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March 2004

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March 28, 2004

Around the Bend

Not one but two train connections, hop off at Maassluis. It's not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from there.

The idea was to ride to the end of the Maas River to Hoek van Holland ("corner of Holland") and follow the North Sea coast as far as I had sunlight and/or energy. (You can see just how far I got on the updated NL bike map (100 kB).) Buckle up!...

The Dutch keep talking about how small their country is. Maybe so (although it doesn't feel like when trying to make progress on a bicycle), but of three man-made objects visible from the moon, two are in the Netherlands. This is more logical than it sounds. There is no nation on the planet more engineered than the Netherlands. Most of it couldn't, wouldn't even exist--certainly wouldn't be inhabitable with any style--without engineering. So let's look at a small example I came across less than a half hour into today's ride...


I'm pretty handy with a camera, but this construction just about got the best of me. This is one of two long arcs of metal (you can see the far one, across the mighty Maas, at far left). OK, now I am not kidding--when a storm surge is predicted, each arm swings off its concrete rest on each side of the river, floating together at its middle, and then the engineers flood them and they sink and form an instant dam, cutting off one of the largest rivers in Europe--and I mean dead cold. The scale of this thing is just unearthly. The ball bearings at the middle of each arm is 3 meters in diameter of solid steel.
 


I'm not sure I'm getting across to you the size of this thing. In the right half is one of the arms that will hold it against any storm surge the North Sea can throw at it. The little wispy things on the concrete are man-height guard rails. That thing passing way down under the arm's base (photographed through the arm) is the top of a tanker-handling tugboat.
 

OK, I'm impressed. I'm sorry if the pictures can't do it justice, but that's the way great things are, sometimes. But if you stand near it and hear the wind resonate through it, you'd know what I mean.


Hoek van Holland, for all the coolness of its name, amounts to a rather forgettable dock for ferries to Harwich, England. But around the corner and heading northeast, the North Sea is very pleasant indeed...AND it was nice finally to have the wind at my back.
 

And then...there was Scheveningen. Oh, my.


Scheveningen: the first town in the Netherlands I really hate. Hate, hate, hate--there, I said it. I guess there had to be one such place, and believe me, Scheveningen is it. Certainly not because of the extensive harbor area (pictured), which amounts to the jacht (Dutch word, though it doesn't mean boat) playstation for Den Haag (the Hague, also called 'S-Gravenhage by some Dutch, which besides being impossible to pronounce is also not confusing or anything). That's too bad--"Scheveningen" is such a lyrical and very Dutch name, the pronunciation of which betrayed more than one German soldier trying to act Dutch.
 


And I don't hate Scheveningen for the civilized south end of its beach, though it was too windy for the Den Haag glitterati to drink coffee and be seen on the south strand, even with the plexiglass wind breaks up. (The half-mast flag: for one week it was in honor of the Madrid train bombing, then for the passing of the beloved Princess Juliana.)
 


No, what drives me to say such awful things about Scheveningen is this--punks, thugs, hateful drivers, broken glass everywhere, horns honking, fingers, er, pointing at each other--as bad a beach scene as I've ever seen, and yes I've been to Panama City, Florida. All I wanted to do was get OUT of that place, and it makes me sad to think that I feel that way about any place in a country that has treated me so well. But I guarantee I'll never go back. Yuck and three-quarters.
 


But then the magic. Three minutes' ride to Scheveningen's north side, and you are, well, ceremoniously dumped into the dunes. Den Haag in the distance. More dunes ahead on the ride. Hundreds of places you will never see from a car and that I will probably never see again. Nothing but the whir of spokes and an occasional bird call. Rolling as far as I have strength and time.
 



 





And here you thought I forgot...the two Dutch-made works you can see from the moon are: the Afsluitdijk, and Flevoland. Aside from that, the Great Wall of China. Don't expect College Equivalency Points for knowing this.

posted by eric at 22.04 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

March 27, 2004

Afsluitdijk

Today is March 27. A little history, first--one year ago today, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the halls of Minute Maid R&D, where the predicted 10% layoffs (which would have been bad enough) turned out to be more like 40%. Hey, I was leaving anyway, and glad I did--there is way too much wailing and gnashing of teeth there still, a year later. Today, I ride the Afsluitdijk, glad I'm not still in Florida.

