Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Netherlands, Part One

Chandra and I got up early to catch our flight to Amsterdam. Melanie's flight would not leave for another couple of hours, so she was still asleep when we left the flat and began rolling our suitcases around the corner to the Sloane Square tube station. We took the tube to Victoria Station, then caught the train to Gatwick airport, south of London.

At the airport we went through the same security routine as in Dallas—hat, coat, belt, shoes, laptop, small change, carry-on bag, all were placed in bins and sent through the x-ray machine. I went through the metal detector and didn't beep. Chandra went through and beeped. She received a pat-down search.

Then, as I was collecting my things from the x-ray machine, I noticed my carry-on bag was missing. I looked up. Here came a female security officer with the bag. She set it on the metal table in front of me and opened it. Out came everything. Battery chargers, camera, mobile phone, books, postcards, my sketchbook and pens, everything was scrutinized as a possible weapon.

While this was going on, a male officer strode up to me, stiff and military in bearing, holding an empty bin, and said sternly, "Your hand."

My hand? What about my hand? Was I supposed to put my hand in the bin and send it through the x-ray machine? Was my hand being confiscated? Was my hand not regulation size? Would it have to be checked? Or was he suggesting something else? Did he want to hold my hand? Kiss my hand? Did he want my hand in marriage? I stared at him blankly.

"Your hand!" he barked in his British accent. But barking got him nowhere. I still didn't understand. Grimacing with irritation, he held his hand out palm upwards, indicating I should do the same. But why? Was he going to give me a high-five? Only one way to find out. I held out my hand. Whereupon he lifted the bin and poured my change—my pounds, half-pounds, twopence, etc.—right into ... my hand! So that's what he meant! How foolish of me not to realize that in British airport security, they don't just say "Here's your change" when they want to give you your change. No, they bark an incomprehensible order: "Your hand!" Apparently they have decided this is the most effective way to communicate, especially with foreign travelers, people who speak other languages, Chinese, Swahili, and in my case Texan.

He spun around stiffly and strode away to find someone else to bark at. Meanwhile, the search of my bag had produced something: a souvenir corkscrew I had bought the day before. The woman held it up and looked at me. Oh my god! It's a corkscrew! What was I thinking? Somehow, in my haste to pack, I had failed to consider that a corkscrew has a sharp metal point and anything with a sharp metal points is a no-no in airport security. Why, I might as well have pitched a box cutter into my bag. "This will have to stay here," she said, pitching the corkscrew into a box full of other confiscated deadly weapons.

The woman kindly offered to help me repack my previously neatly-packed bag, but of course it was a one-person job and nothing she could do. "No, thank you," I said, "I've got it." I crammed everything back into my bag and we hurried to our gate.

The flight took about an hour. At Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, I changed my pounds into Euros, then Chandra walked me downstairs to the train station where I bought my ticket to Rotterdam. We said goodbye and she went back upstairs to wait for Melanie's flight. I found the platform where my train was supposed to arrive in 15 minutes, but the destination marquee was blank. Was this really the right place, I wondered. Nearby, I heard someone say the word Rotterdam. A Dutch woman was speaking in English to a family of three who had asked her for help. I walked over to them. "Did someone say Rotterdam?"

The family was from Canada. They asked where I was from. I told them Austin and they said they had recently attended the Austin City Limits music festival. They greatly liked Austin. We talked for a few minutes, then "Rotterdam" appeared on the marquee and here came the train.

I boarded. There were very few other passengers. I took a seat by a window and called Marcel Ruijters on my mobile phone to let him know I was heading his way. He said he would meet me at the station. Then I settled back into my big, comfortable seat for the hour's train ride.

And oh, what a pleasant ride it was. It was fast, smooth, quiet. I wish we had trains like it in the US. But no, what we have is the notoriously inefficient, unreliable, unpleasant Amtrak that might get you to your destination eight hours late, if you're lucky.

We slid through the flat Dutch countryside, green and wet under a grey sky. Irrigation ditches cut through the farms. I saw sheep and wild geese in the fields. Here and there, communal gardens were clustered near the railroad tracks. We crossed the occasional four-lane freeway. We passed through a few cities.

Then we pulled into Rotterdam. I walked through the station, and at the entrance saw Marcel. We smiled, recognizing each other from our photos on the Web, and shook hands ...

(to be continued)