Glass splinters, skyscrapers collapse like a ballerina with a drug problem, and the city is engulfed in a Hiroshima-style fireball. Heat-seeking missiles take out the train station, the bus station and, interestingly enough, the football stadium. Smart bombs rain down like a biblical plague and the afternoon is cleaved in two by a low flying stealth bomber carpet-bombing the main highway…
“Are you quite all right?” asks the American tourist whose map I have just commandeered.
I blink, allow myself a small grin and slowly return to my senses.
“Yes,” I shrug, “I was just imagining the joy of nuking this god-forsaken town off the map.”
The tourist, all loud shorts and camera hanging around his neck, takes a step back.
“Gee, you really don’t like Rotterdam, do you,” he frowns with that delightful American trait of stating the bleeding obvious.
I laugh, give him back his map, commit the location of the bus stop I need to memory and shake my head slowly.
“Rotterdamned would be a more fitting description,” and with that I go in search of the bus stop which will, hopefully, take me to the airport and out of this Godless, festering, hell-hole of a place.
Rotterdam is a difficult city to like, but a terribly easy one to hate. If the world’s cities were guests at a party then Rotterdam would probably, after gate crashing the party with half a dozen stoned mates, be found sniffing lines of coke from the crutch of your sisters soiled underwear or stealing the family silver to finance its next drug deal. Or if the world’s cities were meals than Rotterdam would be raw pig intestines on a stick – dipped in that mayonnaise that the Dutch seem to love so much. Even spending a few hours there it’s hard not to believe that the town, and the majority of its population, are all damned. In fact, if I owned an apartment in Rotterdam and a house in Hell, I would move to Hell and try and rent the Rotterdam place out. Over the years, especially when I have passed through the city as the sun set, or even worse, late at night, I have convinced myself that I can almost hear the groaning of lost souls, smell the brimstone and sulphur and feel the anguish of Rotterdam’s damned.
I have never been able to identify what scares me most (and Rotterdam is, undoubtedly, one of the world’s scariest places) about Rotterdam. I know it’s the Netherlands’s second largest city (after Amsterdam), that it has the largest port in Europe and that it sits on the banks of the Nieuwe Maas and that it boasts of some great architecture (notably the buildings designed by Piet Blom) but it seems populated solely by pimps, prostitutes, pick-pockets, drug dealers, dacoits, scabrous individuals of ill repute whom all look like they would readily cut your throat, disembowel you and use your liver for some arcane black-magic ceremony and people who are clearly swimming in the shallow end of the gene-pool and whom wouldn’t have even passed a screen-test for Deliverance. And, that’s just the women, the men beggar belief – or just beg.
Walking through Central Station (though, I recommend that you either do this as part of a well-armed para-military group or run as fast as your legs can carry you and hope for the best) is like passing through Dante’s circles of hell. And should you be foolish enough (or sufficiently well armed) to stop and linger, or perhaps even to suicidal enough to purchase one of the fried monstrosities that pass for Dutch snack food from a station kiosk (and, which invariably, taste like gleet, or a bag lady’s period), you will hear a Babel of languages quite unlike anything this side of the River Styx. Rough Dutch constants rub against Slavic vowels, lispy Spanish whines jangle against coarse sounding Arabic curses whilst a thousand Eastern European and African tongues drone on endlessly like the petitions of the damned.
There is the tension in the air, which is palatable and makes the nape of my neck prickle. The musty and still air inside the great hall of the central station positively crackles with tension. You can see it reflected in people’s eyes, smell it in the air and taste it on your lips. You can but hope that you can leave the station before some small event ignites this incendiary and all hell breaks loose. When the local football team, Feyenood, are playing at home the situation is almost unbearably worse and the main hall becomes a wash of red and white shirted monsters unleashed from the deepest, darkest depths of somewhere beyond hell.
Should you manage to escape the station, with your life intact, you will find the remainder of the city equally threatening and sinister. The main shopping street is always bustling (with pickpockets, thieves, pimps…) but progress along the wide avenues is hampered by continually having to step over screeching buskers, countless beggars, African drummers (one of whom was slipping in and out of trance and foaming, quite impressively, at the lips last time I was there), find-the-lady card sharps and cold-turkey shattered drug addicts. The streets of Rotterdam make places like Tirana or Khartoum or even Kabul seem positively appealing and terribly upmarket.
Should you value your life sufficiently little to turn away from the main drag, and slip into the side streets, you might easily be lead to believe that the city is papered with discarded French fry wrappers and painted with graffiti (interestingly enough, most of the graffiti is written in English quite possibly because the Dutch language, with its mismatch of js and ks can not compete with a blunt English, ‘Fuck you.’)
If you eventually manage to find the bus which runs hourly from the down-town ghetto to the airport and don’t become fantastically lost in a maze of dubious looking coffee shops, brothels and spit-and-sawdust drinking dens (like I always seem to manage) then I highly recommend a brief flirtation with the crone who runs the tourist information desk at the airport as she is, without a shred of doubt, the rudest person on the planet. And that is high praise indeed considering that being rude to foreigners has been elevated by the damned of Rotterdam to a sublime art form.
The last time I was there I was desperate to make a phone call. I had forgotten my cell phone and spent a frantic half an hour running all over the tiny airport looking for a pay phone which accepted coins (not an unreasonable thing to ask for I thought) and in desperation I asked the crone manning the info desk (whom, I assume spent the time when she wasn’t upsetting tourists, under bridges scaring little children) where I could find such a phone.
“No phone here.”
“There must be a coin phone here…”
“Pleaseeeeeeeeeee, I really need to call home…”
“Can I buy a phone card?’
“No. Impossible. Next.”
And then, lighting her pipe (presumably filled with the finest Dutch shag) she returned to filing down her talons whilst I was left standing there looking despondent.
However, my despondency didn’t last long as my flight was called and I went cart-wheeling across the departure lounge and ran, beaming from ear to ear, across the tarmac and onto the plane which would take me home.
My only regret then was that it was a commercial jet and not a heavily laden bomber.
Philip Blazdell, the Richard Corey of travel-writing, ran away from a life in the circus at an early age to write for BootsnAll. After a brief, and happy period, of running naked with wolves in an arboreal forest in Northern Canada, Philip returned to his native London where he was finally educated by eavesdropping on his elders and betters and his own precocious reading.
Philip has travelled widely, lost his luggage often and has never been accused of playing to his boyish good looks. Philip has held a number of jobs, such as gleet salesman, Eastern mystic, domestic goddess, spiritual gnu (yes, gnu, he made a typo on the application form) and, of course, dacoit. When not travelling, propping up the bar in the pub and telling outrageously tall stories about leggy blondes he can be found at www.philipblazdell.com.