A Lesson in Dutch Bureaucracy

It all started so innocently when, after several years of living and working in the Netherlands, I finally tired of relying on the Dutch public transport system. Although the network of trams, buses and trains is undeniably good value and very efficient, I prefer not to be tied to somebody else’s timetable, and wanted to find some more flexible way of getting to work. To this end, I resolved to buy a motorcycle.

There are fundamental differences between the most similar of cultures. Even when you’ve lived abroad for years and really think that you’re coming to terms with your new home, basic assumptions built-in from your mother culture can still rear up and bite you in reminder of the fact that you are, after all, an alien. Although it is probably true that, deep down, people are all the same, the way that they run their countries most certainly is not. The laws and people of the Netherlands are among the most easy-going and permissive in the world. You can do pretty much anything you like, anywhere you like, and unless you are actually causing pain then it is unlikely that anybody else will try to interfere. The police tend to joviality, the general public are friendly, and the working conditions are second to none. However, in all this clear-sightedness, there is one enormous blind spot: As a nation, the Dutch are utterly addicted to bureaucracy. Filling in forms and dealing with officialdom are national sports. It was, then, with some trepidation that I began my quest.

Locating a bike

In England, of course, it is all rather simple. You decide on your preferred bike, find somebody who is selling one, and then buy it. I had however already decided against importing my English motorcycle because of colleagues’ horror stories of impounded vehicles and endless import fees, so I was determined to buy a local machine.

Having made my decision to buy a bike, I had already planned its first a trip to the UK some four weeks hence, and after a week of diligent searching I eventually located a two-year old but unused XJR1200 in an out-of-town showroom for a reasonable 18,500 guilders. I grabbed a passing sales assistant. Could they supply that motorcycle there by the end of the week? No, they couldn’t. But surely it was second-hand, and therefore had a licence plate and all the necessary paperwork? Certainly it did, but it was a rule that all re-sold motorcycles had to have the new Euro plates, identical to the old plates but with a blue ‘NL’ in the corner. This would take three weeks to arrange.

The paperwork…

The timescale did not greatly surprise me. The smallest unit of time for any piece of work in Holland is always one week. Shoe repairs, puncture repairs, anything, it all takes at least a week, and if there is any paperwork involved, additional weeks are inevitably required. However, I had a ferry to catch in exactly three weeks, so I was a little concerned that everything should be arranged up front.

What, I demanded, does an Englishman need in order to buy a Dutch motorcycle? Just pay us the money and it’s yours, came the answer. However, I’ve lived in the Netherlands for too long to accept such an unlikely statement at face value. I tried rephrasing the question. What, as an Englishman, do I need in order for you to allow me to ride my new motorcycle out of the showroom?

Aaah, now then. A Dutchman would need to show his driving licence. However, a foreign licence doesn’t count. I began to protest that all EC licences are the same, but that wasn’t the point. Whether you actually had a licence to ride a motorcycle was irrelevant. The point was that in order to fill in the registration form, the shop had to tick the box that said they had seen your Dutch driving licence. That was the rule. No tick, no registration.

After a number of phone calls and a bit of hand-waving it emerged that there was a special rule for foreigners, and that I could get by with a letter from the local council saying that I lived at my registered address, and a copy of my passport. Glad that I d asked so early, I hiked thoughtfully back from the shop to Amsterdam. My problem, you see, was that I didn’t have a registered address. If you live in Holland, you are expected to register your home address with the local council. However, you are not allowed to register hotels or no fixed abode, so if you’re flitting about doing contract work then often it is not possible. You are technically allowed to register at a friends house, but in doing so you have to be careful that you don’t infringe on their rights. A large proportion of the Dutch population live in what we in England would call Council Houses (though the system is different and the properties are, on the whole, well-kept and desirable places to live, rather than the rather run-down unfashionable areas that are increasingly common in the UK). The style of house that you can live in, and the price that you pay for it, are determined by, among other things, your salary, your age, and the size of your household. Registering at a friend’s place would increase the size of their household, and might therefore change their eligibility for that property at that price.

