On the Road

On the Road: 2002

That Explains the Windmills
(The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in The Hague)
27 October 2002

The one time in my life I have ever wanted to go to a pub to simply escape the weather, have a beer, and be totally, absolutely, positively ignored, I found myself being the center of attention to a bar full of drunk Dutch men.

Jezus Murphy's! And that was in the middle of the storm.

Beforehand, I confidently took the 17 tram out of Centraal Station up to the Gemeentemuseum. The winds were blowing, with dust bowls forming here and there in the station's plaza, but the rain was staying away.

Surrounded by a bunch of mothers and their children (where the fathers were on this Sunday afternoon is anybody's guess, maybe they were the guys I wound up meeting later on), I knew I was on the right track for Den Haag's version of Exhibition Road.

I had high hopes for finally cracking my indifference for Den Haag with this museum. Every brochure I saw regarding this museum prominently displayed a particular portrait of an attractive young woman. By seeing it so often, I attached a certain amount of importance to the woman and the painting. Surely there was some sort of incredible historical significance to the figure.

Well, when I found the museum I experienced an odd sense of deja vu. It looked strikingly like my old grade school in Arvada, Colorado. It was a plain brick structure. But, while my old school was only one level, this was two.

Both featured an equally clinical interior as well. The one difference: While the childhood scribblings and patchwork art of 8 year olds decked the halls of my old school, the same type of art was hung with care in the museum... and had names like Picasso and Mondrian attached.

My visit got off to a good start: There were some black-and-white prints by the aforementioned Picasso. I don't like most of the guy's stuff, but these prints were interesting. One section was a series of 12 drawings called Two Nudes (November 1945-February 1946). That says enough about the subject matter. The catch was the first drawings were relatively "standard" sketches of two naked girls, but by the twelfth, they had morphed into classic Picasso dimentia. A bull served as the topic for another step-by-step breakdown of Picasso's methodology.

There was also an interesting exhibit on Russian art that featured some incredible set pieces, including old-fashioned Soviet propaganda paintings showcasing the heroism of Stalin and Lenin. They had interesting stories behind them, such as who got painted over when they fell out of favor. Even Stalin became such a victim of art.

But the big puzzle was Malevich's painting entitled Black Square. It was... a black square on a white canvas. This bill of goods was sold as groundbreaking back around 1917. Whatever, Dude.

As I walked around this museum, which also featured a selection of classical instruments and a section on fashion that reminded me of London's Victoria & Albert, I kept glancing out the windows, keeping an eye on the weather. It had turned quite foul out there.

After seeing all there was to be seen, and noting the curious absence of that one painting I kept seeing in all those brochures, I decided to hit the road. (Editor's Note: Matt seemed to be suffering from a temporary case of retardation. He went to the wrong museum! He should've gone to the Mauritshuis if he wanted to see Vermeer's "infamous" painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Dopey git!)

The big idea was to take the 10 tram down the other side of the museum right on into the Centrum for dinner and a pint at The Fiddler.

Well, the tram was 20 minutes past due when word finally came through the grapevine that all trams and all busses were shut down because of the storm. Thanks to an English-speaking guy standing next to me, I found out three busses had flopped over in the wind! Plus some tram cables had fallen.

The other option, the taxi, was quickly nixed. They're too expensive - and too easy. I took on the challenge of walking down to the Centrum, through totally unfamiliar territory.

I simply had no idea what I was getting into.

Granted, I did cover a lot more ground a lot more quickly with the fierce winds to my back. Talk about fresh air! It was invigorating to be sucking the stuff down. But soon after I set out on this little misadventure, the rains blew in.

There were ambulance sirens going off all over the place. The wind and the rain were a devastating combination.

At that point, I ducked into the bar of my fate, Cafe Intiem.

It's a classic locals bar. Much like the Central Station Pub, it's kind of depressing. A bunch of old farts sitting around drinking, the clatter of pool balls clashing on the familiar green felt surface in the background.

The men's room? The door's right in front of you when you enter the bar. It's got a caricature of an old man's knobby-kneed legs, pants down at the ankles, sitting on the thrown and reading the newspaper. The women's room is directly to the right; on its door, a caricature of a woman in a red dress, bending over, with her rear right "in your face" as she pulls her panties down.

Yeah. It's a classy joint.

I "saddled up" to the bar and was quickly served a h-h-ha-a-lf pint (phew, it's hard for me to say "half pint," it's so wimpy, but that's how most places serve beer here!) of Heineken and devoured it just as fast. Another followed, along with a bag of crisps (potato chips to my fellow Americans). The waitress was nice enough; an older woman who smelled attractive and had a nice belly button, she was dressed in a tight black top and too-tight black pants.

Then it started.

While minding my own business, this guy at a table off to my right started talking loudly. When I glanced over, it turned out he was talking to me.

I was quick to blow him off. I thought my "Me?" and look of puzzlement would've been enough to stifle further attempts to communicate.

No no no. Things were just starting.

