Sunday, January 10, 2016

Modes of transportation

On train
photo: Grace Zivny
Hammarby, Stockholm, January 10, 2016—

WE BEGAN THE LAST leg yesterday, leaving our delightful Amsterdam apartment on Prinseneiland for a small but perfectly comfortable room in a cut-rate hotel in a Stockholm suburb.

And in the course of the move we use nearly every form of transportation we've handled so far — only the bus and the metro are missing.

First, since there are now three of us, I call a taxi to take us, our visiting granddaughter, and six pieces of luggage to Amsterdam's Centraal Station. The taxi app I use doesn't work in this country, I'm told, so I call the first number that turns up from a Google search.

Plunged immediately into a pit of phone-ladders. Negotiable, and soon I think I have actually ordered a cab — but then I have to enter a credit card number, and I back away.

The next phone number belongs to Electric Taxi, and is answered by a human being, who — like every telephone voice I'ver encountered here — speaks English. She sends a cab right over. We barely have time to get downstairs.

The cab is beautiful, shiny, solid-looking, spacious and comfortable — a Tesla. Forty percent of our cabs are Teslas, the driver explains; the rest are Leafs. (Charmingly, he pronounces it "leaves.") Too bad you're only going to Centraal; I could take you out on the highway so you can see what it's capable of…

After some serious discussion we stay with the original plan. The ride is direct and speedy. He takes my credit card with a little machine. One does not tip taxis here. We're out on the sidewalk, under the station overhang, with a pleasant experience fresh in mind.

Other taxi rides here have been just as pleasant but sometimes more interesting. Twice we've taken cabs that turned out to be minivans — I don't know why they're so popular here. Both times it was late and dark and we were in a hurry. Once it was raining heavily, the only rain we've encountered on this trip.

In the dark, and especially in the rain, taxi rides can be interesting. Amsterdam is a crowded city, especially the part we traverse. Bicycles and pedestrians everywhere, nearly all of them in Calvinist black. In my many weeks in Netherlands I've only seen one accident, and that inexcusable: a tram grazed a bicycle. The tram had not left its track to do this, so it was clearly the cyclist's fault. That didn't make him the less an object of outraged sympathy among some onlookers, but most clearly looked at him with near contempt.

That was in The Hague, many years ago. Cyclists — I know, I'm generalizing — have if anything grown more self-righteous since. (Hasn't everyone, other than us, of course?) They have their own lanes, of course, and they have the right of way. But most of them don't ride with lights, and in the rain their heads are down, and they seem to count on drivers' skill and intuition to a foolish degree.

OUR TRAIN to Schiphol, Amserdam's international airport, has been cancelled. This doesn't really matter: there seem to be eight trains an hour, this time of day. We head for information to find out which platform the next train will leave from, though I know perfectly well it's track fourteen, it's always been track fourteen, the furthest from the entrance to the station — in the old days: now Centraal has been given a splendid new shop-and-cafe-heavy entrance on the north side, where a lot of development has been going on.

Our fallback train is a local, of course, so the trip takes a few minutes longer than usual. Again, it doesn't matter; we barely have time to settle ourselves on the fold-down seats near the doors — preferable for us, with our luggage — before we're there.

Trains arrive and depart right from the Schiphol terminal, which has one big concourse-lobby. It will be the same in a couple of hours at Arlanda, Stockholm's airport, but that will be another trip altogether. The commute train there takes an hour to get from airport to our station, and isn't quite as comfortable.

The best train trip of the last few weeks was in Finland, where we went from Rovaniemi in the north to Helsinki in the south mostly in our sleep. Our little compartment was snug but comfortable: I handled the ladder to my top bunk with my customary grace and good humor, and my companion found her lower bunk perfectly comfortable.

Best of all, I thought, was the cunning lavatory. On opening its door you're greeted with the two appliances you want first: commode on the right, a little out of sight when you stand in the doorway; sink just ahead, well lit, with a good mirror above. I don't shave, of course, but if I did it would all be quite practical, with an electric outlet handy. (They're at the heads of the bed, too, so you can charge your phone overnight.)

Over the sink, though, there was a shower-head. How the devil would that work? Do you have to stand in the sink and crouch to use it?

No: a chrome lever turns out to be the handle on the problem. It releases a catch allowing the entire room to swing around, revealing a shower stall. I haver the uncomfortable idea, for just a moment, that perhaps the entire installation is shared with the next compartment — but careful inspection shows there's room on the shared wall for two of these ingenious affairs.

TIME TO CONSIDER our flight. At Schiphol, if you have time, there arer plenty of shopping, dining, and drinking facilities, on each side of security. Our plane has been delayed by half an hour. Still, security looks uncrowded at the moment; let's go through.

After the x-ray, an attendant wants to look in my carry-on. I have too large a tube of toothpaste: it should have been in a little Ziplock bag. Don't worry about it, he says, happens all the time. Lindsey has had to take her boots off; otherwise the procedure is unremarkable.

