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Thursday, 29 November 2012

#23: Dutch Courage

My first trip abroad was actually to another part of Europe: Holland. Our junior school (Holywell County Primary) did an exchange program in the 4th year and we had the option to head to either Holland or Wales for a week.

Seemed like a no-brainer to me: a rain-fest in the dark, dreary Welsh valleys or the multi-cultural eclectic home of cheese, tulips, windmills and coffee shop bongs? It had to be Wales. Just kidding. Amsterdam here we came!

About 30 of us opted to head to the country also known as The Netherlands, also famous for wooden shoes – known as clogs; scenic canals; spectacular architecture; and the legendary painter, Vincent Van Gogh.

As an 11-year-old British soccer addict, that was all great and everything – but I really only had eyes for one man: Johan Cruyff. The legendary Dutch footballer was Holland for me; and Holland he. Meeting him was the big pull for many of us; and we were pretty sure we’d bump into him. I mean, how big could Holland be?

Before we left England, we were assigned pen-friends, based on our shared interests. Mine was Danny Ummels; and his picture showed him standing on a beach in a Denim jacket holding a football. I took this to mean he enjoyed beach football, though was often overdressed. We all wrote our pen-friends letters, so they knew we were capable of writing. And mailing letters.

Our party took the ferry over, as Holland was a fairly short sail; then a coach to Amsterdam, Holland's capital city. We passed by some incredible scenery; spectacular windmills in the countryside; breathtaking canals; and wonderful Dutch architecture, dating back to… well, waaaaaay back. According to the teachers.

I missed all that though, as one of my buddies had the pocket video game, Super Mario Brothers… and it was very addictive! Pity we weren’t in Italy, as we might have met the mustacheod duo in person.

For most of the week we stayed in a youth hostel, which looked quaint from the outside. Inside was a different story. Our dorm sported rickety old bunk-beds with blood-stained bed-sheets and blood-spattered walls; which gave most of us the heebee-geebies.

Getting stuck into Super Mario became even more essential; just to take our minds off the fear we were going to be murdered at some point in the next six days. The teachers, of course, laughed off the state of the d├ęcor; claiming it was all part of the fun. What?!

During the week, we took in many of Amsterdam’s famous areas; including the Museumplein – the city’s major museum district – which we all really enjoyed... in-between competitive bouts of Super Mario; the Grachtengordgel (the 17th Century canal system which snakes through the heart of the city); the Vondelparl, a 19th century park named after the Dutch writer Joost van den Vondel; and de Wallen, Amsterdam's oldest area which just happened to also contain the city’s red light district.

Not that we cared. We were 11. And had Super Mario. Plus, more to the point, Johan Cruyff. At least in our sights. Where the heck was he? Hadn't he heard we were coming? I started to think maybe he hadn't been invited to the party.

Our final, full day in Amsterdam was reserved to spend with our pen-friends and their families.

We all gathered on the front steps of the hostel Saturday morning – waiting for our pen-friends and their families to collect us – ecstatic to be alive and have our pre-trip blood levels all present and correct.

One by one, all the other pen-friends’ parents drove up to the hostel’s drop-off area, and collected their individual English guest. With five of us left, I was wondering what had happened to Danny and his family. Four. Three. Two. One. Suddenly I was the only one left, and the cars now just kept whizzing by the hostel turning.

I’d almost given up hope when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a bike approaching in the distance to my right. As the rider got ever-closer, I could make out it was a boy; and that he was wearing a denim jacket. There was no football tucked under his arm (I guessed cycling in a straight line was pretty key), but it was Danny. Here to pick me up. On his push-bike.

His family (as you might have guessed by now) couldn’t afford a car. So I had to sit on the back of his bike, on what I think it may have been a shopping basket (with the lid on), and hang on for dear life as he propelled us via pedal-power.

Amsterdam was a pretty relaxed city. With the liberal drug laws 'n' all, everyone’s usually stoned. So the traffic wasn’t crazy. If he’d been riding me home through the streets of Italy or Calcutta, it would have been a different story (and I'd have required several spare pairs of underpants).

Danny lived with his parents, older brother and two younger siblings (I think one of each gender) in a small terraced house on the outskirts of Holland's largest and capital city.

We hung out at his house for a while, then went 10-pin bowling with his elder brother. On the way home, we stopped off for a burger and fries. I remember them slathering way too much mayonnaise on the fries -- definitely a case of: do you want fries with your mayonnaise? I've steered clear of the latter ever since.

In the late afternoon, we also made a trip to the beach – the one in the photo – and kicked Danny’s football round a little bit. Then it was time to bid a fond farewell, and hold on for dear mercy, once more, as Master Ummels rode me back to the hostel, budget-style.

A memorable first trip to Holland. Level 25 of Super Mario Brothers. Man, we were good. Oh, and we made it home alive!

Just one question: Where were you hiding, Mr. Cruyff?

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