One is jolted awake by loud distorted bird noises being piped through the ship’s radio. In a pitch black room which appears to be swaying, at 5.15am UK time this can be somewhat disorientating. Of course, we’re on a ferry, it’s 6.15am Dutch time and they want you to get your sorry ass out of bed and spend 20 Euros on a bacon sandwich and some coffee. Ugh. A bad night’s sleep, totalling around three hours. Not more of this, I hope. Ah, but as Russians say, hope dies last.
Out of bed, a vitamin tablet into a water bottle. Shower, brush teeth, apply sunblock. Repack the canvas bags: clothes, consumables, electricals. The bike gear gets stuffed into the helmet. Put on a clean base layer, pull on the motorbike jeans, mess around with the boots. This will become a ritual which annoys my hosts and hotel staff in the days to come.
It seems that the only sensible option at this hellish time is a coffee. I dislike the taste of coffee but the caffeine hit from my preferred option, tea, would not be enough, and I doubt that the bleary eyed Filipino steward behind the counter would welcome a request for a erba maté.
We dock. Hello Netherlands! Everyone is ushered to the vehicle deck, I unstrap the bike and roll out. Passport control is a man looking at my passport, looking at my face through the shades and motorcycle helmet and waving me on. Freedom of movement, baby!
It’s drizzling. The drizzle turns into a downpour. The downpour turns into a tsunami. The worst rain which the Netherlands has had in five years coincides with my arrival. The main motorway into Amsterdam is a 30 mile long tailback. I am drenched, visibility is total whiteout zero and there is no option but to filter between two walls of crawling lorries. Occasionally I’m aquaplaning. The water is as high as my pegs in places. I’ve not ridden on the right hand side of the road since the US over six months ago. Thiese are the worst riding conditions I’d ever experienced, no question.
Finally, an exit for Amsterdam. Rolling into the South Western suburb where the old Olympic Park sits is a relief. The Olympics were held there in the 1920s and the Olympic Village is now high end housing: big posh two storey townhouses. My friends are lucky enough to live in one.
A shower, a cup of tea and the company of A, my host and one of my oldest and dearest friends. She lets me pass out, saving conversation for later. A 20 minute power nap and I am functional. Later we go into town, past Museumplatz and to Leidseplein and beyond. It’s sort of as I remember it, but more extreme, with time, or perhaps with my own age? Of an evening some streets are carnage, not just in the red light district. Urine, vomit, blood, bad beer and one presumes tears flow freely. People get stabbed, people throw up, people soil themselves. Maybe some people are smoking weed but there is little evidence of it, none of them are calm or peaceful. We avoid those neighbourhoods and head for a posh bar away from Gomorrah. The barman gives us a lecture about organic “pure” wine. Good for you, but is this what we’ve become? I guess it’s the best one can do.
Onto conversations about Dutch society. The core of the country has always done well and survived the worst excesses of history, not least WW2. As a colonial power, Holland’s 18th and 19th Century rulers’ brutality was up there, topped perhaps by Belgium’s monstrous Leopold II, but not many others. These days as the host of the International Criminal Court and various international peace building institutions, modern Holland’s reputation as a force for fairness and human rights is rivalled only by Norway. What extremes. Is the country now as tolerant as many believe? People were outraged by a recent advertising campaign featuring two gay women. Is it a car free society? Not at all. Amsterdam is a tiny place, maybe 750,000 inhabitants. Cars, motorcycles, pedestrians and bicycles share road space. Motorcycles are welcome to park on any pavement. There are some segregated bicycle lanes which petrol powered scooters are welcome to use. Scooter hire schemes are more popular than bicycle ones. The Netherlands is not ever, for one moment, what you think.
Riding a large motorcycle in Amsterdam felt significantly safer than in London. In London as a motorcyclist I feel least safe and most at risk of death in neighbourhoods like Waltham Forest and Enfield which have wasted millions of taxpayers’ money on allegedly “pro cycling” schemes which they describe as a “Mini Holland”. The dreadful mess Waltham Forest and Enfield Councils in London have made of their streets at vast expense is the opposite of what Holland is like.
We stroll back past a hotel in a quiet suburb. It is the Oud Zuid Amsterdam Hilton, where John and Yoko once spent a week in bed for peace. “The newspapers said, say what ya doin’ in bed, I said ‘We only tryin’ get us some peace!’ ”.
Christ, you know it ain’t easy. ‘Dam you, ‘Dam. I have no answers, only more questions.