Rushing from my office, 20 minutes behind schedule, I paused briefly to check those things I cannot be without including passport, money, slides for the talk, plane ticket, laptop and batteries. Everything else I could buy. As a last minute thought, I retrieved a small file describing the meeting I was attending, and set off with twenty minutes left to pack. The World’s Worst Tourist was off again, this time for a week in The Netherlands. Two hours later, as the wheels slammed into the wells, I sat back, stretching out in the exit row, flipped through the last-minute file, and realized for the first time that without this file, I would have had no idea where I was really going after getting to Amsterdam. I also realized for the first time that I had brought no travel book (not that I would read it anyway), no maps, no hotel reservation for the first night, and was equipped only with knowledge provided by a brief visit to Amsterdam 15 years ago. I wondered, "Am I being a bit too casual about a 12,000 mile trip to a foreign country?"
---WARNING: DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS TRICK "AT HOME" or at least before becoming a master of the homilies of the World’s Worst Tourist.---See Appendix
As is often the case, I was soon asking myself why the hell I am going to Amsterdam. It had seemed like a good idea a year ago when I first agreed to attend the 49th meeting of the Aeroballistics Range association (ARA) in Den Hague.
The ARA is basically an "Old Farts" club, made up of a group of tight knit guys from 20 countries who have spent their entire careers looking for the most efficient way to destroy the bad guys (whoever that is) as well as to keep the bad guys from damaging the good guys (us) and our stuff. In short, these are the guys who develop better guns and bullets and ways to deal with the receiving end as well, namely better shields and bunkers. Since "peace broke out" the emphasis has been more on terrorist activities and space debris. The ARA is more a family than a professional society, with most of the guys having known each other for many years. Some of these guys have been attending the annual meetings since the beginning, and many wives have been coming as long. Even the guys who retired continue to attend; they don’t know how not to come. My impression is that this is the most fun they have all year. After remembering my last trip (see installment five) I began to remember why I agreed to come; these guys do know how to have fun. Moreover, based on previous meetings I expected to learn something.
I had planned to stay the weekend in Amsterdam to shake off jet lag before heading for Den Hague and I had planned to find a hotel using the walk-around method. A friend in Delft had given me the clue to take the train to Amsterdam from the Schipol (pronounced "Skip’ ol") airport. Before finding the train station I spotted the VVV, the Dutch tourist agency, which I have long respected, so I stepped in to get a map of Amsterdam and if the lines weren’t too long, some advice. While evaluating the line length, I heard something I didn’t like. "No sir, I am sorry, there is not a single available hotel in Amsterdam." I decided I’d better get in line and hear the rest of this. As much as I believe in the walk-around technique, I began to explore alternatives when the lady behind the desk repeated this to me. She had called every hotel in the book, she said, and had run out of options, including even the small hotels.
Even though I was a bit skeptical, my ears perked up when she suggested Haarlem.. I had never been to Haarlem; in fact, I had never heard of Haarlem. "It’s a very old city, about 10 kilometers south of Amsterdam." That was enough for me. I was tired, jet lagged, not in the mood for suspense, and intrigued by the idea of spending the first night in a very old city.
It took less than 30 minutes by train. Walking from the station, I had hoped to find the hotel staring me in the face; no such luck. After walking all around the station, I gave in and hired a taxi. Hotel Carlton Square is a luxury hotel, and my room sported the first king sized bed I had seen in Europe. After a quick shower, I picked up a map and headed for the old market place following hints I had gleaned from the bell boy. Holland is one of those great places in Europe where you can almost always ask questions and expect understandable, friendly English, so it is an easy country to visit. I marvel at how well the Dutch instantly switch between languages without a pause, carrying on conversation in great depth and understanding in both languages at the same time. Unlike most countries, most of the Dutch seem to be truly multilingual, with almost everyone speaking fluent English. On the other hand the Dutch language is one of the strangest to hear, with sounds that are impossible for Americans to make. Dutch sounds much like English played backwards (my own observation).
The Grote Markt is a beautiful old square with an old church, 14th century civic buildings, surrounded by restaurants, night clubs, and a red light district. I checked all of them out. At this time of night the red light district was the most interesting. I was surprised at how few people were around, but the restaurants did seem to have plenty of business. Red light districts in Holland almost always lie in the better part of town and this was no exception. The Dutch are really proud of them, and the best are actually run by the government. It seemed that the largest house sat adjacent to a church. Although not a real customer of such places, I often find a conversation with the employees quite interesting. One of the ladies (a beautiful blonde who looked to be about 25 years old), sitting in a picture window, scantily dressed, motioned me to come over.
