Have Overheads: Will Travel

The Netherlands Connection


I arrived in Schiphol airport in the early evening. The travel agent had booked me into a nearby hotel overnight. I walked out into a drizzling gloom to find the stop where the hotel's shuttle would pick up passengers. As seems usual with shuttles, everyone I asked had a different belief about where it would arrrive. I eventually located it, and stood getting slightly damp watching people being moved in and out of the airport with money-making efficiency.

On the next concrete island, close to one of the the airport doors, there were three very large and very glossy black stretch BMWs, engines humming peacefully. While I was trying to persuade myself that the shower was refreshing and that the shuttle had not finished running for the day, a group of business-suited men strode through a sliding door and headed for the BMWs. Each was flanked by an even smarter man with black gloves holding an umberella up for him. The doors of the cars were opened by black-suited and black-gloved chauffers. The cars oozed contemptuously away from their resting places and swept past me one by one. I looked down at the vague shadows behind the darkened black windows, and felt indifferent eyes look back, perhaps a hint of pity for the pathetically impoverished academic. The shower had definitely become rain.

At the Pullman Hotel I asked for a room with an analog phone connection. The young man at the check-in counter switched from flawless English to flawless German at the large man who interrupted me and peremptorily demanded some information and back to flawless English with a flawless shrug and raised eyebrows in the direction of the departing German. Once in the room I took a beer and some nuts from the mini-bar and had my Macintosh PowerBook dial into my university computer in Canada. I sent next semester's course outlines, which I had finished on the plane, to the graduate programs secretary, downloaded my e-mail, and uploaded some changes to my WWW Home Page. I disconnected, spent half an hour or so replying to e-mail messages in Eudora, then re-established connection and sent them. I had a light late dinner in the restaurant, and slept the peaceful sleep of the academic who has released a flood of information from his computer.

The schedule of talks in Holland was inconveniently organized. The main stops were Groningen, then I was to go to Enschede in the east of the country, then back to Groningen, then to Amsterdam. Most of the work was to be in Groningen. I had had contacts with a number of people in different faculties over the years, and when one person invited me I pulled out the names of the others from my FileMaker program, and lined up a week of talks and meetings. I think someone before me has noticed what the train ride north made clear, that Holland is flat, intensively cultivated, with neat and prosperous-looking farms the length of the country.

Groningen was another "Venice of the North", with canals watering the town. The taxi squeezed through streets that were made only with thin pedestrians in mind. Cyclists seemed to have supernatural abilitites to swerve to one side of the taxi, timing it so that they leaned into doorways for the speedy passing of the taxi and then continued casually. Perhaps Darwinian selection had been working over the generations. I was dropped at the door of the University Guest House.

Groningen University was founded in 1614, though many of the buildings were spacious with nineteenth century confidence. The central university area of the town invites one to be young and--perhaps it was just the way the students cycled easily with the unconscious realisation that they would never encounter a hill--carefree. After a few days, I felt that I had missed one of life's richer pleasures, of being a student in Groningen. I chalked it up as something I would be sure to do next time around.

The city suffered brutal damage during World War II. And I wondered how much of my welcome was due to being Canadian, as it was Canadian troops that liberated the town from the Nazis. It is now a major commercial center and clearly prosperous. The open air market in the squares around Martinikerk (St. Martin's Church, 1452) overflows with rich and ripe food--fruit, vegatables, and fish of endless varieties. Groningen also boasts the highest per capita bicycle ownership in the galaxy; I was told 2.4 bikes per person, which seemed unlikely until someone mentioned their summer bike and winter bike and touring bike.

