Chapter 3 – Canals and Cafes

Dan stood outside the hotel gazing across Prins Hendrikkada at the majestic Centraal Station. The redbrick building was the main focal point, but between Dan and the station were the buses, trams, cars, trucks, and bikes that created a busy scene for any new arrival.

On the other side of the lanes of traffic, was a canal with a range of long, canal cruise boats. They were resplendent in their brightly painted hulls, and wide observation decks. A small booking office was situated nearby on the dockside. Between the canal cruisers and the station was the Stationsplein, packed with trams, taxis, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Once unpacked, Dan had showered and changed into a pale blue, short-sleeve shirt, navy shorts, and white trainers. He had hooked his shades in the pocket of his shirt, and he was wearing a small black, man-bag. He turned when he heard Crystal’s voice behind him.

“It’s an impressive piece of architecture,” she said.

“Well, it’s rumoured that the Japanese think so,” Dan said, looking back over his shoulder at the station.

“I don’t follow you.”

“I’ll explain when we stop for a coffee,” he said.

“I look forward to that,” she said. “I like trivia, but I love coffee.”

They both laughed.

“Okay,” Crystal said, composing herself. “I think I’m ready for my introduction to Amsterdam city centre, and let me hear the trivia.”

“I don’t want to bore you-,”

“You let me be the judge of that. I want to see how much you know, and if you make a worthwhile guide.”

Dan couldn’t stop himself appraising Crystal. She was wearing her mirrored shades lifted onto her head so that they acted as an impromptu hair-band, to keep her long tresses from her face. She had changed into a bright yellow blouse, white shorts, and white trainers. She wore a small, multi-coloured, beaded bag, on a strap over her left shoulder.

“If this is casual,” Dan said, “I hope I’m around when you get dressed up.”

“Thank you,” she said and smiled. “Are you ever anything but complimentary?”

“Yes,” he said, “sometimes I go over the top, and become embarrassing.”

Crystal laughed, and then looked Dan up and down with a critical eye.

“You look casual, and comfortable, but still smart, and I like the man-bag too.”

“Well,” he said, “coming from someone who works in fashion, that makes me feel good. Thank you.” He paused before adding. “Being in the trade, I’m sure you’d be aware that men carried bags before women ever did.”

“But of course,” she said and laughed.

As the pair set off from the hotel, they went to the left, and Dan felt like a million dollars, with Crystal walking by his side. In his mind’s eye, he knew where he wanted to go, so hoped he could find his way without any problems. He knew that Crystal would be none the wiser as they took in some of the sights of the city centre.

Prins Hendrikkade was, to Dan’s way of thinking, a wide and busy European city street, complete with an abundance of traffic of various types. There were admittedly more bikes than most places, but it didn’t give the ‘Amsterdam’ feel. Five minutes later, they stopped so that Crystal could focus on the huge multi-level building across the canal at the west end of the railway station. It was about the point where the main road’s name changed to Nieuwe Westerdokstraat.

“That is incredible,” she said as she looked at the multi-storey bike park opposite. “How many bikes will fit in there do you think?”

“Approximately 2,500 I believe,”

Crystal smiled and shook her head in disbelief. They continued west along the wide and busy pavement, where the adjoining cycle path contained an almost constant flow of traffic. It was mainly bikes, but there were occasionally motor scooters.

Crystal said: “I’ve already noticed that there are a lot of very different bikes.”

“Yes, I think it’s one of the distinctive aspects of the city. You’ll also notice that there are people of all ages cycling, and in all manners of dress.” They stopped at a road junction with a gathering of pedestrians and cyclists, and listened to the steady beeping. The seconds counted down prior to the lights changing. The red man changed to a green man.

They crossed Stromarkt, which although busy, was not on the same scale as where they’d just been. After crossing the Singel canal bridge on the main route, they turned left onto Singel. There were stores and cafes along the right, and trees lining the bank of the canal to the left. Between the trees, opposite the cafes, were the regular tables and chairs, complete with huge colourful parasols.

