Six days in March: mafiosi in Prague, war in Serbia, Yanks in Amsterdam and a flying saucer in the Thames Valley

I have no time to transcribe the blog I should be writing today so, as always in such cases, you get a copy-and-paste from my e-diary – in this case, starting today 16 years ago in 1999


MONDAY 22nd MARCH 1999 – AMSTERDAM

Amsterdam (Photo by Massimo Catarinella)

Amsterdam (Photo by Massimo Catarinella)

There are precipitous stairs up to my new hotel. This, as with other houses in Amsterdam, is because there are two storeys below the two-storey hotel and people live vertically because, at one time, house tax was based on the width of your house so everything was built narrow.

The hotel is run by two thin gay men, probably in their late-40s or mid-50s, heavily wrinkled like white prunes.

The room has a brown carpet, pink bedsheets and bedspread; high light green walls with horizontal hanging ivy atop one of them. When trams pass, there is a thunderous rattling through the tall, single-glazed window. I think I may move soon.

TUESDAY 23rd MARCH – AMSTERDAM

Dinner with the Englishman who runs the TV station where I am freelancing. We previously worked together at TV stations in Prague in 1994 and 1995. He says Prague has changed since I was there; the various foreign mafias have taken over large sections of society; it started, he says, with the privatisation of taxis. The TV operation we both worked for in Prague was sold (at a loss) by UIH to Time-Warner last week; but, in return, UIH got Time-Warner cable interests in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Eastern Europe has become the new Wild West.

WEDNESDAY 24th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

Dinner with three workmates. One of them observed that the Dutch give a bad time to Germans – shop assistants are coldly difficult to them in shops etc – because of the Second World War. As we ate, NATO planes and cruise missiles were starting to attack Yugoslavia/Serbia/Montenegro/Kosovo.

THURSDAY 25th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

In McDonalds, the assistant was giving a hard, contemptuous time to a well-dressed family of Russians who spoke very bad English.

FRIDAY 26th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

At breakfast in the hotel, there was an American couple: he was wide and tall like some American Football player, she was much smaller and much younger. The TV was tuned to BBC1 News. The American couple had missed the start of the bombing of Serbia, presumably because they were travelling around. Their abbreviated conversation went:

Him: “What’s going on?”

Me: “NATO has started bombing Serbia.”

Her: “What’s NATO?”

Him: “North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It’s…what is it?…The big six?” (LOOKS AT ME)

Me: (CONFUSED)

Her: “I thought that was just a trade organisation.”

Him: “No, it does some policing, too.”

At Schiphol Airport in the evening, there was a group of very jolly people in their 20s – about a dozen – on the travelator in front of me. It turned out they were going to my Gate. And they were drunk – amiable, jolly and drunk. It came as no surprise they were travelling on Finnair to Helsinki as the only times I had encountered Finns before – in Leningrad in 1985 – they were all amiable, jolly and staggeringly drunk. Something to do with the strict drink laws in Finland: at that time, Finns came across to Leningrad, sold denim jeans and Western goods to Russians and got very charmingly drunk on vodka.

My friend Lynn’s partner Frank had asked me to get him some schnapps at the airport duty free – stuff you can only get in Schiphol. It comes in an opaque brown bottle. I couldn’t see it, so I asked a man who was stacking the drinks shelves: “Do you have any schnapps?”

Inevitably, I was standing right by the schnapps: he pointed to two different brands, both in white bottles.

“I was asked to get some schnapps in a brown bottle,” I said: “Do you have any in a brown bottle?”

He looked at me as if I was mad, almost shrinking backwards, and replied:

“No, we do not have schnapps in a brown bottle.”

The EasyJet plane to Luton took off two hours late because:

a) the incoming plane broke down in Luton and
b) they had to fly a replacement plane into Amsterdam and
c) they said: “Air traffic over Western Europe has been disrupted by NATO”

I suppose squadrons of giant B-52 bombers taking off from Gloucestershire and flying to Serbia would do that.

SATURDAY 27th MARCH – BOREHAMWOOD

John Ward drives home in his Wardmobile

John Ward driving to his home in his self-made Wardmobile

My chum mad inventor John Ward has built a flying saucer. Today, with his son, he was collecting it from a garage in Weybridge then coming round to collect some stuff from me on his way home to Northamptonshire.

On the way to me, he was stopped by a Thames Valley police car with flashing lights and siren. Inside was a Sergeant Whittaker.

“What do you think you are doing?” asked Sergeant Whittaker.

He told John they had looked at their cameras and seen John and his son driving along the road in their car pulling an object brightly painted in fluorescent orange, red, yellow and blue.

“You are a distraction,” Sergeant Whittaker told John.

“Thankyou,” said John.

“Don’t be flippant,” Sergeant Whittaker warned him.

Sergeant Whittaker then appeared to flounder around trying to find something on which to arrest John.

“Have you got a licence for that?” Sergeant Whittaker asked, pointing at the flying saucer.

“It’s a trailer,” John replied.

“It has a seat in it,” observed Sergeant Whittaker.

“Ah,” said John, “But it has no engine in it: so it is legally a trailer.”

John Ward knows about these things.

At this point, an old man on a motorcycle passed by and was so amazed by the flying saucer and the police car with the flashing lights that he lost control of his motorcycle, hit the central barrier and fell off.

“Look!” Sergeant Whittaker told John. “He was distracted by your… your… thing!”

“No,” argued John. “It’s all your flashing red and blue and white lights distracted him.”

Sergeant Whittaker said accusingly: “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? We could have arranged a police escort.”

“You’re joking,” said John.

“No I’m not…..Where are you going with it?”

“I’m dropping in at a friend’s in Borehamwood to collect some stuff, then taking it home.”

“Oh no you’re not. You’re a distraction. You’re taking it straight home.”

At this point, John phoned me on his mobile.

“Are you phoning the press?” the sergeant asked.

“Not yet,” said John.

“I know you from somewhere,” Sergeant Whittaker said. “Have I seen you on television?”

“No, I’m not him,” said John. “Reg, the bloke with the glasses in Coronation Street. People sometimes confuse me for him. But I’m not him.”

“No, you’re not him,” agreed Sergeant Whittaker, “but I think I’ve seen you somewhere.”

Eventually, Sergeant Whittaker got in John’s car and his policeman mate drove the police car. They set off in convoy, lights flashing and escorted John’s flying saucer to the border of the next police area – where a Buckinghamshire police car took over.

“Is that it?” the Buckinghamshire policeman asked when he saw the flying saucer. He had obviously been expecting something like a vast over-hanging mobile home on a pantechnicon.

When the Buckinghamshire police car reached the borders of Northamptonshire, there was a Northamptonshire police car waiting for them.

“Oh,” the Northamptonshire policeman said on seeing John, “It’s you.”

“Have we met?” John asked him.

“No,” said the Northamptonshire policeman.

When the other car had gone, the Northamptonshire policeman told John: “They’re mad down south. It’s a waste of time. They should be out catching criminals. I’m going back to the station.”

And off he went.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Eccentrics, Holland, Police, Yugoslavia

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