Netherlands: A Hotel and a Cautionary Tale

This is the first installment in a series of essays by adventurer Nick Martens, who is currently studying at the University of Amsterdam. Arriving a few days before his program at the University of Amsterdam begins, Nick Martens relates a pair of anecdotes regarding the quirks of descending into an unfamiliar culture.

Though one expects to have one’s expectations challenged while transitioning to a foreign continent, I did not sufficiently recalibrate my concept of the “hotel” to prepare myself for the Chic & Basic. Scarcely a five-minute walk from Amsterdam’s manic Central Station, the hotel’s front door lies on a quiet residential street facing a lazy canal. The lobby, like so many interiors in Amsterdam, looks like an Apple Store: white walls, minimalist furniture, and sans-serif typography. Some booths and tables sit at the far end of the narrow entrance, where, apparently, the hotel serves complimentary breakfasts. I have never, to my knowledge, woken up in time to take advantage of such a meal in any country, a streak I continue during my two-night stay.

The clerk, positioned about two inches to my left as I enter, is enormously friendly, courteous, and helpful. Certainly, her service is an improvement over what I received in Idaho. She even escorts me to my room, curiously numbered 303, the same as my area code in Colorado (okay, it’s kind of a lame coincidence). She opens the door simply by holding the plastic card against the handle enclosure and waiting for a beep. After some experimentation, I learn that the card can trigger the lock through the leather credit card slot in my wallet. I feel totally rad every time I open my door like an FBI Agent on TV.

The room itself is the size of an average refrigerator box. A desk stacked with kindergartenesque cubbies juts out from the far wall, immediately adjacent to the restroom. A small LCD TV hangs from a high corner, perched above the room’s only chair, which is presumably not positioned at the desk because such an arrangement would impede access to the bathroom. Though initially unsettling, I quickly become comfortable in 303’s limited space. I only need room enough for myself and a couple of bags anyways.

Other aspects of the Chic & Basic’s accommodations are more unusual. For example, the room’s only light source is a giant, back-lit vinyl portrait of an attractive young couple. Also, on the television, between a Dutch news station and a music video network, is a channel that constantly loops hardcore pornography. I think I understand the implication, but the bedding situation complicates my comprehension of the C&B’s target audience. The room’s floors are hardwood, and what appears to be a full bed is actually two twins pushed together. Now, this seems like the classic ‘50s consummation configuration, but traditionally the beds were not supported by well-oiled coasters. Even my nocturnal adjustments are enough to push the beds apart, so I imagine that a more vigorous activity (maybe your kids are jumping on the beds) would send the mattresses careening across the small room. In the more litigious United States, I imagine that Chic & Basic corporate would face legal challenges from amorous travelers who, shall we say, slipped through the crack.

You might wish that I had photographed the Chic & Basic, and I also wish that. This omission was caused-–and I won’t mince words–-by my own stupidity. Wanting immediately to charge my laptop, so I could sequester myself online after arriving in an exciting European city, I bought an American-to-European power converter from a souvenir shop in the heart of tourist Amsterdam. Do not do this. It took me until my MacBook was nearly out of power to realize that, in spite of an optimistic charge indicator on my power adapter, the computer was not actually receiving electricity from the outlet. After my battery had gone, preventing me from unloading my camera’s full memory card and delaying the production of this article, I made a series of even stupider decisions.

I will defend my first action as perfectly rational.

“My cheap power converter,” I thought, “is garbage. I just need to find a more professional converting solution and I’ll be back on the web in no time.”

Remembering an Apple logo hanging outside a store near the train station, I made my way to the “Mac Specialist.” There, I purchased a small, inexpensive European plug that I could easily attach to my laptop’s power adapter. This remarkably efficient and sensible fix did not work. I should have, in retrospect, taken the computer in for repair at this juncture in the story.

I did not.

My next step, after some brief research on the hotel’s coveted public computer, was to investigate the matter of power transformers. After buying and returning a low-wattage unit from a seedy mom and pop electronics shop a few blocks from the C&B, I finally made it to my room with a dense beige brick from a Soviet manufacturer. Festooned with incomprehensible plugs, outlets, and switches, the unit hummed gently when I plugged it into a wall socket. I then plugged my laptop into the transformer, but again, the Mac wouldn’t charge. Flummoxed, I unplugged the computer and flipped a voltage switch on the transformer. The hum escalated to a static buzz until something popped and a single white-hot spark shot from the end of the brick. As I scrambled to unplug the transformer, the room filled with a ripe sulfuric odor. At this point, I really should have given up.

I did not.

Fueled by dementedly irrational denial, I decided to test every outlet in my room. At one point, I noticed that the charge light on my power adapter stayed lit even after I disconnected it from the computer. Just as I reached this crucial realization, something else popped, and my room went dark. The clerk, a helpful man this time, had no trouble resetting the breaker, which restored my power, and I felt that I had successfully pinpointed the root of my power troubles. I returned to the Mac Specialist, adapter in hand, and asked an employee if I could buy a European MacBook adapter. He explained to me that American and European adapters share the same internal technology, so a new adapter couldn’t help me. I described my power outage to him, after which he asked to see my problem adapter.

“I don’t have my computer with me,” I told him.

“I have,” he said, gesturing with a smirk to the wall full of Macs behind me. It was a very clever line.

The second he plugged in my adapter a row of computers shut down, the lights went out, and an alarm sounded. The shrill beeping persisted, waning slowly as he sold me a new power adapter. I told him to throw the old one out.

Since my room at the C&B was the one closest to the lobby, the whole hotel probably heard me cursing when the new adapter didn’t work either.

I finally broke down and brought the laptop into the repair division of the Mac Specialist, who happily overcharged me to repair a fried input board. In the end, this ordeal cost me around 300 euros, roughly the equivalent of a yacht down payment in America. The moral of the story: do not buy a power convertor from the same store that sells a shirt of Scooby-Doo smoking a joint.

Read more from Netherlands.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.