In all, we spent two weeks travelling in Europe this past August. It was the first time we'd ever been there, or for that matter, anywhere outside the United States except for Canada. If we had to pick the absolute high moment of the entire trip, that afternoon in Prague might have been it. Bracketed around it, we managed to visit six different countries, pass through five national capitals, go to six art museums, endure two airline ocean crossings, ride on two different city subway and five different city surface train systems, communicate (or attempt to) in five different languages, make ten different international border crossings, and, oh yes, attend one Worldcon.
We also spent over 40 hours on intercity and international passenger trains, which was over ten percent of the duration of our entire stay in Europe. To say we took advantage of Europe’s fine rail system is an understatement; we managed to eat, sleep, and be happy along the hundreds of miles we rode the rails. And we learned pretty quickly that you had to be, well, pretty quick to get to where you wanted to be: stopover times are usually quite short and you’d better be ready to either board or disembark, because the trains do run on time, and it's very easy to miss a connection.
That almost happened to us the day we travelled from Amsterdam to Den Haag the first day of Worldcon. We didn't have too much trouble at Amsterdam Central Station boarding the correct intercity train, but we expected the stopover at Den Haag Central Station to be longer than two minutes. Anyway, after the train eased to a halt we gathered our luggage off the luggage racks and had worked our way to the front of the railcar, when the door closed and the train slowly started forward again, on to wherever the next stop was. We looked at each other in helpless frustration; here we were, at last in Den Haag with Worldcon just a short distance away, and now we were being involuntarily shanghaied off to who knows where. But luckily, it was right at that particular moment that Dick experienced, for the first (and maybe only) time in his life, an out-of-body experience -- or at least, his right arm did. Without him looking at it or realizing that he had done it, like magic and with seemingly a mind of it's own, Dick's arm reached up and pulled a length of cable running next to and parallel to the railcar's ceiling. Immediately there was a sound of air brakes, the train slowed to a stop, and the door re-opened. We got out of there quickly, trying to ignore the questioning looks of what appeared to be hundreds of people sticking their heads out of doors and windows along the entire length of the train, wondering what fool had pulled the emergency cord.
After that, we were always very careful to have our luggage off the storage racks and ready to go when the train pulled into our station, and were always among the first to board when our train arrived at the station. And we got plenty of practice -- our itinerary after Worldcon took us to Brussels for an evening, morning, and afternoon; we then caught the overnight train to Vienna and took a tram crosstown to a different train station for a six-hour trip north to Prague. Our stay in Prague was unfortunately limited to just two days; even though we managed to pack a lot of sightseeing, there wasn't enough time even to break away from our host to meet with Czech fans we correspond with who live in or near Prague. After that, it was north to Berlin for an evening, then a long ride the next day back to the Netherlands, and the day following, to the airport near Amsterdam for the trip home.
It was in Amsterdam that this whole adventure started. We arrived there three days before Worldcon, after an uneventful overnight flight from Baltimore and a short train ride in from Schiphol airport. Amsterdam is truly an amazing city, probably the most international city we've ever visited. It's a place of multiple languages and multiple monetary currencies, sometimes coming into play all at once. At a souvenir shop not far from the Rijksmuseum we saw an example of this -- the shop proprietor in the span of five minutes made transactions with groups of Italian-, English-, and German-speaking tourists. It was a chaotic babel of exchange rates being figured, currencies being exchanged, and people attempting to make themselves understood. There was no common dialect except for the language of the pocket calculator.
Amsterdam is also a city of bicycles -- thousands and thousands of bicycles. We decided it must be due to a combination of the high price of gasoline in Europe, this part of Holland's total lack of anything even resembling a hill, and (worst of all) scarcity of places to park a car in the city. On our first night in Amsterdam, while eating dinner at a cafe we watched cyclists by the hundreds whiz along the streets. The riders seemed to be mostly younger people, with the occasional older businessman, and they didn't appear worried about cars that zipped past them, only a foot or so away. Every street in the city had designated bike paths between the sidewalks and the auto lanes, which seemed to give bicycle riders (in our opinion, at least) a false sense of security.
On the other hand, Amsterdam automobile traffic patterns took a bit more getting used to. Our taxi ride from the Central Train Station to our hotel proved to be quite an education. The taxi driver didn't know a lot of English, but he knew his roads. He wove through streets crowded with pedestrians (who do not have the right of way in Europe), bicycle riders and other cars, startling us by occasionally weaving into lanes on the opposite side of the street that were marked for buses. It scared the daylights out of us -- here we were, our first day in Europe, and we weren't sure we'd survive to see day two. The driver had occasional words with others on the streets, but none of them seemed very angry. It was almost as if they knew one another.
