As I walk through a particularly busy part of Amsterdam on my lunch break I notice two girls across the street. I’d seen them there several times before, every day in fact. They were always standing outside the shop where they work, both wearing aprons and holding a plate of free samples which they would offer to passers-by.
At this particular moment on this particular day they had attracted the curiosity of a short middle age couple who were walking towards them. One of the girls notices this, holds her plate a little lower and asks if they would like a free sample. The man who seems the most interested picks up one of the free samples and sniffs it cautiously.
Between them the two girls start to happily explain what it is and that their shop sells a lot more of them inside when suddenly he does something that (it seems) neither of them were expecting; he takes a great big bite.
There is a sudden look of horror on the girls’ faces. The man simply looks confused. The two girls suddenly start talking very fast, trying to stop him from doing it again. They are too late. As if in hope that the taste might get better with a second try he takes another bite.
But the taste does not get any better because these two girls are not giving out free samples of cake or sweets or anything else tasty or edible for that matter. No. They are giving out free samples of soap.
The man slowly starts to chew.
Suddenly realizing that he is a tourist who does not speak any Dutch or English, the two girls resort to sign language. One of them starts to frantically mime bathing with an imaginary bar of soap while the other repeats the word ‘soap’ over and over again in a desperate attempt to stop him swallowing.
This only results in the tourist looking even more confused as he tries to work out what on earth these two very strange girls are doing and why they would have given him such terrible tasting candy.
Eventually he decides that he has tried enough. He spits the mouthful back into his hand and shakes his head apologetically at the two girls as if to say sorry but in his opinion their baking is not very good. He walks off, talking to his wife in a foreign language (probably about the strange eating habits of other countries) and throws the sample in a nearby bin.
The girls, looking slightly stressed, breathe a sigh of relief.
I carry on walking down the street, chuckling to myself.
A few days later I returned to pick up my own sample for this photo. The first thing one of the girls said to me was, “Do you speak English? Don’t eat this. It’s not food.” It seems they are not keen to repeat the incident with the soap snacking tourist.
If you spend a lot of time walking around Amsterdam it is inevitable that at some point a tourist or a group of tourists will ask you for directions. They seem to have a habit of getting lost in cities that they are unfamiliar with and requesting directions. It’s one of their defining characteristics in fact.
Some people might find it strange but I actually enjoy giving directions to tourists. It gives me a warm feeling inside knowing that I have helped someone while putting my knowledge of the city to good use.
I was recently presented with another opportunity to do my bit for mankind and help those in need of directions when my wife and I were approached by a group of five Russian sounding tourists on the streets of Amsterdam.
“Excuse me. We are lost. Where is Van Goth Museum?” The female leader of the group asked.
“Er…” I quickly looked around to get my bearings, “It is that way.”
I pointed in the direction of Museumplein and was about to expand upon this information with a full set of directions but before the words ‘left at the end of the street’ could leave my lips I was suddenly cut off.
“No! It is here!” She insisted sternly and stared me directly in the eye.
I was a little taken aback by this response. The smile fell from my face and my finger stayed in the air, mid-point, as I tried to process her strangely hostile reaction. Was she in denial that she was lost? Had she not just declared in her opening stamen that she was lost? Did she not understand the definition of lost? Was this some sort of test? I quickly looked around to check but there were definitely no museums in sight.
I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to show her. I finally lowered my arm and reached into my pocket for my phone, “I’ll look it up for you.”
“No. Here is map,” A map was suddenly grabbed from one of her associates and thrust into my hands before I could open Google maps.
I glanced at my wife. She looked just as puzzled as me. The man who had seconds ago been holding the map simply looked un-phased, as if this kind of thing happened all the time.
“Right… well… we are here,” I paused for a second as I pointed to our location on the map. She did not shout at for making wild accusations so I continued , “and the Van Goth Museum is here.”
She seemed satisfied with my answer this time. And by that I mean she was not satisfied with my answer at all but she did seem to believe it this time. The map was grabbed back out of my hands, something that might have been a thank you was mumbled (it also could have been a rude word in Russian) and the group started to walk off, back in the direction they had come from.
My wife and I continued our walk towards the tram stop, trying to work out what had just happened. We had no clue.
At the tram stop another Russian sounding woman approached us, “Excuse me? This tram? Dam square, yes?”
“Yes,” I replied, deciding it was best not to argue.
If Amsterdam was ever overrun by hostile forces, evil doers or ill wishers the inhabitance of the city would be able to rest easy in the knowledge that these invaders would not make much progress, quickly lose motivation, soon give up altogether and returned home in a very disgruntled mood. The reason for this cannot be attributed to any superior tactical advantage or any well designed fortifications that the city has. It is because of one thing and one thing only; moving vans.
A single moving van is capable of blocking an entire canal street thus making passage by bike quite impossible without the risk of running over a pedestrian, cycling into a dinning set, being decapitated by a wing mirror and/or pushed in to the nearby canal by the driver opening the door.
