Basecamp

Amsterdam

Thirty five years – I counted them – since the last time I sat in the Old Sailor in Amsterdam. It was basecamp for about a week back then.

I sought the place out as I wandered about the city today, thinking of a glass of beer and a jenever. The old adage applies though: never go back. The place is a shithole.

It’s very possible that it always was; my twenty year old self probably wouldn’t have cared. But the line of English drunks outside vomiting abuse at passers by was certainly new, as were the large football bearing screens glimpsed through the windows. Keep walking.

Favourite bars always change over time, it’s a law, and we’re forced out into the cold to forage for new ones. Fortunately, this is Amsterdam; around the corner I found Café Fonteyn. At first sight it’s pleasing, busy but not heaving. The chill damp evening propels me towards the door, inside it’s warm, a gentle hum of conversation over only just audible music. Gemütlich. There’s a table free. Perfect. And I like the wallpaper.

I have a new home.

There are a few places I like, dotted around the place. Café Lisboa in Valencia, Le Select in Paris, El Glaciar in Barcelona, Witzli Poetzli in Antwerp… Even fewer where I like the wallpaper.

Who knows how many of them will still have a pulse if I ever visit them again.


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Right coffee, wrong cup

Antwerp

When did doing things differently become more important than doing them well?

A coffee in a cafe this morning; first things first – the waitress was lovely. Second: the coffee itself was fine.

But.

It came in a sort of stoneware-pottery-cup without a handle. Aesthetically not my thing – each to their own – but who thought it was a good idea to un-invent the cup handle? This cup contained very hot liquid. I couldn’t pick it up.

Did the person who chose this vessel for coffee think a handle was superfluous? Simply unnecessary decoration? An optional feature on a coffee cup?

While sitting there patiently waiting for the dumb thing to cool sufficiently for me to pick it up, I had visions of a future tv antiques program, a man in a bowtie holding up cup with handle: “Ah yes, an early twenty first century coffee cup. In those days they still used handles!” cue applause and laughter from audience with thick skin on their fingers. And scald marks.

At least the coffee was hot, which it had to be to dissolve the lumpy brown sugar they gave me; de rigueur these days but utterly useless in anything smaller than a mug And certainly no good in an espresso, a fact which has escaped all the twenty year old guys in check shirts and tattoos who think they invented coffee.


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Get ahead, get a hat

Antwerp

Time was, in my youth, that my hat habit engendered derision among passers by – while the late 70s and early 80s were certainly something of a sartorial kill-zone, it’s also true that the young are exaggeratedly sensitive to criticism, so it’s very possible my recollections are clouded.

There’s also the remote chance that I looked like a twat.

Nevertheless, I persevered. I may not be an everyday hat wearer – in a world unused to hats they can be an inconvenience; have you noticed that hat racks and hooks have disappeared? – but I’ve always had hats and I do wear them, so it’s good to see something of a hat renaissance occurring.

Granted, most of today’s gents, if they wear anything, wear a cap; but it’s still a step in the right direction, and it’s led to a headwear rehabilitation. How much of this is due to Peaky Blinders is unclear.

My most recent hat is definitely not a cap. It’s the aristocrat of daytime hats, distinguished by association with the likes of Winston Churchill and Al Capone: a homberg.

It instills nothing but awe and admiration in today’s passerby.


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The unforgivable sin

Brussels

There must be people who can speak with authority about railways. State owned? Private? Build more? Subsidise fares? Rip them all up?

I’m not one of them; all I can offer is opinion. Although clearly my opinion would be more important than anyone else’s.

But one thing is obvious: without exception privatisation has led to visual cacophony. Each company tries to out-dazzle the last and the result is the only unforgivable sin: crafted ugliness.

I had the privilege to stand in the concourse of Brussels Central Station this morning. A beautiful piece of modernism from, I assume, the 1950s – several squadrons of British and American bombers having conspired against the previous building. In its proportions, scale and fabric; a building of stature. A confident building, proud of its purpose and of the railway it represents. Built to last by a company thinking of the long term, not of the next quarter’s balance sheet.

