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August 20, 2004

Eurotrash 2003

The infamous coffee shops sell everything but coffee. They peddle hash, marijuana, and alcohol to any deviant, misfit that staggers into their realm. The head shops proffer peyote, Psilocybin, and herbal speed to all comers. In the red light districts, the more serious drugs are left in the hands of the more serious criminals. Well entrenched drug dealers hustle the masses “Charley…Hey Charley…Cocoa” and “Deek? You want Deek?” Anything and everything for a price including the women and children, the real losers in the ideological battles. They are the pawns of the socialists, the Marxists, and the communists. When the wall came down, a virulently poor human zoo migrated west. They fled seeking opportunity, but were steered into the brothels and strip clubs and coerced into having sex with strangers for Dutch Guilders and Eurodollars.


F-Class


I didn’t really look forward to my European vacation. I’d been too busy tying up loose ends. When you work in a different time zone, you spend your time at “home” paying bills, trying to get service restored for your ISP, your cable, or whatever else isn’t working when you walk in the door.

My plates on the Tahoe are expired. So I can’t park at the Denver International Airport. The city of Denver writes me tickets if I forget to back in my truck when I park. If I back it in, they have to get out of their climate controlled vehicles to see if my plates are out of favor with the mongrels of Jefferson County.

I have a court date looming on October 15th, where the county will attempt to send me to jail for two years and fine me thousands of dollars for burning some limbs in my yard. My attorney assured me that the district attorney, a man I’d never met, hated me with a passion commensurate with the angst a bureaucrat might feel when a free man unapologetically defended his private property with a Colt .45 pistol.

The client in Portland was furious that I was going to be out of the country for a week, and I had ignored an email in my inbox for weeks that wanted my signature for a thorough background check and a urine sample as soon as I returned from Amsterdam.

It was intuitively obvious to the casual observer that I couldn’t afford a trip to Amsterdam, judging by the time-money continuum. But, I was just as certain that I couldn’t afford to skip it, as measured on the life-is-short, smell-the-roses spectrum.

Going abroad is a deliberate abandonment of dollars and gallons, tons and pounds, acres and miles, in favor of kilometers and kilos, pounds and pence, euros and hectares. As you leapfrog the time-zones, hours are won and lost.

As it turns out, Amsterdam is 8 hours ahead of Mountain Time, and London is 7 hours ahead. Sort of trivial, I think. Time is a trick we play on ourselves. A meaningless gradient against which we score our lives. As we fly East, we lose hours, and are catapulted into a wall when we land. As we fly West, we gain an hour per time-zone, at the rate of roughly one per hour. So, if the Jet Stream isn’t too strong, you can take off and land at roughly the same time. When I explained this to Jennifer, she squealed with laughter.

I have about a billion miles on US Air, which, like most airlines, has filed for bankruptcy. And I had a free penthouse flat on the Amstel River, so, for 100,000 miles, I locked in a first class airfare on United through some unholy alliance of the very-most-bankrupt-airlines. I figure that the only way to go to Europe is First Class. We had 10 hours of air-time, so I wanted to go full throttle. Not business class. Not coach. I wanted the first class seats that lay back like beds that I’ve always heard about but never seen.

So, when I printed out my itinerary via www.virtuallythere.com, I was horrified when the class was listed as “Economy”. US Air assured me that it was just a shortcoming of their interface to United.

At the airport, they asked me to sign my passport. I’d lost one traveling last year, and my shiny new passport was untested. They scanned it through the keyboard and created a transaction so the moles to track me. I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to travel. Somehow, I guess I slipped through the cracks, and I was allowed to flee to Europe.

My ticket said “F-Class” instead of “First Class”, but the First Class cabin was configured like nothing I’d ever seen before. The seats were sort of unimaginably complicated, angled. They laid completely flat to form a bed, but were angled at about 30 degrees, so they didn’t lay back into seat behind you. The word “seat” doesn’t really describe it. It’s more like a cockpit with individual screens. The flying waitress was old, wrinkled, and senile. The sound system was predictably horrible. The sound stuttered and skipped. You had to push hard constantly on the headphone plugs to get the sound not to skip. But, there were in-seat power supplies for the laptops, lights everywhere, and the senile waitress managed to keep me well oiled during our flight to Chicago.

