Sunday, May 22

Without A Net

Things have continued to be pretty weird since I left Amsterdam.

The weirdness peaked when I was almost mugged before leaving The Hague. I was out walking with a French guy that I met in the hostel when two North Africans came up to us, whacked out on what seemed to be was mushrooms. They tried talking to us in both English and French, but didn't really speak either. One of them tried to take me down with a leg sweep, while ramming his hand into my pocket to nab my wallet.

At this point the smart move would have probably been to let him take it. But I've been paranoid about losing my cash cards for so long that I reacted on instinct. I grabbed his wrist and started shoulder blocking him into a wall, all the while yelling bloody murder. He finally let go, and walked away after people started coming around.

This is the second time that I've almost been mugged by North Africans in Europe. The first time was a few years ago in Lille. There is a reason why even liberal Europeans are becoming so hostile to immigration. A loud minority of second generation Arab immigrants form gangs, vandalize, steal, and act like all around assholes. The problem is especially bad in Holland. Being as liberal as they are, they tend to clash all the more with Islam. That, combined with few integration programs [they're attitude has been to more or less let the Arabs be as they like] leads to many problems and quite a bit of crime. A lot of the immigrants that live in Holland don't even speak Dutch.

Afterwards, I went back to the hostel, but things didn't improve much. It was pretty clear that one of my roommates had a crush on me, as [operative word] he tried repeatedly to get me to go to a sauna with him, even offering to pay for me. Of course, in Dutch saunas, you go nude. That night, he woke me up by caressing my face. I slapped his hand away, told him to get the fuck away from me, and caught the next train to Rotterdam.

Seeing as how weirdness seems to come in surges, things weren't much more comfortable with my roommate in Rotterdam. He wasn't there when I arrived, but he was kind enough to leave his porno collection out. Lovely way to make your roommates feel welcome. About three big stacks of magazines, and ten or twenty videos. The word creepy just doesn't do this justice. He turned out to be German, complete with weird grin and accent. Nothing happened (that I know of, at any rate), but I'd really rather not think about what he was doing in there when I wasn't around. Needless to say, I made it a point of always knocking on the door before going in.

After leaving Holland, I spent a few days in Belgium. The first stop was Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world. Apparently, 85% of all diamonds sold in the world are cut in Antwerp. Most of the shops sold jewelry, and were much more than just expensive. There's something very disconcerting about seeing a necklace that costs about five times what most people make in a year.

The last stop on my little side trip was Brugge, one of the most preserved towns in Europe in terms of architecture. This is mainly due to the city having been almost completely abandoned for many decades, and hence not developed or modernized. Still, quite a few of the buildings that seemed to be from the 16th century were in fact built quite recently, and just made to look much older. The town was very pretty, but overall more of a tourist trap than anything else.

One thing that I found quite strange about Belgium was the tension and animosity between the two regions. Anywhere north of Brussels is Flemish speaking, which is basically Dutch with a bit of an accent [I'm not entirely sure why they decided to call it something else. Perhaps it was because the Flemish and Dutch didn't get along for many years. Holland went Protestant, Flanders (Flemish country) stayed Catholic, and bad feeling followed]. South of Brussels is French speaking. Seeing as how the country is bilingual, I figured it would be more polite to talk to people in French than English, even in Flanders. But for some reason, the people weren't very friendly. I learned later the Flemish hate (or at the very least resent) the French speaking Belgians because the French oppressed the Flemish for centuries, with Flemish being the language of the poor, and the rich speaking French. Similarly, the four cultures in Switzerland don't get along very well with each other, particularly the Germans and the French. All of this doesn't seem to hold well for Canada ever working past it's cultural differences.

As of now, I'm in Paris, a huge city with huge city problems [lots of crime, lots of crazies, etc.]. If a decent job comes my way, I'll stick around for a few months. Otherwise, perhaps I'll head for the eastern boarder.

As for what's going on in Canada, hopefully all of the politicians will finally pull their heads out of their asses and stop acting like a bunch of children. I'm glad that the budget finally passed, as it is quite good. There's a substantial amount of funding for social programs such as education, urban transportation, and the environment. I'm glad that the N.D.P. managed to influence it so heavily. But the media circus around all of this has been nothing short of sickening. It's more like a soap opera slash sitcom than anything else, especially the coverage of Stronach's defection. Not that I blame her for wanting to jump ship. How any sane person could co-exist with those Reform nutballs, I can't fathom.

