October 1

The Amsterdam Cram

20th August 2012 (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Boff was apologetic about yesterday’s botched travel plans so let me decide all the activities today. I managed to show him how to cram a lot into a day without it feeling rushed.

Anne Frank’s House: We couldn’t buy tickets over the internet or via our hotel so queued
up around the block. I sent Boff out for poffertjes and coffee and orange juice. The experience was excellent, everything a museum should be: preservation, explanation, anecdotes. I got incredibly teary when I saw Anne’s room with the pics from magazines she’d glued up on the walls and I don’t think I stopped feeling heavy until after I left.

Boff said it was the ultimate tragedy that Mr Frank, obviously a smart man, had put a lot of thought into saving his family. He’d tracked the Allies’ movements via radio reports and knew they were on their way before they were ratted out by someone. The most tragic part was that he alone survived while the rest of the family perished in various concentration camps around Europe.

Photo of the day is of the street outside Anne Frank’s house, a rather amusing juxtaposition. The thing about Amsterdam is that you have to look out for canals, trams, cars and bikes when crossing the road.

The Tulip Museum: A very different museum explaining the history of tulips, their journey from the Middle East, the Dutch obsession with them, the Tulip Crash, different varieties and current farming techniques. There were a lot of interesting presentation techniques that made this exhibition worth ther 3 euro entry fee despite its small size.

I decided we’d go to Rembrandthuis so we had lunch on the way at a typical cafe (I had croquettes and tomato soup and beer) and then sort of lost each other in a street market. I waited at the corner for 10 minutes then decided to go to Rembrandthuis and just sat in the foyer waiting for Boff to realise that that was the best place to look for me. This is the tragedy of not having working phones overseas. He did eventually find me.

Rembrandthuis: When Rembrandt went bankrupt, the repo people had to do an inventory of everything in his house, which is why the museum has such an accurate record of what it contained. While some of the objects are replicas, a lot of the furniture was actually Rembrandt’s and has been preserved in the place where they were kept. Interesting snippet: People in those days used to sleeping sitting up because they believed you would die if too much blood went to your head. That’s why all the beds are so small (not because people were 50cm shorter in those days, as I hypothesised).

Apart from containing the painter’s domestic artefacts, the museum also held his and his contemporaries’ paintings (he was a dealer as well as an artist), a storeroom for his interesting ephemera and, of course, his studio. The studio contained two demos that were also fascinating in themselves: a guy did a paint mixing demo and the lady did an etching demo.

Artis Zoo: We eventually found ourselves at Artis Zoo (what did you expect of ‘my day’?!). It had just gone 4.30pm and the staff kept reminding us that they would close at 6pm. We told them it was okay, we would go through quite quickly. It didn’t look like Artis had any animals that I hadn’t seen before so we just headed for my favourites only to find out that there were a lot of areas where the animals roamed free, for example lemur ‘island’, which the ruffed lemurs could leave if they wanted to (there were no physical barriers) but were content to stay on.

Artis also had a few humid houses where they kept saki monkeys and iguanas and birds. These tripled-doored enclosures meant that observers could wander through in commune with the animals without accidentally letting them out. We got some great photos. I also saw a hyrax for the first time. Also sat in front of the penguin pool watching one female get chased by a dozen males and constantly escaping but then going back into the fray (crazy chick) and the seal pool where babies were nursing and the mothers barked while feeding them. Eventually a security guard on a bike told us we had to leave in 15 minutes, at 7.30pm; they had let us stay in an extra 90 minutes.

Had dinner at an Indonesian restaurant (this was actually Boff’s suggestion but it turned out to be a good one because the banquet was delicious) and then visited the red light district on the way home. There wasn’t anything there that I found shocking (no, we didn’t go to the live sex show) though we did spend our last 14 euro or so on double entry to The Erotic Museum (see what I did there?). It wasn’t as titillating as I’d hoped, but it did have some interesting historic stuff on the lower floors.

We spent a lot of money in Amsterdam, about 300 euro, which was about twice what we were doing in comparable cities. In some ways maybe it was a good thing we were only there for a day.

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October 1

The Swimming Pool Gallery

18th August 2012 (Lille, France)

Alan Hollinghurst once wrote a book about a library in a swimming pool. I don’t remember a lot about the book, not even the metaphor, except that I liked it. I went to a museum of art in a swimming pool today. The musee was pretty much the only thing open in Roubaix. It had a lot of 19th and 20th century sculpture, drawing and painting—even fabric and fashion.