So, Afsluitdijk is the sort of word that struck fear in me when I first moved to the Netherlands. No longer...but the real thing, the huge earthworks, did this morning strike real fear in me and my bicycle. 100 meters wide and over 30 km straight across the Zuider Zee. In fact, the dike that put and end to the Zuider Zee--it's now called the IJsselmeer, and the water is more or less fresh. The dike is one of the very few man-made objects that can be seen from the MOON. Today I rode from North Holland to Friesland, which is a wide cultural difference in Dutch terms--rather like an American riding from Virginia to Montana, or maybe Jupiter.

By the way, this ride is so long that it carries me right off the top end of my bike map. The new NL bike map is HERE (100 kB). As always, the week's new rides in red.


In Amsterdam Centraal station (pictured) a strange thing happened. I was watching my bicycle and really concentrating on getting this photograph and a few more like it. The light was low and the shadows very difficult. A young man stepped in front of me and asked for money in Dutch, with some Slavic accent. I was hugely irritated at his blocking me, I missed my shot of train pulling out, and told him no. I captured what shots remained, and packed away the camera--and only then realized that this guy actually did look hungry. I popped up the kick stand and went looking for him, but he was gone. I'd still rather he hadn't been so rude as to step directly in front of a concentrating photographer, but if I really were hungry I can't be perfectly sure what I'd have done.
 

Yes, that blue-and-white tile at top really does say "2b or not 2b". You see, 2b is the number of the trackside directly under the tile.


I ride the train way north, farther and farther from Amsterdam, and disembark at station Anna Paulowna, which must translate to "Middle of Freaking Nowhere".
 


Just east of Van Ewijcksluis.
 


So, OK: this is the about last chance to turn back. After this, it's gruesome hours back into the strong wind if I chicken out, get winded...or have a flat tire, etc. Leeuwarden is well beyond the far (east) end of the Afsluitdijk. It is in the next state, Friesland. It is 72 km away, if I make no wrong turns. But I resolve: Leeuwarden it is. Leeuwarden or bust.
 

Just as I pass off North Holland and onto the Afsluitdijk, I stop to pay homage to, er, Nature, and confront 6 extremely well-armed guys. I give them a wide berth, and when I pass beyond some trees, their target practice resumes. I was pretty far away by that time, but still, the sound was definitely that of automatic, large-caliber rifles (assault weapons to you Americans). Very strange. I ride on. Quickly.


The avid cyclists at work had been right: there is not much to the Afsluitdijk but the dike itself. You don't really get a sense of how amazing this structure is when you're right on top of it. (By the way...forgive the slightly odd color cast of some of the next few photos. I hit a wrong button on my digital camera, and everything came out green-blue for fluorescent. I did my best to fix them in Photoshop; some came out better than others.
 


Ignore this guy's terrible ergonomic habits for a moment. The Afsluitdijk was constructed pretty much by hand, that is, by a lot of guys stooping over and hefting (a Dutch word) big rocks day after day for about 10 years. Not much machinery: this was during the Depression, and Amsterdam couldn't stand another storm surge off the North Sea. This life-size statue is a memorial to the tens of thousands of ruptured discs and millions of nights of aching and worse.
 

The wind is helpful. I get to the other side in good shape--on to Leeuwarden, no need to stop off at Harlingen. Ah yes, Harlingen.

The only woman I ever lived with, many, many years ago, just off a Gulf (of Mexico) bayou, was from Harlingen. I had forgotten that until now. Of course, her Harlingen was the one in South Texas, but still, just the name did take me back. Well, today is the closest I've been to either one.


This stone step lies at the end of the Afsluitdijk. It is how you get over the fence to watch the North Sea. No other entrance as far as you can see. If you want to see it, you have to be agile. The Netherlands are laid out in a way that expects you to be agile. My American prejudices still pop out once in a while--I don't mind this hopping over stuff at all, it's kind of fun, but, but...this would be a terrible place to be handicapped.
 

I sat on that near stone for lunch and to put away the North Holland map for a Friesland one. A local fellow walked over and pointed out the various church steeples, which he must have know is how bikers find their way around the Netherlands (church steeples are tall, and everything else is flat). I couldn't really understand him all that well, which frustrated me--it just didn't sound like Dutch. One thing in particular, which I finally got--"Pingjum", a nearby town. Aha--it didn't sound like Dutch because it wasn't quite Dutch. Welcome to Friesland.