Our hotel was in the museum section of Amsterdam, a relatively quiet neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants. It was an older hotel, with a tiny lift (it didn't deserve to be called an elevator) that could maybe hold four people -- if they were good friends. There was also a very steep stairwell that more closely resembled a ladder.
Our room was on the top floor and was only slightly larger than the lift. When Dick entered it for the first time, he stopped dead still for a moment, then pronounced, "Garret, sweet garret." There were two single beds, a night stand and a small desk. The TV was on a shelf over one of the beds, and a small stand-alone closet huddled in a corner. The bathroom was small with a tiny, curtain¬less shower that one sat in. We also discovered that not all the hotels provide washcloths. (We bought some later on.) We thought it was a quiet hotel at first, but when the rooms around us filled up, we discovered that the walls were made of cardboard -- we could hear alarm clocks in adjoining rooms each morning, and even the *clunk*clunk* of the TV sets as they changed channels.
This hotel, as many do in Europe, served a complementary continental breakfast every morning. We would go down to the small restaurant and have a choice of breads with jam, dry cereals with milk, cold cuts and cheeses, fruits, and beverages. However, there seemed to be only one harried waiter on duty, who appeared to be always rushing around but not getting much done. He was very slow to replace food and place settings. This didn't matter much except on the third morning when an Italian tour group staying at the hotel swept in ahead of us and ate everything but the tablecloths. We were left with a few scraps and whatever glasses and cups we could scrounge.
Actually, though, we really did like the continental breakfasts of Europe, which were much more substantial than the coffee-and-sweet-roll morning snack that hotels in North America offer as a free breakfast. And we enjoyed eating out in Europe, although we weren't too adventurous. The food, for the most part, is close to what you'd find in an American-style restaurant (meat, potatoes, and vegetables), with nothing more exotic than endive in Holland. We decided not to eat any American-style fast food (despite learning later than they were the only places with American-size drink servings; European liquid refreshments tend to be doled out in small sizes, by the tenths of a liter), instead opting for 'native' food places as much as possible. It also seemed a good way to get acquainted with local dining customs. Such as sharing your meal with the restaurant's cat. Cat?!
Yes, cat. At home we're used to having Mouse and Mimosa, our two cats, beg for food during mealtimes, but here it was unexpected. It was during dinner at the café on our first evening in Amsterdam while watching all those cyclists, that Nicki noticed a small face looking up at her from beside her chair. The cat had a flea collar and seemed clean; we assumed it belonged to the restaurant. So she fed it some meat scraps.
Dick decided that it was just a quirk of that one restaurant to have a cat. But, the café we had lunch in the next day also had one -- a large orange cat that sat in a chair near the open door and watched the world go by. When dinnertime rolled around, we decided to take the recommendation of a guide book, and eat at a more upscale place that offered a fixed price meal comprised of traditional foods. When we sat down, Dick remarked that certainly, this place couldn't possibly have a cat. No way!
During the meal, we met two Canadian tourists who, on their last night in Europe, happened to dine at the same restaurant as us. As they sat down, one remarked, "Oh, what a nice cat" that the restaurant had. It was curled up sleeping in the chair right behind Dick!
After that, we looked for the cat in each restaurant we went to and usually found one. We also saw cats in most of the stores. Apparently, old-fashioned methods of pest control are still popular in Europe...
From Amsterdam it was on to Den Haag and Worldcon, but not before we visited the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. The most popular artwork on exhibit in all of Amsterdam is of course Rembrandt's famous painting "The Night Watch" (more properly known as "The Company of Captain Frans Banning Coq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenberg") at the Rijksmuseum. Dick, though, was more attracted to another Rembrandt work, "The Officials of the Drapers Guild". He thought it looked hauntingly familiar, but couldn't think of where he'd seen it before. Nicki pointed out that of course he had seen it lots of times before, but in much, much smaller reproductions under its better known alias -- "Dutch Masters".
We went to other art museums besides the ones in Amsterdam. All of them were wonderful, but a bit different from the ones in America. For one thing, the art was exhibited not at about eye level as it is in the U.S., but somewhat lower. There also wasn't any concern about sunlight on the art works, which can cause fading of colors. Museums were also the only places that seemed to be air conditioned in Europe. Most of them were comfortable, but the Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels was downright chilly.
