Archive for the ‘dutchness’ Category

exit yes, but not too quickly

April 7th, 2012

It's a weekday. It's morning. The train arrives at the destination full of commuters. The platform is mingling with commuters waiting to get on the train to go where we just came from. We disembark. A sea of people as these two streams conflate and confuse. As we head to the exits and they board the train we slowly disentangle. There are so many of us that a long line forms before the escalator down from the platform. Not even a line, more of a V-shaped traffic jam that extends to nearly the whole width of the platform. Slowly we converge on the escalator that shall deliver us from this overcrowded place. We could only wish the line were moving faster. Then, at last, we've made it, we step onto the escalator and... just stand there. All this waiting just to be able to stand in line some more? Yes, the escalator is moving, but why not walk down it? Especially since there are so many people, we'd be able to exit the platform quicker that way. But that isn't the custom. Apparently, if something moves us we must not move ourselves, we must appreciate and make it last as long as possible.

nevicata all'olandese

February 16th, 2012

Avendo vissuto in Norvegia per vent'anni, l'inverno qui in Olanda ovviamente non mi fa una grande impressione. Il clima da queste parti è molto costante, non ci sono grandi balzi. Le maggiori città sono vicino alla costa, quindi al massimo ci sono -5 gradi d'inverno. E la neve non si vede quasi mai.

Però, ogni tanto la neve arriva eccome, cogliendo il paese di sorpresa. Due anni fa di neve non ce n'era, ma proprio nel giorno in cui dovevo mettermi in viaggio ne caddero 30 centimetri in poche ore e così dovettero fermare tutti i treni in partenza da Utrecht per ore, creando una grande confusione. A malapena riuscii ad arrivare in tempo per prendere l'aereo.

Una nevicata così capita una volta all'anno. Il quattro febbraio è accaduto di nuovo. Ero in ufficio ad Amsterdam, essendo arrivatovi la mattina senza alcun impedimento. Poi, nel corso della giornata, ha cominciato improvvisamente a nevicare e il pomeriggio ormai ce n'era tanta di neve da fermare i mezzi. Quando giunsi alla stazione c'erano pochissimi treni in partenza e nessuno diretto al sud. Quindi una fila così per il banco informazioni, ma in questi momenti i poveri impiegati dei servizi ne sanno poco più di noi. "Per ora non ne sappiamo niente." "Ci sono autobus almeno?" "Non lo so." E così via.

Poco dopo arriva un annuncio dall'altoparlante: "il treno internazionale per Bruxelles, con più di un'ora di ritardo, parte tra poco dal binario quindici". Meno male. Ci vollero quasi due ore per i soliti quaranta minuti, ma infine arrivammo all'Aia che mi parve la città più bella al mondo in quel momento.

the Dutch close loopholes

June 14th, 2011

If it's one thing that is very evident about Dutch culture is that they are careful to close down all the loopholes. If you get on the tram and there's a ticket inspection and you say you forgot to swipe your card -- could be an acceptable excuse in Norway -- you'll still get a fine. There's no leniency, no second chances.

Gyms are horribly expensive and their pricing policies are very sleazy, because they usually don't have any short term membership options, you have to join for at least 3 months, or 6, or 12. As a PR bandaid they like to offer an "introductory lesson" or something along those lines. Basically, you can come in and use the gym once, for free, to sort of make up your mind before the point of no return. Sometimes they have an instructor accompany you to explain what is what. It's the same scam as "the cell phone for free", where they try to distract you from the 12 month contract.

At the gym I went to today they do have an introductory lesson. But this being Holland, there is an interesting twist to it. If you want to just come in once you can pay a one time fee of 15 bucks. The introductory lesson, which in theory is free, costs you 12.50. Then, if you decide to get a membership they will deduct that 12.50 from the price you pay later. So the introductory lesson is only free if it's not free, you see that logic?

This is a pretty eccentric attitude. In theory, if you wanted to bad enough you could come in once a month, try not to run into the same staff, and always go for the introductory lesson. If you could do it so that they didn't remember you, you'd get it for free. How many people would actually try that, though? One? Three? The money a gym would lose on this scheme is pretty negligable. More importantly, anyone inclined to go to such lengths probably isn't willing to pay for the gym anyway, so that money wasn't yours to begin with.

But this is a loophole-closing culture, they don't want to run that risk. In Norway the social stigma of being found out and feeling embarrassed is deemed sufficient in such cases that basically noone does it. But the Dutch are not satisfied with that, they need policies that remove any room for such creativity.

koffie where coffee is arriving late

August 16th, 2009

Last week Starbucks opened a branch here in Utrecht, which didn't go unnoticed. I'm not one of those people who are completely nuts about coffee, but I am quite fond of it. I went by Central Station, but the line was much too long. I like coffee, but I'm not going to stand in line like it's Michael Jackson tickets.

