Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

It is said by many a wise man that you can't see any country in a few weeks, let alone a few days. That wise man has not been to The Netherlands. That wise man has not met Lars. A stay with Lars and Leoneke means you can see the whole country in a weekend and have time to spare for a wine or two.  

For those with indifferent memories or who are astute enough to simply tune out when I talk, I worked with Lars at Microsoft a couple of years ago. Lars was the giant 6'6" Dutchman who, when the vagaries of office life got him down, would tend to fall out of the English language and swear at his computer in vehement Dutch to the great amusement of his fellow cubicle dwellers. God bless you nonsensical and unfriendly Microsoft OEM Contract Tool, what accidental happiness you brought us all. Except Lars.  

We disembarked in downtown Utrecht from a Eurolines bus trip we took in order to save money and spend quality time with some of the refuse of the Eastern Bloc. I was already aware that the youthful Britney Spears had not earned her figure by being on the Ukrainian Diet, but for those in doubt, we had a parade of ladies who clearly had been on that regimen parading all Brit's outfits. Lord I beseech thee that I never see this again. The bus was madness, getting later and later with every random EU regulation mandated stop. It was made worse by one of our two drivers being the spitting image and manner of The Simpsons' Hans Moleman doing a lazy 62km/hr on the autobahn. But when God had finished toying with us, we eventually found ourselves in Utrecht.

Being downtown, Lars dipped us immediately into Utrecht life and we saw an element we wouldn't have noticed if we had been accompanied. The canals here are two tiered: there is a dining and sitting level on the water, while the pedestrian and building level is on a tier a further 10ft higher, making it distinctly different to Amsterdam when you know what to look for. All I saw was an unhurried elegance of flower sellers on the bridge and overhanging trees and I was left wondering what on earth Lars was thinking moving to Australia to work in cosmopolitan North Ryde.  

Alright, so he lived in Manly, which is a shade nicer. We immediately stopped for a takeaway coffee, and Lars was somewhat animated about the fact that the phenomenon of takeaway coffee is almost unattainable in the Netherlands but you can get it everywhere in Australia. He also has a preference for Australian weather, and while it was fine in Utrecht when we arrived, Lars reminded us it had been raining solidly for the three weeks prior. The continual nature, changeability and intensity of the rain that came on and off through our visit did leave me with the impression that the canals were originally constructed by one of Noah's subcontractors.  

On Sunday, Team Klumpes pulled out all the stops. We saw the whole Netherlands. All of it. And while its not very big, its still amazing to look at a map and trace your finger around an entire circumference and through the middle and realise you've covered it. I was left ruing the scrappy tours we had paid for in other places when I was able to see the Netherlands in a chauffeur driven Cadillac, with tour guide and musical accompaniment.  

Music? Well, their two year old son, Max, loves a bit of a song. One such nursery rhyme is Pussy Miao, which he sings as Maxi Miao. A lot. He also knows two of the words in a local Happy Birthday song. He likes to sing these a lot as well, particularly as Claude will happily accompany him. I have vivid recollections of this, as I was sitting in the middle, the stereo seat.  

Being two looks pretty good. You sit in your car seat, eat, drink, fall partly asleep, sing, tear off your shoes, attempt to tear off your socks, fall asleep, and open the door of the moving car all in a day's work. While I think his parents aged a few years as the sound of wind through the open door reached our ears, it was certainly the result of an enterprising mind. And with childlock duly activated, you could still see a calculating mind trying to plot his escape. Next stop: the window.  

My biggest surprise about the Netherlands was the dykes. How big do you think they are? I had (wholly ignorant) visions of a series of peat walls in paddocks gently terracing the water. Not even close. I blame ridiculous legends of local children with fingers in them to stem leaks. Having seen them, this seems moderately infeasible.  

