Thursday, 6 November 2014

Food poisoning, techno confusion and general frustration...

In between the clouds en route to Amsterdam
I flew out of City Airport on Monday lunchtime in the rain and wind. This made for a bumpy (ish) flight with nothing but the whiteness of the clouds outside the window. I wouldn't say it was unpleasant, but anything but a smooth and carefree flight makes me a little edgey...and to top it all there was hardly any time to eat or drink anything. Well, almost anything. By the time I'd finished a small plastic carton of orange juice and an even smaller bag of crisps (that's what they call in-flight service these days, even on major airlines) I had hardly any time for a tiny 187ml bottle of red wine, something I always enjoy when flying.

While I'd only been in the air for 40 minutes I still felt a little shattered, mainly because everything happened so quickly. One minute I was in London, the next I was high above the clouds and then I found myself on the ground in another country. Bad timing on my part meant that I would be away from home for the entire week, although it all worked out for the best in the end. I'd arranged a meeting for Tuesday in the Netherlands but had to attend a conference in Germany on Thursday. Logistically, it worked out fine. Late on Tuesday afternoon, work done, I hired a bike to ride from the hotel to Amsterdam Centraal Station where I bought a ticket to Dusseldorf.
Bike 775 – this Batavus ferried me to the Centraal Station
It would have been foolhardy of me to visit Amsterdam and not ride a bike as the Netherlands is THE city for cyclists. Furthermore, hiring the bike cost me just 15 Euros. A taxi there and back would have cost triple the amount.
Wherever I look there are bikes, like here on a canal
Where cycling is concerned, the UK should take note of how things are done in Holland; for a start the cycle lanes are more than just lines drawn with chalk in the road. In the Netherlands the cyclist comes first and the cycle lanes are completely separated from the roads. This is good news for the cyclist who, it has to be said, wins out in any court case with a motorist, a bit like in the UK where, if I crashed into the car in front of me I would be at fault in terms of insurance liability.

Taken from one of Amsterdam's cycle lanes
And think for one minute how fit the Dutch must be; all that cycling around in a city where it's legal to enjoy a spliff with your coffee. Personally, I prefer a millionaire's shortbread or a couple of stem ginger biscuits – each to their own – but it's amazing how the Dutch can stand up, let alone ride bicycles around a busy city without coming a cropper.

Bikes everywhere...
Amsterdam is full of bikes. There are, I am told, 16 million people and 12 million bikes and this fact doesn't go unnoticed. Everywhere I look there are bikes: against the walls, in giant bicycle sheds, they're everywhere and most of them are of the 'sit-up-and-beg' variety and mainly traditional women's frames, which are riden by male and female alike. Batavus is a frequently seen brand. Occasionally I might see somebody on a top-of-the-range mountain bike, but this is rare and the equivalent in motoring terms, of seeing somebody driving, say, a Bugatti Veyron.
On the bike...

And while it is generally safe, much safer than in the UK, to ride a bike in the Netherlands, it is also worth remembering that motorised scooters are allowed to ride in the cycle lanes...not that you'll see many of them, but bear it mind as they whizz around at twice the speed of the bicycles. It's also worth bearing in mind that there are a lot of cyclists in the Netherlands and they're all comin' atcha, meaning there is no room for those who dawdle along or stop or change direction - like yours truly looking for signs to the railway station. Those cycle lanes cover the entire country. On the train yesterday, as I left Arnhem behind and headed for the German border, I noticed how there were still cycle lanes right up until the train crossed into Germany.

Having arrived at Amsterdam's Centraal railway station
I spent a lot of time on the bike as I didn't really have a clue where I was going. I had taken a brief look at a street map of Amsterdam, supplied by my hotel, and I deduced from it that it was a straight road to and from the Centraal Station. What I didn't count on was the fact that there are certain areas of the city where cycling is prohibited AND there are policemen waiting for those who break the rules – not to fine them, but to tell them, in a laid back manner, not to ride in pedestrianised areas. I'd imagine that pedestrians are at the top of the pecking order in the Netherlands, followed by cyclists and then motorists. When I saw a policeman I quickly jumped off the bike and decided to stay off until I found a cycle lane (there are plenty of them). I'm sure that a map exists of all the cycle lanes and where they lead to, but I only possessed a street map...and I'd left that in my hotel room.

