“But we have a reservation,” I explained, holding up my itinerary, as if that were proof.
He just laughed, shrugged, and said in a thick Irish brogue that was hard to understand, “Yeah someone else showed up asking for a room, and they gave them yours so they could go home. They do that, I know them, I see it all the time.”
It was the last night of our first trip to Europe. We had just completed a big circular tour, having started in Amsterdam two weeks earlier. We were flying out the next day, and we had hopes for enjoying one last night in the city of canals that we had so enjoyed a few days earlier. What we didn’t know was that it was the weekend of a major Dutch holiday. It was crazy, even by Amsterdam standards. We were dismayed to show up at our canal house hotel only to find it locked, the front desk closed.
Next door was an apartment, and from the basement came the sounds of some slightly raucous amusement. We never determined what sort of libation or chemical fueled the party: you don’t ask too many questions in Amsterdam. Seeing two dismayed tourists on the front steps of the hotel next door, the presumed owner (principle resident, at the least) of the apartment emerged to lend assistance, obviously from the goodness of his heart.
We’ll call him “Colin the Corpse”, lest he come across our blog and “look us up”. This isn’t his real name, of course, but to gain our trust he (inexplicably) bragged his real name. He was bald, diminutive, but with thick, powerful-looking arms: I might have been able to look down at him, but he was obviously not someone to mess with. “I’m Colin the Corpse!” he kept saying, as if we were supposed to recognize him. “I am, really,” he pleaded with a nearly toothless grin–apparently assuming I didn’t believe him–then bounded down the steps into his apartment, adding, “Wait, I’ll prove it.”
I looked at Lori, and we both had the same look on our face: What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?
A few moments later Colin emerged and proudly presented me with a clipping from a London newspaper. It showed a picture of our new Irish friend, the article explaining that Irish mobster Colin the Corpse had turned state’s witness and, singing like a canary, put away some of his colleagues and disrupted gillions of pound sterlings of drug traffic. He was beaming as I gave the article a quick read.
“You’re Americans?” he asked, and I could almost feel his sense of optimism over potentially raking a couple of American tourists over the coals, or worse. I might have nodded, but certainly the question was rhetorical: we could probably be recognized a mile away as yanks.
Colin the Corpse put his arm around me and led me–insisting, I believe–down into his basement apartment to show me something. This must be his M-O, I was thinking: get the tourist into his lair where he and his other corpse cronies could easily overpower me and take my few remaining guilders (this pre-dated Euros). I thought about, and probably should have, calling out to Lori to run: save yourself! But for some reason I hesitated and held back.
Just inside his apartment, as I surveyed the motley crew of half a dozen or so slumped on the couch, slumped in chairs, and generally slumped all over, he was pointing proudly to a picture on the wall. They all looked at me suspiciously, perhaps even disdainfully, and I just gave a dumb wave. I looked up to where Colin was pointing. It was a picture of George W. Bush, the recently elected President of the United States of America.
“I love George Bush!” Colin professed, practically beaming at his love for our new President. “He’s a Yale man and a Republican, you know,” he added. I was trying to discretely look back up the stairs to make sure Lori was safe, trying to formulate a tactful–and safe–exit. I caught a whiff of weed and…something else…and tried to determine if the laughter of the slumping dudes on the couch was evil mocking or simply jovial.
Colin suddenly turned serious. I braced myself for a knife in the back. Or someone somehow easing my feet into some wet concrete. “I like you. I like Americans. I want to help you.” His hand gripped my shoulder, holding me in place. “I have a place I can rent you.” He released me, rummaged around in a drawer, and before I could back up the stairs he produced a key. “I’ll show it to you.”
It was the next block over. Colin the Corpse led the way, and Lori and I followed. At least we’d be away from his den of associate corpses where our chances of escape seemed a good bit better. He showed us the apartment he had for rent. He explained that his renter has left unexpectedly that morning (left? I wondered: did he leave voluntarily, or was he at the bottom of a canal somewhere?), which explained the mess in the kitchen and the unmade bed. Colin would give us fresh linens, of course. It was actually a nice little apartment, with a great view of the canal. Colin quoted a price: I don’t remember the amount in guilders, but I remember the quick math in my head came out north of $250. We were Americans, but we were budget travelers. It seemed a confiscatory amount of money then, especially for a room we’d have to make ourselves, as if Colin the Corpse was indeed taking advantage of these Americans.
