Sunday, December 29, 2013

Amsterdam at Christmas Time

We checked into the Doubletree Hilton near the "Centraaaaaaal Train Station" in Amsterdam.  For me, it was a red-letter day.  I have been a member of the Hilton Honors program since the Carter administration, diligently collecting "reward" points so that someday I too could stay at one of those resorts with the naked lady in the spa with the line of rocks on her back.  However, every time I checked what my mass of points were worth, they would usually translate to "a night in Topeka, without breakfast".  Finally, I was able to cash in and get a two nights' stay in Amsterdam!!  I don't think there was a spa and Karen wasn't keen on the idea of me stacking rocks on her, but everything else was there and free, including breakfast!

I have used up all my reward points now and have to start a collecting them again.  I figure my next Hilton Reward Stay will be at the Hilton Assisted Living Suites.

The hotel was nice.  We had a "suite" complete with a door, a bed and a television.  There was a separate small bathroom, which was a plus.  Karen characterized it as "small" and we both wondered what their regular rooms would look like?

The real great thing about the suite was it had a balcony overlooking Amsterdam.  It was a beautiful view!!!!  In addition to the normal "Amsterdam" sights, there were a number of Christmassy things.

Below our balcony were a couple of large (as in Ginormous) brightly-lit prickly balls.

Then, in front of the "Centraaaaaaaaal Train Station" there was beautiful huge Christmas tree, brightly lit and decorated (above the 20 foot level) which was probably four stories tall.  We were not quite sure why the decorations were not on the bottom part, perhaps they ran out of lights like we always do.

In addition to those decorations, there was an all blue tall Smurf tree and a huge brightly lit festive whiffle ball (at least that's what it appeared to be).

I had been reading about Amsterdam's Christmas "Illuminade" or "Festival of Light" which promised "a canal cruise through this year's selection of spectacular illuminated artworks."  Something Christmassy and not to be missed!!

After reading about it and seeing the Christmas decorations from our balcony, we knew that the Illuminade Canal Tour was a "must see".  We figured what we had seen was just the slightest taste of what was to come, not realizing that we'd already experienced the full meal, including soup and dessert.

Heading over to the dock, we picked a promising ship for our tour.  It would have been helpful (and accurate) if it had been named the "Flying Dutchman to Nowhere" or "Ship of Fools", but it wasn't.  We were each given a small cup of hot wine and told to wait in a huge line to buy our tickets.  Of course, we had the "massive group of elderly women who travel together but take separate checks" so it took a long time to get through the line.  We finally boarded our ship and it was packed with expectant tourists.  We couldn't even get seats by the window, though it ultimately didn't matter.

The Illuminade Canal Tour takes about two hours, but it feels like half a day.  It is best done at night because it is easier to see where the locals do not put up lights as decorations.  For the most part, the trip is through darkened canals, with the occasional "artistic light montage", each of which needs to be explained ("the artist's rendition of lights on this building is here to show the hopelessness of man's condition on a canal tour") and none of which has anything to do with Christmas.

The captain took us through most of the canals of Amsterdam, apparently to prove that we hadn't missed anything and that there really wasn't anything to see.  Midway into the journey I wondered out loud if I could give the captain money to let us off.  He didn't take the bait, the miserable old sea dog.

A group of Italians caught on early what the cruise consisted of and started loudly going "ooh" and "aah" anytime we passed a street light.

We finally, gratefully, got back to our dock, thanked the captain for allowing us to disembark before dying and admired the Christmas Tree in front of the "Centraaaaal Train Station" on our way back.

If you have the chance to catch the Amsterdam Christmas Illuminade Canal Tour, it is an experience which you should definitely not fail to miss!!!!

Paris on Our Last Trip - And We Are Going Back!!!

Somewhere in our travels in 2012, I wrote this, but neglected to post it. However, we love Paris and are planning on returning in a couple of weeks, so it seems appropriate to post now:

We had a great time in Paris!

Of course, there were a few things of note.

First, there are a lot of people here; I mean a lot!!

After the apartment, we relocated to a hotel near the Champs-Élysées, which I just refer to as "Champs" mostly because I can't quite pronounce "Élysées".  The sidewalks are huge on this street and very well used.  There are seas of people going up and down the sidewalk; some just standing stupidly around, many taking photos, including trying to take photos of themselves with some French thing in the background (like the Arch, Tower, street sign saying Champs, storefront, etc....); it is a zoo with all the animals set free!


