UK and Amsterdam

This last week has been a great whirlwind of experiences. Unfortunately, they don’t involve a lot of poker so shield your eyes if they may be harmed by content lacking poker stories.

Saturday evening I attended my 20 year high class reunion. Without reflecting on the pure amazement of being alive 20 years post-graduation, I was truly excited to see many of my former classmates. Many people come to reunions with all sorts of agendas or things to prove but I just came to hang out with people I haven’t seen in far too long. I was quite sure that would be the motivating factor for most of my classmates so the mood of the evening was looking to be pretty enjoyable.

True to form, that’s exactly what I got. While the names and faces of people I hadn’t seen since Flock of Seagulls was considered a serious band came quickly to me, some of my classmates wondered out loud that they didn’t recognize anybody. Yes, they had packed on a few pounds (as I had I) or graduated from ugly duckling into swan but something in the eyes gives every person away. You can’t change the eyes.

None of the 1985 graduating class had cured cancer or become president (I think). Mostly it was a collection of cops, firemen, financial planners, insurance salesmen, business owners, construction workers, software engineers, attorneys, travel agents, and other normal professions that most people finally aspire to. Many had never left the comfortable city in which they grew up so had become permanent fixtures in the local community.

After draining the bar dry, several of us headed over to PS’ place to have a nightcap or eight. I awoke Sunday morning staring into the face of a wild boar. While on past occasions involving this much booze I might be referring to the attractiveness of a lady friend, this time I was actually staring into the eyes of a wild boar who’s unlucky head had been mounted on PS’ wall.

I wish it had been my head though. The dead don’t experience pain and I was being given a cruel reminder of how alive I was by a throbbing sensation which began at the base of my neck, traveled across the entire back portion of my skull, and came to an explosive ending in my temples. Yes, just like high school.

I had no time to nurse my malady though. I had a flight to catch. I got in my car and fought through my hang-over fueled, super-human like sensitivity to light and sound to make it home where I quickly showered, grabbed my bags and headed up to LAX. Some fourteen or fifteen hours later I’m shuffling onto the Heathrow Express. I exit at Paddington Station, catch the tube to Kings Cross, and board yet another train to Cambridge.

When I arrive in Cambridge and exit the train station I’m immediately struck by the fact that I’ve arrived on the one day in all my travels to the British Kingdom that sunscreen would have been a good idea. Yes, sun in England! I saw many of her majesty’s subjects cowering in dark corners, sobbing as they looked skyward screaming “Lord, what have we done to anger thee?”

I take advantage of the mass hysteria to snatch a cab which drops me off somewhere in the general vicinity of the University of Cambridge’s Jesus College campus where I’ll be staying. The campus porter’s office secures for me a bare-bones dorm room and I clean up a bit. It’s already 6pm on Monday and there’s a dinner I’m supposed to attend in the Prioress’s Room at 7:15.

I need to psych myself up for this dinner though because the entire guest list consists of angry computer scientists who surely won’t wait until my formal presentation Tuesday morning. They’re angry because my predecessors had promised them the world and failed to deliver. My particular crime was coming in after said previous failures and being stupid enough to agree to meet them face-to-face on their own turf. I ended up being able to deflect most of their jabs over dinner but I made sure to count the number of knife settings to make sure they stayed on the surface of the table.

My presentation the next morning lasted four hours. Actually there were only ten minutes of PowerPoint slides but the nine on one assault consumed the other three hours and fifty minutes. In the end, I think we made some substantial progress and it seemed most of them were pleased to have gotten their frustrations out.

Slightly bruised and bloodied I caught the next train back to Kings Cross, the tube back to Paddington, and the Express back to Heathrow. From Heathrow I boarded a KLM flight bound for Amsterdam.

Landing in Amsterdam, I quickly slid into a cab for a 50 Euro ride to my hotel. The driver had some smooth jazz going on the radio which seemed to be absolutely perfect for the ride.

I have a special place in my heart for the Dutch. Back in my Army days I was sent to the southern Dutch city of Nijmegen for the big four day march they have each year. Military teams from across the world come and hump it 25 miles a day for four days in full combat uniform including a 60 – 80 lbs rucksack.

I was there to provide medical support. We arrived a week early to recon ambulance routes through the city and scout medivac chopper landing zones in case any US personnel needed evacuation. It didn’t take long for us to recon the local pubs and “coffee” houses too.

On our first night out at the pubs, we kept getting approached by gorgeous Dutch girls who would slink by saying “I love Americans.” I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the details on how those nights ended.

