I’ve just been on a book tour in Holland and Antwerp with my wonderful Dutch publishers, De Fontein.
I had bad memories of Amsterdam from a previous visit 25 years ago. I sailed with my then wife, Georgina, in a dinky-sized yacht with two friends, from Orford Ness (a pretty Suffolk coastal resort with a great fish restaurant – Buttimer’s Oystery – though not as great as the truly brilliant Riverside in West Bay, near Bridport in Dorset – in case you are reading this near either and are hungry!) We had a dramatic journey, becalmed in shipping lanes in the North Sea for 40 hours (because the owner of the yacht had forgotten to fill up with fuel), then running out of food and water.
When we finally sailed up the river and entered Amsterdam, it was during a major student riot. Walking down a narrow street along a canal, we were confronted by a surging mass of several thousand people running blind with panic towards us, being driven by mounted police with batons. Suddenly our jolly jaunt turned into one of the worst moments of terror of my life. I realized that if we stood still we would be crushed, and we literally had to climb over the side, and hang above the canal, holding on to the edge of the road with our hands, until the crowds and horses had surged past.
I don’t know if it was anything to do with the boat trip, but the couple we went with divorced soon after – and some years later we did also. Maybe the ultimate pre-nuptial test should be to becalm two couples in the middle of the North Sea in a very small boat with no food or water for 40 hours and see how much they dislike each other at the end of it!
Luckily my recent visit was less eventful. It was so busy, with wall to wall interviews, that I never even had time to say hello to my friend Kathy Reichs, who I discovered by coincidence was staying in the same hotel at the same time, doing interviews in the next meeting room to mine!
But I did have time to do some sight-seeing. Something I’ve learned is that every city has one museum that you really, really, really do not want to visit. Not, at any rate, if you are normal…. Fortunately or otherwise, I’m not normal. Normal as someone once told me, is a setting on a washing machine. N for N is a derogatory term that doctors In Norfolk (a county once unjustly stigmatized with having a higher than average percentage of interbred inhabitants) used to write on patients’ notes. It stood for Normal For Norfolk.
The museum in Paris, for example, that you seriously do not want to visit – before lunch at any rate – is the Museum of Surgical Instruments in St Germain. On display is everything a man never wanted to know about having a kidney stone removed, in the 19th century and earlier. A long, thin metal rod, with what looks like a multiple fish-hook on the end that would be inserted through the man’s – sorry, cannot go on typing, my eyes are watering too much!!!
In fact there is not much that would have been fun back then, in the days of primitive surgery, and before anaesthetics. Because operations were so painful, surgeons in the mid-19th Century used to advertise on their speed. You would see adverts that read things like, ‘Your Gall Bladder Removed In Five Minutes Or Your Money Back!”
The particular museum I visited in Amsterdam was the Torture Museum. It is in semi-darkness and the instruments are all accompanied with sketch drawings, illustrating their use. Here’s some photos if you dare to look…
Primitive but effective
Even more uncomfortable than it looks!
Will make sure you don’t fall asleep reading
Nipples pierced, anyone?
Curiously the museum is open until 10pm – just the sort of thing to vist before bedtime if you want a truly sleepless night.
And if you don’t… there’s the city’s famous Red Light district. I found it quite bizarre – I had imagined it to be a small concentration of sleazy alleyways – but not a bit. It is open and brazen, in an old and beautiful area, and many of the shop windows – and they really are shop windows – are lined along the canals. Every shape, size, age and race of female, scantily clad, smile out at you like battery-operated animated mannequins, and some rap on the windows to get your attention. I found this whole region fascinating, but about as erotic as walking through the frozen produce section of a supermarket.
But I did eat in a truly wonderful restaurant – very modern, very brilliant food and delightful service, and the owner cooks himself. It’s called Restaurant Van de Markt. And the hotel was a gem, converted from a row of historic houses along a canal, it has a reputation as something of a writers’ haunt. Hotel Ambassade
Speaking of haunts… I can’t get that damned spindly instrument in Paris out of my mind….