I didn’t take a camera on this trip.
I’d got drunk and sleepy enough at a school reunion to leave my camera on a train – or maybe it the minibus round some engineering works – going home. Along with photos of the booze cruise we had on the Thames; also Isle of Wight, New Forest and Solent photos I’d taken when I walked through that at Whitsun. The trouble with something like this is not just the loss itself but the hassle afterwards and the people you meet.
My route home crossed several train company routes so that meant having to contact every crappy company involved and some people less than desirable. The worst specimen being a creep at Basingstoke station who interrupted me with negative questions until he’d decided he was going to drop the call centre in it who’d given me his number. For once a call centre had been helpful.
The silver lining to this cloud was the lost camera having its problems and the replacement camera being a top of the range Nikon. I’d liked the idea of owning one for some time. The insurance though was a problem. I’d decreed it was absolutely verboten for it to leave the room it was in – let alone the house – before the insurance for it was sorted, because of previous experiences. It wasn’t by the time I departed. So I travelled without it.
The 2nd trip wasn’t much of a loss in terms of photography since it was across Belgium by train to Essen in Germany, then up to Amsterdam then home again. About a week of limited travel mostly across well populated plains and urban areas. I like taking photos of scenery and nature.
Preperations, departure, the Eurostar, the connection at Brussels, the run through hilly country around Liege all went well enough. Beyond Aachen the approach to the Ruhr looked just that: half a hill removed by a pale waste of open cast mining with an apocalyptic horizon of cooling towers belching out towering storm clouds of global warming.
At Cologne station I decided to celebrate with a beer and tried out my very limited knowledge of German. “Ein Becks bitte.” Well my plan was going well so why not?
Funny how things can go awry at such a time. It wasn’t the beer, though that didn’t help me stay on my toes. There was an accident forcing a detour and a late arrival at Essen by an hour. Not another rail disaster I thought? This was just after one in Spain that had killed over 70 people.
The delay wasn’t serious and neither was the accident for I never learned more, but at Essen station I learned that the line down to the village near the youth hostel I was staying at was closed too. Apparently one couldn’t escape the blight of British railways – engineerng works – in Germany. Resigning myself to a bus I had to hope the bus driver I encountered could ‘sprechen sie Englisch.’
“Nein! Nein!” Plus a rant that didn’t include ‘schweinhund’ but probably had a similar sentiment.
That was what I got from the bus driver I found. I can be good at irritating people so I did that by putting my satellite image of the area under his nose; hoping it might prompt a clue. It didn’t but the Hitlerian development of the rant was strangely entertaining. Had I discovered an ex Nazi? He looked old enough but more realistically his father might have been one, exerting this kind of influence on his brain.
Giving up on him before I began another war I retreated back into the station and realised there was a ticket office off to the side which could well give me the information I needed. I approached a blond guy behind the counter who looked free. He could ‘sprechen sie Englisch’ so my luck was in!
No it wasn’t, he was insisting I get a ticket. I didn’t want a bloody ticket there was no train to where I was going! When I tried to explain though this only brought about another rant by this young Aryan concluding with a high pitched “It is the only way!” Fed up by now and feeling farcical I nearly did a ‘Sieg Heil’ which would have got me into a lot of trouble in today’s Germany, I was assured when I returned home.
Then I realised the ‘ticket’ he wanted me to take was the same as those one takes in Job Centres and the like at home. It was a queuing system and the man was irate because I was jumping a queue – a sin against German thoroughness – unwittingly coming into the office just between customers.
The last time I’d been in this country was my first time, when I was 21. My return this time would be looked on fondly by some bigots in Britain. 2 Germans offended by yours truly in 10 minutes after arriving at my German destination! Not bad.
At least there were only a few people and after I’d waited my turn, apologised and explained my situation he was able to help me with a bus number.
Which got me to more misunderstanding and a bus with the right number going the wrong way and another wait before it eventually went where I was told it would.
