Happy Fourth, America

Stars and Stripes
Between working two jobs and preparing for the Wittevrouwenfeest tomorrow, American Independence Day has gotten a bit lost in the mix. Yet being able to celebrate multiple holidays and important events is one of the perks of being an expat/immigrant. Although we won’t be doing the traditional barbecuing this year, I have made some potato salad (a traditional July 4th side dish) for lunch today. It’s the little things in life. :)

One of the things that stood out to me on my trip back to the US last year was the number of American flags I saw everywhere — homes, businesses, churches, etc. This is nothing new, but after spending a number of years here in the Netherlands where the flag is only flown on specific dates, it really stood out. Just a short walk through my parents’ neighborhood revealed a number of flags, and this motor inn up in the mountains of North Carolina certainly wasn’t going to have anyone questioning its patriotism!
Stars and Stripes
So, Happy Fourth of July to my fellow Americans and happy Friday to everyone else! By the way, if you’re in Utrecht this weekend, Biltstraat and the Wittevrouwen neighborhood are having a big block party. We’ll be representing Vino Veritas there, so come by and say hi, and try some of our Italian wine and food. Or come by today and enjoy the sunshine on our terrace (or cool off inside). Either way, I’ve really enjoyed meeting so many of my readers so far!
Stars and Stripes
Stars and Stripes
Stars and StripesStars and StripesPatriotism and ConsumerismPatriotic

Dutch Window Seat

DSC06291Things have been a bit quiet around here, haven’t they. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, I’ve just been a bit busy. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll get a chance to explain more. For now, as it’s Wednesday and I usually just post a photo anyway, enjoy this shot of a sight you’ll see quite often in many cities, not just Utrecht.

You may be familiar with traditional window seats — the kind where you sit inside, next to a window. Here, you’re just as likely to see legs dangling out from windows high and low. If the weather if nice, the windows will be open and you won’t have to look far to see someone taking advantage of it all. In this case, it was a nice day and there was a rowing competition taking place. This guy had an excellent view of the action taking place on the Oudegracht.

Here are a couple of other photos I’ve taken over the years of people sitting in windows.

ETA: Oh, yeah, it turns out today also marks six years since the day we moved to the Netherlands. We had nicer weather that day. Gefeliciteerd, G! Bedankt voor de avonturen!
Window Seat [Day 63/365]Watching the Arrivals

Bicycles vs Stairs

Bike RampSo what do you do in a nation of bicycles when faced with having to get said bicycles up and down flights of stairs? After all, there are various instances, such as train stations or apartment buildings, when you’ll need to get your bicycle past these obstacles.

The solution is surprisingly simple. They build small ramps into the stairs so that you can roll your bicycle up or down stairs rather than having to bump around awkwardly, potentially damaging your tires. It’s another example of the developed cycling infrastructure that encourages people to ride their bicycle rather than drive.

A good cycling infrastructure is more than just comprehensive cycle lanes, although that’s where cities need to start and focus. (Don’t let cars park in bike lanes as I saw in a photo today!!) It’s also the elements that are a part of daily life even when you’re not actually riding. The easier it is to move bikes and park them, the more likely people are to use their bikes. These simple ramps take the hassle out of transporting a bike up and down stairs, removing yet another obstacle that people could use as an excuse not to ride.Bike Ramp

Brick Street Tetris

Drain RepairI’m fully aware that this may be one of the most boring blog posts ever unless you like posts about general street/drain management and construction. But since living here, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the brick streets and sidewalks here in the old city center.

For starters, they’re hell on heels, not only making it difficult to walk in high heels but also generally tearing up sturdy, sensible shoe heels. I used to walk all over Manhattan in thin high heels, but I just can’t do it here. The sidewalks are too uneven and the heels tend to get stuck in between the bricks.

Secondly, there’s a marked difference in riding a bike on a brick street and riding on a smooth surface. When you get onto a smooth bit, there’s a sudden sense of relief as you realize you’re no longer rattling about. Ahhhhhhhhhh.Drain RepairHowever, I do admit that the brick streets are more picturesque than the typical asphalt or concrete and when it comes time to make repairs, whether to drains (the box bit at the bottom of the picture) or to actually widen the sidewalk area, it’s surprisingly simple.

Today we got a front row view of a street drain being replaced. The parking spot next to the drain was blocked off with some cones and soon enough, a yellow JCB digger showed up, along with a few shovels and picks. Then men in high-viz orange clothing began simply digging up the surface bricks of the street and sidewalk and then used the digger to get out the deeper dirt. The bricks aren’t permanently grouted or stuck down, so they’re easy to take out and replace as needed.

Once the new drain shaft was installed, they simply filled the dirt back in, put the bricks back in place, and filled in the gaps around the bricks with the remaining dirt. There are no horrible asphalt fumes, no horrendously mismatched lumpy layers, and as soon as everything is in place, you can walk on it, bike on it, or drive on it. It also takes a relatively short amount of time from start to finish. This was essentially a morning job. Drain RepairOnce they were done, everything was back in place and only a bit of excess dirt remained.

