Monday, 14 September 2015


We stayed two days and nights in Enspijk and then hit the road again. Amsterdam was just over 60km away and so we were there within a couple of hours.

We pitched up the tent at the site north of the city and then went off in search of the free ferry we were told would take us across the river to the Central Station and the heart of town. It was about a 30 minute walk. The ferry was packed with cyclists and walkers and the pleasant trip across the water was one of the things we liked best.

At the station there was a piano and passers-by were invited to play it. The man I photographed was playing classical music which was very good. On our way back someone else was having a tinkle and playing chopsticks so whether you were a concert pianist or a plonker, you could still entertain the crowds as they walked through the station and have a little bit of fun yourself. It is very community minded over there and you get a sense of real equality for everyone.

Amsterdam was heaving with people. We headed down a narrow side street and found a coffee shop where people smoked inside. It was very small, and like many others we saw, it appeared to be mostly a take away service. You buy your spliff and either smoke inside, if it has no tobacco in it, or you smoke outside if the devil weed is present in the mix. At this point I didn't know this and the cafe we stopped at didn't seem bothered about what you smoked inside. I had half the joint and put the other out because it was very strong and I didn't want to vegetate but rather be alert as to what was happening around me. Instead, I rolled a tobacco cigarette, smoked it inside, and no one batted an eyelid.

When we left the coffee shop, I suddenly became aware of how intimidating a very busy and crowded Amsterdam was. It was heaving with tourists. I got trod on and pushed and noticed some very dodgy looking sorts skulking in those narrow alley streets - or was it just me being paranoid thanks to the spliff still having an effect? I certainly held on to my bag as if my life depended upon it.

The road system was just as manic. First you had to negotiate the cycle paths. If clear, cross quickly and get to the tram tracks. Watch out no trams are hurtling towards you and then cross quickly and you get to the road for cars. Look both ways and cross quickly to safety on the pedestrian path. Big breath : Phew! Cyclists were the worst. They come from all over usually when you don't expect them and they don't slow down but ring the cycle bell and expect you to jump out of the way.

It was while we were sitting by the river having a smoke that we became aware of a rumpus right next to us involving a motorist and cyclist. We couldn't have expected a better show if we'd paid for tickets to a live theatrical drama.

The cyclist had clipped the car as he cycled past and the motorist wasn't going to let him get away with it. I thought the car driver looked like a mafia sort. He had silver hair groomed back, a dazzling white shirt and black tie and suit and his car was very big, black and shiny so you could see your face in it and he was tough. The cyclist was a tour guide who had a bunch of tourists with him. They all looked on and said nothing as the altercation continued.

The motorist pulled the cyclist off his bike as he tried to cycle away. He stood there as the motorist remonstrated with him in Dutch. I had no idea what he was saying except for the word "arsehole" which must be the same in both languages. The cyclist said nothing and just stood there as the motorist continued to shout at him. After he was done, the mafia-type grabbed the cyclist's sunglasses off his face, tossed them far into the middle of the river, and then slid his finger across his throat as he gave the cyclist a backward look before getting back in his car and driving off. The cyclist blew a sigh of relief and his group of tourists rejoined him before they cycled off in the opposite direction.

There was lot of activity in the main square. An almost naked woman surrounded by pots of paint invited people to paint her for money and she was obviously much in demand. A little further away was a man dressed as the Grim Reaper who charged people to have their photo taken with him.

We spent most of the day looking around the streets, walking and sitting by the river, having a look inside the church, and visited other landmarks like the castle and we did it all again the next day but on the other side of town.

We wandered into the red light district where naked women bounced and posed in windows, parents with children hurried through embarrassed and others, like the older Muslim woman we saw, walked through the back streets off the main road, I assumed to avoid the sight but the thing that most struck me was the tolerance of different groups all, apparently, having a live and let live attitude.

We planned to have another three or four days in Rotterdam and then spend the last two or three days in Belgium. As it turned out, the weather and atmosphere in Rotterdam was so good we decided to spend the whole of the last week we had left in this more peaceful Holland city that was certainly much less intimidating and more open and friendly.

We pitched up at the same camp site that we stayed at when we first reached Rotterdam at the start of our journey. As luck would have it, there was a free festival in the park - called the Duitzel in Het Park which just around the corner from our site so we spent some time there over the three days it was on. People smoked, both tobacco and cannabis because you got an aromatic waft as you passed by someone smoking a joint, families and groups of friends had BBQs on the go so there was plenty of outdoor smoke from all kinds of sources, others danced or lay in the sunshine enjoying the festival and there was a really good vibe.