At the middle of the bar sat a slight man in a fedora. He couldn't speak. Instead he slapped his knee when amused or otherwise made gestures or drew pictures with his fingers. He wasn't using any formal sign language. Even when he tried to speak, by pressing his fingers against a patch below his Adam's apple, nothing came out.

The Silent One was amused by the Loud One.

Then more trouble blew in. A big guy. If I guessed his age by the rings around his bier belly, I would guess he was probably 240 years old.

In comparison to the drunk Dutch guy who had already admitted he speaks very little English (but he'll be damned if he's going to stop trying), this large man in glasses was a genius. Shortly after he sat down and surveyed the situation, he asked me, "ARE - YOU - FROM - OUR - PLANET?"

"YES - I - AM," I replied with a tremendous amount of certainty. In retrospect, I think I was wrong.

The conversation became less sarcastic when the Large One asked where I was from.

"The United States. Colorado," I said.

He translated for the group, letting them know I'm an American.

At this point, the Silent One was looking at me and kept pointing up then pointing down.

Sitting beside him was an old, distinguished-looking man. I was hoping he'd be the voice of reason, but he merely pointed at his own throat then the Silent One and let me know he never understands the guy either.

But the Large One did understand the Silent One. He wanted to know if the United States was in South America or North America.

I answered correctly.

The Loud One started to complain about the music. We were treated to some Bob Marley, Tina Turner, and REM, but then there was also Celine Dion. He wanted DUTCH MUSIC not ENGLISH MUSIC. And he tried to make it sound like the waitress was selecting the music for my benefit.

The Loud One kept putting a finger in the top of his Heineken bottle, then popping it out. POP! When a new bottle arrived, he'd warm it up between his hands then, POP!

Looking out the window, a compact car is now half its original size and is piggybacking on a tow truck. It's not a good time to leave just yet.

The music changed. Traditional Dutch. The cue for all the drunk guys with such capacity to sing - badly and quite loudly.

Lovely.

Along comes another guy, in pop bottle glasses. He buys a round for everybody at the bar. That included me, as the waitress put another h-h-ha-alf pint in from of me. "It's from Martin," she said, pointing at the newcomer at the far end of the bar. I gave him a thumbs up.

Then another bartender showed up and passed around some pate thingies for everybody to munch on. They were good! I wolfed down a couple. The place was beginning to show some charm.

At one point, the Silent One pulled out a plastic bag and from it revealed a CD: Frank Zappa. Ahhh... He was being nice.

And the Loud One? Surprisingly, he bought me a beer, too. Thank you.

Then a man best described as a washed up bad boy, complete with pushed-in nose, tattoo, and tight red T-shirt, sat at the bar with a kid I assumed was his teenage son. They both lit up cigarettes.

The Bad One chatted up the waitress. This seemed to irk the Loud One.

After a couple hours of this, the weather abated enough for me to bid farewell to my newfound drinking companions and forge ahead to my next stop. I still needed dinner and a Guinness.

I followed the tram tracks back down to the center, stopping at each tram stop to check the map and make sure I was on the right track. It was pitch black out and the wind was still nasty; this was not intended to be a casual journey back to the Centrum. The tram stop maps conveniently displayed a big red arrow on each map, pointing to your current location. Truly a Godsend for those on foreign turf.

Pardon me while I applaud my resourcefulness and efficiency. It worked out well. And seeing the toy store on the corner, the clue that I was back on familiar ground, brought a big smile to my face. Just a block down: The Fiddler, a steak salad, and a couple pints of Guinness.

The final stretch from The Fiddler to the hotel was a bit of an obstacle course with entire tree arms and legs (not just limbs) clogging the sidewalks. Store signs had also blown down and were ripped to shreds.

More stunning, though, was to enter Centraal Station for a cup of java at the Kiosk and discover all trains had also stopped service. Seeing the large train time table devoid of departures and all the gates roped off provoked me to utter a simple, "Wow."

I almost went to Amsterdam for Anton Corbijn's new exhibit instead of heading for the Gemeente. It's a good thing I chose to wait for a bigger, better visit to Amsterdam next weekend instead.

When I finally arrived back at the Sofitel, the cutest of the cute, albeit engaged, ladies at the front desk plopped my key on the counter while she talked on the phone. I didn't even need to ask. Considering I've bounced through three or four different rooms during my on-and-off Sofitel residency, that's progress!

In the aftermath, CNN and other sources shed some light on the weather:
- The storm is a phenomenon that's hit the United Kingdom and Western Europe
- Wales and England reported 140 km/hour winds
- In England, power was cut from 300,000 homes
- Carmen and Lee were stranded in Pisa, albeit under clear blue skies
- James spent the night in Gatwick; it took him 24 hours to get from Manchester to Den Haag
- Dave and his family were evacuated from their vacation bungalow near Den Haag
- Germany reported 160 km/hour winds
- Six died in England
- Four died in The Netherlands
- Seven died in Germany
- Seventeen more died elsewhere
- Three French Atlantic ports stopped ferry service across the Channel
- Schiphol airport closed
- Bulletins were issued advising people to stay indoors and journey out only if they absolutely had to!

And to think my bony ass was in the middle of it all!

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