The hostel I was heading for was 4 or 5 miles south across the Ruhr River and up a hill. The Ruhr River conjures up an image of a polluted stream in an industrial heartland. The reality was opposite. The well to do southern suburbs of Essen rose from the town centre and the north German plain into wooded hills surrounding a narrow valley the Ruhr wound through. Its purpose looked recreational instead of industrial. Upstream from the village it was dammed into an elongated lake with pleasure craft here and there.
The weather was hot but I welcomed the exercise hiking up the hill, even though I had to stop several times. Germany’s got plenty of high stuff which – not actually mountainous – can be classed as big hills.
As soon as I got to the hostel I felt correctly that my troubles were over. People were eating pizzas and drinking beer at trestle tables by a lawn, there was a relaxed atmosphere, the staff were young and helpful in contrast to Essen. We cobbled together a conversation of pidgin English/German and sorted out my room.
After a shower I was able to have enough to eat and totally relax with beer again. Local stuff superior to commercial brands. Instead of a journey still ahead the only journey I had now at dusk was upstairs to my bed. One oddity I discovered on the way was a pinball machine featuring The Addams Family. A favourite I hadn’t seen for many years.
Morning. A window designed to only open slightly at the bottom had led to a warm night but I felt up to a hike or a partial one anyway.
I got off a bus at the top of a hill. Navigation through the suburbs was an interesting exercise. The houses and verdant gardens were mostly on the higher ground, the woods – mostly pine – were in between with well marked tracks leading through them. If there had been heavy industry here all trace of it was gone. They’d really greened this place up; good for hiking and there was plenty of it in hot summer weather remaining that way for my stay. I’d be working off a lot of fat here so the local railway being down was now working in my favour.
Half way between the Ruhr River and Essen centre was the exhibition centre on the far side of a motorway, with a local subway train system. The Star Wars convention there turned out to be enormous. The spaces were cavernous, especially a main programme hall which was as vast and impressive as the hall on Yavin 4 where Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were honoured by Princess Leia. I saw plenty of them because the convention was packed with people, half of whom were dressed as those heroes and many other Star Wars characters and aliens.
It wasn’t a success for me though. I’d underestimated the difficulty of finding a friend and his German wife I knew were going there, not bothering to find out where they’d be. So they were lost in the crowds and I never found them. The only other people I knew were an outfit who’d let me down by not turning up at a Carnival I was involved with so I didn’t want to socialise with them. Of course it wasn’t long before I found them. Also being a media convention with a vengeance it was heavy on promotion and light on thought provoking programme meetings. The best one occurred on a Sunday morning I discovered, just after it had finished.
I took solace in a neighbouring botanical garden which was a glorified park with interesting follies, features, sculptures and a miniature railway thrown in.
Back below the youth hostel I discovered an ascent through woodland paths up there and to some beautiful views of this part of Germany. Strange how despite being as high and steep it was never as exhausting as hiking up the road. Also some allotments with cosy looking abodes. I couldn’t ascertain whether they were sheds or getaways for the weekend. One of them had a roof covered in plants and a hostel roof was covered with a cross between a lawn and a mosspatch.
Back at the hostel I played a lot of Addams Family pinball.
On my last night there was a surprise. I spoke good German a young German told me. Surely there was some mistake in his generosity. No way could I read German text or speak it anywhere near fluently. What I did know was a random scattering of odd German words and phrases, some of which are not unlike English. So if I was lucky and thinking quickly enough at the time I could come out with a phrase or some such thing that would do. Also I had a good accent he told me. Things must have changed since school when I was arrogantly told it was bad.
We finished the alcoholic evening amicably when he asked if I wanted more beer and my response was “Uh uh, tired, guten nacht.”
On to the next stage of this trip: Amsterdam. Up for early breakfast and morning walk down through the woods, though the village to the wide bridge across the Ruhr River and the bus stop on the other side. The defunct railway complete with train just across the road. I was told it was unavailable for the summer hols. Not only could one not escape engineering works here but their rotten sense of timing.
