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Monthly Archives: September 2012

This part of Holland is famous for its canals, and I wanted to swim in one for no reason other than their existence. When the owner of the Hotel Baan told us that the canal next to the hotel was both clean and permissible to swim in, I knew I’d be hopping in eventually. At the canal’s bank, I’d feel the water and decide it felt warm enough to hop in, and I’d look across it and say, “I can totally swim across this!”

Eventually the day came when I announced to the lobby that I’d be hopping in, which was met with raised eyebrows. Nobody agreed to join me, but I’d have a few spectators, which was good. If I drown, I don’t want to be alone. This also pumped me up a bit, because once I had an audience, I couldn’t wuss out.

This canal is deep enough that there’s no way you can touch the bottom at any point. I estimate it’s about 70 or 80 meters wide, which for me, is narrow enough to look easy to swim, and wide enough for me to be wrong about that. Once I jumped in, I yelled out to my friends that I was going to swim out a bit to, “see how far I could get,” but I already knew I was going the distance.

The first half feels easy. In no time at all I’m halfway out, but then I look at the non-trivial remaining distance and feel a moment of doubt. Then I look back and realize it’s the same distance. There’s nothing to do but keep swimming.

Two thirds of the way down and my arms start to burn a bit, so I switch to a backstroke. I book it for the last 10 meters, which feel harder than the rest of the distance combined. I reach the wall and climb out. My friends are waving and calling out to me and I wobble around and catch my breath.

I’m feeling pretty winded and I need to rest before I can go back. I half consider just walking to the bridge, but after making it down, not swimming back would feel like a defeat. I need another minute or two to rest, but my friends are still out there just sitting and I don’t want to keep them waiting too long. I feel strong enough to make it; time to dive back in.

The way back is significantly harder than the way there. I feel fatigued before the halfway point but push on. I tread water a bit at halfway and give myself a short pep talk. With about 20 meters to go, it’s getting harder to keep water out of my nose and mouth, but I know I’ll make it. Pretty much my entire body is burning, but I’m too close to fail. April would later tell me that around this point I looked really tired and she was genuinely worried for me, especially because, not being a swimmer herself, she would have nothing to do except watch in horror as I drowned. I push through and touch the wall.

Pulling myself up isn’t as easy this time, but I do it without assistance. Some people said that they felt pulling myself up was as impressive as the swim. Back on solid land, I actually feel a bit faint, and I’m not sure if I’m taking in too much oxygen or not enough. My ears feel like they need to pop, and I feel cold, even though my skin is a perfectly normal temperature. I go to my room and pass out for about 40 minutes.

I swam the canal three times in three days and it got easier each time. I found it very cathartic, as it is challenging enough to be proud of myself, without being genuinely very dangerous. It’s also a good workout that takes only 15 minutes. The third time, I did it while it was pitch black out, which made the whole thing a bit psychologically more stressful, but I think it’s good to scare yourself every once-in-a-while. It’ll be too bad when I get back and there is no canal right outside my door.

Let me start by saying I have had little direct interaction with the locals, so I’m not going to make any assertions about their culture, but I want to talk about my encounters with the Dutch so far.

In general, people have been very nice. On the few occasions I’ve opted to ask for help, people have been very polite and did their best to get me going where I have to be. At restaurants, I’ve had a mixed experience. Most servers are nice in a way you’d kind of expect them to be at a restaurant. Generally, they’re patient with our need for translation to English and they ensure we have a good meal. However, customer service here hasn’t been as good as it usually is in the US, and I have had a few irritable servers. One waitress was quite rude to me when I asked if they had to go boxes.

Me: Do you have anything that I could use to take-

Waitress: Like a box?

Me: Yes or something to-

Waitress: No (turns and walks away)

I actually wanted to believe she was joking and had been sarcastic with me but she absolutely wasn’t. I had been asking this for a friend and when I told her what response I got, she went to ask the waitress herself who snapped, “I just told your friend we don’t have any boxes!” Kristine pressed further and asked if they just had paper towels she could use to wrap her bread up with, and eventually she got some.

So far, my most interesting interactions with the Dutch happened on Friday when we went kind of out of the metropolitan area to Kinderdijk to see the windmills lit up. After the event, we had some time to kill while we waited for the bus. Travis (100% Thai descent) and I were exhausted so we desperately searched for a bench to sit on. We approached a playground with a park bench, but when we got closer noticed two things. One, that it was roped off, and two, that a group of young rowdy boys were ignoring the ropes and being loud and obnoxious in the playground.

Not wanting much to do with them, we walked past them and I heard one yell something in Dutch. Not understanding, I didn’t respond, but the sneer in the voice led me to believe that his comment was directed at us. He seemed disappointed to get no response. Once we had passed, he started yelling, “Ni hao! Ni hao!” in a mocking Chinese accent, as his friends cackled.

Perhaps I have too much pride, but this pissed me off. I had half a mind to turn around and tell him to piss off, and I strongly believe that had I been in the US, I’d have done something. However, I was not in the US, and I didn’t want to drag Travis into anything uncomfortable simply because I had a temper. There were also about 5 of these kids and I had no clue how they’d react to confrontation. So we walked right on by. Not acting when I feel that I should have bothers me more than just about anything else.

