Downwind of Amsterdam
October 2003

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October 19, 2003

Well, A Day Above Ground

I knew the risks. I really did. The NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, that is, the Dutch railways) had red boxes all over the internet schedules I printed the night before. Still, I launched. The plan: train from here to Alkmaar in the center of the North Holland peninsula, bike the half hour to the North Sea and down the coast as far as I felt like, Zandvoort for sure, maybe Noordwijk if the Wind Gods smiled. Ha.

The chaos was even worse than the updated MAP (105 kB) shows.

The train from Bussum to Weesp was late. This in turn made me miss the train to Amsterdam Centraal--half an hour lost. The next connection to Alkmaar was on time but stopped in Wormerveer, and everyone had to get off. The tracks were messed up between there and two stations up, Uitgeest. Everyone ELSE got on a bus, but with my bike I had to, well, bike to Uitgeest. Not happy. Waited for the next train to Alkmaar. It is almost 1 pm before I get on the bike. Very poor form, NS. And not to be outdone by the NS, local road work on the southwest side of Alkmaar added twenty minutes' riding time.

The sun is already on its way down before I get to to Egmond aan Zee, a delightful little village on the North Sea, with a very high dune perfect for a lighthouse. The weather was a little cold but otherwise glorious.

From Egmond, winding my way down brick bike paths. Dodging lots of bike traffic--I think everyone was commiserating about this being the last good weekend of the year. Of course all this talk was in Dutch, so it's entirely possible they were talking about kidney surgery.

Castricum aan Zee looks great on the map, but it amounts to two dunes, each of which topped by a beer hall and a mobile-phone tower. And bicycle parking of course.

Practically all the Dutch resorts on the North Sea are extremely pleasant little villages, but the beaches themselves are, well, crude. The pavement just sort of deteriorates by the meter, and you're on sand. That's it. Wijk aan Zee (pictured above) is a perfect example. This is where I sat for lunch (4 pm), which I opened and promptly spilled into the sand and wind. Not a good day.

Since the Beverwijk train station was only a few km away, I went exploring south to the mouth of the IJ river and through the local industrial area.

I wish I hadn't. Not to mention: yet another bad omen. This is just 2 km south of Wijk aan Zee. I rode for twenty minutes past a hell of smoke, noise, rusting factories.

And finally there are too many bad omens to deny. My luck seriously ran out. The ferry across the IJ wasn't running. It was beginning to get cold and dark. The combination meant I needed to head straight for the Beverwijk train station and get started home. But they were running fewer trains, and Beverwijk's (one) ticket machine was broken, and the line was so long to the ticket counter that the train left before I could buy mine. The next station, Heemskerk, was only 4 km up the tracks, so I started for there--that station was closed today, no trains at all. The only station in the area that I knew for absolutely sure was open was...the one I rode in on that morning--12 km away. The direct road is closed for construction. I would have been laughing at this point, but my face was beginning to get stiff from the cold. I dodge traffic through Assendelft, apparently the only town in the Netherlands who hate cyclists enough to provide no bike paths. I get to Wormerveer (that's why my route on the bike map looks so odd), and of course the train is late. The connection out of Amsterdam Centraal is late. The connection out of Weesp is late, and there is no place to sit. I bike home from Naarden-Bussum in the dark. I eat as though I hadn't eaten all day (which was almost true). I drink a liter of water and a half-liter of coffee and wrap myself in two blankets. I sleep like the dead.

Americans say "any day above ground is a good day." Maybe. But next weekend I think I'll stay in my little apartment and read.

posted by eric at 22.42 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 12, 2003

Very Casual Bike Trip

Again, here's a -->MAP<-- (100 kb): this weekend's rides in red, previous rides in black.

The wind changed. Yesterday's trip eastbound from the North Sea; today's trip starts in a place chosen more or less at random, westward more or less at random. I unload the bike at the Baarn train station, and immediately I'm riding through the cold Vuursche forest, through the tree-canopied village of Lage Vuursche, apparently a popular Sunday-morning pancake stop. Just outside the village's west edge, at the edge of a bike path, a mother and daughter shiver and hold a third bicycle while a man perhaps 50 meters away walks back to them. Behind him steams a patch of grass.

