My first foray into this lovely old part of Europe. I’m doing a home exchange with a couple in Utrecht who have a beautiful 4-story 2-bedroom house on a canal here, which for some reason they wanted to swap for my tiny little 1BR apartment in Brooklyn. So, I enthusiastically said ja! (Ja being one of the few Dutch words I can actually pronounce, after 10 days here.) The first thing you notice about Utrecht are the bicycles: thousands upon thousands of them whizzing madly about the city, captained by people of all ages (though you see an awful lot of unwrinkled faces over the handlebars, as Utrecht is a university town with 65,000 students). Often there are two or even three people on a bike: the peddler, a baby in a seat in front and someone hitching a ride on back—none of them, including the infants, wearing helmets and all apparently surviving just fine, by the way. There are bicycle lanes on almost every street, much wider than the sidewalks, and if you’re a pedestrian like myself you stray into them (which is very easy to do since the delineation isn’t always clear) at peril of life and limb. My hostess left me the keys to her bike but thus far I’ve been too terrified to get on it. It’s really impossible to exaggerate the number of bicycles and the cheerful ruthlessness of the Dutch people riding them.
Who are also extremely tall, by the way: Kareem-Abdul-Jabar-tall, some of them, and strapping. A girl I met told me that the Dutch are the second tallest people on earth, after the Masai in Africa—and I believe it. I’m one of the shrimpiest people in any given situation here, but there are guys walking down the street who could be playing for the Knicks or rescuing cats from trees without benefit of a ladder. Basketball recruiters of America: there’s a vast untapped market here, though whether they’ve got game I don’t know.
The Dutch language is an inscrutable mouthful. I've rarely been in a country where I couldn't basically figure out what things were, but here I'm constantly having to ask for help to do something as basic as buy a carton of nonfat milk (fortunately most of the Dutch speak excellent English), or where I had so much difficulty pronouncing the words. Even my ja got corrected; apparently I was pronouncing it like a German not a Netherlander. And I still can't pronounce the name of the street where I'm staying, Wittevrouwensingel, well enough that anyone knows what I'm saying.
Photos: the garden at the house where I'm staying, with one of my furry companions; the crammed-full bicycle storage area at the train station; the Gothic Cathedral in Utrecht, where I went to a gorgeous choral concert, and where I saw; possibly one of the most Dutch-looking Dutch people I've ever seen, and believe me there are a lot of Dutch-looking Dutch people here; a typical tongue-torturing Dutch word.
Now interrupting this Dutch post to say that I’m writing this from a hotel in Brussels that fronts onto a major street, and for the last 45 minutes I’ve been hearing celebratory honking and shouting in the streets like a war has ended or something. But no, I discover, it’s not V-E Day, it’s just that Belgium won a football match tonight and will advance in the World Cup. Which didn’t happen for the Dutch last week, despite everyone (including myself) wearing orange on the match days, and they’ve all been grumpy as a result. Or maybe it’s just because of the absolutely dismal weather.
It has done almost nothing but rain since I got to Holland, though there have been a few reprieves where it was merely drizzly or cloudy and gloomy and chilly. I’ve kept expecting Noah to float down one of the canals on his arc but have so far been disappointed. I've distracted myself from the damp and chill with two train trips into Amsterdam, first a museum day and then a wandering day. The Rijksmuseum was a bit disappointing—much of it is closed due to a major renovation that’s been going on for years apparently and won’t be finished till sometime in 2013. Still, there were some splendid Rembrandts on display, and a couple of Vermeers I’d never seen in person. The real highlight of the day was the Van Gogh Museum, a feast for anyone who loves his work as I do. So sad, that he never lived to see how revered and beloved his paintings would become.
Enough for one post, I think. It's after midnight and the Belgians are still shouting and honking like mad outside my window. No idea when I'll sleep but it's hard to begrudge them their joie de vivre, given what a rarity it is in life, non?
Photos: a typical canal view in Utrecht, except that in this picture (my first night there, a cruel tease) it's not raining or overcast; the Rijksmuseum with its enormous park on another miraculously clear day; the Iamsterdam sign in front of the museum, from which the all-important I is not in the frame due to photographer's negligence.