Chicago O'Hare

Like most airports, Denver claims to be an international airport, but unless you count Mexico and Canada as “international” travel, there’s a glaring dearth of nonstop flights to foreign countries out of Denver. Chicago is a horse of a different color. Every plane has a tailfin of some airline I’ve never heard of before, leaving for some city couldn’t pronounce in less than a handful of guesses. In first class, the rows are separated by a chasm of space so obvious that the baggage class passengers cut between the rows to change aisles and hasten their journey to the bowels of the 767-300. Like the 777 cabin, the first class seats recline fully, but they aren’t angled and have a less outrageous appearance than the 777 configuration. The flight attendant was not quite as wrinkled as the previous one, but still looked as though she could be put out to pasture without offending any of the first class passengers. I boarded early, reclined the seat to a dangerous angle, and sneered at the baggage class passengers as they scurried through first class, like cockroaches in the light.

The flight attendant babbled in Dutch over the intercom. The only words I could make out were “laptop computers”. Presumably, they don’t have words for laptop computers in Dutch, so they glommed off of ours.

At the gate, they pushed around a cart of cigarette cartons labeled Duty Free. I wasn’t sure what the deal was, but I’d watched Midnight Express enough times that I didn’t want to risk being charged with smuggling anything into or out of the Netherlands or any other Second World Country.

And finally, just when you thought you’d never be served a decent meal on an airplane again, they brought me the United First Class menu in English and Dutch. Shrimp and Scallops or Roasted Pork for appetizers. An entrée of Filet Mignon or Roasted Duck. Dessert of ice cream, fresh fruit, or cheese. For breakfast, Eggs Benedict, Canadian Bacon, and asparagus or a deli plate for the faint of heart.

The flying waitress offered me a hot, moist towel and apologized.

“I’m afraid there are only English newspapers today. No Dutch ones. Perhaps they didn’t come in on the morning flight.”

After white wine, shrimp appetizer, more white wine and spinach salad, red wine and filet mignon, coffee and strawberries with cream poured over them, the purser cautioned me.

“Now…this isn’t dessert. Dessert will be next.”

As the map on the video screen showed our plane leaving Maine, across parts of Canada that would probably be Halifax and Nova Scotia, she came around peddling ice cream sundaes with fudge, cream, nuts, etc.

“I’m going to have to take a pass on this one.” I was so full I could hardly move. I’d been eating since I left Denver. I always eat in airports, because I assume that I will be served nothing on the flights. Normally it’s a safe bet. Today it was way off base. We’d flown clear across North America eating the entire way, and I finally had to put my foot down.

“And don’t wake me up for breakfast. Please. Let me sleep in. The Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce sounds delicious, but if you wake me up for another force feeding, there’s going to be an incident.”

London

London is sprawling, Orwellian nightmare of a town. A Dr. Seuss village incarnated into a real-word empire. An entire city regurgitated through the looking glass. Gothic sandstone buildings twist to follow the gnarled, copulating streets. The street lights change from Green to Yellow to Red, and then back to Yellow yet again. Cars race down the wrong side of the street, with their drivers steering on the wrong side of the car, shifting gears with the wrong hand, caroming off of the hapless pedestrians that erroneously look left before stepping into the street.

The city is overrun with morbidly rotund pasty white American tourists with camcorders and legions of unwashed, backpacking, Eurotrash youth on the make. Above ground, the tourists are forced through the psychotic maze of streets in London Taxis, double-decker buses, and DUKW’s, choking in the diesel haze of a city suffering through the final stages of the industrial revolution.

Underground, portals protruding from the city’s belly lure the pedestrians into subterranean worm-holes where they’re packed into breathless, sweating, tubes of humanity and shunted through the city’s lower intestines. In the Underground, the chronically unemployed plead for pounds, but settle for pence.

Everything in London has a price, and the price is always excruciatingly high. Breakfast for twenty pounds. Shoes for a hundred pounds. A 150 ml Pepsi for a pound.

England is a nation of rules. The serfs are coddled from cradle to grave. No decision is left to chance. You’re told whether you’ll be allowed to attend college. What doctors you can patronize. What type of trade you’ll be able to pursue.

