The Netherlands is beautiful. The reality of the countryside painted by the Dutch Masters is as peaceful and bucolic as their paintings suggest. To be in the Dutch countryside is rural. For a North American this is a rare experience. We are cavalier about space because we have a lot of it. The parts of western Europe I’ve been in aren’t like that. There are fields and forests but every inch of space is used efficiently. It’s vineyard, even on the steep slopes of the Rhine Valley in Germany, or it’s beautiful parkland, or it’s fields under cultivation. All the land is “planned” and purposeful. There is no land that is “just there”. There is no land to be wasted or un-purposed. In the Netherlands it is that way as well – oh except for valleys because this is the flattest country I’ve ever visited. It’s lazy cycle-rs paradise (I can say that because I am one) and it’s easy to understand why it’s one of the countries referred to as “the low countries”. But there is something that differentiates the Dutch countryside from that of France or Germany besides topography. Like the prairies in North America, the Dutch sky is big, the horizon is flat and far, and in 360 degrees your eye sees green fields, low clumps of deciduous trees, small groups of farm buildings and herds of animals. This is what’s different. There are more herds of cattle, sheep, goats and flocks of chickens and geese than any other country. Geese too…grazing in the fields alongside the dairy cattle in the evenings. It’s a sere and charming scene. Except…for us as we drive along in our little car.
On the roads cyclists are king. They are treated the way pedestrians are treated where I come from. They are not “traffic”. They are special. They have their own road system that surpasses that provided for cars. Small countryside roads are reduced to only one lane for cars traveling either direction because wide margins are painted in red (so you don’t miss them). Should there happen to be a cyclist in that lane you in the car are compelled to get out of their way. Hard to do in one lane, especially if there is oncoming traffic. Add to that sometimes there are concrete islands constructed into your one lane of road obviously aimed to slow you down below the speed limit to allow the bikes and other oncoming cars by. It’s really confusing to a North American driver. Add to that a foreign language, speed limits, speed bumps and crazy road signs. It’s not quite so peaceful…especially inside our vehicle.
My early forays into suburban driving with GPS lady in the bus lanes and down one way streets improved somewhat, but then took a nose dive as we tried to pay more attention to road signs. And once we added my husband as the driver and me in the front passenger seat. Picture husband and wife “co-driving”. Oh my. Husband is behind the wheel and wife is watching around her. Surely that red round sign with a white line through the middle of it means “do not enter”? My husband does not believe me. I TRY not to say “I told you so” as locals are gesturing and waving their arms…
Then there’s the whole situation with speed limits. Apparently the Dutch are very serious about speed limits. We’re not used to driving the speed limit. 50 km an hour in the city feels like a stroll and 100km on the 4 lane highway doesn’t feel much better. It’s hard to stay the speed limit, and my husband is having trouble keeping our borrowed Citroën at the legal limit. I’m sure the cost of this trip will increase dramatically once the speeding tickets start rolling in. We have no doubt that they will as there are cameras every 50 feet on the highways and large parts of the city to enforce the speed laws.
Driving in the suburbs is like driving at Autotopia in Disneyland. (cue music) Picture yourself on a road with grass medians and curbs on both sides of the car. Add the tangerine trees and marmalade skies if that helps you get into the mood of not caring WHEN you arrive at your destination. If the car broke down, nothing could pass us except the biker with kaleidoscope eyes. Promenading at 50 km/h, it’s hard not to do the Queen Elizabeth wave out the window to the cyclists going more or less the same speed as us. Bikes pass us as we are forced to slow down every 100 meters or at the speed bumps for the bike lane right of ways …my poor husband is having trouble getting used to this. He laments the noticeable loss of Dutch independence (the Dutch largely being the leaders of democratic government in medieval Europe) and the elimination of common sense. Apparently some Dutch feel the same way. Front page headlines and public anger has been provoked by the opening of a new, ten lane toll road, where the authorities are giving out tickets if people show up at toll booths “too quickly” to have driven the speed limit – even if it’s 2am and no one else is on the road.
He complains that he is more of a danger here, where he has to keep his eyes on the speedometer than on the road so he won’t go higher than 53 and get a speeding ticket in the mail. I’m not convinced of this. I think there might be a learning opportunity for him (oh, he’d hate me saying that). At home, some time ago, we were expecting several families for dinner. At the last minute, I realized I had no ketchup for the children’s meal. He kindly offered to dash to our local grocery store minutes before guests were expected . It’s a one minute trip…maybe five if the store is busy. He was gone a long time and came back waving the requested bottle of ketchup. “Behold the $200 bottle of ketchup!” he says. I stare at him. Apparently he was going THAT fast to secure the bottle of ketchup in time. (He claims he was merely coasting down the hill but I know that speeding fines are graduated…meaning the faster you are going, the higher the dollar amount of the ticket. A “normal” speeding ticket is just over $100. Take away the $5 for the actual value of the ketchup, you can imagine his speed.).
I am hopeful my husband might embrace a larger repertoire of driving habits during the course of our trip that do not include being 20 km over the speed limit on average, or railing about why or how he’s not ALLOWED to engage in that behaviour…
p.s. in the interests of full disclosure and author authenticity, I note, (under no influence from my husband) that my driving behaviour does not include adhering to the speed limit either. I am also known to routinely back into unforeseen objects with my van. Most notably, this included my husband’s car that was sitting in the driveway (WHAT was it doing there ANYWAY???). However, being motivated to be a good ambassador for my country, I am generally modifying all my tourist-related behaviour including driving the speed limit. (boy won’t it be funny if a speeding ticket rolls in that’s attributed to me??)