The main dyke, Afsluitdijk (sorry, didn't bring my guidebook so may have butchered the name), is around 29km long. You have the sea on one side, and a lake, noticably lower, on the other. Its a little freaky that the relatively tiny spit of land you stand on is holding back all that sea. But it works.  

With the enclosed lake now no longer having tides, a further dyke is built inland and water pumped out from the eastern side over into the lake, leaving farmland a good dozen metres below lake level. Its normal to the Dutch. I found it absolutely surreal. It doesn't look like it should be possible, but it clearly is, and "is" on a big scale .  

Completing the scene, and reinforcing a love of industrial tourism I didn't realise I had before this trip, is that along the dyke wall is a series of enormous wind turbines stretching to the horizon. I have no idea why people complain about these things... you should pay to be near them. To paraphrase an Australian statesman, they're a great reminder of man's ability to generate electricity.

The overall impression I got from our trip north was one of a people who have gently mastered nature. Not the Chinese style of mastering nature with dynamite and chemicals and smog, but in a subtle moulding of the land that uses every available inch but in a pleasing way. Nature is tamed and harnessed, not beaten down. While I left Frankfurt wanting the Germans to run our train system, I left the Netherlands wanting to put the Dutch in charge of energy production. Sure, they'd probably want to build a bloody big sea somewhere in the middle of Australia and surround it with windmills, but I think we should be open to this.   

We travelled to the lakeside fishing town of Urk and saw some of the traditional life that (unstaged, not for tourists) still goes on. Boats were being built, Sunday was being observed, and an impeccably dressed man in three quarter pants went by in centuries old traditional dress. I don't think even Lars had seen that before.  

Later this same day, we reached Lars' parents holiday house on a canal in Friesland. This is living. We took their small boat out - I don't know the description but it was all very Monaco royalty to me - around canal front homes onto the main lake. The most odd sight here was boats that looked like they had wings: being flat bottomed for canals, they have keels that are lowered only when reaching deeper water. However, they retain a very 1920's science fiction look to them.  

On heading home along the giant dyke mentioned above, we flew past Amsterdam and back into Utrecht. Not content with a land tour of the Netherlands, Lars' pushed on with his Wine Tour of Europe that he was laying on for us. Up to this point on our travels, wine has been a product secured from the supermarket's sub two euro category and drunk - I'm not proud of this (I think Claude is though) - straight from the bottle wino style.  

Living in a house again was a beautiful luxury. I may not be homesick, but I am definitely housesick. Being able to walk around barefoot, have a television with Law & Order on (!!), have a washing machine, to cook: these are quality luxuries. Exacerbating this, Lars and Leoneke live in a newly developed neighbourhood that seemed to fall out of an architectural concepts book.  

Central to this living concept is that you can't park your car near your house. At first, this appears annoying. But sticking around for any span of time greater than an hour you come to appreciate just how quiet and 'people first' this makes the living environment. The fact that it rains all the bloody time (*statistics from Lars) means the lawns are lush and soft and amazing to traverse in bare feet. It also makes them perfect for hockey.  

Max likes hockey the way I like cheap accommodation: to an unnatural degree. It is his first word in the morning, and his hockey stick being visible near his bed is a prequisite for sleep on some occasions. He has a swing that will make him a good golfer, and a commitment to the playing field that a good number of football/soccer teams could do with. The next time I see a player rolling around the pitch in theatrical agony, I shall think of Max having a bit of a milk vomit from running around, but still with two hands on the stick, both eyes on the ball and 100% ready to play.  

During the week Leoneke took us around Utrecht, and provided us with a few more surprises. They live in a suburban area less than 10 minutes from the city centre, but only 10 minutes in the other direction you find yourself in a completely rural area replete with the odd castle where of course we did the only civilised thing and had a coffee. Later on we headed to Nijmegen as the focal point for the 90th year of The Four Days event.  

That's four days of... walking. Four day of walking 50km a day. Four days of 45,000 people doing it, no kidding.  