Lastly, it's now been over a year since my grandmother died. It's been strange how much has happened since. As she was the one that raised me, getting used to not having a parent figure around was a bit strange. Having so few strong ties to one place is the main reason that I've been able to wander aimlessly like this...

Sunday, May 8

Sin City

France was becoming a bit frustrating and irritating, so a small side trip to Holland seemed like a nice change of scenery.

Before leaving France, I spent a few nights in Lille. I'd been to Lille before, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Lille feels much more like home [Montreal], mostly because things feel less pretentious there. Baggy clothes and dreadlocks are much more common there then anywhere else in the country. People don't feel as required to fit into a mold (and a very tight pair of pants) as in other regions. Perhaps it's the influence from Belgium, as it's right on the border.

My next stop was Amsterdam. I hadn't had time to go there on my last trip, as I was sure that I'd need at least a week to see it properly, and I had to boot it back to London at the time. And Amsterdam is indeed a lot to take in, mostly for better, but sometimes for worse.

The first place that I headed for was the hostel, which was absolutely wonderful. After spending so much time in French hostels, which feel more like institutions, I'd almost forgotten what a good hostel was like. Instead of being filled with groups of school children, this one was entirely backpackers. And the atmosphere was extremely comfortable, with lots of couches and common rooms to lounge in and talk to people. After meeting one or two people a day [if I was lucky] in the French hostels, here it was about fifteen an hour, and from all over the world.

The city was very much overwhelming. As you'd expect, downtown is overflowing with tourists. The difference here is, since pot and shrooms are legal, most of them are either in a stoned haze or completely tripping out of their minds. And most of them are American. U.S. laws being what they are, the relaxed Dutch attitudes are more appealing still for them. And the Dutch are well known for speaking English, another thing attracts a lot of people from the U.S.

Hitting the Red Light District was a bit more than I was prepared for, despite the stories that I'd already heard. Prostitution is legal in Holland, and it's also very well organized. To start with, the hookers are unionized. And they don't need to worry about catching a cold from standing around on the street in a mini-skirt. Here, they have windows set up along the side of the sidewalk, where they sit on a stool [usually in a g-string], and look as erotic and sexy as possible as tourists walk by. If they catch someone's eye, he comes into her booth, the curtain is closed, and skankiness ensues.

The part that struck me the most was that it's also categorized. Each street has a theme (ex. blonde, busty, classy, etc). That's all well and good. The thing that was the most traumatizing was that they also cater to some very nasty fetishes. There are also fat, old, and extremely experienced sections, as well as combinations thereof. And you have no idea when you're going to hit one of said sections.

To compound the problem, the district isn't just sex. There are restaurants, museums, and churches(!) all mixed in. So as you're walking around taking in some of the cleaner scenery, you'll suddenly see a 60 year old, 300 pound hooker squeezing her almost naked boobs against the glass while licking her lips and staring directly at you...

I've moved on to The Hague, an apparent political center of Europe. Today I went to one of the largest gardens on the continent. I was a little disappointed. In April, there are huge fields filled with different types of flowers. Unfortunately they were already harvested, and exported to other places. The pictures that I saw of what they should look like are quite beautiful. I'll try to add a link to them later.

There are a few other weird and interesting things about the Netherlands. First of all, everyone here is absolutely huge. Walking around, I honestly feel short. Most men are at least six feet tall, and it's not uncommon to see someone who's six foot six. The women are usually at least my height [5'10], if not taller. And they also like to wear heels that add several more inches. I was asking my Belgian friend [ex-roommate from when I lived in Nice several years ago that I saw again last week] why they're so tall, as the Belgians are more average. She said that it was hormones that were put into cattle back in the 70's that turned out to be dangerous to humans. As fucked up as that sounds, the old people are just as tall, so unless the hormones were being added for the last several generations, it might be just hereditary.

Also, this country is extremely flat. Extremely. Like, not so much as a hill anywhere. In fact, Neederlands [the name in Dutch] translated directly means low lands. And a good part of the country is actually below sea level. Perhaps as a consequence, bikes are extremely popular. In Amsterdam, most of the traffic was bicycles and not cars. As a result, the amount of noise [and pollution] is cut drastically.

Lastly, the leaders of all of the federal political parties in Canada are here for a World War 2 memorial. What perfect timing. Don't ask me why they chose here and not Moscow, where most of the political leaders in the world are right now. It's the 60th anniversary of the fall of Berlin, which was accomplished by the Soviets. Martin and company are here to celebrate the liberation of Holland, but that was celebrated nationally here last week...