It has become a practice of ours, I am of course referring to Lucy and myself, to take time away from home at around my birthday. As we no longer have a dog, at least for now, we are making the most of the opportunity to holiday in places outside France, an activity which requires travel by train rather than by car. Now it has been too many years since I have visited the Netherlands, the last time being when I was serving with the R.A.F. in Germany as part of my duties to Queen and Country. And that was around six decades ago! I should add that for my part, I have never had any great hankering to travel the world. In so many ways, Europe offers pretty much all I desire to experience, this family of nations which has offered the world so much, and which has also been the seat of so much misery and suffering. Yes, I love and sometimes ache for this continent.
Thus it was that having put the house into relative slumber-mode, we set off across Northern France by TGV [high speed rail], arriving in Paris at a time when thoughts were turning casually towards lunch. We had decided to take a couple of backpacks and a large suitcase to carry our necessaries. As I may never again refer to that suitcase, I must say that lugging that thing up and down staircases when no lifts or escalators were available is not any activity I care to indulge in ever again, so there! But at least there are signs that my heavily bruised calf muscles are recovering. But back to Paris, and Montparnasse Station in particular. This is not my favourite railway station by any manner or means. It is such a pity that from trains one invariably seems to see the backsides of towns and cities. Graffiti-daubed Montparnasse is no exception. On the other hand we were getting away from rural France into the vibrant world that lies beyond, and I was enjoying the sense of rising, mental sap.
At this point we took the Metro to Paris Nord, discovering that our tickets did actually activate the barriers. On occasions this does not happen and one is obliged to return to the ticket office for a replacement ticket. Of course there are ways round this procedure, like slipping through the barrier on someone else's coat tails. Never, I have to say, have I climbed over or squirmed under the barriers. Well some do! Yes! But one needs to be more fit and agile than me, with a nasty little predisposition to cheating. Mmmmmm? No I don't, and neither does Lucy. The Metro is a noisy, draughty mode of transport, but we like it, and there were not too many stairways to negotiate. Finally, we burst forth onto the station of Paris Nord with about forty minutes to spare. Well if one isn't careful, one can be booked on a train that arrives at one station with only a few minutes to catch a train leaving from miles away. I'd like to put that down to the ticket office's sense of humour. Even so the point would be lost on me. I remember on one occasion arriving at Koln (aka Cologne) in Germany with about two minutes to traverse the whole station for our connecting train. No! Of course we didn't make it! But that's another story.
From Paris we travelled sort of northwards across flatlands to Antwerp (aka Anvers), Brussels, Rotterdam and, finally, Amsterdam. It was approaching four o'clock on an overcast, wet, in fact very wet, Monday afternoon. We had arrived in the Netherlands. And what a welcome the gods laid on for us. Huddled in a taxi, driven by a little man young enough.....alright let's just say, 'young'......as I was saying, driven as if all the demons from hell were after him, we arrived at our apartment. On the way, oh let us ne'er forget, the heavens opened and down came the deluge. Thunder and lightning, yea Donner und Blitzen to the highest degree, greeted us. It was as if the Gotter-Amster-dammerung was being played out before our very eyes.
Unfortunately, our hostess was not there to meet us, nor was the key to the apartment where she said she had hidden it, and neither were her parents-in-law at home. So after a number of mobile telephone calls on Lucy's part, and much apologising on hers, we trooped off to a local cafe for some refreshment. An hour later we returned to be met by the in-laws. Now I have to say that Mr. In-law was a great bear of a Dutchman, who promptly grabbed my suitcase (remember that monstrosity I mentioned earlier?) and hefted it up the thirty stairs - in one continuous flight - to our apartment. He arrived back some minutes later panting for breath, well I didn't ask him to carry it up, and gave us the keys.
Well we had arrived in Amsterdam, and there was for me a sense of coming home to a country that I never feel in France. In the latter case, it is a sense of seeing the familiar, but not home. And as English is the second language of the Dutch (they have no fears that their culture is going to be erased under the weight of those British!) we got off to a perfect start on the communication front. Very quickly, we stopped asking, "Do you speak English?" and instead reverted to, "May we speak in English?" It seemed almost an insult to ask a Dutch person if they can speak English.
And that is all for now. In the next instalment we discover the culinary joys of Amsterdam, and take our first of a number of tram cars.