In 1999 I spent a summer in The Hague. Packing tulips in a factory. A job I found in “Work your way around the world”, a book I bought in Eason’s in Cork. Or maybe I stole it from my sister Emma. Unable to find any form of employment in Cork, this was a very appealing concept to me. The job was through some shady employment agency based out of Dublin. It came with accommodation and a wage that allowed the possibility of saving enough to move on. I went there with Dara. We lived with a guy from Dublin called Andy. He was younger than us, maybe by a year or two. We were the age when that seemed significant. To me at least.
I packed tulips
I worked on a conveyor belt, packing tulip bulbs into boxes. Ignoring the fat pink Dutch man, circling us on a fold up bike yelling “Irish, work faster!” Oblivious to the mechanics of the conveyor belt and how little influence this plebeian hired hand has on its speed. Being somewhere new, compensated somewhat for the incredible tediousness of the job.
Once I had to move a stack of crates of tulips with a hand operated forklift. Whatever I did wrong, the 20 meter tower of tulips began to topple. I remember thinking, now, Alanis Morisette, this is ironic. I am about to crushed by flowers. Flower Power. My survival instinct kicked in and stepping aside I lived to tell the tale. There were several thousand previously carefully categorised tulip bulbs all over the factory floor. In a bid to not get fired, I obviously said nothing, and shoveled them back into the crates as fast as I could. If your flower bed came out looking like a kaleidoscope of clown puke in 1999, well, there’s a good chance that I am to blame. You are welcome.
On occasion I would stop by “Happy Smile”, a Dutch Coffee shop in a boathouse outside my apartment. You didn’t have that in Cork and this was certainly preferably to patronising the Fox on Magazine road. We lived in what many people would tell us was a bad neighbourhood. I have long since learned that for some “Bad neighborhood”, means, browner than you. It was a largely North African area, I don’t remember any problems. We’d work hard, and enjoy the city and nearby Amsterdam when we could. At weekends often taking the tram out to coast at Scheveningen. Scheveningen, a word so difficult for non Dutch people to pronounce, that it was used as a codeword to check for spies during the war.
There was a French girl who worked at the factory, maybe called Nadine, who got us jobs picking grapes in Champagne as the tulip packing job was came to a close. That was harder physical work for worse money still I prefered it as we were outside. Mud and blood and Champagne. I remember all of these things.
The Hague, 2016
However, when I stepped out of the Central station on Saturday, I had almost no memory from that time of the city itself. Hopefully this is because I lived and worked mostly on the outskirts. Or else?
Checking in at the hostel I got chatting to an American at the bar/check in desk. I asked him what part of the States he was from, the answer of course being “Canada”. Canadians love it when you ask them that. Almost as much as us Irish like to be called British. Anyway, Canadian Robert didn’t care. He is on his way to Syria where he hopes to work as an aid worker/ emergency technician. He told me he is temporarily stuck as the border is closed. He is the first person I have met on this trip hoping to get into, rather than out of, Syria.
I booked a private room on top floor of the hostel. The stairs were terrifyingly steep and the ceiling was low. It was quite the challenge to carry my suitcase to the top floor with my guitar on my back. My guitar case rises about a 20 cm over my head so I had to duck and bend to negotiate a path up the gradient of the steps keeping my guitar under the low ceiling. I knew two people who died from falls on these type of stairs, so, thinking of Mic and James, I made a mental note to be extremely careful.
Interestingly, and possibly even true, I was once told that the stairs in Netherlands are so steep as the property tax depended on the width of the houses, so all were built very narrow, necessitating the steep stairs. I must ask the internet if that’s a true fact. Or a half remembered bar fact.
The gig was at Literair Theater Branoul, a really nice small theatre in the heart of the Hague. I was booked by Rise Agency, who I had worked with once before. They are nice people, very professional and easy to work with. The gig was very quiet but fun.
On the way home, I stopped off for a Turkish Pizza and a bottle of beer (5.50 euro total, Dank U wel). Sleeping in the hostel reminded me of sleeping on a ship. Or going to bed as a child during a dinner party. A warmth and familiarity to the distant murmer of merriment a few floors below.
Sunday, February 7th
I had to be out of the hostel by 11am. I didn’t want to get to next venue till about 5.30pm so as not to overly impose on my hosts. And it was cold. And that friends, is my excuse for my third film of this tour. Star Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I watched it in 3D complete with the crazy glasses. And folks you’ll never believe it, but the 3D glasses make everything 3D in the real world too.
Afterwards I took the train to Alkmaar. This was the first one of this trip where I was going to know nobody involved with the gig. Of course this happens all the time, but it was the first one of this trip. These kind of situations make me tense beforehand.
