Saturday, September 29, 2007

Paris to Amsterdam

We begin the second part of our trip with mixed emotions. We love Edward and Alicia. They are very nice people (and I’m not just saying that) and we will miss their company, and laughs, and the good natured ribbing. Having said that, we are “free, free, free at last”.

As predicted last night we ate breakfast alone, then jumped into the car to head north. We hope they had a good, and safe trip back to Rhode Island with a lot of good memories to keep them company.

After a scenic trip through parts of Roissy, going the wrong way, we spotted a sign for the A road to Lille, and motored on. It was rainy and foggy, but no problem driving as we headed north, with more traffic than I had expected. It is bucolic in this part of France, with never ending pastures and farmland. We went through the old Belgique border crossing guard station, which was empty and decrepit. In the past we have had our passports stamped when passing through the EU borders, but no more. The old glass and concrete building looks like it belongs in Berlin, next to where the wall was.

We were able to take a wrong turn because the Benelux map we bought along the way was missing the little border piece with France. Figures. It was a kind of crucial bit of information that we were lacking and we headed to Brussels instead of Ghent, and spent ½ hour backtracking through small towns, which were an absolute delight.

As we approached Amsterdam and were making our last major road connection, we noticed the traffic in front of us, on this long ramp, slowing then stopping. A tractor trailer truck had jackknifed on the curve of the ramp totally blocking it. It must have happened moments before we got there. We were about 35 meters from it. What to do?

After about 10 minutes with traffic really backing up behind us, people realized I’m sure, that it was going to be a significant amount of time before this truck was cleared. The second car in front of us pulled up a little and started BACKING down the off ramp from the major road we were trying to get to. (The risk, of course was that people flying along that road wanting to take that exit ramp ONTO the road we were getting off would slam into the back of our car.) With nerves of steel, and pants of wet, we took our turn, and ended up going the right direction on the road we wanted, all without negotiating the cloverleaf. Pretty slick. It would have been a perfect maneuver had not the wuss in back of us been blowing his horn all the time, apparently afraid I was going to back into the front of his Volvo. We were on our way again, feeling rather proud of ourselves. Kat navigated us beautifully to the hotel.

For the next few nights only ONE hotel. (The Marriott Courtyard - Still using points collected while I was working. We have found the airport Courtyards in the major cities to be a great deal when using points. Typically 20,000 points for rooms worth about $350 per night). We learned the best way into Amsterdam was to take the bus across the street to the airport (Schiphol) then the train to Centraal Station. Sounded easy and it was. The airport is modern, clean, and pulses with energy. Each train stop is designed with flair.

The first few moments in a strange place are exhilarating. The senses are bombarded with new and different stimuli: sights, sounds, and smells that don't have a basis in memory heighten your awareness. Amsterdam is very different from southern Europe, and the first moments as you emerge from the train station you know you're not in Kansas anymore.

We walked and walked, and asked and asked, and basically went round in circles, every canal and bridge looked like every other canal and bridge. Our target was the Anne Frank house and we arrived at 6:20pm. Since it closes at 7:00, we thought we were golden. Not quite. You can’t get into line if the line can’t get in by 6:30, (they seem to have a lot of rules for such a small country) so off we went to find food, our favorite comfort activity.

Walking past these canal side homes, you appreciate what an interesting city this is. Following a delicious Thai dinner we walked through an early evening drizzle (cold drizzle by the way) around the red light district, (drizzle, cold or otherwise was no deterent, it was packed) then back to Centraal Station to take the train to the bus to the hotel.

Upon my return to the train platform from the WC, I found Kat engaged in conversation with an American couple. He was on a business trip, she had traveled to meet him for the weekend. We chatted with them, said goodbye and headed to our train to Schiphol. Just as we expected to feel the lurch signaling departure an announcement was made that the train to the airport had been cancelled: a fire in one of the tunnels.

Back to the platform we went where we found Helen and Nick (our new best friends –should have guessed Greek), paying rapt attention to the same announcement with the same silly look on their faces that we no doubt sported. They were trying to get to the airport as well. The four of us, now joined by about 50 others, herded our way to the information booth searching out an alternative. We brainstormed (retired but sometimes I backslide): bus, dreaded taxi, car rental, etc. but ultimately decided to do what the rest of the cattle were doing.

There was a train heading to Leiden (wherever that was) from which we could get to Schiphol. I wasn't really surprised as I'm sure in a small country you could get to Schiphol from everywhere. Nick was kinda celebrating having recently been promoted to Vice President of his $5 billion a year electronics company (a Raytheon supplier). Now we were bosom buddies, and there was something about them both that was appealing. They seemed like down to earth people on an adventure. (I later learned that the announcement wasn’t yet official, however it was going to happen, and not to worry about getting back to the hotel, as he had a new expense account he was trying to break in with his new position, and he would pay for any taxi, limo, or private helicopter we needed to get us back to the hotel).

They were Greek Orthodox, and Eleni (Helen) kept referring to non-Greeks as xenos (just like in Our Big Fat Greek Wedding with Gus). They were funny and we had a lot of laughs on our little train ride, thrown together by misfortune and coming out ahead. Travel is great.

Arriving in Leiden, we found the connecting train to Schiphol, and along the way learned that they were staying at the same Marriott we were. What are the chances. We chatted about kids, grandkids, etc., life in general, what it was like to be retired. We finally got to the airport and learned (when Nick called the hotel on his cell phone - everyone has one but us) that we missed the last shuttle and they were not going to send another.

Kat and I were familiar with the bus routine at this point, so we all headed across the parking lot to try to find the #300 bus that would go through Hoofddorp (which is where the hotel was located).

While waiting for the (a, any) bus we noticed a couple of young people (boy and girl, about 20) who were smoking what appeared to be (to our untrained noses) cannabis. We asked if they knew where our bus would load, and they remarked that they were taking the same bus, and suggested we wait there with them.

We (Nick and I were nothing if not astute and curious) made a polite comment about what they might be inhaling. Kat and Eleni were chatting, ignoring us, so like two little naughty boys Nick and I asked them about the culture and pot in particular. So many questions, so little time, as the bus was just entering the parking lot. We asked where to get it, how much it was, did you have to imbibe (is that the right word when it is smoke rather than liquid?) at the coffee house, or could you take it with you, was it strong, or weak, etc. They answered our questions, and the girl asked if we wanted a hit on the joint she was smoking. We declined, but Nick asked if he might perhaps buy an “extra” joint from them if they had one. They agreed and wanted to give him one, but Nick wanted to pay them for it and gave them €5 for one, not knowing if that was not enough, too much, or just right. The kid seemed happy with the arrangement and Nick seemed thrilled.

Just then Eleni noticed something going on, came over and said sternly “What are you doing Nick?” The kid deadpanned, “… a drug deal” which broke us up laughing. What a great country.

When we got back to the hotel, Kat went up to do her laundry, so the other three of us sat at the lobby bar and had a drink, chatting about retirement, financial planning, how we were able to retire so young, etc.

I went upstairs and tried to send e-mail via the “easy” TV internet access that wasn’t.

By the time I was done trying it was 1:30 and sleep came easily.

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