The ubiquitous cameras shepherded the ignoramus, muddled masses. Draining their rights, the demonstrably intrusive and impotent cameras watched without seeing, saw without knowing, knew without learning. “Safe under the watchful eye” the banners proclaimed. But safe from what? Safe from whom?

Bland food, weather fit for a duck, and vinegar beer drives even the most stalwart of souls into Channel eventually. And when they’ve had enough, the blokes head down to Soho for a bit of carousing. They surf the sex shows, the adult book stores, and the punk rock clubs. But still, the cameras follow them. So when they really want to break loose, they hop across the channel on an EasyJet to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam picks up where Soho leaves off. In contrast to England, the Netherlands is a lawless, incorrigible, anything-goes frontier. Devoid of any sense of right or wrong, Amsterdam is so tolerant that it’s intolerable.

The infamous coffee shops sell everything but coffee. They peddle hash, marijuana, and alcohol to any deviant, misfit that staggers into their realm. The head shops proffer peyote, Psilocybin, and herbal speed to all comers. In the red light districts, the more serious drugs are left in the hands of the more serious criminals. Well entrenched drug dealers hustle the masses “Charley…Hey Charley…Cocoa” and “Deek? You want Deek?” Anything and everything for a price including the women and children, the real losers in the ideological battles. They are the pawns of the socialists, the Marxists, and the communists. When the wall came down, a virulently poor human zoo migrated west. They fled seeking opportunity, but were steered into the brothels and strip clubs and coerced into having sex with strangers for Dutch Guilders and Eurodollars.

Amsterdam is a flat, decadent city sinking slowly, behind a wall of dykes, into the North Sea. The city is riddled with canals, tram-lines, roads, and bike lanes, leaving alarmingly small sidewalks for the hapless pedestrians.

The city is plagued by a swarm of bicycles, like locusts on a vineyard. Each somehow in a more desperate state of disrepair than the one beside it, rusting in the North Sea salt-air. Scads of single-speed bikes, complete with fenders, chain guards, and kickstands. In Amsterdam, the goal seems to be to have a bike that is somehow in worse shape than the one beside it to prevent theft. Bicycle theft is the third most important industry in Amsterdam, close on the heels of drugs and prostitution.

With a callous disregard for their own safety, and a negligent indifference to the pedestrians, the cavalier cyclists careen across the city with their girlfriends balanced precariously on the rear fenders. Cigarette in one hand, cell phone cradled shoulder-to-ear, ringing their menacing bells at the stray pedestrians like a squadron of Stukas strafing Poland.

In the morning, the street-sweepers scour the streets and the whores retire to their thousand-euro-a-month flats to soak their charms. As the sun rises, the black drug dealers retreat into their redoubts, like cockroaches running from the light. The youth retreat to their hostel for a few hours of sleep before they’re kicked out for the day.

Jim

Jim had carved a career out of spending other people’s money. He’d lived on an expense account since he graduated from college. He bounced back and forth across the pond like a ping-pong ball in the dryer. He could waltz into any airline club or hotel in the world just by waving his frequent flyer cards in front of the receptionists.

After spending a day in Amsterdam, Jim and I climbed onto an EasyJet and hopped across the channel to London. Jim used to live in London, and he moved through London like it was his living room. He knew the Underground like the back of his hand. He knew all the best restaurants. The coolest museums. The exchange rates from dollars to pounds. Dollars to Euros. And pounds to Euros as well.

He moved through Victoria Station and Gatwick like he was raised there. He knows the best candies. The best ice cream. The best meals. He has a nose for Bounty Bars and an eye for the Underground portals.

“Buy the pocket map of the tube for two pounds. It will be the best money you’ve ever spent. We’ll get the day pass for the Underground and the buses.”

When we crossed the street, he cautioned. “Remember…they drive on the wrong side of the street here. Look right…then left when you cross the street.”

But, on our flight out of London, I made a critical mistake. I was about 15 minutes late meeting Jim at the hotel to leave for Gatwick. They closed the flight at 40 minutes before the flight took off, and we were there 30 minutes before the flight left. We’d missed our flight, and had to catch a flight the next day. Jim was understandably disappointed, but I picked up a hotel room at the airport for the night at 135 pounds sterling, and he didn’t harp on me nearly as badly as he should have.

