Monday, July 24, 2006

Going Dutch

I recently returned from a week of walking in the Netherlands, where I breathed in the North Sea air, ate Dutch pancakes, viewed numerous canals, and saw many paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch people I met were friendly and engaging and most spoke excellent English, thank goodness. Though I'm normally adept at languages, I found Dutch completely baffling.

My trip involved eight to ten miles of walking per day in the company of a small group of fellow Americans and two Dutch guides. We sauntered down city streets and hiked over sand dunes and through pristine Dutch farmland. The main object of my trip, as with all my travels, was to get a sense of the place, to see what the people care about, and how they live. Here are a few of my impressions.

Based on my experience, the Netherlands has the perfect climate--75 degrees and sunny every day (okay, our second day was a bit overcast). One of our guides, Arjen, stressed that this was not typical weather, but my memories of Holland will be of a warm and sunny locale. Apparently, things have gotten still warmer since I returned home, making July the Netherlands' hottest month in 300 years! The temperature has climbed as high as 37 degrees Celsius (around 98 degrees Fahrenheit). Normally, I'm told, the average temperature in July is 17.4 degrees Celsius (around 63 degrees Fahrenheit). Global warming strikes again.

Heat or no heat, it's windy in Holland. Now I see why all those windmills were so effective at grinding grain and reclaiming land. Arjen referred to the almost-constant stiff breeze as the "Dutch wind." Happily, the smell of sea air is often carried by that wind, which makes the air quality quite delightful.

The biggest surprise about the Netherlands? Bicycles--they're everywhere! Who knew? Perhaps I should have, Holland being so flat and gas prices so high. But I hadn't anticipated the Dutch reliance on bikes as a primary mode of transportation or the beautiful and efficient way bike lanes are incorporated into the traffic scheme of cities. Riders and bike racks are ubiquitous. For an American, it takes some getting used to.

My first encounter with a bike occured shortly after we arrived in Amsterdam, at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. My husband, Eric, and I had left Boston at 7 p.m. the night before (there's a six hour time difference). We checked into our hotel and fortified ourselves with breakfast, in the process learning that "over easy" is a concept foreign to the Dutch, or perhaps merely lost in translation. After breakfast, we decided to take an exploratory walk before we collapsed of exhaustion. We left the hotel and I stepped onto the sidewalk, or so I thought. In fact, I had inadvertently entered a bike lane. I heard a softly ringing bell then a skidding of wheels as a bike ridden by a tall middle-aged man came to a stop inches from my derriere.

Only belatedly did I notice that the sidewalks, bike lanes, and roadways, while all made of brick, were carefully delineated by slightly different colors of brick, one red, one yellowish, another soft orange. It turns out that the bell I heard faintly ringing before my near-demise is the main mode of warning employed by Dutch cyclists. Very civilized and understated. (Car traffic is understated as well--I barely heard the sound of a horn during my entire visit.)

And the sheer number of bicycles! Thousands of serviceable bikes, not fancy racing bikes. People don't ride bent forward, as racers do. Instead, they sit impressively erect on their seats and zoom along. They may not be racing, but they really move. Another surprise--no one wears a helmet, not even small children. Arjen contended that few accidents occur. Indeed, the closest collision I witnessed was my own.

Dutch people, I discovered, are tall, very tall. Even the women towered over me and I'm almost 5'5", average height for an American female. In fact, many of the women seemed as tall as their male counterparts. It turns out that recent studies rank the Dutch as the tallest people on the planet. It must be all that bike riding, and a diet rich in dairy probably doesn't hurt.

I know there are poor people in the Netherlands, but I really didn't see them, despite walking all over Amsterdam, Utrecht, Haarlem, and the Dutch countryside. I also didn't see many Muslims during my trip (so far as I could tell, judging by women wearing head scarves), although Holland has a large Muslim population. Despite all the ground we covered while walking, I suspect our guides circumvented the poorest areas. Still, the Netherlands ranks as one of the wealthiest countries in the world. From what I saw, it's a healthy prosperity--most people seem to dress sensibly, have lovely but small apartments and houses, and plenty to eat. No Manolo Blahniks in sight. Not a lot of ostentation. I felt perfectly appropriate in my REI pants and L.L. Bean shirt.

I also felt right at home with the neatness and order evident wherever I travelled in the Netherlands, being something of a neatnik myself. The fact that many Dutch residences don't have curtains on the windows supposedly originated in a desire to show the world that their homes were tidy. Today, it also seems to reflect the quality of openness I experienced throughout Holland.

