Downwind of Amsterdam
August 2003

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August 21, 2003

Visiting the US

The first odd thing was: getting in the Visitors line to enter the US. Just passing through, folks.

There are things to like in America, and there are things to like better in Europe:

America: The first thing I noticed was the smell of chlorine everywhere--the bathrooms, the tap water, the hotel hallways.

Music, or music-like noises, everywhere, too. Every public place has to have a sound track--hotel lobbies, restaurants, airports, shopping malls, satellite radio in the rental car. Even parks have speakers bolted to the trees. Either Americans love bad music, or they use it to protect them from thinking.

You can get Dr. Pepper in the Netherlands now. Civilization arrives just in time for me.

The Netherlands are cleaner. (That is not obvious, though, when you visit Chicago, which is one of America's cleaner cities.) I do appreciate the Netherlands toilet stalls: private, tiled in, doors that lock. American toilet stalls offend both ear and nose with the little panel between the, er, seated participants.

The Dutch drivers are incredibly better skilled than average American drivers. And the bicycle paths are so extremely excellent. Americans have nice bike paths through parks and along old rail lines in the countrysides, but bicycles are just not used the same way, and protected paths don't line every major street. In America, cars rule; in the Netherlands cars yield.

Dutch staircases are a mortal hazard. I really hate them. Already I carry scars on my shins, calves, and shoes. I don't understand why Europe's biggest feet are forced to negotiate its smallest stairsteps. You have to go up and down all stairways here with your feet sideways--there is no way a shoe will fit in a safe way. Yes, space is precious here, but New York and San Francisco, crowded as they are, manage without deadly stairways.

And Starbucks: forget coffee--we're talking latte, toffee nut latte, mocha, caramel, vanilla, white chocolate, apple mocha, valencia, americano, cappucino, frappucino, crappucino. "Oh and could I get that double cupped?" "Oh, I wanted that with no cream." "Oh, I wanted that with low-fat, no-fat, reduced fat, skim milk." "How much is that, excuse me I have to answer my cell phone." And you realize you're waiting in line behind three cell-phone users, while the counter clerks are answering the house phone. All this for coffee almost as good as what Europeans throw out at day's end.

My first meal back in the US was at a burrito restaurant I had wanted to try. I got this enormous thing with my 20 ounce (600 mL) root beer, and I wondered how people in the US could eat like this and not grow big as houses. I looked around--they were big as houses. I left half on my plate, and went across Barrington Road to get practically all my US shopping done--on a Sunday afternoon. Try that in the Netherlands.

Back at the hotel room, I decided I couldn't stand the tap water, so I drove to Office Depot for a 28-pack of 1/2-liter bottles, for $6. Enough for the week. I walked in to this cavernous neighborhood shop, and laughed out loud. Except for IKEA Amsterdam, I had not been in a store this large in three months in the Netherlands--and in the US this store was not even anything special.

I spent Thursday recovering from Wednesday's 10-ounce (300 gram) hamburger. I bought a suitcase to replace the wonderful one the Schiphol airport had destroyed on the way over. Thanks a lot.

The week of work had gone well enough, and then the parents "just happened to come through the Midwest" in time to share a weekend around Chicago. We ate our way to gastric oblivion at a place in Schaumburg famous for real Chicago pizza, "not that Pizzeria Uno stuff." Saturday we tooled around towns near my US office, at some towns I might want to live in when I return to the US--someday. Sunday, OK Sunday we went downtown. Chicago, one of the world's great cities. (Check out my April-May archives for great details.)

Something I forgot to mention here in April: the previous time I'd spend any time in downtown Chicago, years ago, there were a lot of people talking to no one visible, looking up at the buildings and sky as they spoke about this subject or that, ignoring you or stumbling into you, looking at their watch, talking, talking, talking. That is, quite insane. This trip, everyone talked to no one visible but with a phone to his ear, looking up at the buildings and sky, disorented, running into you, or stepping in front of buses. Talking, talking, talking. I'm not sure this is an improvement.

A highlight of the day was the top floor of the John Hancock tower. Great view of Chicago, even hazy as it was. Navy pier gleamed in the noonday.

And Chicago stuns with its muscular presence as seen from any angle. Though you can't tell here, this urban density stretches for miles.

