Monday, 8 August 2011

Half Way Through My Latest Grand Tour

Well, here I am in beautiful Amsterdam, and the crowds in the ancient alleys are munching their chips to the fragrant smell of pot, and nobody cares much about anything, and the hoteliers at least are making a fortune.
The news from London is of more riots, eerily echoing those of thirty years ago that I remember from my youth. That is the difference between the two cities. The Dutch capital is very similar to London in being a highly interesting and historic rip-off. But all they do here is smoke weed. Tension and threat are almost entirely absent. Whether this has anything to do with Amsterdam being quite a lot less extravagantly multiracial than London it would of course be unacceptable to say.

This is the third of my grand tours of the Schengen area, and while it was beautiful at first to make for Italy, and know that prosaic Ventimiglia was only the first of the wonderful places that lay ahead, now I am becoming a little tired of the new places succeeding each other in my tired mind and faltering memory. Sometimes, in Italy or France, Germany or Spain, I arrive at one city in the evening and have the curious sensation that I have arrived back at the one I left in the morning.

Amsterdam in its totality appeals to me less than Berlin, where I was before. The sense of emptiness and half-forgotten tragedy that clings to that place, mingled with the pleasantness of all the eager young people flooding down the otherwise ghostly streets on their skateboards, did something to move my cold heart.

Nevertheless, I mustn't criticise Amsterdam too much. My ferociously expensive hotel doesn't offer a washing service, but the breakfast is OK when you finally get to the coffee machine, and, really, the free Internet service is a delight which has finally made me overcome my laziness and add a sixth post to my blog.

And I took my washing to a predictably hugely overcrowded launderette, but I could escape it very quickly because the generous man in the turban wrote down my washing as fit for one machine and therefore it only cost eight Euros. I am writing this blog during the hour I have to wait for the washing to be returned.

No doubt it will be a complete mess, like everything else here, but at that price you really can't complain. Back in bankrupt Portugal the local laundry does my washing beautifully but weighs it with precision and charges me more than double this. And no smiles either. In this predicament I'd rather be in Amsterdam.

After Amsterdam I'm moving on to Zurich, because I have a perverse wish to experience German-speaking Switzerland, and hope that a belligerent local will artistically beat the shit out of me. But the hotel prices are likely to be even more terrifying, so I'll only stay three days, I think, before escaping towards Italy. So on to even more pricey Rome and criminal Naples before a further quick and snooty tour of Spain and landing back in Portugal and my own dilapidated house one autumn morning with what will probably be a huge sigh of relief.

Still, I can now say that I know Europe, and only wish I had known it in the days when there was something to know. But I am reading the first volume of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy in the evenings in the restaurants, which iscouched in far more beautiful writing than anything that would or could be produced now, but depicts a Europe of such casual brutality, inequality and horror at the opening of the war that it makes my complaints about the modern world of laziness, mild corruption  and comfort look silly.

Let us pray that the wheel of fortune does not turn too soon and bring us back to a human situation where such things are practised as Olivia Manning knew. It could happen overnight, at the onset of some catastrophe. What goodwill exists in Europe or elsewhere would not stop it for one moment.

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