Postcard from Amsterdam
February 2000©Nigel Spiers

Here we are at Luton Airport and our first experience of charter flights. We have just bordered a Boeing 737 in the bright orange livery of EasyJet and the price we are paying for a no-frills 35 minute trip to Amsterdam is just 12 Pounds Sterling. The flight departs smooth as a whistle, exactly on time, and on opening the EasyJet magazine I am greeted by the swarthy smiling face of the founder and owner – Stelios. I am immediately reminded of the classic Greek joke:
“I make-a the charter flights and do you think they call me Stelios the Entrepreneur – no! But just a-once I have the sex with a goat.......”.

Schipol is an enormous. modern and very efficient airport. You pass through customs at a jog, collect your bags which are already waiting for you at the carousel, change your money without a queue and go straight to your high speed train to downtown Amsterdam. We arrive on a cold winter’s night with the city lit up like Xmas and fairy lights on all the trees. The streets are wide and the reflections in the canals are just magic. There are no high buildings and the old houses are narrow and most attractive with their mansard roofs and bell shaped gables. This is something out of a children’s storybook.

Amsterdam is a most practical city. However that’s not to say it or the people are boring. The houses are all old but the interiors are very modern. There are 10,000 bicycles stacked in heaps outside central station. These are not your fashion accessory type designer bikes – no they are the old fashioned upright ones with massive chain and mud guards – they are built to last.
Everybody speaks English perfectly and nothing is a bother – unlike England where everything is a hassle. The Dutch take giving directions very seriously. If you are lost and ask a stranger for help – they immediately give you their full attention, listen patiently until you stop talking and then give you accurate directions, timings, alternative transport options and map references.

Pot is legalised which means that customs at the airport are a mere formality and everybody speaks very very slowwwlllyyyyy.
Prostitution and sex of every kind are also legalised which means that nobody looks anxious and there are no queues at toilets during business hours. That’s not to say that it’s rammed down your throat – sorry I’ll read that again. For example last night, after a particularly fine Italian meal I went to buy some indigestion pills. After sorting through 500 flavours of condoms and 10 rows of exotic douches I found one packet of Rennies. I don’t know what this means except that perhaps the Dutch solution to overeating is to take your mind off it with sex. The Homomonument is dedicated to acceptance of gays and sex between consenting adults. The Red Light district is an eye opener. As Roz, Oliver and I walked past a particularly lurid nightclub the tout on the pavement laughed and called out “family passes available here”.

There are no scantily clad beggars on the streets in winter, as in London, because the Dutch are not given to gratuitous acts of generosity or stupidity. Yes - In every respect Amsterdam is a beautiful and practical city.

Is that all there is to Amsterdam? Well no – Roz & Ollie’s highlight was visiting Madame Tussauds (yes there’s one in Amsterdam too) and mine was seeing the Night Watch by Rembrandt at the Rijks Museum. This painting is enormous – easily 7 metres wide and 7 metres high. The whole museum is dedicated to this one masterpiece and scores of people stand in silent awe of the incandescent light that emanates from the centre of the painting. You can stand up close to admire Rembrandt’s virtuoso technique and then move back over 150 metres to take in his extraordinary mastery of light and shade.

I got so used to asking strangers here for directions that I asked a BA pilot at Schipol airport where we could find the EasyJet check-in counter. He started huffing and snorting down his nose at me (a most hideous noise) and said, “how the foock should I know”. Yes – I knew we were on the way home to dear old blightey. Yet it was strangely comforting to get back to the narrow streets. filthy tube stations and inefficiency of London. Maybe I missed the wry wit and humour of The Times and The Independent on a Sunday morning.

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