Rotterdam for Amateurs
by Frank Light

Friday, April 30, 2004. No more March madness. That was Amsterdam. This is April going into May. But it’s still the Netherlands, still daughter Julia’s sports, and with my wife at work, I’m back to traveling on my own. The late-afternoon light, diffused by clouds, darkens the spring foliage and paints the canal-laced area around Schiphol tropical, West Africa or Southeast Asia, as we descend. Inside is of course climate-controlled like any modern airport any time of the year. The mantra is mind your step from the recorded female voice you hear at the end of horizontal escalators in airports throughout Europe. Not that the Lights ever accept those free rides. Leery of slippery slopes, we walk.

The outdoor air feels the way it looked coming in – steamy. The steam has condensed to rain by the time the train reaches Leiden, where I stayed for last year’s basketball tournament. Two more stops: The Hague, host for that tournament, and Rotterdam. At least everything is on time this trip. The flight for the Amsterdam tournament was delayed by fog and the train to Leiden by some lost soul who jumped onto the tracks.

I’m in the upper deck of a second-class car packed with youths in a boisterous mood. Several of them wear tall, foam crowns like the cabin crew sported on the flight in. To honor the Queen’s birthday, they say. Many have on orange T-shirts. A striking exception sits opposite me – a young, black-skinned woman clad entirely in hot pink – shoes, slacks, blouse, earrings, cap. Even her hair is pink.

We’ve pushed ahead of the rain, so I leave my parka packed for the hike from Rotterdam station. I set a brisk pace, as the clouds are catching up. Not so many bikes here as Amsterdam or Leiden. Not much reason to loiter. An ambulance hurries past with siren bleating. Work crews sweep trash and broken glass. The police are out in force. What is it, I ask as two of them step down from a paddy wagon, a demonstration? The people on the street are mostly young. They seem excited, tired, pleased – ravers who got their money’s worth.

Queen’s birthday, the policeman answers. Some celebrate too hard.

My hotel should be around here. But I’m not seeing it. I ask the policeman.

He points behind the paddy wagon. A banner says Hotel. It just doesn’t say which one. Neon in the window advertises a Japanese restaurant.

At check-in I ask how much for the room. 110 euros, the receptionist says. The woman I spoke to on the phone told me 86. She gave that rate when I complained about 110. On leave without pay, I’m free to travel but obliged to watch my budget. Breakfast is included, the woman said. An Internet site touted rooms for 86 euros, without breakfast. None are available, however. Okay, she said, 86. Send me an email, I asked. She didn’t, and now the receptionist wants documentation. I ask if the woman I spoke to is on duty. She’s their point of contact for the tournament. No, she has the weekend off. She’ll be back when the tournament’s over. The receptionist asks for my handwritten notes. I suggest making a copy. The machine’s broken. Okay, she concedes. 86. No breakfast.

They make you work for it.

As I start to unpack I realize I don’t know where or when the games will be played. The school letter gave a web site, but I neglected to check it before departure. Every trip I forget something. I call the girls’ hotel and ask for the coach. They haven’t arrived yet. Strange, their flight was scheduled to depart ahead of mine, and mine got in a half hour late. I ask the receptionist there about the venue. She asks around. The coach of another team tells her and she tells me. But she doesn’t sound sure. Downstairs, I ask the receptionist. This is, after all, the “parents hotel.” Not a clue, and there are no other parents to check with. Last month when I emailed the team photos from Amsterdam to the basketball coach and thanked him for his efforts, he said my wife and I were the first parents ever to travel to the tournament. Well, she’s our only child, a 9th grader, and we are American. We’re also older than the other parents.

I ask if there’s an Internet café nearby. The receptionist mentions a place several blocks away. I ask if it’ll be open this late. 24/7, she assures me.

By then the rain is with us. By the time I cover a block it’s pouring. Lightning flashes directly overhead. I look for a restaurant before everything closes. A McDonald’s already has. I’ll surf the Net later. Drenched but grateful not to have been struck by a bolt from above, I enter a Netless, nearly empty café and order a vegetarian dish washed down with one “whistler” and then another: it’s draft beer in small glasses, like champagne. On leaving I ask the whereabouts of the Internet place. Not a hundred meters. I must have walked past it.

It’s closed.