As they walked south along Singel, Crystal saw her first busy bridge over the canal. There had been a bridge over a canal right outside the station, but this felt different. She looked left and right, and was stunned by the number of bikes, either, on the move or shackled to the railings that ran along the sides of the canal. For a moment, they stood there as Crystal looked around.

She said: “I’m going to resist the temptation, by not joining the other tourists in a photo-fest. I’ll wait until I’ve been here a couple of days, or I’ll be taking pictures of every street corner, canal, and bridge.”

“We’ll continue south along here,” Dan suggested and laughed. “If you see anywhere or anything you’d like to investigate, just say.” They set off again, and Dan noticed Crystal looking left and right, still taking in the general scene.

They strolled along the pavement of the single-lane, tree-lined street. On their right, were a line of narrow houses, stores and cafes, and to the left, the canal with an almost constant line of boats parked along the banks. It was a typical Amsterdam canal street.

They arrived at Haarlemmerstraat and Crystal stopped to gaze along its length. She turned and looked at Dan, and raised her brow. He nodded, and they set off along the street.

It felt more like a broad alleyway than a street, but there were small stores on either side along its length, and there were streetlamps suspended on wires between the buildings; as opposed to hanging from regular lampposts.

Crystal walked along, her head turning continually left and right. She found that she was immersing herself in her surroundings. She was also soon to realise that people riding bikes didn’t dismount unless they had to.

Partly, due to natural inquisitiveness, and partly due to being a shopper by nature, Crystal was drawn to many of the small stores. Dan could see his companion was enjoying herself. He pointed out that parked bikes were secured to anything that would accept the security chain.

It took 15 minutes to walk a relatively short distance, but it entertained Dan to see Crystal taking such an interest. At one point, she stopped to look at a small shop-front with darkened windows.

“Coffee Shop?” she said, with furrowed brow, and then her face lit up in realisation. “Is that the sort of ‘coffee shop’ I think it is?”

“It is indeed,” Dan said. “In that type of place, the customers are more interested in the grade of the weed, than the beans.” He laughed at his own humorous comparison. “If you want a coffee, you watch out for a cafe sign.”

Crystal nodded, and smiled as they set off, but she was to realise very soon that there was an abundance of coffee shops. They walked along Haarlemmerstraat for about 15 minutes, and then turned back toward Singel. They reached the tree-lined canal, and turned right to continue their original route south.

Dan explained in simple terms about the Grachtengordel. He told Crystal how three main canals were engineered in the 17th century in a concentric semi-circle around the medieval town. The development of the canal framework had taken many years.

Crystal was intrigued by the theory of such a plan and kept Dan on his toes with more questions than he had answers. He promised her that the range of museums would provide all the information she could want, but she would have to be patient.

For half an hour, they walked and gazed at their surroundings, talking about large cities that they’d seen, and how they differed from the atmosphere they presently found themselves enjoying. Crystal was like an inquisitive child, asking questions and soaking up information as fast as Dan could supply it. Both were enjoying the verbal tennis match.

At one point, they found themselves walking along a stretch, practically alone, except for the occasional cyclist. Not for the first time, Crystal stopped, looked around, and then posed her next query.

“Would this be typical of a quieter canal street?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dan said, and raised his left hand to indicate the ingredients. “You can imagine it as a sort of architectural sandwich. The canal with barges tethered: the bank with cars parked, complete with bollards and trees between, the single-lane roadway, the tighter line of bollards, narrow pavement, and then buildings.”

“I take it the bollards near the buildings are to prevent vehicles parking on both sides of the roadway?”

“Yes,” Dan said, “and I’ve no doubt as we walk along here, you’ll see what happens when a vehicle has to stop for some reason.”

Crystal nodded, and they continued.

Less than five minutes later, as if on cue, a yellow, parcel delivery van stopped about 100 metres ahead. The driver got out, went around to the back of his vehicle, and retrieved the item for delivery. He was parked directly outside the building he sought, but in the few minutes he was dropping off, two other vehicles arrived, and pulled up behind his van.

Crystal said: “There’s no impatient honking of car horns.”

“No. It would be a pointless gesture. Anyone who drives in Amsterdam quickly realises there is a price to pay when they use these minor streets.”

The van driver returned to his vehicle, and nodded to the drivers who were waiting behind him as he got back to his vehicle.