In accord with a penchant for order, the Netherlands is a country replete with rules. Arjen explained that the Dutch have a rule for everything. But he also described an outlook that saves people from coming off as prissy or sanctimonious--the Dutch are very tolerant of people who break the rules. It's an odd paradox, perhaps one that accounts for Holland's unusual status as both a financial center and a haven for drugs and prostitution.

The rule that most fascinated me was the one regarding squatters. In the Netherlands, if a building is unoccupied for a year, squatters have the right to move in. As I understand it, the building is still owned by the legal owner, who is also still liable for payment of taxes and even utilities. But the building may be occupied and renovated by the squatters. The object of the law is to make sure all available housing is used. Arjen pointed out several buildings currently occupied by squatters. Recently, there's been legislation proposed by conservatives to make it more difficult to squat, but it's met stiff opposition.

Which brings me to the most delightful part of our trip--lunch at the home of our two guides, Arjen and Karin. The two are just friends (Arjen is married), but both reside on a former country estate in Utrecht, once occupied by squatters after standing vacant for the required period, but since converted to sixteen separate apartments--with a catch. Each apartment contains living space but all bathrooms and kitchens are shared, commune-style. The setup resembles a very sedate commune. Arjen characterized two of his fellow residents as hippies from the sixties, whom he said were slobs and never cleaned at all. But having gotten a peek into Arjen's neat living room and having seen the lovely grounds of the estate, I take his word that those two are the exception.

Our lunch was courtesy of another couple who live on the estate with their young daughter. The two started a catering business and were permitted to build a professional kitchen in the estate's former stable. They are proponents of the "slow food" movement, which advocates the use of locally-grown ingredients cooked from scratch. We were treated to a fabulous vegetarian repast, complete with edible flowers. After lunch we took a walk through the beautiful parkland (now public) that surrounds the estate. Arjen, Karin, and the estate's other residents have managed to achieve an enviably gracious lifestyle on modest means.

A couple of final notes: Indonesian food--delicious! And a welcome contrast to the much blander, dairy-rich Dutch diet. Windmills--what an amazing example of Dutch ingenuity. We had the opportunity to climb to the top of a working windmill and see and feel the power of the wind in action. Lastly, Americans--they like us! We felt no hostility during our stay and no one seemed to resent the fact that we could only speak English.

As you can see, I don't have a single negative thing to say about the Netherlands. And I'm not even part-Dutch! If you go, one word of advice. If at all possible, find someone Dutch to show you around. It makes all the difference.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Gone to the Dogs

For most of my life, no one could have accused me of being a dog person. In fact, I loathed dogs, right down to their wagging tails. All their supposed virtues were wasted on me—I refused to pet even the most mild-mannered animals, I heard every bark as hostile, and I absolutely hated being jumped on, no matter how playfully. Dog hairs on furniture? Scooping poop? I thought dog owners were nuts.

My aversion began when I was six years old and my parents brought home a dachshund puppy. Our new dog arrived on Christmas morning, so we named him Blitzen, after one of Santa’s flying reindeer. Given his low-lying physique, though, our Blitzen could barely waddle, let alone leap into the air and take flight. Someone else might have found him cute, but I was horrified. This frankfurter on legs was not my idea of a dog.

To make matters worse, my parents didn’t have a clue about canine behavior. My mother took everything Blitzen did personally. If he soiled the carpet, he was getting back at her for not feeding him on time. If he barked incessantly, it was to annoy her. Nor did my parents grasp even the rudiments of dog training. If they had, things might have been different. As it was, during his sojourn in our house, Blitzen ruled.

This became frighteningly clear to me the first time I walked him. I was under strict instructions not to let him pick up anything from the street. Blitzen immediately latched onto the round paper cover of a Good Humor Dixie cup. I grabbed the cover’s edge and tried to pull it from his mouth, but the dog had a death grip on the flimsy piece of cardboard. He growled savagely and looked into my eyes with unalloyed hatred until I relinquished his prize.

Blitzen must have terrorized my parents during walks as well, because they began letting him out on his own. One day, he simply failed to return. My father searched for him and, finding no flattened remains, assured us that Blitzen would come back soon. To everyone’s secret relief, he never did.

A year later, we were driving past a nearby playground when I spotted a boy walking a portly dachshund—Blitzen. My parents were only too happy to let Blitzen remain with his new family. I couldn’t have agreed more. Of course, the primary beneficiary of this decision was Blitzen himself. An intelligent creature, he’d taken matters into his own paws and found a home with people who loved him and actually knew how to handle him.

