Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Of Amsterdam

I spent some time whilst getting dressed this morning admiring my bruises. I have a lovely big one on my right knee, a couple of smaller ones on my right shin, and a little one threatening to develop on my right arm. Not to mention the slight graze to my left knee. They say that pole dancing makes you feel like a new woman. Well, it certainly does, although in my case the woman is about ninety years old. I can barely raise my arms above my head, my upper body doesn't know what hit it, and my wrists are sore with the memory of clinging onto the pole for dear life with trembling hands. But my Monday evening's entree into the world of pole dancing was tremendous fun, and I simply can't wait for the next lesson! I'll be posting properly about the delights of my new interest next week, after session number two, when hopefully I'll begin to show slightly more mastery of the 'attitude', the 'dip and flick', and other wonderfully-named moves...

For now, however, I want to take you all back to the weekend before Christmas, when I took a trip to Amsterdam to visit a Dutch friend who's now working as a lawyer there. I'd never been to Amsterdam before, but had heard many good things about the city from friends. I was also looking forward to visiting my friend, as we hadn't seen each other since she left Oxford in the summer (she was also a graduate student at New College last year). My journey out to Amsterdam was smooth, as I left an Oxford lightly dusted with snow with little thought of what those wicked little flakes foretold. I had decided to take the Eurostar to Brussels, and the train to Amsterdam from there: a quick and easy journey. I was delayed for a couple of hours in Brussels, which was a pain, but -- looking back -- seemed like nothing! But this is getting ahead of myself...

I arrived at Amsterdam's central station to find my friend waiting for me, and once our excited greetings were over we made our way via tram (I always get excited by trams when I'm abroad!) across the already snowy streets to her lovely flat, which was looking nicely festive thanks to this cute little tree:

After we'd freshened up, we popped round the corner to Simpel, where we both enjoyed a delicious duck confit. The evening was spent eating, drinking, and chatting into the small hours: perfect.

Now, when this friend and I were both in Oxford together last year, she was my (now oft-lamented) wonderful shopping companion on some particularly successful trips to Bicester. Consequently, we were both looking forward to renewing our retail relationship in Amsterdam. We awoke on the Saturday morning to find the city even whiter than it had been the night before, but it would take more than a little snow to keep us away from the shops. So we pulled on hats (bemoaning the inevitable 'hat-hair' that would result) and gloves and headed out into the cold. Their icy decorations just made the lovely old houses lining the canals look even prettier...

... and we paused to admire some of the bridges criss-crossing the water, glad now of our warm head-gear:

My friend led me to the wonderful area of the city known as the Nine Streets, a beautiful grid of (yes, you guessed it) nine narrow streets which cross one another and the canal, and are lined with lovely boutiques, cafes, and other little shopping gems. I was particularly taken with the look of this cheesemongers...

... while the Christmas treats on sale in the bakeries we passed looked extremely tempting:

As good as all this food looked, however, we were both extremely excited to once again be trying on clothes together, and the old chemistry clicked into place immediately, as we both found would-be purchases in the very first shop we went into (after trying on half its contents, of course). Aware that spending all our money before we'd even seen what anywhere else had to offer (even though they were ON SALE), we reluctantly put the gorgeously-cute-purple-with-flowers-and-bows-yet-sophisticated-dress (me) and deliciously-warm-and-soft-and-pretty-and-loveliest-shade-of-green-ever-cardigan-wrap (my friend) back on their hangers. The very nice ladies in the shop, understanding our dilemma, offered to hold them for us while we had more of a look around. We enjoyed pottering around some of the other boutiques, trying on some other tempting bits and pieces, but by the time we sat down in a lovely cafe for a much-needed sandwich and hot drink, we had both become convinced of our Absolute Need for the aforementioned items and rushed back to claim what was obviously Rightfully Ours just as soon as we'd licked the last of our lunch from our fingers.

Day turned into evening, and we were charmed by the Christmas lights which sprang up all over:

I particularly fell in love with this little lot, leaping off the prow of one of the many barges along the canal, so that one might almost imagine it gliding up into the air after them:

We stopped off for a scrummy glass of gluhwein, to keep us going before our main meal, which was at fun and trendy restaurant Stout!. Apparently 'stout' in Dutch means 'naughty', and the restaurant enjoyed making the most of the potential for double jokes on this with the English captions like 'Proud to be Stout!' on the back of the waiters' and waitresses' t-shirts. The set-piece of the house is the tasting menu -- the Plateau Stout! -- which gives you ten little dishes for an incredibly reasonable €29.50 (€35 if you want dessert tasters too). Although my friend and I opted to choose from the normal menu, the tasting platters did look great, and were extremely popular with diners around us. I had plumped for beef, which was absolutely fantastic, and I'd definitely be keen to re-visit Stout! for some more of their quirky takes on classic dishes on my next trip to Amsterdam.