Dan said: “I think you’ll be surprised at how rapidly it goes from the serene, canal-side streets to a busy city.”

They allowed short periods of companionable silence to intersperse with their conversation. The pair strolled along the narrow street taking in Amsterdam’s distinctive ambience, and thinking their own thoughts.

They arrived at Koningsplein, which gave Crystal, the opportunity to see another reminder that Amsterdam was a busy city. Trams, cars, and trucks took up the main roadway, while the pedestrians had the inner pavement, and the many cyclists shared their lanes with the occasional speeding motor scooter.

As they stood waiting to cross at the lights, something caught Crystal’s eye on the other side of the junction.

“That looks like an interesting stall over there, Dan.”

“It’s a little bit more than a stall,” he said. “That is the beginning of the Bloemenmarkt, which I’m sure you could translate yourself.”

“Will we be going down that way?”

“I wouldn’t let you miss it,” he said and received a beaming smile as a reward.

Five minutes later, they were strolling along between the colourful stalls of flowers. Along the right side were small stores, and along the left were the flower stalls as most people refer to them. Crystal was no different.

“These stalls are amazing,” she said.

“They’re boats, floating in the canal,” Dan said, “although they are so closely packed and well-presented, that the majority of visitors think of them as being set up on the street.”

There were hundreds of blooms, and interspersed with them were packets of seeds and all the paraphernalia that the enthusiast expects, including small garden ornaments for standing or hanging.

Crystal said: “The colours and the range are incredible. There must be hundreds of varieties of tulip.”

“There are indeed,” he said. “The strange thing is, the tulip is normally associated with the Netherlands, but many people don’t realise it isn’t an indigenous species?”

“You are kidding me?”

“No, the tulip was introduced here in about the 16th century, and it flourished, if you’ll pardon the pun.” He allowed himself a smirk. “The colours of the flowers even have an individual significance.”

Crystal smiled and slowly shook her head when Dan finished his explanation.

*

They saw how busy the roads could become once again when they arrived at the massive multi-junction, at Muntplein. There were hundreds of bikes parked up, and just as many on the move. There was an impression of heavy traffic, simply because there were trams passing in more than one direction.

As they’d seen previously, cars, motor scooters, and delivery trucks added to the melee that caused pedestrians to take care as they considered their next move. At the junction; Singel, Amstel, Rokin, and Vijzelstraat joined, to remind any visitor that they were indeed in a major city.

It took Dan a few seconds, to ascertain which way he was heading, so he was grateful that Crystal stood wide-eyed, taking in the multitude, and variety of traffic around them.

“This way,” Dan said, when he was confident, and led them to the left, across the junctions when the lights were in their favour. He was watching out along the handful of options, for the narrow street that had stores with canopies over the windows.

He led the way along to Doelensluis, which they used to cross the canal to Nieuwe Doelenstraat. They walked along the one-way road, careful to stay on the narrow pavement. It felt as if there was a vehicle parked between each of the bollards along the route.

Crystal said: “There seems to be a coming-together here, of the busy, and the narrow roadway, but no canal or trees.”

“It changes rapidly doesn’t it,” Dan said and laughed as he stepped back to walk behind Crystal. There were pavements on both sides of the road, but neither made it easy for pedestrians to walk side by side or pass each other.

They arrived at the canal, where the presence of a large metal framed drawbridge, assured Dan that he had reached his goal. There on the other side was the corner cafe where he’d first took a break on his own first visit. When they crossed the bridge, they sat at a table on the bank of the canal. A large, bright-coloured, parasol shielded them from the sun.

A fair-haired, teenage girl, in black T-shirt and black trousers, approached their table. Only after consulting Crystal, Dan ordered two coffees, and cake with cream.

Crystal said: “That girl’s English is impeccable.”

“English is their second language here,” Dan said, “and, I’m ashamed to admit, that a lot of the Dutch speak it better than some of my own countrymen.” They both laughed.

The waitress strode across the narrow street, and with a genuine smile, served the order, before going off to attend to other customers.

Dan nodded toward the coffee, and said, “It’s Dutch, so it’s a very nice blend.”

