The week we spent in Belgium was a delicious two-colored event. Nick and I went to Antwerp by train every morning with the exception of Saturday. The city on the river Schelde is profoundly Flemish and business-minded. Midday meals consisted of steaks or stew and patates frites, always accompanied by superb beer.
As the reader may have guessed, I went to Antwerp to see how I could enter the diamond trade. A large part of it is in the hands of Jewish companies who have their offices in a quarter at a stone’s throw from the central railway station. The communities were as large as those in New York, but as Antwerp was a smaller city they stood out more. It was the only part of the journey where I wore a kippah in public. So many other men did. It felt like the pinnacle of freedom.
Many names of businessmen, either Hasidic or reformed, come to mind now. I am forever grateful to have known them and to have been in contact with them for many years to come.
Nick was with me when we went to offices and talked shop and closed deals. I operated as a private person looking to assemble a collection of precious gemstones that would increase in value.
Poor Nick never complained when I left him outside in the rain where he smoked and sulked while I was inside a shul either praying or having tea and kibitzing with my new friends. He liked them too, but he always sighed with relief as soon as we boarded the train back to Brussels.
Both Dutch and French are the official languages of the capital of Belgium, but French is more dominant. The cuisine is more refined and no meal is had without wine. Nick took pleasure in dressing in his smart tux with a starched shirt, a white bow tie and pressed black pants and so I put on similar clothes. We felt beautiful sitting at tables in restaurants, enjoying the food and the wine and looking in each other’s eyes, because the whole environment felt like France.
The nights were ours and ours alone when we made love under sheets that rustled luxuriously while our moans and cries of pleasure went under in the din of traffic from outside. It made me realize once more how lucky I was to be a millionaire, because being poor would be like a school subject I was doomed to fail.
The next station of our journey was The Hague. The city only qualifies as the capital of the Netherlands because it is home to the House of Parliament and the residence of the royal family.
The magnificent Kurhaus Hotel in nearby Scheveningen where we stayed overlooked a windy beach and the hostile North Sea. I dreaded the thought of having to cross over to England.
Dutch food is rustic and unpretentious. It tastes nice but it lacks the colorful variety of dishes served in East-Indian restaurants. These can be found a-plenty in any large town in Holland. James and I loved the rice, roast pork in sweet tomato sauce, omelettes fried with strange legumes and the decadent perfume of candied fruits. It brought back the Orient.
As expected, it rained continuously, which spoiled much of the fun we had outside.
Staying inside after leaving the hotel turned out to be a challenge. We stepped into a bar one morning for a couple of drinks. ‘No beer,’ the bartender said. ‘Do you want coffee?’ The Dutch speak English rather well, but we did not realize until much later that this man meant ‘Would you like coffee?’ At that moment, we were too dumbfounded for being denied beer. ‘It’s too early,’ the bartender explained. ‘No one has beer or wine before five.’ The country was not under prohibition like America, but if it had been, the Dutch would have done a far better job.
We saw an abundance of cyclists riding effortlessly on the side of the roads. One afternoon we were at a junction wanting to cross over to the nearby city park. Not knowing if we had right of way, we stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and waited for the road to be clear. No cars were in sight, but a lady in a fur coat came riding towards the junction on a bicycle. She slowed down and stopped.
We did not no if she did this to yield, so we stayed put, especially since we saw a police officer on the other side. She smiled at us, said something in Dutch and motioned with a gloved hand. We crossed and expected the man of the law to reprimand us. But he smiled, too, and as he had caught some of James’s words to me, he said in English: ‘That was our crown princess.’
If it was a joke, it was not a very amusing once. The man sensed it. ‘Yes, it was Princess Juliana,’ he added. ‘She’s probably going to the market.’
We only believed it after seeing pictures of her in newspapers. Our president probably never left Capitol Hill and was barely seen in public, but the future monarch of the Netherlands rode to town to get groceries. We thought this cute.
It’s the most normal thing in Germany to leave your house or hotel after breakfast and head straight for the next bar for a morning drink of beer, cider or wine. This was considered immoral in the better quarters of Holland. Whoever got thirsty before five had no choice but to head to the so-called bad parts of town. We did not dare to take this step until we got to Amsterdam, which is more of a capital than the Hague.
Nick and I ended up in a bar outside a quay overlooking the river IJ. It was full of sailors swilling gin and smoking heavy tobacco. We were dressed in English clothes and feeling out of place, even though we thoroughly enjoyed the beer that always came with a good layer of froth like in Germany.
The Dutch are friendly, but very reserved. We felt both amazed and honored when a young man wearing an office suit engaged us in a chat. ‘Do you want…’ (of course he meant: ‘would you like’) '... to see beautiful women? I can take you there.’
We liked him and so he took us to a street lined with sagging seventeenth-century houses where each ground floor had at least one large window. Behind these women dressed in low-cut blouses and alarmingly short skirts were sitting like dummies in display cases, reading, knitting, smoking or rocking infants, glowing hideously in the sheen of red lights.
‘You want one of them?’ our guide asked. ‘I’ll go in and talk first.’
‘No, thank you,’ Nick said. ‘We only wanted to look.’
We had seen similar red houses from the train in the southern part of Antwerp, but those were more modest. This street was in the middle of Amsterdam with housewives dragging shopping nets and kids coming home from school for lunch.
‘Yes, we’re like that,’ a gentleman at the bar of the Hotel des Indes explained that night. ‘The English are different. They treat their king like a god. Our princess is preparing to go to a public college and rides to market on her bicycle. Prostitution is all right as long as anyone offering or buying service is of age. And we’re not under prohibition like America. Alcohol is a problem, I won’t deny that, but we believe that forbidding it would only turn more people into drunkards.’
‘Dear me, is there anything at all that is strictly prohibited by law in this country?’ I asked.
‘There is, sir,’ the gentleman smiled. ‘Firearms.’