Europe By Train: Hamburg
Simian Substitute Site for May 2007: Monkey Swallows The Universe

Europe By Train: Amsterdam

It may be a stoner gag, but at least it's a reasonably smart stoner gag.[ prologue Paris Milan Venice Vienna Hamburg Amsterdam epilogue ]

Well, that whole idea of escaping debauchery by leaving Hamburg certainly died on its arse, didn't it? I mean, just look at our Amsterdam hotel! Even its logo is made out of the letters T, H and C.

Okay, that's slightly unfair. Our sixth and final residence for this trip is called The College Hotel, hence the logo. A lovely old building, sensitively converted but keeping lots of the original features - which means that after fingerprints, a chip card, a magnetic fish, a swipe card and a magnetic luggage tag, this is the first time we get a room whose door is opened using an actual key. In terms of swank it's closer to the understated style of our hotels in Venice and Vienna, rather than the ultra-designer gaffs we used in Paris, Milan and Hamburg where you have to hang a sign outside the door every morning asking the maid to re-imagine your room. It comes warmly recommended by Mr and Mrs Smith (our bible for this sort of thing), but they give a small word of warning, one related to the reason behind the hotel's name. Because the college is a hotel run by (and the last word of this sentence obviously needs to be pronounced with Paul Calf-esque venom)... students.

To be precise, they're students of the Amsterdam Hotel Management School, run by the Stein Group. Boutique hotels are a growing industry, and the staff need to be trained somewhere: so why not in an actual boutique hotel? When you sign up to stay at the College, you're made aware that the people who'll be running the hotel are all trainees working on a three month contract: as a resident, you're encouraged to report on any of the staff who you think have given especially good service. It's a lovely idea, but the Smith review suggests that sometimes the service can be a little erratic, particularly if you're there at the very start of a three month shift when the staff are just getting used to things. Imagine the sort of zany high jinks that could lead to in the final couple of days of our holiday!

And keep on imagining if you like, because it wasn't like that at all - once we get used to the idea of how terrifyingly young all the staff are, our stay at the College is pretty much flawless. The staff are all staggeringly helpful because they know they're being assessed, and the residents are all tolerant of any minor slip-ups because they know everyone's new to the job. The result is a hotel as relaxed and laid back as Amsterdam itself. Particular praise needs to go to the barman who sorted out our cocktail order late on Friday night when the bar was sensationally busy, got it right, and charged it correctly to our room without apparently making any written notes: and the girl at reception who spotted us trying to photograph maps from the public internet terminal, and let us use the hotel's printer for nothing. (Might I suggest that if the College gave everyone bigger name tags, it'd be easier to praise the best of the staff?)

The Belated Birthday Girl and I have visited Amsterdam several times before, both separately and together, so this is probably the most familiar city of the six on our itinerary. I still have incredibly fond memories of that first time in 1990 that I walked out of the front door of Centraal Station, and saw the Damrak stretching out dead ahead and the whole city opened out in front of me. It's an experience that's difficult to recreate at the moment, as Centraal is undergoing heavy refurbishment until 2011, meaning that for the next few years all you'll initially see as you leave the station is a bloody great building site. But once you get past that, it's reassuring to see everything else pretty much as it always was. The Damrak is looking a little quiet these days, surprisingly: even late on a Friday night there are only a few groups of lads wandering the streets looking for a good time. Nevertheless, this is all stuff we've known and loved over the years, so part of our agenda for the day-and-a-half stay is to try and avoid central Amsterdam, looking for unfamiliar sights and sounds further out of town.

Ute Lemper. Photographed by The Belated Birthday Girl from a picture in Uitkrant magazine, while on the train from Amsterdam to Paris, so sod off with your complaining that it looks a bit fuzzy.One of these is the relatively new concert venue up north on Piet Heinkade, the Muzeikgebouw aan't Ij. It's the location for a rare Dutch concert by Ute Lemper: given the way that Lemper has hopped around between countries over the years, it seems appropriate that one of the last concerts of our multi-city tour should involve her. I've been a fan ever since the days when she was closely associated with the Brecht/Weill songbook, and even more so after her 2001 album Punishing Kiss. She approached all her favourite songwriters for new material for the album, and her list corresponded incredibly closely with mine. Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Neil Hannon, Scott Walker... hell, if she'd managed to squeeze Paddy Macaloon and Shane MacGowan on there as well, it would have been perfect. (Though the prospect of Ute Lemper covering Shane MacGowan is creating all manner of surreal noises in my head right now.)