There is also a distinct perfume-y odor that we have been noticing; not in a good way.  It is a particularly musky odor (think muskox in heat or dead muskrat) that is at once penetrating and sneeze-inducing, with a faint back smell of something which is several months past its pull date.  As far as we can tell, it is THE most popular men's cologne in Paris.  The men who use it have no apparent ability to put it on lightly; they must use a spray hose applicator.

The women are equally at fault in the sneezy, smelly, Eau de Cheap Date department, but there seems to be more variety.  The men have gone for "Old Muskox" in droves.

The combination of the smells and thousands of people pushing at you from all directions is overpowering.

We have been trying to determine whether there is an Sidewalk Walking Code that we are missing.  In the States, people usually keep to the right side when walking so that the foot traffic can flow sort of like car traffic.  Here, people either get sucked into whatever space isn't currently occupied (which can be left, right, forward or back) or wander aimlessly with a map in one hand and a camera in the other staring blankly into space and muttering inexplicable sentences with the occasional "du", "le" or "pardon moi" sounding vaguely like they are from Texas.  The result is that foot traffic is flowing (or not moving) all directions (if you don't understand how it is possible for person "not to move in all directions" come to Paris - you will see it) and you find yourself just dodging people as opposed to actually going anywhere in particular.

We try and hold hands; both from love and the hope that we won't become permanently separated.  However, we have a recurring problem with this in that some other couple, family, tour group, phalanx, or warring tribe bears directly at us with no apparent acknowledgement of our existence or any clear intent of moving out of our way, splitting up or stopping.  We have seen all types, ages, ethnic varieties, and a wide variety of numbers, but their only apparent goal is to see us separated or trampled.

Karen has gotten a bit annoyed at this and periodically demands that we stand our ground and keep walking straight.  She usually says things like this just before a large group of hoodlums with headphones and malicious glares appears in front of me or a huge-breasted girl starts bearing down on my sights (even more than normal).  There is no way I'm going to run into either of those (ahem; I mean the hoodlums OR the girl)!  So, I keep dodging and weaving, reconnecting hands and trying to keep Karen in my sight.

Our typical day in Paris has been to stay in bed until about 11 a.m. or so, work at getting out of the hotel room, heading out to find a place to have lunch, including wine and dessert, seeing one or two "things you're supposed to see in Paris", heading back to our hotel room to nap, if we can do it, heading out again to "do something your supposed to do in Paris", find a place for dinner, including wine and dessert, and then back to our hotel room to sleep.  It is a wonderful existence, if I could play harp while being fed grapes, I'd be doing that here as well.

We have managed to cruise the Seine three times so far on this trip.  We did an extravagant dinner cruise, a sort-of lunch cruise (in that we had to carry on our food and wine) and a "late night see the lights and drink cruise".  I recommend them all, but the last one was particularly nice.  We have also done one of those double-decker bus tours of Paris.  With this tour, you get a set of earphones which play irritating music which has nothing to do with France interspersed with descriptions of what you would have seen if the description had come on about 30 seconds sooner.  You could see confused people throughout the bus looking around for a building and then pointing several blocks behind the bus.  We did the full tour on the first day and then chucked the earphones and used the bus as a taxi service the next day (it was a two-day ticket; we're not totally clear why).

When we haven't been on board a boat or a bus, we have been walking, everywhere.  I'm not totally clear how many miles we have walked since arriving in Paris, but it is a lot - basically like a marathon, only with more wine and bathroom breaks.

In the food and wine department, the thing you need to be careful of in France is the "Noon to Two Rule".  This has two aspects to it.  The first part of the rule is that nothing is open or gets done apart from eating and drinking between Noon to Two.  This includes all museums, sights, many public transports, hotel desks, stores, etc...  The second is directly related to the first and that is, if you want to eat or drink, you better do it between Noon to Two, because after Two, the restaurants all close until dinner, which will not occur until very late by American standards.

I think the reason I didn't post this was because I didn't finish it.  However, since we are returning I can post this now and do a sequel later!!!

We have arrived!

Actually, we arrived a bit ago and I am now sitting on a balcony in Lucerne, Switzerland, fighting off a cold with vitamin C and alcohol.  Karen has the same affliction except that she is a day behind or a day ahead or something.

If you have to be sick, we are in just about the most beautiful location to do it.  Of course, we'd still prefer not to be sick.

