Thursday, October 14, 2010

Impressions of Holland and Germany by an American Tourist

I wonder if I should write this story. I have doubts.  I can not trust my impressions any more than I can trust the foreign cab driver who drove us to an empty parking lot after dark, two blocks away from our hotel in Düsseldorf, and told us to walk through the woods to get there (we didn't).  I am puzzled, concerned, and uncertain we fully understand, even after 911, the depth of our cultural differences with the rest of the world.

The facts are simple.  My brother Russ and I traveled to Netherlands and Germany.  My main purpose was to witness my good friends in the rock band Shadow Gallery begin their first (and long overdue) European tour.  After that, Russ and I vacationed in Amsterdam. Our last night was spent in Germany before flying back home.  The second day after our arrival, the United States Government issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens in Europe.  We were advised to remain alert and be aware of our surroundings.  We followed that advice.

With our sense of personal security heightened, we listened closely those people we met, observed carefully those we were uncertain of, and paid attention to the continuing news reports on the television and internet.  We arrived home safely.  Is there anything more than this to write about?  I am not sure of the answer.  I have impressions of my experience that I cannot shake. I will try to sort it out, place it before you, the reader, and let you find your own place within this story.  There is no grand drama, no great heroics, no single authority on the meaning of this experience, just the sense of something missing, a disconnect, a chasm between cultures that is growing, not receding- and a reminder that age is relative.

The Irish Cabbie
We were staying at a very nice hotel on the edge of a town in Western Holland, near the German border.  After dinner at the hotel, we called for a cab to take us to the town center.  When our taxi arrived, it was driven by a Irish national named Donny (name & nationality changed). He was a lively lad who didn't hesitate to take us on a tour of the town. Our ride culminated in a visit to a coffeehouse, where marijuana is legally sold and smoked.

On the way, the subject of our travel warning came up. Donny spoke with the blunt authority of a cabbie who has seen it all.     "The Muslims tell me how much holier they are than the rest of us. But they sit in the coffeehouses and smoke, they fuck their best friend's wives, they drink till they pass out, and they eat food on Ramadan.  They are hypocrites, horrible hypocrites. I drive them to the bars, the restaurants, the whoreouses, the coffeehouses. We are so holy and you are all infidels, they say...but I know the truth.  They are no different than the rest of us. I tell them too.  Piss off with your holy politics."

Weird Moment at McDonalds 
Russ wanted a hamburger happy meal.  Donny drove us to one in the center of town.  We ordered our food and sat down to wait for the fries (some things transcend cultures).  I noticed that two young men were sitting at the next table.  One teenager was clearly Arab, the other Dutch or German.  As I sat there, munching on a salty burger, Russ walked outside to chat up the manager.  The Arab boy stared at me, then spit soda onto the floor.  I was amused at his childish behavior, but it was his eyes that amazed me the most.  They were full of hatred.  The second time he spit on the floor, he made certain I was watching. I kept up my end of the staring match, then he and his friend got up and left, leaving behind a total mess in the restaurant.  Either he was making a statement about his hatred for Americans or he was just an other idiot teenager trying to be cool.  Maybe it was a little bit of both.  Of course, he was eating McDonalds before we arrived. He bought and ate food from the infidels.  Hey, thanks for buying American!

Victor the Retired Portuguese cop
We met Victor sitting outside a coffeehouse next to a delicious Argentina Steakhouse where we had dinner.  Victor had been smoking marijuana at one of the outside tables. I sat down with an espresso and the three of us talked for over and hour.  The conversation rambled through Dutch and American politics,  ending with Victor's feelings over life in the Netherlands. His was a cautionary tale, with a statement of Dutch female unity that was amazing, if true.

 " I am a retired policeman, formerly in the military...for the past ten years I have worked the streets of Amsterdam....the Muslims know everything, they have infiltrated the police and the government at every level.   The Dutch women refuse to fuck them.  You will never see a Dutch woman with a Muslim man in Holland.  The women, they are not interested in a family if it means they must give back their own freedom.  The women want the Muslim men to leave Amsterdam and so they have made a pact.  Do not fuck the Muslims.   The Muslims will leave and never come back.  It is very bad here."