Everything went according to plan though and I was soon on the train heading through the Ruhr towards the Dutch border. The Ruhr was built up but did not look as industrialised as the view I saw on the approaches to Cologne. It was probably a similar story to northern England now. The scars of heavy industry re-landscaped and the factories either derelict, demolished or refurbished into something else.
I encountered one of those meetings that made me realise how lucky I am. It turned out an old couple I was talking to were trying to put their dream trip back together again after a taxi driver had just made off with their luggage. All it took was for them to get out of the car at the destination with the luggage in the boot and instead of getting it or waiting until they could open the boot up the s**t just drove off! He was eastern European it seemed but since I’d endured a major transport company stealing a suitcase in the US one had to take precautions anywhere until one knew the score. The couple were now heading for a Rhine cruise and I think they needed it.
I had one stop to make before Amsterdam. Arnhem. This town was right on the railway I was taking and exactly half way. Where the Western Allies had attempted to win World War 2 in 1944 by jumping the Rhine with the help of paratroops. ‘Unfortunately’ 2 SS Panzer divisions were refitting at Arnhem. That combined with landing zones being a long way from Arnhem bridge, radios not working, fog in England holding up reinforcements and just one road being available for the armoured advance through terrain unsuitable for tanks doomed the operation.
Arnhem station was not near the bridge, didn’t feature in the battle and its design looked a future age away from 1944. Which is more or less what it was, being 2013. There was a pleasant walk through the back streets of Arnhem centre with plenty of places to eat and drink at before one got to the Rhine.
There was the bridge, named after John Frost, commander of the battalion that had reached it and defended it in 1944. It’s curved span didn’t look that different from then but the buildings on the approach to it were modern. The river didn’t look that wide for the Rhine, about 120 metres across. That’s because the Rhine had split into 2 upstream with the wider part of it flowing through Nijmegen to the south.
There was a tree shaded monument and a small museum open with an interactive map of the course of the battle complete with sound effects, also comments and accounts from many who took part or endured it.
In the comments section of the book I wrote that my father – not in the battle itself – was in the follow up forces advancing from the south. A lieutenant in the Royal Survey Regiment he was on reconnaisance for 25 pounders. He told me he remembered places like Eindhoven – the first major town to be liberated in this operation – Nijmegen and a village called Boxmeer near there, where they were called upon to help the Dutch underground liberate the place from a Tiger tank. Since they had one jeep and not much else they declined. He also remembers being involved in operations against German self propelled guns beyond the Maas River near another Dutch town, Venlo, during the freezing winter that followed . The Allied defeat at the battle of Arnhem condemmed most of Holland to near or actual starvation during that winter.
There was much more at Osterbeek where most of the British Airborne Division had held on and were eventually withdrawn. Another co-operative bus driver managed to pull out of the station just as I realised that was the bus I needed.
Roll on Amsterdam! That was where Cris lived now with his Dutch wife. Cris had played the lead part in organising school reunions. We hadn’t known each other well at school but that had changed when he invited me to one in 2003 and the one this year.
The first time I saw Amsterdam the whole city appeared to be having one huge party! More people were flooding into the crowds from the Central Station all the time, what was going on? By an incredible stroke of luck I’d arrived on the Dutch queen’s birthday! It was a great if exhausting experience and I’d never seen anything like it on that scale. I’d been to Amsterdam in fact a few times by this trip and well after I went to Germany when I was 21, so was basically familiar with the semi circular pattern of streets and canals radiating from the Central Station.
I wasn’t so familiar with Cris’s neighbourhood, still central but going west. It didn’t help that the only lead I had with the number bore no relation to the place he was at. I sorted things out at a clothing shop by the canal he was on and managed to get in touch by mobile phone. He was waving to me from an upper floor of his building.
He had a spacious well furnished home on the top 2 floors of a converted warehouse, with a rooftop terrace too. A good place for barbecues but the weather got overcast in Amsterdam so on the final night we went out for a meal instead which I paid just over half of.
I could afford it and if I go back I should buy the whole thing next time because at Cris’s invitation I was able to stay at his studio for nothing. It looked like corner shop had been converted into a ground floor flat but the main room had an artists easel with art materials. He’d taken up painting in retirement and at least one woman I met in the neighbourhood referred to him as ‘the painter.’
