Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Father-in-law's adventures in Amsterdam make for colourful story

Not much has been happening in the village lately. Our run of beautiful weather has come to a halt, with clouds and some heavy rain. It doesn't really matter since we are busy getting ready for several visitors over the next while. This isn't always easy as stocking up on food requires visits to various markets and supermarkets, since no one place ever stocks everything we want.

So for today's blog lets return to Amsterdam with my father in law's reminisces of time he spent there in the 'fifties. Some of his reflections about the fresh-faced girls and what you could do in Amsterdam could be written today. However, the best part of his tale is worthy of presentation in the Amsterdam museum as part of the city's history. I hope you enjoy it.

Official Mail
By John Nesling

It is probably the winter of 1948. I am 18 and have official British Army mail to carry into the Hook of Holland. There are two of us – we are in the Royal Corp of Signals – His Majesty’s Couriers. This means that we are carrying army official mail destined for the British Army on the Rhine. In order to distinguish us from other soldiers we wear blue and white armbands and carry sten-guns, but no ammunition. Something to ponder, but it is peacetime.

Our mailbags are sacks – just plain old burlap sacks of various sizes, and all tied at the neck and sealed with sealing wax – red sealing wax impressed with the coat of arms. Customs cannot open these bags, except in the presence of an army officer. So virtually we go straight through. We have come into the east coast port of Harwich by rail from London’s Liverpool Street Station. Possibly we have shared our compartment with two CCG (Control Commission, Germany) couriers. They are civilians, and they will carry their civil official mail into Germany. They are generally a little older than us. We will go only to the Hook of Holland where other army couriers from Germany will take over. For some of us smuggling has become an irresistible temptation. In Germany they need coffee, which is readily available in the UK. From Germany it is possible to obtain nylon stockings, cameras and numerous other consumer items unavailable in Britain at this time. The era of the was just emerging, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Some of the CCG couriers have become quite innovative – they can cut open the bottom of a mailbag, insert their contraband and sew it up again or carry their own sealing wax to reseal and imprint with a coat of arms from a stamp made out of an army greatcoat button. Also one of the bags is very small, containing only the packing slips or documents listing the numbers and designation of the other official bags. This means that if you have contraband you can create a large phony mailbag, drop your loot into it, plus the little packing slip bag, and then when you are safely through customs and on the train you remove your stuff, lose the phony bag and re-emerge with the little document bag. Better still if you can arrange it all at the source, whereby your good friends in the signal office will connive with you to start out that way i.e. double bagged. Saves a lot of trouble. The couriers have their own compartment on the train and their own cabin on the ship, which is so very convenient – but we do actually deliver the mail intact as required!

This brings us to the subject of our night sea journey. Harwich to the Hook of Holland in the winter – a vicious little trip of high wind and short, steep seas where some people will spend the night on their knees hunched over the toilet bowl with the moans coming out of them like they were dying. Not us – we have a cabin, and – if you get yourself horizontal in time - as soon as that little bit of sweat breaks out around the hat-band, you can avoid all that. We are seasoned – we know about these things – the other soldiers don’t make the trip that often – they sit up too long drinking beer and playing that stupid game they call tombola - bingo to some. But these old troop ships do roll – especially the Wansbeck – the other one is the Pakistan. She pounds, and our cabin is right in the fo’c’s’le; sometimes you lie there and wonder if the seas won’t smash right through the bow. Anyway, by early morning we will be moored safely alongside in the Hook and the Rhine army couriers will have met us and relieved us of our mailbags. There is a small Signals detachment over here where we will find the cook shack for breakfast, and are then free to loaf around for the rest of the day.

