Thirteen hours in Rotterdam

Oscar Wilde once wrote:

“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”

I bought a bus ticket from London to Rotterdam. I did this in order to save what effectively amounts to the price of a handful of beers in London prices. I needed to get to Budapest, and I already had a flight leaving from Rotterdam booked. I spent 8 excruciating hours on a bus from London Victoria to Rotterdam Centraal, to in Rotterdam at 5 am in a cold winter morning. My flight to Budapest left 13 hours later. Thoroughly stupid.

On the bus I found a place next to an overweight woman who did not dissimulate her displeasure at my arrival. I do not blame her, I would have preferred to sit alone as well. She briefly crossed my mind a few weeks later when my party of three drunkenly occupied all five last row seats on the Polskibus from Budapest to Warsaw. It was a lot more comfortable then, but that’s another story involving a long journey on a smelly bus with a Polish driver. The woman’s displeasure later manifested itself in giggling mockery when she had a video call with her boyfriend, speaking some African dialect of English that was just intelligable enough for me to understand that she was making fun of my brand new moustache. I don’t blame her for this either. She was right: it did look ridiculous.

At the time my rib mattered a lot more to me than my moustache, as I had injured it in an entirely avoidable cycling accident on Parliament Square. My physical pain made it more bearable to finish reading Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. My concern was that my loud travel partner would catch a glimpse of passages containing phrases such as “kill nigger beggar” or “I cut her tits off and drilled her mouth with an electric drill”. No worries, she was utterly absorbed looking at pictures of her friends on Instagram.

American Psycho is one of those rare works of art where both the book and film are recommendable. Usually the book makes the film look terrible, but perhaps because I saw the film first and read the book later I did not feel that way. I’ll remember to watch films first and read books second from now on. Missing from the film was Patrick Bateman’s man love for Donald Trump, which was oddly contemporary given that many other outdated things that play a central role, such as VHS tapes and Walkman. I sat there reading about Patrick torturing a prostitute with a rat and I thought it interesting how there must be educated individuals who will read people like Ellis, de Sade and Nabokov who at the same time would complain about popular culture that repackage the same themes in different wrappings. Would you look at Patrick Bateman’s Snapchat stories? What about Dan Bilzerian’s?

I have come to believe that a big part of academic or cultural discourse is effectively unsophisticated intellectual snobbery. This year has shown the world that a large percentage of the world doesn’t care what the so called experts think. Reading a piece that Taleb wrote about the “Intellectual-Yet-Idiot” has had me questioning a lot of my own underlying assumptions. This was approximately my train of thought as I sat on the bright public toilet, with the globalist anthem of indistinct Christmas carols ringing in my ears. I started reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, a book I quickly decided was another piece of intellectual snobbery based merely on the foreword, an introduction written by an academic that threw around vague terminology which seemed to serve no purpose other than to make the author sound smart. But I am prepared to admit that I didn’t give it a fair chance, sat on a dirty public toilet, half asleep, without having properly slept for more than 24 hours. I gave up and opened Hugh Thomas’ history on the Spanish Civil War, which I doubt he thought would ever be read by moustached men with broken ribs at Rotterdam Centraal Station.

img Rotterdam Centraal Station. Looks cool. Very cold inside.

I paid 70 euro cents to get into the public toilet. I was forced to do so by a machine which barred my entrance with its metallic arm. I would have been smart and (even injured) versatile enough to overcome that obstacle easily. Yet a camera pointed at me was connected to a screen showing me my ugly moustached face. It reminded me that the architect of the incredible monument that is a railway station toilet had thought my thoughts before I had. I splurged 10 euros at Starbucks as soon as it opened at 7 am because I was starving and needed to drink something warm. My coffee was bad and undrinkable. They always over-roast coffee in the Netherlands. I accidentally paid 4 euros at the train station checking in or out or something wrongly and 6 euros for the luggage storage. By 8 am, I was going through this whole ordeal for more money that it would have cost me to take a far more comfortable route home. Historian Hugh Thomas’ brilliant writing, as always, managed to take my mind off these matters.

img Guernica. Picasso.

