The Netherlands

Flying into Amsterdam on a beautiful clear morning, I marvel at the coastline—an endless ribbon of white sand as far as the eye can see—and out to sea, the fields of windmills planted in the water along the coast. I had no idea that Dutch coast had such long, beautiful beaches.

Weeks of reading news reports about flight delays, cancelations and tangles of lost luggage precede our arrival. Navigating the Schipol baggage claim area we are horrified to see mountains of suitcases gathered in corners everywhere—some with flight dates from weeks before.  But Bob’s “parking Karma” kicks in and our bags are among the first to pop up and glide along the carousel to greet us.

After an easy and efficient train ride into town, we emerge at Amsterdam Central where streams of humanity swirl around in all directions. It seems we have arrived on the weekend of the annual Pride celebration which explains the colorful crowds and festive atmosphere. A short, but overcharged taxi ride later, we check into a delightful “room with a view” at our hotel in a quiet residential area. Europe, we have arrived! Let the adventures begin!

Many of you have probably been to Amsterdam, so I won’t bore you with details of the winding canals lined with centuries-old buildings that stand tall, narrow and at odd angles propping each other up, nor the myriad watercraft that flow through the city’s veins, nor the quaint bridges dripping with petunias, nor the cafe life hanging on the banks, nor the barge life strung along the walls. Nor will I mention the thousands of charming doorways, windows and side alleys that tantalize my voyeuristic mind. Too boring.

On the other hand, I have a lot to say about the streets of Amsterdam. First, four-wheel traffic—almost negligible—consists primarily of buses, taxis and delivery vans. Two-wheel traffic is another story. Everyone rides bikes in Holland. Neither age, infirmity nor girth precludes traveling by bike.  Cycling in Amsterdam is not just transportation or sport. It is a phenomenon.

From the moment you step on a sidewalk, you, the pedestrian, must be vigilant to the swarms of cyclists that own the streets. Fearless, fast and fluid, they travel—sometimes three and four abreast—with grace and precision seemingly guided by the same instinct and laws of physics as a school of fish. The majority of streets have dedicated bike lanes and as long as you don’t step in them or cross them without whipping your head from side to side multiple times to double-check your timing, you can avoid disaster.

There are myriad styles of bikes and riders.  Heavy, black gearless bikes are favored by the elderly and the not-in-a-hurry. These biped-friendly bikes announce themselves from a distance with the clanking and squealing of pedals, so no worries. But the speed at which electric bikes swish by in silence is most unnerving. Commuters and lollygaggers are tolerant of each other. Child seat and grocery basket bikes are ubiquitous along with bike parking lots. While helmets are nowhere to be seen, riding in mini skirts, long summer dresses and flip-flops is de riguer. In Seattle, we have park and ride lots for motorists, in Amsterdam, there are bike and walk lots for cyclists.  How anyone can find their bike in a tangle of hundreds is beyond me but Bob has a theory. The same instinct which enables a penguin to locate its offspring on a beach covered in baby penguins is operative here.

A highlight of our stay is the late afternoon canal cruise on Sebi’s classic boat. His contagious enthusiasm for the city and his great storytelling, combined with unlimited gin and bitterballen, are a winning combination. Our one disappointment was a very dull and mournful organ concert at Saint Nicholas Basilica.

In summary, Amsterdam is an amazingly tolerant, charming and friendly city. Beer and pannekoeken flow as freely as bike and boat traffic. On the streets strangers greet each other, you hear every language spoken in the world as well as a few from outer worlds.  You can’t help but enjoy yourself.

Leaving Amsterdam, we visit our friend and my father’s caregiver, Ewa and her daughter’s family outside Rotterdam. It is a joyous and loving reunion as we approach the one-year anniversary of my father’s passing. They also visit us in Delft where we learn the story of William the Orange, the founding of the Netherlands and consume more of the Dutch appetizer, bitterballen, (little, deeply-fried balls of mashed meat and potatoes). I should also mention there is a lot of blue pottery in Delft…some of which is actually still made there. I don’t mean to sound negative but I find the touristification of culture and heritage truly discouraging. The Saturday market in Delft spreads down the canals around the central square and has something for everyone—from food to chachkas.

We spend a day and a night in Haarlem—a city in which I would gladly live.  It has a fantastically beautiful old center surrounded by parks and lazy, well-maintained residential canals. We take in an excellent organ concert in St. Bavo’s church.

Another day we drive to the beach at Zandfoort. The drive there takes you through villages of very beautiful, tree-lined lanes graced by large summer homes in beautiful gardens. The area feels like old money. As you get closer to the beach, the scene is more holiday-making for the working and middle class. Little restaurants and family pensions line the streets. Aging cottages and mid-twentieth century brick row-houses and apartment blocks with laundry drying on balconies.

Our timing is terrible. It is Saturday and there are more people and umbrellas than grains of sand and it is horribly hot.  We haven’t realized that Zandfoort is where Amsterdammers flock for weekend swimming and partying…along with the thousands of tourists that have August holidays. We retreat to our AirBnb. As evening brings a cooling off, I head out again with camera in hand. The beach is now a throbbing mass of party-goers dancing to the thump-thumping of electronic dance music.  Think hippies meet Beach Blanket Babylon meet Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Quite the scene.

All in all, the Netherlands seems a very well-managed country. The cities and towns are vibrant and clean. The network of roads and public transport are efficient, well organized and well maintained. If only we could say the same about Washington state. 

Finally, we say goodbye to the Netherlands and head through North Holland—the gateway to the West Frisian Islands—to the east and Hamburg.