From the Hook it is only a short distance by rail to The Hague, Amsterdam or Rotterdam. Or one could simply hang around the Hook - it’s a matter of priorities. You want culture? You could go to Amsterdam and find the Rijksmuseum and look at Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch and other great Dutch paintings. You want sex? There is a street in Amsterdam of row houses facing on to the sidewalk. Either side of their large front windows there is a mirror, such that the girl sitting in the room will be looking out on the street and see who approaches from either direction, and a customer passing the window will see the girl and they will be able to hammer out a deal in sign language.
Or maybe you want to be a tourist? Good! Amsterdam is known as the Venice of the north – a
city of canals. A long, comfortable canal boat will take sight seers all over the ancient heart of this great city and under precisely aligned old world bridges, past historical buildings, 17th century merchants’ houses, churches and the like. All of this comes complete with good commentary - a history lesson in Dutch and English. You don’t want any of this? OK, then you can just hang around the pubs. They never close, and the beer is good, and they have coffee as well; they are very civilized - and there is a wonderful game of billiards played on a small table with large balls – a good game – different – a peculiarly Dutch pub game. Or you could just walk around looking at rosy-cheeked Dutch girls – they are so fresh looking. Indeed everything in this country seems clean and fresh - their railway stations, trains, buildings – everything - quite unlike poor grimy looking old England. So maybe a fellow could find a nice Dutch girl. No? Then you could stay in The Hook, but walk beyond the village into the protective sand dunes of this strange Dutch below sea level lowland – educate yourselves a little bit.

But no, not even that. Today we are not in the business of hanging around and philandering. We are in the smuggling business, you’ll remember. So here goes: today we will stay in The Hook and buy up as much booze and tobacco as we can. We need pipe tobacco and cigarette tobacco and liqueur. The latter could be cherry brandy, apricot brandy, Grande Marnier, Benedictine and perhaps the ultimate brandy – cognac. If we can get two or three bottles of something through customs, then our profit in England will be close to 100% and our man – a very knowledgeable civil servant - will again make some 50%. The liquor is French, but we do not know the reasons for such disparity – nor care – we just hope it will stay that way. We are only 18 years of age and we don’t look too deeply into such phenomena. Same with tobacco, which is Dutch manufacture, but still about 100% profit if we can sell it in the UK. So today it is a walk around the few stores and pubs in The Hook, a beer, a game of billiards, a talk to the waitress in a coffee shop and then back to camp to parcel up our loot. Here a little cooperation is required from our signal office people. Essentially all we want them to do is create a phony mailbag of considerable size to contain our parcels plus the tiny mailbag holding the documents. Perhaps there was a small, now unremembered, benefit for them in this.

On this particular day as on most other such days we would share a shipboard cabin with the CCG couriers from Germany, whose train would have pulled into The Hook about 8 pm with her cargo of British soldiers and civilians taking the night run to Harwich. We think of the CCG people as the coffee men – they smuggle coffee into Germany to re-emerge with somewhat more substantial prizes. In fact we may occasionally trade some of our liquor and tobacco with them for a camera or a watch. However, the ramifications of the black market are quite beyond the scope of this brief reminiscence. Tonight our ship – the Wansbeck – will sail at about 2100 hours and there will be a bottle of rum opened in the cabin, where there are four heavy, thick railway teacups. Now it is generally well known that when liquid is consumed from a large vessel there is a tendency to drink a larger amount, from which it follows that rum drunk from teacups could run to excess. Moreover, when a bottle of rum is opened there is a strong tendency to consume it. Indeed I learnt many years later that Newfoundland Lore states that an open bottle of rum must be consumed within a reasonably short time frame – something to do with the light fractions or essence escaping into the atmosphere, I think. This added tidbit for all Canadian readers must be true, since it comes courtesy of Farley Mowat, who knows about such matters. Other bottles were opened and there followed a delightful evening of booze and informed discussion about the tragedies of some of our compatriots in their noble endeavours to evade customs. Stories of past mistakes were legendary: a fellow smuggling a ticking clock in a mailbag through customs and the alarm going off or a bottle of booze breaking in a mailbag and seeping out right there on the customs counter, and so on.