“What about the apple strudel?”

“Oh, that’s just nice,” he said. “Welcome to Amsterdam.”

Crystal said: “You were saying earlier that there was some rumour about the Japanese being impressed by the Centraal Station. What was that all about?”

Dan smiled. “There is an unfounded rumour that survives. A high-ranking Japanese official was so impressed by Amsterdam’s Centraal Station that he suggested that the main railway station in Tokyo should have a similar style.”

“I take it that’s not the case?”

“No,” he said, “but it makes a nice story. Amsterdam Centraal Station opened in 1889, and Tokyo’s main station was opened in 1914, so the timing would work. You would see it didn’t happen if you compare the two stations.”

“Anything else I should know about the station, Mr. Trivia?”

“Well, there was a lot of controversy at the planning stage. It became clear that the main station would block the view of Amsterdam city, from the open harbour, but the city council vote went in favour of going ahead with the station design and location anyway.”

“Is this your way of impressing upon me that you’d make a good personal guide?”

“Maybe,” he said and smiled.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Your basic introduction to the city isn’t over yet,” Dan said, and lifted his coffee, “and I’d like to make it last longer.”

“Oh,” Crystal said, and smiled as she lifted her cup. She arched her right eyebrow.

They looked into each other’s eyes as they sipped their drinks.

Boats and barges were tied off along both banks, with an occasional space in between. On the canal, there was a steady flow of traffic, as long tourist barges shared the waterways with other working vessels. Motorboats, rowboats, and the occasional pedalo went by, its occupants’ legs pounding away.

As the large cruise boats chugged along, bristling with camera-wielding tourists, it reminded Dan that it had been a long time since he’d enjoyed such a cruise. He did remember they were good trips, and it brought a smile.

Crystal said: “Something funny come to mind?”

“No,” he said. “I just thought that a canal cruise would be a good idea for you; particularly if you did it early on in your visit.”

“Wouldn’t I look a bit strange going on a canal cruise alone?”

“Of course you would,” Dan responded instantly, “which is why I couldn’t allow such a thing.”

They exchanged a knowing look once again, and Crystal smiled as she lifted her coffee to enjoy another sip. It seemed that the coffee wasn’t the only pleasant experience being made available to her.

For 30 minutes, they enjoyed the tranquillity, each other’s company, and a break from any pressure. At one point, when they were sitting watching the boats go by, Dan noticed Crystal’s eyelashes fluttering and her head inclining slightly forward.

He said: “May I assume you had no plans for dinner this evening?”

“No, I didn’t,” Crystal said as she turned, and tried to prevent the obvious blinking. “I’m sorry Dan,” she continued. “I must be more tired than I thought after that flight, and it’s so warm.”

“May I make a suggestion?”

“Go on,” she said, her expression bright. “You’ve done alright so far.”

“We’ll take a shorter route back to the hotel. You can then get some rest before dinner?” He paused and watched her expression closely. “If you let me know when you’d like to eat, I could book a table for two in the hotel restaurant.” He paused. “That is if you wouldn’t mind my company again.”

“You know,” she said. “I think I like that whole sequence.”

Dan paid the bill, adding a handsome tip, thanked the waitress and then guided Crystal back to the hotel by the shortest route he could remember. They chatted as they strolled back. Whenever they stopped to cross at junctions, they continued the conversation, and Dan took the opportunity to appreciate his recent acquaintance. He already knew he wanted this woman’s companionship to be more than a day walking around side streets and canals.

*

Rome, Italy

Callum McGregor bought a cheap mobile phone, and as he waited for his evening meal in a quiet restaurant, he called Fiumicino Airport. He used an alias and booked himself on an early morning flight for the next day, from Rome to London Heathrow.

As he enjoyed a cool beer and a cigarette after his meal, he called London Heathrow, used a different alias, and booked himself on another flight for the next day. The second flight was an afternoon flight from London Heathrow to Amsterdam Airport, Schiphol.

His green eyes played over the pretty waitresses, as they tended the many tables outside the restaurant. The scar near his left eye twitched as he decided which one he would approach at the end of the evening. He rarely failed to make a casual date.

***

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s