This concert is entitled Voyage, and is based around an album of the same name due out later this year. It's another chance for Lemper to perform classic songs from her favourite composers - Brecht and Weill, Kander and Ebb, Jacques Brel, even Joni Mitchell at one point - but this time strung around the framework of her own personal history. Her range, as always, is astonishing: she can switch from a Yiddish song cycle to the obvious crowd-pleaser of Brel's Amsterdam and sound perfectly comfortable doing both, with a wry sense of humour too. (At one point she worries about which language she should use to address an Amsterdam audience, and considers speaking in English with a fake German accent - "is zat vot you rrrrreally vant?") The main problem with the evening is the four-piece band she's chosen to accompany her, because they take this collection of songs from all over the world and give them all the same lite jazz makeover. As a result, despite all of Lemper's best efforts to make each song distinctive, the band makes each of them sound pretty much the same. By the end, as she sings Mack The Knife you can guess almost exactly where the quirky discords are going to come, and she deserves better.

Speaking of deserving better, there had to be a Worst Restaurant Of The Holiday, and we find it just before this gig - it's the Star Ferry restaurant inside the Muzeikgebouw itself. The food's perfectly fine, but there's a real problem with the service. Initially, we think we've got lucky as we manage to get in without a reservation, squeezing onto a communal table by the door: but it gradually becomes apparent that people are forgetting we're there. The food takes an age to arrive, and the drinks order ends up getting hopelessly confused. And it's not just us: it's obvious from looking around the place that everyone else is struggling to grab the attention of the waiters, or arguing with them about problems with the bill. You could suggest that it's a Dutch tradition to linger over a meal, and that you should expect slow service as a result: but this is a restaurant attached to a concert venue, where most of the people dining need to be out by a fixed time, and the staff simply can't manage that with the number of diners there. The Belated Birthday Girl needs to physically drag a waitress over to our table to get our bill, and when it finally arrives a few minutes before showtime we've been charged for an extra beer that we've got no time to haggle over. Any goodwill that the food might generate is completely lost with service like this: so if you're seeing a show at the Muzeikgebouw, you may be better off taking a short walk to somewhere like Teatro, a rather friendly little Italian place that's just a few minutes away if you can find your way across the Oosterdok somehow.

Getting back to cultural news, you've obviously been itching to find out if we achieved our goal of seeing a local movie in each of the five countries we visited. The short answer is yes, but it's a close call by the end. When we look at Filmladder to see what Dutch movies are currently playing in Amsterdam, the results are rather disappointing. Aside from some historical presentations at the Filmmuseum, there are only two Dutch features playing in town, and both of them are documentaries. One of them is a midnight preview of a film about Dutch singer Ellen ten Damme - an interesting possibility, and showing in legendary Amsterdam cinema The Movies, but the late finish makes it impractical. So we're forced to go with Susanne Engels' film Normaal Zijn We Anders, showing in the quaintly designed artyplex Het Ketelhuis. Running at a TV-friendly 67 minutes, it follows four actors - Dionne, Fran, Bertus and Maurits - as they go about their daily business, and work through the events of their lives through a series of improvised sketches. The reason why this is at all interesting is because the four of them... well, I always struggle on occasions like these to choose the right polite term, and the Ketelhuis promotional material describes them as "hebben een verstandelijke handicap," so let's go with that.

People always look at me funny when I explain how on most foreign holidays, I spend at least part of my time watching films in a language I can't understand. But you should try it some time: it gives you an appreciation of just how much information you get from the verbal and non-verbal elements of a film, and a sense of how much you can follow if one of those sets of elements is taken away. And if this fortnight's taught me anything, it's that having a story based around a familiar genre framework is a key part of following a film in an unfamiliar language: you can sense the story beats as they happen, and fill in the rest in your imagination. When you have a documentary like this - a genuine slice of life, not building to any sort of climax at the end - you're left struggling to understand what's going on, and the result is a deeply unsatisfying experience for us. It's amusing to think that if we hadn't read beforehand that the quartet were actors, we could easily have assumed that all the performance scenes were just footage of them having unpleasant arguments with each other. Nevertheless, the film is beautifully shot, and appears to handle its subjects with a degree of sensitivity - you could argue that the decision to subtitle a lot of their dialogue might be considered patronising, but I couldn't tell you how audible their words would be without them. So, a disappointing end to our movie project, but the reasons for it being disappointing are interesting enough to make it worthwhile.