Soon a bottle of liqueur is opened, and certainly we shall consume some of it – it is OK to take an opened bottle through customs – but we shall also consume large amounts of rum as our ship rolls and pounds its way across the North Sea to Harwich. However, none of this should be interesting – young men do these sorts of things – that is why they are such a dangerous liability if their energies are not properly channelled. Tragically in democratic societies this inevitably requires war or the threat of war, without which there is no longer the political justification for continued conscription. We were fortunate in Britain – they were able to maintain conscription for many years after World War 2 when we still had a lot of occupation forces all over the world – remnants of empire. So conscription in time of comparative peace takes care of young men during their most dangerous years. Every military establishment has its crowbar hotel or cooler. The behaviour of those of us who have tasted this cure generally improves – we become more circumspect. Falling foul of customs could subject us to another taste of military discipline, which must be avoided.

Now if the reader will forgive this brief digression, we will get back to being drunk on the North Sea, which we said was not interesting. However, what is interesting is waking up in the morning without a hangover and having a glass of water, which seemed to re-activate the residual alcohol – in a word we are still half drunk and entirely without ill effects. Or that was how it seemed. But enough of this reminiscent indulgence; let’s wrap things up.

We came through smelling of roses as they say – without a glitch – to emerge at London’s Liverpool Street Station clean - phony mailbag disposed of, official mail intact and a separate parcel of contraband on the side. Moreover we cleaned up with something like 100% profit as anticipated. But nothing stays the same for ever: within the next year or two the law would pay our clever fence a visit and his civil service job would be in jeopardy. At least one of the CCG couriers would lose his job for evading customs duty by smuggling cameras and watches and my dear old friend Jones and many of us from the same unit would be posted to sunny Hong Kong. We were not all conscripts; some of us had joined up for five years.

Perhaps the best part of this particular episode was the bottle of cherry brandy I saved for my father – it was getting near Christmas and he liked to have a bit of good liquor in the house. It would probably last him the best part of a year. And it was a rare achievement for an eighteen-year old boy like me to actually do something to please his Dad.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Watching the fishermen

Although the village is getting somewhat busier, it is still pretty quiet. You know this when you find yourself watching a fisherman in a small traditional fishing boat, just off shore. He was pulling up his octopus pots that were strung out between two buoys. Actually, it was quite interesting as we waited to see which of his pots would come up full and which would be empty. It is hard work winching up the pots, removing any catch, replacing the bait and then heaving the pots back into the water. I think the octopi must be quite clever as lots of pots were retrieved with no octopus and no bait.

If that wasn't exciting enough the next day we happened to be on our walk when five of our fishing boats docked at the fish market wharf. The fish are sorted and placed into blue plastic trays, while the boats are still at sea. Some of the fish were hard to recognize but there were lots of sea bream, monkfish, langoustines and shrimp of every size. It had been an excellent day for fishing.

I've always been intrigued by the wholesale fish market but had never gone inside to watch the auction. Today was the day. The buyers were sitting on tiered benches bidding on the fish as it came along a steel conveyer belt. I have no idea what some of the fish were but the ones I did know were selling for half the price you would pay in the store. Once the fish was bought it was loaded into ubiquitous white trucks to be taken to fish stores and restaurants.

Another walk this week took us to the old Club Med site on the Cap de Creus. It is one of my favourite walks. There is nothing left of Club Med today except for a winding paved road that takes you through a fantastic landscape of giant spooky rock formations. Eventually we arrived at a little cove, where we like to have our ham and cheese baguette. We hadn't spotted one other person on the walk until we arrived at our little cove. Two French hikers were enjoying their picnic lunch. The man was obviously better prepared than us, since he had been in for a swim. I paddled around in the water and I wanted to go for a swim but the thought of a wet forty-five minute walk back to the car was enough to put me off. The water in the protected cove was definitely warmer than our own bay in the Port, which we knew was14 degrees celsius.

