Welcome one, welcome all to the circus of public transit and Europe once again proving to me that they’ve got their stuffs together when it comes to public transport.
Chris woke me up this morning with a cup of tea right at about 10 past 8:00. I was only nervous about one thing, the off-peak ticket I had burning a hole in my pocket to get back to London. Since the train departed at 9:29 it was a full minute before the off-peak times started. The later train would have only left me 45 minutes to get sorted at St. Pancras…which, in all honesty, probably would have been alright.
I boarded the train basically thinking that they wouldn’t care, but as I crept past the little moving LED display on the side of the E cabin I noticed “off-peak travel cards are not valid.”
Right, just ignore that and hope for the best.
About 12 seconds into the train ride the ticket agent come into E cabin and asked if anyone was new since Crewe. I was faced with a critical and split-second decision to make. I can either 1. Hope he skips me, assuming I’ve been on, or 2. Hand him my ticket which I know isn’t valid for an AM train to London.
I gave myself a quick vocal check and went for the #2 option, playing on American sympathy. It worked, quite brilliantly. I played the roll of the powerless frightened but very formal and apologetic American. He did me a solid, and was actualy pretty cool about it. In the end, I feel like a bit of an ass, but it saved me nearly 100 USD. 🙂
I got into St. Pancras nice and early at about 1100 GMT and dropped off the dead hookerbag. At 8 quid for the first day and 4 for each after, I figured I’d be at a max of 16 quid to leave that cursed thing behind. It was liberating walking out of there and milling about the train station which is quite grand.
I hadn’t used the tube, which saved me a fiver walking from Euston to Pancras, so I can’t speak much of that part of the station, but the rest is simply great. Modern, with lots of new shops and places to eat. Aside from the swarm of mindless idiots milling about the station it was a brilliant experience.
I snuck into the Eurostar arrivals section and went through security. Took my jacket off, ran my bag through the x-ray, kept my shoes and laptop where they were, and I was through. My god, that’s better than an airport anyday in my book!
The terminal feels new, is very posh and comfortable and they have nice gate agents to help point you in the right direction. After going through passport control I was technically in france and all the sudden messages were in two languages.
Every time I reach a new country on this trip, they seem to add another language to all announcements.
Which brings me to my social point of the week. Americans, shame on you if you never travel out of the states and see the world. Everyone caters to our language and over here many people speak a few languages, but at the center is always English.
There ya go, no reason not to travel, right? As arrogant as it seems that we expect the world to speak our language, its really, really helpful. It makes Europe easy to get across, with every sign in a few languages.
And we’re so freaked out about adding one language to our signs, even though a ridiculous amount of people in our country, and outside, speak that language.
Anyway, let’s talk about the Eurostar experience. Its pretty sweet. The trains are rated as “high speed” which on our train was 186 mph. It was absolutely attained, which I verified on my GPS. It was quite brilliant actually watching my phone refresh and seeing how fast we were barreling across Europe.
The cabins for coach were very spacious, and empty. I don’t know if that is a fallout from the December 2009 debacle when Eurostar trains shut down after sucking in a “light and fluffy” snow into the engines, causing an electrical malfunction. Either way, I didn’t mind. The chairs are nice and big and the room is adequate, but having two seats to yourself is always ace!
I grabbed world’s shittiest latte from the bar in coach 13 and drank it up with the world’s most disappointing muffin. These two things may well have ruined my entire train ride, but the weather provided the perfect counterbalance.
The scenic view was bright and warming. Never a dull moment.
When I wandered onto the train an Indian man was asking me questions. He stood next to his wife and developmentally disabled daughter in a bit of a calm panic. He asked me where he was to put his luggage. I assisted him the best that I could, considering that I know little about public transport over here, he couldn’t have made a worse choice, but I was happy to help.
They settled in before he turned to me and asked me if the train went to Paris. At first, I couldn’t figure out what he was asking because it was so out of context, but when we both realized what had happened, it was far too late. He and his family urgently tried to disembark but the train had already began to roll.
A woman stood up and whispered (whole pointing at the man) “Ladies and gentleman, how about ‘Mr. Ban— inaudible.” Gathering from context they were all having a laugh. That sort of thing really pisses me off. I mean, it would piss me off anyway, but having been the strange traveler in a foreign place, it sucks! People are quick to judge and joke, but the man was super nice and even though he wasn’t figuring it out, he kept his composure and stayed calm.
Eventually the train manager came by to sort things out for the man, modifying his ticket to change trains in Lille, our only stop.
Our train pulled into Brussels and it was an immediate culture shock for me. I hadn’t yet experienced a place where the principal signage was in a different language. What’s worse is the station is old and feels dirty in parts (not all) with pickpocket warnings everywhere, married with shady characters constantly working on getting “a few coins for the train.”
It felt a little like a video I had seen on theonion.com which you can find here. With the language and the stuff happening around me I was almost expecting someone to hold up a crying baby and make me renounce my country, or die.
I followed one of these guys in and around to the outside where he saw a fellow beggar stopping to give one another a high five as they moved along, working unsuspecting travelers from multiple destinations.