I set off during the daylight hours and returned after dark. You could say I enjoyed the ride, even if the weather was a little on the chilly side, although Monday's rain had ceased and the Dutch had a couple of days of decent weather ahead of them.

Parked up and padlocked outside Centraal Station
'Like sucking snot off the back of a tortoise'
So far, so good, you might be thinking – and to a degree you'd be right. On Monday afternoon I had been taken to an oyster bar in Amsterdam and it looked like (and I'm sure it was) a decent establishment. I'm not a great fan of oysters. In fact, I rarely eat them. In my entire life I've only had them a couple of times and on one occasion, the person offering them to me (a publican called Eddie Cheeseman) told me that eating oysters was like (and I quote) 'sucking snot off the back of a tortoise'. He wasn't far wrong, but on this occasion, I thought they were quite tasty – and very meaty. I ate three of them. The oyster restaurant seemed to specialise in selling uncooked food. I'd say 'sushi' but meat was also involved. The oysters were raw and we also had steak tartar...again, I'm not a fan. I like my food to be hot. Cooked in other words, but it would have been rude to object so I gave it all a go and after a couple of small glasses or red wine all seemed well with the world. In fact, all was well with the world.

Looking out from Amsterdam Centraal Station
The following morning (Tuesday) I was up with the lark, enjoying (if that's the word) the rather lame breakfast offering of my Best Western hotel and looking forward to my day of interviewing and meeting various people connected with my line of work. It went well and we, that is my colleague who took me to the oyster bar and I, decided to have lunch in a seafood restaurant by the sea (on the basis that a seafood restaurant on the coast had to be good, right?). It was very pleasant. We both had Dover sole and a beer and then went back to work.

Later, after I had said farewell to my Dutch colleagues, I went on the aforementioned bike ride to pick up my train ticket to Dusseldorf and then I thought I'd have a relatively early night. But first, a visit to an Indonesian restaurant for a late dinner. I had a relatively mild, straightforward chicken dish with vegetable soup at the same restaurant on Monday night and, as you know, I awoke on Tuesday morning feeling rather good and looking forward to my day at work. On Tuesday night, after the bike ride, I went for a longish walk looking for somewhere different to eat but ending up in the same Indonesian restaurant – not a problem. This time I ordered prawns and all was well. I left the restaurant (minus the receipt and had to go back for it) and, when I reached my hotel room, I settled in for that 'relatively early night' which meant I was going to watch a BBC thriller starring James Nesbit called The Missing or Missing. But I felt tired – and found the drama a little slow and boring – so I switched off the television and hit the sack.

"Would sir like to sit on the toilet all night?"
At 0300hrs, however, I was wide awake and feeling a little dodgy in the stomach department. You know how you clock that something is up but don't want to admit it in case you're right? That's how I was feeling. I won't even tell you what happened next, I'll simply leave that to your imagination, but suffice it to say that I was finished the following the day. A lack of sleep and a general weariness made it impossible for me to function properly. It took me an age to pack my suitcase and get myself together enough to check out of the hotel and after I'd managed that I simply sat in one of the bright orange seats near the front desk and tried to sleep (I had about an hour before I had to get my act together and call a cab to take me to the Centraal station). When it was time to go I was feeling a tiny bit better, it has to be said. There was no risk, for instance, of making an exhibition of myself in public (not that it's possible to make an exhibition of oneself in private). I ordered a cab and reached the station with 10 minutes to spare, jumped on the train, found a seat and then spent the journey staring out of the window in a state of unmedicated weariness while fending off the attentions of a toddler who kept calling me 'dad' and offering me the biscuits she had dropped on the floor. Had I been feeling a little brighter I might have sung that Kid Creole number, "Annie, I'm not your daddy!", but I wasn't feeling bright at all.

When I reached Dusseldorf I had a short walk to the fantastic Leonardo Hotel on Ludwig Erhard Allee and the welcoming face of receptionist Natalie Williams. After checking in, I went straight to my room – it was about 1530hrs – and slept through to 2222hrs (that's what it said on my iphone when I regained consciousness, I'm not trying to brag about my 'preciseness'). I had consumed nothing all day other than a half litre of mineral water purchased from a vending machine opposite the front desk of the Amsterdam hotel.