I'm not kidding about this. Look at this sign marking a small town--it's in both Dutch and Frisian. They all are. Many of the company names and advertisements are in Frisian, too, which looks like a cross between Dutch and either Danish or Norwegian (for good reason, I'm assured). I had no idea this was going on up here. Well, not that they needed my permission or anything.
 

Wait! Don't go away. The sexy part of this post awaits!

Ahem. I do make it to Leeuwarden. The train leaves right on time, a nice Intercity, with a nice bike-holding place where you can even sit (a luxury) for the 2 1/2 hours home to Bussum. I sit and hold my bike steady, a posture I'm very accustomed to by now. At Steenwijk, a woman gets on board, and I stand and offer the seat--"Alstublieft". Being Dutch, she is surprised, and when she learns that I am American she can't believe it. A polite American?--this is a new experience. Sigh. I hear that a lot, unfortunately. We chat in Dutch until I tire, then switch to English. She is vegetarian. She is socialist. She is kind and curious. And as we step off the train in Zwolle, she waves back good-bye, and I realize she is very attractive.

So OK, sue me, I'm a little slow after 100 kilometers in the cold.

posted by eric at 22.39 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 26, 2004

Three Little Rides


Even in this very dreariest of seasons, I find myself fully back in awe of the Netherlands and its outdoors. I do love looking at this place.
 


I shake my head and say it again: photographer's paradise.

Windy all week since I got back, and even Saturday was a total loss, sitting around all day, worn out from fighting flu. But I woke up strong Sunday and took a short ride to see if I was really over it. Returning well as cold and windy as it was, I pronounced myself cured. Rode through the west side of Bussum...


...and through this weird wood with all the tree trunks and branches covered with this unearthly green mold.
 


Though they are probably normal-looking in summer, just now some of the trees look downright spooky.
 


 
 


I would strongly urge these two gentlemen to give the little Dutch girl the bowsaw, and go have a beer on this fine Sunday morning.
 

Sunday afternoon, I just cruise around neighborhoods I had heard of but never seen, especially the Composer's Quarter, streets named after Bach and Wagner etc. Somewhat of a let-down, nothing particularly different from the rest of 't Gooi...which of course would look pretty great anywhere else.

Wednesday at work I just couldn't stand it any more, and I headed on the bike southwest (and downwind) to Maarssen. On the way: through Bussum Zuid, Franse Kamp, Spanderswoud, and the communities of 's-Graveland, Nieuw-Loosdrecht, Muyeveld, Breukeleveen, Tienhoven, and Maarssen, all in the space of 30 km--what I used to commute in boredom each morning in Florida. Then I couldn't find the rail station, and I really really needed to get home. In Maarssen, as it turns out, Stationsweg doesn't go to the station--it dumps you unceremoniously into the Amsterdam-Rijn canal. Stationweg USED to go to the station, but now you have to go...


...over the canal bridge pictured. I arrive at sunset, and the Utrecht train is just pulling away--it's 30 minutes to the next one, and it's getting cold. Maybe this impromptu ride wasn't such a brilliant idea. But the train to Amsterdam comes along, and I transfer at Duivendrecht and again at Weesp, at from Naarden-Bussum station I ride home in the very dark and very, very cold. But all's well that ends well, and this little experiment--biking in a straight line away from the apartment (bikes are not allowed on trains during rush hour), riding until dark, then taking a train back home--the experiment was a success. At my age you do whatever you must to stay in the saddle.
 

By the way, the local bike map is HERE (100kB)

posted by eric at 22.38 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 19, 2004

Last US Trip ?

Sorry if you've wondered where I was. International travel, injured feet, and the flu do take a toll. It was a trip to the US for business, probably my last from my Dutch stay. Or not.

There I was, clackclackclack, suitcase over the tiles behind me. Off toward the Naarden-Bussum station, just hoping the weather holds. But of course it starts snowing half way there, and by the time I have the tracks in sight, I'm all white, my head down, cold and wet and just enduring the few hundred meters to go. And then there's this BMW SUV by the side of the road, honking, someone yelling at me. A woman is shouting over and over, something that ends in: "...Schiphol?" the name of Amsterdam's airport. But my Dutch-language processor is not working this early, and I don't know how to give her directions--after all, I always take the train. "...naar Schiphol?" she's saying. I shrug to her, trying not to get snow under my glasses. "GA JE NAAR SCHIPHOL, MENEER?" Ah! A ride! I nod and run, and she and her lovely friend make room in the back seat among other luggage. It is warm. It is dry. They are blond and they chat with me. My glasses steam up. Now it doesn't matter that I would probably have missed my train. Life is good.