The building at the previous picture's upper left corner has a swimming pool on the roof. How much steel does it take to support the weight of all that water? But a roof provides the city's only outdoor privacy.

Or maybe not so much privacy...

Sunday's highlight downtown was the Air and Water Show. Over Chicago's Lake Michigan shore, airplane pilots show off low over the water, just beyond which boaters picnic and look up. And from the John Hancock building, we are looking down on the show.

At left, Chicago's near north side. That's nice. At right my father's full head of hair. That's not fair.

posted by eric at 16.27 CET | Permalink | Comments (4)

August 10, 2003

Eemdijk (I dare you to pronounce it)

This is the story of how a 40 km ride ended up being a 70 km ride. Sore legs and all.

OK, the Eemmeer is a small sea just to the east of the Gooimeer. The Stichtse Brug, over which I've ridden several times already, separates them. What they don't tell you is that (1) most roads of the Eem River region are dead-ends, and (2) that the bridge over the Eem (at Eemdijk--the name should have been my first hint) is actually a FERRY...a ferry that sits dead on the water every Sunday.

So: Sunday morning I saddle up to ride to the, er bridge at Eemdijk. The start of a long day.

But a good one.

Someone Else was up for breakfast even earlier than I.

And Someone Else has friends. This is three minutes' ride east of my apartment: over the A1 motorway, down the hill and across the polder. No separation at all between you and the big guys who live there. There's nothing to be done for it but just to peddle through and hope no bull takes offense.

After backtracking several times in deep farmland, on roads mismarked by the "official" ANWB bike map, at last I find a road east to the town of Eemdijk. Well, almost to Eemdijk. At the end of the road is the Eem River, on which sits the ferry that doesn't run today. So I do five kilometers upstream (south) to the closest bridge at--three guesses--Eembrugge. And of course five kilometers back downstream. 10000 meters to cover (the GPS assures me) 40 meters. We will not declare this Efficiency Day.

Though as every traveller knows, sidetrips offer little gifts of their own. Had the ferry been running, I would never have seen this wonderful little private harbor off the Eem.

And here I cast a wistful glance westward from Eemdijk proper, across the Eem to the spot where I took the previous photo.

Stone jetties into shallow water, ducks, old boats, sleek modern windmills drying out muddy marshes for cows. You can see a lot of Netherlands from this spot (Spakenburg harbor).

And around the Eemmeer, through Huizen, to my little place. Just in time to pack for America.

posted by eric at 20.05 CET | Permalink | Comments (3)

August 5, 2003

Circumnavigating Gooimeer

The title sounds vaguely like one of those precious new teen movies...Ahem...

The Gooimeer is a small sea--I suppose we should say "lake" now that the Markerwaarddijk has rendered all this water fresh--bordered on the south by het Gooi (which you know by now are the highlands--and I apply the term loosely--around Naarden, Bussum, and Hilversum), on the west by the Hollandse Brug (a bridge linking Muiden and Flevoland), on the north by Flevoland, and on the east by the Stichtse Brug (a bridge linking Huizen and Flevoland). It's not so much that bridges by themselves constitute a natural boundary for lakes, but remember that we are talking about one section of the narrow, remaining waterway separating new Flevoland from historical Netherlands. The narrower places in this long boundary waterway are both natural places to put bridges and natural places to separate lakes by name. So: Gooimeer.

The point is: Saturday morning I cycled all the way around the Gooimeer.

There's only one town on the Gooimeer's north shore, on the Flevoland side: Almere Haven. The real city, Almere Stad, is several kilometers inland. Here the Dutch excavated a harbor from the mud and fabricated around it what looks like an instant luxury town. It reminds me of an American luxury tourist hotel built to remind you of a European village. "OK, let's all be luxurious now. Let's see, we'll need a harbor, and some Indonesian restaurants, and when you've put in the last paving stone you'll almost feel like you are somewhere."

I don't know. If it's so easy to cookie-cutter the Good Life, I somehow start to lose track of the point.

Gooimeer at dawn. Again with the resemblance to Florida. Except that the water is cleaner, and the people, too.

For this picture I walked my bicycle through weeds all the way to the end of Almere Haven's pier. Honk if you appreciate the effort. The tower far across the water is Naarden's church steeple, which the GPS says is only 2370 meters from my apartment.