A group interested in teaching history invited me to tea one afternoon. I think their extra hospitality was due to their having included me on the program for a conference a few years ago, before asking me whether I could come; which, in the event, I couldn't. They seemed to go to trouble in making it a very English tea, with scones and a prominent set of Carr's buscuits (cookies). It was held in a room of the the central Academie-gebouw, a Victorian-style building though I think it was built early in the twentieth century Perhaps it was the expansive Victorian feel of the high rooms, and the topic of our discussion, that had me reflecting on Jonathan Dodgson Carr, the founder of the bakery and buiscuit empire in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was from Kendal in the north of England, which I used to visit because a girl friend lived there. (Her father, a policeman who had over a long career developed a jaundiced view of human nature, had brought up two beautiful daughters whose suitors clearly did nothing to improve his view of human nature). But Carr set up his business in nearby Carlisle because it was to have a railway connection to Newcastle, and from there his bake goods could speed around the country on the new railways. He was one of the archetypical Victorian Quaker entrepreneurs. Along with those many other Quakers who built Britain's manufacturing and trading power during the century, and funded many of its sturdy, confident buildings, he showed how capitalism could and should be done. He combined honesty with industry, and with a close paternal interest in bettering the lives of his workers. Some sneer at that Victorian paternalism, but kids working in Asian sweatshops today producing the coolest runners and jeans would not join in the sneering. J.D. was a prominent supporter of the abolition of slavery and persuaded Frederick Douglass to deliver a three hour lecture in Carlisle. J.D.'s grandson, Theodore, managed to pull in Woodrow Wilson to sermonise in 1918 about peace. Wilson said, in Carlisle with prescience, that "it is from quiet places like this all over the world that the forces accumulate which presently will overpower any attempt to accomplish evil on a grand scale."

The difficult part of the trip was getting to Enschede and back to Groningen in time for the next meeting. What made the Enschede visit even more problematic was that the phone number I had for my contact, Jos, was wrong--or at least I assume he didn't work for the agricultural machinery factory that responded, and swore it was their number. What to do? Should I go to Enschede and hope I could find him? I tried phoning colleges and the university in Enschade, but no-one had heard of him. Jos was to have sent me maps and material about his institution before I left, but Canada Post made its usual contribution to efficient communication, and I left before it arrived.

Still, I had my overheads, and the two days were clear, so why not try it? I did vaguely remember from an earlier e-mail message that he mentioned something about booking me into a hotel near the station. With a shoulder bag containing my overheads, a clean shirt, pyjamas and toiletries, I took the fast train south and changed at Amersfoort to a more leisurely and older train east to its terminus at Enschede. At each station, the long racks of commuters' bicycles supported Guinness Book of Records claims.

At Enschede I walked in the light rain out of the station and looked around. What now? I'm not sure what I expected, but standing in the middle of a substantial city didn't offer immediate clues as where to go next. There were some large buildings to the left, that looked as though they could be hotels. I wish I'd thought to bring an umberella, and couldn't see anything that looked like an umberella shop. The tall buildings turned out to be apartment blocks, so I headed back towards the railway station. As the rain began to trickle down my neck I considered simply getting the train back to Groningen. But then saw a sign to a tourist information office.

After some searching, I realised that the tourist information was the large map that was fixed in the sidewalk. I located the nearest hotel--the Chaplin; didn't the name ring a bell from e-mails?--and made for it.

"Do you have a reservation for Kieran Egan?"

"Yes," said the young woman cheerfully.

How astonishing that I should have hit it first time.

"Is there a message for me from Jos Letschert?"

"How a message? You are just reserving now."


The hotel lobby was under reconstruction, and one of the carpenters and another young woman joined us. It took a little while to dampen the enthusiasm of the check-in clerk who thought she had a customer despite the huge destruction in the lobby. No, there had not been a reservation. Was there another hotel nearby? A few. We will phone them, said the other young woman. You are Canadian? Wonderful! Well, it's . . .

The carpenter took charge of the phone book and called out the first number. The young woman dialed the Dish Hotel and asked whether they had a reservation for me. Yes! Exclamations of delight all round. I felt like cancelling it and staying at the Chaplin, but was urged out the door with clear directions.

There was a message from Jos waiting for me, and he turned up for dinner. I had filled the time waiting for him dealing with e-mail, which I had been unable to access from the University Guest House in Groningen. Some people one likes immediately and by the end of dinner I felt as though I had known Jos for years. In the morning he would pick me up, and we would walk across the road to his organization--S.L.O., which is the National Institute for Curriculum Development. It is a private research institute, but does a great deal of the government's curriculum development work for the country's schools. Which explained why my attempts to locate him by phone at colleges and universities had been unavailing.

