The Netherlands

Last one off the ferry (there were circumstances) and, incredibly, the Dutch immigration boys had left for the day. It was 8:00AM. I rolled around vast, confusing parking lots, fences, ramps, gates, buildings and overpasses as the sun rose (yes, at 8:00AM) until a maintenance man opened a gate for me. “Welkom,” was all he said.

All the cliches followed. Rainy. Flat. Clean. Orderly. Compact. Bicycles everywhere. Bike lanes, signals, signage, etc. Robust, red-cheeked bicyclists. Hothouses. Canals.

Between towns the miles were easy, with excellent signage. In town it was easy to get lost. Very lost. I made it to a hostel in The Hague, where a merry bunch of young vagabonds were staying, some overnight, some for a week awaiting school, some for weeks working there. Great session out back around a gas fire, great folks. I got into a chess game with Paul, a transplanted Brit. Quite fun, Paul, thanks for the lesson! Katia from Switzerland, Dominique from England, Peter, Kareem, Simon, Esther, Kate, Caroline from Montreal, Rebecca from Rhode Island, Bob and Dylan. Such great people. Especially Ola. Thank you, dear, for expanding my knowledge of Poland. Enjoy school. Then visit Vermont.

Next day, lost again at noon, Margaret pulled up next to me in fine style: wearing a dress, on a utility bike but a good one, and passing me. She has spent years on the road with husband and kids, now lives in a tiny town between The Hague and Amsterdam. She took over. First, a short detour to her house for coffee and sandwiches. Then off toward the sea, where my map (google) shows nothing, and hers (fietspadroute) shows the best of The Netherlands’ extensive “off the grid” bike path network, Fiets Pad, which is away from all roads and traffic except for occasional town sections. Miles and miles through the dunes, all thanks to Margaret.

Amsterdam was a blur. The amazing buildings, churches, canals, and bridges were easy to enjoy from the bike. I got a cheap room near the center, not far far from the red light district, in the middle of a giant party that’s been going on for decades. My bike stashed in the kitchen, I positioned myself on a bridge right below my room’s window, throngs walking by. It was slow, but after a couple of hours I made enough to feed myself for the weekend, if not pay for lodging. There were some anti-American remarks thrown my way.

Way late, couple of young toughs tried to grab my mandolin and tips; there was a scuffle, with my back to the railing and the canal below. I managed to stomp the lid of the mandolin case onto the little guy’s hand, and out-shove the other one and shout them both down. It was nearly the only applause I got all night.

Two nights in that town were enough. I headed south for a Warm Showers host, but spent so much time lost I didn’t make it. In a small town I saw a hotel and thought I’d ask. It was swank, but the dining room was empty. One half the price, and a hundred times nicer, than the dive in Amsterdam. Elegant dining, wine, deluxe double room, $44US. Still too much for me to sustain, but camping here is all but impossible, and it’s really, really nice to sleep dry, shower, and put on dry clothes in the morning.

I had been lost trying to follow complicated directions to a Warm Showers host, and stressed about time. So I thought, what if I just plan on finding another cheap hotel (replacing the stressful urgency to reach my host with a more distant, generalized money stress). Worked so far. I had a great ride today, nearly sixty miles with very little getting lost, since I was just heading south through the countryside.

Today was windy, cold–around 25F–and snowy. I’ve been riding in my Fedora since I lost my wool cycling hat first week out, and today was the first day I had to add a silk scarf for my ears. The rest of my weather gear works great. On these bike paths I didn’t pass many food places, so I ate rolls with butter and bananas in a bus stop shelter (from the wind) overlooking a working old-style windmill.

I found another cheap room just after dark in tiny Zevenbergen, and walked to the grocery. Food costs less here.

Lest you think this is all fun and games, it isn’t. It seems I spend every waking moment busy at some task. Packing and unpacking is endless. I get more e-mails than ever. Wound care is down to knuckles and ankle, but it takes time. Finding warm showers, navigating, food, bike work. It’s all I can do to cover forty miles and get eight hours’ sleep.

With that, I’ll post this and go to bed. Tomorrow I leave the Netherlands, the home of my ancestors. Snow is in the forecast.

Advertisements

I Leave England

Thanks everyone for the comments and good wishes.

This has been a day to remember. Simon, I thank you for last night’s party, although parts of the evening are still a bit fuzzy in my memory. Nothing like a good three hours of sleep to ward off a hangover.

