Downwind of Amsterdam
May 2004

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May 30, 2004

Sleepless in Limburg, #2

Drag my sorry butt out of bed. All yesterday's miseries on me: sore muscles, sunburn, discouragement. Discouragement? Yes, because yesterday's difficulties--full of exhaustion, soft tires, nausea, cutting a trip short, the train system--warn me that I may fail in my mission. Mission? Yes, mission...and it's time that I confess the mission that the -->bike map (1.5 MB)<-- has fairly screamed for some weeks now: to circumnavigate the Netherlands by bicycle.

The trick is: I have to do it by the end of June. And there are roughly 800 km to go. So the race is on.

Ten hours of sleep. Bike on the train, and I think I feel asleep leaning on it. I get past Pinkpop, my nose offended only minimally by the "you'll never get through airport security" set, ride through desperately hick Eijgenshoven where I boarded last evening, and on to Kerkrade. Jump on immediately and start north.

Kerkrade is up on a plateau, but after sailing down the long hills I followed the narrow villages lining the tiny Wurm river--really just a creek hidden behind houses--some nice houses and apartments and cafes, as lovely as Kerkrade's were grim. A few minutes on, I skirt a giant gray area on the ANWB map, labelled simply "Julia". Julia turns out to be the US military Eijgenshoven depot. There were dozens of multi-rocket launchers visible between the buildings, but I thought maybe I'd keep the camera put away and continue north.

And in the far eastern corner of Limburg I enter...Rimburg. Now and then dark clouds and wind gusts threatened the crowded outdoor cafes (just beyond this picture), but no one seemed to pay attention, except a few nervous owners of convertibles.

A hard turn westward from Rimburg, and along some rather boring stretches on bike paths along featureless N-highways. Past Schinveld a small road "Etzenraderweg" showed to parallel N580; I wheeled right and then left to take it.

Wow, good idea, as nice a road as I've come across. And to think the boring highway run only 100 meters to the left. Germany is 500 meters to the right.

Where the road turns to avoid Germany, an impressive church stands over a very quiet village curiously named Jabeek.

And in Sittard the mist started, and stopped. And at Susteren's train station, conveniently on the German border, it started again, and for a longer time. Between me and Roermond, the next station along the border, there was 30 km of forest. If it rained on me in there, it would be real trouble. I waited the 30 minutes for the next train north, hoping my Den Haag experience would repeat itself in a miraculous clearing of the skies; instead the rain started in earnest. I sighed and bought a ticket. Plenty of energy and time left, but the biking weather had run out.

On the train, I resolved: to buy plastic sheet, a shower curtain, anything to wait out a (typically brief) rain shower and continue. If I have to wait it out under plastic, so be it. Today's 5 1/2 hours on trains for just 3 hours on the bike must not be repeated.

(Added 5/31): At least Sunday I got far enough north that I didn't have to ride past Landgraaf and Pinkpop again. But Monday evening, there it was, televised. On display at the moment was an American group jumping like kangaroos and throwing hands at the camera, singing very fake reggae from Topeka or something. The tall black, er, singer, wore huge glasses, a weird hat, and a jacket sporting a Czech flag. Czech. OK, then. The other lead, er, singer's main talents were: her pants falling off her substantial hips, her shouting at the audience in a play to hide her tone-deafness, and more finger-throwing attitude than Eminem (except in her case, with less estrogen).

posted by eric at 22.30 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 29, 2004

Sleepless in Limburg, #1

Yes, the bicycle thing is turning into an obsession.

Now, faithful readers of this here blog no doubt knew this already. But for this weekend, the Netherlands' only decent weather forecasts were for Limburg, that southeasternmost, male thingy dangling from Roermond down to Maastricht. I hadn't been there. There were only two problems: (1) I had had very little sleep since flying over from Chicago, and (2) the train rides to Limburg from mid-Netherlands were longish.

You Americans: Stop laughing. Three hours on a train to cross most of a nation is too a long time. Is too, is too, is too.

The sleep deprivation was my own fault. Friday night, I had stayed up too late, finishing the first edition of the SuperDuper bike map (BIG version 1.5 Megs // SMALL version 150 kB--Both updated through May 31). So I'm groggy Saturday morning, but I need only ride to Naarden-Bussum station.

Someone is having a birthday party this morning. Or maybe--ha ha--they're taking this on the train to Pinkpop.

Pinkpop actually may be a problem. Pinkpop is this holiday weekend's open-air concert, held in the sprawling suburban landgrab called Landgraaf, which is in Limburg. It promises to draw thousands of beer-sotted teenagers through the train system in just the direction I'm going. Today all the train stations--even those hundreds of kilometers away, echo with announcements about how to get to and from Pinkpop. I brace for the worst, but that's hours away. (Foreshadowing:) my day will see worse than that.

This must be the place: Maastricht, a strategically located town dating from the Romans, a different feel from the rest of the Netherlands. For one thing, there are hills. For another, Belgians, though I didn't see any short, blue ones.

Maastricht has a decidedly French/Walloon feel, at least compared to more northerly Dutch cities (that is, all of them).



Not the usual Dutch scene (OK, the cliffs are in Belgium.)

I headed south to the corner of Limburg, and headed east. There was no way to tell when I passed from the Netherlands into Belgium and back, which was OK. What was not OK was that the weather forecasters lied: the wind was now against me. And I climbed, and climbed. The GPS placed me at 40 meters above sea level, then 60. Then 80 turned into 100, into 150, into 250. And not in a straight line...

...there were some pretty spectacular, distinctly un-Dutch downhill grades, too, easy to break the speed limit (or your neck) on a bicycle.

Now, we're not going to turn this blog into a series of picture-postcards, however the Netherlands tempt us--but please indulge me once in a while. This south of Epen, on my search for the Netherlands' southernmost point.

The Netherlands' northernmost (mainland) point is marked by a monument (picture -->here<-- from post of 24 April). And the Netherlands' easternmost point is punctuated by an antique boom (picture -->here<-- from post of 8 May). By contrast, the Netherlands' southernmost point is on private land, unmarked, locked away, quite inaccessible.