And this is taken from high atop the Stichtse Brug, looking west along Flevoland's manufactured, geometrically perfect south shore on the Gooimeer. The tower at far left is in Almere Haven. This bridge is the highest above sea level I have been since I landed at Schiphol airport three months ago.

Speaking of airplanes...I'm flying to America next Sunday. Is THIS going to feel weird!--A whole new chapter in cultural disorientation--in reverse this time--for your voyeuristic titillation.

posted by eric at 19.59 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 4, 2003

On to Amsterdam

It was time to wheel my way westward to...Amsterdam! The amazing part is that I followed tree-lined, dedicated bike paths all the way into the heart of the city. Try that in New York or Chicago.

You see these things here, once in a while. The sign between the double speed-limit signs is especially informative: De Molen. "The windmill." First word pronounced Duh.

Farther along, I realize how similar summer in the Netherlands can be to Florida. This scene could be along any Gulf Coast estuary. The elements are similar after all: shallow water, sandy soil. The resemblance can be so remarkable that I am a bit surprised that they don't make me homesick for Florida. Not now, anyway--let's see how that goes next winter.

I had my first bike crash somewhere in the Oud-Zuid, just south of the Vondelpark. Turned a sandy corner, went down. I've learned a long time ago to sacrifice the bike and spare the knees and elbows and head. I'll have to replace the left pedal, but all told it wasn't too bad. At worst I could have rolled the bike thirty minutes to the nearest train station.

So while I chewed lunch at the Museumplein I got out pliers, straighted out the fenders, reset the bent pedal, and tightened a couple of loose cables. So it's a pretty tough bike. And I've promised myself that I wouldn't do the picture postcard thing with this blog--the temptation in Amsterdam is of course great--but here I'm going to allow myself just two. When I consumed my the rest of my sandwich and Spa Blauw, the Concertgebouw (yes, that Concertgebouw) stood to the left of my park bench...

...while the Rijksmuseum stood to my right. Not bad.

On that park bench I finished a book, watched a couple of birds, availed myself of the half-euro openbare toiletten, and started back to Bussum.

Generally, bicycles have right-of-way over everything, but I've learned that there is one exception--boats passing drawbridges. On a Sunday afternoon they can be expected to swarm on both sides of a key bridge like this one halfway home, on the central canal in the village of Weesp. Bicyclists, accustomed to dominion over the quick and the dead, wait but are not amused.

Perhaps you'll think I don't make much of this day. "What did you do yesterday, Eric?" "Oh, I got bored and just biked over to Amsterdam." But at this point in my life I seem to be immune to surprise. Yes, it was great to bike into Amsterdam, but if it's been there for hundreds of years, it will be there next weekend and the next, and if it rains there's a train every 30 minutes, costing only loose change. It's amazingly easy for all this to become mere background.

And then at home I put the bike away and open the window, and there's a hot air balloon glowing in the setting sun. Just when I begin to be inured, this goes and happens. This is such a peaceful place. Damn. I really do like it.

posted by eric at 22.59 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 3, 2003

't Gooi! Flevoland!

Here they come! Some of you readers have complained via e-mail that this blog has slowed down. OK, then, fasten your seat belts, check your airbags--this blog has WHEELS, and in chronicling my summer rides around the Netherlands, I have some catching up to do--some tales to tell, some pictures to show.

First: test ride to Hilversum and 'S-Graveland. On the twelfth, I rode to Hilversum, the next village to the south. It seemed like a long ride, but it's utterly laughable now--the whole afternoon trip was only 30 kilometers, and I never even got out of 't Gooi, the relatively high-and-dry part of the Netherlands I live in. OK, granted I had to buy some maps and things at the ANWB shop in Hilversum, and have lunch, and granted I got obsessed with getting a GPS fix on the Media City tower (tallest landmark in central Netherlands, useful for later navigation). And granted most of the riding was on gravel bike paths. Still, I can't believe what an adventure I found this short trip.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and in Hilversum's center square they had dumped sand and put up a volleyball net. It could have been any Florida beach, except I suppose for the Dutch gable-topped houses all around. Here they players are giving it their best, and coaches are doing what they typically do best. At least that's universal.