The short ride to Harwich through the mist was like a journey back in time. I spent the afternoon in a cafe building blog pages. Wait ’till you see ’em!

The evening’s pub was a rough fisherman’s place (although fishing has died out here; there was only one true fisherman in the place). As always, I entered and expressed concern about security for my bicycle. “Wheel it in here!” they said.

Adrian, the apparent kingpin, said, “Whatever is In that case is doing us absolutely no good in there, Yank.”. At his signal the bar man killed the music. I didn’t know what they were expecting, but I chose The Gal I Left Behind Me. I had no idea that the piece had words at all, let alone a half-dozen verses. And so profane! Three measures into the first tune there was dancing. These are my kind of people! Soon there were more ales lined up for me than I could ever drink (Adnam’s Bitter, my new favorite) . I did my best. I played and sung myself hoarse. Paul fetched his guitar. The poker game, the dart game, the pool table, the bar, the tables, everyone clapped and hooted. They made me sing Rough and Rowdy Ways twice. In the end, Adrian and Alan, out at the curb, argued about the best way for me to get to the ferry dock, three miles off.

I made it somehow. I hit a hedge, got stuck in it. Someone helped me; I think he had a uniform on. We laughed so hard. His name was Beverly, no kidding.

Moments ago I left England. No words could have prepared me for this experience. This is the largest ferry in the world. There are 1200 cabins, room for 500 vehicles. The elevators serve eleven decks. My cabin is like a movie set. It’s on the top deck; my porthole is centered astern. It’s four feet wide.

The restaurant I am sitting in is rated among the top fifty in Europe. It’s among the finest dining I have experienced, works of art, impeccable service. Not recognizing the dessert offerings, and already amusing both waiters with my Yankee nonsense, I ordered a banana split. They didn’t miss a beat. I should have taken a picture of it. Fine art. Tasty, too.

Alright, now I’m sounding like a hick who never traveled first class before. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I am. I should go to bed, but downstairs the bar is hopping. I think I’ll start with Sailor’s Hornpipe.

20120126-005943.jpg

My Very First Blog Post

Dear Friends and Family,

Some of you told me I should blog. You were right.

This post will be huge, and then I will be caught up. I intend to post a short post every day or two from now on.

Where do I start? I already sent a couple of e-mails to about 75 friends, I guess I’ll start by pasting them here:

Dear Friends,

End of my first week. Camped once. Bike is superb. Saw Stonehenge.

Pubs are great, all with fires to warm up by. This one here is from 1270. Original fireplace and beams. They all have clever names like “Crown & Rose” or “The Bell”, so that pictures on their signs could serve the common man, who could not read. The food is good, despite the stereotype.

I stayed with Warm Showers people twice and they were great. It’s getting dark as I eat my roast beef dinner by the fire here in Odiham. (O-djyum). I don’t have a place for the night yet. Rooms upstairs are expensive. It’s been sunny or partly so, temps in the twenties days and teens at night. Rain is forecast in a few days.

Three hours later:

Yee-ha! While I was finishing that last sentence a fellow from a pleasantly loud party at the next table asked, “Is that a mandolin?”

Richard, a retired banker who picks an old Martin, his wife, and another couple just returned from Australia today. Now I’m in the hall of an old (1500) home in a section of town where the streets are too narrow for cars. They are all too tired for music and went to bed. I’m on my own in this old manor. A church bell just tolled seven times. Dickensian. I think I’ll explore.

40 miles to London tomorrow. I’ll enjoy a long sleep; I’ve been up late last few nights.

The view from my accommodations at Fay and Kate's house in Frome

Then a few days later I posted this e-mail to a few close friends and family. Now that my ego has mended I can share it with the world:

Dear Friends,

In a suburb of London I finally got snagged by a car door. Going fast on the flats, and I almost avoided it. Without panniers I would have been ok.

I’m somewhat of a mess. Face first on the pavement, I put my teeth through my lip in two places (teeth hurt but seem undamaged). Broke my nose. Several knuckles with no skin left. Pulled a right calf muscle badly, and my left ankle is the worst of it, swollen and throbbing and, for now at least, I’m not walking.

Imelda the door opener, her three Catholic-grammar school kids, husband Dave, and Romanian au pair Aura are nursing me. I’ll be here a few days. Haven’t even seen the bike; it’s in the garage.