In a weary state I lay in bed watching BBC World and listening to how US president Obama faces a rocky couple years having been trounced by the Republicans in the mid-term elections; there was stuff about Ebola and an interview with Zimbabwe's minister of tourism (Hardtalk) who discussed building some kind of theme park and casino at a time when the country simply doesn't need one. Is he crazy or what? Mugabe is in his early nineties (91) but there are rumours that his family wants to retain power after his demise.

I wandered downstairs to buy a bottle of mineral water and to ask if there were any snacks available; the answer on the latter was no, but there were free, shiny and very green Granny Smiths in a bowl so I had one of those and returned to my room where I fell asleep and didn't wake up until 0730hrs – feeling good. Thursday morning and I felt absolutely fine. Fine enough to eat a decent breakfast followed by lunch and now I'm considering dinner. Hmmm, perhaps some raw seafood and uncooked meat!

This morning, when I reached the conference, my colleague who had enjoyed the oysters with me on Monday afternoon, told me that he too had experienced what I have already detailed above. This means that it might have been our lunch by the sea OR those oysters. The consensus of opinion was the former. Another colleague of mine related a tale of how he enjoyed a few oysters earlier in the year in Paris and they came back to haunt him two days later. And there was me blaming the Indonesian restaurant (which was clearly innocent). It was either the oysters or the Dover sole, but let's remember this: the Dover sole was cooked, the oysters were uncooked...or perhaps it was the steak tartar – think minced beef, uncooked – very dangerous. I mean, let's be honest. Would you go to your local butcher, buy a half pound of mince and start eating it raw on your way home? Well, that's what steak tartar is all about. Add a few raw onions from the greengrocer and Bob's your toilet attendant!

And now there's nothing much else to say. I will certainly be avoiding seafood, especially oysters and, indeed, anything that isn't cooked. Who in their right mind eats food that is uncooked, unless it's something like fresh fruit and vegetables? Only wild animals don't cook their meat. Having said that, I'm rather partial to a bit of raw cauliflower and only the other week I was munching away on some raw cabbage while cooking the Sunday roast, but no more raw food, however trendy it's supposed to be. There's nothing trendy about sitting on the throne at 0300hrs trying not to be sick.

Techno confusion and general frustration...
That's the food poisoning dealt with, as for the 'techno confusion' and the 'general frustration' one neatly links into the other: despite keying in my password and user name correctly, I couldn't access my work email account this evening; that's one frustration; then the WiFi in my hotel room didn't work (I'm downstairs writing this on the hotel 'business centre' computer) and, if I'm honest, I'm getting a little fed up with my general slapstick behaviour. I put on a pair of glasses, I look down at a book, the glasses fall off – once they fell off and dropped into a bowl of soup in a restaurant. And how about this: I'm sitting in a conference hall, I take out my glasses case and immediately can't find it. Where the hell has it gone, I fume inwardly, not wanting to let others know of my frustration. I eventually find them wedged underneath the seat next to me where they must have quietly fallen after I'd allowed them to rest on the cushion. And then there's simultaneous translation. I hate it! Why can't everybody speak the international language – English? I feel really guilty about not speaking another language. I wish I'd learned French or German, but then again my secondary modern 1970s education stipulated that I was too thick to learn a foreign language. Not that they'd in any way tested me. "Secondary Modern Schools are Designed to Produce Failures." Discuss.

Something else that bugged me on this trip in particular was my constant inclination, when leaving the hotel room in Dusseldorf (Room 501) to turn left instead of right. The correct way to the elevators was to turn right, not left, but every time I left the room, deep in thought about something or other, I turned left and then, realising my mistake, adjusted my direction accordingly and headed for the elevator vestibule. Is that the right word? Vestibule? I only got it right when I vacated the room for the last time, which was doubly frustrating because I knew I wouldn't have the pleasure of getting it right again.

Fortunately, I missed out on one big frustration: Germany's train drivers were on strike today so it was lucky that I travelled to Dusseldorf yesterday, even if I was completely out of it. We'll leave it there, but let this post be a lesson to all who read it: don't eat raw fish or meat, it ain't big and it ain't clever and its definitely not trendy.

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