I asked her where everyone was. "It is a bit early," was her response, in perfect English with a slight accent. She seemed more interested in conversing than in doing business, so we chatted for a few minutes. I leveled with her that I was not interested in sex with her, and that didn’t seem to bother her. She really was genuinely friendly. Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I asked how much she charged guys for sex. She responded without hesitation, "Fifty for a fuck, 40 for a suck," (She meant 50 guilders, which is about 30 dollars) With that information, I thanked her for the conversation, bid her good bye, and continued my walk through the old structures down narrow cobblestone streets.
I forced myself to stay awake until about 11 PM, took a few melatonin tablets and slept for 10 hours. Once again, melatonin, the wonder jet lag cure came through.
I wanted to spend some daylight hours in Haarlem before heading off to Den Hague, so I rose and walked over the same path I had taken the night before. In the day light, I could see that many of the narrow streets were like gardens with beautiful flowers and greenery. Churches are usually a good focus for art and architecture. This is not the case in Holland. It seems that these churches happened to be on the Christian side of the church that chose to destroy and ban art from the church back in the seventeenth century. To make matters worse, I found most of the churches locked. I did manage to talk my way into the main cathedral on the old square, after catching a priest at the door. He agreed to let me look for two minutes. There was a wonderful organ, but no art whatsoever. The architecture was rather classic, but two minutes was okay. I tried other churches, later finding out that most are closed to tourists on Sunday. Another magnificent church is the Church of St. Bavo, which houses a famous organ that has been played by Handel and Mozart. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get in to see it, but the outside is spectacular. After leaving the Church of St. Bavo and mistakenly following a different canal from the one I started on, I found myself lost and inadvertently added a couple of miles to my hike. The streets themselves are equipped with street art ranging from classical to modern. MacDonald’s Restaurants always catch my attention, and in Haarlem the MacDonalds is a beautiful architectural achievement, matching all of the other old buildings that surround it. I missed a few important things in Haarlem like the Franz Hal museum which I learned later houses a magnificent collection of his work.
Den Hague, the capital of Holland, is a city of a few hundred thousand and is one of the most important Dutch cities. The queen lives here. The meeting was being held in a seaside resort known as Scheveningen (pronounced "Skiveningen"). The taxi driver who took me from the station explained that this was the most expensive part of Holland. Within a few minutes of checking into my room at the Bilderburg Hotel, the phone rang. My Dutch friend, Brenda, who lives in nearby Delft, was on the other end ready to work up a plan for meeting as we had previously agreed. After checking the ARA schedule for the week, we realized that every single night after this one was already planned. She and her boyfriend, Eric, graciously invited me to join them for dinner in about an hour; Since, as you know by now, my favorite way to experience another country is with locals, I accepted.
After a 20 minute drive from Schevinigen to Delft, we strolled the streets of Delft. The old city of Delft is lined with canals, bridges, gabled homes, cobble-stoned streets, and many little narrow passageways or alleys that seem to invite one to explore The night air was cold and wet, like every other night during my stay would be. Eric and Brenda wore heavy coats. I had chosen a few layers of shirts and a sweater, which must have looked skimpy. Eric kept asking me if I was cold. I was having too much fun to get cold. It reminded me a lot of Bruges, Belgium (see installment 8.) We dined at the Blau Schnuck, a tiny restaurant that seated about 20 people. I glanced at the menu, which was in Dutch and quickly ask Eric to order for me whatever he was going to choose. It was a good decision.
I had come to take canals and windmills in Holland so much for granted, I forgot why they were there. Imagine a place whose very existence depends on taking the rain water and pumping it uphill to the ocean to keep everyone above water. It is nice that the process for achieving this has resulted in the construction of beautiful windmills and canals everywhere. It seems ashamed that the function of the windmills has been replaced with unromantic electric pumps, leaving most of the windmills as mere tourist attractions. Nevertheless, modern windmills are starting to show up as the Dutch become more conscious of the environment. The canals have become a major tourist attraction with tourboats that cover the city. Eric explained that over the years the canals had become so filled with old bicycles, they had to be cleaned out to make way for the tour boats. There is little to prevent even cars from driving off into the canals. I noticed the extra skill and bravery required of a person who parallel-parks along one of the canals. I wondered how often one of the wheels drops over the edge.
After arriving back at the hotel, I took a brief walk on the beach of the North Sea. Clearly, no one would be swimming here for a few days. The wind was cold and the water looked rather treacherous.
