Sunday, 3 April 2011

Journey Through The Netherlands: 7. Wrong Way Round Utrecht And Singing In The Pancake House

The rooster began earlier this morning. It was 4.57am when I looked at my watch. I leant out of the window, bared my teeth in what must have looked more like a Benny Hill style grin, rather than something more threatening. I picked up one of my shoes and waved it, as menacingly as I could.

He did not take the blindest bit of notice and I was the one who came off worse because I caught the bridge of my nose with the clunky heel of the shoe.

"I will not be accompanying you today," said the policeman. "I have to work." It was the choirs day off. A chance for an excursion and they had chosen Utrecht.

"I suspect you will be hearing about my driving," I said.

"Yes - but hopefully not during the day and not until this evening,"

I was thinking of his words when we arrived at a T junction where the road signs advertised Centrum to both the right and the left. We hadn't a clue where we were going. The person who had offered to stand in as a guide had not been to Utrecht for some time. The road got narrower and narrower. Up ahead there were bollards which I didn't like the look of. So there was only one viable option which was to drive down the specially cordoned off bus lanes which looked suspiciously as if they were for the exclusive use of buses not coaches.

Plead stupidity. Plead idiot British. Plead the fifth ammendment. Plead anything if stopped. Two policeman walking down the pavement gave me an inquisitive look, but that's where it ended. I suspect we were tracked by CCTV all the way through the City Centre.

At the end of the bus lane was a muddling junction with few advisory road signs. I shut my eyes and drove straight on. From around the corner came two bendy buses at speed, straight towards me. I had selected to try and go into Utrecht's main bus and train station, the wrong way up a one way street. The bus drivers were kind. They stopped. One gave a gentle toot on the horn and gently pointed the direction I should be going in.

I reversed and turned sharply left and as if by form of a miracle, the parking places for Touring Buses appeared.

Utrecht is a grand city. An old town surrounding a canal. It is attractive, being the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, it is also busy with top quality shopping. But there are still little touches you don't see in other cities. There was a little pot bellied pig wandering the streets hoovering up the scraps. The Greek take-away put out plates of free food to sample. The men of the choir went off on their own for a well deserved break. They came back with photos of signs where the English translation was dubious.

They drank bottles of Bastard Beer. They found a shop called Sissy Boy, a minibus called Sickman and a road sign stating Kiss And Ride (in fact it is a drop-off point outside a school for parents to stop, give their children a quick kiss before dropping them and driving off).

Then the afternoon was spent on a visit to the Organ Museum. I didn't hold out much hope and thought the children might be bored. I ate my words. It was an amazing place - not about church organs, but Dutch barrel organs, mechanical organs, pianolas and the like. One was a size of the room and played Rock Around The Clock.

The tour guide, who was demonstrating the instruments had to dig herself out of a hole when she described the belly organs, portable organs which were played on street corners. Behind were two posters, similar to the ones which the organ grinders would have stood in front of singing a selection of bawdy songs.

One poster was dour and gruesome. The other was like a porn mag with a picture of a sailor, in his ship's cabin, with a semi naked girl over his knee having her bottom spanked. Behind there was the leering face of another sailor ogling through the porthole. The scenes got worse until the picture at the base which was no holes barred.

"Ah yes," she said realising why there was a great deal of tittering amongst the choir. "All I can say is that the poster on the left has a better ending...let's move on."

We did. On to that old Dutch favourite - 'my heart is like a bus with 30 persons on it'. We had to leave Utrecht in a hurry. The male members of the choir noticed a small leak behind the bus.

"Is that the toilet leaking?" asked one of them. "If so it's all Smithers' fault. He has been rather a lot".

"No, no, of course not," I said unconvincingly. "It's just the air conditioning." They didn't believe me. so we hurried away before a passing environmental officer took notice.

Having fought through slow Utrecht rush hour traffic, we stopped at an excellent restaurant. It was a a truckstop which had appeared on a Dutch television programme called Master Chef, which is a similar format to Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares and tries to turnaround failing restaurants. De Lichtmis Pannenkoekenhuis near Zwolle has a great atmosphers with very good food

"Could I ask you if the choir could sing?" asked the owner. They did. Where they sat, they rose and sung some English choral piece. It was a Youtube moment. The restaurant came to a grinding. People stopped eating. The waitresses froze. People started ringing their friends and families on their mobiles and held them in the air so they could hear. Everyone stood up and applauded at the end.

It didn't end there. The owner sent one of his waitresses who was 50 that day, to the table. The choir surprised her and sung a choral rendition of Happy Birthday.

It put a new slant on having to sing for your supper.

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