Leoneke also proved to be our culinary guide for the week, at home and on the road. In Nijmegen we had povrijes and ollebollen: the ollebollen being like a tennis ball shaped donut with a lighter batter that is dusted in icing sugar... highly moreish. At home we had baked witlof wrapped in ham soaked in excellent cheese, a meal at which I made quite a piggy of myself aided and abetted by Lars' excellent wine collection. But I can offer no sincere apology, as with the mindset we are in it takes great restraint simply not to steal the sugar and misappropriate the towels, let alone hold back from gorgeous home cooked meals. (ITS A JOKE LARS, WE DIDN'T TAKE ANY TOWELS THAT I KNOW OF).  

Just some biscuits and bananas and stuff and Claude now has a souvenir clog tied to her backpack I dont recall seeing before we arrived.  

We also managed to make a day trip to Amsterdam. Taking advice to take a canal tour first, we got a great impression of a city laid out in concentric octagons fanning out from the centre, separated by a maze of canals. The buildings lean and peer over you, and the overall effect is quite romantic. We didn't have time to take in the excellent Rembrandt and Van Gogh collections in our time here - just a day - but the impression left was of a city we will come back to spend a week with. (It was also helped by the fact we got a German ICE International high speed train from Utrecht which covered the 50km in about well under 20 minutes in a luxury that you don't see even at the pointy end of the plane. All for ten euros too!)

Before heading off, we went for dinner at a nice restaurant, indeed the nicest restaurant we have seen in 6+ months. Of note for all budding restauranteurs, here we ate 'Sam Sam' style, with the chance to get half and half entrees and mains so you end up trying four things. A much more entertaining way to dine. And at least here when I get chips on the side as long as I put mayonnaise on them I am trying local cuisine.    

On the bus into the Netherlands that first day, coming through the forests we saw a street sign with an exclamation mark warning of WILDROOSTER. They clearly have no idea of the fear this instills in tourists who have no desire to be pecked to death, they just want to have a little of the good cheese and see some canals. So the Dutch are a little crazy. They hold back the sea to make land. They walk 200 km for fun. They consume mayonnaise in enormous volumes. They teach their children just two words of a song, so I'm still singing Maxi Miao here in Berlin. And you can't turn around without seeing a wind turbine.

And with that all that duly considered? Sign me up, I want in. The walk, the rain and the songs included.

* * *

The Netherlands is an extremely pretty place.  We know this because we criss-crosed ALL over it with assistance from our fantastic "guides" Lars, Leonike (we argued over the correct spelling - I hope I´m right) and of course, 2 year old Max.  We travelled north from Utrecht (home base) to the mind-blowing dyke at Afsluitdijk (sorry, if the spelling is wrong - I copied Iain), the sleepy little fishing village at Urk, Lars´ father´s holiday house 1.5 hours north at Friesland, our day trip to Nijmegen (where I tasted the ambrosial Dutch orange & clove beer) and, of course, to the capital, Amsterdam.

I was suprised, perhaps naively, how different the Netherlands is to Germany.  I thought the two places would be similar and I was quite wrong.  It is not just the language, but the food, the feeling, the people and the fact that the place is covered in these canals and waterways.  I don´t have a photo of this, but a great visual was the flat paddock in Friesland where we looked out across the grassy field and saw a towering sail slowly making its way through the grass.  The canals give the whole place a wonderfully relaxed, Venetian feel and make the place look magnificent.

The Netherlands (and more specifically Utrecht) is flat.  This creates the perfect conditions for cycling and so it´s no wonder that EVERYBODY cycles EVERYWHERE.  People are dressed up in suits, fancy silk ties and cufflinks to get to the office and are on their bikes; off to a night on the town wearing high heels, dainty skirts and a top with a plunging neckline - then of course you´re also on your bike.  We even saw a couple that looked like they were headed to a black tie function replete in formal gown for her and tuxedo for him: you guessed it - cycling there.  This is really odd - but I love it.  