We take the long long moving-sidewalks to our end of the terminal and find our gate. No one is there: not surprising; we have almost two hours before takeoff. It'll be late when we arrive at our hotel, whose restaurant will be closed — let's have something to eat.

There used to be a quite acceptable pannekoek way upstairs in a sort of observation tower, and we head for the elevator. But everything's been revised here recently, just as it had at Centraal Station, and a food court has taken over, with the internationally predictable leases. We return to our gate and find a sandwich shop with a Spanish theme. We make do with jamon Serrano and a glass of Spanish beer. There will be nothing said about this over at Eating Every Day.

The flight, on SAS, is remarkable for only one reason: there is no explanation of safety precautions. A little odd, since the captain asked us to listen to them, in his announcement. I did see the attendants talking pleasantly to people sitting in exit rows, so I suppose they got their instructions; the rest of us will just have to follow them if there's a problem.

There isn't a problem, of course, and I promptly go to sleep, to wake up shortly before landing, probably from the change in engine noise, or maybe cabin pressure.

We took one other internal European flight on this trip, about three weeks ago, on Air Baltic, or whatever it's called this week, from Helsinki to Amsterdam, changing planes at Riga. Had we more time, we'd have spent a few days in Riga. I remember it fondly from a stay in 1983, when times were quite different. Baltic Air, or whatever it's called this week, is a cut-rate airline, like Norwegian Airlines, on which we'd flown nonstop from Oakland (California) to Stockholm for $190. (Dinner was an extra $40 or so, but then that's what dinner cost, at the least; and our suitcases paid another $25 for their seats down in the hold, but at least they didn't eat dinner.)

There's no passport control for us — we've flown between Schengen countries — and as usual we simply ignore the option to declare stuff at customs. We don't have anything to declare at any rate. It's a long wait for the baggage, but that's my fault; I seem not to have recognized our bags. Once again I regret not tying a little colored ribbon to the handles. Will I ever learn to travel?

At tram

AFTER THE LONG train ride to our station we step out carefully onto a platform paved with ice. We walk with extreme care to the lift and emerge in a little vestibule I recall from a month ago: the turnstiles on the side we want to use are not available; a uniformed man in the ticket window cautions us to go the other way.

Last time we took the tram here in the wrong direction: I know better now, but have forgotten the quickest way to cross to the correct platform. It's snowing. We watch our tram leave the platform; then gingerly drag our wheeled suitcases across the tracks.

I've heard it said that the wheeled suitcase is responsible for the democratization of travel, for better or worse — it has eliminated the need for porters. Could be, but it's made our life a little easier. Though not in Venice, much of the time, with all its steps at bridges; and not on ice and snow. A few weeks ago I saw a young woman pulling her suitcase in a little sledge, apparently made for the purpose: but that was at the Arctic Circle, where such a procedure must be much more routine.

The next tram arrives in due course, in eleven minutes, as the automatic sign you see at every tram-stop had promised, and we ride with pleasure to our new hotel -- new to us, and only the sixth (and last) hotel in the five weeks of this trip. Much of the time we've stayed with friends, and their homes may (or may not) be the subject of another post. One of them was a luxury hotel booked by our friends for their anniversary party; the others have been the cheapest decent hotels we could find at, our current fallback website.

I'll write about hotels another time. First, to get to tonights's, we havre to walk a couple of blocks up a gentle hill from our tram-stop. It's past ten o'clock now, quite dark, and quite cold. The streets and sidewalks are covered with ice and snow. Parked cars have a foot of snow on their roofs. Our shoes are leather-soled. We'd thought of getting little crampon-like attachments for them, but it seemed silly.

We did fall once, in Rovaniemi, when we were out late at night in search of the elusive aurora borealis. (Have I mentioned that we finally saw it, when least expected, rounding a corner in Helsinki?) My foot simply slid out from under me. Unfortunately, we were walking arms linked, for mutual support, and I pulled my sweetheart down on top of me. No harm done, and a little laughter.

But a fall could be disastrous, particularly impeded by all this luggage. We pick our way carefully.. Thankfully there are no careening bicycles, no trotting athletes, no rowdy teenagers cutting in front of us. Only the still cold dark night and the magical white of snow.

We've done a lot of walking on this trip, averaging about three and a half miles a day, my iphone tells me, perhaps truthfully. It remains the best way to see things. Trams and buses, yes, we've made good use of them, buying city-cards that you simply top up with your credit card when necessary: they do a good job of concealing from you how much you're actually spending on each trip.

Trams and buses are frequent and easy to use in Stockholm, Helsinki, Amsterdam, and The Hague. You do have to remember that stops are frequently far apart, though — and so you walk. Thankfully, we still can, relatively easily, even on the snow.

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