Keeping a date with
EUROPE is as different from America as is baguette from a burger!
With the disintegration of the USSR and fall of the Berlin Wall, the geo-political landscape has changed. This has enabled the respective economic policies of the members of the European Union (EU) to be mutually beneficial and made travel hassle-free for tourists and visitors.The proof lies in the Etats Schengen Visa that was stamped on my passport in New Delhi by the officials of the French Embassy.
Because of the formation of the EU, the people are demanding downsizing of the armed forces, a cut in defence expenditure and making more money available for social security and services.
The co-operation between the governments and the private sector on the one hand and gradual withdrawal or minimisation of government presence in the different walks of life, on the other hand is a striking feature about Europe.
A recent visit to Europe was a learning experience.
This summer has not
been what Europeans expected or would have liked it to be. The sky, by
and large, remained overcast with the sun peeping through the clouds
Whenever it was a sunny day, one saw many take off their shirts or
throng the parks sun-bathing or lazing around.
It was 10.30 pm. The first thing that struck one was, contrary to the claim of the travel agency, the bus was anything but comfortable. It was without a toilet. Being an over night journey, it made little difference whether it was a window or an aisle seat. With just two stop-overs, we reached Amsterdam at 7 am.
It was not an end to the nocturnal ordeal but only a beginning after a bone-jangling journey. Such was the arrangement that rooms were to be made available at 2 pm. The place offered no tea, coffee or eatables. One was left to fend for himself till then. It was a long wait before the Dutch woke up and opened their shops. Nevertheless, in the true spirit of a wandering tourist, though bleary-eyed, I allowed myself to take a lesson or two in patience and perseverance. Not that there was a choice in the land of Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Don't things go wrong when least expected? I consoled myself.
Amsterdam is a city of 165-odd criss-crossing canals. A cobweb of tram-tracks nets the roads, mostly cobbled, as one finds in Paris. It is also a city of cycles (400,000-odd). In Netherlands (Holland), it is said, there are more museums per square foot than in any other country. This city alone counts for at least 42, including the three famous ones—- Rijks Museum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art.
Besides much else, during the three-day stay I discovered Amsterdam's unique character. It is the most visited city after London, Paris and Rome.Though it is the Capital, the seat of the government is at the Hague. Amsterdam is known for entertainment, sex and drugs; a place with lot of 'gezellig'—- an environment that allows good times to happen in a cozy, friendly manner.
The place is compact (72,095 inhabitants). Easy to navigate. Official listing includes a two-hour walking tour of the Red District. A canal cruise or an appropriate tram takes you around the city. The Dutch, it must be said to their credit, enjoy their life without a feeling of guilt despite the ''coffee shops'' (400-odd) selling drugs, sex-life and sex museums. Here any topic, sex, night life or even euthanasia, is debated with an open mind by the people and the politicians. The place is safe sans slums.
But foul smell of urine is not uncommon. The Dutch piss anywhere, out of the way place. Does that bring a smile on Indian lips? Can one dismiss this as a ''minor'' annoyance? Then there is the ''dog shit'' that has slipped down to number two now. (Here one is reminded of the dog shit in Paris streets!). Unlike in our country, Amsterdam has put up ''pissoirs'' (without running water) on the streets, as commonplace as phone booths (with facilities to use cash or credit cards for making internal calls) and condom machines.
Inside a souvenir shop the conversation revealed that Amsterdam has been a diamond centre since the 16th century. Remember nearly 2,000 Amsterdam Jewish diamond polishers being sent to Poland and German concentration camps? Even today diamond cutting and polishing is famous. Cullinam, the world's biggest diamond, was cut here. So was Koh-i-Noor (mountain of light) for the British Crown Jewels, in 1852. Even the world's smallest diamond (0.00012 carat) was cut (57 facets) and polished in Amsterdam.
Netherlands is not just clogs (wooden shoes), cheese, windmills and tulips attracting tourists. The beauty and tranquillity has its own magnetic attraction. A word about the Red District and drugs. The former has been transformed into a workable solution for the world's oldest profession. The place is like any other next-door neighbourhood. The sex workers pay taxes and health authorities inspect the premises regularly. A condom is a must. Around two areas, Leidse-plein and Rembrandt-plein, one comes across porno and coffee shops.The Theatre Casa Rossois offers much more ''experience'' than one could guess.
Naughty Amsterdam is soft on drugs. One may not come across plush greens here. One can boldly walk into any licensed coffee shop and demand ''grass'' or 'hashish''. Licensing for such coffee shops was done in 1996.Today, these are legal and legitimate.The drug problem is considered more of a health problem than a criminal issue.
Holland is not worried about what other countries think. In fact Time magazine has reported that the country had fewer addicts per thousand than France and Spain. Morocco and Pakistan supplied more drugs to France than to Holland. Carrying up to 30 gm (now it is 5 gm) ''soft'' drugs is allowed.
Amsterdam is now offering ''smart'' drugs (after ''hard'' and ''soft'' drugs) consisting of herbs and natural ingredients. These are believed to give ''energy, relax you or increase your libido''. Now the place has given its own twist and invented ''magic mushrooms''. The government is debating what to do with ''trippy vegetables''.
There is a House of Tatoos, just a 10 -minute walk from the Central Station. For the past 17 years, the House has designs to offer to one and all anywhere on the anatomy.
The bus drove us 20 miles out of Amsterdam to Volendam, a quaint fishing village. The drive itself, through pastures punctuated by canals and dotted with cows and windmills, was an experience. Volendam is a fascinating spot for boat rides to nearby islands. It is a picturesque township with restaurants and souvenir shops.
On the way we made a brief stop at a cheese making farm—-De Simonehoeve, near Katwoude. The owner, Thomas Klomp and his wife, Jannie, received us in the Volendam costumes. Besides techniques of cheese-making, a live demonstration of how to make clogs was also given. One could buy wooden shoes of one's choice or place orders. Then at the end of the shop a variety of cheese was laid out to taste. One could either take it home or book an order to receive it at Christmas time. Tourism coupled with education and commerce helps the Klomps with income and publicity as much as it enables the government to show its countryside and cottage industry.
In fact, even during off-season when tulips and flower-beds are not in bloom, Amsterdam attracts tourists. Though it does not boast of palaces and churches, Holland is loved and known as much for its tourist attractions as for its night life, eating joints and living below the sea-level.
The journey back to Paris seemed less
uncomfortable, perhaps, the nostalgia of Amsterdam was more
comforting. But it was drizzling again.