The modern art section of the Beaux-Arts Museum is sort of a reverse Guggenheim Museum, in that it was built as a spiral, but going down, rather than up, with the most treasured pieces at the bottom. The farther down we went, the colder it got. By the time we got to the bottom and a large exhibit of Magrette's paintings, it was like a meat locker. Somehow, a few sides of beef would have fit in well with his surreal paintings, and probably wouldn't have spoiled, either!
The Beaux-Arts Museum also had a strange schedule which called for the 'ancient' art section (containing works by the Old Masters) to be closed from 11 AM to noon and the modern art section to close between noon and 1 PM. Since we were on a tight schedule, we had to run quickly through the modern art section before it closed. When noon rolled around, several of the museum ushers came through, herding people to a huge elevator for a slow but majestic ride back upstairs. The elevator, complete with comfortable seating along the walls, resembled the interior of a shuttle craft from the Starship Enterprise. All that was lacking was Federation uniforms on the ushers. Beam us up, Scotty!
Den Haag also had an art museum we visited, conveniently within easy walking distance from our Worldcon hotel. It featured original woodcut prints by M.C. Escher, and perhaps the world's largest collection of paintings by Mondriaan. There was also an international exposition of fuurverks, er, fireworks, being held in Den Haag during Worldcon weekend, just a couple of miles north of the convention center at the beach on the North Sea. Each evening, there were two or three twenty-minute displays sponsored by different countries, with an international champion selected at the exposition's conclusion. Many convention attendees, ourselves included, made an evening of it some of the nights we were there, with dinner at a restaurant on the beach followed by fireworks.
Confiction itself didn't have any organizational fireworks, we're happy to say. It was competently run and enjoyable, and we wouldn't mind coming back for an encore some year. The international flavor of the convention made it different from any other science fiction convention we've ever been to, and we were finally able to attach faces to many fans we heretofore had only corresponded with through the mail. Our memories of the convention remain somewhat jumbled; time seemed to compress that weekend and everything went by in a blur. The days and evenings sped by all too fast, and soon it was time to move on.
We had decided to leave Worldcon on Monday morning, even though that meant missing seeing Holland sink beneath the waves, or whatever it was that Confiction Chairman Kees Van Toorn hinted would happen to close the convention. Brussels was our next stop. We were looking forward to going there, and we wanted to get there in time to see some of the city before evening.
The most picturesque part of the city is old Grand Place square with its wonderfully ornate architecture and large number of affordable good restaurants. As you'd expect, it's a tourist haven, as is a street corner a few blocks away where there's a famous statue / fountain called "Le Mannekin Pis", depicting a naked cherub urinating into a pool of water. We had, of course, heard of the statue, but hadn't realized it was in Brussels until we saw the street sign pointing the way toward it. One of the photographs we took during our trip shows Dick standing in front of the fountain, with the statue in the background. While waiting for Nicki to line up the shot, he grew suspicious when she had trouble keeping a straight face while preparing to press the shutter release. Sure enough, Dick and the statue were lined up just right so that it looked like Le Mannekin Pis was Pis-ing right on Dick's head.
Brussels was also the single most expensive hotel night we had during the trip. Since it was our first trip overseas, we took the precaution of booking all of our hotels in advance through the Holland Approach travel agent; we knew it would be more expensive that way, but it would also prevent us from having to spend valuable vacation time looking for places to stay the night. The place in Brussels came to over 6,000 Belgian francs for our night's stay plus breakfast. When we got there, we were tired from toting luggage through the Brussels subway system, and fran(c)ly, didn't much care what the cost would be when we checked in. We had no idea what the conversion rate was, anyway, so Dick just plunked down his Visa card (something he got a lot of practice at as the days progressed), and said he'd figure it all out later. It wasn't until we changed some money at American Express that it all became clear -- that one hotel night would set us back over two hundred dollars! It turned out that the exchange rate between the American dollar and various western European currencies had gotten progressively worse during the month between our booking the room and staying there.