So now that I’ve bored you with the dirty underbelly of Dutch brick roads, here’s a slightly prettier view of a patterned brick street in glorious sunshine.Brick Street in the Sun

The Easily Amused Expat

Franse Fries
It’s usually the fresh-off-the-boat expat who finds fascination with every little new thing, but even when you’ve been in your new country for years, little things — even things you’ve seen on a regular basis — can suddenly jump out at you and remind you that “we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto”.

I’ve been having one of those moments recently as I’ve been passing some of the local McDonalds restaurants. There’s one on the main street through town (the street that seems to change names ever three meters, but that’s another post) and one on the Oudegracht. The picture is of the one on the Oudegracht, but it was the one on the main street that first caught my eye recently.

Sure, we get the occasional market-specific dish, which is usually something to do with kip saté, but it’s not that kind of poster that stood out this time. This time, it was something as simple and normal and ubiquitous as the French fry. In Dutch, fries (or chips, for my British readers) are usually known as patat or friet (or patatjes or frietjes, because the Dutch love adding the diminutive to everything. It’s adorable.) The choice of word tends to be more regional, with patat seeming to be more northern and variations on friet are typically more southern. As an expat, I say both, because I don’t know where I live any more.

French fries is a fairly American term, resulting from American troops eating fries for the first time in Belgium but associating them with the French language they heard at the time. Or so the story goes. In fact, here in the Netherlands, I don’t really remember seeing the “French” addition to the name. I’m sure the occasional restaurant might use it, such as an American-style diner or something, but otherwise, the only place you’re more likely to see “Franse Frietjes” is at McDonalds.
Franse Fries
And that’s what is amusing me. The posters for “Franse Frietjes”. Perhaps it’s standing out since I don’t see the “Franse” addition often, or maybe it’s just amusing to see such an American term translated.

Or maybe it’s because subconsciously it reminds me of this scene in Better Off Dead:

This Is How We Park Our Bicycles

filming
As you may know, the bicycle is one of the leading forms of transportation throughout the Netherlands. Work commutes, outings with friends, shopping, you name it, people use their bike to do it. Great for the environment and great for the closely packed cities that don’t have cars overwhelming the narrow streets. Yet at some point, people get off their bikes to go into the shops, offices, etc. That’s when things get challenging. What to do with all of those bikes?
Sepia
Sure, there are plenty of old-fashioned bike racks that can hold a handful of bikes, and those are put to good use, often with multiple racks placed in a long row for busy neighborhood corners, especially corners close to bars and cafés. But even those fill up quickly and bikes are soon left chained up to anything remotely stable.

In the city center, it can be particularly challenging to find somewhere safe to lock up your bike. Finding and fitting your bike into a vaguely free spot in the racks can make Tetris look like a game for infants.

Obviously, the city is aware of the need for decent bicycle parking, so they continue to develop new parking options. On weekends, when even more people are coming into the city to shop and socialize, special mobile bicycle parking lots are created wherever there’s room for them. Neude, in particular, is a popular central spot for these pop-up parking lots.
Parking, Dutch Style
These free parking lots are set up by the city and provide a centralized parking spot where people can leave their bikes all day. With Utrecht’s city center being so small and walkable, Neude is a great spot to park and go.

Still, these bicycle parking lots are usually only on the weekend, so there’s still the need for additional, organized bicycle parking throughout the week. The latest instalment is also at Neude, but this time it’s indoor parking.
Fietsenstalling NeudeThe Neudeflat, the tall, rather unattractive building next to the old post office, has become the latest bicycle parking receptacle. The ground floor, which has been home to a variety of city information spots in recent years, has now been converted into a free indoor bicycle parking spot.
Fietsenstalling Neude
Considering the tangle of bicycles that usually develops in multiple spots around Neude, this seems like a decent use of space that might otherwise have sat empty. Easy to use, less chance of ending up with a soggy bottom on a rainy day, and hopefully a few less dings, dents, and broken bicycle bells when you return. After all, who wants to mess up a unique paint job like this!
Polkafiets

Is It Legal? Dutch Cycling Raises Eyebrows in London

Bakfiets
Every once in a while, I’m reminded that the cycling culture here really is different to many (most) countries. Things we take for granted raise eyebrows elsewhere.

Just last night, I was watching the Travel Channel and saw a short segment between programs, with a motorcyclist going on about his love of bicycling and how if he’s not on his motorcycle, he’s on a bike. As he rode around a picturesque village — in Lycra, wearing a helmet, and on a more race-style bicycle — it struck me how different things are here. No one thinks twice about cycling and it’s not just for pleasure or exercise; it’s a valid form of daily transportation. As for the mode of dress, Lycra, et al. are only worn by people who actually race or at least ride for sport, often with groups of friends. Here, people of all ages, in all types of clothing, ride for a variety of purposes.
Convey Motion
The differences were driven home yet again this morning when I saw an article about how a man in London was pulled over while taking his two girls to school in a bakfiets (see top photo). The police questioned the legality of the bicycle and the Daily Mail (admittedly, not a surprise that they’d not exactly get the story straight) referred to the bicycle as a “rickety wheelbarrow bike”, ignoring the fact that the bikes are sturdy, specifically designed, and cost more than €1000 easily. This is not a thrown-together mishmash of bike and garden tool.

