It’s one of Amsterdam’s most potent attractions. Mostly hidden from view, it exists as much in people’s minds as in the flesh. A mysterious, alluring way of life, its roots go back to the heady 1960s. It trades on exotic confections of light, colour and above all smell. To sample it is to experience a deluge of unfamiliar, even queasy sensations. And it is a habit that certain generations, even now, find tiresome, suspicious, and above all baffling.
I’m talking, of course, about Amsterdam’s underground scene.
By which I mean, of course, the Metro.
The English Channel: sailed across by the wise and stately; flown over by the rash and foolish.
For many years I held that belief. I spouted it widely, to ever-narrowing minds. Then, like all the other demented dictums and moist-eyed theories you concoct as a teenager, I dumped it.
I still think it’s silly to fly over the Channel. What changed was the arrival, in 1994, of a third option.
What sort of person, I now wondered, chose to travel under the sea by train? More to the point, who had the means to do such a dazzling thing?
LYING IN MY TINY BUNK in the carriage of the train that was carrying me from Nice to Rotterdam in the summer of 1994, I tried not to think about just how exposed I was.
Not literally: I had enough trouble in these circumstances trying not to let my guard down, never mind anything else.
It was more the wider context that threatened to disturb me, and which I endeavoured to put to the back of my mind.
Apart from my three fellow travellers, I was a stranger in a strange land with absolutely no means of contacting anyone I knew if something went wrong.
I don’t think I’d ever placed myself in such a situation before, and for good or ill I’ve never quite done so again.
However I must have done enough to cram such thoughts into a hastily-sealed bit of my brain, for I ended up getting a fair few hours of sleep. This was much to my surprise, and to those of my companions, who it later transpired had barely slept a wink and were bemused, and not a little envious, that I’d somehow stayed comatose for so long.
I was in one of the three top bunks in our couchette. I had a view of the carriage ceiling a few centimetres above my head, and nothing else.
I had to lie on my back the whole while. If I tried turning on to my left hand side I hit the wall, and if I tried turning to the right I would fall on to the floor.
This lack of movement, combined with the scorching heat, turned my “bed” into a coffin of foam rubber, to which I stuck with sweat.
The conditions were intolerable. The whole journey seemed to have been intolerable.
Yet somehow, somehow, I fell asleep.
After a couple more stops were out of the way, it was around 1am that it happened. The steady pulsing of the train’s engine, the regular rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, and the unchanging hum of the carriage machinery all conspired to lull me into a sort of reassured, becalmed stupor.
The next thing I knew it was 7am and I was awake.
I’d made it through the night, unscathed and uncompromised.
I felt absolutely awful, of course, and I knew I looked terrible: shabby, smelly and utterly out-of-sorts.
But it was the morning. And it was cooler. And I was somewhere different.
I went into the corridor and stood, watching the countryside race past.
Outside was northern Europe: plains of uniform fields and acres of monochrome woods with no rocky hills or tropical groves to be seen. Flat moorland stretched for miles.
There were rivers. There were bridges over the rivers. There were ducks nestling under the bridges over the rivers.
And then there was industry. Factories! Power stations! Warehouses! All drab, all functional, all standing magnificent against a soft, sombre sky.
An enormous sense of familiarity, and at the same time desperate longing, crashed over me. These places looked like home!
Though I was now geographically a lot closer to the UK than I had been for quite a few days, emotionally I felt further away than ever.
I hadn’t thought much about home since starting the trip almost two weeks earlier. We were always moving forward, looking ahead, preparing for the next leg of the journey and anticipating the next obstacle.
Now there was nothing left to do but to complete the circle and head back to Britain. With this realisation, everything and everyone associated with home charged back into my consciousness from wherever I’d hitherto quelled them.
I wanted to be back among them as soon as possible, yet I knew it would be a further 24 hours before I set foot on UK soil.
I cursed our stupid timetable – why weren’t we due to sail today? Whose idiotic idea had it been to eke out this adventure so as to include a Sunday afternoon in Rotterdam? Worse, a Sunday evening at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal?
“Well, we are where we are,” someone said – quite possibly me inside my own head.
I now did something rather embarrassing.
I started humming the signature tune of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days.
I’d watched the whole series on video just before we left. I suppose that by evoking the programme at this moment, I thought rather fancifully I could imbue my journey with a similar sense of the epic and the significant.
In reality, all I got was funny looks from the other passengers, some of whom I recognised – with a shudder – from the previous night’s antics.
Pretty soon we’d reached Rotterdam and were threading our way through a day of deep anti-climax.
I was elated that I’d both got through and ended up rather enjoying our marathon train ride. But I was also maddened by the way were now inching our way towards home rather than hurtling, as had been the case for the previous 15 hours.
Plus it turned out there was a final ordeal to endure.
At the Hook of Holland, the ferry we intended to catch had a hydraulic ramp that wasn’t working. It needed to be welded into place.
I remember standing on deck at about 11pm, looking down through the darkness and watching some of the crew trying to bang the ferry doors shut. It was as if some malevolent travel god, determined to hold up my departure from the continent for just a little longer, was taunting me one last time.
But the ship sailed, and I slept in an uncomfortable seat for a few hours, before waking and stumbling back out on to deck.
Harwich was on the horizon, twinkling in the cool sunlight.
I had never felt such deep love for a container port.
IN RETROSPECT we were doomed from the start.
For some reason we’d booked ourselves into two different compartments, or couchettes as we tried earnestly to remember to call them. But rather than accept this division and dilution of camaraderie, we decided to feign collective ignorance and all sit together in the same one.
There were six places in a couchette so we anticipated sleeping, as it were, with two strangers. As for the likelihood of a bit of bother arising from our sabotaging of the booking system, naively we hoped we could do a bit of bartering with our reservations and persuade two other passengers to swap.
All of this might have worked, had we been in the correct carriage from the off.
The train left Nice at 6.35pm and to start with everything looked promising. We called at several stations and nobody tried to join us in our compartment.
Then came trouble.
Shortly after two Germans had arrived, bringing our couchette up to its full capacity of six, the attendant in charge of reservations swaggered in.
Thankfully he didn’t query the presence of all four of our group in the same compartment. But this was only because he never got that far in his inquiries. For it turned out that we were in entirely the wrong carriage to begin with: 113 instead of 713.
Now this was something of a puzzle, for there was no carriage 713.
Believe me, we’d looked for it. We’d hunted up and down the platform trying to find it. We’d stumbled up and down the train for the same reason. The conclusion was always the same. It didn’t exist. There was no carriage 713.
We’d concluded that we had misinterpreted the details on our tickets, and that we should be in 113 not 713. After all, a seven and a one aren’t that dissimilar if scrawled in a bad hand. But now we were being told there WAS a carriage 713, and moreover, we better damn well get to it.
Not having a clue precisely to where we needed to “get”, the four of us picked up our mountain of baggage and blundered along the corridors, now seemingly packed with French and German travellers all talking EXTREMELY LOUDLY, to what we thought was the aforementioned, hitherto elusive, carriage 713.
We found an empty couchette. We piled into it. It was now about 8.30pm and my faith in the virtue of making this overnight transcontinental trek had completely vanished. If only every single other passenger would do the same.
Except they didn’t. It had got dark, and we were about to start converting the compartment into beds, when two elderly people turned up, claiming VERY FORCEFULLY they had two of the seats in our couchette.
There were indeed two seats free in our couchette. But, according to this doddery yet doughty couple, they were not “the right ones”. The “right ones” were the ones we were half-sitting, half-lying in.
Bargaining was hopeless. Especially when the couple was joined suddenly by half a dozen passers-by – complete strangers who had NO REASON to involve themselves in our affairs – until the compartment was packed with people noisily and, it has to be said, joyously pointing out we were in the wrong.
A simple transaction had become a crisis nearing EU emergency summit proportions.
How they all laughed when they realised, by way of a conclusion to their collective prosecution, that we were STILL in the wrong carriage: 613, not 713.
