How I Spent My Vacation, Part 1: Sex, Drugs and Clogs ‘n’ Grolsch

Apart from obvious, being-utterly-devoted-to-each-other-for-the-rest-of-our-lives justifications, there are many reasons why Chris and I got married. The chance to have a really good party – or, indeed, several. The acquisition of presents (with fortunately, not a toaster to be seen). I no longer have to be Chris’s employee; she no longer bears the mark of Satan, in the form of her ex-husband’s surname. But perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to take five weeks off work, the longest break I’ve had since graduating in 1987.

Technically, it wasn’t five weeks holiday. Not the twelve days prior to the wedding, certainly, given the amount of running around that had to be done, arranging stuff e.g. suddenly realising, the day before, that we’d forgotten to choose hymns for the service or print up orders of service. Oops. Every day, new challenges to be met – meeting the minister, and hoping he wouldn’t ask tricky questions about religion (for the record, he was great. The subject of God never came up at all). Every day, we’d fervently vow never to go through this ever again. No, whatever it was, a holiday was not it.

After the big day, we could relax, though it was some time before we lost that wild, hunted look, and the fixed smile that goes with being photographed approximately 400 times in one day – I now have the utmost respect for supermodels. Indeed, for the whole female race: wearing a kilt showed me the difficulties faced by the skirt-wearing sex on a daily basis, with “sitting” and “getting out of cars” top of the list of problematic scenarios. I’m also here to tell you that pure wool chafes.

Once we picked up the marriage licence and got out of town, felt like the wedding was actually over and the honeymoon could start. First stop was Edinburgh, since Chris’s experience of it was limited to me poking her head above ground at Waverley Station (“Look! A castle!”) and my last significant trip there was for a job interview after university, which was followed by a pub-crawl, me losing my glasses off the Forth Rail Bridge, and a vow never to drink cider again.

This time round, no such disasters, and we’d both like to get back and spend more time there at some point. The highlight was the City of the Dead walking tour, which is centred around the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars cemetery. It’s home to the Mackenzie poltergeist, one of the most active spirits in Britain and is certainly a spooky site. After numerous tales being recounted, you can understand why some customers faint – if only through the power of suggestion. The whole effect was, however, greatly diminished at the end, by some guy in a mask leaping out and going “Boo!” at the party. Oooh, I’m so scared.

The next day saw the ‘moon proper start, as we began our tour round Europe on the trains. I’d done this kind of thing several times before, as a student; this time, we were doing it properly: a first-class rail pass, no sleeping on benches, and with actual bathrooms. Still bearing rucksacks, mind you: it was a joy to see the snotty business travellers in first-class look down their noses, as we T-shirted ragamuffins heaved our rucksacks up there, fully expecting us to be thrown out when the ticket inspector turned up. No, fuck you… 🙂

Enough class war. Brussels. The number of famous Belgians I can name might stop at about five (including three members of Front 242), but I like the place. The equation is quite simple, and involves beer and chocolate. They take especial delight in the former, and it’s great to see restaurants where the beer list is longer than the wine list, or even the menu itself. Each beer seems to come with its own glass: we were particularly impressed by Kwak – cue jokes about “Kwak addicts” – served in what looks like an hour-glass with the top of the upper globe sliced off, and Chimay, a serious death-beer of 9% alcohol (compare Guinness at around 4.3%), brewed by Trappist monks. No wonder they don’t say much.

The main tourist attraction is the Mannekin Pis, a statue of a young kid urinating, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Probably deliberately, if I were them. Dressed in a different costume every day – Peruvian gaucho on this occasion – it is to Brussels’ souvenir shops what the Eiffel Tower is to those in Paris. The corkscrews were particularly mind-boggling, like the result of some bizarre human/pig genetic experiment. So were the Mannekin Pis lollipops – Belgium must be the only country in the world where it’s legal to suck off small boys. And moving rapidly on…

Outside of the ancient city centre, there isn’t really that much to see, Brussels largely being a bureaucratic centre for various bits of the EU. We did venture out to Heysel for the Atomium, a large-scale (x 165,000,000,000 to be precise!) model of an iron crystal, built for the 1958 World Fair. It’s now filled with a lot of retro/kitsch stuff from the period; the views from the top would be spectacular if the windows weren’t so grubby.

At the other end of the scale spectrum, nearby is Mini-Europe, a model village designed to promote the idea of a united continent by…showing you 1/25 models of landmarks. No, the logic of this escapes me, too. It does save you the bother of having to visit any other countries, for which we were kinda glad, having just realised that we actually had four less days left than we thought. We cross off France and Italy (having seen the 1/25 versions), and head North into Holland.

Or is it the Netherlands? No-one seems sure. Even the official site of the Netherlands Board of Tourism is On the train in, we see as many McDonalds arches as windmills, a depressing thought as we arrive in Amsterdam. I must be getting old, as it takes almost twelve hours before anyone offers to sell me drugs – about 100 times as long as when I was there as a student. Instead, the hotel accommodation offers come thick and fast from dubious-looking individuals outside the station, but we decline them all and head for the tourist office, who set us up with a lovely city centre hotel for 60 Euro/night.

[Swift detour. The whole Euro thing is great, especially when you’re whizzing through multiple countries like we are. No need to worry about flushing out loose change every other day, working out what notes to use, or coming to terms with multiple different exchange rates. One Euro = One Dollar, everywhere (except Switzerland, where chocolate remains the main negotiable currency). The bureaux de change must be hating it, hahaha!]

That night we go to the Korean State Circus, which is actually very good, it’s the Russian horse troupe who support them we can’t stand. I’m no PETA-phile, but equine legs are not supposed to go in the directions they’re made to here. We walk home through the red-light district, an experience in itself for Chris – not exactly having led a sheltered upbringing, the sheer in-your-face-ness of it all still has her initially looking like a deer caught in headlights, though she soon returns to her usual unflappable self.

Next morning, we go to the train station to discover the left-luggage is way too full, with a long queue even to put your bags in. To make matters worse, when we try to book our tickets on the sleeper to Munich (after a 45-minute wait, during which we become disturbingly familiar with adverts, in which Dutch guys of questionable sexuality put mayonnaise on their chips), we encounter Ilsa, Ticket-seller of the Dutch Train Service. She single-handedly nails dead the myth about the Dutch being friendly, laid-back and helpful. The Munich train is full, so tonight we will end up going East, to Berlin. Our carefully-planned schedule is now unrecognisable.

With the afternoon to kill before departure, we cheer ourselves up with some educational museum visits. Specifically, the Sex Museum and the Torture Museum. Who said travel didn’t broaden the mind? We also, totally by chance, bump into my sister, who is independently in Amsterdam. This was bizarre enough, but doubly weird is discovering that she has been staying in the same hotel – and paying almost twice as much, too. That really cheered us up… 🙂

Next: Germany calling…