Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Journey Has Begun!

By Chuck

Following a brief after dinner nap, I finally have enough focus and energy to begin to express my thoughts about our little adventure to date. Working in reverse order, from today, I am impressed with how tired I am at the end of each day. But, I recall that I felt the same way when I was last in Europe – 35 years ago. So, it is not just my age working against me. What is more disconcerting is feeling dazed and confused as I sit there, trying to focus – on anything! I am sure this will get better.

When we arrived home – aka Homer, from the Odyssey – at the end of our second trip out for the day, my feet hurt, my legs had shin splints, and my hip joints ached. I laugh when I think that Claire thought I would not be getting enough exercise!

But, we had just brought back Claire's bike from Halford's and we had to mount it and lock it down on the bike rack. Fortunately, we had bought a step stool that allowed me to get high enough to adjust the fasteners and all. It went smoothly, all things considered.

It is so interesting to me how helpful people have been as we ask our million questions and try to get directions. We even had a janitor who looked like he was from an Eastern Bloc country try to help us in the metro station when we were obviously lost. He spoke no English; I am not sure he even spoke Dutch; but his heart was surely in the right place.

I am still astounded to see how tall people are here: men average 6'1” and women, 5'6”. But, the really tall women are found in great abundance; and, the population is very attractive. I was surprised to see so many people of color; but we were both disappointed to observe that there seems to be de facto discrimination in employment and living quarters. As we take the 53 line from Gaasperplas to Central Station, the first large housing unit we notice on the left looks like something from the last vestiges of Communist housing before the fall – not necessarily depressing, but very bleak. The nearby flea market has only people of color visible from our elevated tram. Interestingly, the name of the area is Kraaienest – as an aside to Roger Van Craeynest: I thought you were of French ancestry; do I mis-remember?

The streets are laid out with separate “lanes” for cars, bikes and pedestrians. And there are serious fines to enforce observance! Our guide on the Central Amsterdam walking tour said €150 for blocking bike traffic. Pedestrian routes are marked in gray bricks; bike routes are pink bricks; car routes are ordinary asphalt. Even more interesting is the traffic on each lane: Cars of all sizes and shapes, as well as large motorcycles, ride on the regular roads; bikes, motor scooters, small motorcycles traffic on the bike lane; pedestrians walk exactly where you expect. But, I would point out that the obesity we encounter in the US these days is fairly absent, here. I guess all the biking and walking helps out in that department.

The bicycles, by the way, are mostly old, plain functional service vehicles. The bike shops sell fancier types, but there is really no need for gears in Amsterdam – it is flatter than Davis. Most of the country, they told us, is reclaimed from the sea. I guess they learned they could increase territory without wars and colonialism. This took several centuries, however. Do you remember from your history books about the Dutch East (and West) India companies? Holland led the world in trade and slaves for a considerable period, I believe. [You, the reader, were blithely unaware of an unpleasant interruption a few moments ago; I was sitting on Claire's “sofa”, typing away, when my legs began to cramp up from the walking over the past few days. It took a few minutes of trying to lean against the pain to be able to sit down at the table to continue.] Our tour guide told us that Holland's attitude toward religion and immorality is quite permissive, provided it is done discretely, there is no victim, and money can be made off of it – prime example, of course, is the perfectly legal prostitution trade (since 2000); the women are self-employed; they are from many walks of life and situations and ethnicity – single mothers, college coeds, etc.; there is child care provided in the neighborhood; pimping is illegal! Part of the reason for all this is the need for working hard together to claim the land from the sea and to maintain the dikes – who had time to worry about sectarian differences when everyone's survival depended upon cooperation?

An architectural curiosity: several centuries ago, the buildings were built to lean forward. This, apparently, was due to the need to hoist furniture and house fixtures into the house through the windows; this, in turn, was necessitated by the narrow fronts; this was a consequence of tax policy – taxes were once based on property width! After some time someone realized that they could simply extend the hoists further out from the house and still keep the materials from crashing through the windows when the winds blew.

You may have realized that there has not been a lot of tourism involved in our trip so far; this is partly due to the necessity of getting prepared with the things we require for our life abroad for the next year; it is also, for me, a choice to try to think more about the life and the culture (broadly defined) surrounding us. For example, I found that I had almost no desire to wait in a long line to visit the Anne Frank House, yesterday – and this was not simply because I hate to wait. I was more interested in just experiencing the people and the place of Amsterdam. I think this is due, in part, to Claire's suggestion that we view ourselves as living over here, rather than being on vacation; also, I read Paul Theroux's The Pillars of Hercules just before we left. [I always enjoy him and his observations, even though he doesn't seem to like people very much.] I was impressed with his focus on the people he encountered on his journey around the Mediterranean; he had almost no interest in places for their own sake. It will be interesting to me to see how this turns out for me, as I had long longed to come here to see cities and monuments and buildings for their place in history, abstractly removed from current people and living conditions.

I am aware of having entered travel mode; this happened on the first day. When I travel, I am far more likely to put myself out there to ask questions or solve the practical problems that are facing me/us. This is a matter of sanity, if not of survival. Walking up to the pay phone at Ikea – to the astonishment of others – was a “necessity” for me. We had been told there was no pay phone; the customer service line was long; we had not even begun our shopping; we had our battery running down in our camper, since I could not figure out how to turn them off; we needed to get the camper to the campground, unpack our four large suitcases, get some rest and return the next day to finish provisioning our new home – Homer. So, I simply walked up to the phone to try to contact Richard from BW Campers to sort out the car issues. BTW, another humbling experience – the only problem was that everything works exactly the opposite over here (or so it seems): Windows crank in the opposite direction; ignition keys turn in the opposite direction. Also, you have to begin to go through the start procedure for this diesel engine twice before you actually start it. I was too tired to think to try another approach; in my tired insanity, I kept trying the same failed procedure over and over, hoping for a different result.

Well, it's midnight; the rain is dying down; and, we have a long day of Homer time awaiting us, tomorrow: fix the bikes, top off the water, dump the gray and waste water and, maybe, go for a bike ride. Or not...


ShannonB said...

Ahhh, you are settling into your new home. I wish you many beautiful adventures in Homer. . .

Chuck and Claire said...

Thanks! We are really loving it. Even those very humbling experiences that seem to happen constantly.

Diane said...

Hi Claire and Chuck! I haven't been in touch because there was a glitch with me receiving the blog but now I'm on board. I'm loving everything about your descriptions from Day 1 and can visualize it all thanks to photos and humorous stories. You are taking everything in with stride and grace! I'm so happy that people have been so welcoming and helpful. Looking forward to more vicarious adventures--I miss you but it helps to know what an incredible adventure you are embracing. Lots of love, Diane

Chuck and Claire said...

Glad you solved the glitch and you are with us in spirit. Believe me, I am thinking about you.