Monday morning came too soon. I had to be on time since I was the second speaker. I began to see all of the friends I had not seen since the 47th ARA meeting, including an old friend, Steve Sheffield, whom I had bummed around with during that meeting. Suddenly I began to feel like one of the old farts in the club. The program started with a plea from the Director of the Dutch Defense Research Organization, TNO, for each of us to meet and exchange ideas and friendship. Somehow, if enough people can become friends maybe we won’t have any more wars. I was wide awake for a while, but soon after my own talk, I found myself nodding. I wasn’t as over the jet lag as I had thought and I was glad to see five o’clock come around.
One of the standard features of an ARA meeting is to attend a reception by the mayor of the host city. Mayor’s quarters are always interesting; the mayor of Den Hague is no exception. Den Hague spent over a billion dollars on a new modern city center. This may be the first mayor in Europe to be truly proud of a brand new modern civic center. The ultra modern eleven story structure has a glass outside and an open area inside that towers to the top of the building. The reception included all kinds of interesting drinks and snacks. The snacks included a lot of raw stuff, like mackerel, and even beef. Being a sashimi fan already, this was a small step for me and after a few glasses of wine, I tried one of just about everything. The mayor, himself, showed up and gave a brief welcoming speech.
After the reception we mounted the buses for the night program in the Delft Army museum. The ARA has a secret way of taking over museums for such events. The group was divided into smaller groups, each being assigned a specialist who guided us through the museum. Starting with war in the Middle Ages, we covered two thousand years of warfare technology in about two hours. This guy was good and the museum had rare items in its collection you are not likely to see anywhere else, including one of the finest collections of medieval cannons and rifles in the world. I learned things about war I had never imagined, with some emphasis, of course on how important the Dutch were in history. Our guide was not happy about the ease with which Hitler got the Dutch leadership to surrender the country. It seems that the Dutch government was unwilling to build an army, so the private companies put together their own. When Hitler launched his first air raid, they were equipped with excellent anti aircraft weapons and they really kicked his butt. Apparently they shot most of them down and killed all of the paratroopers. This really pissed Hitler off. It had not previously occurred to me how vulnerable Holland is. All the enemy has to do is place a few sticks of dynamite in the dikes and 25 percent of the country drowns, and Hitler demonstrated it to them with great poignancy, drowning over 30,000 Dutch in one night.
On Tuesday I was struggling with a combination of jet lag, constipation, and diarrhea, all at the same time (Is that really possible?). Maybe the raw stuff wasn’t such a good idea after all. Steve, being mildly skeptical about the value of attending all of the sessions, perked up when I suggested we take off a few hours to explore down town Den Hague. The Mauritsthuis was featuring, "Rembrandt, under the Scalpel", which analyzed the restoration of one of his most famous paintings, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, one of the permanent collection. Another reason for choosing the Mauritzhuis was because some of Vermeer’s work was there. Vermeer, in addition to having been one of the greatest artists of all times, has the separate distinction that only about 30 of his works exist, so seeing his work is a rare occasion. This exhibit would be the target of our first foret into the city.
We quickly figured out the tram system for Den Hague, purchased a package of 15 tickets and hit the streets just before noon. Like in most European cities, the tram ride is the best tourist bargain available. Just get a tram map and tickets and ride and gawk. The tram system in Holland is an honorary system. Here is a country where most of the people are still honest. We found the Mauritshuis with ease and spent about two hours viewing Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen, Memling, Bruegle, Rubins, Van Dyke, and Potter. I had gotten so distracted by the works of Rembrandt that I had almost forgotten about the Vermeers. When I walked into the Vermeer room and saw "Portrait of a Lady with Pearl Ear ring", I froze for a moment and felt cold chills. Here right before my eyes was the painting I had admired in reproductions for many years. This painting is known as the Dutch Mona Lisa. My only criticism of that description is that this is better than Mona Lisa. This painting is truly magical. Vermeer was the man, and he had lived in Delft.
Wednesday was our official tour day. The day began with a tour of the TNO aeroballistics range in Delft. We saw the latest in testing equipment for guns, shields, and computer modeling. The object hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. Make a knife that can penetrate the other guy’s armor and make armor that will stop his knife. During this visit it became clear how much we could help each other in such tests. I made some friendships and established contact with technical people that I truly expect to pay off for both. I suppose this is the real purpose of these types of international meetings. Now with email and the internet, I expect to be in routine communication with TNO for some time.