Another piece-of-cake nine-hour flight to O'Hare. I pick up my mail bundle and need a haircut before my conference and office visits. It has been four months. People ask "Why don't you get your hair cut in the Netherlands" and I respond, "Have you seen their hair?"


Nothing doing. The salon was closed, and apparently closed for good. My only Illinois ritual bites the dust. So I find another place, and call my parents on the US cell phone (OK, mobile phone to you Eurotypes), and at one point I am stopped at an intersection, in fact a four-way stop. Four drivers are stopped, all looking for another to start through first. All four are talking on cell phones. Welcome to the US. At the second-choice salon I get clipped--by which I mean not just my hair but clipped by an embarrassingly large bill for a haircut I didn't much like and for shampoo I probably won't use. Sucker that I am. So blame it on jet lag.
 

What I needed worse were shoes. I put on my decentest dress shoes (the ones pictured in the middle of This Earlier Post), and before an fruitless hour in Woodfield Mall is up, I'm ready for the hospital--seriously. My next ten days, my feet are bandaged double-deep, taking 15 minutes each morning to prep.

I eat something--I forget what or where--and drive back to O'Hare, shaggy headed and shoeless, turn the car back in, take the bus to the hotel without seeing, totally trusting the driver. In the room somehow, aspirin for the feet, crash--26 hours after getting up in my own apartment.


Wake up hungry, hit Michigan Avenue. Every time I come to Chicago I say the same thing--it's my favorite downtown on the planet (well, maybe tied with the very different Paris). I love Chicago.
 

Let's "do" Michigan Avenue.


No subtlety to it at all. This is a real city, muscular, both old and new, somehow modest and imposing at the same time.
 


Of course, Chicago is very American, part of which means churches and flags in plain sight and intended to impress.
 


And money, too. People don't think of Chicago as a rich town (think Hill Street Blues), but Michigan Avenue has little to fear from America's more famous shopping areas.
 


Did I mention that Chicago has money and is not afraid to spend it?
 

For myself, I am afraid to spend it, but I needed shoes. I explained to the Lord & Taylor shoe salesman that I had an "emergency shoe purchase", and that I would try on any presentable slip-on shoes that I could wedge onto my feet with anything short of a power steam shovel. He was wonderful, and I limped out ready for a week of walking. And here's what the walking was about...


The Pittsburgh Conference. The ostensible reason for my transatlantic jaunt, which despite its name has not been held in Pittsburgh for about 30 years. It's a monstrous analytical chemistry conference. This is the associated exposition. It is not modest. Very few cities in the US can host it any more, and it will henceforth rotate between Orlando, New Orleans, and maybe Atlanta. This is apparently its last stop in Chicago.
 


Yes I dove into this mess, and yes it hurt. But a few bruises and blisters go better with a nice dinner and wine Sunday and Monday nights with ex-colleagues from Coca-Cola and Minute Maid. Rush Street ladies, eat your hearts out. I almost didn't get there Monday night...there was a movie being filmed at my hotel entrance, and everyone was being diverted away from the stars, Sandra Bullock and Nicholas Cage (or so I heard) filming Weatherman, due out this summer. You heard it here first.
 


The McCormick Center has a few nice places where foot-weary conferees can rest and watch Lake Michigan...
 


...before wearing out their feet again. This lobby of the Center is the kind of agoraphobigenic space that traveling Americans adjust to but that you just don't see in European buildings less than 500 years old.
 

Dinner Tuesday with Dave and Trish (who are guilty of reading this blog--Hey!) at Le Colonial, a great Vietnamese restaurant, again on Rush, drinks in the wonderful bar of the Sofitel. A very nice lunch at Gioco Wednesday with Georges and Lois, my heroes. The ride there was panicked. I lost my camera (the very one that illustrates this blog!--horrors!!! sacrilege!!!) in the McCormick Center with 25,000 conferees, and I had to turn the taxi around for it, but an honest soul had turned it in, and I could describe the pictures I had just taken on it, so I got it back...then back to Gioco.

