I never thought it would be possible – to be alone, entirely alone on the Waddenzee. Having dismounted from my bicycle, I stood on the northern dyke of Friesland in the Netherlands, looking out over the sea towards the Wadden Islands. Not a boat was in sight. After a few moments I looked landwards, down into the fields and realised no one was there either, not even a village in the distance. How was this possible in a tiny country with almost 20 million people? I had always imagined that the Netherlands would be full of people wherever one went, much like China where people feel comfortable in the presence of human breath. But no, here I was, entirely alone. I drank in the feel of the place, holding on for a little longer before setting off on my bike once again.
It was the second day of two weeks of cycling the length, breadth and depth of my ancestral home back in 2004. Finally free, I had bought a new bicycle, a fold-up tourer, and arrived by train in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands. From there I rode long, long days, often more than 100 kms, running until the last light at about 10 pm. Beginning in the north, I left Groningen and criss-crossed the country for the next two weeks.
After a few days on a bicycle, a rhythm develops and life becomes extraordinarily simple. Soon you wonder at a world full of clutter and crap, when all you need is what can be put in a pannier. Each night I slept long and hard, dead to the world as my body recovered from the day’s ride. The morning began with a huge breakfast. I could never eat enough: pancakes (pannenkoeken), breads, cheeses, chocolate hail (or shavings), buttermilk, rusks and more, much more. At any other moment in life I would have raced to 150 kilos in no time, a vast blob on a fold-up bicycle, my seat disappearing into my arse.
Dutch food doesn’t quite have the mix of art and simplicity that one finds in, say, China, but it is the result of a long history of making the most of what is available, along with a few obvious traces of the Dutch Empire, when it had colonies in Indonesia, India and parts of South America.
For example, Indonesian food, adapted in its own way to Dutch conditions, is a staple. And these items have become so much a part of Dutch food that you could grow up believing they were quintessentially Dutch. Which is precisely what I did in Australia: as a child I had come to believe that fried rice my mother cooked was a traditional Dutch dish and that the spices in speculaas (a delicious biscuit) were grown in the Netherlands.
But on my ride other, more traditional foods turned up, especially the ubiquitous fish, often grilled or fried and plied with a sauce. Of course the bitter pickled herring, the rolmops, are a standard, particularly since they formed the basis of the wealth that led to the impossible expansion of the empire. Even now the outcome of that wealth may be seen in the neat villages and houses, the well-developed welfare system and the absence of vast swathes of poverty.
Other humble items of Dutch cuisine brought back the intimate tastes and textures of my childhood: gehaktbalen, or meatballs, prepared and cooked in a bewildering variety; often large and spiced, one gehaktbal is a meal unto itself. Oliebalen, or ‘oil balls’, a standard at my grandparents, are simply balls of flavoured flour fried in fat or oil. But the karnemelk (buttermilk), cheeses and breads are enough to make you cry. Far better than ordinary milk, a litre of buttermilk is enough to keep you pedalling for hours, and the breads are heavy and full, hardly needing spreads to make them edible as in so many other places. The cheeses? Without the slaughter of bacteria that takes place with pasteurisation, cheese is allowed to develop as it should – full of taste and texture. Although I must admit that the cheese factories are another story. When I was visiting Gouda, a festival of cheese was underway, centred on the old factory in the middle of town. Free samples were aplenty, handed out by well-endowed women and men in traditional costume. But when I pedalled out of town I caught an almighty stink on the wind. What the hell is that? Soon enough the immaculate stainless steal tanks of the real cheese factory came into view. No wonder it is out of town, I thought.
After breakfast, a smoke or three followed (yes, I did smoke the whole way, a legacy from a stressful year) while I checked my bike over – very carefully. Tyre pressures, spoke conditions, clean chain, oil, a wipe down with a rag. The bicycle was my steed and needed the love and care any rider should show his mount – a rub down at the end of the ride and a careful check in the morning.
Panniers loaded and I was off. The first feeling was as though sinking into a worn and very comfortable easy chair? A bike seat like an arm chair? Some time ago I had acquired a Brooks leather saddle. People constantly asked me whether it wasn’t too hard, whether I shouldn’t get one of those gel jobs, cushioned in those crucial sensitive places. Not at all, since the leather saddle moulds to your bum shape, fitting snugly into all those points, hollows and strange curves.
Warming up, I stretched fingers, arms, shoulders and back, while my legs began the next ten thousand revolutions. And I saw the country as only those on a bicycle know how – intimately, slowly, full of smells, sights and sounds. I could ride where no car, train, bus or plane could go, experience those quite corners that always draw me in. There were moments of deep historical significance, like when I crossed the Rhine for the first time. Appropriately it was by a tiny passenger ferry and not some massive bridge. As I boarded I felt like Caesar crossing the Rhine on his way north. But as soon as I set foot on the other side I was busting for a crap, so I had to scramble to find a quiet corner behind some bushes (public toilets are very few) and leave my own historic marker.