Rain continues to fall but without the drama – the lightning moved to the suburbs. The phone rings as I enter my room. It’s Sally, wife and love of my life, at home in Denmark. Given her position at the embassy, she’d be my boss if I were working, a nepotistic no-no. That turns me into a dependent spouse, a stay-at-home dad. Usually.

I remove my soggy clothes while we talk. After we finish, I try again for the coach. He answers. They were late checking in because they ate at the airport. Their first game tomorrow is at 10:15. He doesn’t know where. He just gets on the bus.

The room is too warm to sleep. I find dials that will crank up the heat but nothing to cool things down. Thinking it’s me, can’t see for looking, I call the receptionist. She says there is no air conditioning. I guess it doesn’t get hot enough often enough to deal with. As in Denmark, the natives put the unpleasantness out of mind. The same discipline spares them the trouble and expense of window screens. That would imply bugs.

I prop open the minibar door. Every little bit helps. A sign says turn off the lights before opening the window, or mosquitos will get in. At least the Dutch acknowledge their presence, although I didn’t notice them in the storm nor did I see, hear, or feel any in the room. In the morning I do – on the ceiling, which prompts me to stand on a chair flapping and snapping a towel. If nothing else, the action clears my sinuses, a condition I attribute to the humidity and a pillow that didn’t sufficiently raise my head.

May Day, the storm long gone, the sky a glorious blue. I hit the streets in search of a bargain breakfast. Nothing opens before nine. Chastened, I return to the hotel. The 16-euro charge is a rip-off but better than the 24 I would have paid had breakfast been included with the room. The buffet is typical north European, with cheeses, cold cuts, and jams. Nothing Japanese about it. Maybe that kicks in at dinner.

The receptionists explore the web for me in search of venue. Seems to be off the map. The most they can do is jot down an address. I call the team’s hotel. The receptionist there doesn’t know either. The teams already left for the games. The only thing for it is a taxi. Not many around on a Saturday morning. Finally I wave one down near the central station. The driver doesn’t recognize the address. He drives to the station for directions.

The girls play three games today. Their whole season in one weekend. The international schools of northwest Europe are too far apart to do otherwise. Copenhagen wins their first. In the second game one of Julia’s teammates breaks her leg below the knee. In great pain, she goes into shock. While she lies under a space blanket where she fell, an ambulance coming, her teammates finish the contest on a waterlogged practice field. Meanwhile a girl who attended only one practice all season because of back problems reinjures her back. She cannot go on. Supposedly her parents let her come on the condition she not play. The Hungarian twins didn’t come, either. The reason they gave – tired of losing. I think the real stopper was money – it’s not cheap to fly here. Fifteen years ago they lived under communism. Now some compatriots are getting rich but not those who work honestly for their government. Anyway, the team loses by a goal, and they’re down to 12 players for their last match of the day.

Nothing-nothing going into the last few minutes, Julia and an opponent rush to the ball in front of our net. The opponent stumbles. The referee awards a penalty kick to the stumbler’s team. The ball goes into the nested hands of our goalie and through them into the goal. Final score 1-0. Julia feels terrible. The ref decided the game on a very questionable call. Julia was in that position because her teammates lagged behind and because her coach doesn’t use a sweeper. He likes Julia to keep the other three defenders in a line. She does that, but then it’s usually she who has to chase down the ball every time it breaks through. She did that over and over, played her heart out. She trudges off without stopping for the fries she left with me at halftime. After she collects herself, we talk. Her cheeks are red. I ask if she knows who’s the best passer on her team. She is. But her mind is elsewhere, and that’s fine; not only is her father biased, soccer was never his game.

Her teammates call her over, and the coach addresses them out of my hearing. Life’s unfair, I was going to say. Results don’t always correlate to effort. But you know. Inside, you know. I finish the fries, take a tram to the hotel, make instant coffee in the room, start this journal, open the window, turn off the lights, order an extra pillow, and revisit the neighborhood café. Different crew tonight. The waitress bring me soup, salad, and bread. A couple of whistlers to wash it all down. Ice cream to top it off. Living large. The girls are supposed to be making their own pancakes on a canal boat. Hope it’s fun. They’re good at forgetting.

Sally calls late. She went to the school fair in Hellerup, a suburban town between our house and Copenhagen. Everybody on the board, save me, was there. My membership is almost ex officio in light of availability and relation to the embassy.

The woman who started me on these journals laughs when I describe my own evening. Boring, I admit. The old man is snoring.

But you’re in Rotterdam, she exclaims. It’s not Paris, or London. Or even Amsterdam.

