Belgium and Amsterdam - A Travelogue
Castles in Belgium
In the beautiful city of Maastricht where I was staying with my girlfriend Jill, her generous father, Andreas asked me, “What would you like to see?”
Castles, I told him. The stuff of fairy tales, my fairy tales, and he took me to four castles. It was grey when we started out, and I had watched with excitement, Andreas wipe the frost from the car windows. By the time we hit our first castle in Belgium just across the border, surrounded by a wide moat where the ducks walked on the frozen water, the sun was trying to shine through.
“The ducks are walking on water!” I cried.
“Oh look, the sun is out, ducks are walking on the water and Anita is warm!” said Andreas in that husky voice.
The most beautiful of castles, French, with blue towers and spires straight from the pages of a fairy tale stood in the countryside just outside Maastricht. I loved the long driveway lined with tall gnarled gothic looking trees, the manicured lawns and shrubs, sculptures in the waters of the narrow moat, and the little restaurant beside it where we stopped to warm up with English tea and apricot pie.
He drove me across the border to an enormous ugly castle in Belgium where it was so cold, I could barely see what I was looking at, and wanted to run back to his warm car. We climbed up and down flights of very narrow stairs spiraling into the towers and I saw my first suit of shining armour without the knight inside. We passed by houses with Santas climbing up ladders and great bare trees with clouds of mistletoe on them.
The Red Light District in Amsterdam
“It’s very cold tonight,” said Koen, a copywriter friend I’d made in a Maastrict pub when I arrived at Amsterdam Central railway station. The journey from Maastricht on the terrific double decker train had been wonderful. “Would you like to cab it, or walk through our famous Red Light District ? Will take about twenty minutes to my apartment.”
“I’d love to walk.”
We emerged into a blaze of neon light and breathtaking architecture. It was much colder than Maastricht. I wrapped my muffler closer around my throat. A tram trundled by.
“Careful!” he said, holding me back by my arm as a car whizzed by.
“It’s beautiful.” I tried to keep my teeth from chattering. “But it’s freezing!”
“I’m freezing too. Hardly dressed for it. We’ll walk faster and warm up. Lots of pick pockets here. Give me your purse.”
I handed it to him and he tucked it beneath his armpit.
“Would you have a cigarette?” a shabby black woman in jeans asked me. She had a desperate air about her.
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
She moved on to someone else.
A group of long-haired men shared a joint near the ‘Condomerie’ – a sort of condom museum which was closed, so I could only peer into its gloom; street musicians armed with shining saxophones and trumpets played jazz, and a heavily made-up old woman wearing a short skirt cycled by. Whores posed like mannequins in large windows: a long-haired white woman in sexy black lingerie, garters and all, a large statuesque black woman, combing her hair before a mirror, and in another, a tanned young thing who caught my eye and smiled. I wondered if she were a lesbian.
“Can I take pictures?” I asked Koen as we clattered along the narrow, cobbled lanes.
“Not a good idea, it angers them. I asked them once, but they refused.”
I wanted to linger and watch the whores doing business, but Stef was already ahead of me. Something glittered on the stones. A white leather belt with a rhinestone buckle. Just the kind I’d been dreaming of. I picked it up.
“Look what I found,” I said running over to Koen. “In a city of pick pockets, I’m the one that steals!”
He laughed. “That’s not called stealing. It’s called getting lucky.”
To get out of the chilly night for a while, we stopped at a castle-like building which reminded me of the French castle Andreas had shown me.
“Rembrandt did his first painting here,” said Koen. “And now it’s a restaurant. You must see it by boat. Took me six years to build it. It’s my baby. It’s got good music. You like music? Jazz, blues, rock?”
Sailing Down the Canals in Amsterdam
The Salon Boat was moored at the back porch of a boarding house. It was just like I’d seen it on his website –elegant and white. He stepped down onto the deck, helped me down, and then pulled up the anchor and switched on the lights in the cabin. I stepped in after him. Polished wood everywhere. He pointed out the little loo, that flushed when you touched two wires together, the bar cabinet, the kitchenette, and the sitting area with table and brightly cushioned benches. Deep red carpet under my feet.
“You’re so talented,” I said. “It’s a beauty.”
He smiled proudly. “Sometimes I charter it for tourists and it makes me quite a lot of money.”