The Hague

I never did pay for the train from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Centrum, and I rode it four times. The last time was the most exciting, however. As it turns out, the train ride only costs about 4 €. Normally, the train makes about three stops between Centrum and Schiphol, and they never bother to check for tickets, so it’s pretty much a waste to pay for one. My last trip ended up being markedly different from the other trips however.

The train departed on time like clockwork as they always do in the Netherlands. I stowed my luggage overhead and sat down.


”Hello. Hello. Hello.” Someone had been subjected to the severe misfortune of growing up with English as a second language was babbling on the train. Finally, I realized she was speaking to me, and I helped her stow her suitcase overhead and returned to my seat. As we sped out of the city, I turned on my laptop and started to hammer away at the QWERTY keyboard, only casually observing the passing landscape. Another woman approached me and hailed me in several languages. She spewed a veritable Tower of Babel, all across the globe, but I couldn’t make out a word of it. I just stared at her blankly. She appeared to be some sort of authority figure, so, eventually, I just said “English?”

“May I see your ticket please?” she promptly asked in perfect English.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a ticket. Alex had told me about a time when he was riding the tram and they stopped it and threw an 11 year old boy into the paddy wagon for riding without a valid ticket, and began to wonder how I could get in touch with the American Embassy once they’d incarcerated me.

If I had been thinking more clearly, I could have just pretended to speak Russian and probably gotten away with it. Normally, I just say “RUEsoe” with a bad East European accent, and most people will walk away. It was a trick I learned in Havana, but I wasn’t thinking quickly enough, and now she had me.

“The ticket is 23 Euros” she demanded.

“I thought it was only 4 Euros” I countered. “I don’t even think I have that much money.” I continued. I knew that I had 30 Euros in my pocket, but I wasn’t going to let her in on that unnecessarily. I was reasonably sure that I was allowed to buy a ticket on the train, and 23 Euros seemed like an exorbitant amount to pay for a 20 kilometer train ride.

“This train requires a reservation.” She explained. “They announced this several times.”

“But I don’t speak Dutch.” I countered.

“They announced this in English as well.” She continued. “They announce this because they don’t want people getting on the train without a ticket.”

I didn’t really understand what made the train different. I knew that it would continue on to other cities, instead of just shuttling back and forth between Centrum and Schiphol like the others, but I still hadn’t quite pieced together the entire picture.

Reluctantly, I offered her a 10 € note when she’d demanded 23 €.

“Where are you from? She asked”

“Colorado.”

“I won’t make you pay this time. But don’t do this again.”

She just dismissed me and walked away without accepting any money. I went back to my laptop, typing away as the outer-limits of Amsterdam scrolled past the train windows. The train stopped at an underground stop somewhere, and I continued typing. Normally, it would stop about three times before it got to Schiphol. And, when it got to Schiphol, it was an easily recognizable gargantuan train station comparable to Victoria Station in London or Garde Du Nord in Paris.

Only when the train had pulled away from the station did I begin to suspect that something was amiss. Suddenly, there were cows, windmills, and fields of lavender racing past the train. Not scenery that I remembered seeing before. I wanted to ask someone where we were. Where we were heading. I had a sinking feeling that had just pulled away from the Schiphol airport, and somehow I’d failed to get off, and was now an accidental tourist enroute to a city I had never intended to visit.

There was, of course, no one to ask. The official lady that I’d been molested by had vanished, and the train was one of those excruciatingly long trains where you can pass between the cars by pushing a little lever which opened the intervening doors with a loud hiss. It would take me a lifetime to get to the front of the train, and what would I do once I got there? There was no guarantee that I would have access to the engineer. Even if I could approach him, would he speak English? Would he let me off the train in a field of lavender, sheep, and cattle?

In a near panic, I approached some of the other passengers.

“What stop was that that we just left?” I stammered, afraid of the answer.

“That was Schiphol” a woman answered.

My mouth went dry.

“What is the next stop? I asked her as the panic grew to a crescendo.

“The Hague.”

“The Hague? Where is that?”

“It’s about 45 minutes I think.”

I did the math. 45 minutes there…45 minutes back…I’d lose an hour and a half. There was no way I’d make my flight back to the United States. I absolutely had to be back in Portland the first thing Monday morning.