Not all places were like that, though. Prague, for example, was maybe the least expensive city we have ever visited. Consider: a full meal for four at a moderately upscale restaurant there, with soup as appetizer, entree, dessert, and drink came to about 350 Czech crowns, which translates to under fifteen U.S. dollars. And that's total, not apiece. Two first class train fares from Prague to Berlin (a six-hour trip) came to just under 25 U.S. dollars total. This is all fine and well if you're a Westerner touristing in Prague. If you're a Czech (or a Pole, or Russian, or other eastern-bloc country citizen suffering under artificial exchange rate) though, it becomes prohibitively expensive to travel to the West -- a hamburger costs a week's wages, and one night's hotel more money than is even imaginable. At Confiction, there were Czech, Polish, and Russian fans attending in spite of what must have been tremendous financial hardship. We heard that some fans groups were so determined to attend that they chartered buses from within their country, loaded up bedding and a supply of food, and actually lived out of the bus the duration of their stay in the West. It seems clear now that currency rates were probably a much stronger shackle to keep Czechs confined to their homeland during the Cold War than any fence or iron curtain ever could.
And speaking of the iron curtain, there was no trace of it to be seen when we crossed from East Berlin to the West. Dick was watching out the window of the S-Bahn train that took us from Friedrichstrausse train station into West Berlin to see if he could see it, but there was no wall, no barbed wire, no border guards...nothing at all. It was as if the Wall had never existed. In fact, border crossings were never a problem during the entire trip. The most that ever seemed to happen was that uniformed customs officers would board the train at the border, and check passports. The longest wait we had, at the crossing from Austria to Czechoslovakia, took about 20 minutes. We were told by our Czech host that if we'd made the trip one year earlier, we'd have been held up at the border for four hours minimum while various military types went through everybody's luggage, looked under seats, and generally made a nuisance of themselves. As well as asking prying questions in a language we couldn't understand..
Actually, though, we didn't have too much difficulty communicating with people during our travels, since almost everywhere we went we found that English was a second or at worst, a third language. In the Netherlands in particular, it seemed that just about everybody was reasonably fluent in English. The one exception was dinner at a canalside restaurant in Utrecht, the last night before our trip home, when the waitress had to resort to sketching pictographs of squid and scallops, to describe what each entree on the menu was.
And we tried, we really tried to at least attempt to communicate in whatever the native language was whenever possible, if only to say "danke" in Berlin to someone pointing the way to the right train platform, or "merci" to the sandwich shop waitress in Brussels for helping us figure the correct payment in Belgian francs. Dick claims that his first ever (and so far only) business transaction totally in a foreign language was when he bought subway tickets in Brussels. It went something like this:
Dick (holding up two fingers): "Deux."
Whereupon the ticket vendor gave him two subway passes and change for his 100 franc note. Nicki also had an amusing experience with foreign language transactions, during the train ride from Prague to Berlin. She went to purchase a bottle of mineral water in the dining car, and returned with a bemused expression on her face. She had learned from a fellow traveler the correct Czech phrase, and had used it on the dining car attendant: "Chci voda mineralna, prosím." ("I would like mineral water, please.") But after setting the bottle on the counter and taking payment the attendant said, "Would you like me to open it for you?"
The dozen or so Soviet fans that attended Worldcon must have had similar experiences to ours in attempting to overcome language barriers. We first saw them in the basement of the Congressgebauw convention center, where each eastern European fan group was given a table in the area adjoining the huckster room for display and sales. We gave them a copy of Mimosa 8 to take back with them; in return, we received a nicely produced Russian-language SF fanzine that we unfortunately can't read a word of. They didn't know very many English words, but at the Atlanta-in-95 bid party the next night we discovered that there were two English words that they all knew. We had been drafted by our friend Penny Frierson into helping tend bar at the bid party. One by one, Soviet fans would come to the bar, point to a black-labelled bottle, and say, "Jack Daniels." There must be certain words are universal to every language..
At the end of the two weeks, we guess we were ready to come home. We had blazed a trail through the heartland of continental Europe, leaving in our wake about a thousand dollars in Visa card charges but bringing back with us a wealth of memories of magical, wondrous things we had experienced and of the people we had met along the way. This report is dedicated to those people, who will never, can never read this essay. We appreciate their warmth, their humor, their patience, and above all their understanding that they showed to two naive American tourists that all too often needed their help.
One person in particular stands out in our memory; she was a sweet little old lady who came up to us at the Vienna train station, who personally assisted and escorted us to the tram line that would take us to another train station crosstown. We couldn't speak to her in German, but she was able to communicate with us in broken English. We were with her for only half an hour, but as we boarded the tram, she waved and called to us, "I will miss you." Five days later, as we were boarding the MartinAir flight home, similar thoughts crossed our minds: Europe, we will miss you. And someday, soon perhaps, we will be back.
Title illustration by Wade Gilbreath
Other illustrations by Alan Hutchinson, Charlie Williams, Kip Williams, Jeanne Gomoll, and Julia Morgan Scott