London – England

I arrived in London absolutely determined not to enjoy myself.

I know this sounds ridiculous – and it is – but I’d just spent eight hours on a bus sitting behind perhaps the world’s rudest travelling companions, enduring a baffling ordeal of over-reclined seats and noisy, sleep-preventing hyena screeches. Add to that the brutal cold and being forced to wait outside for the tube station to open, and I was not a happy man.

Sometimes, however, the best laid plans have a way of going awry – upon arriving in Victoria Station, Alex and I were greeted by perhaps the world’s friendliest public transport official – his name was Tony – who helped us to buy Oyster Cards, found the quickest way for us to get where we were going and even gave us some sage advice on which were the best pubs to visit in London, unironically using the expression “cheap as chips”. I couldn’t help but smile. Okay London, you win this round.

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Amsterdam – The Netherlands

THREE TOURISTS ARE DEAD.

These were the first words I saw upon exiting Centraal Station in Amsterdam, proudly emblazoned on a flashing banner attached to a portable generator. The rest of the message – which cycled on a screen made of yellow LEDS – explained that these tourists had made the folly of purchasing cocaine from street dealers, not knowing that this was – in fact – white heroin. The implication of the message was clear; get your cocaine elsewhere. Severe though my addiction to cocaine had become on the three-hour bus ride from Brussels, I took this advice onboard and was able to avoid becoming a statistic – this time.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam is too cool for me. I’m comfortable with stating this as a fact because I think this is true for any city which has accepted that people must have cocaine and – rather than discouraging them from buying it at all – suggests seeking a reputable source. But somehow, it’s also one of the most welcoming, friendly cities I’ve ever visited. I never feel talked down to in Amsterdam, like I sometimes do on the rare occasions I go to nightclubs or noisy bars back home – it’s all there if you want it, the city seems to say, and here’s this other stuff if you don’t. The Dutch themselves seem to have mastered a refreshingly relaxed attitude which goes well with their surprising willingness to speak a truly excellent English to dumb tourists. So no, we didn’t spend every night in a heroin-fuelled dance craze from which only the most hardcore ravers could emerge unscathed – but I guess I should probably talk a little about what we did do.  Continue reading

Brussels – Belgium

There are certain moments where you realise that you’re about to form a special memory – one of those pivotal points of your young life that will crystallise perfectly, and which you’ll think of for the rest of your life. Each time this peculiar sensation occurs, I’m overcome by a sudden panic – I’d better not screw this up, I think, I’m going to remember this forever. This was the feeling that struck me when Alex and I walked together into the Grand Place at the heart of Brussels to a swelling, rumbling classical score and a stunning illumination display. It left me breathless.

And the best part was, as Alex and I held each other and shivered in the dark, I didn’t screw it up – and neither did Brussels. They say you only get one chance at a first impression – for me, Brussels knocked it so far out of the park that the proverbial baseball blew up the sun and doomed humanity to a grim future of eternal darkness. It was perfect. Continue reading