My tension was dissolved immediately when I met Marcel at the train station. Marcel and Remy are the husband and wife duo who run this gig. They are friends of my friend Hank Wedel and it is thanks to Hank that I got the gig. Marcel a farmer, bass player, plumber greeted me with a huge smile, eye contact and a good solid handshake. I immediately liked this guy. “Okay, now we go to the countryside”, he announced. And off we went.
I had been very vague on what this gig was going to entail. They live just outside Bergen. Which I learned, has been a haven for artists since the 1900s. Their place was truly spectacular. It is like a small compound with a few different buildings on it. Very different. Built by Remy’s father an artist, musician and builder himself. At the entrance there are beautiful carvings in old trees. The house/venue itself was extremely cosy. Clay walls with hot water pipe heating actually inside the walls, a wood burning stove, beautiful, beautiful, wooden floors and loads of weird and wonderful details. Much like my parent’s house in Crosshaven, I didn’t see a lot of right angles. I loved it. Remy’s father’s own house on the same property is built around a tree. This place is the stuff of fairytales. I quickly decided that even if nobody came to the gig, this would still be worthwhile.
Remy served up a delicious lentil and black garlic soup, followed by a leak and ham dish with melted cheese and mashed potatoes. With the wind howling on the lowlands outside and the stove crackling in the next room, I found myself as excited to sleep as I was to sing.
The audience were extremely attentive friends and neighbours of Marcel and Remy. It is so easy to perform in this kind of situation. I was in bed by 10.45pm. I left the curtains open as directed so I could wake to the sunrise.
Monday, February 8th, 2016 TRain to Bremen, via Amsterdam and Osnabrück
This morning I got up with the sunrise and after a hearty breakfast Marcel dropped me back to the train station on his way to work. Remy and Marcel and their family are great, I really felt nourished and refreshed after my time with them. This guy really has one of the most sincere smiles you will find. I take the next train to Amsterdam.
I was over three hours early for my connecting train. The attendant at the front of Centraal station told me not only can I not change the time on my ticket but that I cannot print it there and I need to print it. I have a feeling this is a maleable fact. Sure, enough, I go to the quieter ticket office at the back of the station where the attendant couldn’t be more helpful and prints it out for me. If at first you don’t succeed, ask someone else!
Meanwhile, Amsterdam is a fine city for killing time. I walked down to Museumplein from Centraal Station. Deciding when I get there that there’s not really time to queue up and enjoy either Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh museum today. Instead I fill my time just walking around. Cities like this are living museums anyway. It’s an almost dead straight walk from the station to the official museum area, down past the sex museum, the tourist shops, the stoner tourists, the cyclists, the wax museum, the floating flower market, an abundance of stores that you see in every city, right a bit along the bicycle lined canals. I stopped to make a quick sandwich with my leftover Albert Heijn supermarket supplies of bread, cheese and salad.
Banksy, Van Gogh and Maradonna
Peering into the museum gift store, which you can of course enter without a ticket, many concurrent, tangental thoughts occur to me. Banksy’s naming his film, ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’, is really nothing short of Majestic. Probably my favourite thing about that film. As good as that Maradona goal. My favourite thing about him. Not the hand of god cheating one, the dribbling one from the samge game against England in 1986. Tangental, I know, stay with me.
I know I am not the first nor will I be the last to ponder the cruel irony of Van Gogh.
At the Museum shop you can buy a Van Gogh tank top, tea towel, pencil case, plate, night light, snow globe, notebook, box of crayons, headband, mug and a Van Gogh bag to put them all in. And a bigger Van Gogh bag to put the bag of Van Gogh souvenirs in. All of this I see from the window. Poor old Vinny, never having sold a painting in his life. ( Or maybe one to his brother? David Rynhart’s the Van Gogh expert, we’ll have to ask him.) I suppose that’s part of the lasting appeal. Posthumous glory for the unerdog. People love a tortured artist with a tragic biography. People stop liking bands when they get successful. Van Gogh, like Nick Drake, not so many people gave him the time of day when he was alive. Tangents. A Van Gogh mug with his mug on it. A fine mug. I have a similar feeling when I see Ramones/CBGBs T – Shirts at New York airports. Nothing’s less punk than a Ramone’s t shirt from a chain store in the airport. Never been there-bought the t- shirt.
Tonight I am playing a house concert for someone I have no connection with whatsoever. I am not entirely sure why I said yes. It seemed legit. I mean he has a website? Hopefully I won’t be cut up into little pieces and made into Curry Wurst. I prefer Bratwurst.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2016 – Train from Bremen to Gent
This morning there was a bad train crash in Germany outside of Munich. Horrifying. I cannot begin to think of the suffering and loss. I need to take three trains over 7 hours today. I cannot think about it. RIP.
Last night’s gig was lovely. The complete strangers and many of their friends now seem like old friends. One of the better Monday night gigs I have ever had. They even had a customised tip jar for me.
Believe me when I tell you, I prefer singing my way around the world.
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