First Flight

Until I was in my twenties I had never flown anywhere. I’d been on camping holidays with my family as a teenager, to France and even once a driving holiday to Switzerland, which seemed intrepid at the time.

After a couple of years of work, and having become established in a pleasant, shared flat in Putney, one of my flat-mates suggested we take a trip to Amsterdam during our Easter holiday. We’d still be doing it on the cheap, taking standard flights and staying in the youth hostel; but Easter is a fine time to visit The Netherlands and we’d be able to take a coach out to Keukenhof, where acres of bulbs are grown, a spectacular sight in the spring.

I was as excited about the flight as anything else. At this time [the mid 70s] air travel still held a hint of glamour, influenced by Freddie Laker’s entrepeneurial innovations, the TV ads full of inviting images. I am ancient enough to remember the Imperial Leather soap commercial, in which a couple are bathing in an aircraft. These days any sense of luxury or comfort on an aeroplane can only be accessed via flying business class and paying extortionate sums for tickets.

But Amsterdam is a short flight away and a trip we would never undertake by air now. My friend, Deirdre had come up with another cunning plan. Her ex-boyfriend was living in Amsterdam, having moved on to live with his latest squeeze, a Dutch girl in a flat near the centre. According to Deirdre, Dale was a confident, charming but egocentric womaniser who would love nothing more than to provide free tours and guidance during our stay. We never discovered what the Dutch girlfriend thought of it all…

Everything was straightforward with our travel and we got into the centre of Amsterdam with no trouble, but locating the youth hostel was another matter. There were, however various ‘hostels’ and we checked into one, assuming it was indeed the official, kosher, accredited real deal. It was certainly cheap. But in that time-honoured way of ‘getting what you pay for’, it was a dump, the shared washing facilities spartan, the dorms quite nasty.

We managed a night then rose and set off to meet Dale, who was delighted to see us and show us around, He also explained that our accommodation was not the Youth Hostel and took us to find the YHA property, which was located bang slap in the centre of the red light district [which, for anyone who would like to know, is near Amsterdam’s grand railway station].

We removed ourselves from the first place and went to the YHA, where we were allocated bunks in a dormitory, mine being the top one. There were strict rules, one being a denial of entry after 10.00pm, which seemed a little draconian. We’d also have to take our turn with clearing up breakfast etc. But it was clean and safe.

So during our week we walked all over Amsterdam, taking a canal boat ride, visiting the Rijksmuseum, all the major squares, the flower market and most memorable, a tour of Anne Frank’s house, when we were almost alone and in silence to look at the cramped attic where she hid with her family. I’ve returned to Amsterdam on a number of occasions but have never wanted to revisit the house, to queue up and shuffle around in a crowd of chattering tourists.

As twenty somethings, we threw ourselves with gusto into the city’s nightlife, but our 10pm curfew was a severe obstacle to fully enjoy the evenings. Most nights we rushed in with seconds to spare, to find the dorm dark and full of slumbering women, then I’d have to scramble up past two levels to reach my bunk, hoping not to insert my foot into someone’s face.

It was a packed week. The Netherlands’ capital is always a captivating trip to make, but you never forget your first sight of iconic places-and you never forget the first time you flew, either!

When the High Tide of Expectation Drops to a Catastrophic Low

The research took some time. It was tricky finding a suitable date, near enough to the actual big day plus an itinerary that would be acceptable. It had been impossible to find a Rhine cruise that allowed us to drive overland to the embarkation point, so I’d had to select flights then change them [at a cost] because they were at some obscene hour of the morning like 6.30am. A 6.30am flight, as I pointed out to the lady on the phone hardly constituted a birthday treat, especially as airports these days require you to be there two hours before take-off. This would be 4.30am. 4.30am!
Then there was the complimentary taxi to the airport, which would need to collect us at 2.30am. 2.30am! How would anyone manage this? Would you sleep beforehand, retiring at a ridiculous hour then getting up at 1.30? Or would you stay up and be almost comatose for the first couple of days of the trip?
No. I changed the flights. I reserved a room at the Heathrow Hilton. The taxi would take us to Heathrow at a respectable hour of the afternoon, we’d check in to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely meal, get a decent night’s sleep and be at terminal 5 at around 8.30am for a 10.30am flight. Sorted.
Husband had chosen a Rhine cruise as his birthday treat. These days there is precious little ‘stuff’ that he wants or needs, and being a man, if he wants or needs something he gets it. As regular readers know, Husband, that character who features in many posts, had a particular milestone birthday two weeks ago and as a result had an entire post written about him…
I’d been startled by his choice of a cruise, as we are great avoiders of such holidays [this, reader has also been much documented on Anecdotage], but river cruises are as unlike sea cruises as cycling is to motor bikes. The boats are not vast, floating monstrosities and passengers must not endure days and days at sea getting stuffed with gargantuan meals, enduring endless, tedious cabarets, ‘dressing’ for dinners and making small talk with those with whom they are incarcerated. The modest cruise boat makes frequent stops at places you can walk around and the ambience is casual. There would always be something to see, even from the cabin. We’d have begun at Amsterdam and finished at Basle. I was frustrated that we’d had to fly such a short distance [Amsterdam is a city that can be driven to in a day from Dunkirk] but when the detailed itinerary arrived in the post it looked thrilling. We’d be stopping each day at beautiful, historic places and get walking tours, as well as travelling through the beautiful Rhine gorge and seeing the Lorelei rock.