Past the noplace-with-a-name Hollandsche Rading, through the utterly nondescript town of Nieuw-Loosdrecht, and finally on a road through the middle of the Loosdrechtse Plassen, a wide very shallow pond lined with hundreds of large boats. The wealth in the piers is amazing. Never has so much tonnage tried to float on so little water.

It is still early morning when I roll past a busy local airport. I have to see: I turn back. I learned to fly a few years ago, in a place as mountainous as North Holland is flat. At least here you don't have to worry about the "clouds being full of rocks." Though quiet as it seems here, Schiphol airport, the world's seventh busiest, is uncomfortably close for my taste.

Other cyclists watch, too. Flying attracts all ages, but I gather it's mostly a "guy thing" here, too.

Somewhere on the road near Muyeveld. A snack somehow tastes better when your feet hang off a pier, over water.

You'll remember that the New York City area began Dutch. This Breukelen was first, though.

On Brooklyn's west side is the East River. On Breukelen's west side is the Amsterdam-Rijn (Rhine) canal.

The road along the Nieuwkoopse Plassen (essentially a swamp), west out of Noordse Buurt, was too narrow to share. I detoured toward Noordse Dorp. But halfway, a few meters before the old church, a causeway cut directly across the water, just a few centimeters above the water level. There was even a bench. I had lunch and read a few pages of Pascal with an extra shirt between me and the cold wind.

A long field near Aarlenderveen. This young woman will try something new in a few minutes. This guy is showing her how not to die.

Some are content to remain stuck in the mud and watch...

...But not her.

Afterwards, repacking in a high wind is just as amusing. (Maybe not to them.)


And westward to Alphen aan den Rijn and the train home. Not a big day's ride, not a heroic one--just very a pleasant one. Sometimes I wonder, though, how strange it is that this could have become everyday to me.

posted by eric at 15.46 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 11, 2003

Into Hades and Safely Back Out

Last weekend saw a couple of long rides, the map being -->HERE<-- (100 kb). Saturday from the coast and east to Weesp; Sunday from Baarn west through Breukelen to Alphen aan den Rijn.

After flawless train rides into a strong wind (so as to bike back downwind!), I unloaded at Zandvoort Aan Zee (roughly: sand castle on the sea, that is, the North Sea). From the little train station, the coast was only a couple of hundred meters. The flags in front of the all-but-abandoned resort hotels stood out straight, in my direction.


For no real reason other than not wanting to ride along the tracks I had watched out the train window, I turned north for a few kilometers, and rode through more very attractive dunes.

Both tourists and the Dutch seem to have the good taste to admire Haarlem (the real one).

A Haarlem market, Saturday morning. It is amazing how easy it is to get used to scenes like this when you've been here just a few months.


I meandered eastward towards Hoofddorp, in no particular hurry. Across the canal from Zuid-Schalkwijk (just try to pronounce it), I watched this couple make excellent time.

And I came unexpectedly to the west side of Schiphol airport. This jet had just landed and raised some interest--a US-flagged jet with no other markings. (I wonder if they were watching us as much as we were watching them.)

This little guy seems lost on a large spool of tubing left by the runway.

I had really wanted to see this foam bus terminal in Hoofddorp. Wired magazine had a picture of it, and I found the main bus terminal west of the train station, but I'll be damned if I could find the foam thing.

Out the east side of Hoofddorp is this utterly hideous American-style nightmare: fuel-burdened international jets howling overhead out of Schiphol, noisy stinking freeways full of rude drivers, fast food belching toxic burger smoke--all the worst parts of one possible overcrowded future.

If the Netherlands must become even more (over-)crowded, I hope they choose a better way than this.

Not that the Netherlands' silent majority much care.

Away from Schiphol and Hoofddorp-Hades, things quieted rapidly. Alsmeer, De Kwakel, Uithoorn, and across the Amstel river at Nessersluis on this cable-drawn ferry, for 35 cents. The map (top of this post) doesn't show it well, but the path was serpentine so that I advanced eastward only slowly. Rather than continue home to Bussum, I stopped at the Weesp train station to save myself an hour's ride.

Tomorrow the wind will shift 180 degrees, I will ride west to east.

posted by eric at 23.35 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 5, 2003


Last weekend I had a nice ride at the north tip of North Holland that I need to write about...but first I'll tell about some other things going on "between rides." Let's start with the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands' national museum. A wonder. Worth the trip.