We rounded off the evening by meeting my friend's brother at the aptly named Bubbles & Wine champagne bar just off Dam Square, where we enjoyed wine 'flights' (three half glasses) of some delicious Spanish reds:

By this time, the temperature had plummeted to -10, so we were glad of a warming alcohol blanket as we headed homewards, managing to stop shaking just long enough to pose for a quick picture with our shopping bags on the deserted Dam Square (everywhere, from the shops, to the bars, was quiet that weekend, which was surprising when Christmas was almost upon us. Although not so surprising when one considered the weather, which was bitter enough to keep most sane-minded people indoors, however many festive party-pieces they had yet to buy):

By this time, we'd heard the reports of trains being stuck in the Channel Tunnel, and I could only thank my stars that I'd missed the misery of sixteen hours beneath the ocean (and by only a few hours!), but we weren't yet feeling unduly concerned, and went to bed dreaming happily of our purchases.

The next morning dawned whiter than ever, and the first whispers of real misgiving crept into my mind as I listened to tales of cancellations of trains and flights and grumpy passengers freezing as they waited to find out how they were going to get home for Christmas. Shelving such concerns for the time being, however, my friend and I set off on a merry walk to the Van Gogh Museum, a slippery twenty-minutes away from the flat.

On the way we passed a one-street version of the Red Light District, and I must admit that my only thought upon seeing all the ladies in their lingerie posing inside their light-lined windows was how very cold the sight of their scantily clad bodies made me feel with all the snow outside! The Museum itself was well-worth the icy walk, and I particularly appreciated seeing the paintings alongside Van Gogh's letters, as the journey from preliminary sketch (often contained within letters to friends and family) to final piece was fascinating to behold. It's made me even more eager to visit the forthcoming Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy, which I'm hoping to do soon after it opens later this month. As its title -- The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters -- suggests, it should provide a lot more of just what I found so interesting in Amsterdam.

When we'd had our culture fix, we headed into Amsterdam's main park, where we joined what seemed like half of the city's population, all out enjoying a Sunday in the snow, with toboggans and snowmen around every corner. I'd like to say we built these two with our own fair hands, but that would be a lie!

The park also provided my friend with the perfect opportunity to introduce me to a Dutch delicacy: raw herring. And, more importantly, to the traditional way of eating it:

Yum! And the day's culinary delights were far from over, as we stopped off at a nearby patisserie for some seriously delicious tea and cake before heading home:

That evening my friend made a yummy and traditional Dutch dish of sausage accompanied by mashed curly kale and potatoes, and we settled down to an evening of Oxford nostalgia with an episode of the ever- wonderful Inspector Morse.

I certainly needed both the comfort food and comfort TV, as by this point, I had had to well and truly face up to the fact that however I was going to get home, it wasn't going to be by train, as all international trains out of Amsterdam had been cancelled thanks to the blanket of snow now covering the country; in any case, even if I'd made it back to Brussels, the Eurostar was still in turmoil, with all services cancelled until further notice. After frantically checking flights, and then deciding against them (£400 for a single trip which would quite likely be cancelled anyway? I don't think so!), I was just beginning to wonder whether I'd be spending my first Christmas in the Netherlands when my friend suggested I could always take the boat. Yes, that's right: The Boat. A quick search revealed a ferry leaving from Hook van Holland at 2.30pm the next day. I would arrive in Harwich, a no doubt amiable enough spot of whose existence I was, until that moment, completely ignorant. I booked my passage.