I really needed to register somewhere if I was to get this motorcycle. I asked a few home-owning friends, but surprisingly in such a red-taped country most people frown on anything that might be construed as bending the rules, and I found people to be generally reluctant. Luckily I did eventually find a volunteer to write the official letter granting me permission to live in their home, and sent off my application. A phone call to the council revealed that they would be sending me a registration letter in a week or so, but if I wanted one more urgently then I had to go into the office in Amsterdam personally. However, since the office was only open on weekday mornings, I thought I’d wait and, incredibly, with one week still to go, the official letter turned up on my friend’s doormat. Hurrah!

Unbelievably, I seemed to have all the paperwork to hand. It was Thursday, and I needed to pick the bike up on the following Thursday evening if I was to meet my ferry to England. Since all I needed now was the money already sitting in my current account, I could justifiably have rested on my laurels, but drawing on past experience, I decided to not only deliver the papers but to pay the shop in advance that very afternoon.

The pain of payment

This was a decision born of experience. For a country that is in so many ways more enlightened and advanced than England, personal finance is still way back in the dark ages. For instance, cash paid into a bank can take three working days to clear (that’s right: cash), and an electronic fund transfer to somewhere like the US can take as long as three weeks. Add to this the fact that credit cards are virtually unknown, cheques don’t seem to exist, and large denomination notes are regarded with suspicion if they are accepted at all, and you soon find that making a major purchase is a considerable problem.

Two local electronic payment systems do exist. ‘Pin’ is analogous to a debit card, and ‘Chip’ is a smart-card electronic cash system. Both are widely accepted in Holland, but the Chip is only for small purchases, and you cant Pin more than 5000 guilders, regardless of the size of your bank balance.

I checked with the bike shop. No, it was against the rules to Pin several times for the same purchase. I could pay by credit card (wow!) or by bank transfer, but it would take three whole weeks for the funds to clear. The only payment method that was feasible in my timescale was cash.

Did they have to wait for cash to clear? They didn’t (one up on my bank, then). Did they accept large-denomination notes? They did. Even thousand-guilder notes? Yes. I checked around with Dutch friends, who all said that I could merely present my Pin card at my bank (Any branch? Yes. Really? Yes) and withdraw as much cash as I liked without any further messing about.

Where’s the cash?

To tell the truth, I didn’t really believe them. There’s a branch of my bank right by Amsterdam Central Station. It’s a dodgy area, and it was difficult not to feel furtive as I sneaked up to the teller, checked nobody was in earshot, slid my card under the partition and quietly asked for 19,000 guilders in cash. I’m sorry, he said, but we don’t have that much money. I looked around, slightly desperately, to see if I had inadvertently walked into a greengrocers instead of a bank. No, it all looked reassuringly like a financial institution. Perhaps I had phrased the question incorrectly. Errrm. Look. I would like to withdraw 19,000 guilders from my account please. The teller continued to look dubious. We don’t have that many large notes… apparently he saw some mad desperate glint appearing in my eye …but maybe we have it in small change?

I nodded eagerly, not trusting myself to speak. There will be rather a lot of it? he quavered, before scuttling nervously off. After a short wait he was back, now secure in the certainty of his knowledge. No, we don’t have it.

In a daze, I wandered out onto the streets of Amsterdam. Surely this was no great sum of money for one of the major financial centres of Europe, especially in a country where everybody is forced, through lack of other options, to use cash? I decided to try another bank, and went right into the central Dam Square and the biggest bank that I could find. Here, finally, a smiling cashier handed over a small pile of large-denomination notes. Thankyou very, very much. I said, and legged it for the bike shop before she could change her mind.


The showroom is a train ride and then an expensive taxi trip from Amsterdam, but I was determined that nothing should go wrong. Armed with a copy of my passport, the letter from the council, a wad of cash and my driving licence (just in case), I arrived and triumphantly presented them with my stash. They gravely accepted the money, even the thousand-guilder notes, but they shook their heads over the rest of it.