I was in a bad mood. It was a long day, all I wanted was a place to sit, and me and Travis had been mocked because we looked Asian. Travis didn’t seem bothered, even when I vented to him a little bit. We kept looking for a bench and after several more blocks, we finally spotted one. It was a sight for sore eyes, but before we were even close, two pretty Dutch girls sat down in it.

I couldn’t be mad at them. I was saying to Travis as we walked past them, “They’re probably tired just like us,” when one of them waved and said, “Hello!” in a very friendly voice. I waved back and walked right past when I decided I had nothing better to do, so I turned back and started talking to them. They were eating “Oliebollen” which they told me was a traditional Dutch treat typically only eaten at the New Year. They gave me a piece to try. It was good.

We chatted for a good 10 or 15 minutes and they were super nice. They even asked me mildly personal questions like what I wanted to do after I was done with school. Eventually they got up to go to a party and Travis and I finally got our bench. They said bye many times as they walked off, and a few minutes later, rode by on their bikes and waved bye again. The bad taste in my mouth left by the jerks at the playground was pretty much gone.

So overall, I can’t conclude much about the Dutch people. I’ve run into more nice people than rude people, enough of both to know they’re not outliers, but not enough of either to draw a strong trend line. On an unrelated note, I may need to brush up on statistics.

This is my fourth trip to Europe and over these trips, I’ve learned to expect to see a little more hot, steamy, kissy, action right out in public than I’m used to back in the US. However, this part of Europe (Holland and Belgium) seems to have beaten out even the famous lovers of Paris because I can’t seem to turn a corner without seeing a couple going at it.

And it’s not just young, puppy-dog lovers at bars, it’s older couples too, and it’s everywhere. Just today, I was waiting for a tram at a metro station when I heard a kissing sound so loud and pronounced, Bugs Bunny could have been giving it to Elmur Fudd. I was fine with that. It’s better than the couples who just go all in with tongues and everything. However, after the fifth or sixth smacking sound, I started to get annoyed.

See, I figured that this couple was separating temporarily and this was their loving goodbye. I actually consider this an appropriate time for public displays of affection, as public transit is where many people split up, and it also happens to be, well, public. However, if you are going to kiss your boo goodbye, it should be just that. A kiss goodbye. This couple was loudly kissing, at intervals so regular I could have set my clock, for a good 5-8 minutes. One peck right when the tram got there would have been appropriate.

The worst part was, when the tram got there, they just hopped right on it together! So they weren’t even saying goodbye. Fortunately, they kept their lips apart for the tram ride, though I don’t see what the big difference is on the tram versus the metro station.

Most of the public displays of affection here have not bothered me as much as that couple, but I don’t understand how it is enjoyable to kiss that much in public either. Sneaking a quick one can be kind of fun, but when you’re in the middle of many people and know they all can see, doesn’t that sort of spoil the moment? Is it really so distressing to have your lovers face farther than a foot away from yours, that you can’t go on a day trip without getting some oral support from your lover before getting home? Perhaps I’m just a bit jaded, but I feel nothing heartwarming when I see these couples, and I will not miss seeing these displays when I get back home.

I’m working on a theory that the Dutch, after many generations, have developed bone and muscle tissue so dense it is of super-human toughness right around their pubic area. I say this because after three straight days of biking, sitting down was an activity that had to be handled with extreme caution.

Somehow the common knowledge that biking is huge in Holland eluded me. I was not aware of this until I stepped out into the city for the first time and saw it. By the second day, I stopped even noticing all the 6-foot blonde Dutch women in sunglasses, casually holding onto their bike with one hand while texting with the other. I suspect this is the biggest reason it’s so much quieter here.

Everywhere you look, there is a huge pile of bicycles.

It would have been a crime to not get around by bike a little while here, and the program had covered rental fees for the Bicycle Hotel’s selection of bikes. We all got matching yellow bikes, which was as cute as it was a giant sign that we were tourists. Ultimately we didn’t mind because it made each other much easier to spot. None of our bikes had multiple gears, but this didn’t matter because hills don’t seem to exist here.

Since I have no plans to bike more and didn’t die already, I guess I’ll also publicly admit that I did not wear a helmet (sorry mom!). I wasn’t given one when I rented the bike, and of the thousands of bikers I had been seeing everyday, none wore a helmet. I could have easily gotten one, but the abundance of bike lanes seemed to make things pretty safe. And besides, when in Rome…

My first ride was from the Bicycle Hotel to the big public city library in Amsterdam, which was about a 20 minute ride. I guess it wouldn’t have been so memorable if it wasn’t so intense. Because there are so many people around going everywhere, riding through the city is very stop and go, which happens to be the most difficult part. Overall, the ride went smoothly, but there were a few instances of people being cut off, or not-too-near collisions.

We went on a much longer bike ride to Ouderkerk, but that was outside of the city. It was a beautiful ride so I tried to capture some footage while I was riding. Take a look:

Of course, we couldn’t get through the woods without one incident. I was just hanging out in the lobby of the Bicycle when Dominic walked in with a great deal of gauze and bandages on his elbow and informed us that he had hit the curb hard and had a bad fall. His bike was a little damaged, and he didn’t feel like riding much after that. On a brighter note, he broke his personal record for longest pavement skid.

Unfortunately, our bike setup here in Rotterdam isn’t nearly as convenient as it was in Amsterdam. It seems the best option is to buy a bike and sell it back at a loss when you’re done. I don’t feel like dealing with the complexity of that, so I’ll be sticking to the metro and good old fashioned walking for the remainder of my trip.

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