My final morning dawned; we rushed to the window: it wasn't snowing! This at least boded well for my trip south to the port, as my real dread had been waking to find a heavy blizzard and all trains cancelled. After saying goodbye to my friend (already looking forward to another visit in the hopefully better weather of the summer!), I struck off into the snow. Buying my train ticket, I was instructed to go to the airport, and from there, catch whatever train I could going south, to Leiden, Rotterdam, or The Hague, with the hopes of being able to travel from there to Hook van Holland without too many changes inbetween. I caught the airport train at 9.30, imagining that five hours was surely enough time to make what was usually an hour and a half's journey. Arriving at the airport, I was cheered to see a train for Rotterdam due to leave in an hour's time, so settled down with a cup of coffee. An hour passed, but my train didn't come. Cancelled. But there was one due for Leiden twenty minutes later. Cancelled. This went on for two and a half hours. Just as I had become convinced that I would be spending Christmas in the airport, a train for Rotterdam drew up on the platform. As luck would have it a set of doors opened right in front of me and I was able to spring on and grab a seat (my flailing suitcase as I did so probably helping to keep other passengers nicely out of the way), rather than having to spend the journey standing like so many poor people, as what seemed like hundreds of travellers crammed themselves on. I congratulated myself on this, and turned to ask my neighbour if he knew how long the journey might take. He predicted that, in these conditions, it would be something like an hour and a half. An Hour And A Half. AN HOUR AND A HALF. My new-found optimism vanished as I realised that if this were the case, I would be lucky to make it to Rotterdam by 2.30, let alone to the boat. I sank back against the window, and resigned myself to the thought of hanging around a port for the afternoon whilst waiting for the nightboat, which was due to leave at 8pm. Giving myself up to Fate, I watched the white landscape go by.

Fate was, it seems, looking kindly upon me that day, for as we pulled into Schiedam Centraal, I happened to glance out of the window towards the adjoining platform. Imagine my JOY to behold a board informing me that a train to Hook van Holland was due to leave from that very station in only five minutes! I frantically scooped my things together, wriggled through the carriage, and jumped onto the platform, where I spent the next five minutes with my fingers crossed very tightly indeed. The train came, and the destination list inside informed me I should be at the port at 14.14. For the second time in ten minutes I risked my circulation by crossing my fingers more tightly together than ever.

I stumbled, breathless, to the check-in desk, together with a few other stragglers, at 2.25pm.

Stenaline kindly held the ferry back until 3, in order to give a few other late-comers chance to get on, and by the time we left, my breath had returned, my legs had stopped shaking, and I was ensconced on a reclining chair in the private lounge (well worth an extra €16!), with a glass of wine and some chocolate, ready to face the SEVEN AND A HALF HOUR journey across the grey sea. I raised my glass to my decision to make this the trip to finally get to grips with Forever Amber (I knew there was a reason I never got round to reading its 1000 pages when I lugged it all the way to first the Chalet, and then Greece last summer), and settled myself down to a thorough enjoyment of Amber's exploits, which kept me completely entertained (with the odd break for food) until we arrived at Harwich. I resisted the desire to fall on bended knee and kiss the soil of my native ground, and made my way to the train station. After half an hour standing about in the cold (but hey, I had totally got the hang of this whole waiting about on platforms thing), the train appeared, its magical destination of LONDON blazoned on the front. I finally rolled up in the capital at 11pm, jumped into a taxi, and made my way to the Dorchester, where I met a friend who had been following my progress via text message, and who gave me the exact welcome back I needed by buying me cocktails and listening to my woes.

What a journey! Still, the holiday was definitely worth it, and I can't wait to return to Amsterdam to visit my friend again, although -- pretty as it was -- I could quite happily live without seeing it in its coat of snow! There's no record of Sir W ever visiting Holland, but it seems like he would have enjoyed a trip there, as this extract from his 1600 essay 'Of Resolution' suggests he shared the received idea that the Dutch would have made good companions in one of his favourite activities, drinking:

'I will hauke with a faulkoner, hunt with hunters, talke of Husbandrie with the seruants of Thrift: bee amorous with the Italian, and drinke with the Dutch man'.


verity said...

Goodness me what a nightmare journey! But glad that you got back in the end. and at least you had a book with you. Hope you have well recovered by now, and look forward to hearing more about the pole dancing!

Sophie said...

Yes, it was a bit of a nightmare but I felt very proud of myself for having managed it without any disasters of my own making, haha. And yes, Forever Amber was a definite life-saver. I'm looking forward to writing more about the pole dancing too ... at least my arms are feeling a bit more normal today!

Paperback Reader said...

I want to go to Amsterdam now maybe minus the travel nightmare... it could have been worse and at least you made it back, to be greeted by cocktails no less!

I want to read Forever Amber.

Merenia said...

Dear Sophie,
Happy New Year. What an amazing and very brave trip home! Looking forward to more of your adventures and frivolities this year...