When I bought the Eurostar ticket it had mentioned free travel to/from any Belgian location…once I realized that there is a country between France and The Netherlands and that Amsterdam is in a different country, things made more sense. I basically paid an additional 20 euros (a few more than 20 USD) to make up the fare from the inner-city train to get me to Amsterdam.
Which brings me to where I’m currently at. Patiently cruising along at what seems to be between 60-75 mph according to me GPS, but probably never exceeding that speed. This train stops quite often between major cities in its route. Belgium is pretty, but old, and from only the view of the train station and railway, it seems very vandal centric…sadly, on this trip I won’t get much of a chance to prove or disprove those notions, but the impression left is not one of exuberance and a desire to come back for the sole purpose of spending some time here.
Really this leg of the trip is all about experiencing Amsterdam and getting myself far from anyone I know, several culture shifts away, and seeing how I perform. Now that I’m older, the anxiety goes away in traveling. When you go it alone, it can be a bit freaky at times not having someone to bounce ideas off, but at the same time it creates a very easy and calm method.
We’ve just now gone through Rotterdam. This update won’t get posted until I get back to the hotel. So I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to add then. I did just find out that my hotel is only a 5 minute walk from the Amsterdam Central Station. If all goes well, it’ll all go well 🙂
Well, let’s just keep that in there for continuity. This is getting to be a rather long blog post without pictures, and only one embedded piece of content. So perhaps…I should take a quick picture of the hotel from the future.
So when you walk into the room you have to put your room key in the holder in order to activate the room from space. I’m staying at the Crowne Plaza suites in the City Center. It took only a 0.3km walk from the train station to get here, which was good because it was cold and rainy. When I made it to the hotel room it took me a good three minutes to figure out that nothing worked until you put your key in the holster.
The hotel also has a robust video system that has an input panel on the left side of the TV Panel. It supports USB 5v charging which is great for my iPod and Blackberry. The room also has UK and US outlets at 240v and 115v respectively. Each bed is equipped with a reading light and switches to operate all the perimeter lighting in the room.
The heating system is fully automatic and geared toward efficiency. With the automated lighting control systems and the features in the bathroom such as “low flush and high flush” buttons for the toilet, this room is definitely “green.” That’s great, I think that more hotels should explore that kind of technology. When it comes down to it, I’m staying in a poshly remodeled hotel for a couple of days…for free, which is great!
I set out last night to find some food and settled on Santa Maria’s which is an Argentinean Steakhouse down by the hotel, tucked away in a small little alley that has a sort of square. I chatted with the owner, let’s call him Santa, for about 10 minutes before going inside.
The result, is that the Euro is indeed a terrible thing from the perspective of a shop owner in Amsterdam. Santa told me how the price of tomatoes has sharply increased and how hard it is to earn business. With a weak Euro, people aren’t eating out as much so shops are relying as much as they can on tourism.
Their reliance on tourism shows prominently as you walk by.
Business owners much like Santa will stand outside and entice you in by giving you some fun facts about the place. Santa was quick to tell me all about how his industry works. These are all good people. Right now is a good time to try and start up conversations with them as well because no one is busy. That is my favorite time to travel.
The food, was, ok. I had frites (fries) and a Argentinean ribeye, medium rare. The steak was a bit undercooked for medium rare and the fries were definitely generic. Even though Santa was a nice guy, there is nothing special in this place.
I wondered in and out of some pubs and coffee shops for a bit before heading back to my hotel. Honestly, I’d spent the day traveling and an entire week kipping in people’s spare bedrooms and couches and enjoying the hassles of tiny English bathrooms. Hence, I decided to have another proper “fuck-all” day where I was just going to make sure that I was taken care of and happy.
I tossed on the provided hotel robe and slippers, ordered up room service and had a really, really long shower. It was the sort of shower that just makes up for an entire 7-day span of not-so-great showers, with the only really decent one being at Cath’s, but I hadn’t had my shaving kit with me…ugh!
Anyway, it was off to bed early in hopes of waking up early, which did not happen. I decided I’d finish up this post as we’re nearing 12:00 here and head out for the day to try and take some pictures and duck in and out of the rain. I also need to source out some good food and enjoy some of that as well. At first glance, Amsterdam is very touristy and full of different ethnic foods. So I shouldn’t have a problem there.
I should say, though, one last thought before I go. The begging here is pretty ridiculous. A weak Euro is probably a catalyst to an already existing problem for the region. Wherever tourism is high, there is a danger of begging and pickpockets. I’ve been keeping my eyes open. Yesterday a man walked with me and showed me where everything was before begging for a euro that I would have given him, if I had one on me. Ok, that’s not true, I had 25 euro on me…I’m a dick…but I didn’t want to give him a whole fiver. I’ve got bills to pay as well. Namely a room service bill!
Anyway, ta for now. I’ll try and get back to you later and take some cell pictures along the way. Cheers to all, may your mothers be safe, bellies be full and your harvests be bountiful.