written Sunday 6 July 2003
Today's problem: how to shake off nausea from the accidentally-viewed, blood-curdling, double-bladed horror of SpongeBob SquarePants IN DUTCH. I needed a day away.
And here's just the thing: in Chicago I had picked up a brochure on an architectural exhibit in two Rotterdam museums, and decided to go. Little known that I spent my first two years of college as an architecture major. So walk 15 minutes from the little apartment to the local train station, do the 7-minute hop to Weesp (try to pronounce it, I dare you), ride the slow stoptrein across South Amsterdam to Schiphol. That was interesting--in the space of 10 km (a third of what I drove each way to work in Florida), the world changed from grass and cows and floating swans and brick and tiles, gradually to stainless steel, marble, and the roar of jet engines and traffic, and plastic-paneled advertisements in neutered, common-denominator English. The train I was supposed to board from Schiphol to Rotterdam turned out to be the Thalys bullet train to Paris, which required reservations. Rude of the www.ns.nl (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) web site not to mention that. Pffff. I go upstairs and find another train to Rotterdam leaving in 12 minutes, time for a toilet break. As it turns out, I lost no real time, since the Dutch haven't yet improved their tracks, rendering France's proud bullet train more of a BB train.
We ride. I think about a traveling life. However much it seems to be active, a life of initiative if there ever was one, that's not how it feels. One steps from train to train, and from train to plane, and from plane to taxi, and if you just sit long enough in each seat you end up where you need to be. It's tiring but not really an effort. And at the end of each trip you find an adapter and plug in the laptop and work in Florida or Illinois or Europe or on KLM, and you eventually get hungry and someone brings the food you asked for, and you get thirsty and take a drink, and find the toilet, all without really knowing or caring for the moment where you are. And then it's time for the next flight. Expensive as it is, delays though there are, things work more or less automatically. Someone else is taking care of everything. Some initiative.
We pass in rapid succession by some towns you may have heard of: Haarlem, Leiden, Den Haag. I give Den Haag the prize for being the city name most thoroughly misinterpreted among the languages. The Hague in English. Le Havre in French. And the real Dutch call it...'S-Gravenhage. Whatever it's name, I imagined the Queen riding her bicycle to work (she does). Except that it's Sunday. And I dearly hoped that that Liberian jackass was on his way, whether he thought he was or not, to the World Court passing by my window. The train turned hard left, through Delft, by Vlaardingen, and into Rotterdam Centraal.
Visually, three aspects dominate Rotterdam. First, thanks to the Luftwaffe it is largely a new city. Further, it is easily the most American-looking city I have experienced in Europe. Parts of it could pass for Chicago or New Orleans or any other beefy American port city. As I understand it, the city is the brains and the downstream ports are the muscles of this one organism, the busiest port in Europe.
Second, of course Rotterdam is dominated by water, but in a manner as powerful and muscular as Amsterdam's manner is quaint.
Rotterdam's business life and sea life work together, in fact are shoulder-to-shoulder, nearly blended.
Walking along one wide sidewalk, I stepped over squares into which hands had been pressed into the setting concrete. There were hundreds of them. One was signed Willie Nelson, and the prints were so fat that I understand why never played piano. Tina Turner. Lots of Dutch and British. John Denver.
Some rivers like the Mississippi at New Orleans impress only with their size. Others like the Mississippi at Memphis (where, by the way it is much bigger and faster) have a feel of size and power. The Maas (pictured) is another such mighty river. It has an incredibly substantial feel: it will find its own way, it would laugh at any dam. It is no waterway for private pleasure boats.
And to arrive at Rotterdam's third visual aspect: A mighty river merits mighty bridges. Upstream, to the east, the Willembrug dominates the Maas. I crossed it on foot in both directions, and the senses of its weight and height and of massive walls of water crossing beneath (not to mention oil tankers) can be felt somehow through your skin and spine.
This worthy sailor passed under me as I crossed the Willembrug.
But even better lay downstream, to the west and the North Sea.
The Erasmusbrug is beyond great and grand--it is a heroic bridge. There is no way to resist it. It is probably impossible to photograph it in any way it deserves. At first glance you disbelieve your eyes, stunned, and then you can't take your eyes off it. It crosses the mighty river in a single span supported by ONE tower on the south bank. It is a work of art, and if it was designed to impress, it succeeds undeniably.
Inspired, I arrive at the museum. And the exhibits dealt with macroarchitecture, my favorite: the study of complex systems--airports, hospitals, transport centers including busy motorways. The first exhibit included ten personal vehicles representing 10 urban areas with transport problems: Mexico City, Pearl River Valley, the Netherlands' own Randstad, and on. Los Angeles they choose to represent by a white Bronco.
The exhibits were full of ideas, and I'm glad I saw it. Unfortunately, the brilliant cohabited democratically with the "ungrounded" (a kind term for "stupid"). One more starry-eyed sophomore's glossy presentation of "why the answer to global population is in colonizing the planets" will kill me--where is their calculator? One presentation projected several video streams (of actually pretty good lectures) onto...floating auto windshields. As though this will help me understand their subject. Worst: by the end of 3 hours I had read too many exhibits that helpfully explained (and I quote from one): "Before engaging with a specific design task, the design resources that enable and limit any specific design effort are systematically probed. The agenda here is to critically reflect the discipline of architecture as it is condensed in its most fundamental concepts." Reminding me of exactly why, at 20 years of age, I quit architecture.
Toward the end was a wonderful is slightly self-satisfied description of the arrival of fast train service to the Netherlands. The Amsterdam station will be south of the city, not at the main Amsterdam Centraal station. This smells to me like Amsterdam downtown is surrendering, that it will be relegated to Disney tourist staus while all the real business happens in Amsterdam Zuid. Still, they'll love the Thalys itself when it is freed by anchored and laser-straight tracks to do what it does best--to fly. The fast tracks now extend northward only to about Brussels. A couple of years ago I rode Thalys from Brussels to Paris and passed Charles de Gaulle airport on my left. The departing jumbo jets appeared to float backwards. We were faster.
Sunday was Rotterdam's day to suffer Harley Horrors and Harlots. Ah well, transient cutthoats and harpies have been passing through the Old Harbor (pictured) for hundreds of years. Tradition lives on, I suppose.
The basic design of drawbridges hasn't changed much since Van Gogh's day, except that they are bigger, stronger, and not made of wood beams anymore. The Dutch pay great attention to safety, so here's a quiz: "what's the greatest danger of this kind of bridge?" OK, examine it carefully. Think winter...
...Right! On the bridge controller's door this sign reads: "When there's snow or ice, chance of falling ice." OK, then. Imagine after a night of freezing rain, you've stopped your car for the bridge to lift. Far above you, the back of that great ice-laden arm comes to point down at your car roof. Tons of ice loosen.
On the walk back to the station, I passed a street named Rodezand. Cool!--I knew what it meant: red sand. Probably a historical name. I looked up and down the streets, along each high wall, and to the base of each tree. No dirt anywhere--every square centimeter was covered with concrete, asphalt, tiles, bricks. Now I'll never know if some settler 700 years ago named his goat path, in the literal Dutch manner, after the red sand that I suppose is still buried under all that manic progress.
Out the train window on the way back. A massive concrete corridor passes alongside. The thick, ultrasmooth concrete ribbon I'm watching is very expensive construction, and I realize...that's to support Thalys. In 2008, they say, ten years after the French managed it. Well, after all it did take the Dutch 9 tries to install my phone.
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