The Spanish Civil War had a great impact on the 20th century, both culturally given the involvement of Picasso, Hemingway, Orwell and others, and as a prelude to the second European civil war of the 20th century. Most of my knowledge about it came from Leonardo Padura’s excellent novel El hombre que amaba los perros. As always when reading history, I wonder how wise men manage to make bad decisions. Of course, I imagine the clever things I would have done in their place. I conjure detailed plans about how I would have avoided the errors of the great statesmen of history (aided with considerable benefit of hindsight). But then I realise I have paid money to sleep in public restroom at a train station. Needless to say, even though I have a considerable amount of work to do I left my laptop charger (and phone charger) in the luggage storage and getting it would cost another 6 euros. I was determined not to let a machine insult my dignity like that. Especially given my antecedents with these machines. A few months ago I forgot my locker number at Utrecht University’s gym. Thanks to the clever digital locker system which assigns you a locker instead of you picking one, I had to go through dozens different lockers until one of the employees took pity of me and opened all the lockers. I barely made it in time to lectures. I sat there unshowered and smelly. Later that day I confidently went to a meeting where I was expecting a contract to be extended and it turned out it wasn’t. Nonetheless, I still manage to daydream. Drinking overpriced, over-roasted coffee at Rotterdam Centraal’s Starbucks, daydreaming about saving the world’s problems while becoming rich, fit and famous. Reminiscing on my personal history of humiliation by Dutch automated lockers I put aside the history of the Spanish Civil War and was determined to make the most of my day and head out to explore the city.

Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe. Probably a suitable place to visit a maritime museum. My first visit was to the chess piece museum but it was closed because I went too early. In the museum I spent the first hour or so with an expensive-looking new installation that showed visitors the fine aspects of offshore drilling and energy generation. Interactive touch-screen displays showed BP horizon spill, the Iraq war, the effects of the 1970’s oil embargoes and a wide range of the friendly history of oil. I was then transported to a simulated offshore station where multiple games tested my skills of landing helicopters and solving pipe leakages. The whole experience was well thought-out and expensive-looking and most definitely paid for by some oil company. Given the circumstances I was not expecting Rotterdam to impress, but I managed to convince myself that it did. Architecturally speaking, it is a very exciting city in a way that many modern cities aren’t. I spent a weekend in a castle in Hungary with Sir Roger Scruton, and while he mostly spoke about wine and whisky, he is also known for his critique of modern architecture. Normally I agree with him that many modern architectural creations are rigid, unlivable places nobody has a desire to be in or look at. Nevertheless, the Netherlands contains a wide range of distinctly creative and interesting buildings, and Rotterdam is full of them.

img I saw this too.

Watching the oil rigs and the wars and contemplating on my own series of decisions which lead up to me sitting tired, red-eyed in a museum, writing with a pen I stole on a notebook. I wonder whether we as individuals or as humanity in general are predestined to just continue making the same mistakes, the same errors in calculation, the same invalid assumptions until we die, without learning much from them. Wilde said stupid things are usually done with good intentions, at university I read that in today’s world good intentions mask immoral decisions too. I finished On Mice & Men sitting on the museum bench. There is little hope for Lenny, the violent oaf with good intentions. In Hugh Thomas’ histories there is little hope for anyone. Since before the times of Thucydides there have been thousands of individuals who sacrificed their lives for now forgotten, asinine causes, thousands of bad decisions and repeated errors. And there will be many more. Does this mean we live in a world where we are unable to learn from mistakes? I would hope not, but it is hard to say. The buildings in Rotterdam I fawn about are the product of a series of bad decisions, mistakes and miscalculations that lead Rotterdam to be flattened in the Second World War. But then again so was Warsaw, an architecturally much more simple place. Outcomes do vary.

All of these thoughts are also just silly daydreams of someone that gets beaten by automatic lockers and pays a significant sum for the priviledge of sleeping on a toilet. In the same way that reading American Psycho is acceptable for educated individuals but watching violent videos on the internet isn’t, writing is one of the few admired publically selfish acts. When one writes one is arrogantly assuming that your thoughts have value that should be codified and made available to the world. The human condition is full of small paradoxes like this, those who write and thus preserve and disseminate knowledge give undue weight to their own opinions. Those who stand up to lead are probably not the ones who should not be followed.

I personally have gone through the cycle of success, overconfidence and falling flat on my face several times in the past few months. This isn’t just a reference to me having fallen off my bike four times since the end of August, every single time whilst doing something I shouldn’t have. I guess that that is part of learning, but learning has its limits. I’ll be 24 in April. If I do something dumb enough to get in the news I’ll be a “24-year old man”. Not a teenager or a student. Many of us try to make the best decisions and the best plans at all times, yet we often find ourselves on an 8 hour bus journey to Rotterdam. But eventually the sun comes up, the weather warms up enough for a nice walk in sunlight and a pleasant visit to the museum. Good things do happen to those with the right attitude and enough stubbornness. They just take time.

img People my age in the news.

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