We flew into Schiphol May 31st, and hopped on the train to Utrecht. A tall Dutch guy pulled out a portable DAT and asked to interview us. He'd been trying to interview people at the Schiphol train station, but guards had told him not to, so he asked us some innocuous questions about how we liked traveling by train. When we got to Utrecht, he said he was going back to the Free University which happened to be across the street from our hotel. So we didn't have to figure out any of the transit system ourselves, and we arrived at our hotel, perfectly dazed.
That night we walked around Utrecht completely jetlagged, detouring into an Arab high street for a bit until we found the town center. Utrecht is something like Amsterdam in that it has canals and narrow winding streets of houses of varying vintage, but it is much quieter; the town center is so small that there's no tram, and you can walk from one side to the other in about 20 minutes. Since stores were closing at the time, there wasn't much for us to do so we ate somewhere random, and then tried to find our way home. We ended up at the train station and basically siezed up with exhaustion and took a taxi back to our hotel.
At the hotel, I poked at random on the TV remote trying to find something in English and found BBC News, but I think I fell asleep in mid-sentence, only to wake up about 2AM. Since I knew I wouldn't sleep properly without doing something tiring first, I consulted the map and found a more direct route back into the town center, and took off walking. Everything was locked up tight, but there were still random people about, walking dogs or bicycling. The town was deadly quiet, and spookily beautiful, old houses leaning over the canals and cobbled streets.
I got back about 45 minutes later and Melissa was awake, wanting something to eat. I thought nothing was open but there was an Arab Kebab shop that apparently stays open until whenever, and I got her a felafel and M&Ms. She was mostly asleep when I returned, but managed to eat some M&Ms. The rest of the night I'd hear the crackling of the bag and she'd beat eating another M&M, apparently waking up just long enough to pop one in her mouth.
I woke up again a few hours later, when the sun started coming up about 5:30. One of the constant weirdnesses of the trip cam from Northern Europe's high latitude -- the sun went down around 10 and the sky was bright until nearly midnight. The first few days we were there were a little chilly, but also sunny. In Europe it seems that nothing is going on until about 9AM -- and after closing time in the evening, bars, restaurants, and the odd tabak are the only things open. Being time shifted by jetlag, it seemed like a lot of my time was spent peering in the windows of closed businesses.
Friday we went to Amsterdam and wandered around, getting lost. We took a tram the wrong direction all the way out to its turnaround in a sandy, water-surrounded neighborhood full of women in hijabs walking around with their kids. We got out to the vicinity of the museums too late in the day to go in, but we did visit the shopping area in the Jordaan, where Melissa bought this wonderfully garish plasticized cloth tablecloth material at the Kitsch Kitchen. But Amsterdam is so entirely full of tourists that it seemed crazy-making compared to Utrecht. When we went back we walked along quiet, empty residential streets near the rail tracks. There's an enormous brick building with a square tower that is either a church or a school or both, which inexplicably has what looks like a flying saucer attached to its top.
Since we were in Utrecht, and staying away from the center of town, we were actually curiosities, and the locals seemed amused by our spacy obliviousness. People in Holland by and large bilingual in English, something I was told they fall back on when they visit other areas, like Frisland, where the accent is so thick they have trouble understanding their dutch. I would despare of learning Dutch, marked as it is with uvular gutteral 'Ch' sounds that turn up sometimes three times in a single word, separated by neat glottal stops. All I ended up learning was "bedank" for thank you.
Saturday we picked up a rental car, where the clerk was a tall, rail thin guy who looked like a blonde Carrot Top, who had this bizarre habit on the phone of signing off with "Success" pronounced "Sook chchsess." They inspected the car for scratches and dings quite closely, and said we were liable up to $750 for damage, which, given that we were going to drive into Paris filled me with no small dread. We drove to Dortmund through lush farmland and forests. Arriving in Dortmund we were faced with translating a sketchy google map into useful directions to our hotel, driving around the 'wall' streets. Finally I located signs to the hotel, and we checked in. Ibis hotels are all over western Europe, and the rooms are a european interpretation of Holiday Inn impersonality, and the rooms feature weird circular bathroom modules. Taking a shower was like stepping into a space ship.
The city of Dortmund -- which was leveled during the second world war -- is perhaps not the loveliest city in Europe, but it is interesting to walk around downtown, where postwar rectilinear towers crowd around the street plan laid out 600 years earlier. The whole downtown has the aspect of an American mall, with a lot of the same shops. Of course no mall in America has a store called "Wormland" or their version of Best Buy, Saturn, with its untranslateable slogan "Geiz ist Geil." Well you can translate it as "Cheap is Good" but it also means something like "Stinginess is Sexy."
Other than meeting up with Sean and having dinner, we didn't do a lot in town. Our hotel had a supermarket attached, so we explored that pretty thoroughly and loaded up on fruit. But the next day, Sunday, the whole town is shut up, so we drove to Cologne to visit the Dom and the Ludwig Museum. Cologne was also leveled during the war, but the Dom, which is an awesomely monstrous, blackened Gothic cathedral. I took a lot of pictures inside and outside, that I've not had the energy yet to look through and clean up. The weather had turned quite warm, and for some reason there was a gathering of several hundred German goths on the south side of the Cathedral, drinking beer.
The Ludwig Museum has one of the best collection of postwar art on the panel, with a bunch of seminal Warhols, Rauschenbergs, Oldenbergs, and such. Melissa disliked the Rauschenbergs, for their messiness, but to me they seemed as though they were like defaced, grimy walls in New York City, only with just enough human intention to have a unique vibe to them. I was also surprised at how affected I was by Warhol's stacks of Cambpell's Soup, and Soap boxes. They've aged well, in that they've aged badly -- they have acquired an air of quaint ephemera. He chose iconic, ubiquitous objects as totems. In the early 60's commented on the contemporaneous mundane, manufactured adornment of consumer objects, but now they are memorials to the things everyone sees so often that they forget them as soon as they're replaced by the new commercial iconography. Everyone in America had those commercial brands engraved on their back brains, yet you have to see the Warhol to even remember they existed.
As I said, I have pictures, which I need to go through and clean up. Next up will be Münster and Paris...