I followed the Overland routes (Landelijke fietsroutes), the green ones on the map that went for hundreds of kilometres through the length and breadth of the Netherlands. With no specific plan for my ride, I would opt to pick up another Overland route should I feel like it, decide to head in another direction if there were too many people (as happened on the coast). I travelled from Groningen along the coastal route, gradually veering from west to south, through the ancient fields and villages of Friesland, crossed over the massive Afsluitdijk that holds in the Ijselmeer (which used to be the Zuider Zee), pushed further south through the holiday coast of North Holland and then decided to go inland, through Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven to Maastricht in the far south. From there I crossed the southern provinces, heading west through Brabant, Limburg and Flanders, to Zealand, before finally turning north, up the coast through Rotterdam and back to Amsterdam. Not a bad way to see the country of my parents, a place I had resisted visiting for more than forty years (for all manner of complex reasons that are common to children of immigrants); more than a thousand kilometres on my bicycle. I rode through startled sheep and their shit, through neat villages perched on the dykes to keep free from flooding, forests I never imagined existed in the Netherlands, massive cities with their endless pelotons, and along endless canals.
On a ride like this you begin to wonder whether we all belong to the same species. Surely there are more types of human beings than homo sapiens on this planet. Take my first stop at Anjum, a village in the north of Friesland. In a little ‘bed and brodje’, as they call them up there, with its distinctive thatch (each region does such things in its own way), the woman who ran the place greeted me with glee. But her face soon turned to disappointment when I said, ‘No English, please’ I’d like to practice my Dutch’. ‘Damn’, she said in Dutch, ‘I want to practice my English!’
Her father was another species altogether. Next morning, as I was checking over my bike, dragging on a smoke and replacing a spoke, he shuffled up to me and said something I couldn’t understand. Through his rattly throat and grizzled beard I made sense of two things: he wanted a smoke (I did check his nicotine-stained fingers to make sure) and he was speaking Frisian (Fries). So we sat down, I passed over a cigarette, and we tried to communicate. He taught me a few words of Fries, we examined the bike together, and he managed to scrounge a small stash of cigarettes from me before I set off.
Much later in the ride, two Polish men on bikes broke my quiet reflections, mesmerized as I was by the spinning spokes. They were hopelessly lost and produced a map. Did they speak Dutch? No. English? No. French maybe? No. Polish and German – yes. We did our best, which was not so successful, so they decided to follow me for a while. I was soon to encounter their preferred mode of navigating. It involved riding through a town, spotting someone sitting and quietly sipping coffee or perhaps standing at a bus stop, and shrieking repeatedly for directions – in German. And they did so while still riding. No wonder they were lost.
Then there was the garrulous, elderly Dutchman. I made the mistake of asking him for directions in the outskirts of Eindhoven. By the time he had helped me the tiniest hotel room in the heart of town – up those impossibly steep Dutch stairs (they used to have to pay tax on stairs) – he had talked me into a stupor. I heard of his 200 km ride, pedal by pedal, last Thursday, the great value of traditional Dutch bikes, his 180 km ride on Sunday, again pedal by pedal, his favourite foods, clothes, a detailed guide to every spot in the Netherlands, and his 210 km ride on Tuesday.
The Netherlands has some great cities, steeped in history, tolerance, shipping and the seedier sides of life – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Maastricht – but I soon became smitten by the countryside and villages, far from the madding crowd. I began to hunt them down at the end of the day’s ride. Weary from the sun, sheep shit coating my tyres, and my nose full of the rich country smells of animal piss and lanolin, I tracked down another village on my second night.
Kimswerd’s claim to fame was that Grote Pier was born here – a giant of a man who plundered shipping in the Zuider Zee and fought for the freedom of Frisia. The story goes that once a man came up to him while he was out ploughing the fields. ‘Can you tell where I can find Grote Pier’, asked the man. Pier picked up the plough and pointed with its tip: ‘he lives over there’, he said, ‘and he stands here’. With that he felled the man with one punch.
Kimswerd’s other great claim was an old pub, or at least it was for me. I rolled up, managed to dismount and staggered inside. Soon enough I had a room and a beer and joined a couple of locals out the front. The beers kept appearing before me at about the same rate as the locals kept turning up. Each one wanted to hear about my ride, my Dutch parents, my father’s stay in Friesland during the war, and my grandfather’s (mother’s side) origins in this part of the world. Emboldened by the beers, I began speaking garbled Dutch with a thick Australian accent, much to the amusement of the ever larger number of the locals. Finally I staggered off to bed. The proprietor, a wily woman in her forties, told me not to worry about the bill. After all, she had made more money on all the others who had turned up, for she had been busily phoning around to tell people about the evening’s entertainment.
Women became constant features of the ride. On my journey south I decided to check out the coast, passing over the Afsluitdijk from Friesland to Nord Holland. Here the dykes gave way to the wide dunes and beaches so beloved of summer crowds. And since it was high summer the crowds were certainly there. Not Dutch crowds, for they had all gone south to Spain, but Germans, since they haven’t got any beaches to speak of. A new German invasion, if you like, but one that is welcomed for the money they bring. Was it easy to find accommodation for a stray cyclist? Not on your life. At last I found a Youth Hostel in Egmond, just by the sea.
‘We have one bed left’, I was told, ‘Do you mind sharing it with some women?’
‘Not at all’, I smiled, imagining perhaps some hardened cyclists in their sixties, or perhaps a Christian Youth Camp.
Out of politeness I knocked on the door of my room before entering.
‘Komm in’ said a voice.
I promptly entered the bathroom, through which one had to pass on the way to the dorm. A couple of young German women greeted me, wearing huge smiles and nothing much else. Two more were in the dorm, settling in. The room seemed full of thighs, long legs, blond hair and inquisitive eyes.
‘Don’t mind us’, one of them said. I didn’t at all as we talked late into the night.
Later in the ride, to the far south in Maastricht I met more women. I had ridden fast along the Maas River cycle track (fietspad) in order to reach the town before dark. No longer weary at the end of a day’s ride, I strode in to book my bed and was promptly approached by two women.
‘Excuse me’, said one in Dutch. ‘Can you help us? We have a problem with a bicycle’.
I followed them back outside and was presented with a badly buckled front wheel. A well placed foot and some work with my hands soon had the wheel back in workable order. I suggested a new wheel wouldn’t be a bad idea, but they said it would be fine. A bit of a wobble and a rub, but no problems – I began to realise that for a people who ride all the time, bikes need to be able to work and not be showpieces.
In thanks they offered to buy me dinner. A ride around Maastricht, takeaway from an Indonesian restaurant run by a friend, and a quiet spot in the evening by the tower and the old moat – we sat, ate, drank beer and talked. One was from Dutch Surinam, with a winning smile and a relaxed air; the other was a little spiritual, given to seeing deeper meanings in chance encounters like ours. Eventually we parted, a little sadly, to go our own ways.
And then there were the prostitutes. Late in the day, I was following the route from Amsterdam along the main canal to Utrecht and looking forward to the youth hostel in the midst of the forest outside Utrecht. Suddenly I noticed a group of cars on the road beside the canal, men were standing about, and good number of bicycles had gathered. What’s going on? I thought. I pedalled past a row of houseboats and saw a woman in the window of the first houseboat. Why is she getting undressed with the curtain open? I wondered. And then there was another, and another, and … It was the strangest red light district I had ever encountered (although I have not encountered many). Here in canal boats, outside town, on a quiet stretch of the canal, the prostitutes were plying their trade. The reason for the windows: a long Dutch tradition, still carried on today, is to display one’s living room to the street. A large window, curtains open, lights on, minimal decoration but tastefully done – so that strollers may look in and see how one lives. The Calvinist propensity for keeping nothing hidden before God, perhaps, or the need for the bourgeoisie to show off their best furniture, or the nosiness of the Dutch; theories abound, but the practice has also taken this curious turn with prostitutes, for they too display themselves through the living room window.
I encountered many other people on the ride, such as the drunken old fogeys who invited me to join them at Bergen op Zoom, or the equally old fogeys who (not drunk) stopped and chatted in a remote spot and suggested I might find a ‘kleine meisje’ here in the Netherlands (I found a few), but most of the time I was on my own with long days in the saddle. Like Nietzsche, at times like these I must admit I prefer to steer clear of the cities.
For one used to a good hill climb, riding in the Netherlands is disorienting. To begin with, the country is as flat as flat. As most people know, much of it is below sea level, reclaimed from the sea with dykes and pumps and windmills. But fewer will know that the word for ‘countryside’ is ‘platteland’ – ‘flat land’. So riding involves finding the same gear each morning, setting up a comfortable rhythm and staying in that gear all day. The only variations (except for the south where there one or two of the gentlest slopes) are the sprints and the dykes.
As for sprints … one late evening on the Zealand coast I ran out of places to stay. The Youth Hostel at Domburg was full, as were all the hotels in town (it was still holiday season). At last I tracked down one bed in a trekkerhut (basic accommodation in a camping area) in Kortgene, 30 km away across the fields and dykes. The catch: I had one hour to get there before the office closed at 9pm. I was knackered, but I stuffed myself with chocolate bars and sprinted with my loaded bike. I had no time to stop and check maps for the right turn, had no rises to survey the land ahead, so I simply guessed and hoped that the buildings in the distance actually belonged to Kortgene. At a couple of minutes to 9 I skidded into town and had my bed.
The dykes give the only other relief from the flat land, but not much: a small push to the top and over you go. Built gradually over the centuries, they line the seaside, giving an angular feel to the coast; they run through fields, marking old boundaries with the water and as guards against flooding; they carry water, ever upwards to the sea. There comes a moment on any ride in the Netherlands which completely throws you: you are riding along a dyke, on your left may be some water, a lake perhaps or the sea, but on the right is a field, perhaps with cows or sheep. Something doesn’t feel right, the world is out of kilter, and then it hits you: the field is lower than the water! Again and again this happens. The bodily experience of land below sea level is a far cry from the intellectual knowledge of this fact. And just when this experience starts to become reasonably normal, you come across two bodies of water, one a few metres higher than the other one. It feels like a country that defies gravity, pushing the water ever upwards to keep the land beneath dry.
Yet water is not an enemy for the Dutch but a friend. They might work around the clock to keep it from their fields, the seaward dykes might have massive sluices in them, and they might have planned (since the 1953 floods when the dykes broke) for the 1 in a 1000 year storm as a safety measure, but the Dutch see water as an ally and close friend. So in times past, when an enemy army was looking to invade, marching purposefully to take a stronghold like Amsterdam or Utrecht, they would suddenly find themselves in the middle of a vast lake. The Dutch would open the dykes and flood the fields. Then they would attack the water-logged army in boats … if the soldiers hadn’t drowned first. Even more, the canals have never been barriers and walls, but watery roads through the country, a way to get around cheaply (transport on road has for centuries been far more expensive). And on a bicycle one soon notices another feature of the landscape: there are no fences between the fields, for each field is separated by a small canal. That of course makes the platteland look even flatter.
Even the villages are built on the dykes, the front door facing the road on the dyke, the back running down the side into the fields below. It is a precaution against floods, the water rising unannounced while one slept. That meant of course that villages are usually strung out in rows, a dozen or so houses close by each other. In some cases, such as at Marken in the ancient Waterland (before the dykes were extended), the houses were built on piles above the rocks, for the water at high tide would cover the rocks and lap at the steps of the houses. Often I would stop in these villages, find a small shop where I could get hold of some bread, cheese and beer – a feast fit for a king.
To my surprise, I found that not all of the Netherlands is fields and dykes, with ancient windmills (now mostly museum pieces) replaced by electronic pumps and wind farms. Outside Utrecht the youth hostel (at Bunnik) is in the midst of a deep forest with ancient trees. On the day after my stop there, about half-way on the ride, I marvelled at being absorbed into the soft green and brown light of a glorious forest. It welcomed me, drawing me in, shading me from the sun and offering soft air laced with the smells of leaves from last autumn, mosses, animals and hollow tree trunks. Here were long, rough tracks along which I bumped for hours on end. It was the second time I felt entirely alone after that moment on the Waddenzee.
There is an untranslatable Dutch word, ‘gezellig’. Comfortable doesn’t catch it, nor does cosy. Gezellig is the moment when you can rub your hands with pleasure, sit in good old chair and open a book to which you’ve been looking forward to for days. It is the gathering of friends to talk without a concern for time and the need to get on. It is the feeling of being absorbed, quietly, peacefully, with one’s soul at ease with the world. Increasingly I too began to feel gezellig on my ride, on the bike’s great seat, in a land that felt extraordinarily familiar (disconcertingly so at first, but pleasurably so later). Even the humour is gezellig: a quietly spoken joke, a turn on a question. For example, on the second day I asked a man, in Dutch, ‘Do you speak English?’ ‘Yes’, he said, ‘do you?’
When I first began the ride out of Groningen I felt as though I was meeting my cousins – all tall and blond with a distinct way of carrying their bodies (one of the most subtle markers of cultural difference; it varies from place to place but is so hard to put your finger on). At first the Dutch felt just beyond my grasp, a language that wanted to be known. Gradually, as the days rolled by with the spinning spokes, the familiar syntax and lilt came back to me from my youth. My parents had spoken Dutch at home until I was well in my teens and I spoke Dutch first as a child before learning English. By the end of the ride the gateway of language had opened up and I felt more and more at home. At times I actually had the strange wish that my parents had never emigrated to Australia – but then of course I would never have been born.