They suddenly discovered that they needed my real passport, not just a copy. And the letter from the council was the wrong kind of letter. On Friday morning I took a long detour on the way to work, and after a little trouble found the Registration office. It opened at 08:30 to a tide of people all clamouring for the same kind of letter; a few minutes wait and a small payment and it was mine.

Hurriedly, I returned to work. I was out of town for the weekend, but on Monday morning I once again set off for the bike shop, now with (hopefully) the correct letter and my real passport tucked firmly into my pocket. The taxi driver was a crazy German who thought that sliding broadside around the front end of a fast-moving truck was an acceptable means of turning across a dual carriageway, and when we got to the showroom I was in two minds to pay him off and walk the hour back, but I really couldn’t afford the time, so I asked him to wait and ran up to the door. In common with many other Dutch businesses, it was closed all day Monday.

The Courier

Cursing, I went back to work. The taxi driver didn’t have any change and so got an inadvertent tip. The next morning I was up early again and queuing in the rain outside the post office. Rather than spend what remained of the week running back and forth, I’d decided to courier the documents instead. The helpful lady behind the desk told me that express mail would get my envelope to the bike shop by 10:30 tomorrow, Wednesday morning. I knew that the bike shop did their daily run to the vehicle licensing office at around 09:00, so there would just be time for them to arrange the licence on Thursday before I picked the bike up that evening.

Relieved, I handed her my package. She refused to take it. But that’s twenty-five guilders, she wailed. This is a common problem in the Netherlands. The typical Dutch person is proud of the care that they take over their money. They will laugh and joke about it with foreigners, but will still travel from one end of the city to the other in order to save a couple of guilders. It is a national trait, but since it is coupled with warm-hearted generosity, it never degenerates into meanness. However, it does mean that shopping can be an unusual experience. The concept of selling up is completely alien. If there are two thingamajigs and you pick the more expensive one, the sales assistant will persuasively argue you into buying the cheaper one unless you firmly stand your ground. It is almost worth picking up a really expensive item just to hear the hiss of indrawn breath and to see the forlorn shaking of heads.

And so it was with my package. Any normal person would pay one guilder for regular post and hope that the package arrived in time. To squander a whole twenty-five guilders for a mere guarantee of delivery was to invite divine retribution. We argued back and forth, each becoming increasingly desperate, until finally she hit upon a happy compromise. If she arranged for a third-party carrier, a company unrelated to the post office, to take it rather than their own driver, then it would only cost twenty-two guilders. She smiled triumphantly and I meekly paid up.

Wednesday morning, eleven o’clock. I called the showroom to see if my package had arrived. It hadn’t. I called the courier, who phoned their driver. Apparently he had delivered it to somebody who signed himself as Ron. I called the bike shop. They didn’t employ anybody called Ron. Did they have anybody whose name might look like Ron if it was scribbled in a hurry? Had anybody seen a big orange delivery van that morning? They would check and get back to me.

I hung up and sat and stared at the phone, playing back every second of the last two weeks, wondering if I could have done anything differently. The phone rang. They had found Ron, who was an under-mechanic in the workshop. Rather than handing the package in to the shiny manned reception desk in the entrance hall, the courier had seen fit to pass it to a pair of legs stuck out from under a bench in the workshop. Understandably, Ron had quickly smeared his name on the clipboard and lobbed my precious documents as far away from his oily rebuild as possible, promptly forgetting about them.

But was it the correct kind of letter? A rustle at the end of the phone indicated opening noises, and then the welcome words “This is perfect. You can come and pick up your bike tomorrow.”