This is as close as I could legally get. The best maps do not even agree (which is odd), but to the best that I and my GPS and the ANWB maps could determine: the southernmost point in the Netherlands is somewhere between the two trees in the center of this picture. (Best triangulation: 50.75169N 5.91327E, within about 50 meters).

This is where the day's ride got weird. It seemed very hard to ride the bike. It was hot. Off a forested road 300 meters inside Belgium (I think), I changed into short pants, and that helped. The wind strengthened against me, and the hills seemed very hard to ascend--more than once I had to push the bike up. I don't know why I stopped and grabbed my front tire, but it was soft. Oh, no, this is not good. It's a holiday weekend, and I'm a long, long way from the nearest train station. I pump it up some, and pedal back north to Epen. The only fietsverhuurwinkel (bicycle rental shop) refuses to help me out, but the woman tells me there is "een fietsreparatiebedrijf op Machlen" which I figure out is the local pronunciation of Mechelen, 4 km north. I pump again, ride again, and it's getting close to 4pm. I imagine how I would want to go home early if I ran a shop today. But I find the place in Mechelen, and they are very helpful--indeed they seem happy to have any business today. I sit on their steps (which did not appear to have been swept in this or the last century), drink most of my remaining water, pay the 6 euros 70, and find my bicycle out on the busy sidewalk--unlocked, key left in the lock, and GPS still perched on top. Nothing stolen. Europeans: this would never happen in the US--the half-life of the bike or at least the GPS would be about 30 seconds. I head south to resume along the main road across Limburg's south border.

However difficult the Netherlands' southernmost point was to find, the Netherlands' highest point was, uh, a little easier.

And just a few meters away from the highest point--another geographically interesting point--Drielandenpunt, where Germany and the Netherlands and Belgium meet. The Dutch built this tedious amusement park in their corner. You can get drunk in three languages. And someone built a tower right on the point, so after lounging under the Brand beer sign in the hot sun, you can ride the queasy elevator up just in time to regurgitate your beer diplomatically and equally onto three nations. Drielandenpunt is 50.75408N 6.02093E, if you're interested.

And it's time to find a train station. I am now exhausted from the hills, the wind against me, and from the soft tire's fighting me without my knowing it. North along the border to Kerkrade Centrum, a fancy name for a horrible end-of-the-line, open-air station. Which has no schedule posted. None. I remember Nieuweschans and the poor German woman who (without knowing it) had missed the last train home to Germany. The memory gave me new energy.

It was, after all, only a few kilometers north to the next stations. The worst case was Landgraaf, close by, where I might possibly get Pinkpop puke on my pants but at least they'd be running extra trains (as announced this morning in every station for 200 kilometers).

By now all the shops are closed, and I'm desperately dehydrated. I'm actually nauseated, and I have to stop twice in 4 kilometers just to lay down on a park bench. Two km short of Landgraaf station is the hysterically unpronounceable Eijgelshoven station. I wait with three drunk teens with metal in their faces and hair in colors not found in nature. We board. I'm still laughing about "Eijgelshoven", and they think I'M crazy. They get out at the next station, Landgraaf, which is otherwise very quiet--Pinkpop hasn't let out yet, thank you Jesus and Mary.

For my connection north, I mistakenly ride to Maastricht station and its World's Nastiest WC. To save 50 eurocents, two brutal-looking Pinkpoppers catch the WC door as I and my bike squeeze out the greasy door. But they hold the door for me. They greet me: "Goeie Avond." They go in, unpaid, but hold the door longer, so it doesn't bang against my back tire. And I marvel: what other country has such a polite and ultimately harmless criminal element?

posted by eric at 23.49 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 27, 2004

Last Visit to America

No no no no--I haven't renounced my US citizenship, despite my throwing foam bricks at TV newscasts for the past couple of years, and despite rumours started by certain individuals.

No, I have simply made last US visit as a Netherlands resident. And the reason for this self-paid (ouch), four-day Chicago trip?--to pick tiles. This was my Tile-Picking Trip.

One Eternal Question of Life is: what is the essential difference between men and women? If anyone has grasped the irreducible, crystalline answer to this question, they certainly haven't conveyed it in language that I can understand. But after this trip, I actually think I'm close to the answer. The core essence of the difference between men and women is: their reactions to Tile Picking.

Now, "Tile Picking" is just my shorthand for the seeming millions of choices in the superficial aspects of a new home--lighting choices and laundry-appliance choices, choices of bathroom and kitchen appliances and their finishes and colors, of flooring, of closet and cabinet arrangements, and--yes--the picking of tiles. "Kitchen cabinets--stainless-steel or wood? The wood--painted or natural? Natural--stained or varnished? Your stain--dark or light? When you say dark, do you mean more reddish or more neutral? When you say red, do you mean like cherry or more like walnut? OK, cherry wood--more aged cherry wood or new cherry wood? Well, sir--for new cherry wood you'll need to pay for this stain at six hundred dollars, and further may I recommend these complementary cabinet hinges at only a thousand dollars. AAAAAGGGGGH. But then--I'm a guy. Most women consider this tile-picking for a new home a pinnacle of their life, a moment electrifying, rapturous, far sweeter than merely living in the space (with which they will soon find fault no matter how they prolonged the thrilling tile-picking process). Yes, no matter how they groan and wince and "Ooh"-and-"Ah" at the choices, no matter how they whoop and curl their toes and flap their arms towards the climax...women consider tile-picking better than shoe shopping, better than sex, better even than a pastry shop. By contrast, a hetero male would rather have his fingernails sequentially pulled out by a tow truck and a thousand septic fishhooks than to have to line up even ONE MORE damned row of tiles, or cabinet fronts, or kitchen faucets, or, or, or.

So you get the idea when I tell you that not only did I spend three hours pointing my finger at...stuff, limiting my mumbles and their financial damage to "Yes", "No",, and sometimes in the interests of efficiency "YesNoNoNoYesYesNoYesNo", or "How much is that option", and "Can we come back to that later?"--BUT I had to pay for the trip: trans-Atlantic airfare, rental car, hotel, plus take three days of vacation time for the most expensive three hours of my life. And that vacation time is time I'll need later for biking, if the NL weekend weather doesn't improve.

