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Travel Advisory: The Cats of Amsterdam

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Here's what happened three weeks ago to the day -- March 17, 2010. The signs were all there. I should have seen it coming. It was a Wednesday, a Worst Case Wednesday.

I landed in Amsterdam around 11 a.m., about twenty-four hours before speaking at NRC Focus' seminar on confidence in the capital markets. Most of the day, I holed up in a hotel editing my second novel, The Gods of Greenwich. (Note the name change.) It wasn't until 8:00 p.m. that I headed outside to explore the city and eat dinner.

The thing about St. Patrick's day is the Irish come out in droves, even if you're in Amsterdam. As I worked my way to Rembrandt Square -- an indirect route because of construction associated with a new tunnel system -- most of the restaurants bulged with huge, raucous crowds. The sounds of live Irish bands poured into the streets. And I probably heard Paddy McGinty's Goat a dozen times during my hike:

Mr. Patrick McGinty, an Irishman of note,

Came into a fortune, so bought himself a goat.

Said he, "Sure, of goat's milk I mean to have my fill!"

But when he got his Nanny home, he found it was a Bill.

I had arrived on the red-eye nine hours earlier. Read a book the entire flight. So by 8:30 p.m., I was in the mood for something low key -- glass of wine, easy meal, nothing too loud. I found the right restaurant in Rembrandt Square. But inside, there was a cat prowling the aisles like it owned the place. It had the demeanor of Mr. Rick from Casablanca. Its tail stuck straight up like an antenna.

Mr Rick didn't figure into my dinner plans. I walked out and headed to the restaurant next store. Good news: No Irish bands, no wild crowds. Don't get me wrong. I love Irish pub songs but wasn't in the mood that night. Bad news: There was another cat. This one was fatter than the first. And it had the same antenna tail.

What gives with these cats?

I walked into the third restaurant, which was a New York-style steakhouse. Everybody knows Manhattan's tough health standards. The place had to be okay, right? I scanned for cats, found none, and Law-and-Order style thought to myself:

Clear.

I ordered a burger. The fries, in true Dutch tradition, arrived with mayonnaise. And trust me, the combination is a thing of beauty. Just as I settled into my meal and a glass of wine, a third cat appeared from nowhere. This one was fatter than first two. Same antenna tail.

By now, the curiosity was killing me so I hailed the waitress. "I've been in three restaurants, and they all have cats. Is this a Dutch tradition?" I asked the question at my ambassadorial best, didn't mention that I had walked out of two places.

"You saw the construction outside?" the waitress asked.

"Yes."

"The things living below ground are coming to the surface." With her palm down and below the table, she raised her hand until her palm was facing up over the table, a nonverbal, "There you have it."

Don't like where this is headed.

"We had a horrific mouse problem," she explained. "But not now." She pointed to the fat feline with the antenna tail. Almost on cue, the cat licked its chops.

The word "mouse" is not something I want to hear with a mouth full of hamburger. My fries and mayo lost their appeal. Probably a good thing as far as my arteries are concerned. "Mouse," in my humble opinion, is a four letter word in any restaurant, no matter where.

What else is living below ground?

Three weeks later, I've put some distance on that Worst Case Wednesday. Time heals everything, even a dinner with true confessions about rodents in the restaurant. Heck, I'm even sanguine about the experience. If you're dining out in Amsterdam and happen to see fat cats with antenna tails, it's no problem. They're a good thing.

The fatter the cat, the better.

Norb Vonnegut

PS. Paddy McGinty's Goat apparently had a problem with its meal:

Now Paddy's goat had a wondrous appetite.

Each morning for breakfast he ate some dynamite.

A large box of matches he swallowed with serene,

And after that he had a quart of kerosene.

One night by the fireside, he didn't give a hang,

'til he swallowed a spark and exploded with a bang.

Now if you ever go to heaven, I betcha a dollar note,

that the angel with the whiskers on is Paddy McGinty's goat.