I bought new suitcases [ours hailing from a bygone era], bought shoes, organised, laundered, ironed, primed the neighbours.

‘You should see this’ Husband informed me as I returned from shopping. It was an email from the river cruise holiday company to the effect that they were changing the itinerary to mostly coach travel. This was due to a lack of water in the Rhine. He [and I] never at any point wished to embark on a coach tour. I cancelled.

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseous [yes, yes I realise it is a ‘first world’ issue].

We packed our camper van and drove off to the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, 30 miles away from our home and parked in the sunshine overlooking the hillside at Corfe Castle. We strode out over the hills and enjoyed the breath-taking views of our lovely Dorset coast. I stopped feeling bereaved.

Out in the van, we are never disappointed. Yes, there are sometimes challenges or difficulties. Yes, we must make the odd meal, wash up, empty various tanks. But we are not dependent on flights, hotels, plans others have made.

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Next week Fiction Month begins! Check in to Anecdotage for fresh, new fiction…

Going Dutch

                We have arrived to the environs of Amsterdam. The last time we visited this compact but beautiful capital city was a number of years ago, despite having travelled in the Netherlands to some extent. Our last Amsterdam visited included a comfortable hotel stay near the centre. This time we have made the bold step of driving here in the campervan, despite the autumnal weather.

                Amsterdam boasts remarkable architecture and a network of canals, as many North European cities do, and like all of the Netherlands [which benefits from a flat terrain] has developed a magnificent system of bike paths. As I’ve mentioned before, the bicycle rules here, taking precedence over both motor vehicles and pedestrians, which is lucky since we have not only brought our bikes with us, but yours truly continues to be lame from foolish activities such as jogging.  Nevertheless we are here to watch a plucky family member undertake the Amsterdam marathon and provide whatever support we can, from clapping and whooping as he dashes past in a blur, to hearty congratulations and beer on completion.

                The campsite here in Amstelveen, a satellite of Amsterdam, is clean, modern and comfortable, with heated wash blocks, hard standing for motorhomes, affable, friendly staff and plenty of useful information. But Amstelveen is an odd, characterless area. We stumbled out to try and find the ‘centre’, hoping for a bank and perhaps a hostelry where we might enjoy an early evening drink. There are miles of new, pristine housing estates, neatly laid out and incorporating cycle ways, patches of grass with goal nets, basketball courts, picnic benches. There is no litter or dog excrement. There are also no newsagents, grocery stores, coffee bars, bistros, launderettes, betting shops, Chinese takeaways or bars. Eventually, among the vast warehouse factories and car outlets we discovered a supermarket and inside, a cash dispenser.

                There is an intrepid element to van camping at this time of year. A couple of years ago we ventured to Bruges, in Belgium just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to a site accessible to the centre, though a bus ride away. The weather was damp and chilly. One of the few fellow campers blew up the electricity supply, rendering our electric heater useless and necessitating using the gas rings for heating. Visiting the centre of the medieval city was nice, but cold, and in order to stay warm we had to keep nipping into bars and cafes even more than we would normally. Bruges was bedecked with lights, decorations, a Christmas market and an ice rink, but was freezing. We returned home with head colds.

                Here there is a vestige of watery, late autumn sunshine mixed in with the clouds. We are an easy cycle from Amsterdam’s centre and have the benefit of reliable, cosy heating. How was the marathon? I’ll let you know…