When I first started visiting it was possible to take a ferry from Sheerness to Flushing (Vlissigen in Dutch-speak) and this meant that the only country one saw, apart from England, was the Netherlands. Later, however, that service was withdrawn and it was necessary to sail from Dover the Ostend, which is in Belgium. Now Belgium has its admirers, but - although there are parts of that country I do like very much - I am not one of them. It always amazed me that when one drove across the border from Belgium into Holland everything seemed much cleaner, much tidier. The scenery had not changed, but it seemed lighter and brighter in Holland. I don't know why that should have been, but I wasn't the only person to remark on the fact. But that's really neither here nor there as far as this post is concerned.
On one visit to Amsterdam the Old Bat wanted to go to a certain art gallery which, she assured me, had a good collection of impressionist paintings. Now, as far as I am concerned, art stopped being art pretty much when the last impressionist put down his paint brush and palette. Picasso and the cubists or whatever they call themselves leave me cold, but Titian, Canaletto, Turner, Constable, Manet, Monet etc are fine by me. So off we went. But the Old Bat had got it wrong. There was a temporary exhibition on. The first painting was a large, black square with three vertical yellow stripes near the top left-hand corner. This painting rejoiced in the title, "Cell". The next painting was identical except that a small black square had been added to the top of the large black square. This was called, "Cell with chimney". I'm sorry to say that it was all downhill from there and I embarrassed to Old Bat by exclaiming loudly that this wasn't art, it was a load of rubbish. And what was worse, I had actually paid to see it! I needed a stiff drink.
Holland is, of course, famous for growing bulbs, especially tulips, and many other types of flower. There is a big flower auction close by Amsterdam's Schipol airport at Aalsmeer and it is well worth rising early to see the action. It does mean an early start as things are all over by about 7.00am. This is where the famous Dutch auctions take place. The buyers sit at banks of desks facing a large clock-like dial on which prices are marked. The auctioneer starts the clock which runs downward until one of the buyers presses a button to buy the lo. A much quicker process than starting from the bottom and working upwards.
|An Aalsmeer auction room back in 1979|
"Ah," responded the Old Bat, "but these are certified for export via Schipol to John F Kennedy airport, New York."
In vain did I point out that she planned to expert them via Ostend, Belgium, into Dover, England, and that the certification was therefore null and void.
As was my wont, when we arrived at Dover I joined the queue for the red "goods to declare" channel. I always made sure I had a few cigarettes more than the duty-free allowance so I could legitimately join the red queue which was always much shorter and quicker than the green "nothing to declare" queue and I was always waved straight through. But not this time.
"Have you anything to declare, sir?"
"Yes, thirty cigarettes over the limit and a dozen red tulip bulbs."
"I'm not bothered about the cigarettes, sir, but may I see the bulbs, please?" (Always very polite and correct in those days.)
This was where the Old Bat butted in, pointing out the certificate.
"Yes, madam, for import into the USA. But this is not the USA."
We were eventually allowed to bring those bulbs into England on the strict understanding that they were not to be planted until we had received clearance from the Ministry of Agriculture. In vain did the Old Bat point out that by the time she received clearance the ground would probably be frozen and she would need to pour boiling water on the garden to soften the earth enough to plant those bulbs. The Customs officer was adamant.
Those bulbs came up red the first year but never did bloom again after that. But I used the whole thing as the basis of a short story which one a competition so there was some benefit.