The boat was wonderful and more on that later, but it had sporadic internet.  As in, in blinked off when ever it was important and then the little swirly thing would swirl it's little heart away, content that that was all it had to do.

The flight was incredibly long.  We did have great seats in business class, but the basic problem is that they were still seats on an airplane and an airplane that you had to be on for eleven hours.

There is something life draining about being on airplanes.

I start to decay the minute I board, my hair starts to get flat and tousled at the same time (don't ask me how), my clothes start to get seedy and can see wrinkles appearing on my face.  After a few hours, people passing by my seat probably wonder why the family paid for a seat for the body rather than shipping it air freight.

The crew all look really fresh.  Of course, I have noticed how the stewardesses appear to be getting older.  Maybe they are all 22 year olds who have flown one to many international flight.

We did have individual televisions in the seat backs in front of us (I suppose we also had one in the seat fronts in back of us).  Karen likes to watch the flight map and listen to the cockpit and air traffic control chatter.  I can't do that.  First, the flight map seems endless and is a constant reminder that, even at 550 miles per hour it will be days before we arrive.  Second, I am concerned that I will hear something I'd rather not, as in "oops," or "oh, sh*&!"  I'm hoping that, if I was ever involved in an accident, the coroner will say "He never knew what hit him."

So, while Karen was diligently following the huge airplane blip (the size of Delaware) move across North America, I was checking on movies that I had missed and playing idiot backgammon (because, on a plane, I am an idiot).  I'm not sure who picks the movies to show, but you get the feeling they buy them in bulk and they don't spend much money.  There are a lot of names that sound vaguely familiar, but you dimly recall bad reviews or straight to video (or airplane, as the case may be).  Anyway, I was able to catch a couple of used to be big names in several films, I think one was "Nothing Much" and the other was "Still Nothing, Part Two".

I ate, drank, watched movies, played backgammon, tried to read and tried to sleep.  Then, bleary-eyed, I looked over at Karen's map.  We still had 6 and 1/2 hours to go.  I think time actually slows down in flight and the closer you get to your destination it goes even slower.  Ultimately, time stops before you arrive.  As we were approaching the end of the flight, Karen's map said we were 40 miles from the destination, traveling at 25,000 feet and 600 miles per hour.  I figured we'd be there in about a two minutes.  Then, perhaps a half hour later, Karen's map said we were 20 miles from the destination, traveling at 18,000 feet at 580 miles per hour.  We started to suspect that the pilot was doing squiggly turns as this went on for what seemed like days.

We eventually landed in Paris, about half an hour late, which was a bit of a problem because we had to switch airlines to make our Amsterdam connection.  These travel plans always look better when I'm planning them on paper than when we are trudging down the concourse, heavily laden with luggage, and Karen is staring at me with one of those "what have you done now" glares.

After our late arrival, customs slowed down to make up for it and we had to "claim" our "baggaaaage" (as the French call it) and look for the place to "recheck" the "baggaaaaage" for the next flight.  Of course, our "baggaaaage" consists of a "supply line for Barnum's heavy infantry".  I had purchased the tickets in advance and, thinking it was a short flight, we booked "economie" instead of "le premiere" with Air France.  As far as we could tell, everyone in France flew "le premiere" and we kept walking with our "baggaaaaaage" down the concourse passing line after line (with occasional stores and restaurants) of "le premiere".

It is times like this that Karen starts to mention things like, "If you had bought "le premiere" we'd already be in our seats."  Then, just to be cruel, "You'd probably already have a drink."

Finally, in the distance, the "economie" line.  We rushed down to it, mindful of the shortened time and jettisoned our "baggaaaaage", including a massive extra charge for a bag which Karen observed "we wouldn't have had to pay if we were on "le premiere"".  Tired and weary, we rushed to "securite'", slowed down incredibly and then re-rushed on to our gate.

At the gate, the "airplane time anomaly" again kicked in.  While trying to go through customs, find the right ticket line, check "baggaaaaage", pass through "securite'" and walk miles time flies by.

As soon as we arrive at the gate, though, time freezes.  Everything stops except for the physical aging process, which speeds up (except for Karen who always looks young and beautiful).  There are really only so many times that we can high five each other and say "we made it!"  Eventually, as time does not pass and we continue to stare at each other, we start to grumble, "Why aren't we going anywhere?"

I will not be surprised if I wake up some day at an airport gate with Rod Serling saying, "Mr. Barnum is about to enter the eternity of the "Airport Zone".