Maybe I'm not being fair. I am in fact moving back to the US in a few weeks. I love the Netherlands, but when your whole life is going in a different direction on a different continent, you inexoribly begin to see that faraway place as Your Life and your present location as a vacation of sorts (no matter how hard you happen to be working there). So, as I'm relocating to America...I'll need a place to live.

And given weird US tax laws...(1) IF you're a citizen of the US (and I am), and (2) you plan to be in one area for three or more years (and I do), and (3) you can afford to buy a place (well, we'll see), then you are much better off buying a home. Now, the regular houses in Illinois are generally chopped up into many, many rooms, each very small. This is apparently because Illini couples haven't yet figured out how you stop having children. This doesn't work for me. I don't particularly need walls. And just now, Deep Suburbia and flamingoes in the front yard don't much appeal to me, not after a taste of real urban apartment/loft life in NL. So when I discovered new condos going up, with shops built in, immediately on a Chicago-line train station...I acted. Heaven help me.

Like I say: it's still under construction, but at least the roof is on now. This is in fact my building, the first of six in the land between the camera and my building.

For our European friends: in the US other than city centers, "apartment" is an apartment that you rent; "condo" or "condominium" is a (usually larger) apartment that you buy.

In the foreground is the rail line to Union Station in center Chicago. My own little corner of the building is the top floor, nearest (the round part).

OK, enough proud-papa pictures. It is wonderful. I should mention one nauseating little spoiler that I can do nothing about.

The US is infested with overhead utilities, all of which are well-placed to mar any view that threatens to please the eye. I hate this about America (and Germany). The Dutch have the right idea. It's not about "Oh, dearie me, how much do underground utilities cost?"--it's about "WHAT KIND OF COUNTRY DO YOU WANT TO HAVE?" At least with utilities, the Netherlands have voted "CIVILIZED" and the US have voted "UGLY." It's as simple as that, and I hate it, but in the US you have to look at CRAP no matter how carefully you've chosen where you live or how much you spend on it. Americans either LIKE their country ugly, or they just don't know any better. Either way: Barf to the fourth power.

About two hundred meters/yards to the west is the train station.

It's actually been there for a while. But in 2004-5 it will be moved two hundred meters east (towards Chicago, and across Oak/Main Street). This will put it just 60 meters north of my condo. But the noise will be OK (I've checked), because station stops will no longer block Oak/Main Street (which is largely why they're moving the station).

This is the pleasant main drag in my new little home town, and the view from my north windows...well, my view through the power lines (ugh).

So, the tile-picking trip: I flew across Saturday, did customs and changed planes in Newark airport, which they have taken to calling "Newark Liberty International Airport." I asked one of the airline pilots "Why in the world is the word Liberty stuck in the middle of the airport name?" and he said it had something to do with the Statue of Liberty, which is indeed closer to New Jersey than it is to New York City. "Fair enough,?" I said, "but what is it doing in the middle of an airport name? What meaning does it add?" (The logophile in me coming out.) He repeated something about the Statue of Liberty, and how the name got added after 9/11, and after all, what could be more American than the Statue of Liberty? "The Statue of Liberty is French," I remarked. The pilot had of course attended school and had to concede the point--but he looked like he would bodily throw me out the plane. Fortunately, we had already landed and I escaped down the jetway.

Very heavy storms around Chicago, plenty of white knuckles. Landed at O'Hare late and late at night.

The rental car, ah yes, the rental car. The desk (Budget rental car) was closed, and had just one sign: "Proceed to Shuttle Buses." On the floor nearest the closest doors was a red arrow "SHUTTLE AREA", pointing away from the doors and down the inside hall. I walk through the doors just to check anyway, and a sign on the door says "For Shuttle Area, go back and follow red arrows." I do. The red arrows take me the length of the terminal, down a long hall, down an elevator, outside, and the length of the next terminal. I stand directly under the sign "Rental Car Shuttle". No buses come, for half an hour. I call the Budget 800 (national) number. They suggested I go back to the desk where I started and call. "Can you just connect me to the O'Hare office?" No, they couldn't do that. What kind of business is this? I call Information for the local Budget office--it clicks over to the national number and I get the same people. They still won't connect me to the local office, and still suggest I walk back. I do, with my luggage and all the way back, two terminal lengths and an elevator, where I started. I have been up 22 hours now. I call on their phone and explain where I was and ask "Why are you sending no shuttle buses to "SHUTTLE BUSES?" He said we'll send someone, just go outside. I ask, "OK, outside which terminal, the one I'm calling from or the one all the arrows point to?" And he asks (drum roll, please: "HOW MANY OUTSIDES ARE THERE?" I stumble for a moment and respond, "Well, just one, but it's a big world out there, so could you be a bit more specific?" He would not; he just repeated his question. I mention that the sign on the Budget counter only says "Proceed to Shuttle Buses"--it says nothing about phoning. "So do I now go through the doors that the airport signs guide everyone away from?" He repeats his question about the number of outsides. I whisper for a moment to get him to listen carefully, then slam the phone down with all force.

Oh, no you don't. It gets better. The shuttle bus drops me off and I go inside to the counter. There is a sign warning that they're doing network maintenance and there could be problems: "Thanks for your patience." Like I had a trace left. Sure enough, the computer can't find my car. In fact, their computer system is down. The guy whines "This isn't supposed to happen for another hour." and the other counter help throw up their hands, too. (I find strange as this is a 24-hour facility.) The guy whines again and points to a company memo. "Computers go down at 11:00 pm EDT." and points to his watch, exactly 10:00 pm. "Jesus Henry Christ" I hiss, "they don't even know what time zone they're in."

They hand-write the forms, and I leave with a car exactly two hours after I get my luggage. Hotel is fine, except that someone is bowling or playing basketball upstairs. Monday I start to pick appliances, what joy. Tuesday morning is three hours of tile-picking, which I would have every reason to call "tile-picking Hell" except that the company rep who showed everything, recorded the choices, and (the part she obviously relished) then totalling up the economic damage--she was gorgeous beyond words. Not gorgeous enough to make me prefer tile-picking to pulling fingernails, but enough to take just a bit of sting out. In short: I have never even spent on a car what the condo's options alone will cost. My good friend Dave calls the phenomenon "cashtration", and he's close.

