Amsterdam/The Pissed-off horse
They've both spent most of the trip sightseeing and shopping and generally having a good time without me. We have the occasional meal together, and in London we did go on the 'Duck Tour' together. The Duck tour is a tour done in an amphibious vehicle. These are actually the same boats used in World War II, on the D-day landing. Think 'Saving Private Ryan' and that landing sequence, and you'll know what we're talking about. The tour company slapped a roof on them and installed a microphone system, but they are basically the same otherwise. Our guide told us that all the vehicles the company uses, including ours, were in fact used in the war. It was kind of cool, riding a piece of history. They take you on a street tour first, then you drive into the Thames and float around seeing things from that view. Very enjoyable.
The Duck Boat
I decided, fine, it's just three days. I can deal. My daughter is having a good time, I can write anywhere. And there is a certain ambiance in a place like this that a writer of thrillers probably should be familiar with. I resolved to soak it all in and do my best to enjoy the city. Besides, I'd be meeting my Dutch publisher, who has done a great job with my books here, so all'd be well that ends well.
I am always fascinated by what makes a culture different. Not so much the big things as the little things. Example - I went into a mall here. One of the shops on the outer fringes was a shoe repair establishment. As in, fix the holes in your shoes. The guy looked like he had more business than he could handle. In the USA, if your shoe develops a hole, it will probably get tossed in the trash and you'll buy a new pair. Sad but true. Why is it different in Amsterdam?
It's the little differences that can show you your own assumptions, catch you by surprise, and make you smile at yourself. Assumptions, in this case, being things you expected as a matter of course, based on where you're from and its alignment to where you're going, that turn out not to be true. I live in Southern California, and I'll cite two examples from my travels: there's no Starbucks in Amsterdam, and no seagulls in Hawaii.
The other way to see a city is to talk to its inhabitants. Being a writer definately opens doors in that regard. One beautiful sunny afternoon, I was eating at a cafe, and I struck up a conversation with a young man next to me. Turns out he works in a coffee shop (yes, one of those) and we talked at length about that. Fascinating. Not long after, he was joined by a somewhat cold but beautiful young Italian woman. She didn't seem all that happy to see me. Her gaze alternated between flat-eyed distrust and tolerant scorn. She warmed up after finding out I was a writer. God knows why, but that happens a lot. The beer flowed, and she finally let on that she was, in fact, one of the girls that works in the infamous windows of the red light district! She also invited me to come and see the inside of her 'window' area, which I agreed to do, of course.
Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea... her boyfriend was along, and everyone was clothed and no money changed hands. It wasn't that kind of visit, oh ye with dirty minds! I was struck by the smallness and bleakness of it. It was a clean little room, with an open toilet and a bed. Men passed by on the cobblestones, hooting at the women as if they were zoo animals. We also walked through a throng of tourists being led through the red light district by a tour guide. There were teenagers among them, and all of them were oohing and aahhing as the guide pointed out the real live prostitutes... it was surreal. We wandered to the coffee shop where the young man worked. A woman was parked outside with her baby in a stroller. The baby seemed happy and healthy, and the young woman seemed the same. She hailed the pot-vendor, and they chatted in Dutch. Turns out she was coming by to replenish her stash of weed. It was all very friendly, and again, very surreal.
Which brings me to a point of advice about research. If you want admittance, you have to set aside judgement and allow yourself to be an observer. There are obvious exceptions (you don't just 'observe' child abuse) but in general, it is a rule. I don't personally think a baby belongs outside a coffee-shop, or that teenage kids should be gawking at the working girls in the windows... but the flavor of all that will end up in a book somewhere, some time, in some form. Listen to people, don't judge them, and what they'll talk about will probably surprise you.
Before parting, I had to ask the girl the obvious question. Why that job? She was smoking a cigarette, and she puffed on it, raised an eyebrow as if I was an idiot and said: "For the money, of course, daaahling."
I thanked them for their time and bid them adieu. I walked away feeling I'd had a very productive afternoon as a writer. You just can't pay for that kind of material.
I did meet my publisher while there, for a great lunch and an interesting beer (lemon-flavored). As an aside, Bruna (my Dutch publisher) was officially the first company in the world to buy my first novel, so they'll always have a special place in my heart. They've done a truly outstanding job and it was great to finally put faces to the names.
Towards the end of my stay, I got to see one final oddity, one of those strangenesses that only happens in real life. I was eating at a Chinese/Japanese fusion restaurant, on the second floor. I had a seat by the window and was watching the traffic and tourists go by. Suddenly I heard this loud, outraged neighing sound. I craned my neck forward and saw a horse, drawing a carriage, stuck behind a car. The car was stopped, waiting for pedestrians to walk past. The horse wasn't pleased. It proceeded to neigh louder, and (I'm not making this up) moved forward a little, almost bumping the car, stuck its neck out and really let loose.
Horse road rage. How cool is that? Sometimes I really like my life.