“Maybe only about 35 minutes.” She continued.

“Thank you” I offered and struggled back to my seat. I couldn’t believe my stupidity. How could I have missed the stop?

I thought “Oh well. So I’ve missed my flight. So what. Nothing can be done about it now. I watched the countryside passing by. I tried to enjoy it, but I couldn’t. How could I have missed the stop?

The thing that threw me off was that the train was a non-stop train to Schiphol. It had just blown by all the stops I normally made. Then, at the Schiphol airport, it had gone underground. I’d never had this happen before, so I didn’t recognize the station. I assume they announced the stop, but I wasn’t expecting it to be the first stop, didn’t recognize it as the airport, and besides, it always stopped, everyone got off, and then it left going back to the Centrum. This was what threw me off. I was furious at myself for not paying closer attention. Now, I’d missed my flight back to the U.S.

At the Hague, I got off and quickly found the spoor for the next inbound train to Schiphol, via Leiden. It would be leaving at 9:47 a.m. I asked someone if the train went to Schiphol, and they assured me that it did, with one stop first at Leiden. This time, I would be paying attention. I got on the train, and it departed at exactly 9:47 a.m. I began to think that it was possible that I might make my flight.

I made it to the airport by about 10:15, for an 11:15 flight. While I was standing in line, the secret police motioned with a broad, inclusive summons in the general vicinity toward me and the lady in front of me. She looked back at me, and I nodded for her to go. While they were giving her the full body cavity search, I checked in, got my boarding passes , and cleared security.

At the gate, I somehow still had a few minutes left before boarding, and I squandered the last of my 30 Euros on two Toblerones the size of softball bats, and a trinket for Jennifer. When they called for boarding, I was the first one on the plane.

A Shower in Chicago

When I came up from the bowels of O’Hare, a gate agent met me in the jetway. She was offering connection information.

“Denver?” I asked.

“Are you Dr. Kiser?”

“Yes I am.”

“Here you are Dr. Kiser. If you’d like, you may go to the Red Carpet Room and get a show if you think you’ll have time.”

She handed me another boarding pass of sorts, directing me toward the First Class International Arrival Lounge for Terminal 1. It had a sticker-label on it with highlighted directions, and handwritten gate information.

I thought “Yes!” This is the way travel should be. It was like I had my own personal assistant once I got off the plane.

In Chicago, the heat was murderous. We had taxied the plane for miles, and then marched through absurdly long corridors before being shuttled through immigration and then customs. Per usual, I had put “Nothing To Declare”, which was a deliberate lie. I don’t feel that it’s any of their business where I’ve been abroad, or what I’ve purchased. If they challenge me and search my luggage, I’d just say ‘I didn’t know I needed to declare Toblerones.’

I took the airport train to Terminal 1, and then struggled down to the C concourse. At the First Class International Arrival Lounge, I asked them to direct me to the showers and the Red Carpet Club.

“Are you a member of the Red Carpet Club?” he asked at the counter.

“No, but they said I could go there and get a shower.” I replied. I felt miserable. I felt like I’d just come off of a six-hour flight from across the pond.

“Where did you fly in from?”

“Amsterdam.”

“Then it is no problem. I’ll print your invitation just now for you.” And he proceeded to print me yet another little pseudo-boarding pass document.

I followed his directions to the Red Carpet Club near gate C16. I found the secret entrance. It’s one of those unlabeled doors you see in airports that you wonder where it goes but don’t bother to check because you’re late for your flight. I opened the secret door and walked in, presenting my collection of boarding passes, invitation, passport, the whole nine yards.

“Is there a place I can get a shower here?” I asked desperately. It seemed sort or ridiculous. To the best of my recollection, I’d never in my life taken a shower in an airport. I’ve wanted one, but it’s never happened.

“Yes, Dr. Kiser. Let me call and see if we have one available.” She placed a call and then told me that they were expecting me.

I went to a little hidden area of the Red Carpet Club, and was directed to my own personal shower, with clean towels, a robe, shaving kits, shampoos, soaps, etc. I plugged in my laptop and cell phone to let them charge their batteries, whilst I stepped into the double-headed shower and recharged mine.

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Posted by Peenie Wallie on August 20, 2004 at 10:39 PM

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