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.
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