kroonenburg, redeemed himself after a listless first half.
Vlaaringen Rings True
The people whom my wife and I encountered in Vlaaringen, our home-exchange site in Holland, were extraordinarily gracious to us. The omnipresent bicyclists politely gave my wife and me some leeway, whether we were navigating in our car or in narrow walkways. One of the male clerks in the local grocery store, while watching us trying to figure out what breakfast items to buy, not only translated (in impeccable English) some of the packaging info but also advised us how best to prepare the food and at what time of day to do so.
At that same store, a woman, originally from Australia, noticing that we were not finding what we were looking for in the vegetarian section, told us that there was a nearby gourmet food mart that had a large variety of tofu products.
At an Italian restaurant, the solicitous owner personally attended to us, making sure, with unobtrusive grace, that we were satisfied at every stage of the meal.
When my wife and I were having trouble opening the front door of the house we were staying at, a neighbor showed us how to maneuver the handle for an easy entrance.
And before we left Vlaaringen, our bilingual home-exchange couple invited us to join them at their beach getaway place: they provided a sumptuous lunch, introduced us to some close family members who warmly included us in their chitchat, and later on escorted us to their favorite ocean spot, making our last day in Holland the most cherished one of all.