Living in the Netherlands: First Impressions
After coming back from nine months in India in early June, I took off again for two years in the Netherlands in early September. I'm living in Utrecht and dividing my working days between Utrecht and Leiden---in each of which, curiously enough, I have a very nice office overlooking the local botanical gardens. Pretty!
I lucked into a lovely apartment in the center of the city, on the second (= American third) floor of an old row-house overlooking one of the main canals. Like many Dutch houses, this one has a space-saving spiral staircase up to my flat, with a banister at the top that makes a great location for drying saris, although I kind of doubt that the architect had that purpose in mind. Because of the round stairwell I have a convex circular wall in my bedroom that I'm still trying to figure out how to put to good use.
Bicycles, of course, are everywhere and ridden by everybody. Car ownership taxes are pretty high and car ownership rates are relatively low, even by European standards, and driving and parking in the narrow crowded streets of the old city tends to be a nuisance, so the bicycle (Dutch "fiets") and motor-scooter ("bromfiets", i.e., fiets that goes "brom brom"---honest!) are the ideal vehicles, and there are dedicated traffic lanes for them on most major streets, as well as separate bike paths in many places. Everybody from university students to fashionable city workers in suits or spike heels can be spotted pedaling a clunky old low-gear flatlander bicycle off to school or work or errands. Parents have bikes with child seats on the rear rack, top tube, and/or handlebars; sometimes they have light plastic windscreens to shield a forward-facing child on a front seat. Dinner guests in their sixties matter-of-factly change into foul-weather gear to pedal a couple kilometers home at 11 PM in a rainstorm.
Everybody bicycles, everybody takes buses, everybody takes trains; everything's set up so that you can actually get places easily by bike or bus or train. It's a transit system the way you'd run a transit system for a society that actually cared about forms of transportation other than the private automobile. There's none of the constant struggle and ingenuity required for a non-car-owner to work around the handicaps of a car-obsessed system. It's really almost bor---I mean, quite delightful, of course! My own fiets is a secondhand three-speed named Grauwe Gans ("Grey Goose") and I can fiets to the office ("fiets" is a verb as well as a noun, and for all I know it may be other parts of speech too) in under half an hour. Unlike many fietsers, however, I do not bike in the rain carrying an open umbrella! (These Dutch are crazy. :)
—— Kim Plofker
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