A really cool DJ who looked just like Elvis Costello played some sound tracks but although we had a Dutch programme, we couldn't read a word of it and never knew who was on stage at any given time. On the last day, we decided to walk into town and buy two comfy camping chairs that we could take back to the park and sit in to enjoy the rest of the festival. As we walked through we were stopped in our tracks by a band playing. This time I did video it and later found out the band was called Big Moose. (sorry about the fuzzy zooming in and out at the start)

We walked miles around Rotterdam every day and got to know it well. Before long we knew exactly where we going and even found quicker ways to get there. We took one day out to visit The Hague and again found another coffee shop - more like a pub - which had huge No Smoking signs everywhere which I assumed must only prohibit the smoking of tobacco. Jam jars of chopped cannabis leaves were provided on the bar and at tables for those who rolled their own. We stayed for a half of a joint an half of a pint and then set off to explore the city where war criminals are tried.

We only found one coffee shop in Rotterdam that let you sit inside and to do so you had to produce ID and we never had any on us and didn't like the idea of it anyway. After all, it's not as if either of us had to provide proof of age. It's written in our wrinkles. We did like a lot of the public art work we came across like Fikke or Fido and his pile of poo which, apparently, was created after the bronze sculpture of the dog and was used in a clean up campaign.

There was also this statue which my other half swore was a gnome holding a butt plug and we tried to get our heads around town planners in a council meeting discussing that one and where they would put it in the city. After getting home, however, and doing some research it seems the statue is really Santa Claus holding a Christmas tree.

We wandered into town one day to find ourselves right in the middle of a right noisy calamity of an American group of young Christians spreading the word through singing and shouting as they walked through the centre of town. We were queuing for food as they passed and the noise seemed to frighten at least one child we saw who clung to his mother who clearly wasn't a Christian because she wore a Muslim head scarf. I sat down to have a smoke later and perhaps it was the mark of a sinner because a young Christian approached me and told me how she had been saved and how her religion helped her to deal with the fact she had been brought up in poverty by a drug addicted mother. I felt for her but, as I said, we each have hard times and we each have a way of getting through it. If religion helped her that was great but it wasn't going to help me. I have other ways of dealing with tragedy and rarely ever pray for a miracle. She wanted me to pray with her right there and then but I declined politely. She said she'd pray for me later but I told her to say a prayer for my religious mother. I don't believe that God will answer the selfish so it's better to pray for others more than pray for yourself - then hope if you need it someone will pray for you. My mother often "put one in" with God for me so I think she would have appreciated a stranger putting one in memory of her. She would have enjoyed that. We said goodbye and the girl rejoined her friends and passed nosily on through Rotterdam singing and chanting as they went.

It was soon after that encounter that we discovered Poffertjes - small Dutch pancakes served with icing sugar and butter and they were scrumptious. Perfect for when you have munchies. I liked them so much I bought a poffertjes pan after I got home and had a go. The first batch were a little overdone but each one I've made since has got better.

Suffice to say we absolutely loved Rotterdam and made the most of every day we spent there. By arrangement with the camp site we were able to check out late in the afternoon of our last day and we had decided to drive to Belgium, spend a day there and then head over to Calais and spend all night there waiting for our channel tunnel train due to leave at 7am. We though this would be cheaper and easier than staying at a camp site and then have to leave at silly-o'clock in the early hours to make that train.

The sun was hot and the sky a pure blue, as it had been for the whole week in Rotterdam, as we approached Oostend. People were coming from the beach as we drove but in the horizon, grey was moving over like a screen being pulled across the sky as if it was roof closing. We knew it would rain but we decided to take a walk through the main street which appeared to lead to the sea. The last time we were in Oostend, we did the same but before we got there we headed back as snow began to pelt down. This time we never reached the sea before the heavens opened and lashed down with rain and a good helping of thunder and lightening. We headed for the nearest restaurant and decided to eat, wait for the rain to either stop or slow down, and then we'd head for Calais. It was very early and we would have hours there but we couldn't think of how else to waste these last few hours given the awful change in weather.

We arrived at Calais at about 9pm. The man on the gate said we could amend our ticket and if we paid another £11, we could get the next train in a hour so we jumped at it. We eventually got home at 2am a good day earlier than we expected. Sadly, the hot weather hasn't been a feature since we got home. There has been some sunshine but always accompanied by a strong cold wind.

Many of our friends and family worried about the Calais crossing because of the negative stuff about migrants but we never saw any at all. Whether they were on the lorry side or not we couldn't say but certainly none where the cars come in and there were no queues at all.

We have discussed where we would like to go next on our travel adventure but for now, with the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, we think it will be better to see how things lie next year. Europe appears to be in chaos and with so much suffering at its borders, it feels almost immoral to enjoy life as a tourist to see so much desperation from people for who travel and staying in tents is now way of life for people with no home.

However, that said, one day I would like to see the Scandinavian or Nordic countries including Denmark, Sweden and, perhaps, Finland. But for now, work looms ahead and I have another busy year to plan with no time to think about summer, holidays or travelling - and it will be back to me writing about shorthand for my students and other things I do that make up the rest of the year when summer ends.

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