Meanwhile, Greg debunks the idea that chains actually have a consistent product and asks why would people flock to Starbucks when they could be having better coffee at a local outlet? The obvious answer is: preconception. Much could probably be attributed to MacDonalds, who have forever maintained that they serve you the same food no matter where you are. Starbucks doesn't really have to do anything to push that idea, it's already been implanted.

But the deeper reason is that this country doesn't really have a coffee culture. Yet. When I moved here I was pleased to find out that koffie is part of the fabric of this society. It isn't a "new" thing like it is in, say, Poland, where tea has always been the dominant beverage. But the Dutch koffie predates the cawfee of today. In countries like Poland and Norway, without a strong existing coffee culture, the yuppie caffè latte gimmick has been a big hit in recent years. (Although in Norway, to "our" credit, most of the coffee places are local entrepreneurs, not foreign chains, and provide considerably better ambiance than sitting in a Starbucks.)  Not so here. With an existing "coffee infrastructure", Holland has not been quite the fertile ground, and the coffee revolution that has placed a coffee place on every corner hasn't happened. Coffee is still, by and large, the traditional sit down experience, and an unremarkable, humble one at that.

You won't find a lot of cafés that serve a caffè latte, or even a solid espresso. Around these parts coffee is still, much of the time, "just coffee". Not the fast food inspired, to-go in a paper cup with a selection of 30 different drinks.

how the dutch destroyed biking

October 26th, 2008

The Netherlands, a paradise for bikers. Twelve million bikes on seventeen thousand kilometers of dedicated bike paths. And a country so flat that you'll never be pushing your bike uphill because the hill is too steep - there is no hill. There's basically no corner of the country that isn't accessible to a biker, the place sometimes looks like a bike track with a country attached to it.

And yet, something is wrong. Very wrong.

You might think "Hey the Dutch are nuts about biking, I bet they have great bikes over there!". You'd be wrong. The bikes in use in this country are something out of an old Soviet factory. Single speed, pedal brake, black paint (or painted a bright color to conceal rampant corrosion), with a regular chain for locking. Often you can hear them coming, wheels spinning unevenly on the axle because the rims are slightly bent, lights fastened poorly and about to fall off, crank screeching against the panel that conceals the chain. Not surprisingly, bike repair is a thriving business in this country, repair shops are everywhere.

In fact, these old bikes are so dominant that it's difficult to find a bike that isn't one of these historical exhibits. Furthermore, bike theft is so widespread that people don't even want to own anything worth stealing. (A guy once told me he loses roughly one bike per year to theft.) Dutch people love to joke that the lock usually is worth more than the bike is. That's true, I just don't see why that is supposed to be funny. I wouldn't want to live in a house where the lock on the front door is worth more than the house itself.

Then there are the bike lanes. Yes, they are dedicated to bikes, and yes they are separate from motorized traffic. What you probably don't expect, however, is just how boring it is to ride on them. They are completely flat, they have their own traffic lights, and even indicators for traffic going in different directions. It's no wonder bikes don't have any gears, there's no way you could build up any speed before you have to stop at the next light. It is the experience of urban biking with the added bureaucracy of driving a car

Not only that, traffic regulations for bikers not only exist, they are enforced. That means you have tax collecting traffic cops just waiting to write you a ticket for any number of trivialities, like riding on the sidewalk (even when it's void of pedestrians), riding a light when there's no traffic, or riding without lights. Lights which, of course, will be stolen unless you obsessively remove them every time you park the bike. (Unless the whole bike gets stolen instead.) It's almost a wonder you don't have to fill in a form every time.

Then there is the terrain. When you're not biking in a town, which is about as much fun as driving a car in heavy traffic, you will find yourself somewhere on the grid of bike lanes that connect towns, out in the great outdoors. What fun! Well, at least until you realize that every slice of the country looks almost exactly the same, and the only thing there is to see anywhere is grasslands with canals crossing them. If you're lucky you might spot a forest, but they are very uncommon. And it's completely flat, so not only is there nothing to see here, you're well aware of the fact that 10km down the road there's also nothing. Scenery wise, this country is as close as you get to a desert.

The Dutch response to all of this? "Biking was never supposed to be fun, it's transport." Well, there you have it, it doesn't get more depressing than that. "Music an art form? We just needed a beat the soldiers could march to."