One girl though stood out from the rest. It might have been that huge joint she was smoking while dancing out on the dance floor. We invited her back to the table and one of my comrades asked her for a hit and she said “No, no. Marijuana is no good for US Army.” Of course, we begged to differ with her on that point. She eventually took us down some back alley to a place called the Dreadlock Café where she introduced us to the fifty-ish, but beautiful owner and the owner’s stunningly gorgeous daughter. We had found a new base of operations for this mission.

We spent nearly every moment we could in that place. Near the end of the week though, other US forced would be arriving for the marches and being seen in a place called the Dreadlock Café wouldn’t exactly boost any of our careers so we decided we had to abandon our new home. We sadly told the owner of our predicament whereupon she grabbed me by the hand, led us to a back kitchen area with a door leading out into a back alley. She said “You come. You ring bell. You can stay back here. Nobody see.” Problem solved!

But it wasn’t just the overtures of a kindly drug dealer that secured Holland a special place in my heart. All over town there were statues, plaques, and other artifacts thanking the US Army for liberating the town from the Nazis during WWII. It was a brutal battle. US and British troops came together to take the main bridge away from the Germans. The British had the tanks and the Americans had . . . well, they had the 82nd Airborne Infantry. The first assault involved 260 men trying to cross the river in boats. Over half came back wounded or dead after running into a numerically superior German force. As the battle wore on, fighting devolved into hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting. When the smoke had cleared, US and British forces had overtaken the Nijmegen Bridge and in doing so liberated the town from Nazi occupation.

My grandfather was in the 82nd Airborne and fought in that battle. Having been stationed in Germany I had grown accustomed to the US military uniform provoking resentment and even hatred but here in Nijmegen, they had not forgotten the sacrifice my grandfather and his fellow soldiers had made. Instead of a flip of the nose (or worse) like one might expect in other parts of Europe that had been liberated by US forces the Dutch welcomed us everywhere we went. Even when our ambulance stopped at a stop light in front of a party tent, men and women would run out to the vehicle with mugs of beer which they would insist we chug with them.

Anyway, back to Amsterdam. I check in at the NH Barbizon Hotel. It’s a nice place with rooms overlooking one of the many canals that snake through the city. I showered, changed into some fresh clothes and took a stroll around the Red Light District (RLD). Now, before the snickering starts, the RLD is actually a huge tourist draw. I saw families, older couples, and gaggles of teenage boys. Rather than being the seedy part of town it’s more like huge carnival.

Unfortunately, carnival atmosphere was more than I was in the mood for so I found a little hole in the wall pub about a block from the hotel and proceeded to self-medicate myself in the hopes I would be able to get to sleep at something resembling a decent hour.

The place had a real euro-feel to it (quite fitting, don’t ya think?). It was dark and smoky with lots of old, freakish decorations on the walls. Everything from the bar itself to the stools is good old heavy wood. I’m not even sure I can describe it but European pubs have a smell and a feel to them that I’ve never seen duplicated outside of Europe.

After I watched some odd looking Dutch girl talk an Aussie man into leaving with her, I grabbed their seats at the bar. Over my left, near the fireplace, I could overhear a Dutch, an American, and a Brit talking about the war in Iraq. I chit-chatted with the bartender and the gals sitting to my right at the bar until the Brit who had been engaged in war conversation came over with his wife and took the seats to my left. He told me what I had already assumed from his stocky build and tattoos, that he was a British soldier. He had just come back from Iraq and was being shipped out to Afghanistan in a few months. His wife was entertaining and her dry wit kept the conversation on happier topics.

Around 1 am, as the pub closed, I made my way back ot the hotel where I logged on and caught Iggy and FilmGeek online for some IM. Afterward I read some email, drank some overpriced beers from the mini-bar and then crashed out.

Wednesday morning I was awoken around noon to the sounds of Dolly Parton singing Islands in the Stream and Billy Joel cranking out Piano Man as the local bars announced to all within hearing distance that they were open for business. I was finally able to roll myself out of bed sometime mid-afternoon.

I had no agenda for the day so I just strolled around the city. Before long I found myself at the infamous Bulldog Café. If all roads don’t lead to the Bulldog, they should. Surprisingly, I felt very unmotivated to accomplish anything else that afternoon.

The Bulldog

I stopped off for an early dinner at Molly Malone’s, a pub just across the canal from my bedroom window and I’m sure one of the pubs that woke me that morning. I selected the fish and chips only because they seemed to be the least disgusting item on the menu. The Dutch Joan Jett looking bartender offered mayonnaise for my chips but I declined. Whatever it is with the Dutch and the mayonnaise on french fries, I’ll never get.