Hilversum is a very attractive, wooded town, one of the wealthiest in the Netherlands. The Gemeentehuis, more or less the city hall, is done in a 1930s style that manages to appear impressively massive without appearing clunky; and for that it is justifiably famous. Just after taking this picture, before I could even get my feet on the bike pedals, a driver stopped to ask for directions to Media City. And I was able to tell him without my reverting to English--or without his doing so which is more common.

Fortunately Media City, a large complex of studios and electronic broadcasting buildings, was not far. A lot of the buildings look like this one--the first thing I noticed is how many satellite dishes each building supports, and the second thing was the low angle at which they are aimed. I don't think we're near the Equator any more.

In the polders (land reclaimed from marshes or shallow lakes, more or less dry and drained by a network of canals), cows rule. This bull did not appreciate my taking his photo, and began to stomp, snort, generally appear unsociable. I wasn't sure whether he was trying to impress me or the cow to his left, but either way I was pretty sure he couldn't or wouldn't cross the shallow canal. Only pretty sure. And in case he did charge, I really wasn't sure my bike could outrun him. So I pedalled: what I wasn't up for that afternoon was some Pamplona-In-The-Polders.

I rode through 'S-Graveland, a decent little village, and then home, so that about does it for my description of that ride.

No, no, no, you don't get off that easily.

Next: Flevoland. The most obvious facts about the Netherlands are that they have lots of shallow water and lots of people. Over the centuries they have converted some of that shallow water into more or less dry land, for more cows and people, a little bit here and a little bit there. A few decades back they got more ambitious and drained the Haarlemmermeer to build the world's ninth busiest airport, Schiphol. But for sheer scale and audacity, nothing can top the creation of Flevoland.

So I rode northwest, crossed the soaring Hollandse Brug over the west end of the Gooimeer, and descended into Flevoland. The idea of this artificial island seems to come naturally to the Dutch, but let's remember: it takes up most of what used to be called the Zuider Zee, it is almost entirely below sea level, the water around it has been blocked off from the North Sea so that it is now surrounded by fresh water, and it is seriously large: 50 x 20 kilometers. New York City reclaimed Battery Park, Hong Kong built an airport on a new island, but the Netherlands built a whole new province.

Here is my trusty wheeled steed in my first minutes on Flevoland. Along the right of this path runs the dikes on whose perfection the existence of Flevoland depends. To the left is the IJmeer and across that, Amsterdam. An old-style polder big enough to feed a family might be drained with a single old-style windmill, but bigger drainage projects require bigger technology. Most days, these enormous windmills are turning fast enough to make the air throb, and the birds seem to avoid the sound, which is a good thing: the blade tips are going several hundred kilometers per hour.

The locks at Wilgenbos, on Flevoland's north-west coast, facing the fragment of the Zuider Zee that is now called the Markermeer, which is at sea level. The photo is taken while facing the north-west. Notice that to enter Flevoland's canals, the boats are lowered several meters.

Just next to these locks is a nature center. What kind of nature could exist in a province where no living thing--not even trees--can be over 30 years old? Well--ask the question a different way: who likes shallow water? Right. Sea birds. Flevoland's government and businesses have adopted various sea birds as their symbol, and I have to admit that I have never seen any area--not Louisiana, not Florida, not Canada--with a higher density and variety of sea birds. OK, that's something.

And on this artificial land are new, artificial cities. Of course, all cities are artificial, but think of it--cities with no history whatever. Designed on computers. No local legends. The names of all the neighborhoods and streets and towns competely fabricated. The Dutch do not seem squeamish about this. They needed more land for more people, and so they roll up their sleeves and build hundreds of thousands of pre-fab units and close-pack the workers and their families in labelled cells, as in any efficient industrial warehouse. This is the new Netherlands. They have parks and bicycle paths and canals and places to sail their boats like any other part of the western Netherlands, but still it all had to be thought of at once, like an instant resort, but for workers. It seems so...premeditated.

And diagonally across southern Flevoland to the Stichtse Brug. More windmills to generate power for the pumps. The water on your right is the Gooimeer, and just beyond the bridge is an island called Dode Hond--dead dog. Everything to the left of the water (and 50 kilometers beyond) is artificial. Everthing on the right shore used to look out over the open Zuider Zee.

posted by eric at 22.04 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)