If I can’t walk tomorrow I might visit a hospital. They tell me it’s free. Many would get stitches for this lip, but I would just as soon wear my scars proudly.

It would be surprising to get to Hong Kong without a mishap, so I’m happy to get it over with in an English speaking neighborhood. Last time I hit a car door was 1974. Time to change my dressings already (it’s five hours since I kissed the macadam). I’ll keep you all posted.

Yours,
Scarface

I will not include a photo here.

Following up three days later:

Dear People,

I’m walking and talking, pretty ugly, and happy to have met this
family. I feel right at home. Imelda, the mum, is making me well.
Little Orlagh, eight years old, sings to me. Imelda is pure Irish and
her voice is a major factor in my speedy recovery. (“You Romps are
made of pretty sturdy stuff, it seems, to my way of thinkin'”) The
bike was spared frame damage, the wheels were less than a quarter inch
out of true, and no gear was damaged. The handlebars, tape, and one
brake cable will need replacing, and some scuffs on the pedal and
brake lever will remind me to be careful passing parked cars. We went
to town to get bike parts and the folks were horrified to see my face.
SJS Cycles, who sold me the bike, is sending handlebars no charge,
and Imelda wouldn’t let me pay for the other parts. I’ll be here a
couple more days. The ankle is better. I’m alone here right now but
the kids will be home from school soon. They are teaching me to speak
proper English.

I’ll keep you posted.

Yours,
Billy

The night before I left that wonderful, amazing family I met Kay, Aura’s boyfriend. As all men do when they get together, we started talking about cell phones. Turns out he’s a buyer for a huge cell phone retail chain here in the UK, and he offered me a phone, since mine won’t work on the European system. His workplace was what I imagine Google’s looks like, with 1500 sharp-looking colleagues living the life. Kay really fixed me up. But more than the phone or the workplace, I will always remember that Kay, a busy executive, made me feel all the while that I was doing him a favor.

The forty flat miles to London kicked my ass. I got a bed at the Youth Hostel and slept twelve hours. The next two days I wandered around London, busking in Trafalgar Square and Picadilly Circus. I believe that my ugly face and scabbed up knuckles put people off; I only made fifteen pounds all together. A pound is about a dollar and a half. The kilted bagpipe guy was raking it in.

Leaving the tourist area and finding an old-fashioned spit-and-sawdust pub, I met Martin and Lucie, their son Joe, and their friend John, who owns 14 Bikes http://www.14bikeco.com/ . I slept at Martin and Lucie’s house after keeping them up late. Next morning, a Saturday, Martin and Joe (13) both on cool single-speeds, and Joe’s friend Leo and Leo’s dad Alan (cool dude on a folder with a sport coat) brought me on a super ride through London, down to the Thames, over the Tower Bridge, and more, mostly on great canal-side bike paths. Alan’s an artist, and we twice ran into world-famous London-based artists. Great ride, fellas.

Then I wandered around seeing the sights and looking for a jazz club where I could listen within sight of my bike (I had been warned about London bike thieves). I wandered myself into exhaustion and wound up spending a week’s budget on a fleabag hotel room and an excellent pasta dinner.

Next day I left London for the east coast, cutting through heavily ethnic neighborhoods, prosperous suburbs, equestrian estates, and finally the sheep-dotted countryside, spending half my time on interstate-like A-roads and the other half lost in the ridiculously charming lanes and villages. Another hospitable pub, working class and family style, and another night in a warm bed, thank you Martin and Samantha.

I’m bound for the ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, staying with Simon Commercial. I don’t tend to use last names here, but Simon’s has a history. His great-great-grandfather was abandoned as an infant on the streets of London. When the sisters at the orphanage asked where he came from, the answer was, “Commercial Street.” I’m staying in the 400-year-old stable behind his 500-yerar-old house. I’ve never seen a more tasteful re-purpose. Simon is a cyclist and aviator, and a beer enthusiast. His wife lives in a house a few miles away, an arrangement I kind of like. We stayed up so late that when he went to bed and I got on his computer to make ferry and hostel accommodations for tomorrow, I forgot it was already tomorrow and I booked for the next day. So I’m staying here all day while it rains, doing laundry and creating a blog.

There, I’m caught up. Tomorrow I leave this magical island on a nighttime ferry. Future posts will be from my phone, so you know they will be shorter. I’ll take more pictures. Thanks for visiting. Please leave a comment. Cheerio.