“I think I’d rather find a hotel,” Lori said politely but insistently.
“Ah, but you won’t find a room in Amsterdam on a Friday night–holiday, mind you–for this price,” Colin said. It would have been a good time for him to sneer, but he didn’t. He seemed sincere.
“Maybe we can borrow your phone?” Lori added.
Colin didn’t hesitate, “Yes, yes, of course,” and he led us back to the apartment where we had found him, the apartment next door to the hotel we were supposed to be staying at, the one that had discarded our reservation. An episode of Seinfeld came to mind: you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation, and that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding…anybody can just take them.
On the walk back Colin asked us about our trip to Europe. Where did you go? What museums did you see? Did you travel by train, did you fly in and out of Amsterdam, and where were you from originally? Did you enjoy your holiday? We were having small talk with an Irish mobster in Amsterdam.
Once back at his other place, he produced a wireless phone and phone book for Lori, even bringing it outside to her, I guess sensing that there was no way she was going to descend into his lair. His den had gotten a bit more lively while we had gone on our apartment tour, and while Lori started making calls he went downstairs: whether to control his minions or having realized we were a lost cause, I’ll never know.
I stood guard next to Lori as she reported her findings one-by-one. Colin had been truthful: hotels in the city were mostly booked up, and the few that had rooms had rates of $350 or more. It was still light out, but night was approaching fast. Colin the Corpse’s apartment might indeed be our best option, but Lori was undeterred.
A pair of guys emerged from Colin’s apartment–a couple; it was Amsterdam, after all. They were decked out in leather chaps, chains, ear rings, and more for a Friday night out in the ultimate sin city. Colin followed them and explained what had happened to us, the guys nodding understanding. There was a noise from the apartment and Colin disappeared again. One of the guys said to me, “Colin’s ok, he’s a good guy, really.” He had a reassuring proper British accent, and I got the impression that he normally worked in an office building somewhere in London, his true life completely unknown to the people he worked with. He understood our reluctance and wanted to offer us his assurances that Colin could be trusted.
Suddenly Lori announced, “I found a room at an Ibis by the airport.” It was less than $100 and Lori had already booked it. Our plans had changed and we wouldn’t be spending our last night in the city, but we’d be safe and it was inexpensive.
We thanked the guys, wished them well, thanked a disappointed-looking Colin, and shook his hand as we drug our bags toward the nearest tram stop. An hour or so later our admiration of the Ibis hotel chain had begun. Our room was small but spotless, comfortable, and inexpensive. The next morning we enjoyed a great breakfast: a buffet, of all things. We even met and chatted with a couple from the Isle of Man we met in the breakfast buffet line.
It wasn’t the picture-perfect ending to our first great European adventure, but it was memorable nonetheless. Right from our first trip to Europe, it taught us some valuable lessons of how to deal with things that go wrong while traveling. Here’s what we learned:
- Roll with it. Things will go wrong from time to time, and you can’t anticipate every contingency. When we showed up in Amsterdam that last day only to find our room had been given away, we wound up taking advantage of the courtesy of a former Irish mobster who lent us his telly. Who would have ever anticipated that?
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. To our neophyte travel minds at the time, showing up in a city and not having a room seemed like a big deal. Turns out it wasn’t really. In fact, people do it purposefully all the time.
- Trust, but be careful. Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.” The guys in leather told us Colin the Corpse was a good guy, and even though I was uneasy as Colin led me down into his basement apartment, something told me I wasn’t in any danger. But yet, I was most definitely on guard.
- Seek out and weigh options. Lori politely asked to borrow a phone and phone book (these were the days before carrying around a globally operative cell phone) and started making calls. In the end it only took 20 minutes or so for her to find a room in Amsterdam on a Friday night of a holiday weekend.
- Enjoy the unexpected, don’t regret it. Had this all not happened (and it actually did), we wouldn’t have discovered Ibis (now a favorite go-to budget hotel brand), we wouldn’t have had that great breakfast, we wouldn’t have met that couple from the Isle of Man, and we wouldn’t have had this great story to tell. We’ve often wondered how “Colin the Corpse” is doing these days.