While I slugged back a few Guinness, I watched a bizarre Swedish woman attempt to sell the shoes off her feet to an older British man and his twelve year old grandson. I’m not quite sure why she would think a sixty-something guy needed a pair of women’s pumps but her sales pitch was relentless. It might have been humorous if the set of the Stones, Eagles, and Bob Dylan playing over the sound system hadn’t made it seem so surreal.

With a full belly and a good beer buzz going I hit out on the RLD again. My first night I spent seeing the RLD, tonight I wanted to experience it. Instead of worry about whether I make a right or left at the live sex show place, I was now more familiar with the layout of the streets and canals so I hopped from pub to pub taking in the people and the mood of the place.

So what exactly is the Amsterdam RLD experience?

  • Too many backpacker-set white kids with dreadlocks
  • African and Arabic men mumbling “Charlie” (which I assume is cocaine), “Coca” (which I’m sure is cocaine), and “Ecstasy” at every street junction.
  • Fifty year old couples gawking at giant dildos in the sex shop windows.
  • Teenage boys stopping to giggle at every sign or advertisement that shows a woman’s breast.
  • Walking past a “coffee shop” and getting a contact high as the pungent aroma of dope comes billowing out.
  • Watching two attractive teenage women walk out of a sex shop with an oversized shopping bag.

It’s all of that and more. I don’t even know if I can describe it because it’s mostly about the little things. Like, the difference between how a twenty-something American couple reacts to a woman in the window vs. how a similarly aged European couple reacts to it. I could write five pages on just the strange things you see sitting in an outdoor pub for an hour but I won’t because I’m already on page five of a post that has nothing to do with poker.

One thing I did see which I thought was amusing was the fine art of prostitute hand-signal negotiation. The girls are behind closed windows and so there’s no real conversation to take place until one enters the building. This forces some of the communication to take place via hand gestures and other non-verbal means. A young-ish man was obviously taken aback by one particular lady and they exchanged some looks and smiles. There was some obvious mutual attraction going on here. He was attracted to her . . . well, you get the picture and she was obviously attracted to the bulge in his . . . wallet. Her attraction to the spare Euros in his pocket must have been greater than his attraction because she initiated the negotiation sequence by holding up five fingers to signal 50 Euro. He responded by flashing just three fingers to indicate his desire to only pay 30 Euro. She closed the negotiations by responding with only one finger which signaled fu. . . I think you know what that means.

I eventually found myself at Molly Malone’s again for a few nightcaps and then went back to my room for some additional demotivation I had left over from the Bulldog.

On Thursday I got an earlier start on the day but accomplished just as little as I had on Wed. Perhaps I made it farther into the city than I did the day before but I’ll never know because the streets twist and turn in so many different directions that I kept coming back to the same places.

The Canals of Amsterdam

I know, I’m in Amsterdam, I should see the museums, the casino, the tulip farms, Anne Frank’s house, yadda, yadda, yadda. Well, the simple answer is that I didn’t come here to see those things. I came to relax. I’ve done the Paris in four days or Rome in three days trips and I always come back tired from running from attraction to attraction. I also come back a little disappointed because I either didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see or I didn’t get to spend enough time seeing the things that I saw. This trip was about nothing more than being 6000 miles from home with no cell, no easy access to email (though I did answer emails at night before going to bed), and no itinerary that I felt I had to meet. I just wanted to sit in cafes all day and pub hop at night. In other words, I didn’t come to Amsterdam to see anything. I didn’t come to do anything. I simply came to Amsterdam to be in Amsterdam. Mission accomplished. Everything else was simply icing on the cake.

Thursday evening, which would be my last, I started off with some Bulldog inspired demotivation and then a trip to Molly’s for a few beers while I scribbled out some notes for this trip report. The same drunken guy who had been at Molly’s the night before passed out over the bar is still there but in a different seat. As the bartender and I do business over him we both chuckle at his incapacitated state.

Tonight Molly’s has a DJ spinning jazz-like dance tunes. U2 would probably weep at such things being played in a traditional Irish pub but U2 wasn’t there so screw ’em because the music went well with the beer-buzz I was putting together.

Instead of hitting the busy pubs as I had the night before I opt for the nearly dead pubs. I spend the evening enjoying a beer or two at each, chatting with the bartender or a friendly regular for about an hour and then I’m off to the next. I end up calling it an early night and head back to the hotel.

Friday morning was just another travel day. Up at 6:30am, to the airport for a 8:30 flight to Heathrow, a 5 hour layover in London, a 11 hour flight back to LA and an hour drive home.

Saturday I have to hunt for apartments closer to my new gig at FullTilt.