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.
There are some very unique places to live in Amsterdam but possibly none as unique as the apartment I first lived in when I arrived in the country. It had all the features you might expect to find in a typical Amsterdam apartment; stairs so steep they could be reclassified as a ladder, a slightly un-trust worthy looking cylindrical gas heater that clunked loudly every time it was turned on, a general level of disrepair and very territorial mice.
It also had a few slightly unusual design additions of its own, such as a spare bedroom without a door, a window looking out onto a brick wall and a toilet that was accessed via a door in the kitchen. But it was none of these features that made it stand out. They were odd but they were nothing compared to the strangest part of the apartment… The Master Bedroom.
The Master Bedroom took up the entire top floor of the building (but somehow managed to seem smaller than the floor below). Once upon a time it had been the attic and it was still accessed by a set of stairs that simply emerged from the floor in to a corner of the room. The stairs creaked as they were climbed and made it possible to view the entire room for floor level if you stopped half way. It was from this slightly odd view point that the feature responsible for making the room (and by association; the whole apartment) so weird suddenly became obvious…
Every single surface of the master bedroom; the walls, the two halves of the angled ceiling that met at the top, the cracked wooden beams that supported them, even each individual floor board that formed the uneven floor had been painted… bright… red…
It is probably important to mention at this point that I had not seen the apartment before I moved in. It had been ‘kindly’ arranged for me by my work before I had even arrived in the country.
Everything in the room was red. The only surface that had escaped the insane colour scheme unscathed was the glass windows. The frames themselves had not been so lucky.
I don’t know if the interior designer had been colour blind, or insane, or there had simply been a heavy discount on red that day but it certainly gave the room a very striking look. A look that said, “Those of a nervous disposition may or may not wish to sleep with the lights on.”
I certainly didn’t recall the landlord saying anything about the room being evil when he handed me the keys but the questionable colour choice seemed to suggest otherwise. It was entirely possible that I had just taken up residence in the Dutch version of The Amityville Horror.
As if the room itself was not creepy enough it was also completely empty apart from the bed which had been carefully positioned in the very centre of the room like some kind of alter. There was no other furniture. No other decorations. No other distractions. It was just the bed, the endless colour red and nothing else… Unless you count the spiders.
I’m not afraid of spiders but I might have developed arachnophobia within the first few moments of standing in that room. They were everywhere. They had hung their webs in every possible spot that you could hang a web. I suddenly had visions of waking up in the middle of the night to discover that I had been cocooned to the bed by a group of arachnids who had decided they didn’t want an extra room mate.
I knew I was supposed to stay in that place for three months but I didn’t know how I would be able to hold onto my sanity for that long. So I did the only logical thing I could do. I went down stairs, found the vacuum cleaner, brought it upstairs and evicted all the spiders.
“Excuse me. Did you drop this?” I hear an unfamiliar voice ask from behind me as I lock my bicycle.
Wondering what it is they could be referring to I slowly start to turn around to face the owner of the helpful voice. Whatever it is I have apparently dropped I’m very lucky that it has been found by an honest and upstanding citizen. It’s nice to know that in this day and age there are…
“I think you dropped this! Did you drop this? I saw you drop it! Is it yours?”
Before I can say anything I am caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a passport mere inches from my face. It happens so fast that it actually takes a moment for my eyes to refocus and work out that it is a passport and that it is being held at arm’s length by the owner of the voice. It takes another moment for my brain to catch up and process his rapid line of questioning.
“Er…” Is the best response I find myself able to come up with.
The whole situation is already slightly odd but it is the passport itself that makes the whole thing really bizarre. I have no idea how to react but there is one thing I know for certain… the passport is not mine.
There are two main reasons why I know this to be true. Surprisingly the first reason (the fact that I know my passport is safely at home) is not the most compelling out of the two reasons even though under normal circumstances it should provide enough evidence.
The second and yet most compelling reason why I knew that the passport now being held inches from my face is not mine is because he is holding it open at the photo page… The face staring back at me from the page is not of myself… it is of him.
“Err… No. It’s not mine.”
“Are you sure? I saw you drop it… over there.” He points in the direction I’d cycled from moments ago.
I look from the passport, to the cycle path and back again as my brain tried to work out how that scenario is even feasible.
