Couch Surfing in the Netherlands
By: Ralph Fisher 2012
It's been a crazy week in Amsterdam and Holland in general so Iíve set down this chronicle while its fresh and youíll get the best raw insights and emotions of what it was like to couch surf my way across the Netherlands for week.
I arrived with no luggage, a broken cell phone and three day sweat that took a long shower to shake off. My bags had been lost by British Airways. But I had my money and a toothbrush in my carry on bag so I was set at least for a few days, bags or not!
The next morning after a great evening of catching up with my friend Martin and his wife I slept and dreamed that British Air was diligently looking for my luggage.
Unfortunately, the next day I was still wearing the same clothes yet again as I fruitlessly called British Airways inquiring on when I might have fresh underwear and a change of shirt at least!
But as luck would have it, the luggage did show up in time: delivered by two burly Turks in wearing all black who wanted me to sign a long form before they would hand over my bag. All the contents seemed intact however and I celebrated by changing shirts and shaving my three-day beard: I was a new man.
My next stop was a phone store where I bought a sim card for my euro phone and 40 euros of credit. After texting (called SMS here) several Dutch friends, a pilot from the north sent word that I needed to come up and spend the night with he and his wife and explore the old city of Alkmaar. The place was an hour or so away by train and I made my way on an old "Amsterdamer" styled bike to the central station in the middle of Amsterdam to take the train. The bike parking area consists of a giant garage three stories tall packed with thousands of Dutch bikes owned by people who took the train someplace and left their bikes behind. I wondered how many people leave their bikes here and never return. The number of bikes is so great that you have to give conscious thought as to where exactly you are parking your bike. Fortunately my bike is yellow with black spray paint that makes it both distinctive and un-sought after due to its ugly look. But its a famous "Gazelle" bike, one that is very dependable and mostly immune to the constant rain that fell around me as I biked and parked in the giant garage.
The train station itself is very intimidating, even for me, a fairly experienced traveler. For one the place is jammed with thousands of people running and moving to trains and kiosks that sell train tickets. I went to a line to buy a ticket but gave up after 10 minutes when I saw that the line wasn't going to move. The kiosks accept only "pin" payments which means you need a Dutch card with a chip to pay or to remember your pin code for your credit card. I funbled around and finally came up with a debit card that go me a ticket but I felt like an idiot for how long it took and because I should have been so much more adept at all of this after so many trips to the Netherlands. My sympathy for the old increased that day as I somehow found myself at the platform for a train headed north toward the North Sea.
My host works as a pilot ferrying people out to the oil and gas platforms off the coast. Even in bad weather he flies. Robert is also a gracious man who asked when he picked me up at the train station, "What do you want to drink?" We enjoyed Bitburger beer (German beer!) and soon his lady Illonka joined us for a wonderful evening of laughing, eating and drinking in the 300 year old city of Alkmaar. We walked the old city on cobblestone streets where Dutch merchants made deals to sell fabric and other exports to visiting foreigners. I was mesmerized by the place and after a great night they let my sleep on a mattress. The next day, your loyal scrivener headed back to Amsterdam via train to get a change of shirts before heading to my next hostís house in Utrecht.
Tom and Goof (pronounced Hofe in English) know Holland like few others and they updated me on the latest politics and the weather, which was cold and rainy by the time I got to Goof's rooftop terrace. The terrace is really an above ground garden situated over his immense garage where he keeps numerous Mercedes autos, a 1973 Corvette and a multiple motorcycles. It's almost a scene out of a James Bond movie to visit Goof because when you ring the doorbell a giant garage door on a townhouse lined street begins to open into the cavernous garage and voice announces that you should enter the upper chamber of his abode via stairs to the left. Before you begin the long climb you are confronted by a photo portrait of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president in the 1980s. Reagan is Goof's president and besides the king of U.S. conservatism he loves fast cars, motorcycles and of course air planes. He even owns an airplane magazine and a Yak trainer aircraft that he takes up with a Russian instructor since all the controls and instruments are in Russian!
Tom, Goof and I spent the afternoon sipping beer and solving most, if not all of the world's troubles. At the least we agreed that we should be in charge and that if the powers that be simply appointed us things in the world would be better for all of mankind. After that kind of night, including a great evening of dinner in a typical Dutch restaurant call Eigen Schulde ("My own fault") where I had herring and salad and the cleanest water on earth according to the Dutch called Kraan Water (tap water). After many hours we said goodbye to Goof and I fell into a deep sleep at Tom's.
The next day I was almost run over by a bike while making my way back to the train station. In the world of the Dutch, there are few sounds more threatening than the simple "ding" of a bell from a bicyclist who gives warning that you are about to be run over while accidentally entering the dreaded "Fiets Pad"(bike path) where no pedestrian who values his life wanders.
On the train I was able to speak a little Dutch with a lady. The train ride was almost an hour so I had time to watch the people around me.One of them was a simply dressed, plain looking Dutch girl with a horridly large nose. She took conspiratorial little bites from a sandwich she kept in a plastic box in his aged and all too large purse. Then she would carefully put away the rest of the sandwich into the plastic box and look for addresses in a thick address book. When she settled on an address I saw her draw from another compartment in her heavy coat a plastic wrapped card in an envelope. She then proceeded to spend the longest time making up what to write on the card and then she carefully put the card in the envelope and addressed it. I expected her to bring out a stamp but she shook her head and paused. At that point I asked her in Dutch, "do you need a stamp?"
She was startled from her trance and looked at me suspiciously. I wasn't sure I'd said what I said correctly but then I produced a stamp from my coat pocket and offered it. She accepted it but reminded me of a caged animal being offered a treat from behind bars. Her look was one of puzzlement.
"Do you speak English?", I asked in Dutch. She nodded no as she affixed the stamp to the envelope she had just addressed and put the envelope in her bag.
Soon she left the train without a smile or a goodbye. In fact she probably was grateful she made it off the train at all after the encounter with a foreigner!
Amsterdam hummed with traffic as I dragged myself back to my main hosts, Martin and Annelies and entered their house at noon. Their teen aged kids were no where to be seen and they were at work so I made my way in with a pass key and collapsed in my room on the top floor of their sizable home and slept like the dead.
Finally, I thought, my travels were over. No more biking great distances or other crazy activity. But by the time Martin got home the party of sorts had started. Laurens wanted to take the boat out and the rain had subsided enough to take raincoats and jackets off, so we all piled into the motorboat and began a great water tour of Amsterdam! We stopped for herring and beer but mostly just froze in the winds of the river in Amsterdam and enjoyed the skyline of the old city where tourists walked the canals with their cameras at the ready taking hundreds of pictures of us while we dodged tour boats and smiled for the camera.
By the time it finally got dark in Amsterdam it was well after 10 pm but we had already put the boat away and began a dinner at an Italian restaurant. Later I made a few phone calls to America and started to pack for the 20 hour full day ahead: the trip to the U.S. is an arduous affair that involves traveling through London and then switching planes to Tampa. Even though its hot as Hades there, I'm can't wait to get back to friends and family and revel in my latest adventure overseas.