I stood beside him as he started the engine, and felt the vibration beneath me as the boat began to hum. He turned the boat around and we headed out into the main canal. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. He switched on the music and I heard for the first time a brilliant song by The Rolling Stones - ‘Melody’. We rocked to it.
Swans floated by gracefully, their arched, proud necks beautiful. I saw some were solitary and asked Koen the reason.
“They love each other till death. When a mate dies, they never take another.”
I thought swans knew more about undying love than us. A puzzled looking duck, with feathers sticking out on top of its head, balanced unsteadily on a piece of wood before slipping clumsily into the inky water.
“Punk Duck,” I said and we laughed.
Glittering pubs and coffee bars went by.
“The coffee bars serve a great variety of grass,” said he.
“Yeah, Jill took me to one in Maastricht. She smoked a water pipe. I thought I’d get stoned on the smoke, but there was a sign saying ‘Clean Air Award’.
“I love a smoke,” he said. “But don’t smoke much. You sure you don’t want some? You could roll a joint.”
“No thanks. I should have visited Amsterdam years ago when I smoked.” I felt very proud of myself.
“There are some gay bars up there,” he said, pointing at a bunch of buildings. “Even a monument to gays. Look!” He gestured at a short flight of steps on the water with a bare platform on top. That was all? That was a monument? Maybe the Dutch had really nothing top say on the subject.
“And that’s where I’d like to live. My ex-girlfriend and I used to live there for a while.”
I looked up at a beautiful apartment building with large French windows. Through the partly drawn red drapes, glimmered an exquisite chandelier.
“These canal apartments are really expensive. Land is very expensive in Amsterdam, that’s why so many live on the water. I used to have a big place. I sold it because this year has not been good for my freelance.”
I was just about to ask about living on the water when we passed by some houseboats with potted plants on their decks. Through the windows I saw Christmas trees, cozy bedrooms, living rooms, even tiny kitchens, couples kissing and chatting, watching TV, and not a curtain in sight.
“You can see people doing all sorts of things,” said Koen. “Even making love.”
We glided by a huge floating Chinese restaurant. Three floors lit up with red Chinese lanterns. And then, a few minutes later, a replica of an ancient Dutch trading ship, brightly coloured in green, red and white, little windows carved into the hull, a female figurehead jutting out over the water.
Koen steered carefully under the low arched bridges bright with light.
“Very easy to bang the boat, unless you go right through the centre,” he said. ‘And because it’s not solid ground you’re on, you have to aim a bit off centre to synchronise with the movement of the water. Would you like to try it?”
“Me? Wow. Maybe next time,” I said, thrilled and a little scared at the thought.
“Yes, then I can take a break. I don’t let any of my friends handle it, except for my brother in law. Lovely man, a KLM pilot. He knows because he flies.”
I looked up at the sky. Just a few stars and Orion’s Belt, for this city blazing with light that shone on the water, turning it red, blue and yellow, eclipsed the stars.
The Museum of Sex in Amsterdam
Koen took me to the outrageous Museum of Sex where a cigar smoking papier mache flasher in trench coat and slouch hat went “Pssssst!” and opened his coat to show gruesome hairy genitals. He made us laugh. Here were erotic prints and sculptures. Naked pink bottoms on the staircase, a huge phallus with balls you could sit on, and MarliynMonroe trying to keep her dress down in a gust of wind. When the wind blew, up went the mechanical phallus of the photographer taking her picture.
15 Hidden Secrets & Best Places in Amsterdam
New Year’s Eve 2004 in Amsterdam
On New Year's Eve, it was the boat again, and this time I met Koen’s sister and her husband, Felix, an airline pilot who taught me how to steer the boat. It was a thrill guiding the boat under the arched bridges on the canals. Because of the current, I had to aim the nose of the boat a little off centre. However, I did come close to crashing into the bridge. Felix took the wheel from me with an apologetic chuckle.
"Have you called your family for New Year?" a tipsy Rene asked me.
"I don't have any family left." I said, and told him about it as briefly as I could.
"It's very sad." He offered me more cheese sticks. "My one regret in life is love. I met an Indonesian woman when I went to Indonesia, but she was not well-educated and wouldn't be happy in Holland.
"Maybe love is more important than anything else," I said.
"Yes, maybe it is. There was a very nice German girl who invited me to New Zealand. I regret not going there. It's been ten years, and now I'm trying to locate her through the internet."