And beautifully free of garishly competing corporate identities.


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Knowing

Brussels

I bought a pair of gloves today. From a glove shop. That would seem unremarkable enough, but it’s an impossibly in London.

Specialisation has disappeared from most aspects of life now. Retail workers are not employed for their knowledge of merchandise – in fact any understanding of what they’re actually selling appears to be irrelevant. I recently asked for a polar-neck jumper in a clothes shop on Regents Street only to be met with a blank, slightly frightened expression from the South American teenager purporting to work there. He was pretty enough, which seems to be enough to get the job. That and a willingness to work for minimum wage.

But strolling through the grey insistent rain in Brussels, feeling the chill breeze and remembering I needed new gloves, I wandered for all of 10 minutes before finding what I suspected I would: a shop that sold gloves.

Just gloves: masculine or feminine. Staffed by a woman who knew about gloves, about the relative merits of the various leathers available, the different linings, who could tell my glove size just by looking. A professional.

Not gloves with a logo; there’s no branding involved here. No labels to be seen. Just knowledge, understanding, humour and polite efficiency.

I was close to tears.

On the other hand, central Brussels is devoid of cafes. Seriously. Kebabs and pizzas I could have had surfeit of; but a good old cafe, with tables and waiters? You’d have better luck in London.


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Generation Security

Eurostar

The rollers at St Pancras security hungrily swallowed my modest suitcase, my briefcase, my umbrella, my hat and, at the polite but insistent Eurostar uniformed woman’s behest, my jacket. Apparently she didn’t need my brass cuff links, my watch or my shoes.

I was one of the lucky ones. The unfortunate gent in front of me made the mistake of having a bad knee on which he wore a bandage, which had to be removed and separately scanned for… who knows what? Assault rifles? The small woman behind me had two large and heavy suitcases; they had to be lifted onto the rollers.

Are we going to live with this crap forever now? The first wave of security psychosis has thankfully passed, but we’ve settled into twenty-first century normality – and we’re putting up with it. Almost 20 years have passed since the authorities went into overdrive with all this and the technology hasn’t improved our convenience one jot. Build a machine that can scan us and our luggage as we walk through, why can’t you?

The fact that I can board a train in London and get off in Brussels, though, still fills me with awe. It’s not that I don’t like flying, but if the hassle of St Pancras is bad, flying is a lot worse. Strolling to the station as if on a day trip to St Albans but instead arriving at the chocolate waffle capital of the world is a simple pleasure.

My millennial travel companion, however, was less impressed. Never having travelled by Eurostar before I thought she might be impressed by our swift and seamless arrival in France. “Thank god for that,” was her reaction. “The Internet connection is better now. I’m watching a movie. It was really slow in the tunnel.” Of course.

But why do they trust train staff with a public address system? I don’t need to know the train manager’s name; and I know where the bloody train is going. The delivery of a decent cocktail to my seat would be a much better use of their time.


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London cold

London

The dead sky becomes so slowly lighter. Not even a noticeable eastern glow, just a slow, slow brightening from starless black to dark battleship grey. And cold: gentle breeze cold. London winter cold. Tedious cold.

Not like the cold of Berlin, with it’s ferocious eastern ice-blast sending you scuttling from warm shop to bakery to Straßenbahn while your brain-stem aches with it.

Or Budapest, with that cliff-edge plunge through snow, then sludge, to deep, horror-filled freeze.

The London cold is just tiresome. Sometimes cold enough for a real coat, when standing in the bus queue (who am I kidding, no one queues for a bus anymore; there’s just a shapeless pavement blocking crowd), then appalling t-shirt summer once you enter a shop, and autumnal mildness on the Tube. It’s a coldness designed to irritate, not intimidate, and a city designed to ensure you are never suitably dressed for it.

A city where conversations always start with the weather despite us getting so little of it; never much below freezing or much above temperate, rarely snowing, never baking sun and, despite the myth, not even really that much rain.

London maintains its mild-mannered, even-handed composure; it doesn’t want to cause offence.


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