Hans, the Night Manager, Amsterdam Hotel
He was young, hip, educated, and opinionated.  "If the economy is good, everyone is happy.  If the economy is bad, everyone is unhappy.  They want to fix everything, change laws, make new laws.  They only need to fix the economy and everyone will be happy again. The Dutch women are very beautiful, we fall in love with them, they have our babies, they throw us out and we pay and pay. The terrorist warnings, ha! We have them every day, we don't pay attention to them any more...if it happens, it will not change us...we are all one family here. We loved Clinton, but Bush, he was bad for the world.  It is good he is gone...what do you think of Obama? Obama has already done more than Bush..he is the first black man elected president...that is quite an accomplishment for your country"

Train Ride to Germany
We bought first class tickets on the ICE train to Germany. Sitting in our comfortable compartment, we were soon joined by Pieter, a German salesman for a mechanical device company.  Russ is also a salesman and boy, can they talk.  Pieter told us that he was born long after World War II had ended and yet he pays a war reparation tax. "And Hitler wasn't even German, he was Austrian. Does Austria have to pay for Hitler's war?  No!"  Russ replies, "Hitler was also half-Jewish."  Pieter appears surprised at this information.  Pieter continues, " Hitler made an arrangement with the Catholic church, to keep the Pope's silence over his behavior in the war  The Pope agreed but only if there was a church tax..  The war is 50 years old and, because I am Catholic, the church tax takes 100 Euros of my paycheck every month. Why is this allowed to be? This was not my war."

We reach Arwen and Pieter says, "There is a famous bridge at Arwen from the war.  Perhaps you heard of it?  I think the Americans made a movie about it." We nod in the affirmative and then there is a moment of silence. We realize that, in our father's time, we were enemies.  Now we are riding in a train together, talking  about those times.  After a few more comments about the war, the conversation drifts to sales, equipment, and travelling. Pieter tells us his German company is actually a subsidiary of an American firm located in the Carolinas.  Pieter has been to the corporate headquarters a few times.  We apologize for the South and encourage Pieter to visit the North and then we all laugh. The Arwen bridge passes underneath in silence, the train floating on air.

"Dinner in Düsseldorf, Germany
After arriving at our austere hotel near the airport, we took a taxi to the old town, Altstadt, in the city center.  There were several outside cafe's on numerous streets, similar to Amsterdam in architecture, but missing the lovely canals and lovelier bicycle riders.  The large, visible police presence in Amsterdam was absent here.  Russ observed one policeman, talking loudly to a patron at one of the cafe's.

We found a cafe' with a menu to my liking. Russ wanted Burger King.  We sat outside, closest to the pedestrian walkway, and ordered dinner.  Directly across from us was a bookstore.  On either side of the bookstore were two more restaurants with outside seating.  Additional outdoor cafe's were present along the entire block.  There were probably 300 customers enjoying the ambiance of the outdoor restaurants on our street.  Only service and emergency vehicles can gain access to this area.

As we were finishing our meal, a florist delivery van drove onto the walkway, then stopped directly opposite our table.  I looked over and locked eyes with a young Arab man.  Without taking his eyes off of me, he put the van in reverse, slowly backed up, then placed the van in drive and pulled forward, facing the bookstore.  The young man jumped out of the van, gave us one more long look, then strolled down the walkway, cellphone in hand. Check, please.

It's that easy.  Every evening, the florist van pulls in and parks at the bookstore.  Its movement becomes part of a larger city rhythm.  Police pay little attention, the van is like any other service vehicle- the driver just another worker doing his job.  Then one day, the van pulls in and parks, the driver exits the explosive-laden vehicle and walks away- cell phone in hand.  Once he is at a safe distance,  he detonates the van and 300 people die. It is way too easy and it may always be that easy in free societies.  I hope that van keeps bringing flowers.

Düsseldorf Airport Security
Russ forgets to trash his lighter. He tries handing it to the security official.  "No. no", says the German equivalent of our Homeland Security, waving his hand, "you can keep that."  We move forward, ready to remove our belt and shoes.  No one is removing theirs so we change our mind and walk through- our shoes intact, lighter in hand. No wonder Germany is a target.

Final Observation
I think about a conversation Russ and I had with a college student/waitress at our first hotel.  "Well, you are a young country, "she said with an air of authority,  "you still have much to learn about the rest of the world." Indeed we do, young lady, indeed we do.

Authors Note: Names have been changed to protect those individuals who spoke candidly with us.  Our thanks to each one, this story is also their story..


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