My aversion to dogs was seriously reinforced some years later, when I was in college during the sixties. It was the Age of Aquarius and students allowed their pets the same total freedom they demanded for themselves. Roving packs of canines ran unfettered on the campus. Though the animals never showed the slightest interest in me, they presented an alarming picture, rising over the crest of the hill like a pack of wolves on the prowl, and heading straight for the main quadrangle where I often walked.

The dogs were even more poorly groomed than their long-haired owners. Worst among them was a once-elegant Afghan, whose hopelessly matted fur gave him a wild, maniacal appearance. I was terrified of the Afghan and his roving pack, but given the hang-loose demands of the era, I couldn’t let on. Still, I never crossed the quad without a heavy book bag for protection.

Naturally, I had no interest in getting a dog of my own. The first time I even considered the idea was years later, when my husband and I began to think about having a child. I wondered, was I ready for the responsibility? Perhaps I should practice on a dog. One trip to the pet store was all it took to convince me otherwise. No sooner did I pick up a long-haired dachshund puppy than I began wheezing and sneezing uncontrollably. Not only was I afraid of dogs—evidently, I was allergic to them, too. That’s it, I decided. A dog might be someone else’s best friend, but never mine.

Time and the birth of two children did little to change my mind. When my older son was an infant, I lived in fear of the Doberman down the street. A six-foot fence designed to restrain him didn’t do much to reassure me—every time I pushed my son’s stroller by it, I noticed with alarm that the dog’s frantic attempts to clear the hurdle were improving daily.

Just as success seemed imminent, the Doberman left town. For a while, I only had to contend with Ginger, the overweight beagle who lived next door and liked to relieve herself in our yard. As the years passed, though, more dogs moved into the neighborhood—first a border collie, then a Cairn terrier and a Pekinese. Eventually, almost every family had a dog. My two sons, now teenagers, begged for a puppy, but I resisted. Then friends who lived across the street got a miniature schnauzer. I was surprised. Hadn’t their younger daughter just left for college? Why get a dog now, with no children at home clamoring for one? Apparently, that was exactly the point. Faced with an empty nest, my friends filled the void with their puppy, Maxwell.

They doted on Maxwell, talked baby-talk to him, tied a bandanna around his neck. They took him everywhere. No food was too good for him. Clearly, they’d lost their senses. Or had they? Even I could see that an adorable little puppy might comfort me when my kids went off to college. And weren’t dogs known for their unswerving loyalty, their uncritical devotion? Compared to my kids, who were embarrassed by my every move, an animal that offered unconditional love had its appeal.

But how would my sons react if, after all their pleading, I finally got a dog only when they’d gone? They’d never forgive me. I realized the time to get a dog was now.

It had to be a hypoallergenic variety, of course—if there was such a thing. And it had to be small—I needed the advantage of size. After investigating numerous breeds, I opted for a toy poodle. Under fifteen inches tall, it wouldn’t be able to jump higher than my knees. And with hair instead of fur, it was less likely to provoke allergy attacks. Plus, poodles were regarded as smart and easy to train. As for my kids, they were willing to accept any breed, so long as it had four paws and a tail.

When we brought Cosmo home at eight weeks, he looked more like a furry mouse than a dog. I had prepared for his arrival by reading every book I could find about dog training, yet the first time he made a puddle on the kitchen floor, I panicked. What had possessed me to get a dog? I had visions of Blitzen, urinating regularly behind my mother’s favorite sofa, expressly to torture her. Cosmo must have sensed my misgivings, since he promptly got the message—within a week, he housebroke himself.

I had to admit he was cute, with his wagging little pom-pom of a tail. But when I tried to brush that tail, he growled at me. Again, I saw the specter of Blitzen, terrorizing the family. In desperation, I hired a trainer, who began initiating me into the mysteries of pack animals. Apparently, the solution was for me to become a dog! And not just any dog—the leader of Cosmo’s pack.

Somehow, I rose to the challenge. I learned to dominate Cosmo, mastering various commands—sit, stay, come. If he started chewing on my sock, I could tell him to drop it, and most of the time he actually did. During walks, Cosmo learned to heel—he quickly realized that if he didn’t obey, I could simply pick him up, all seven pounds of him, and carry him home.

The reward for my effort? I’ve become the object of Cosmo’s adoration. Even my husband and sons have to play second fiddle. Cosmo follows me everywhere, sleeps in my room, eats when I eat. It may be absurd, but I’m deeply flattered by his attention. We spend countless hours together—long walks, play sessions, cozy evenings on the couch. And I certainly spend more time and money on his grooming than I do on my own.

To think that an animal so small could overcome a lifetime of aversion. In fact, some might say that Cosmo’s got me pretty well trained. He’s certainly found his way into my heart. And no one is more surprised by my transformation to dog-lover than me.