I had three European stints in the 1990s, as follows:
- March 1996, London and Southern England
- March 1998, Belgium, France, and England
- December 1999, Netherlands and Germany
My first four trips to Europe (the fourth was in 2003) had me arrive at London's Heathrow Airport on United Airlines. And this second arrival, on Flight 2 from New York on the morning of March 14, 1998, was certainly the most memorable - it was the only one that actually gave me a lovely view of central London, as seen here.
Due to a technical delay back in New York, this flight is running 80 minutes late. And that's a bit of cause for concern, as I had to get to Waterloo Station (visible in this photo) and take a Eurostar train to my first destination of Brussels. As it turned out, I made it to the train right on time.
The lack of London Eye certainly dates this photo to the 20th Century, rather than the 21st. And the fact that United was running New York - London services, especially as part of an Around-the-World service, further adds to the dating; both services became victims of cost-cutting when the airline went bankrupt in 2002.
The next day is a cloudy one. In fact, my entire Belgian stay turned out to be cloudy.
I am touring Brussels, and I am finding myself in the north end of the city at Bruparck, in the neighborhood of Heysel/Heizel. That is the Atomium, built for the 1958 Expo and intended to be Brussels' answer to Paris' Eiffel Tower. The elevator takes me up to the top atom via the vertical shaft, and I walk down to the ground via the diagonal shafts.
With Belgium being a center for comic strips, some of the interior displays of the Atomium had exhibits dedicated to comic strips, some featuring the Atomium itself. But that was one thing about Belgium that I had not known until after the fact. Fact-gathering in the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, was not easy - often I had to rely on a few cut-rate guidebooks that were obsolete the moment they were printed.
The following day was spent over in Brugge in Flemish Belgium (Bruges in French and English) as a day trip.
This is the main town square, and the Dutch architecture of the Flemish Region is very evident. Bruges also treated me to lovely canalside scenes, living up to its reputation as the Venice of the North. Bruges was once a major trading and industrial powerhouse, with sea access only a stone's throw away, before silting and more modern ports (such as Antwerp) took away the trade, reducing the city to a medieval time capsule and a modern-day tourist magnet.
Belgium is bilingual. The Flemish speak Dutch, while the southern Walloons speak French. Brussels is officially bilingual, though in reality, most residents speak French. The animosity between the two groups is considerable - so much so that the safest way to go is to speak a neutral language, like English. That works out fine for me, especially in the Flemish areas, since I speak some French but zero Dutch. Besides, European travel infrastructure accommodates foreigners with zero language proficiency quite well anyway.
After wrapping up what to this date remains my only visit to Belgium, I moved on to Paris for four nights. Paris had been a city on top of my wishlist since childhood, so it was priceless to actually get there for once.
It's March 20th, the last full day in Paris. Trying to get to the Bateaux-Mouches cruise along the Seine, I'm walking close to Place d'Alma - and I am noting some graffiti around this tunnel. It was the previous August 31st when Princess Diana had a fatal car crash in this very tunnel. And sure enough, some graffiti has renamed this area from Place d'Alma to "Place Diana." I even looked into the tunnel, and sure enough, the crash marks were still there.
Place d'Alma isn't too far from the Eiffel Tower; in fact, one of the legs is visible in this photo.
This wide-angle Advanced Photo Systems photo was something I used to pride myself on for a while.
After wrapping up Paris, I returned to London, where I did a two-day pre-arranged car rental. The Citroën Xantia LX 1.8 I ended up driving was quite memorable, just by virtue of being my first stickshift, my first right-hand-drive car, and my first European drive. The infamous Citroën self-leveling adjustable air suspension only added to the confusion. I did okay, even after finding that my South London hotel had never been confirmed. After spending my first London night partying overnight at a goth club near the Angel Tube station (thanks to a local goth friend I had met in Canterbury), I picked a pricey airport hotel for the second and final night, and immediately set out for Stonehenge.
The sight of Stonehenge was worth all the trouble. This will remain one of my favorite travel experiences for a long time to come. The crows flying around, the desolateness of the Salisbury Plains, my own all-black outfit, on Spring Equinox, it was just perfect. Too bad my car was green and French.
The only regret was that I had to return to New York and my studies the next day. Already I was returning a day late, but I really didn't want to go back. I did prolong my London experience by four more hours, by voluntarily getting myself bumped from the return flight. United Airlines gave me $600 in credits as compensation, and that went on to fund my next European trip.
December 2nd, 1999. By this time I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, trying to get my bite out of that dot-com pie, but the bubble was already hurting me badly. I knew that I was NOT going to be working for December 1999, so I decided to instead take a joyride to Amsterdam using the airline credit, and spend a week there.
United 930 is now taking me out of San Francisco, on a nonstop flight again to London Heathrow, where another United flight would complete my journey to Amsterdam.
As it turned out, however, Flight 930 was the ONLY part of the whole journey that went according to plan. My trip into the airport had been marred by a fire on my BART train - I had to change trains as a result. And once in London, Amsterdam's severe winds resulted in airport closure - and United canceled my connection, and handed me over to Air France, so that I could ride the delay out in Paris. Instead of arriving at 11 in the morning in Amsterdam, I got there at 5 in the afternoon, after dark - and I hated being greeted by Amsterdam's racist, sexist thugs (who themselves were Third World immigrants, interestingly). Door-to-door time from my apartment in the Bay Area to my hotel in Amsterdam was 27 very long hours.