My Sentence of Slavery...I mean, total condo hand, I drive up to the appliance store to narrow down the appliances. This is in Libertyville--and it occurs to me that in 1982 I interviewed at an enormous pharmaceutical company in Libertyville, and I looked seriously at a home on...was it something like Loch Lomond? It's not on my map. I stop in town and ask a postman (I assume he knows the area), and yes, he knows it--it is indeed Loch Lomond, and it's less than a mile north.

The lake has grown over with houses and trees, and its shores are private, so this is the best picture of my almost-home lake I could score. My. What a different life that would have been.

But I'm puzzled: why does an affluent part of such an educated state raise slow children--and then put up signs bragging about them?

The storms that rocked our plane Saturday night were not kind to the ground, either.

If anything has to be destroyed in a storm, though, I'm glad it's billboards.

A few hours in and out of my office at work, and then it was pack and run to O'Hare International, the world's busiest airport...

...where the Budget computer found no trace of my rental. The counter woman frowned and called over the manager, who asked that I explain what I done wrong.

Just perfect.

posted by eric at 15.35 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 21, 2004

New, SuperDuper Bike Map

The high-resolution map at this link is extremely large--1.5 Megabytes, or about 30 times the average Downwind of Amsterdam image size. Dial-up will take six to eight minutes.

However, it covers the entire nation to a resolution and correct location of all my bike rides to about 100 meters/yards! You can see every glorious flirtation with the German border, every detour, and every time I found myself in a dead-end and had to backtrack.

Black (sharp traces): where I rode.
Red highlight: rides this month (May 2004).
Green highlight: previous rides (since July 2003).
(Blue: Netherlands borders.)

Ain't technology grand? (And time-consuming...)

(Acknowledgement to for the underlying partial maps, which I pieced together in Photoshop. Traces were recorded on Garmin GPS to typical accuracy of 5 meters, plotted in the wonderful GarTrip software, and simply overlaid in Photoshop.)

posted by eric at 16.42 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 20, 2004

De Achterhoek

The Achterhoek. The "Back Corner". Of the Netherlands, that is.

Aaaahhh. Everything came together for this ride. I got the weather right (pedaled in the right direction, which is always downwind or away from weather), the bike was (finally) cranking smoothly, the trains ran on time, the trip chosen was just the right length: Zevenaar and around Winterswijk to Enschede. The Achterhoek.

The door to the commuter diesel train out of Arnhem had only two doors--and one not working. Since the aisleway was too narrow for bicycles, all 8-9 bicycles on this nice holiday morning piled up in the working doorway, making for interesting entrances and exits along the way. But at each stop, we just figured out how to make it work--everyone was laughing at the hundreds of little inconveniences, everyone got his shin clobbered at some point, but we all got where we were going without the conductor needing to be involved. We just worked it out as we went. No one knew I was American, and no one knew what I was thinking: in the US, this would have gotten all tense, to the brink of fistfights.

Every time a bicycle was hauled off the train, the seated passengers and the ones standing in the aisleway applauded, and the cyclist, far from taking it as "good riddance" waved his hand over his head as though he were Lance Armstrong. Soon it was my turn, everyone applauded to see another bike off the train, and I was alone in Zevenaar. Turn south to the river Rijn, then east into deepest Achterhoek, along the German border.

Early in the ride, the border slices to make a little peninsula into the Netherlands. I guess they were attached to these villages of Elten and Hoge Elten (pictured). Or...maybe Germany just wanted to make themselves a nuisance to Dutch cyclists. This was one difficult hill to get over.

The next three hours were a pearl necklace of very small Dutch villages, interesting in their differences:

  • Stokkum: bicycle traffic jam! Not much in the village itself, but attractive forests to the west and towns to the east, and only Camphuisenweg to connect them.
  • 's-Heerenberg:The brick walks through downtown covered with tables and people jammed together drinking coffee, eating pannekoeken (an excellent Dutch style of pancakes).
  • Netterden:Now this tiny, apparently wealthy farming village required a sharp right turn where the border turned south and continued east, a retro-back corner of this back corner. Achterhoek of the Achterhoek. And every bit as remote from the rest of the Netherlands as that sounds.
  • Dinxperlo:Now, who doesn't love a town with a name like Dinxperlo? There was some kind of open-air rock festival going on. I couldn't squeeze myself and my bicycle anywhere near it--I could only try not to block the fairgoers squeezing past each other and past the street vendors.

And then there were no villages. I continued east along the Achterhoek's south border, and at about Driehonderdmeterweg (three hundred meter way), farmland largely gave way to forest.

Some forests were less inviting walking about than others. I didn't care to test the bike tires off-trail either, certainly not this far from train stations.

Soon the bicycle path signs pointed left to Winterswijk, in the center of the Dutch protuberance into Germany. As I followed the border from eastbound to northbound to northwestbound, the Winterswijk arrows continued to point left at 6 or 7 kilometers. But now it was time to decide. Angle back to Winterswijk station for a ride home, or continue north and then east to Enschede. I was tired, Winterswijk was close. Enschede, though, would complete the last link on this entire end of the German border--I wouldn't leave a gap the way I had between Harlingen and Stavoren, way north on the Frisian coast. I sat. I drank water, I calculated that pressing on to Enschede would make for a 140-kilometer day.

I pressed north. At work tomorrow, my legs would have all day to throb at their leisure.

I admit that after 120 kilometers, all the farmlands and back roads and canals were beginning to blur together. But then at Rekken, I rounded the north corner of the Back Corner, passed north and then east into the Twente, up Broekdijk and Munsterdijk, and backtracked to catch the Witte Veenweg into the Witte Veen nature monument. Spectacular, and shockingly reminiscent of the Florida Gulf Coast around, say, Crystal River.

A wonderful finish to the ride. Indeed a finish, as I passed immediately into Enschede, wound my way to the station, packed my bicycle into the train before the schedule sign had flipped to the destination (I had boarded the same train at the end of my Twente ride, just four days ago). I'm not sure what the NS conductors think of our boarding trains before the destination is posted, but no one has said anything yet.

The ride home was peaceful, and my legs didn't tighten up or cause me the agony I expected. Let's hear it for muscle conditioning. Ja, nog niet te oud. This was my longest ride yet--145 kilometers (90 miles). As we rolled into Amersfoort station for the last connection, near sundown, several balloons were looking for a place to rest.