He left with me a copy of the announcement which he had circulated about my talk. It made the event seem something between a major policy announcement by the U.S. President and the Second Coming, with an inclination towards the latter. I used to fear that excessively fulsome introductions would lead to my disappointing the audience, when the false advertising was exposed by my performance. But it has become increasingly clear that most people hear and see what they expect. If it is the Second Coming that has been announced, even though they might be mildly surprised by the unangelic announcer, it is the Second Coming they will experience. And perhaps go away hoping for a little more from the Third. For the same reason, I have come to believe that Gurdjieff, of all people, was right when he told his followers that they should always demand large fees for talks, not out of greed but just that most people tend to value what you say in fairly close proportion to what they pay to hear it. Is this cynicism? It just seems obviously, if regrettably, true after a while. (Among the papers there was the sentence: "In his work Egan argues argues more than once [sic] seemingly certainties and he puts the reader regularly on an other leg.")

As you might expect for an announcement about the Second Coming, there was a good turn-out the following morning. I had prepared two different introductions to the talk, and as the audience seemed so engaged and responsive, I gave them both. I spoke in a wonderful high-tech room, with shutters and lights and projector and screen all controlled by switches on the desk at the front. Hard not to keep playing with them. The generous audience seemed quite pleased at the end, and there was an extended period of questions and sort-of answers.

The final leg of this trip was reluctantly to leave Groningen, to which I had returned to give a further talk and workshop, for Amsterdam. I took the train south, pulling my heavy case onto the last carriage. Unfortunately the train I took was not direct, and required a change at Amersfoort. I stood in the space by the rear door with my case. Before the train left, a man got on with his bicycle. As we pulled away, he unclipped bits of the bike and folded it in on itself, bit by bit. I thought he would finish by slipping it in his pocket. It collapsed to little more than the two wheels, neatly slotted side by side with the frame between them.

At Amersfoort we slowly came to a halt. I stood with the cylist waiting to reach the platform. But we didn't. It seems the driver had miscalculated the number of carriages he had behind him, and we looked far down to stones below. When it was clear we were not going to go further forward, people started running up the train, I followed lugging my big case, cracking knees, apologizing, moving too slowly. As I approached the next carriage and its door, the train began to pull away. The cyclist was behind me, and had been prevented from getting off by my clumsy slowness. There was an emergency handle, and I reached for it.

"No," he said. "That is for an emergency."

I paused, momentarily bemused amid my emergency panic.

"The train will just pull up to the platform for us to get off."

Ah. But within two seconds it was clear that the train was into major acceleration. It was getting dark now, and we were speeding somewhere that was not Amsterdam. The cyclist said that he would go up the train and find an official and explain our predicament. He returned some while later saying that there seemed to be no official on the train except the driver, and his compartment was locked. But he had learned that we were going to Utrecht.

He said that there was a train leaving from Utrecht that I should take, then get off at the third stop, then take a further connecting train to Amsterdam. But I would need to run at Utrecht, because the other train left only a minute or two after we arrived. I should make it to Amsterdam with not more than an hour or so lost. For him, our adventure would add no more than half an hour to his ride. At Utrecht he lifted his bike under one arm, then grabbed my case with the other to help me, then lugged bike, case, and me down the steps of the station to the underground connecting passage, then up another flight, then hurled me and the case into the train as it began to pull away, shouting "Third stop!" I had only time to wave and shout my thanks as we sped away into the night. I wondered only for a moment whether he might have a delicious sense of humor, and that I was now on a non-stop to St. Petersburg or Belgrade.

In most European cities I have a sense of their medieval cores, and can feel them at moments amid the modern bustle. Perhaps it is the result of reading history as an undergraduate in London while visiting so many European cities for the first time, in summers on my motor-scooter, combined with an experience as a Franciscan novice. Though I suppose it is from Paris southwards that this experience is keenest. Sitting on the great circle of stones in the Dam and trying to feel for the past of the city, I could sense little beyond the cold North Sea.

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