It’s better. It’s now.

Sunday, May 2. Skipping breakfast, I check out early, catch the tram, and take my travel bag to the games. A snack bar sells coffee and pastries that hit the spot. And for way less than at the hotel. At 8:30 the girls play Siegtuna, which has won the tournament seven years running. The only school here from Sweden, Seigtuna played two games yesterday, winning both by a score of 6 – 0. Copenhagen loses 3 – 0, all the goals occurring in the first half. In their final game, for 7th place, the girls continue their stellar defensive play, holding their opponent scoreless through both halves and two five-minute overtimes. Unfortunately they also fail to score. “Penalty” kicks decide the game. Julia looks shocked when the coach selects her as one of the five kickers. She’s never had a strong kick, yet he’s also had her taking the free kicks from the back line. Although the team has no captain, she is the one who meets the referee at the beginning of each game and before the kickoff. She is one of two Copenhagen girls to score in the kickoff. The other team gets three. Still, Copenhagen played well, with just one substitute available. Wonderfully, the girl who broke her leg is up and about on crutches and painkillers.

Siegtuna loses the championship in a kickoff.

Concerned about making my flight, I take a taxi to the station. Sally’s remark gets me thinking about Rotterdam. The largest port in Europe, she teased. I can sense its reach even if I can’t see it. Rotterdam is function to Amsterdam’s form. When I first visited the continent, 1968 on a Eurailpass bought with money saved in Vietnam, the trains must have passed through Rotterdam, but neither I nor any other tourist got off. Amsterdam was – and is – the destination. I mention that to the cabbie, who was born and raised here. Amsterdam’s old, he says, like Europe. I point out the red light we’re running. Sunday, he explains, meaning nobody but us chickens. Rotterdam’s built like America, he adds. It’s newer. It has tall buildings. To me it’s closer in spirit to Amsterdam than America. For starters, the climate’s the same. Same queen, language, shade of orange. But of course the two cities are different. Every place is. Anywhere you go, anything you do, is a tradeoff. Opportunity cost, economists call it. That summer, for example, I’ll leave for three months in Uruzgan, the province where the Dutch would later concentrate their efforts in Afghanistan, though nobody knows that then.

With the airline’s strong encouragement, I try my first self-check-in. It’s the future. I might as well embrace it.

The scanner does not recognize my passport.

No problem, the airline cheerleader chirps. Go to any counter from 9 to 12.

When I get to the front of counter 10, the clerk says go to counter 14. When I get to the front of 14, the clerk says they’re redoing the seating. She seems puzzled. She can’t process me. She asks me to stand to the side. After she handles a few more customers, I go back to her. They are now open for check-in. Just two seats left, she says, letting me know just how lucky I am. You’d never guess I made a reservation and arrived two hours before the flight.

Then on boarding we’re held back from the ramp after our tickets are taken. Finally they let us go. Airline employees push an empty wheelchair in the opposite direction. I feel a twinge of remorse for my earlier frustration. The twinge grows when I see who sits in front of me. It’s Julia’s injured teammate, one seat for her body and two for her leg. Her team’s flight – on another airline – could not spare the extra seats. An ambulance waiting on the tarmac in Copenhagen will take her to the hospital for more X-rays.

On the train into town I phone Sally, who says Julia called from the airport and should have been home by now but isn’t. Before leaving Copenhagen, I arranged for the mother of a teammate to take her. I had earlier asked another teammate’s father, a teammate who stayed home because her mother succumbed to cancer last Thursday. Now there’s unfairness. And perspective. It comes at you in waves. You absorb it in dribs and drabs. The funeral is Tuesday.

At Hellerup station I corral the one taxi driver out of a nearby grille. Julia gets home in due course, unpacks, and repacks for school activity week in north Jutland. At 7 the next morning I drive her to the rendezvous point in Hellerup. We have the briefest of goodbyes, as classmates might be watching. It’s the same for all of them.

I get back in time to see Sally off to work. Last night I forgot to tell her the plane flew over our house. Once home to a famous Danish actor, SS residence during the occupation, it now belongs to the US government. Reportedly we acquired it after the war for a boatload of cloth Danish women were anxious to get their hands on. So big and white you can’t miss it, the back windows looking across the Sound clear to Sweden when the sun shines as it does today. But she has to run. Not me. That’s how journals get written—by people with time, past, present, and future.