So was I.

posted by eric at 22.41 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 16, 2004


After yesterday's struggle through flat, artificial, west-Dutch Europoort, it was time for the opposite extreme--hilly, all-natural, German-border Twente. And SOON. Well, the very next day turned out to be fine.

Again with the iffy weather forecasts. I've learned that a "20-30%" chance of rain here means it will mist for 20 minutes and be fine the rest of the day. I launch, haul the bike out at Hardenberg, where last weekend I watched the Asians applaud each others' ticket purchases. The German border was only 15 minutes' ride away, and I follow the border, safely inside the Netherlands, south into the Twente.

The eastern border of the Netherlands has three bulges: the northernmost and largest is Groningen province, which I followed from lonely Nieuweschans south to Coevorden. The middle one, smaller, is the Twente, and that's what we're following today. (The southernmost and smallest--the residents there would say coziest--is the Achterhoek, the "back corner", which will wait for another day.)

Yes, yes--I'm working on an expanded, detailed bike map. You map freaks out there: the new map will make your socks roll up and down.

Today I make a game out of following the German border as closely as possible without going over it and without letting the game get fractal on me...that is, without riding 1000 kilometers to do 50 km of border. I really want to make Enschede station today; any other station is either too far, or requires too much backtracking and after yesterday I've had quite enough of backtracking, thank you.

Quite soon I find my self in the little forest between Bruinehaar (brown hair) and Vasse. I ride around on the packed sand, and in a little corner of the Netherlands, I stop for a bite to eat and to "let the bike rest."


This little forest (the Streu) is remarkably beautiful. At one point, I just stopped where I happened to be, and simply pointed the camera down.

OK, I admit it--I cropped the above picture. Here is what the camera actually saw:

I mean, here I try to be nice and spare you the horror of my foot, but no--certain people always want the original photos...

In the very corner of this bit of the Twente, I look to exactly where the usually-infallible ANWB map marks an observation tower to be. It should be right in the middle of the little clearing. The tower is just not there. There is a guy standing next to his bike in Germany, 50 steps to my left, and he is looking into the field, too. It's just not there. I shrug and turn south to Vasse...

Vasse has a tiny central plaza (it is only 30 steps across). I wonder if this guy might have the right idea.

Tiny as Vasse is, it will be the largest town I will see, almost until I finish up today in Enschede. I get silly and follow the border north and then south again, around the peninsula into Germany known as the Bergvennen, follow the border farther down the Twente border through the surprisingly dark Lutterzand forest.

At the south end of the Lutterzand, on the Dinkel river, is the Molter Heune, listed on the map as Natuurmonumenten. I find the idea of a monument to Nature an affecting and attractive one. What on the planet is more monumental, yet so deserving of a monument?

The bicycle paths all day are like this one. After a few hours of riding like this, you start to imagine that the whole world could be this fine. That is an stabilizing impression to have, once in a while.

For you large-format types, HERE is a 1000x698 (296kB) of the preceding image.

I wonder through Losser and Overdinkel, always within 2 km of the German border, and for a few hundred meters on the German side. I can see Gronau. In one stretch, the bike path is in Germany but the road next to it is in the Netherlands. I cross the east-west tracks at Glanerbrug, where they are building startling row after row of American-style suburbia, very large houses of bleached brick with garages out front and no trees. Expensive but still just awful. What a waste. And along the Aamsveenweg, a road so impressively situated on the map but so modest in reality.

And into Enschede and the station. These bike expedition are turning into a southward tracing of the Dutch border, and one end of the next day's segment will be at station Enschede, either to it or away from it, depending on the day's wind direction. The train ride home is eventless. The exhaustion that night is relentless.

posted by eric at 22.34 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 15, 2004


The Dutch often call attention to their country's being small. In one of the most endearing examples, a TV-Noord Holland message on energy conservation concludes: "Nederland is klein. Denk groot." The Netherlands are small. Think big."

This is a bit of a game, since the Dutch will also quickly claim many of the World's Largest. World's largest dike, largest man-made land mass, largest water gate, largest canal system...and Rotterdam/Europoort, the world's largest shipping port.

This last one surprises many people--they think of New York or Singapore or one of the other ambitiously expanding (often merely ambitiously hyped) ports. I probably shouldn't have spent a whole day riding through, but I did, and redeemed myself (whew) by finding one vantage point (below) that ensured the whole day was worthwhile.

The night before, there had been a terrific accident on Huizerweg, below my window, the third accident I had heard and then seen in just my year there. In this one, a young man had run down the lane-divider post before plowing into a parked car and then a moving one. He must have been doing over 80 km/hour, which is twice too fast on that street, even in daytime. Well, I'm glad I don't drive much here.

The trip to Den Haag was a short one, including a weird train transfer under Schiphol airport. But a couple of nice conversations on the way, including the tale of one man who borrowed his brother-in-law's sailboat and then lost his passport while docked in England. I showed him the passport photocopy I always carry around--one in the bike, one in the car, etc etc--and he decided that was a pretty good idea. The UK police were not amused when he couldn't even come up with his Dutch passport number.

I step out of Den Haag Centraal station, and in the middle of the open area (between the station and the zebra clock) was this...this...this stack of sea containers. I assume this was backdrop for some kind of outdoor concert, any case it was an interesting omen for a trip through industrial transport areas.

On my way south through Den Haag (the Hague, or 'S-Gravenhage if you are a Dutchman's Dutchman) I happened to ride through the government area. Just the one picture--it's hard to photograph--but while I read the plaques, I realized that this area was special in a way that hadn't occurred to me. This is one of the most sensible, rational, peaceful, capable governments on the planet, and around it are people who are entrusted by the whole world to try the world's most horrible, corrupt, and politicized international criminals, ethnic cleansers (what a term), that sort. In other words, this little spot, for all its modest appearance, is one of the most intense concentrations of civilized behaviour on the planet.

I rode through the village of Monster, just because I liked the name. I thought about taking a picture of the entry sign and myself, hands raised Boris Karloff-style, but dismissed the idea as a little too kitsch. On to Maassluis...