Can someone tell me what the deal is with American hotels dropping newspapers outside the rooms' doors at 4 am, absolutely as loudly as possible. Waking every one of the 1000 paying customers, and for papers that will end up back in the environment, unread. Or am I thinking like a thrifty Dutchman again?

That evening I rolled my suitcase and laptop out of the hotel and past 1,000 screaming, jumping teen-somethings waiting to get inside. There was a dance audition for MTV or something. A happening hotel, I guess. My Arab taxi driver loaded my stuff in the trunk and asked apparently sincerely, "Do you have to be black to stay at that hotel?"

A propos of nothing, or maybe of everything...I missed the Netherlands.

That night, a hastily arranged, obscenely gourmand-o-rama face-stuffing with John at Vivace in the underrated Italian Village, near State somewhere (I don't know the street names but I can find it). I pick up my stuff at his hotel, catch a cab to O'Hare, rent a heroically awful Pontiac, and drive in driving rain out to lovely downtown Hoffman Estates. Work two days. Weekend, but no rest--time to look for a place to live when I come back to the US, probably in July. So, back to Woodfield Mall for maps...and another pair of shoes.


We--e--elll, look what's waiting at the ready. And you thought winter was over. No chance.
 


The problem with driving a mid-size vehicle in the US is that 95% of the vehicles are bigger than yours. Go figure.
 

Illinois house hunting. All day Saturday, all day Sunday. Somewhere between Freaking Hopeless and Pickett's Charge, with the mood of the former and the wear and tear of the latter on my feet.


The really weird thing is that the ONLY affordable house I found in two days of driving is this enormous thing, a Frank Lloyd Wright copy on a 60000 square foot (5500 square meter) wooded lot. The price was low, in fact ridiculously low--a third of what it should be. There was nothing wrong with it. I drove away, quietly, shielding my face from view. I don't do business with the Mafia, the CIA, whatever. If you want to judge for yourself, go stand at exactly 42.09504N, 88.32013W, look west, and don't freaking mention my name.
 

I did find a condominium under construction. I looked at blueprints in their office, and found out that they had finished some similar units in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was 2:15 pm. I jumped in the rental car, drove up, had a look. Not bad.


Kenosha is pretty impressive, including its harbor, until you realize that it's all a few dozen enormous boats for the Lake, a few big houses, a "famous" trolley, and a lot of gas stations and fast food. I took this picture in gale-force winds, which in the Midwest usually means worse weather to come.
 

I drove back to lovely downtown Hoffman Estates. A very American venture--I used more fuel in that drive than in the previous 2 months in the Netherlands. But there is a lot at stake in this drive. Stay tuned.

Tuesday morning, time to fly back. Snow greeted my departure from Chicago just as it had from Bussum. A horrendous flight, complete with squalling brats, helped only by a 200 km/hour tailwind that put us Chicago-to-Amsterdam in 6 1/2 hours. Home early, slept like the dead. Woke with the flu, but that's a story I'll spare you. Not pretty.

posted by eric at 21.37 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 17, 2004

Ugggh

See, there's this problem when I wait to update my blog: invariably I come down with the flu and then can't. This is the third time in the last 12 months, right after a blog hiatus (and travelling to the states), so I now have to conclude that this extends beyond Murphy's Law and karma to actual cause-and-effect.

Specifically: I just flew back this morning from a couple of weeks in Chicago. My job seems secure despite the restructuring. This freed me to look for a place to live in the US, and I have found it (I believe). News as it happens. Soon I will need to make an offer on the place to accommodate my July return to the US, whose time is now relatively well fixed. Of course there will be a successor Illinois blog, highlighting the silliness and depraved humor for which the Midwest should be famous, but (happily for them) isn't. For a sample, just check out the archives from APRIL 2003 and MAY 2003, when I spent 5 weeks in Illinois on my way from Florida to the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands though, and coming up on this very blog: lots of cycling and photos to do in the next three months--including a couple of marathon rides along the North Sea and one in from Maastricht.

But today I can't even get off the sofa. Totally wasted. Dehydrated and nauseous. Blacking out from jet lag. Two days of beard and a week of laundry.

Jet setting is SO glamorous.

posted by eric at 20.14 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)