The Tropenmuseum. Like I said, there's a lot of it.The plan to avoid the central areas of Amsterdam pays off especially well in the Plantage area to the north of town, due east of Centraal Station. I've already mentioned the Muzeikgebouw above, but there are a number of museums in the area also worth a look, and easily reached using Amsterdam's fine collection of trams and buses. (If those hedonists who come to Amsterdam for the sex and drugs only know one word of Dutch, that word will inevitably be strippenkaart.) We had to skip the newly-relocated Stedelijk Museum owing to sheer pressure of time, but there are two others which are definitely worth putting on your itinerary.

The Verzetsmuseum is the Dutch Resistance Museum, which tells the story of Holland's resistance to the German invasion back in 1940. For five years, ordinary Dutch people worked both together and alone to foil the occupation, in the face of ever-increasing brutality from the Nazis and capitulation from some of the Netherlands authorities. The Verzetsmuseum uses an incredibly strong narrative line to show how all this happened over the period, starting with the Dutch willingness to adapt to occupation, and working through their gradual realisation that adapting wasn't the answer. Throughout the museum, this is illustrated with copious archive material (all with English captions, though it's a little frustrating that we only get the newspapers and underground newsletters in Dutch), as well as first-person stories from the people who lived (and died) though the occupation. Those stories give a human perspective to an unimaginable period of history, and provide frequent unexpected flashes of humour - like the woman in a prison camp assigned the duty of darning soldiers' socks, who got her revenge by pretending to be stupid and sewing them shut instead.

There are also a couple of equally fascinating temporary exhibitions at the Verzetsmuseum (or at least there were at the time we visited). One of them looks at the Japanese invasion of the colony of the Dutch East Indies - a story that starts in a very similar way to the German invasion of the Netherlands, but has a rather different ending. And the other is based around Eric Heuvel's comic book De Ontdekking (published in an English translation as A Family Secret), telling one family's story of the occupation in a Tintin-esque visual style - the accompanying exhibition delves deeper into the characters of the book, and provides a useful way into the history for younger readers. All in all, it's a fascinating museum to visit: and if you need an explanation as to why people need to hear these stories, poet Remco Campert sums it all up in the museum guide. "Asking yourself a question, that's how resistance begins. And then ask that very same question to someone else."

On the other side of the Artis Zoo from the Vezetsmuseum - watch out for the smell of fresh animal faeces - is an even more extraordinary place, the Tropenmuseum. It's run by KIT, the Royal Institute for the Tropics, whose aim is to present to the people of the Netherlands what life in the tropics and subtropics is like. They do this in an enormous three-storey display space that could easily take you a whole day to explore: we had to admit defeat after a couple of hours. The section on ecosystems is typical of the level of detail you can expect throughout the whole museum: a series of large rooms, each looking at a particular environment like the savannah, the rainforest and the modern city, and considering the impact of our current way of life on each of them. The information's given in a non-preachy way, but uses lots of video and interactive displays to cover the facts and inspire you to find out more.

If anything, the three temporary exhibitions showing at the time of writing are even more impressive. Che! A Commercial Revolution is a wry look at the one photo of Che Guevara that everybody knows - Alberto Korda's heroic 1960 portrait - and the way it's been used and abused as a symbol of revolution in the 40 years since his death. Pracht en Kraal - Van Madonna tot de Masai examines the concepts of glamour in clothing, and how they vary across the world. Best of all, Ten Klooster tells the story of Johannes ten Klooster, a Dutch Army man who spent his later years in Indonesia making pictures that mix Eastern and Western styles to beguiling effect. We spent as much time on these temporary shows as we did on the rest of the Tropenmuseum, and barely got to scratch its surface as a result. If you're going to visit, allow for most of a day there, and be sure to leave some time to investigate the various tropical foods on offer at the Ekeko restaurant.

And that's it for Europe, for the moment. I'm writing this on a train between Amsterdam and Paris, where we'll have a brief lunchtime stopover before the final run back to London. There will now be a short intermission while we collect our final thoughts. Back soon.


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