And the ferry across the Maas. I don't understand why the Dutch hesitate to bridge the Maas here, as there certainly is enough traffic. Boat height can't be the issue, as there are at least two bridges just upstream in Rotterdam. But the ride was very pleasant, even though we had to stop and start to dodge a few gigantic ocean-going cargo vessels.

Once on the south side of the Maas, I saw a part of the Netherlands that very few people see, especially very few non-Dutch, and never on a bicycle (fiets). This is car and truck country--everywhere I went open-jawed people remarked "fiets? Een fiets, HIER?" And though most of the land in the Netherlands is artificial or engineered to some extent, this area lining the Europoort is engineered to the centimeter. In this picture, roughly from left to right, note: windturbines, two-way bike path (fietspad), separation rail, freeway exit, freeway (under construction), guard rail, busy electric train line (several tracks), service road, industrial park.

Part of this new freeway was blocked off, which means nothing to bicyclists. I was just about to start down the bike path continuation, when two motorcycle Police stopped two other motorcyclists coming out of the area. They didn't ticket them, but apparently there was quite a lecture. I casually turned right toward the overpass. When the Police overtake me, a car turning right suddenly stopped to let them pass and was immediately hit by the truck behind. I ride by just as the Police sigh and pull over. Police witnessing of an accident doesn't get much more direct than that.


It's amazing, it just goes on and on. I rode for hours by things like this, trying to get to Maas again, on the west (North Sea) side of Europoort.

And I followed the curve around Maasvlaakte, the end of the artificial spit of land, half-filled with row after row of oil storage facilities, and a several square kilometers of open land bulldozed to the flatness of a still lake, and a small airport in the middle. At when I had followed the curve to eastward again, I came across a sign for a parking area named Maasmond (mouth of the Maas).

...where I discovered a pile of very large quarried rocks. In part of the pile was the shape of a lounge chair, and there I had lunch, watching the ships go in and out, seeming to dodge each other, waving to the to police boats running up and down the riverbank. The biggest boats were mostly on their way out, with the ebb tide. Tide: the Dutch take sailing very seriously. Their word for time is...tijd. In any case, the view is endlessly entertaining, some ships with cargo containers stacked five or more high, with nothing visible to keep them from just tipping off the stack and into the deep sea. Nothing but the fantastic size of the ships to damp out waves of any size. The ships were coming from and going to who knows where: I could make out home ports of Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Helsinki. And the pile of rocks to watch the procession is highly recommended: at 51.98204 degrees north, 4.04817 degrees east.

And I doubled back eastward, up the Maas' south bank, until I was across from Hoek van Holland. A few fishermen stared as I rode past. I had not seen another bicycle for 25 kilometers, absolutely the first time I had experienced anything like that.

Since most of the way had been blocked by big rivers, open areas with no paths or roads, and inaccessible industrial areas, I had necessarily done a lot of backtracking. I got stuck in the sand at one point, trying to cut across the edge of a nature preserve and coming up to barbed wire that I didn't feel like attempting with a loaded bike. More backtracking. Soon I had had enough and headed across one last bridge onto one of the Zeeland islands.

And I was rewarded by the fortress town of Brielle. The church (steeple pictured) has been built around so tightly that it is essentially unphotographable, but the canal area on the town's north side is very pleasant indeed. The scale and ambience of these village-center canal areas--Muiderberg, Brielle, Weesp, Spakenburg, Enkhuizen, Marken--can be very pleasurable. I cannot quite figure it out. But clearly the Dutch have. Florida could learn a lot, believe me.

And more riding along riverbanks back to the Maas ferry where (no accident) the Maassluis train station stands. A lot of the riding has had headwinds and no view. Head-down riding. I swallow a candy bar almost whole and drink a liter of water on the three trains home.

I am happier to have done this ride than to do it. Tomorrow the weather is promising, and I need that ride to be different.

posted by eric at 22.37 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 9, 2004

Slow Ride

And I did not take it midday angry at my bicycle for the first time.

This Sunday's idea was to get out of Emmen about where I left off yesterday, past Nieuw-Dordrecht over to Emmer-Compascum, then south to the bend in the border with Germany, west to Coevorden, south as far as I still had energy to do.

The train was late out of Naarden-Bussum, unusual.

I had time to wonder why the NS owns so many machines that look so much like they want to hurt you.

An couple of hours' ride out of station Emmen, past pleasant Klazienaveen, well into the godforsaken Schoonebeeker Veld--really a heide, heather, land that trees won't even grow on--my bike's drive train started to come apart. Most irritatingly, I had just had full service on the bike three weeks ago. It is four hours' walk to the nearest station, which is probably right back to Emmen and a long ride home, for just about nothing.

I pull off the bike trail, squat among the low heather and jackrabbits to see what's going on. First, the back wheel isn't set true. If I loosened the back bolts, I wasn't sure I could pull hard enough to straighten it, but I was pretty sure I wouldn't make it worse. I pull out the spanner (wrench to you Americans), and maybe lessen the skew angle by about half. Straightened the chain cover that the tech had snapped on crooked. I ride a bit, and it's better, but still not acceptable for long rides.

The drive mechanism is covered on this nice bike, which is good since I had pedaled through hundreds of kilometers of bad road--gravel, sand, sheep****, you name it, I rode through it. But in slits in the cover I could see the chain was dirty. I work a little more. I pedal a little more.

I'm not really seeing anything around me. The bike is making me nervous, and forecasts notwithstanding, the wind has turned west--dead against me. And west wind in coastal Europe, well it's been known for a long time:

Oh, western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down may rain?

I ride through Nieuw-Schoonebeek and south of Nieuw-Amsterdam--the Dutch one, not the New York one--ducking the strengthening headwind, on a bumpy bike path, along a dreadful highway. The air smells of cows badly in need of showers. No no no--let's not invoke the rain gods. And I wonder why so many towns in the Drenthe area insist on being Nieuw-Something, particularly named after some other Dutch town. And inexplicably: Nieuw Moscou. Besides the Nieuws, there are the Tweedes (Seconds): Tweede Exloermond, Tweede Valthermond.

Maybe I'm just grouchy today. The bike squeaks and grinds along, louder and louder, kilometer after kilometer.

Across from station Coevorden stands this monument to teenage desire to escape hinterland boredom. Worshipping everything Amsterdammer, its excitement artificially generated a palm tree, cactus, on a peeling background of pink paint. And no doubt by music that threatens to derail trains. Dreadful.