The Police Station Toilet

I had some official forms to fill in, so I popped in to the central police station. From the outside, the large purpose-built edifice in the centre of Utrecht is certainly impressive in a public building sort of way, but inside it is quite a surprise. Once through the huge automated revolving door – complete with encased items of clothing advertising local shops – I found myself in a large airy glass atrium with scattered wooden benches and display stands, a bit like the entrance to a modern museum, an impression heightened by the exhibition of photographs on a police theme by a local photographer. The police themselves moved through this space in pairs, courteous and jovial, looking relaxed and content. The tiny policewoman behind the desk, dwarfed by a belt full of regulation handcuffs, folding knife, gun and other accoutrements, is pleasant and helpful. There is even a visitors toilet, which after a while I decided to visit.

As I entered the large unisex cubicle, the door swung shut behind me and I automatically reached for the light pull, hanging dimly-seen by my side. As I pull it, everything goes pitch black, and I realise that the lights had actually already been on. Another tug reveals a room in almost complete darkness, with a select few objects glowing a fluorescent yellowish non-colour. I’ve seen UV in public toilets before, fitted because heroin addicts can’t find their veins under it, but who the heck shoots up in a police station? This was also the dimmest light that I have ever encountered. Hanging close to my hand is the mildly glowing plastic knob of the light cord. Over to one side, the end of a tissue projects brightly from its otherwise invisible hand-towel dispenser. In front of me, two ghostly toilet rolls hang unsupported in space, and there to the side of them, glowing very faintly and identified only by a fluorescent sticker on the flush handle, is the incorporeal image of a lavatory bowl.

Strangely, my urine turns out to be fluorescent.

A Drinking Tour of Holland


One sunny weekend, Adam and I decided to take advantage of the excellent Dutch railway system, and expand on our usual bar crawl around Utrecht by going on a bar crawl around Holland.

The usual suspects

Equipped only with a couple of pocketfuls of cash and the clothes we stood in, we had one for the road in the Firkin in Utrecht, and then headed out by train and bus to the beach at Scheveningen.


Famous for at least two things, one of which is that its name used to be used in the war to spot German spies (if they couldn’t satisfactorily pronounce the difficult “Sch”, then they were obviously not Dutch and were shot), Scheveningen has a fine beach and is the site of many events and exhibitions, such as the fabulous annual kite festival. When we arrived, we hit the tail end of a sand-sculpting exhibition, with some pretty impressive stuff from artists who had flown in from around the world to take part.

One of the advantages that Scheveningen beach has over many others is that the strand is lined with pleasant bars, so after checking out the sandcastles we had a beer or two before tackling the pier, a recently rescued structure that appears to be cobbled together from old oil platforms, although the renovations should be impressive when they’re finished.


As the sun set in the English Channel, we headed out to Rotterdam. Most of this city was flattened in the war, but what little is left of the old town is gathered around the old harbour, a backwater of the main shipping port which is home to a fleet of beautifully kept Dutch barge houseboat conversions. On one side is the new suspension bridge, and on the other, the weird cube houses.

We paused for a beer on the quayside, enjoying the enormous Laetitia Casta peering down at us from the side of a nearby office block (not content with building some of the most imaginative office buildings in Europe, the Dutch go to great lengths to decorate them as well), and then we moved to a convenient Belgian bar.

Looking around, we noticed two spare tables, one rickety one squashed into a corner by a bevy of young ladies on a hen night, and the other up against the window. Deeming it too obviously lecherous to squeeze in with the girls, we chose the window seat. However, not long into our first beer, another girl came over who wanted to use our table, and she bribed us with free beer if we would only move to that little table in the corner…

Adam trying very hard to look at the camera instead of the girls behind me

Eventually we left and went for a walk around the harbour, on a vague quest to find an all-night bar that somebody had told us about. The waterfront at Rotterdam is very pretty at night, all the bridges are brightly lit and reflected in the inky black water. However, the bar, when we finally found it, was firmly closed.

Heading back into town, we found a club called the Blue Fish that was still letting people in. It was long and thin with a long thin dance floor partway along, populated by an interesting selection of people. We were far too tired and hungry to pay much attention, but luckily they served the best cheese and ham tostis we had ever seen, as well as a small selection of bottled Belgian beers. Eventually dawn came up outside, and we tottered to the railway station to see if there were any trains going to Maastricht.

