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Although we sent out more than a dozen requests, we never found a Couchsurfing host in Amsterdam. Searching for a hostel showed that staying there can be very expensive depending on the time of week you go: a hostel with beds for €15 on Wednesday typically increases to €30 on Thursday and €60 on Friday; we left on Saturday. Eventually I found a hotel with cheap twin rooms – €18.50 per person per night – on Hostelbookers.

The hotel – HEM Hotel Amsterdam – was somewhat outside the city centre and we had to take a fairly long tram ride – a fairly long, very crowded tram ride with our bags – to get there. The room was small and basic and hot; the door didn’t close flush to the doorframe and the window was difficult to open and close; it was at least private and, at the price, we couldn’t really complain.

On the first morning – having had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar the night before, not drunk enough water and slept in a very hot bed – I had a terrible hangover and dry-retched several times. Habiba looked after me and then left me to sleep it off and went to explore the city.

Later, we went out together and walked through the Red Light district in the light rain. It was pretty interesting (you can decide for yourself whether I mean that as a euphemism) to see the women in their little window booths. Many of them did sexy dances and poses; others just stood there looking bored; others were on their phones; sometimes they’d knock on the window to attract your attention. They were all at least pretty good-looking – they could easily be models. Later, we browsed a sex shop; Habiba got annoyed when I said I was bored.

The next day, we determined to do some sightseeing, maybe take in a museum or two. I suggested that we walk through the Vondelpark; Habiba was against it. The tram we took broke down close by the park, so I won out in the end. And the park was very pleasant.

Aside from being very expensive, many of the museums had very long queues outside them, so we chickened out of going to a museum that day and resolved to get up earlier. We went to a pancake restaurant and had large, savoury pancakes for lunch; Habiba’s was very tasty – it had cheese and bacon; mine was fairly bland – mushrooms and bell peppers. I should have got a sweet one.

We did end up going to the Anne Frank House. (As Anne Frank was German, her name should actually be pronounced ‘Anna’.) This was a fascinating experience. There is a clearly defined course that you take through the building that housed Otto Frank’s business (which he sold to his non-Jewish employees) and through the secret rooms where the Franks and another family hid out. A neighbouring museum part holds Anne’s diaries and rewritten pages. There are stops along the way where everyone bunches up to watch a two or three minute video – many including testimonies from survivors such as Otto Frank – the only member of his family to survive.

We also bit the bullet and queued up for the Van Gogh Museum. We enjoyed trying to pronounce it authentically – not ‘van goff’ like the British or ‘van go’ like the Americans, but more like ‘fon khokh’. Habiba enjoyed listening to and talking about the Dutch accent with its up-and-down lilt and its frequent gutturals; she reckoned it sounded very friendly, which is not a bad description.

The museum held a good selection of Van Gogh’s art and the descriptions included for most pieces gave some good contextual information and analysis of technique. The Van Gogh section of the museum also contained occasional works by other artists for comparison. For instance, there was still life of a vase of flowers and a very similar painting by another artist – I forget who – as well as the actual vase that Van Gogh painted. Up stairs there was a selection of works in various styles from the same era. In another section that you entered from the basement, there was a large exhibition of Symbolist works – many of which were strikingly beautiful.

In the main square, Dam Square, a little fun fair was set up – practically while we watched. When complete, we went on the haunted house mini-rollercoaster. We also paid a visit to the Condomerie – a shop full of prophylactics both sensible and less so. We bought a couple of things. Nothing too silly – certainly no animal- or Big Ben- shaped rubber johnnies.

Besides sex, the other thing Amsterdam is well known for these days is marijuana. That kind of thing doesn’t interest me at all – inhaling the fumes of a narcotic plant doesn’t seem like a terribly intelligent idea. However, I agreed to try some cannabis confectionery. We went into a very smoky ‘coffee shop’ and Habiba bought a pot muffin for about €7. We ate it walking around; she ate most of it – I had about a quarter or a third of it. It didn’t seem to have any effect at first, but later Habiba reported that she was feeling high. I didn’t notice any effect on myself.

We looked at tulip bulbs in the Floating Market. At one point, we past a building that had a big inscription reading, ‘HOMO SAPIENS NON URINAT IN VENTUM’ – ‘A wise man does not piss in the wind’. We took photos of the triple-triangular Homo Monument and of the sex worker statue, Belle. We learnt that the coat of arms of the city contains a shield that bears three Xs arranged in a vertical row; this triple X can be found all over Amsterdam.

On our last full day in the city, we took a ferry from the Central Station just across the IJ (‘ij’ is a single letter, so it’s entirely in capitals – a ride of about two minutes, and a free one. There was a big ‘I amsterdam’ sign – less crowded than the one on Museumplein. We also saw a couple of Egyptian geese with a gaggle of shelducklings making their way through the water. Also nearby was the brand new EYE Film Institute building.

When we checked out, we found that the bill had already been charged to my credit card – which was fine, I suppose. Then we made the long tram journey back to Central Station and caught the next train to Brussels.

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I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time a few years ago and liked it, so reading another of McEwan’s books was long overdue. Amsterdam is a very short novel – novella really; I’ve done the caculations and it’s probably between 35,000 and 40,000 words.

In the wake of the descent into dementia and death of their former lover, Molly, two friends, Clive Linley, a composer working on a piece for the millennium celebrations, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a failing newspaper, make a pact to have the other euthanised should they begin to lose their marbles. Then they have a big falling out over a scoop that Vernon wants to publish – and this disagreement has terrible consequences.

The story was a quick, pleasant read – too quick, really, and too pleasant, in a way. The arc of the story seems to cut off very rapidly and the dark comedy of the ending was predictable and over very quickly – it almost seemed like an afterthough – even though that’s what the story is tending to all the way through. The darkness and the comedy of the ending didn’t do much for me, either.

What I did like was everything that went before – from Clive and Vernon’s conversation at Molly’s funeral, confrontations with a goverment minister (also a former lover of Molly), Clive’s search for the melody that will put the final touch to his masterpiece, Vernon’s struggles to make the most out of some scandalous photos he’s received, the two men’s subsequent argument and each character’s monomaniacal quest to justify himself.

It’s this latter that is the key theme of the story. Clive and Vernon’s disagreement is perpetuated by their self-absorption. Vernon wants to run his story even though it’s very morally dubious. Clive lives a batchelor’s life and spends his time perfecting his millennium symphony – or worrying about how to do so. They’re both concerned with the integrity of their work, but both lose their personal integrity.

For the most part, this was a good read, but the conclusion left me rather nonplussed. It could have been a longer book, and the transition from indignation to something altogether darker could have been explored in more detail.

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