December 4th, 1999, my first full day sightseeing in Amsterdam.
I beat the crowds and entered Anne Frank House, at 263 Prinsengracht, as soon as it opened at 9 in the morning - barely after sunrise thanks to the northerly latitudes. It would get dark again by 4.
This was a lovely, yet sad, sight. I could tour the storefront run by Anne's father Otto even during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, with video testimony provided by his secretary Miep Gies, who continued to live in Amsterdam until her 2009 death. I then opened the bookcase and climbed up to the Secret Annexe, which was surprisingly roomy, making for very comfortable accommodations for the eight people who hid there for two years. I could even see posters of movie stars and royalties that Anne admired - including a young Princess Elizabeth, who would become the Queen of England in 1952. The tour ended with the aftermath of the eight (only Otto survived), as well as translations of Anne's diary in various languages.
I ended up buying a copy of the diary at the house's bookstore - of course, the book came with an extra sticker to denote that it was indeed purchased at the house. I also signed the guestbook, noting the ongoing prejudice and hatred outside the house's walls, though this time coming from the Third World immigrant thugs I just mentioned. I had initially identified them as Surinamese, based on longtime Dutch colonial rule in Suriname, but a native Dutch friend of mine who lives in nearby IJmuiden tells me that those thugs, while a severe menace, are more likely to be from elsewhere, possibly Morocco.
Sunday, December 5th, 1999, was set aside as a day trip to Cologne, Germany, a 3-hour train ride away from Amsterdam. Bad idea to schedule a visit to Germany on a Sunday, thanks to Quiet Day Sunday laws in Germany.
My Cologne itinerary included a tour of Imhoff-Stollwerck chocolate factory, as well as a visit to Romano-German Museum and its Roman mosaic floor. But this streetside musician's performance, using cups filled with different levels of water for different notes, is what clings to my mind the most from this day. People like him kept the main shopping streets lively, even with all the stores closed.
But again, the rather primitive nature of the Internet during this timeframe meant that I had not learned much about Cologne beforehand, so there wasn't much I could do around here, except for a teaser into Germany. The one thing I noticed was the similarity between German and Dutch languages - entrance and exit were "ingang" and "uitgang" in Dutch, and "Eingang" and "Ausgang" in German.
I left after seven hours in Cologne, vowing to return to Germany sooner than later. Due to my worsening financial situation in the next few years, my next Germany visit would have to wait until October 2009.
Tuesday, December 7th, 1999. Another day trip away from the Amsterdam thugs. This time, I am in Den Haag (The Hague in English), served from Amsterdam by very frequent trains via the airport and Leiden.
The Hague is best known for Madurodam, a miniature village depicting a generic Dutch city but using real-life landmarks from throughout the country. Many of the miniatures, from cars to even the airplanes at the village's international airport, actually move.
It was a very miserable rainy, windy day - typical of Holland - but I nevertheless spent a lot of time walking around here, and walking through a large park toward a different part of the town. I visited some anthropology exhibits at the Museon, before returning to the train station and taking some tram joyrides out to Vreispalace (Peace Palace, UN International Court) and the Scheveningen Beach. Tiring and miserable, but staying in Amsterdam to take abuse from the thugs would've been even worse.
Wednesday, December 8th, 1999, last full day in the Netherlands. I am north of Amsterdam this time, having taken a city bus into Zaandam area.
My destination is Zaanse Schans, a folk village. December is not a good time to visit, as most of its live folk demonstrations are summer only, but I can still look at some old windmills that actually work. Zaanse Schans is a good approximation of a traditional Dutch industrial town powered by windmills, though the windmills are collected from elsewhere in the country rather than originally erected here.
It's always rainy and windy this time of the year in this part of the world. But that makes those windmills very valuable. But the misery, both from the climate and from the Amsterdam thugs, was really getting to me.
The next day - Thursday, December 9th - was a relief for that reason. I was so relieved to arrive at Schiphol Airport, clear the departure passport check, and see this United plane sit at the gate, waiting to take me out of the misery. Flight 947 will take me to Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC, where I will connect to a San Francisco-bound flight.
In any case, I am so sick and tired of all the racist, sexist, homophobic thugs in Amsterdam, that I am glad to be flying United, rather than one of the KLM planes in the background. Especially when I could count on a Melissa Etheridge-only audio channel as part of the United inflight programming for this millennial holiday season - LESBIAN POWER, BABY! Even to this day, the mere sight of a KLM plane is guaranteed to raise my blood pressure, and similarly sighting a United plane is guaranteed to leave me feeling some lesbian power.
Some people have been incensed that I am choosing to side with a large, evil American corporation rather than "tolerant, anything-goes" Netherlands. But when tolerance includes tolerance of ethnic thugs in the name of political correctness, I am having none of it - especially when similar thugs have ganged up to take my rights away in California as well.
For those reasons, this moment remains quite iconic even today. I think of this moment, whenever I board any United flight, whenever I send a letter of commendation (or complaint - "you were so awesome that day, why were you so awful today?") to United Airlines, whenever I listen to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (the official United Airlines theme music), or whenever I listen to Melissa Etheridge.
As for my travel patterns, I had trouble connecting with Europeans as a result of the abuse I took in Amsterdam. Even my return to London and Paris in 2003, to bring some of the good feelings back, didn't quite work out - partly due to London's own Jamaican thugs on the Southbank (though London as a whole remains a city I love). Only with the 2009 European trip would I completely lose the demons.