Possibly taking the look of puzzlement and confusion on my face as an indication of uncertainty on the subject of ‘my’ passport he slowly stretches his arm out even farther so I could get a closer look at the photo, as if questioning my eye sight too.
I am so confused by the whole situation at this point that I checked the photo again anyway… just in case. It had been almost ten hours since I’d last seen what I looked like in a mirror (while brushing my teeth that morning) but I was still fairly certain that I did not have black dreadlocks.
“I’m really sure it is not mine.”
“But I saw you drop it.”
I’m still not entirely sure what is going on but I’m starting to suspect that the stoned expression on his face (which is not included in the photo) has something to do with it.
“Sorry. It’s not mine.”
“I think you might want to check the photo.”
And I slowly start to back away as he looks at me confused and puzzled, unable to understand why I would not want he believes to be ‘my’ passport back.
You meet some strange people in Amsterdam.
To fully understand this story and the length of the train delay it chronicles it is important to know that the Fyra train travels between Rotterdam and Amsterdam via Schiphol every day, twice an hour. It is vitally important to know that it does this journey just in forty minutes which is twenty minutes faster than regular trains which cover the same distance in just over an hour. It is because of this that the Fyra train cost extra compared to regular, slower trains. It is also important to know that about the only fact that they got right was that it costs extra.
We’d already stopped moving shortly after leaving Schiphol and had been sitting in the middle of nowhere for the past ten minutes before there had been an announcement informing us that we were experiencing a small delay (which most of us had worked out by then).
A short while later there was another announcement, upgrading our short delay to an unknown delay (completely skipping medium and long delay). There was a slightly eery synchronised groan from all of the passengers upon hearing this announcement. I did not blame them. I preferred the short delay too. A short delay sounds nice. It’s kind of like, “There is a delay but don’t worry. It’s only a short one.” It’s the kind of delay you laugh jovially about afterwards over cocktails.
But an unknown delay is unknown. It’s more like, “We do not know how long this delay will last. It may last forever or it might not. We do not even know how many of you will survive it.”
I phoned my wife to let her know that I would not be home for dinner and continued my attempts to distract myself with my laptop.
An hour passed and tensions were already starting to raise. The offer of free tea and coffee had done nothing to calm the nerves of my fellow passengers. Perhaps they feared, as I did, what would happen once the supplies of hot beverages run out after the panic buying started. I hoped that there were not many other English people on the train because an English person without tea is not a pretty sight. I tried to put it out of my mind and tell myself that we would start moving again soon.
But a second hour passed and there was still no rescue in sight. Small arguments had started to break out between passengers and staff. The smokers had it the worst. They were starting to go through withdrawal. Eventually the train conductor was forced to give into pressure and opened one of the doors for them before he had a nicotine patch fuelled riot on his hands. He pleaded that they stay on board, huddled around the open door and under no circumstances step out on to the tracks in case they got hit by a passing train. I imagine that some of them tried to make a break for it anyway.
A third hour passed and disaster struck. My laptop battery died. I considered making a break for it with the smokers. With my only form of entertainment gone I was forced to face the full reality of our situation. It was getting dark outside and I had not eaten. I was starting to consider searching for gum under the train seats. I wondered if I would ever see home again.
A fourth hour passed and playing eye-spy with myself was starting to get really boring. It was night time. Other trains continued to pass but we remained unmoving. I was starting to forget what my wife looked like. All hope seemed lost. What if the train never moved again? What if we were forced to stay on the train forever? What if we died on the train? What if…
I jumped up and was about to scream when the whole train suddenly shook and lurched. I froze, unsure of what was happening. A second later there was a huge cheer. People started to clap and high five each other. Could it be? We were saved! Yes we were!
The engine that was going to get us moving again had finally arrived and was being fitted onto the train. A short while later (the good kind of short) and we were being towed… back the way we came. I did not complain. I was happy to be moving again. I sat back down in my seat.
When we stepped off the train at Schiphol it was with a feeling of triumph. We had survived the ordeal. We had faced disaster and come out of it as survivors. I felt closer to my fellow passengers. I wanted to hug one of them and shout, “We’re alive,” while bursting into happy tears of joy but the train conductor I had approached with my arms wide open looked very stern so I decided against this course of action.
Instead I boarded another train home and prayed it did not break down.
