Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Instant Expert’s Guide to a Foreign Country: Netherlands Edition

(Insert photo of windmill HERE. For local flavor.)

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy. 

Holland is composed thusly: canals, windmills, polder fields, progressive urban engineering, glasshouses farms, and bicycles.

Mr. Tabubil’s parents grew up in a satellite city of den Hague named Leidschendam - one of the buckles in the Netherlands’ industrialized belt.  From Amsterdam down to Rotterdam, the country is densely farmed, densely factoried and densely populated. People live tightly, in towns built up of small houses and small gardens in the shadows of megalithic post-war housing blocks. 
It could be terribly urban, and unpleasantly citified, except that the Dutch decided that they weren’t going to Do That – and they Didn’t.

The years immediately after WW2 were a time of serious social planning for the Netherlands- the Germans had blown much of urban Holland to rubble, and in many ways, planners were left to start from scratch. 
Obliged to build a lot of housing for a lot of people in a terrible hurry, they threw up megalithic tower-blocks in every town, but once those were out of the way, they sat down and started thinking.  They looked at mid-century modernism, and decided that they didn’t like it.  Instead they planned villages centered on common-land parks and plazas;  between the rows of row-houses are strips of green land, dotted canals and copses of trees and pockets of woodland.   Each little house has a garden - be it so small as a pocket handkerchief, or the span of a patio deck behind the back door, but houses all must have their green rooms.  It is a way of existing in the pockets of your neighbors without living inner-city style, anonymous and concrete-bound. 
Modern housing has grown denser over the decades, but the same planning philosophy still governs: streets meander, housing blocks include back-gardens, or roof-decks for all, and canals take the place of front stoops or divide you from your extremely-next-door neighbors.
Which can be a blessing of an unexpected sort.  In Holland, houses are spaced only a step or two back from the street, and people live their whole lives with their curtains open. 
For a person accustomed to the large yards and grandiose personal footprints of North America and Australia, living like this could come as a terrible shock.  It’s a way of life that I don’t fathom, and don’t particularly care to fathom: the absence of privacy is so comprehensive that it appears almost invisible.  People fill their front window with plants and pretty objects to make a pleasing panorama for people passing by –
(I imagine that there is a highly competitive side to front-window keeping that visitors don’t see.  A world where ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is honed to a very fine edge.  And a world of pressure to keep the edge polished.  For the use of the pointed purposes of a knife.)

Leidschendam is an early post-war town. Trees and bushes have had sixty years to grow up across windows and shade the edges of things.  More recent developments are less pleasant to live in.  The newest are raw and wide open, the trees are saplings - knee-high, and views are direct – right inside the houses and out through the other side.

On an enormously positive side -  the design of the urban belt of Holland has given it the most child-friendly community vibe I’ve felt or seen since I was a child growing up in a little mining town in the middle of the Papua New Guinea jungle.   Children are everywhere, and the streets are full of PEOPLE –
Public Transport is a fact of life here - not a luxury, not an afterthought, but a major and intrinsic aspect of urban planning. 
When I lived in Northern California, our local bus service made one stop an hour - once in each sprawling post-war suburban town.  Having a car was a fact of necessity, and everywhere was too far to walk.   Or ride a bike, on the car-centric roads.
In Holland, the desired baseline seems put every urban, or even semi-rural, dwelling within a ten minute walk of at least two different forms of urban transport.  Anneke and Pieter have the option of the tram, the metro (both run on rails, but the tram runs through the streets and is beholden to traffic lights and turn signals, while the metro has a dedicated line and goes several time faster.  It’s tremendous fun.) several different bus lines, and the big inter-city train lines. 
And bicycles of course.  They can ride their bicycles EVERYWHERE.

The story about how Holland grew a bicycle culture has been told other-where and better – HERE is a short, and fantastic video documentary on the subject.
I’ll wait while you watch it and catch up.

Dutch bicycles aren’t the serious sports models that we ride in American and Australia, bent over racing handlebars on our special sprung saddles and mountain shocks.  Dutch bikes are inexpensive upright models, cheerful and reliable, with enclosed chains and limited gear-shifting -  a bike that will get you (and a friend or two )From A to B and up a low hill.
Everyone rides: kids ride their bikes to school(two and three on every bike, pillion style) mums ride bikes with baby seats -fore AND aft, grandparents zip past on electric models, just enough buzz in the motor to give you the advantage of a following wind, and shoppers ride models with modified frames, with a wagon bed mounted between the handlebars and the front wheel.  You see the basket piled high with shopping bags, but more often, a small blonde head or two, a baby in a bassinet, or a pair of toddlers, belted in.

Every road has a designated bike lane – with its own designated place in the traffic cycle, and because the country is so flat and close, people RIDE.  And because public transport is so universally accessible, when they aren’t riding, they WALK.   Streets are public places, not car-clubs.  And villages are communities.

(Here’s the windmill.)

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