Bikes rule the streets over here.  There are lots of places where you don´t just get a bike lane, you get your own bike section.  So pedestrians have the footpath, cars own the road and the cyclists have their own ´third place´ all to themselves.  You learn your lesson pretty quickly if, like me, you dawdle onto it or cross the lane without looking both ways. 

This cycle friendly environment provided the perfect conditions to motivate me to get back on the bike (after my Luang Prabang accident) and spend the day as a true Dutch(wo)man cycling around the place.  We set out armed with Leonike´s excellently handy map print-outs and directions, her bike and a second helpfully lent by a neighbour, a few bananas and muesli bars and we were ready.  It was an excellent day!  More importantly - I am still alive to tell the tale and have retained all my teeth.

The Klumpes family benevolently opened up their place to us and made us feel like Utrecht was a ´home away from home´ and the Klumpes' were a ´family away from family´.  Padding around their living room barefoot waiting for their coffee-maker to produce yet another perfect cappucino, I began to feel homesick for the first time.  On one of the evenings during our stay we were home-alone and so Iain acquainted himself with the kitchen and created a delicious dinner.  It was made all the more decadent because we had the TV on while we ate it!  Home cooked food, vases of freshly cut sunflowers and pottering around the kitchen are all mundane but are also a reminder of our absent home-life.

The things I took for granted are some of the things that I realise I miss the most.  Lars and Leonike provided us with a home base we felt welcome in; a comfy bed; a place to leave our bags unlocked; a working kitchen with implements, spices, butter and balsamic vinegar (all things we haven´t bothered to buy and carry); a place where we could shower without shower thongs and the ability to make a cup of tea or coffee whenever we felt like it.  Thanks so much for all of these things as well as your incredibly generous hospitality!  It was much appreciated!

Back to the task at hand....  

In Amsterdam we had a day of extraordinary timing.  We walked around in perfect sunshine and then boarded the super fast ICE train.  While sitting cosily in our comfy seats we watched the sudden rainstorm bucket down all around us.  After alighting, the sun came out just in time for our Amsterdam boat tour to begin.  We wandered about under a perfect blue sky and then ventured into a bar for some Amstel beers and the local deep fried Dutch fare when a freak storm sent the sky greyish green and the heavens opened.  It was an unexpectedly fortuitous weather day.  

Amsterdam was a gorgeous city; the enormous trees, the twisting canals, the little bridges and the fantastic topsy turvy buildings which had been lovingly restored despite the fact that they were slowly sinking into the marshy soil.  The photos didn´t really capture the complete disorganisation that we witnessed from the boat - with one building leaning on another while a third protruded forwards while its neighbour sagged back. After the boat tour, we wandered round until night fell - no small feat as it only became dark after 10pm.  Astoundingly we managed to avoid all the museums and galleries (though they had some great ones that we had planned to go back for). 

I feel like I haven´t spoken anywhere near enough about our constant back-of-the-car travel companion and favorite little sportsman, Max.  Only two years old but enormously entertaining to both of us.  When he wasn´t serenading us with his favourite song, or soiling his nappies "poopy maxxy?", he was tipping his Lego across the floor to impress his neighbours.  In all honesty, I haven´t really lived with a 2 year old before but he was a great advertisement for having kids.  Iain and I agreed that this is not something to expect as he was so perfectly well-behaved - he has to be an unusual child.

It was odd being picked up by Lars from the bus station on that first day.  He´s been a regular reader of the blog so it was weird telling him stories about things that had happened to us (even as recently as Morocco) and watch him nod along and realise that he had already read all about it.  It is a really strange situation, because my first thought was "huh, how on earth do you know about this?"  It does make me think that when we return, there will be lots of occasions where we will start to tell a story and be told "yeah, yeah we know". 

Until then, we´ll just keep writing... (but maybe with one more stop in the Netherlands before we get there).
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