After a couple of hours well-earned kip on the train, we awoke to find ourselves somewhere completely different; Roermund, I think.


We stumbled around a bit looking surprised, narrowly avoided being thrown out of the station as vagrants, and got on a train to Valkenburg, home to Holland’s only hill.


Valkenburg town centre

It was substantially hollowed out by the Romans, who built 70km of tunnels as they excavated building stone. Since then, its been turned into a sort of museum-cum-art-gallery, where any event in the towns history has been commemorated by either a charcoal drawing or a sculpture somewhere in the depths. It was also at one point turned into the towns nuclear fall-out shelter, although for all the impressiveness of the enormous steel doors, the sheltering townspeople still seemed to be dependent on air shafts and water from the (presumably contaminated) outside world.

A carved dinosaur under Valkenburg mountain

Out from the bowels of the earth, we decided to climb the mountain, spurred on by the signs to a Roman spa at the top. Sadly, the spa turned out to be a hotel, but luckily there was a ruined castle so we poked around in that instead. Conveniently it had a bar, and we were able to have a restorative beer before heading back down to the town and the train to Maastricht, where we intended to book a hotel room – if only to have a shower.


On top of the world

Maastricht itself seemed quite fun, although the ugly modern bridges over the river were a disappointment… as was the fact that, due to some festival or other, all the hotels were completely full. So, after a short wander about and the purchase of some clean clothing, we headed back to the station, where a particularly lovely girl was selling coffee and waffles. Neither of us really like the really sweet Dutch waffles, but we bought some anyway, and I was delighted to be told that my Dutch accent was very aristocratic. And now, fuelled by coffee, we boarded the train to Venlo.


Thanks goodness there was a hotel by the station. We spent some time relaxing in our rooms and standing under the shower, before putting on our new clothes and heading into town.

Venlo is a curious place that caters almost entirely for German shoppers. Bar staff and shop assistants assume without thinking that you are German, and address you in that language, something I didn’t really notice until I caught Adams baffled expression and realised that I wasn’t speaking Dutch any more.

A motorised bar passes through

In the market square we found a convenient bar with the unlikely name of The Thirsty Chicken, and sat and watched the world (or to be more accurate, the girls) go by. A huge storm brew up, but although we were outside, we were sitting under a canopy and had a grandstand view of the lightning as the clouds swooped and boiled around us. Marvelous.

Later that night we headed for The Splinter, a rather off-the-wall neo-punk club near to the hotel, where I met up with Helga and Naardje for a night’s dancing and drinking, while Adam wandered back into town for a quieter session. Actually, I think he just fancied the barmaids more.

After a few hours of welcome sleep, we emerged blinking into Sunday morning. The last time wed done something like this, in Groningen in the north of Holland, we’d inadvertently continued drinking all night again and had been forced to return home on the Monday morning, amongst all the suited commuters. This time we determined to hit only one more city before putting our tails between our legs, so we plumped for Nijmegen.


It was a good choice. The sun was blazing and the town picturesquely mediaeval. In the park we messed about climbing on rooves and taking pictures of the castle.

At a bar outside the town hall we discussed the architecture and watched a roadside five-a-side football match, while on the riverside we quaffed ale and watched and discussed the barmaids.

Eventually, however, we had to drag ourselves away, and after a walk along the riverfront we made our way, tired and happy, back to the station.

Riding to Utrecht

The time had come for me to leave my home country of England, and seek my fortune overseas. I secured a work contract in the mediaeval Dutch city of Utrecht, and – having no further ties – swung my leg over my motorcycle and headed for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone.

