Saturday, October 20, 2012

An Instant Expert’s Guide to a Foreign Country: Netherlands Edition. We’ve done the cities, now let’s typecast the countryside.

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.  Right now we’re in Holland.

Holland, as seen in postcards, is as flat as a board.  But it’s locally flat – polder fields are flat, and canals and their adjacent towpaths are flat, but the canals are flat a storey or two above the fields.  It feels backward.

Chile – the part of Chile where Santiago lies – is a desert country.  Water is a luxury, something to be celebrated and cherished.  It certainly doesn’t lie around any old how for any old someone to use and splash about in.  Holland is a very pleasant contrast.  Holland is as green and verdant  as an Irish whiskey advertisement, with showers every afternoon, and sunny skies for the rest of the day – a phenomenon which everyone I met took great pains to point out in English, Dutch, Spanish and even Esperanto - is NOT typical.  Holland isn’t normally like this – Holland goes in for sodden, grey and grizzly, I was told.  How did I think the fields got Irish Whiskey look?  I smiled and enjoyed and tuned them out and soaked up the sun.  After a winter under Santiago’s soupy grey skies, I wasn’t going to quibble over semantics or climatology. I was going to WALLOW in it.  Soak up the rain and fresh washes skies until I was as green as the polder-fields.   

On our first day morning in Leidschendam, Mr Tabubil and I slept till a ridiculous hour, and after a breakfast of good Dutch bread and cheese and sausage that had Mr Tabubil weeping mistily nostalgic into his open faced sandwiches, Anneke and Pieter took us for a long bicycle ride – out of the town and into the countryside.

This part of Holland was once a sand dune, and all of it is still at sea level.  Over the centuries, the dunes have been planted and fields laid down, but it is a very  MAINTAINED landscape, the water held at bay by a network of pumps and interlaced canals.  Worked land is divided into polders – strip fields with narrow canals instead of fences  - a meter’s width of water holds a horse or cow as well as a fence does.  The small canals between polder fields drain into larger canals, whose water is pumped into the great canals that run from town to town and city to city .

The Vliet - the great canal that runs through the center of Leidschendam

Anneke lend me her bike for the afternoon.  Even with the seat and the handlebars set as far down as they would go, her bike was far too tall for me. The learning curve was tight and wobbly and relied on the reliability of sturdy garden walls, but eventually I caught the knack of it and pedaled off behind the others – out of their suburban lanes, through old Leidschendam and its cobbled streets and lopsided 16th century houses, across the great intercity canal, and into countryside.
The Netherlands takes its countryside seriously.  Country is more than terrain – it seems to be a state of mind.  Perhaps because they live so dense, they prize it so highly and build it so determinedly pastoral – as if possessed by a communal mind that clings ferociously to a nostalgic understanding of RURAL.  There are hobby farms, and beer gardens, and sweeping country vistas, and manor houses, and caravan parks.  Or perhaps it is only nostalgic for me - because it is a Rural that has never existed in America or Australia – we’re too large, too spread out, and we grew too quickly.

Two of three sixteenth century windmills - the pumping now happens from that small red shed.

We bowled along the top of a dike alongside a canal, with the sides of the dike sloping away down to polder fields and thatched cottages on either side.  In the distance we could see skyscrapers – on the near horizon the towers of Rotterdam, and ninety degrees away the towers of den Hague – but we spun along between polder fields and copses of trees, and windmills (the old thatched sort, right out of Dutch old master paintings, AND shiny new wind turbines) and little lanes running away to thatched cottages.
And Shetland ponies.  Every field has a horse or two, or a half-dozen cows or sheep, and every front garden has a chicken run or flock of ducks, and every dozen meters or so we passed a herd of Shetland ponies.
Good lord - horses that come up exactly as far as your KNEES-  it suited somehow.  A small and manageable sort of animal for a landscape that maintained and manicured for its very life-

Yup.  A Shetland Pony.

We rode  home along a long winding way through greenhouse farms  - miles and miles of glass houses -  and into suburban Leidschendam through another way than the one we had left by.  We came through rows and rows of terrace houses, set around narrow curving streets and stretches of thick parkland.  Parkland everywhere. 

This canal-side house has a few subsistence problems.

Passing by an ornamental canal, we saw Mr Tabubil’s Oma (his grandma) sitting on a park bench, taking a little rest on her way to Anneke and Pieter’s house for dinner. Mr Tabubil was off his bike and had his arms around her before the rest of us had begun to brake.  He left us there and walked with Oma the rest of the way, while Pieter home, driving two bikes at once. Dutch people can do that.  They have mad skilz.

Looking at how knackily Pieter was handling those two bikes, I felt a wave of vicarious confidence and did something very clever on my own great big loaner.  With no hands on the handlebars because I have such a splendid and innate sense of balance.  I fell off almost immediately.  And trapped my foot between the pedal and the wheel, and did something very nasty to my ankle. 

It’s almost entirely back to normal now.

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