A café at Schiphol Airport—Amsterdam. I ask for a decaf soy latte.
The waiter tips his head back a little. ‘We have no soy milk,’ he says.
‘No soy at all?’
‘No. Starbucks has soy milk.’
There’s a challenge in his expression. Am I the type to decamp for Starbucks? Or am I a sophisticated euro traveller? He flicks a glance around our table of seven.
I stare him down. ‘I’ll have a cup of tea. Black tea.’
He smiles faintly and taps his stylus on his tablet. Around us, diners return to their conversations, waitstaff to their orders. The hum and clatter of the cafe resumes.
A little later I whizz around to the disabled toilet on my scooter (which has, miraculously, turned up on the same flight as us). It’s engaged. I wait a minute, three minutes, six or seven. A dreadlocked janitor, ID badge swinging, comes pimp-rolling around the corner.
‘You wait?’ she asks.
‘Yes. Long time.’ Sad face.
She raps on the door. ‘Eh! Ben je aan het slapen?’ Are you asleep?
‘Eh!’ Louder now, banging hard. She turns to me. ‘Junkie.’
It takes a couple more minutes of rapping and interrogation but eventually the lock clicks open. I’m expecting a skinny kid with thin, oily hair and shifty eyes to slope out but instead a dishevelled, middle-aged woman with a loaded baggage trolley shuffles through the door, avoiding everyone’s eyes. The janitor throws me an ‘I told you so’ look, gives the toilet seat and basin a quick spray and wipedown and ushers me in. I don’t know. Amsterdam.
While the Mechanic revels in the smooth motorways and generous speed limits of the Zone, I suffer pangs of nostalgia for Australia, where you can just pull off the road into a clearing, open the two nearside doors, squat and drop your pants. Here, the highways are fenced and even when there’s a useful-looking strip of grass the Mechanic assures me that, were we to stop, the polizei would screech to a halt within seconds and haul us off to a gulag.
Instead there are lay-byes with blocks of automated toilets. These are wet, draughty pods with stainless steel toilet seats and those doors that threaten to shudder open, unbidden, at any time. I make the Mechanic stand guard outside while the facility barks instructions at me—well, in German everything sounds barked. Even when written. But especially when written in CAPITALS.
Back to that table of seven at Schiphol. We’d made our plans clear—we were picking up a hire car that morning, driving to Copenhagen, joining our eleven-day cruise, then returning to Amsterdam to spend a few days with the Mechanic’s extended Dutch family. But there they were, or a contingent of them, in the Arrivals Hall at 7 am. His sister, two nieces, a nephew and a grandnephew. Just come to hang out with us while we waited for the car. Most of them had caught trains and buses; one niece had arranged a late start at work. The Mechanic just shrugged. But me, after the days of planning for every possible eventuality and a few impossible ones too, after the rigours of the long flight, beside myself with nervous exhaustion, I dampened every shoulder.
Care to comment? See below.