Every day the winds increased. Friday was a special day for us so we decided to visit Perpignan, where the winds wouldn't matter. It is always lovely to walk around the town centred around the river Basse. All along the river we could see lots of daffodils and spring flowers in bloom. We had lovely duck breast for lunch with the most over-cooked brussel sprouts. There are loads of very nice restaurants and bistros in Perpignan. Next time. After wandering around the narrow lanes, we finished our trip with a visit to some sporting goods stores looking for wetsuits. The ones we found quite thick, obviously intended for wind surfers, not swimmers, so not this time.

The week finished off with the winds becoming progressively higher until they were a steady 60-kilometres an hour. This makes for uncomfortable walking, especially when the gusts can be even higher, but we are not complaining, not with lovely 24-degree temperatures. Tomorrow the winds will have disappeared, the sun will shine and possibly the water will be just warm enough for a swim. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Rambunctious farm dogs enliven trip to mountain pass

February is the quietest month in the village, almost too quiet. The fishing boats remain at their moorings all month, some of the crews kept busy mending multi-coloured nets stretched along the quay, or repainting metal dredges. The weather has been mixed with some rain and some high winds that don't encourage you to travel too far.

But now it's March. All the fishing boats are gone. The sun is shining and Wednesday was the last day of wind for the foreseeable future. We decided to go for a run in the car to see if we could follow one of the small back roads up to Ceret in France. The drive to La Jonquera, the Spanish border town was quite lovely with the brilliant yellow mimosa still in bloom. There were a few people doing the last trimming of the vines. Best of all fields were filled with yellow wild flowers and we even spotted some red poppies. Spring has arrived.

At La Jonquera we crossed under the highway and started up a road that took us past more vineyards. The road narrowed and surrounding us were masses of cork oaks. In fact the road narrowed so much that when a truck came along we were literally hanging off the edge of the road. We kept following the signs for Ceret stopping at a viewpoint, where we could see Empuriabrava and the sea in the far distance.

We kept climbing higher and suddenly we were surrounded by four huge, white Pyrenean Mountain dogs. They were beautiful but they literally had the car surrounded. With all the barking it was quite scary, especially since there was always one in front of the car. I'm not sure if they were trying to herd us or were guarding an unseen farm or were just out for some afternoon recreational fun. Finally, Seamus got around the front runner, who kept running beside us, still barking and barking. We outran him and escaped without harming any of the not gentle giants.

A few kilometres up the road, we arrived at the monument to LluĂ­s Companys, a Catalan nationalist leader and president of the Catalan government during the Spanish Civil War. It was here that Companys crossed into France following the defeat of the Republicans in 1939. German occupation forces returned him to Spain in 1940, where Franco had him executed.

The paved road ended here with only a dirt track leading to Ceret and France. Some dirt-bike riders zoomed off down the trail. We were hoping that we didn't have to pass the pack of Pyrs again but there was only one on our way back. Our plan was to stop at the first viewpoint but this was not to be. There was the leader of the pack looking pretty tired out but nevertheless guarding the viewpoint. I think he must have chased the dirt bikers. The good news was that his friends had disappeared. Just when we passed him a golden eagle swooped in front of us into the trees. What an exciting road.

Now it was time to retrace our steps down the mountain and return to La Jonquera. As a town it isn't really somewhere you want to spend a lot of time. Trucks from all over Europe line the roads and parking lots. Strangely dressed hookers sell their wares at all the roundabouts. There are huge gas stations and supermarkets. We decided to stop at a new shopping centre. This was easier said than done as the entire parking lot and overflow lot was filled with French cars. The French love shopping in Spain, since it is cheaper. After a quick excursion around the mall, we stopped for a cortado. My mouth was watering as next to us was a French couple having chocolat, a thick, thick hot chocolate drink with long sugar coated crulers, donuts for dipping. Mmmmmmm. I must admit I was jealous. Next time.