The Channel Tunnel

The Chunnel train looked very French, big corrugated metal slab-sided carriages with tiny windows. I am the only biker in a queue of cars, and an official in a bright yellow jacket waved me to one side and continued to guide each car into one of two doors set into the side of the train, one leading to an upper deck and one to a lower. Every now and then he made twisting motions with both hands to indicate that a motorist should turn their lights off, but I can’t see why.

Evidently I will be the last vehicle to board. The official grins sympathetically as I put my feet up on the handlebars and lie back, watching the rain dripping off my visor. At the last moment another bike appears, a two-up British Kwak Harley-a-like, all chrome and leather. The official drags an orange trolley out of hiding and places it on the floor of the last carriage. It has widely spread arms that lie flat on either side to stop it from falling over, and two swivel-mounted cups that are meant to hold the tyre. The cruiser noses its front wheel into the first cup, and the official guides the other into place, neatly holding the entire bike upright. Within moments my own bike is similarly secured, and I look at it curiously, wondering how they are going to get it out again.

A pretty French blonde appears, similarly encased in bright yellow, and checks that we have left the bikes in gear. I wander off to find a toilet – the doors between the carriages have electronic locks controlled by illuminated orange buttons which take several seconds to unlock the manually-pushed doors – and before I know it we are moving. A number of public announcements are made in French and English, repeated in both languages on overhead illuminated scrolling signs. I strike up a conversation with the other bikers, who are travelling to Antwerp and thus in my direction. He was originally Flemish but now lives in England; his partner, a tiny dark girl with a big smile and curious marks on each cheek, was originally from South America. They warn me that there is no petrol for 60 miles after you get off the train, but I have ample in the tank. They plan to stop and eat at their usual place just outside Brugge, and I think that it might be worth staying with them for the company on the road.

Now in France, all the connecting doors between the carriages are opened and the vehicles roll out along the body of the train and out the front (where did the engine go?) into the drizzle. Unloading the bikes is very straightforward, as the trolleys just spit us out when they are rolled away. Nice design, top marks.

Riding through Belgium in the rain

Up the familiar coast road, following the Kwak, which puts on a good 130kph pace, about what I would have chosen myself, though it can’t have been much fun for them with their open-face helmets. At the border with Belgium, the rain began in earnest, and I was glad to have plastic gloves on underneath my leather ones. An hour later and my boots started to fill up with water, absorbed through the leather and goretex by the onslaught of the weather.The Brugge services eventually appear, and just as we are about to cut across the four lanes leading to the exit, there is a huge bang from the Kwak and orange flames shoot toward me from their exhaust. They have run out of petrol, and I slow quickly to push if need be, but by weaving from side to side they find some vapour in the pipes and make it into a service station.

We sit and chew steak and talk about this and that, and I muse that it doesn’t really matter which country I’m in, I dont even have to know or care because everybody takes Visa. But then I want to go to the toilet, and sheepishly have to borrow BFr10 because I havent got any change to placate the large dragon lady guarding the entrance.

Outside the windows of the cafe, the rain gets heavier. We fill up with fuel and say our goodbyes, because even though I’ll be following them for another hour to Antwerp, they will be turning off at their journeys end and I’ll still have another hour to go to get to Utrecht.

Riding through Holland in the rain

As I leave Belgium and pass the signs for the Netherlands, the rain eases off a little. I smile to myself, although my shoulders are now stiff and the rain has made its way through my silk scarf and it is chafing my neck. Just out of Utrecht I stop, ostensibly for petrol but in actual fact to consult the map, because I really haven’t a clue where I’m going. Once stopped, though, I realise that I’m really cold, and sit for several minutes just staring at the petrol pumps revelling in the lack of motion and the protection afforded by the canopy overhead. Presumably I am on camera somewhere because a puzzled-looking blond beard appears at the window of the kiosk, but a look of understanding crosses his face when I wave vaguely in a gesture indicating the heavens, the bike, and the general condition of the world in general.

