Friday, July 24, 2009

Grocery Bike (& Friends)

The Dutch have bikes for every occasion. One of my favorites the moederfiets (mother bike) for on-the-go moms (or dads!). A bakfiets (carrier bike) takes the place of the American pickup truck. The standard omafiets (Grandma bike), preferably old and beaten-up, is the bike of choice for urban errands and parking outside the pub (so you don't have to worry about it!). There are cargo bikes and tandem bikes and even a backseat-driver tandem bike that lets your kid think he's in charge by riding up front, while you steer from behind! Folding bikes are for hybrid commuters who must take them on the train (bringing a real bike requires a ticket for the bike, but a foldy is free!). The fietscafe is a bike that's also a bar (yeah, yeah, it has four wheels, so "bike" isn't quite the right word, but it does have a pair of pedals for each of its 12 barstools -- luckily the bartender gets to steer!). I've seen one of these and they look really entertaining.

I once saw an entire brass band on a bike in front of city hall in Eindhoven:

These guys are rad; check out their website.

Sadly, I don't have all these special bikes (although I am "average" by Dutch standards as the owner of 2.5 bikes: my commuter bike, mountain bike, and my half of the tandem my wife and I used to ride before we had a baby!), but my trusty Gazelle does great work as a boodschappenfiets (grocery bike). I affixed the milk-crate with some old climbing webbing, and it works great. This particular outing, I packed the crate FULL of heavy stuff (note the stiff canvas bags, wonderful, thanks to my Ma), hung another bag off the handlebars, and I even was able to tuck the stems of some lilies into the crannies. Did I mention that flowers are cheap in the Netherlands? Each bunch was €3.

Hoera! Lekker fietsen!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Home again, home again...

...jiggety jig. Phew, I'm back home -- in Eindhoven -- from a nice, long vacation home -- to USA.

Before I get into that, however, I must acknowledge the dearth of blog posts over the past 4 months. One word: baby! My wife and I are oh-so-pleased to welcome our daughter into the world, and oh-so-tired all the time from lovingly taking care of her. This recent trip with her was wonderful and difficult: amazingly good on the airplanes, flustered by the timezone difference, great to share her with her grandparents, cousins, and friends, hard on her because of all the new people, and nice to have someone else eager to hold her when she insists on waking up at 5am. Now we're back, adjusting our clocks back the other way, reestablishing our routines, becoming self-sufficient once again. We miss everyone!

Right, so "home." Where is home again? I must say it was a bit weird to be a visitor to America. I'm sure this won't be news to anyone, but there are a ton of little differences between here and there that stand out all the more readily when they're "new" again, as they were after 8 months abroad. We flew from Amsterdam to Washington Dulles, then after customs on to Rochester. Arriving at IAD, two things smacked me immediately -- first, the heavy, serious, security presence; and second, my ability to understand all of the conversations around me! Once in Rochester, I was back at the wheel on the American highways.

Security and customs at airports is serious and necessary business, and I've seen it countless times. However, I must have really gotten used to the Dutch style of hands-off, nearly invisible policing, where if you walk through the door marked "Nothing to Declare" at customs, a guard gives you maybe a look, maybe a smile, and out you go. At Dulles, I realized the mistake of cleaning out the fresh fruit from my fridge and bringing it in my carry-on: I declared it on my blue form like a good traveler, then got directed to a secondary line for the inquisition.

"What kind of fruit do you have?"
"Apricots, an apple, and a banana."
"Apricots are not allowed." Okay, so I hand them over.
"Neither are apples." Okay, have that too.
"Nor bananas." Fine! Just put up a sign that says "PUT YOUR FRUIT IN THIS TRASH CAN!" and don't waste everyone's time!

Linguistically, I was surprised at how apparent the myriad overheard conversations suddenly became. Most Dutch people do indeed speak English, but of course when they're talking to Dutch people, they're talking Dutch. I understand maybe half of what they say when I'm listening carefully and there's not much ambient noise. I've learned to simply ignore overheard conversation, mostly because it's usually an obstacle to the conversation I'm trying to participate in. The concourse at Dulles was suddenly cacophony -- so many conversations at once, all of which I could hear and understand! It was nice, but strange, relieving, yet loud. Interestingly, this awareness of the clarity of English lasted about half an hour, then it was gone.

Finally, when I started driving from the Rochester airport, in a minivan -- one I've driven many times before, mind you -- it felt huge! And the road -- the Thruway -- was huge as well! Such big lanes, so much space along each side and in the median. Wow, there's a lot of space in USA (newsflash!). Curious to quantify this, I looked it up. According to the US Interstate Highway specs, lanes are 12 feet wide, minimum. The NYS Thruway was designed to have 12-13' lanes. Dutch highways (autosnelwegen) have lanes in the range of 2.75 to 3.5 meters, or that is 9.0-11.5 feet. Yikes! No wonder the roads feel tight here in a Volvo V40 and comfy in USA in a minivan. The real wonder is that, after driving in the Netherlands for a few months, the narrow Dutch roads feel fine, and the US ones huge -- amazing how fast we adapt to everything!