I discover that Coevorden station has no WC. OK, now I am in a bona fide dark mood. More and more, the weather matches. But the border turns south, and ahead lies a station every few kilometers like a string of pearls, so at least now I can pedal on without real worry.

South out of Coevorden I had to pedal around a large and relatively new harbor--on a canal, I hasten to add. Lots of open land, and then...troop carriers and rocket launchers. No one around behind the high fences. "NATO" on signs and all the buildings.

I can't stand it. No one for kilometers in each direction. I stop and raise the level of the canal a little. Ripples spread in perfect circles, as if across glass. Some unseen birds nearly deafen me from the trees across. I never see even one bird. I find myself imagining it's a NATO psych ops test on me. Obviously losing perspective.

The next pearl is Gramsbergen, a delightful little place of unnecessarily, whimsically tight turns in its streets. I regret I will probably not see it again. And I have just missed the train out, which leaves about 30 minutes to pedal to the next town. I do.

Just as I find Hardenberg station, the light rain starts. There is a line of 15-20 Asians to the ticket machine, and they are making no progress. I pull out my PIN card, and they part like the Red Sea. I realize they don't know how to operate buy a ticket--as at very many Dutch rail stations, there is no ticket window, only the automats. So, with a flourish I run my finger to Naarden-Bussum, even though I know its code--1410--by heart, slowly punch in the digits, theatrically press the buttons in sequence, take my card back and show it, and my ticket pops into the bin. There breaks out tremendous loud chatter that I can't understand, I can't even identify the language. I push my bike up to the platform and look back down: when each one gets his ticket, there is general laughter, and the next one steps up timidly with his card. We all make the train, laughing, just as it begins to rain hard. We all find places, the whistle blows and the doors shut, and all the way to Zwolle it's a noisy, happy ride.

Did I say happy?

posted by eric at 21.05 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 8, 2004

Angling by Saxony

There seems to be a growing theme to the rides: clockwise around the Netherlands' border. Why not? I live in central Netherlands and I've seen it, so the natural question is--how do the Dutch live on the edge?" I mean, on the borders.

I load up the bike and head up Dr. Frederik van Eedenweg when...

I mean, what are we saying, here? I can't even get out of my own street before the weirdness starts...

And they keep coming and keep coming. OK, I get it--it's the first weekend after Dutch Liberation Day, May 5. The Dutch, sensible as ever, can separate their disagreement with current American policy from eternal, warm gratitude to the Americans for liberating them from the horrors of 1940-45. And some of these antiques are, actually, pretty cool.

But they keep coming and keep coming. The bicyclists are not happy, accustomed as they are to having right-of-way over everything non-nuclear. I myself am impatient, close to missing my train...

...but the mobile partygoers have a police escort.

The train rides to the Netherlands' northeast corner are long. Change of trains in Amersfoort (chocolade broodje en halfvolle melk) and again in Groningen, probably for the last time. Pull the bike off in cloudy, still-deserted Nieuweschans and head south, skirting the border with Saxony (Germany).

And within 20 minutes...well, whatever I was expecting to see in the Netherlands, this probably wasn't it.

At a strategic fork in the road I perform a mental coin flip and head through Bellingwoude, which looks perfectly ordinary on the map. But then there is the 15th century church,...

...and a host of rather nice houses.

I tire of riding south, parallel with the German border and in sight of it, and I notice that I'm coming up on the easternmost point in the Netherlands. I take a left fork and then a quick right into Germany, then back on the border-crossing road.

The old boom (Dutch for "tree") they used to lower each night to block the road is now rusting away unused, unnoticed.

However I try, I can't determine whether this is the easternmost point in the Netherlands or whether it is along the canal north of Nieuweschans. I couldn't actually get to the canal from either side, so I'm having to guess at its longitude. I think this pictured point is more eastern, but they aren't different in longitude by more than 30 meters/100 feet. Oh, well.

I cross safely back into the Netherlands, and the map shows this really complicated looking little town ahead, with a nice bypass on the south side. I start for the bypass, and then I notice that the fine print over the town: "vesting". An old fortress town. I turn towward Bourtange.

Good move.

The typical moat and gate are promising.

But the circular central plein strikes me speechless. In college and for years after, I have collected "attractive spaces", places that make you feel good just standing there. The northeast corner of Jackson Square, New Orleans before they put in the noisy Chart House restaurant. The cliffs west of Piana, Corsica. Any number of hidden, cozy creek bottoms in Texas (e.g., ending of the film Lonesome Dove). The park in Winter Park, Florida, which I loved so much I moved there. Now I have another one: the plein in Bourtange, Netherlands. I cannot remember breathing in a space and feeling so...I don't know...wholesome. It is not large, it is modest; and I cannot decide exactly why, but it seems to me a perfect space, simply perfect.


The homes are quiet understated without being boring.

Bourtange lost much of its active Jewish population during the occupation. The names and ages at disappearance are listed--80 years old, 6 years old, 50. Several in a row with the same last name.

And Bourtange is even smaller than most walled, fortified villages, and before I knew it, I was out the other side. Not a soul noticed my leaving.

Well, almost no one.

And now follows a tale of chills! and thrills! and deering-do!!!

I wouldn't have waved friendlily to the pictured sailor if I had known he was going to leave the stupid drawbridge up. The locks were closed, that I could see. And I could see the bridge controls on the canal's other side--and while I'm for 100% sure totally unauthorized to operate them, how hard could it be? I mean, it's not like this is a nuclear reactor or jet fighter. I figure: UP/DOWN about covers it. But the canal was too wide to jump, and there was nothing I could float across on. It was a LONG ride in either direction, and the only way home is to get to Emmen train station, a long way ahead. On the other side. This is not good.

OK, then I read the instructions: push in the button. I wait. I wait. No one. This entire day's ride plus hours and hours on the train are going to be busted if I don't get across this stupid canal. No one stirs from the shack or the rusted trucks on the other side.

I look left. Sigh. I look right. Sigh. No--wait. Look--there. THERE.

THERE. (See it?) My smirking turns to maniacal laughter. Oh, no, this is stupid. This is crazy. If you mess this up you are in deep, deep feces. Right, then: it's what I'm going to do.