Half of it is under repair, and after two days I haven't completed the open half. More than meets the eye. Paintings and church interiors are where it's at in Dutch art. No historical powerhouse of literature or music, but the density of talent in painting is just dumbfounding. Painting for various purposes, too. Single, family, and group portraits, landscapes (generally horizontal), church interiors, scenes of home life, often gently satirical. The scale sometimes modest for fireplace mantels, sometimes grand to record victories at sea or groups of men at a specific place and time.

I didn't expect to recognize such similarity between present day views and many paintings' content. The rooflines and canals have changed little in 400 years. And the Dutch still carefully place patches of trees to distract from the otherwise flat horizons here. Church steeples are still made in the odd, dumpy, dunce-cap-on-square-brick-pillar manner (even so, they are landmarks much appreciated by bicyclists). For all the frequency of international intermarriage and other sources of Dutch social change, you can still pick out in the modern Dutch people themselves certain characteristics emphasized in 1600's portraits: the sloppy hair, the weathered skin of those over 30, and that very slight overbite so helpful of speaking the language and so beloved of Dutch cartoonists and TV puppet designers.

The paintings do suggest some modern differences from the past. Everywhere in the 17C and 18C paintings, men and women are writing, printing, reading reading reading. What happened to all that? Where are today's bookstores? Why are the people on KLM flights reading novels and magazines in English? Where are the Dutch novel writers? To this question I've heard that "the small number of Dutch readers doesn't justify such effort, when they all read English anyway" I don't buy it. I have two responses of my own. (1) That sure doesn't stop the French, and (2) If you don't give people a distinct reason to use a language, it is doomed. By strong contrast, the French go far, far out of their way to encourage "Francophonie." OK, yes, the Rijksmuseum is a source of pride in Dutch heritage, but what about the Dutch language? Who is ensuring that the Dutch language doesn't go the way of Occitan, Catalan, Welsh, Corsican, Irish?

I have to say something about the museum visitors, too--Dutch, French and Belgian, English, American, German. First: what is it with the cameras? What exactly is it that people believe they are gaining when they use their little digital camera to snap a Rembrandt? (Besides which, their pictures are all blurred--it's dark, and the museum throws you out for using a flash.) In the time these optical obstacles stand waiting for others to clear a visual path, they could actually be--gasp--looking at the painting. And what is it with the audiocassettes? If one doesn't read Dutch or English, fine, they are probably necessary, but is it really necessary to fall into a collision-prone daze just because you've spent 2 Euros for a hopefully sanitized headset? You can't avoid these people--it's almost as if they hunt you down to crush your feet or knock you down as you--shame on you--try to concentrate on why you bothered to come. These abstracted bumper-tourists are worse than teenage drivers with cell phones, and I can't imagine a worse epithet.

Ahem. It is characteristic that a large number of the paintings serve not to please the viewer, but to record something. Pleasing people is not quite at the core of Dutch existence, but recording things is terribly important to them, and they are good at it. In the Rijksmuseum are paintings of weddings, records of men at work, records of men at work recording things, records of men at work recording the progress of men at work recording things. This all rings true: today, every directional sign on Dutch streets and bike paths carries a serial number and each is on the official maps. Through all the intersections through the entire nation, every individual stop light is numbered. The 1600's scribes who were painted numbering every barrel going into every ship in the East India Company is right in line with the unique serial number printed on every train ticket sold every day in every Dutch train station. It is as though failing to number and record something's existence in an official list actually puts its existence into question. Someday after a couple of Heinekens (I know how to spell that because I have one on the windowsill next to me as I write), I will probably lose my reserve and jump a demolition site's fence, to see for myself if the bricks lying scattered were individually numbered.

Better still--at this moment I search my freshly-emptied Heineken can for...YES!!!--there it is! printed on the bottom: you'll be edified to know that I just finished Heineken can number 31.94528A1403. I am not kidding. And it was yummy.

