Rotterdam

Amsterdam’s easy. Day trip, overnight, plane or train, whatever. It’s so easy I once took the ferry home just to liven things up. Yesterday therefore came as something of a shock. What felt like a routine January visit for work – I come here a couple of times a year to visit Booking.com, who have a vast workforce here – started to unravel the night before.

Upon checking in an advisory of a storm over northern Europe on Thursday warned of delays and all other manner of horrors. I don’t normally need an excuse to book a train instead, and as I could reclaim for the flight I swiftly switched to rail.

IMG_6982On Thursday morning as this revised plan was uneventfully put in place. The new-edition Eurostars are a pretty swish proposition and we reached Brussels without drama. And despite the tannoy warnings that all trains on the German network had been suspended my Thalys to Amsterdam was in situ and showing as an on-time departure. As if by magic, with only a few minutes before departure and with no-one on board, the indicators suddenly showed the train was cancelled. ‘Train 9193 will not run today’ mewled the Brussels Midi tannoy. (The same tannoy that once noted in a blasé fashion that my sleeper to Hamburg was going to be 4 and a half hours late, and you can sleep on a bench until then. I hate that tannoy.) Seconds later, that audible right hook was followed by the bone-chilling ‘all trains on the Dutch network are suspended until further notice.’ A late afternoon museum, a stroll along the canals, maybe dinner in a brown cafe. All disappeared into the ether.

I’m not one of those buffoons who says Belgium is boring. Quite the opposite. But I am not devoted to the appreciation of its capital and have particular numbness towards the charmless zone around Midi station. In mitigation there is a Sunday market where you can buy Moroccan pancakes so all is not completely lost. So I found a hotel on the other side of the city and took a walk there, arriving as night was falling and receiving notices from friends of bad weather in Utrecht, Rotterdam and other Dutch cities. That night Brussels grew placid to the point of silence. I walked to the Grand Place, one of Europe’s great squares, and had an early night before an equally early start.

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By now it was Friday, and with all my pent-up spare time gone, I had to start making progress to Amsterdam. Trains were running at ‘an almost normal service’ but I was cautious of yesterday’s demand for Thalys trains spilling over into long queues at hateful Midi, so I opted for a slower IC service from Nord, just by my hotel. The curse struck again – seconds before my train to Rottedam was due to leave a notice appeared saying it would depart from Antwerp. Antwerp: 60 miles away. Antwerp: where I was not! So I had to make my way first to Antwerp Central. Again, no great hardship. This is a breathtaking station and very much worth detouring to. The slow stopping service through places of little consequence stirred up some nerves of a slow-slow journey. I need not have feared. After a little looksy around this wonderful station, and some time meditating on WG Sebald’s bleak visit to a silent bar near here the Rotterdam train rolled in. With a greater sense of purpose than before we moved north, first across the border through flat farmland and birch forest and then across great estuaries and canals, past windmills and vast tulip fields, and via a change of stations and a spin of the Wedding Present’s ‘Rotterdam’ I found myself finally and somewhat stubbornly arriving in Amsterdam.

Despite all these delays, my original plan to work from Amsterdam for the best part of 24 hours meant I still had a few hours spare before giving the talk. Somewhere in the back of my head I had stored the thought that I was addressing a hall of 2000 people as I think I’d been told, but I had repeatedly dismissed that as invented fiction. On arriving at the Excel-style arena, to the south of the Amsterdam you’re probably thinking of, the thought that that number may in fact be correct after all came more prominently to mind. This fun-looking event was vast, with two huge halls seemingly dedicated to feeding the hordes of 20 and 30 somethings who work here. After some time I made it to the speaker’s area, a near-empty green room. An hour or so later I was ushered in front of a crowd that did indeed match the attendance at the 1872 FA Cup Final. I was the last speaker before an address from the CEO, and then a rather large party. It seemed that entertaining was the order of the day, and I whizzed through the potted history of my employer and my own very average holiday snaps without dwelling on anything too serious, then fleeing from the stage before popping anyone’s balloon including my own. Doing something like that can rather make you float.

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And then it was back out onto the streets of the Dutch capital. After a few visits here recently I am both more familiar and completely hooked on the city’s canals and small streets, ringing with tilling alarm bells and, if you get it right, offering a step back in time that takes the breath away. I found just such a street on a long, half-lost walk back to Centraal. It was perfect – cobbled, lined with thin houses each of a different colour, and each with a winch at the top, gable pointing to the sky, and a cluster of Dutch bikes outside each house. A canal at each end. I wanted to stay here for a while, even though around the corner were another bunch of pot-smoking likely lads, and I still had Schiphol to get through to get home. I couldn’t help it, there’s nowhere better to wander until your feet are sore, by the still waters with a chill blowing off them.

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