Inside, I forced my crabbed fingers to forge some resemblance to my Visa signature, and the bearded angel asked, “Would you like a coffee?” Would I! A nice steaming freshly brewed black coffee to wrap my hands around while I consult the map. I didn’t have a street map of Utrecht, just a fuzzy aerial view downloaded from the Web and a Michelin map of the local area purchased on the way over. My only clue for orientation is a distinctively shaped spaghetti junction which I hope I can recognise from the ground, in the rain, in the dark.

As usual I find that trusting to luck and not getting worried about the fact that I don’t even have the phone number of the hotel pays off, and before long I’m chugging up Donderstraat to the converted apartment building that is the Hotel Ouwi.

First night in Utrecht

I stand for a while in a scalding shower and then wander into town at 8pm, marvelling at all the canals. The streets are full of young couples, and despite the somewhat labyrinthine nature of the dark alleyways that criss-cross the centre, I feel perfectly safe. The only place that makes me a little uneasy is a big shopping centre called Hoog Catherijne next to the train station, where there seem to be some unsavoury characters hanging out, although nobody bothers me. Eventually I find a cash machine and get some Guilders. On the way back to the hotel I look in through the windows of lots of bars and restaurants, and everybody seems to be having a good time, though I’m starting to feel lonely and don’t feel much like sitting on my own. However, the last one that I pass is a Firkin pub, complete with English-style beer pumps, and I can’t resist it and go in.The staff are friendly and I stay for a couple of pints, just watching people and listening to music (apparently the bitter is brewed in den Haag), until I get up for a final pee.

In the gents I meet a New Zealander called Brett, and one thing leads to another and I find myself wandering from bar to bar with him and his four Dutch friends, finally rolling into bed at about half past one. Breakfast comes with the room and is a nice mixture of continental breads, ham, cheese, a boiled egg and a yoghurt. The toast is curious because it has Good Morning branded into it, presumably by the toaster. After several hours of walking I discover the whereabouts of my new office, a mere 15 minutes walk away along tow-paths and through a little nature reserve. Everybody else is either cycling or jogging; from the looks that I get from passersby and car passengers, walking is a suspicious activity and people who indulge in it are probably up to no good. Note to self: must buy a bicycle.

Scandinavia by Train: 1 – Calais to Copenhagen

The Interrail journeys previously enumerated in the blogs “Three Men on a Train” were a resounding success, but I was keenly aware that – due to time constraints – we’d missed out the whole of the Scandinavian peninsula. A few years later, with only slightly better funding, I arranged a second month-long Interrail trip to remedy the situation, accompanied by a different group of friends.

And so it was, that in the Summer of 1989, Dave, Conway and I disembarked the MV “Pride of Dover” in Calais, and met up with Julia and Sammy who had been travelling in Morocco.

The girls looked tanned and healthy, but were short of cash. The boys were pasty and unhealthy, but hadn’t yet spent any of our holiday funds. After swapping tales over a coffee, we boarded the next train out of Calais, which happened to go to Paris. Our first requirement was to get some sleep, and since the Interrail system allowed us to take any train to any destination, we chose the next long-distance train, which happened to go to Amsterdam, and hunkered down in the corridor to sleep.

When the train pulled into Amsterdam Central, we found ourselves with only 35 minutes to explore before our connection to Hamburg. Our main concern was provisions; once we left Amsterdam we would be spending at least the rest of the day traversing Germany, and we had no Deutschmarks. The girls had some Camembert cheese and some horse-meat sausage in their packs, and Conway found a 25-guilder note in his pocket. We sprinted out into the city, got a swift impression of bars and coffee shops, scored coffee and baguettes, and legged it back to the station.

Although our Interrail card was valid for travel the length and breadth of the continent, many of the trains in Northern Europe at that time had extra supplements for this and that; extra for a sleeping compartment, extra for an intercity express, and so on. In order to conserve funds, it was necessary for us to carefully pick our route so as to board only the supplement-free trains.