The entire entourage, including wives, left for Amsterdam for the rest of the day. We first visited the fishing village of Volendam, north of Amsterdam, where we had a smorgasbord style lunch at a lakeside restaurant. Lake Markermeer is unusual in that it was once the sea, before the Dutch diked it up and turned it into a fresh water lake. Driving along the levee that holds the lake inside gives one the frightening realization that the entire city lay at a lower level and the lake itself, which seemed to be several feet above the surrounding land was itself about six feet lower than the sea. In Volendam, we had a chance to compare "Delft Blue" with "Real Delft Blue". It seems that a few factories in Delft have a real scam going here. One can purchase, for example, an egg cup that is hand painted with beautiful flowers, marked "handpainted in Delft" on the bottom, for about 2 guilders (about $1.20). The same egg cup can be purchased with a small additional trademark and authentication papers for 75 guilders. During the next few days, it became apparent that most stores had shelves full of Delft blue items of every variety and a few smaller cabinets, sometimes locked, containing the "real stuff", which typically cost about an order of magnitude more. Some of the stores don’t even want you to touch the "real stuff". Every country seems to have something like this. I remember the same deal with carpets in Turkey, lace in Belgium, and saris in India.
We had two hours to spend in the Rijks (National) Museum. I chose to stick with our guide for a while to concentrate on a few paintings. She discussed the 17th century works concentrating on Rembrandt and Vermeer. In two days, I had seen a third of all of the existing Vermeers. We strolled through a few rooms of Rembrandts, starting with his earliest self portrait and ending with the Night Watch. Interestingly, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, though perhaps his most beloved painting, was not liked very much by the guys who commissioned it. It seems that some of the men whose portraits make up the painting refused to pay, because of the way they were depicted. He even put some imaginary characters in the picture.
As the guide prepared to leave us she asked for questions. "I have a crazy question," I responded. "I have 20 minutes left here. How would you suggest I spend it?" She thought for a minute. Then she responded by saying, "There is a strange event here that you could take advantage of. You may not know that the Van Gogh Museum has been closed for refurbishment. Almost all of the paintings are here in three rooms. You can use the same ticket, but you have to go back outside, around the building to the South entrance. I would suggest that you run. The museum closes in 15 minutes and they may not let you back in after you go out now."
Van Gogh represents (for me) a tragedy in the world of art. His present day fame after selling only one painting in his career is an interesting enigma. I don’t think the public of his day was wrong. Van Gogh had no talent (my opinion, of course). He could not paint well and it resembles that of a second grader. He was a pitiful, mentally distraught character who committed suicide after being supported his entire life by his brother, Theo. Van Gogh is an anomaly, made possible by Theo, who bought and saved all of his paintings. If Theo had not bought and saved the paintings they would have all been trashed just like those of other bad painters of the day, which we will never see. Today Van Gogh is famous because his art has a recognizable style and because critics and collectors saw an opportunity and invented new criteria for good art. He is overrated about as much as artists like DeKooning, but at least he, unlike DeKooning never benefited from his own poor art. With that said, I am fascinated with present day value of his art so I did see this as a unique opportunity.
I was faced with a tough choice between three things. Should I spent the last 15 minutes in the book store, try for the Van Gogh exhibit, or make a badly needed stop in the men’s room. After five seconds of thought, I chose Van Gogh.
I followed all of her suggestions, including running. The guard at the door let me enter the south entrance, with some hesitation, and I climbed two flights of stairs. In 14 minutes I looked at nearly 200 Van Goghs, including one of the famous sunflower paintings that brought $75,000,000 and at least 10 self portraits. This could qualify me for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. One of my goals was to find a Van Gogh that I thought was truly a great work. I spotted one in the second room. Excitedly, I raced over to identify it. "Portrait of a young girl" was wonderful. Reading on, however, told me that the painting, done by Toulouse Lautrec, was hanging here because it had belonged to Theo. (I already knew from a visit to Toulouse Lautrec’s homeplace and museum in Alby France that there was never any doubt about Toulouse Lautrec’s talent in anyone’s mind.) It was the only painting in the exhibit that was not a Van Gogh. So my opinion of Van Gogh remains unchanged.
After the museum tour, we crossed the street to board two large tour-dinner boats for a tour of the canals of Amsterdam. I always had avoided such dinner boats. Why would anyone let a boat tour interfere with a good dinner or vice versa? Wouldn’t this be like watching TV during dinner? Besides, what kind of restaurant can one run on a tour boat? Besides, this all seems too touristy for the world’s worst tourist. Nevertheless, I found the boat dinner tour extremely enjoyable. I was amazed at the quality of the meal, which lasted a full two hours covering six courses, coffee, brandy, and desserts. The scenery, viewable through completely glassed in roofing, was marvelous. The boat barely cleared some of the bridges by inches. The running dialogue of the captain was extremely interesting, including discussions of history, special structures along the canal, a few Clinton jokes, and an explanation of how the canals get flushed out with fresh water each night. "Clean enough to swim in but not to drink", he said.