My original train journey started at 6:26pm. I finally stepped through the front door of my home at 12:15am the next day. Forty minutes my arse.
7:45pm – INT – RESTAURANT ENTRANCE
A family of four enters the Pannenkoeken house and waits by the entrance. They are approached by a waiter. He is a young waiter. He probably works at the Pannenkoeken house part time and goes to college where he studies for a less pancake orientated future. For the purposes of this story we will call him Dirk van Pannenkoek. Dirk van Pannenkoek enquires as to how he may assist the family. The family of four requests a table of four since it is what they require.
Dirk shows the family of four to the requested table with four seats and presents them each with a menu (which totals four). English menus are requested and given. Dirk does this quickly and efficiently as he is a well trained waiter.
With the menu’s arranged Dirk enquires if drinks are desired and four drinks are ordered, one each for the family of four. A short while later Dirk returns with the drinks.
7:55pm – INT – RESTAURANT TABLE
When Dirk returns later once more the family of four has suddenly become a family of three. Dirk suggests that he should return when the three have become four again but the family of three insist that they are ready to order. Dirk takes out his order pad and pen and three orders follow, each of which he writes down. He waits for the fourth order for the missing member but no order is given or seems likely to be given. Confused for a moment Dirk wonders if he imagined the fourth family member or if they are a very unkind family who considers someone to be on their own and forgotten when they visit the bath room. Slightly perplexed Dirk returns to the kitchen.
TEN MINUTES EARLIER
My father had spent a good amount of time umming and erring his way through the menu’s selection of pancakes on offer. It seems that no amount of ice cream or strawberry toppings could change his opinion of the pancakes nutritional value so he volunteered to go to the McDonald’s across the street. Shortly after he left the waiter had returned.
8:15pm – INT – RESTAURANT TABLE
Dirk returns with three pancakes for the family of three but something else is wrong now. It quickly becomes apparent that a mistake was made in the order. One of the three pancakes is wrong. Dirk apologizes for the mistake but the family offers to pay for the incorrect pancake anyway. Dirk does not know how to react to the English politeness so he puts the pancake down in front of the empty fourth seat and takes a new order with his pad and pen.
Dirk returns to the kitchen more confused than previously. He is confused by their politeness about the error while they showed such disregard for the missing fourth member (he still wonders if he imagine that). And why had he witnessed the young lady hitting the young man in the arm as he had approached the table.
FIVE MINUTES EARLIER
Even with the English menus the pancakes had a lot of unusual names so it was no surprise when my mother got the names mixed-up and ordered the wrong pancake. When the waiter had returned with a pancake covered in chicken instead of a pancake covered in ice cream the mistake became apparent and she ordered a new pancake.
The unusual sounding names were also the reason I had started making jokes at the expense of my girlfriend and her pancake order. I can be incredibly immature at times and anyone who orders a pancake called, “The farmer’s daughter,” is just asking for it.
“Have you had the farmer’s daughter before?”
“Yes. A few times.”
“So you’ve enjoyed having the farmer’s daughter a lot?”
She hit me on the arm when she realized what I was doing.
8:35pm – INT – RESTAURANT TABLE
Dirk returns to the family of three with the new pancake. He is about to put it down on the table when he suddenly notices something that courses him to pause. The family of three has become a family of four again and the fourth member is sitting with a pancake in front of him.
The confusion that Dirk is experiencing is very apparent on his face. A few seconds pass before he realizes he is standing still, staring at the family, holding the new pancake in mid putting it down motion. The fourth family member smiles at him, looking happy with his pancake.
The cogs in his head are trying to turn. A family of four had ordered four drinks only to become a family of three who ordered three pancakes and then ordered an extra one to become a family of four again.
Dirk puts the pancake down. Dirk wishes the family of four a happy meal. Dirk turns around and leaves. Dirk returns to the kitchen. Dirk sobs in the corner of the kitchen while rocking back and forth.
FIVE MINUTES EARLIER
After a successful trip to the McDonald’s my father had returned. He had sat back in his unoccupied seat and was slightly confused by what looked like a chicken covered pancake we had ordered for him in his absence. Once we had explained the mix up he was less confused than our waiter looked when he returned. My father gave the waiter one of those awkward British smiles as if to say, “It’s alright. This kind of thing happens to us a lot.”