Koen who had taken over the steering had overheard our conversation. "See that couple there?" he said to me. "Paul and Stella." He gestured at a tall, heavy buxom woman standing by the bar with a slim man. "While they were students, they had an affair, and then she suddenly vanished from his life."
Stella stepped out onto the deck, letting in a draught of freezing air. I wrapped my coat closer about me.
"Yes and twenty years later he finally heard from Stella."
"I told Paul to watch out they'd soon be living together, and he called her to Holland. They've been together for eight years."
"Look," said Rene, you can see all the bridges from here," and there they were in a line, one after the other, all lit up, and everyone greeted the special sight with yells of triumph, that said we're proud of our Amsterdam. As Rene got more intoxicated, his Groucho Marx jokes got dirtier. At one point he yelled, "Don't pee into the canal, or we won't be able to get back!" There was much laughter and I joined in because it sounded funny but I did not understand it until Koen, noticing my confusion, said, "The water is changed or added to every day. And the bridges are low."
I watched Stella trying to set alight a rocket on the deck without success. Wrapping my coat about me, I ventured out on deck and removed the plastic cap on the firecracker.
She smiled. "Thank you."
"We have such rockets in India," I said as she lit it. Everyone clapped as it took off into the skies, where hung a half moon, and burst into colourful sparks.
"Wait till you see the fireworks at midnight," Koen said emerging onto the deck with his video camera. "It's right in front of the Rembrandt Hotel. We'll have to drop off everyone first. They're going somewhere else. Then we'll pick up that friend of mine with the Porsche." He filmed the buildings we glided past, the water in a white froth behind us, the growing crowds walking across the bridges and waving at us.
We went back in and he parked the boat beside a line of bare trees glittering with lights, and began to roll a hash joint. A man dressed in white stepped down onto deck from the pavement. Koen went out to meet him. I could tell it was his Porsche friend. He was not good looking as I'd imagined him to be that night in the pub, and he had a paunch. Certainly pubs didn't seem like great places for meeting the men of your dreams. You could never tell what they'd look like in the morning.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Back in the boat, Koen asked if I’d like to steer.
"I'd love to." I took the wheel from him and his friend Sheb planted on my head a white captain's hat that had been hanging from a peg above the controls.
"We're going to the Rembrandt Coffee House Square where the fireworks will happen. There are lots of rich Chinese here who offer the fireworks."
As I steered the boat, Koen stood beside me as patient as always. Sheb mostly hung around the deck trying to get his rockets to take off.
"Too many of these are duds," he said. "And they're very expensive. Six euros each." What was six euros to a guy with a Porsche?
There was a only one other private boat on the water but it lacked a cabin and its two occupants must have been freezing.
"We're lucky to be warm," said Koen, "and be able to watch the fireworks in such comfort."
"I'm lucky," I said.
Across the dark skies raced an emerald green laser beam, connecting three of Amsterdam's most well-known monuments. As we sailed on, the laser continued above us, connecting one to the other. A revolving laser solar system hovered in midair, and then I saw, rising from the glittering water, a monstrous building across which flitted a larger than live fashion show. Speechless with wonder, I joined his friends out on the deck for a better view, despite the bitter cold.
Koen dropped anchor beside the terrace of a hotel so he could film the glorious floating Chinese restaurant, three floors of it ablaze with red Chinese lanterns. Even the gigantic sluice gates that opened and closed to let through canal traffic and shut out the high tide were brighter than before.
People were beginning to fill the square, some of them waving at us. Perhaps a woman at the wheel of a boat was a rare sight.
Koen switched on the radio for the first time. The sound of fireworks followed the announcement of the midnight hour. People waved sparklers from apartment windows; noisy explosions of light and colour filled the skies, without even a second's break. It must have taken many Chinese all firing away in an orchestrated effort.
Around us on the promenades leading to the square, people were hugging and kissing, some covering their ears to keep out the sound of explosions, a few drinking champagne. Sheb popped a bottle of champagne. "You could make an exception today," he told me offering me a glass of the bubbly.
"No thanks, not for me."
The three of us danced as the sky continued to explode with light. I looked up at the promenade to see a man pissing into the canal. Another joined him, and as I stared at them in disbelief, they laughed.
"It's normal here," said Koen after we had recovered from a spell of laughter. On the opposite side, another two men began to piss into the water.
"People piss all over the place in India too," I said. "But not in your face."
When we headed back half an hour past midnight, fireworks were still lighting up the skies above Rembrandt Square.
© 2014 Anita Saran