The man, who has been taking his girls to school in the bakfiets for four years, was allowed to go on his way, but it does drive home the differences in how bicycles are viewed in other countries. The stop came about because of a crackdown on unsafe drivers and cyclists after six cyclists were killed in just two weeks in London. A bike that is taken for granted here and used by thousands of parents is viewed as something alien and dangerous in other countries.

There’s a push in many countries for better and safer cycling infrastructure, and not surprisingly, many of these proponents look to the Dutch cycling infrastructure as a good example. For those who say there’s too big a difference and it can’t be done, it is important to remember that the Dutch system didn’t really come about until the 1970s, after people started protesting the number of bicycle deaths. Pretty sure I’ve linked to it before, but it bears repeating: read this excellent post by Mark at the Bicycle Dutch blog about the development of the Dutch cycling infrastructure.

Systems can change and I think encouraging more cycling would be a change for the better for a variety of reasons. Certainly, cyclists need to ride responsibly, but given the proper infrastructure, they’re less likely to be put into difficult situations. More importantly, drivers of all vehicles need to be respectful of cyclists. Too many drivers treat cyclists as a nuisance and seem to forget that their heavy vehicle can kill or seriously injure. By encouraging the development of proper infrastructure, drivers will benefit as well as cyclists. The result is that neither should hopefully be quite so angry or combative.

No system is perfect, and I’ve heard complaints even here in the Netherlands from both drivers and cyclists, but the reality is that the system works well enough for it to be generally safe for cyclists everywhere, from small villages to the largest cities.
Bike Lane

Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town

Greetings
Hij komt!
Hij komt!

There will be lots of children shouting that on Sunday when Sinterklaas makes his arrival. Sunday is the intocht, AKA Sinterklaas’ arrival by boat from Spain.
Sinterklaas Intocht
Despite the recent issues with the canal walls near the Weerdsluis, it seems everything has been stabilized and Sinterklaas will be able to disembark in his normal spot. If the rain holds off, I may go see some of the festivities. The kid in me gets a kick out of it. Plus, it seems like a good time to get the first oliebollen of the season.

If you want to see the festivities in person, here’s this year’s schedule:
12.00 The boat parade begins at LedigErf
12.30 Weerdsluis festivities begin
13.00 Boats arrive at Weerdsluis
14.00 Begin the procession to Janskerkhof
14.30 Festivities at Janskerkhof

Cops on Bikes

Bike Cop
One of the differences that I can’t help but notice while being back in the US is the lack of bicycles. I’ve seen seven since being back. One of those was the police officer in the photo. Of the seven cyclists I’ve seen here, five have been wearing at least a helmet and most have been wearing some sort of special clothing.

Police in the US, at least in North Carolina, are always on mountain bikes or speed bikes. Certainly not the oma/opa fiets you typically see police riding in the Netherlands. This is a typical look for Dutch police on bikes. In other words, not much different than everyone else, except for the uniform. But even then, they wear a normal uniform and rarely wear a helmet. I don’t even have any photos of Dutch police on bikes — although I do have pictures of police on horseback — because they’re a pretty normal sight.

Dutch bike police also don’t seem to have the same kind of “attitude” that American bike cops have, although I’d say Dutch police in general don’t have the same kind of attitude that American cops often have. Take that however you choose. ;) On the other hand, this photo was taken on an actual mountain, so fair play to the bicycle cop who can handle the climbs!

(Apologies for the poor quality of the photo. It was done with an old camera phone.)

A Day in the Park

Day in the Park 2013
Look! It’s a big school bus in its natural habitat! After seeing a couple of the big yellow buses in Utrecht, it’s almost entertaining to see them actually on the streets here in the US. They come in all sizes and colors here, although the yellow remains the most typical for actual daily school runs. White ones, such as the one seen here, are more commonly used for extra activities, such as transporting students and athletes to sporting events, or in this case, transporting the members of the Andrews High School marching band.
Andrews Marching Band
Here in the US, most schools have a marching band that performs at sporting events, as well as local parades and festivals. The Andrews marching band performs each year at the annual Day in the Park in Jamestown. They started off marching through some of the park, before finishing at the stage area where the band played a few songs and the dance squad performed.
Andrews Marching Band
Andrews Marching Band
Andrews Marching Band
Andrews Marching Band

The Day in the Park has been going on for years and is a mix of music, games, food, crafts, and stalls where people show off their skills, sell their wares, or simply spread the word about their organization. I’ve attended quite frequently over the years, in part because my father is a regular exhibitor.
Day in the Park 2013
This year, he could be found in the Folk Life display, where people exhibited basket weaving, yarn making, quilts, and, in my dad’s case, ships in a bottle. He’s been making them for years and attends the festival to tell people about the hobby and explain a bit about how it’s done.
Day in the Park 2013
Day in the Park 2013
Day in the Park 2013
Day in the Park 2013
If you’re ever in Jamestown around the 20th of September, give or take a day or so, do check out the Day in the Park. It’s a fun, friendly event in a beautiful setting (more of the actual park to come in another post). In all, you could say it’s gezellig.