In a move designed to capture the attention of those who consider "on sale" to be the most exciting phrase in the English language, United slashed fares to Europe to $505 late last year. It worked for Lan and we booked tickets to Paris for a 2½ week trip leaving late-November. In fact, in a move signaling utter desperation, we could have flown to Europe for $258 had we waited.
The flight on a 777 from Washington to Paris was extremely uncomfortable-the Boeing employee who came up with the 2-5-2 seating arrangement across the plane instead of 3-3-3 should be fired and 79cm/31" seat spacing is way too tight for a long haul flight. However, we did have the lovely Dominique as our chief flight attendant. I never did get to see her but she had a gorgeous, sexy French accent that made me hang on every word of the safety presentation. I was hoping that the in-flight movies would be canceled and she would read us a story.
Our first stop was Amsterdam and we could have flown there but where is the fun in that when you can go by rail? The Thalys trains run at up to 300km/h or 200 mph! Flying at ground level. It was extremely impressive-so smooth you don’t really have a sensation of speed and you get a view. The TGV train we were later to catch from Paris to Lyon was somewhat noisier and rougher making you feel like you are moving very, very fast, all the more so because it was dark.
Amsterdam is a fabulous city but we probably would not have made the detour were not for a wonderful family that lives in nearby Hilversum. Lan met Dorien in a refugee camp in Singapore in 1981 where she was teaching English and French. Dorien’s husband Jaap was there on a temporary assignment with a Dutch bank and at that time they had two small children.
With its extensive canal network, Amsterdam is sometimes called the Venice of the North though strangely, I've never heard Venice described as the Amsterdam of the South. Anyway, we visited in 1994 and I enjoyed the canal tour so much then that I was keen to do it again. The city is just as beautiful as I remembered.
Jaap took us for a drive and we stopped at Muiden Castle. It is a classic small castle with towers, a moat and a strategic position at the mouth of the River Vecht which was the trade route to Utrecht and key to the defense of Amsterdam. This structure dates from 1370
The tour included a room of armor and weapons from the Middle Ages. Two items were particularly interesting. One was suit of armor that weighed 70 kg/150 lbs. which would protect its wearer but severely limit his mobility. The other was stone balls, perhaps 40 cm/16" in diameter. I thought they were to be fired from a primitive cannon but they were to be rolled down steps as enemy soldiers climb up to attack.
Dorien produced a wonderful dinner to which the now-adult children came with their husband and girlfriend. So much fun!
In conversation, we discovered that English-language films are generally not subtitled into the local European language but dubbed. Famous actors use the same foreign voice actor for every film so that European audiences associate a voice with a particular actor. The Tom Hanks you hear in Italy is not the Tom Hanks you hear in France or Germany. Indeed, it is not Tom Hanks.
Unfortunately we couldn't stay in Amsterdam long but we will definitely be back. I can even imagine living in Amsterdam which is not impossible since I have an British (i.e. E.U.) passport and almost everyone speaks English (and probably French and German as well). The Dutch are amazing.