Around the pool the art tried to be water-themed; all the nudes were bathers and all the tigers were fighting lions next to the river.

The photo of the day is a silhouette of a sculpture backlit by the Art Nouveau stained glass window on one end. It took me ages to get the shot right.

Outside, the temperature had hiked above 30C so I was grateful for the coolness of the museum and probably stayed there half an hour longer than I would’ve otherwise. As I left the Musee de la Piscine, a father and his sons had tumbled out of their van, towels in hands.

(This next conversation take place in French.) The father asked the way to the entrance to the pool and I had to explain to him that it wasn’t actually a pool. Then as I reached the street I spotted a local map and called him over to point out where the actual pool was located. He was trying to memorise the turns and I suggested that he take a photo with his phone. He looked at me like I was the smartest person he’d ever known.

I walked to Roubaix, which is a largish town in the Lille metropolitan area. Everything was shut because it was the weekend and even the town hall was unavailable for gawking at, covered in scaffolding due to renovations. I caught the metro back to Lille proper and confirmed my suspicions: the metro trains are driverless, which is why they come so often and travel so fast.

I popped into old Lille for a big pot of oolong at Unami, a teahouse I passed a few days earlier (which was closed during the public holiday) then visited L’Hospice de Comtesse, which the Lonely Planet led me to believe was a lot of horrible religious art stuffed in a Flemish style abbey but it was actually a cool old abbey that happened to have some boring religious paintings in it.

Boff and I met up in old Lille and had tarts for dinner. Not a euphemism.

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August 30

Pissed off

17th August 2012 (Brussels, Belgium)

I wanted to take an express train to Paris, just one hour from Lille. The TGV, in association with Eurail, had other ideas. Apparently you need to book 24 hours in advance on a Eurail pass and you can’t do it at the station, you have to call the Eurail line. I called for the 18th but was told I could only pick up the reservation from Paris Nord or Germany, or they could send it to me by post, which could take “one or two weeks”.

I can’t figure out what’s more stupid:

  • Having to book 24 hours in advance, whether or not the train is full.
  • Having to book via telephone when one’s hotel is 50 metres from a train station.
  • Needing a physical manifestation of this reservation that mysteriously can’t be emailed, faxed or sent by carrier pigeon.
  • Needing to use a postal service that could take “one or two weeks” when you bloody well operate a network of fast trains.

Paris’ loss was Belgium’s gain, however. As I sat brooding in my room it occurred to me that Boff had been to Brussels and I had not, plus they had some kind of big deal flower thing that I would see but he would not. I hopped on a train. It was supposed to take two hours. There was some delay and it took three…

It also happened to be one of the hottest days of the summer, something in the vicinity of 35C. By the time I arrived at Bruxelles-Midi I’d run out of water and had to buy some from Carrefour.

On the train I’d pored over the map Boff had given me, so confidently headed north towards the Grand-Place (you need to say that in a French accent). Unsure at a turning, I stopped only to discover that I’d lost the map—probably in Carrefour where I’d been gratefully rehydrated. Nevertheless, I blundered in the right direction and managed to find encouraging signposts that took me to a street of Asian restaurants (Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese) at the end of which was a cafe that served me rabbit and chips with a big cold beer, probably the most delicious meal of the trip.

Then it was just a short way to a giant square surrounded by grand Belgian buildings filled with flowers. The balconies were packed so I avoided them and managed to find myself at a Dali exhibition.

It was around this time I began to feel ill, not quite nauseated, not quite headachey but really very tired all of a sudden. I’m not sure if it was the heat, the beer, the rabbit or all three. I parked myself in front of an air conditioner in the exhibition and napped for 15 minutes and then found a room with sofas for watching a Dali doco, told the attendant I had a headache and napped for another 30 minutes. The exhibition was okay but not as good as Berlin: it had a lot of Dali’s commercial work including ads he did for a hosiery company, magazine articles, and some first editions of his books.

Groggily I stepped outside and found myself wandering toward the Manneken Pis. Photo of the day is a waffle shop’s tribute to Brussels’ favourite son with some tourists beside him for scale. Also managed to catch a large jar of Nutella in the frame—yay Nutella!

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