The more you look into it, the more you fear you could never, ever get to the bottom of Dutch history. A certain painting in the Rijksmuseum "hung in the palace of Soestdijk"--whereas on a bike ride I dismissed Soestdijk as a relatively forgettable suburb of a suburb. Hmm. I read about painters working their wonders in Amersfoort, a small town I know only as a convenient train connection. A large night sea battle at Kijkduin--now a small tourist attraction advertised by a Kilroy-style cartoon character--but in 1673 the Dutch there defeated the combined English and French, an amazing story. It turns out that when the Dutch captured a foreign ship, their sailors and captains were brilliant enough to (within the space of an hour or two) run up and down the ship and learn to operate it and its weapons to support their own navy, in the middle of the night, while the same battle was raging, while people are shooting at you. Hell, 300 years later I know people who can't drive stick shift on a sunny day.

With all the understandable focus on painting at the Rijksmuseum, it would be easy to overlook the historical section. Now I'm not a big fan of 27 different kinds of pikes and the relative merits of various schools of disembowelment, but the small exhibit on ships and shipbuilding off in a corner of the first floor is amazing. Shipbuilding and navigation was the very highest high-tech of its time, the Microsoft of its day. You realize that much of the era's geometry and clock-making and optics were invented in support of ship navigation. You look, for example, at the rope riggings to control the ten or so large sails, and you realize that someone calculated that 12, not 10, ropes were enough at that particular angle on that particular sail; that these ropes but not those needed to be tied together to be safe for a 6 month's voyage where repairs in a storm could cost your life; that these two cannon portals needed to be spaced slightly more than the others to make room for the gangplank. That the shallow Zuider Zee harbors called for two Dutch levels of cannons rather than the English three, but that the shape of the ship's bottom could then be adjusted to steady the ships for more accurate cannonfire on the open seas. The museum's intricate model of a floating shipyard, and real thing had nothing to apologize for compared to an microprocessor factory. The ships' storage vaults were made flexible enough to carry ingots of lead out to Java but barrels of spices back, all cataloged and secured for 6 months' voyage in rolling ships.

When you've emerged from the dark Rijksmuseum, the bright city of Amsterdam around you is more understandable and familiar--and the whole country more impressive. The Netherlands' arts had a stupendously successful start in the 1500s and 1600s, the nation in the 350 years since seems to have been built in the image of those paintings. The rooflines, canal shapes, bridges, living rooms, and parks even today seem to have come out of the strongly rendered images from enormous early talents. In the Netherlands as much as anywhere, I suspect that Art has built Life, rather than the opposite.

posted by eric at 18.34 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 4, 2003


I had lived in one place for years and suddenly moved--twice in two months. This meant losing touch with things one took for granted, automatic transmissions, ten-lane expressways, some of my books, and my beloved piano. In contrast, certain little possessions in a different context now recommend themselves to my attention. For example, the Nick Heyward CD now in my (well, the company apartment's) player. That's Nick Heyward. You know.

And now that bicycle hours are shortening rapidly due to Earth's rotational tilt from its orbital plane, not to mention due to Netherlands weather's reverting to its soggy mean: certain media call attention to themselves.

I actually get mail now. The first conclusion is that junk mail must be the same everywhere. Bills are the same, though here rather than writing a check and mailing it to who billed you, you just write your bank account number on the bill, sign it, and mail it to your own bank. And after only 5 weeks in the apartment, the local Gemeentehuis changed my huisnummer without notifying the Vreemdelingenpolitie. An international incident, you'd think.

The radio here is hopeless, as in most places.

Though I can read Dutch pretty well now, the newspapers seem to be written in a kind of impenetrable (not to write obfuscatory, he chuckled) vocabulary, such as in America is reserved for medical advice, subpoenas and war justifications.

It is in television that, God help us, each culture most luridly exposes itself.

The only American channel here is CNN, but most of the day it's Brits in an American studio. One of CNN's problems is that they spend so much airtime with leaders and trailers and adverts for other programs and intros and program changes that there remains perhaps 5 minutes per hour of actual content. All filler and no nutrition, unavoidably reminding one of, do let's stay on subject.

British TV: could you guys turn down the RED? Yes, yes, we applaud your hiring the color blind, but must you employ them as Art Directors? Geez, if I watch BBC then look away, for a few minutes everything else around me seems greenish. And while you're at it, could you do something about your announcers' speech impediments? Roh-eeeeeet-eoouuww. Some mornings I can even comprehend the Dutch stations better, and that is just too sick.