I figured there was nothing magic to crossing narrow, bending planks with a large, heavily loaded bicycle and water on both sides. Just hoist the front of the bike up, hoist the back up, hold on as I hoist myself up. Catch my balance, start across. Nice and easy does it, just inches at a time. QUESTION: if I start to fall, do I push the bike to the rail and fall myself to spare the bike (and camera and GPS and maps), OR do I sacrifice the bike so as not to hurt myself out here by myself. The question is easy--without me the bike is probably going to roll in no matter what, so I would hold on and (groan) let it go. The hardest parts of getting across were (1) the outside bend, and (2) that thoughtful post on the near side that I hit my foot on and then held on for dear life while I judged whether I could simply throw the bike from there.

I'll stop with the cruelty: I made it. No policeman within sight, no one else either. All in a day's ride, another life skill I couldn't have imagined needing. Que hombre. I roll south.

On the way to the flatlands and to pitiful little Barger-Compascum and past the refineries south of Emmen, and on the way to enduring disapproving looks from the train conductor at over my filthy, filthy bike tires at Emmen Bargeres station, the ride home in the dark...before all that, I had a positively transcendental ride. Along the Ruiten Aa kanaal, rolling along and along for two hours all to myself, almost too much to bear. I close with the memory of today's ride that I will keep longest.


posted by eric at 23.51 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 2, 2004

Nonstop to Germany

...and out of it, too--but more about out, later

It's not every day you wake up and say, "I think I'll bicycle to a foreign country."

No two ways about it, my legs had needed Saturday off. I shop, I dodge rain showers, I wonder through down the tile streets and cafes of Hilversum and Bussum. And Sunday morning, the legs were renewed, and the wind was right--out of the northwest. The forecast still called for rain, but the sky had that incredibly flat look, like a room's ceiling painted gray--the kind the US Midwest suffers all winter. But at least it's a sign of stable weather, and I could ride fast enough to keep up with any likely weather movement anyway. Pack the bag, out the door, check the tires,...head southeast for Germany.

The trick to riding in the south half of the Netherlands is simple: know at every moment where your next bridge is...and DON'T MISS IT. This is Bridge Too Far country.

The first couple of hours were lightning fast, and I was past Amersfoort and along the canals, southeast toward the Rijn river. Very pleasant.


Just before I got to the one bridge I didn't want to miss, the Rijnbrug at Rhenen over the (you guessed it) Rijn, I enter woods and immediately hit a hill--a hill!--with a "steep slope" warning. Five percent grade. What's all this, then?--did I accidentally leave the Netherlands?

No, this is still the Netherlands. And what's more, in a straight line (OK, OK--in an arc along the earth's surface) it's only 41 km / 25 miles from my apartment. In the US, I'd driven farther than that for lunch. Who knew the land could change so abruptly?

I ride through hilly Rhenen, a very nice town by the looks of it, I do cross the Rijnbrug, and cruise east through the narrow sliver of featureless land caught between the Rijn on the north and the Waal on the south. In every little town there is a small memorial park, perhpas the size of your living room, with a statue and a plaque listing the town's dead 1940-1945. The one in Dodewaard, a wistful name in its own right, I found particularly touching.

And down the Waal, this nuclear power plant, conveniently in the Netherlands' east, so that if there is any "accidental release", the prevailing westerly winds...

Near Oosterhout (probably not named after Clint Eastwood, or vice versa), overlooking the Waal and its enormous smoking power plant, stands this memorial to the crossing of the Waal in September 1944. Around the base are a few dozen childrens' drawings held together by a colored string. I look for an entire drawing, but they've all been folded or blown over by the wind. For some reason I can't touch them--I have a sense that this is not my suffering, or my history to interfere with. I can read part of one, in colored crayon: "...odat men niet meer oorloch mak..."

In the interest of conserving today's time--this ride to another nation is getting awfully long--I skirt Nijmegen and in favor of heading for the barest corner of Germany. These houses are still in the Netherlands, but only by a few hundred meters.

And the bike path branches, I take the right, and immediately it crosses a modest canal modestly named "Het Meer" (the sea), and I'm in Germany. My fleeting reaction is, "Today's task completed--even if I'm hit by lightning, I did get to Germany." And then as I follow the bike path along the still-modest canal now equally modestly "Hauptwasserung", and as I look over to the Netherlands on the opposite canal bank, the feeling is very different, stronger. It's...homesickness. Oh, my. Yes, I long for the familiar signs and street markings and legible (OK, just barely to me) language...but here I am, 30 meters into Germany, and I do not like it. This is a bit silly and very, very strange.

And the feeling gets stronger and stronger. Perhaps justifiably so, or perhaps everything is just filtered through fatigue and by my first reaction. Here is a lovely field. So, here's the problem: can I bicycle through it or not? The sign can be read two ways. What does a bicycle + "frei" mean? Does it mean you are "free to bicycle"? Or is it warning me that this area is "bicycle-free"? And why does the German language insist on making the most beautiful things so UGLY--"Landwirtschaftlicher"?

I know I can't trust myself now. I decide to look at everything else around me, pay attention to the land, the two towns (Zyfflich, whose name suggests a skin medication for aliens; and Wyler, which sounds like it could be in Texas). I smile to the few people I see and utter "Dag" (oops, that should be "Tag"--oh, to hell with it: "hullo"). I resolve to ignore the language and signs. Maybe it's just me today, maybe there's nothing really different here.

And then this. Oh my God, just what the German image needs. Psst--there's a hell of a nice universe (Dutch soil) next door. Let's go.

No one got in my way. I cycled up and down vertical Groesbeek NL, the only time I could not pedal my bike but absolutely had to dismount and push it up a hill. I thought it was just fatigue from 100 kilometeres behind me today. Then I noted the locals pushing their own bikes.

Nijmegen hid their train station extremely well. Note to Nijmegen--the War is OVER, it's OK to put the signs back up. I punched the Mark button on the GPS in case that happened again, and I loaded the bike just as the whistle blew, opened a Mars bar and the first of two fresh, cold Spa blauws, watched the towns and fields flash by. Ah. Mission accomplished.

posted by eric at 22.51 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)