There were more than a few smirks of satisfaction as, once again, we had to collect together our increasingly battered possessions (including several shopping bags of provisions intended to see us through the night and the following morning) and move on.
Outside, numerous French departments were slipping past smugly and silently. Inside, numerous compartments were also slipping past, equally smugly but far from silently.
Arriving in what we thought was, at last, carriage 713, we continued to gamble on the chance of all of us sleeping together and once more found a couchette with plenty of non-reserved seats available.
It was now really quite late. This was our third attempt at staying put. Surely nothing could go wrong now.
This time we’d reached the stage of actually climbing into our sleeping bags when there was a knock on the door. It was the reservations man. The same one as before. Only a hundred times more angry.
Pathetically, I pretended I was asleep. Furiously, he shouted in my face.
Quivering, I proffered the said documents in his general direction. He snatched them out of my hand, then snatched me out of my bed.
For even though I assumed I was in a non-reserved berth, my ticket stated otherwise, and for that I had to be humiliated in as public a way possible.
I was duly marched out of the compartment, away from the bed I hadn’t reserved, and into the compartment containing the one I apparently had.
A few minutes later, when I had to scurry back to pick up a few pieces of luggage left behind, I discovered the two people whose beds we’d taken were…
It only had to be two of the chorus of hooting onlookers that had hounded us out of carriage 613, and who were now beaming more broadly and more sadistically than ever.
Oh, the humanity.
Stripped of my dignity and my trust in human compassion, not to mention most of my clothes, there was nothing left but to try, at last, to get to sleep.
To be continued…
THE LAST TIME I WENT ABROAD was in 1994.
I know. That’s an appallingly long period ago. But it’s not that I haven’t wanted to return. For the first 10 years or so I simply didn’t have the money, while latterly it’s been more a case of not having anyone to go with.
My 17-year exile within the UK hasn’t really rivalled that of Dr Who Jon Pertwee, at least not by way of encounters with diabolical masterminds or brokering peace deals at international summits. It has, however, outlasted his by over a decade. That’s assuming his adventures took place in a linear dimension, but enough of that.
The last time I went abroad was to Europe in July 1994, just after I’d finished my A-level exams.
I went with three others, one of whom I never saw again from the second we got back to Britain. I lost contact with the other pair towards the end of the last century.
We spent two weeks interrailing. Two weeks that were, at that point, the most intense period I had ever spent in the company of others. We were around and on top of each other, often literally (only in the sense of bunk beds, mind), day after night after day after night.
I think I was the one who had planted the notion of interrailing in the others’ heads, before – typically – going off the entire idea and trying to sabotage the trip just weeks ahead of departure.
But by that point the thing had gained a momentum. It was happening and I had no choice but to go to Millets and buy a rucksack large enough to accommodate a mad cow or two (contemporary satire), convert my meagre savings into a plastic pouch of travellers’ cheques, and visit British Rail’s international travel centre at Derby station.
I ended up pretty much loving the whole adventure. I might write about other bits of it at a later date, but I want to concentrate here on what, for me, was the most exhilarating, but also the most maddening, chunk of the trip.
It was Saturday 16 July. We had spent a few days in Nice on the south coast of France, but now had to head northwards in order to be back in the UK by the 18th.
To do this, we were booked on a train that would carry us all the way from Nice to Rotterdam. And we would be travelling through the night. We would drift off to sleep amid the balmy plains of the French Riviera then wake back in the cool climes of the Low Countries. That was the plan, at any rate.
The concept of what we were about to do appealed to me immensely. The reality was somewhat different. It went against all my instincts for self-preservation to bed down on a foreign train and willingly fall into protracted semi-consciousness. Heavens, anything could happen!
Worse, I’d spent much of the day of our departure suffering prolonged constipation. I’d also broken my sunglasses, and had sulked for a good two hours or so under a tree, cursing the tropical heat and my unfailing capacity to attract bad luck.
All of this, however, passed swiftly from my mind (and body) once our train crawled into Nice station, we gathered up our acres of baggage, and set to finding the compartment in which we were billeted to spend the next 15 hours.
To be continued…