Some of the boats along the canals had large marijuana plants growing in them. "And we do inhale," the captain commented. "Nobility and famous people have stayed in this hotel. They include Prince Charles, The Rolling Stones, Bill Clinton,…… Monica Lewinsky……". I heard a lot of Clinton Jokes in Holland. I don’t know who they consider the funniest, him or us for being so worried about his sex life.
We returned to the buses near the main station and were back in Den Hague by midnight. Having finally overcome the illnesses and being now fully retimed, I dozed only occasionally during the Thursday morning meeting. By early afternoon Steve and I were back on the trams again headed for a daytime visit to Delft. The tram from Den Hague to Delft takes about an hour, and the scenery along the way includes flower fields, canals, and windmills. As previously advised by Brenda, we got off at Prinzstop, near the old church and began our walk. The old church was started in the year 400. Like many other Dutch churches it was locked. The tower is interesting since it began to tilt during its construction. The architect decided to straighten it midway, so it is curved today. The old marketplace was filled with vendors of vegetables, meats, clothes, and looked like a rather typical swap meet. We decided to climb the tour of the new church on the square, which turned out to be a real treat. We were the only ones in the tower for the whole time. Ultimately we found ourselves near the top walking around a small porch providing a magnificent 360 degree view of Delft and the surrounding countryside. A stiff cold wind with an occasional spray of rain had both of us shivering and we soon headed back down.
After spending another hour wandering the streets of Delft, we purchased various Delft Blue items to take home. I decided ultimately to forego the certificate and let someone else play the "I got the ‘real stuff’ game". I was perfectly happy with the quality of items I selected. We returned to Den Hague in time for the big banquet that was held in the Kurhaus, a famous hotel restaurant on the North Sea. The banquet went on until midnight included great food and drink, speeches, and laughter. I would probably have enjoyed it even more had I not known that in a few hours I would need to be heading for the Schipol airport for the long trip home. And at the time I had no idea how long it would truly be.
This was, indeed, a truly spectacular meal. I knew it would be so when I counted the number of forks in the setting; there were six forks. At first I was puzzled by the order. Starting from the outside as us usually the custom, the second for looked impossible for salad. Okay, either the salad comes later or the custom is different in Holland. My concerns were removed when a chilled fork was served with the salad. So the dinner used up seven forks, four knives, four spoons, five glasses, seven plates, two bowls, and a cup for coffee. When the meal finally ended, I felt like the guy who reassembles a machine and has a few parts left over. I had stuff left over at the end that I did not figure out how to use. I have always been amazed at how much one person can eat in a long stretch like this.
I had maintained my reputation as the world’s worst tourist by missing a lot of stuff I was supposed to see in Den Hague. My largest folly was to miss the municipal museum, which houses works of the impressionists and especially many works of Piet Mondrian. I could have cut time at the Mauritshuis in half and squeezed it in. But then I also missed a lot of other good stuff too.
I try to forget negative experiences except when there is something to be learned. Since there is a small lesson here, I will summarize the experience. My flight was made using one of the new "teams" where several airline companies link up and extend their coverage of cities. American Airlines, teaming with British Midlands, had extended service to Amsterdam from its existing flight to London. Even though I had an American Airlines Flight and ticket, British Midlands handled the part from London to Amsterdam. The problem is that when something goes wrong, each airlines would like to blame it on the other. Something did go wrong. British Midlands wanted American Airlines to solve the problem and shipped us back to London. At London, American thought that British Midland should have handled it in Amsterdam, and an argument proceeded. I teamed up with a fellow passenger, Greg Ochs, and between the two of us after screaming, threatening, begging, crying, and demanding, did get back to LA by way of British Airlines. We had a couple of hours to kill before the flight so we hung out in the Admirals club. Greg must have known what was coming because he downed about five whiskeys before we left the club. We sat in the middle seat of a 747 loaded with 450 passengers. There was one empty seat on the plane. God must have known that if that one empty seat had been anywhere except beside me, I would have died in flight. By the time I reached Los Angeles, I was sore, sick, exhausted, and wondered how anyone survives riding in those particular seats. The 747 was designed under the assumption that all passengers are five feet tall. My luggage was still in Amsterdam. They found it the next day. The next time, I will take KLM non stop to Amsterdam, frequent flyer miles or not.