Today is St. Nicholas Day, when all the Sinterklaas celebrations come to a sugar-filled finale. I missed the Sint’s intocht (arrival) this year and I think I’m being punished for it with a cold that won’t go away. No gifts for me this pakjesavond, except maybe a neti pot. If you’re celebrating, I hope you get some lekkere pepernoten or kruidnoten or a chocolate letter.
Despite the number of official spots for bicycle parking in the city, ranging from indoor parking to your typical outdoor bike rack, wild parking (I like the literal translation of wildgeparkeerde) is still the norm. It’s not surprising, considering the number of bicycles in the Netherlands outnumbers people, not to mention the whole point of cycling is the convenience it offers. If you’re out running a quick errand, you don’t want to park your bike blocks from where you’re going, just to park in a designated spot. Of course, there aren’t always that many designated spots, either.
The Drift canal runs is lined with university buildings, including a library, so it’s no surprise that it’s a popular destination for people on bike. Students and faculty alike spend plenty of time in the area. However, offhand, I can’t think of that many convenient outdoor bicycle parking areas nearby. I think the newly renovated library probably has some underground parking now, but there’s still plenty of wild parking happening up and down the canal. So much so, in fact, that signs have to be put up on some of the bridges to prohibit bikes being parked there. With varying degrees of success.
Some people really dislike the mass of bikes that pile up and they can be inconvenient at times, but overall, I don’t mind them. I’ll take huge swathes of bikes over cars any day! Plus, it can be quite picturesque in its own way. A row of lamps, a sea of bicycles, charming buildings, and a Gothic cathedral to top it all off.
Just a small section of some of the bike parking near the station. They’ve added new indoor bicycle parking since I took these photos in January. That holds approximately 4500 bicycle parking spaces in a three-storey, automated lot under the station. They’re building more bicycle parking to hold roughly another 12,500. All of this is to help get rid of this “ocean of bikes“, though it sometimes seems that as soon as a new parking garage is built, it’s already full. Still, imagine if all of these represented cars. You can see a small overview of the area I photographed in this photo. The massive above-ground parking is partially seen on the right.
A couple of days ago, CNN posted an article listing the most bike-friendly cities in the world. As they point out, the majority of the cities are found in northwest Europe, with the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark among those with the largest infrastructure to make cycling a safe, daily experience.
Obviously, the Netherlands was bound to have a city or 20 in the list, but amazingly, they focused on Utrecht, rather than Amsterdam. As they rightly point out, Amsterdam may often top these kinds of lists, but the number of tourists — on foot, and on wobbly bike — make cycling in Amsterdam much more challenging. On the other hand, Utrecht, which has no shortage of people cycling every day, doesn’t have quite the same influx of uncertain tourists. We do, however, have an extensive system of spacious, segregated bike paths, not to mention a reduction in the number of cars driving in the binnenstad (city center) itself. The car is being phased out and more support for bicycles is being developed.
As the article points out:
In its center, up to 50% of all journeys take place in the saddle and local authorities are building a 12,500-space cycle parking facility billed as the world’s biggest.
That 12,500 bicycle parking garage is hardly the only one in town. It’s going to be by the train station where there are already a number of massive bicycle parking lots. There are others located throughout the city, both indoors and outdoors, as I’ve posted about in the past. I think tomorrow my Wordless Wednesday post will be some of the outdoor parking by the train station. After all, many people take the train to work, but cycle to and from the station to their home and work.
As the article also mentions, people of all ages cycle here. Going to school, going to work, going shopping, going to see friends … everyone rides a bike. Men in suits, women in skirts and heels, and everything in between, with not a helmet to be seen. The system is set up to make cycling safe and easy, and obviously it works if half of all journeys here are by bike, rain or shine.
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!
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!
Things 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.
So 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.
I’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.However, 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. Once they were done, everything was back in place and only a bit of excess dirt remained.
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.
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: