I am now in Holland, away from the tortures and temptations of the United States. After a twenty four hour journey, consisting of a three hour shuttle bus ride to JFK, a four hour wait at the airport where I had to endure every crying baby apparently wailing for dear life (most appeared to be waiting for a flight to Uzbekistan, so I suppose you can't blame them), a seven hour flight to Frankfurt (which went quickly) and a six hour, three train ride to Almere in Holland, here I sit, netbook on my lap, wondering how it is that I have come into contact with such wonderful people in this fantastic country. I'm a really lucky girl.
After disgracing myself badly by falling asleep on the couch, snoring last night, I was sent to bed. After eleven hours of unbroken sleep later, life is good. Jan Pieter has the week off work, Anneka is on school holidays and Sascha doesn't work during the week, so I have travelling companions for the week. Sweet!
There is nothing better than being able to see a country through the eyes of a local and Holland, with its inpenetrable language, sort of needs a local to decipher the gutteral sounds and strange spellings used around here. Also, if you want to see the best of the place, like any country, having local knowledge is better than any guide book.
The first thing I have to say about Holland - it has to be the most beautiful country I have ever seen. More quaint than England, which I did not think possible, more symmetrically picturesque. The poplars that line the roads are equal distant apart. There is a lot of water in the form of canals and lakes. The only thing missing is hills. There aren't any. Diddly squat hills in fact. You're lucky to find a crest in the road - however this makes it the perfect place to cycle - and this is something everybody does.
At Almere Centrum railway station the bike park is bigger than the car park. The other thing about the bikes, unlike Australia where everybody is on racers or mountain bikes, most people ride these upright things - which are really technical with gears, shockers,brakes and lights, but the men don't find it emasculating to sit up and ride a bike looking like they don't have a care in the world - everybody else sits like that, and if you ask me it looks a hell of a lot more comfortable than hunching over a mountain bike. Also, nobody, and I mean nobody, wears a bike helmet. (Grumble, grumble, nanny state Australia, grumble, grumble, oh yeah, they have real designated bike lanes and bikes have right of way half the time)
The second thing about Holland that I've noticed - the people seem pretty relaxed. This is just an observation, but people here seem really cool and unstressed about stuff. Okay, I've worked enough with Dutchmen to know that they do get stressed, but the people in the street don't seem all worked up - they just appear to be nice, happy normal - and rather tall people. As a race, they are known as one of the tallest in the world - so I feel rather short.
Today we did a bit of touring around Flevoland and Utrecht. Flevoland wasn't here forty years ago - it was an inland sea until they drained it and built houses on it. Located about five metres below sea level you sort of get why there are no hills here. All the houses are very new, the roads are immaculate and the facilities are great. Many Dutch people dismiss the place as boring (the Grounded Dutchman being one of tis most vocal critics) but its a place with cheap housing for young families. Also, more cultural centres are only half an hour away by train.
The first stop we made was to a windmill. You're in Holland, you have to see a windmill (and being a daft Australian, you hum that song about the little mouse with clogs on, oh I declare...) JP and Sascha took me the scenic route through the towns of Huizen and Blerican until we reached this wonderful site.
The next stop of the day was the city of Utrecht, possibly one of the prettiest cities in Holland. The Grounded Dutchman is always going on about how lovely it is - and he is so very right.
We wandered the streets for a bit before settling down for some Dutch "culinary delights." Well, I think that's what you call them. First up, bitteballe at a pub. The man with his deep fat fryer had gave us these balls of fried stuff - chicken nuggets, meat balls, cheese sticks, nasi goreng balls, all deep fried with some Dutch curry sauce. Actually really great as a snack.
Then after a bit more walking, checking out a few shops, including this cooking shop where I found this:
Next stop dinner. This was taken at a wonderful establishment which had the following display of "food':
The last stop before home was to the afwerkpleken along the canals near the centre of the city. JP said I was in for a treat. On barges along the canal were these large windows, in which sat women in various states of undress, of every size and colour imaginable.
An afwerkplek is a place a hooker takes her john.
Okay, I'd heard about these, but never seen them. Prostitution is legal here - something I really don't think is a bad thing at all any culture. What I found rather creepy was not that these red lighted, red curtained chambers were right by the side of the road but the road had turning circles at each end. It was the large amount of traffic here, even at this late part of the afternoon, with men, quite openly going up to the doors and going in - I've lived a few houses away from a brothel for years - I've only ever seen anybody go in there once. The cars in the street varied from old bangers to high end luxury vehicles - more than a few Lexuses and Mercedes. Many of the women seems jaded and sad, with no substance to their smiles. The foot long dildoes and other recreational rubber products adorning the window sills were a bit frightening. By and large the beds that were in full view were made, the rooms clean. Occasionally you'd see a sign advertising S&M or bondage.
JP said that the place was near a large postal sorting complex and at shift change time you'd see the street lined with posty vans. That must be a sight.
All of this is a part of the experience - not something I would ever see in my travels on an ordinary day.
I'm looking forward to seeing what Amsterdam will bring tomorrow.