His studio also had a television, computer, double bed, was well stocked with food with a shop for more across the street. The coffee machine made a alarming crunching noise as though it was mangling itself so I used that with caution but it was okay, I didn’t break it.
Cris took me out the first night for some very strong beer. We realised we were in an odd way well matched through having opposite talents and aims. When we were at school his interests were in the arts – hence the painting – but his talents were in the sciences. He’d done very well for himself with those talents. On the other hand my interests were in the sciences but my talents were artistic. I’d done very poorly financially but the consensus at the first reunion was that I’d had a very interesting life. Now I was combining my talents with my interests.
He was working on replacing the main door to his building so left me to my own devices for a lot of the time I was in Amsterdam. The studio was further west still and I got lost the day after the initial heavy beer session. The streets and canals could skew one well off course. Cris said it often happened. I enjoyed getting lost though as long as I had the time and I did. When I’d sorted myself out I wandered through the city and the sights having the odd snack or drink.
There was the famous or infamous red light district, but I didn’t realise there were 2 sex museums rather than one. With enough of interest in them to titillate, amuse or offend one, depending on one’s point of view. My view is that some in Britain need to be offended and adapt themselves to freer spirits rather than the other way round.
There was of course the Anne Frank house. I’d not only already seen it though but now there was a modern museum one had to pass through next door it seemed, though apparently the facade of the original building had been altered. A huge queue cancelled out a 2nd visit.
I did however go to a Van Gogh exhibition in the old Stock Exchange where one could still make out those bank vault doorways in a few parts of the basement where the famous penniless artist’s works were displayed. Some of the paintings were interactive such as ‘The Starry Night.’ I particularly enjoyed creating variations on those swirls of colour in that night sky.
Cris drove me north of Amsterdam. There were 2 places. One being a seaside village, except that it wasn’t exactly seaside, more a man-made lakeside: Markemeer. It was like the Ijsselmeer further north, an area of sea sealed off for flood control and possible reclamation. The sea had extended to Amsterdam the northern edge of which still looked like a port. The other village was notable for the spotting of a heron. Cris said people put ornamental ones in their gardens and it could be hard to tell which was which. The other thing was so many of the older multistory buildings not being perpendicular but actually tilting because of the swampy nature of the ground and their age. It was easy enough to stop this Cris said, by a process involving pouring concrete into the foundations; but they couldn’t be moved upright again.
He also took me on a grand tour of the Amsterdam canals. Past the endless queue for the Anne Frank House, the rich old merchant houses and warehouses, open air restaurants and bars. I acted as lookout perched on the prow of the small boat we were in, because it was hard to see what was coming where one canal crossed another.
Later over more strong beer I noticed more leaning buildings. It was pretty cool I thought and comical to see drunken buildings when one was in that state too. Cris told me his leaned out over the canal. My God so it did.
Thus was my last night spent in Amsterdam. I had plenty of time the following morning but lost most of it failing to track down a smaller version of a big liquour bottle seen in Arnhem requested by a friend. I’d assumed it would be easy in Amsterdam but had to settle for strong beer instead.
My route home went through Rotterdam, Dordrecht, another wait at Brussels, then the Eurostar to the UK. At Dordrecht there was a change of trains and a meeting against the odds. My reserved seat happened to be one row away from another friend: a Dutch lady who liked a planet I took to an SF convention. She lived at Dordrecht but a planned meeting had fallen through because she was in the process of moving to the south of England.
Delighted we chatted all the way back to London. There was a problem though at Waterloo. I wasn’t sure the tickets we’d bought just before 5pm would be valid after that time – because of our commercial wonderland of a railway system – so things got a bit rushed. Then I forgot the train we were on to Portsmouth wasn’t the right one for her past Woking, reassured her it was okay, then had to surprise her with that news at Woking.
I can’t explain my mistake but we’re still in touch by Facebook. I’ll apologise next time I see her.
© D Angus 11 13