day 2.4 – out of England
Welcome to Travels With Greg, my memoir of a six-week documentary trip through Europe in Autumn 2004. In the last installment, I bought some books. Now I’m waiting for my connecting flight. The action, it does not stop. If you’re new to my site, please visit the Table of Contents.
I settled in across from Greg in the plastic seats of Terminal 4, packing my new books as carefully as possible into my shoulder bag, just in case the BMI flight to Amsterdam placed size restrictions on carry-on baggage. Each airline, though adhering to a set of standards that most companies can agree on, has its share of idiosyncrasies. One airline may charge extra for overweight baggage or ignore the difference altogether, but Qantas, for example, will refuse your luggage if it masses more than 32 kg. Air Singapore will let you use genuine cutlery or supply you with a glass of complimentary wine, while Continental, for example, sucks.
BMI will give you a free sandwich for sixty minute hop to Amsterdam. I remember a long-ago time when airlines in Canada offered free food of any kind, but that was so far in the past that airplanes had not, strictly speaking, been invented. I tried not to betray my shock to the attendant when she handed me the plastic-encased sandwich and serviette, lest I be identified as a rube. I wasn’t all that hungry, and I was even less hungry when I looked closely at the sandwich, but there was no way I was giving up on free airplane food.
The morning plane was crowded with business travelers and sleepy tourists. The touristswere responsible for the vaguely yeasty scent gently circulating around the cabin. With Greg’s blessing I took a window seat and unwrapped the sandwich as Britain dropped away and scooted eastward beneath us. Beef, and some kind of paste that seemed part butter, part salt. It tasted nostalgic.
There was almost no cloud cover for the entire flight, which I suspected was rare. People in the seats ahead blinked and squeezed out protective tears against the sun. I kept my eyes out the window and watched the Netherlands slide into view.
After the improvisational quality of Heathrow, Schiphol was a paragon of order. Greg and I slid out of the plane and found ourselves once again in the endless queues and overpriced coffee shops of Inner Airport World. The customs agent who went over our ragged carnet was stuffed inside a little glass box. As he flipped through the document and scratched his salt-and-pepper beard, I pictured him slowly growing puffier and more monstrous, until portions of him were squeezing out of the grating, contained only by his polyester shirt.
Once past customs and immigration we found ourselves entering Outer Airport World, that thin rim of vehicle rental kiosks and drugstores designed to insulate passengers from the punishments of reality. I needed to make a couple of phone calls, but the public phones were – and how can I put this? – in-fucking-comprehensible. They were distributed plentifully, so I had many opportunities to walk up to them and not understand what the hell I was supposed to do. Should I approach a stranger and ask them what to do? My understanding of Dutch was limited, but I was pretty sure that if I spoke plain English and threw in the occasional hooting vowel, the result would be enough like Dutch that I could get some assistance with the hulking red and silver sculptures that were, apparently, phones.
I stepped into a pharmacy.
Excuse me, I said, but I don’t know how to use these phones.
The cashier gave me the patient, stoic, slightly curious look that is part of the Dutch birthright. They will only work with one of these phone cards, she explained, pointing to a rack of cards by the till. I tried to pick one out, but sleeplessness was beginning to nibble at the edges of my brain again.
I walked back over to Greg, who had taken up his customary sitting position.
Any luck with the phones?
Screw it. Let’s get our vehicle and find our hotel.
I was a bit nervous about renting a car. My company generally made a point of using the worst vehicle rental service possible, especially when I was travelling overseas. Often they would rent from a North American company that had a ‘relationship’ with a non-North American company, said relationship guaranteeing that they would take your money and not bother letting the other company know. Whether there would be a car waiting for you on the other end of your flight was a matter of chance.
We were pleasantly surprised when the freshly painted and scrubbed women behind at the kiosk had our name in their computer. They never stopped smiling, even when it turned out that the particular car we had requested – a minivan – was not available. In fact, it seemed that they had no minivans at all, and the notion of renting a minivan only broadened their smiles. I got the feeling that only North Americans wanted minivans.
We have a lot of luggage, I explained. We need a large vehicle.
The woman picked at her keyboard for a moment.
We can rent you a Saab 95 Turbo, she said. It is our largest car. And we won’t charge you anything more.
I decided that this was a good omen.
Thank you, I said.
You should learn to say it in Dutch, she said. And then she made a noise that started off reasonably but ended up sounding like getting kicked in the throat.
I tried it out: Dank … huh-row?
Dank Hrwaarghhh, she clarified.
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