The presents of a stationary moving van usually forces a diversion which will most likely turn out to be blocked itself by another moving van. In fact it is entirely possible to have your attempted detour continually thwarted one street after another until (before you realize it) you are cycling from East Amsterdam to West Amsterdam via Rotterdam. This also means that several moving vans working together could easily shut down entire sections of the city and bring Amsterdam to its knees if they so desired. Moving vans are above the law. They answer to no one. They are the law.
Things get much worse if you are unfortunate or foolish enough to be driving around Amsterdam because a single moving van is also capable of creating very long traffic jams.
If a car encounters a moving van the driver is forced to wait and watch as every piece of furniture is paraded in front of them like some kind of Ikea drive through. Although it might feel tempting it is important to know that beeping of the horn is ineffective at this point, especially if you wish to generate sympathy for your current predicament from those living in the surrounding area.
Only once a moving van has been fully loaded with furniture, unloaded, rearranged to fit an odd shaped sofa, reloaded and the movers have had their fifth tea break (in view) will the moving van finally be ready to move. Victory is usually short lived however as most of the time the moving van just stops again after a few meters to start unloading at the new destination. Amsterdam is a small city after all.
This is a completely improvised, written as it happens blog post. I’ve never done one of these before so it is a bit of an experiment. I am currently sitting in the front room of a friend’s house in Amsterdam. He’s not here. He’s in Australia. Don’t worry. I’ve not broken in. I’m house sitting for him. It is 11:45 at night. My girlfriend is asleep downstairs and for the last 15 minutes I have been listening to someone in the street watching a very loud movie while I try to write another not so improvised blog post.
At least I assume they are watching a movie. Maybe they are just having a shoot-out/car chase/military incursion going on in their living room. Either way I have become too intrigued in trying to work out what movie they are watching to write what I was originally writing.
I’ve not worked out much about the movie so far but the plot seems to be something along the lines of; “Argh!” Bang! Bang! “Go, go, go!” Bang! Bang! “We have a situation here.” Bang! “Argh! Go, go, go!”
In fact, for the last 15 minutes someone in the movie has been shouting “go, go, go” every few seconds. It must be a very exciting action movie or they really have to go somewhere. Maybe they are very late for a meeting.
I think someone just gave a motivational speech but it’s hard to make out the words. The music was very motivational though and there was a lot of cheering at the end. Could it be Brave Heart? There was a very motivational speech in that movie. Were there any shoot-outs or car chases in Brave Heart? I’ve not seen it.
No wait… That was a roar. I just heard a roar. It must be a monster movie. That or I just heard a drunk tourist in the street… No, I think it is definitely a monster movie. Maybe dinosaurs if I had to make an educated guess.
Someone is shouting “go, go, go” again. They must be really late for that appointment.
I could swear I just heard the voice of Jar-Jar? It’s hard to tell above all the gun fire and screaming. It could have been Shawn Connery. Were they ever in a movie together? Maybe some kind of buddy cop movie?
There was a loud crash but that was not the movie. Someone just fell off their bike in the street.
Now I hear emotional music. I think someone just died. I hope it was Jar-Jar and not Shawn Connery.
And now a car alarm has been going off for the last 10 minutes. There is no way of me knowing how the Brave-Heart-Buddy-Cop-Late-For-Meeting-Monster-Movie ends now. It will be a mystery that will go forever unanswered and torment me till my grave. At least they were nice enough to let me and the rest of the street hear their movie.
I bid you all goodnight.
(Posted at 1:00am. This is what happens when I try to write when I should be sleeping)
Crew Members Log:
Conditions on board the tour boat are harsh. We have been patrolling the canals of Amsterdam for 20 minutes now and supplies are running low. There are only two French audio guide books and none for the Japanese. Some of us are starting to wonder if we will ever see dry land again.
We just past the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, the oldest canal in Amsterdam and once home to 16 different convents and monasteries.
I’ve heard some of the men telling stories to pass the time, unnatural, dreadful stories that would chill you to the bone. They talk about a ghost ship that sails through the canals of Amsterdam known as ‘The touring Dutchman’. They say it is an omen of doom and the bringer of bad tourist season weather. Hopefully it is a ship we will never meet but judging by the weather I fear it might be trailing our wake.
We just passed the oldest Church in Amsterdam, originally built in 1306.
When we stepped on board this tour boat each one of us swore to loyally follow our tour guide without question (until the Q&A at the end) and defend the waters of this great country, its Queen and its people in keeping with the traditions of the of the great Dutch fleets of old but as tourists I wonder how much fighting spirit we truly have amongst us.
We just passed the former headquarters of the colonial East India Company, now home to the University of Amsterdam library.
I don’t know what I would do if we were ever to engage in combat. I try not to imagine it but the scenarios start to play themselves out with in my mind. Epic and bloody battles, the madness of war, our tour guide pointing out areas of strategic interest; “If you look to your right you will see a fleet of attacking Spanish tour boats, the largest known of its kind.”
Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps me going is the promised reward of a souvenir photograph for the reasonable price of 12.99 (4.99 for reprints) in return for our loyalty and bravery.
The Old meets the new – The inspiration for this post