We got a local connection from the Netherlands into Germany, and then switched to a local train to Hamburg. Once it pulled out of the station, we found that the service had been upgraded to an “Intercity” service, and so we had to find a supplemental fare or be put off the train. Since we didn’t have any Deutschmarks, this presented a problem until we offered the conductor a ten-pound note, and he went away happy. From Hamburg it was but a short step to Fredericia, and our first Scandinavian country of Denmark. We had arrived!

Struer (Denmark)

There is a convenient law which applies throughout Scandinavia, which states that you are allowed to camp anywhere you like for up to two nights, anywhere at all, as long as the site is not overlooked by somebody’s window. This is extremely handy for the budget traveller, and because of this we were well equipped with camping gear, in contrast with my previous Interrail trip, where we had tried as much as we could to sleep aboard the trains.

After a close look at a local map, we took a local train to the town of Struer, on the banks of the Veno Bugt fjord to the North West of Denmark. Strolling out of town, we found ourselves a roadside picnic spot with views across the fjord, and even a small toilet block with water, dryers, and a shaver point.

After a long luxurious night’s sleep, we awoke to find a family of cygnets poking around outside the tents, and a horde of picnicking tourists who completely ignored a bunch of hippies emerging blinking into the daylight.

We lounged around drinking coffee and waiting for the dew to dry off the tents, before packing up and heading to the station.

In the local hub of Fredericia on a Monday morning, we discovered that the connection to Copenhagen only runs on Sundays and Thursdays. There were some other, more roundabout routes available; we deliberately skipped the next one in order to save the “Intercity supplement”, then finally boarded the slow train, where the conductor hit us with a “Seat Reservation supplement”.

We were still glad we’d caught it, though, for the experience as the entire train drove onto the ferry at Nyborg, and we were taken across the fjord to Korsør without ever leaving our seats.

Copenhagen (Denmark)

One of my teeth was becoming increasingly painful. Julia had a poke around and found a large cavity in the side of a molar, which was full of foreign matter which she managed to clean out with a needle and thread, but which clearly needed medical attention.

In Copenhagen there’s a legendary facility, the Interrailer’s Centre, which provides an information desk, showers and kitchen facilities to anybody with a valid Interrail ticket. The receptionist was incredibly helpful in finding me a list of emergency dentists, and after a fair bit of legwork I found one who would treat me the following evening. I suggested that the others move on to Oslo while I got fixed up, but they were content to wait for me, so after cooking and eating at the Centre, we caught a local train to the nearby town of Næstved. This “local” turned out to be the lovely Ostsee Express to Moscow, every carriage embellished with Russian crests. We only went a couple of stops, though, and set up camp in a clearing in a local park, surrounded by beeches, mountain ash, and wild raspberries. Beautiful.

In Copenhagen the following day, I wasn’t really able to focus on much beyond my toothache, but did manage some minor forays into the city. Perhaps it was the pain, but I found it all a bit dull, despite some interesting architecture and sculptures.

I did note a few things in my diary, such as the handy gutter up the side of all staircases for the wheeling of bicycles, and the fact that cars will always stop for pedestrians or cyclists wherever they may be, and that bicycles stop for nothing and seem to rule the road as long as they remain in their bespoke cycle lane.

That evening, the dentist was superb. She found a piece of steak lodged inside a small cavity, which led to a very large cavity filling most of the tooth almost down to the nerve. After scraping me off the ceiling a few times, she managed a temporary fix by pumping in about a kilo of heavy metals. The tooth is now a thin shell of enamel wrapped around a lump of amalgam, which means I should avoid chewing on that side, and she made me promise to get it fixed as soon as I got home. [Of course I didn’t, and this amazing temporary repair remained in place for over a decade before I split it on a stray olive pit]

There was just time to grab a Danish Pastry before heading to the station. My mouth was completely numb but we couldn’t waste the opportunity. We bought two, each almost a foot long and packed with fruit, surmounted by chocolate.

The train decanted us onto a ferry, where we found some unoccupied reclining seats and settled down to sleep. Tomorrow, we would dock in Norway!