Dutch television first struck me--a more apt wording than you could know--through the jaw-dropping short nightly program Meekijken Gewenst, which I reviewed in -->THIS<-- previous blogpost. The Dutch-language networks of the Netherlands and Belgium are just more or less like US networks but without the ADD symptoms.

MTV Nederlands: a Dutch channel of American videos, Dutch commentary and commercials, and a few Dutch rap videos. Yes, Dutch rap. And it's good, really good. No, I have not lost my mind, and don't turn your computer off--this is actually interesting. Angry Dutch rap actually works. First you need a bit of background. Look, now and then a Dutch song or video does break into regular play. But there is something extremely strained in a sincere and emotional love song sung in the world's least romantic, most phlegmic language that induces by turns laughter, embarrassment, and an unreasoning flight reflex. It's just so inappropriate, like a blustery war song sung in sign language, or a protest song sung by Swiss children. It just does not work. Mr. McKuen was wrong: the medium isn't the message, but OK the medium can indeed cripple the message. But back on the right rhythmic mouths, the percussive and grinding consonants of Dutch are a revelation, a very worthy rival to any English. The most remarkable example to me has been the fierce and yet hilarious video Je moet je bec houwe, which even without Dutch lessons one can translate as "You gotta shut your trap." Forget the rappers' best attempts at South LA hand motions, forget these white boys' jerking around spastically as criminals newly hanged, the horror-movie hairstyles, and even the 1650 A.D. rooflines passing by as they shout down at you from the bed of their pickup truck now hilariously stuck mid-song in one of Amsterdam's famous traffic jams--this thing actually works. When I've seen it, I can't wait to see it again. It is dead on, and there are other Dutch jam and rap videos that are nearly as good. Forget trying to pour honey all over a language spicy as chili. Go for the bite, the spice, the real enchilada.

Another even more pleasant surprise is the RTV N-H channel: Radio-TV Noord-Holland. A marvel. It is so gratifying to watch, so beautifully designed in its every detail that I have been known to turn it on and watch, like a cat watching a videotape of birds, knowing nothing of the programming except--it's beautiful. Far from a flowery, painterly beauty you might be thinking of; much more a tremendously refined, extraordinarily well-paced, thoughful layout of everything from the weather bites, to program leaders and trailers, to the talk shows. The second most beautiful TV channel I know. So OK, Dutch advertisements are crude enough to remind you of rural Arizona public-access TV, but they can't help that I suppose. And otherwise I just want to say: RTV N-H, thank you. We notice.

NLTV-5 is wholly ordinary...EXCEPT for the wordless, explosively funny, quick-as-a-blink ID shots reminding you that you are watching "5". The channel's logo is simply a bold 5 with two half-circles about it, as though stencilled. Now, each ID shot begins with 5 differently colored "5" logos on a black background, but within a second something odd is obliged to happen. In a favorite, five little "5" logos are bobbing, but one disappears and the others scurry off the screen's sides, when up pops only the top half of a Great White "5", which cruises leftward and then rightward, reversed--to mock-scary music of course. In another, the little "5" logos mime a car race, to ill effect within 5 seconds. These perfect jewels come on without warning, and ambush you with such wit and clarity and shock value--I live for these things. I fear all my neighbors hear my occasional outbursts when I have 5 on.

OK. Can someone tell me why every single program on the Civilization Channel is about weapons? Civilization? Weapons? I am not making this up.

And at the end of my Casima cable channels lies...surely the most beautiful, visually refined TV channel in existence: TV5. Its visual effects seem so casually perfect. Of course this is all calculated--but how do the French manage this level of cohesion, in which the screen at each moment is tantamount to a work of art, yet in which each visual element is in harmony with the rest of the channel's programming, all day long--and yet not distracting from the content? Having spent a couple of years in art and photography classes, I admit to being impressed of course by their camerawork and layouts, but also more than a little intimidated. I can imagine TV5 screenshots somehow taking a place in museum displays of Art of 2003. And it's happening in real-time, 24 hours per day. My, if American viewers were exposed to anything like TV5, we could expect (or at least hope) that a lot of the US's current crop of computer-obsessed Art Directors would shortly find themselves in the rain holding hand-scrawled cardboard signs.

posted by eric at 21.19 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)