Paul had big plans for February-March. He was going to show me the country, outside the Randstad area (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague).
He did warn me though, that there was an illness out there often associated with travelling around the Netherlands to all the different Dutch cities. It’s called Dutch City Fatigue.
Thankfully, I didn’t suffer from it. They were all different enough; Eindhoven was modern, Amersfoort had a great little city gate and a good mix of old and new buildings, Groningen had a fun student vibe to it, Leeuwarden felt like the end of the world, Utrecht felt like the centre of everything and Maastricht was your picture-perfect European city.
Yes, they all had similar little narrow buildings, most had canals, everyone rode bikes, all had a grote markt (square) and some even had two, and all had churches that were too big for the city. But they had enough to distinguish themselves from one another. I would happily run around taking pictures, well aware of the fact that I would most certainly fail any sort of game which involved mixing them up and having me guess where they were.
Then came Haarlem.
I had heard of Haarlem before. Everyone has; we’ve heard of the New York version. But just as New York itself once was called New Amsterdam (before the Dutch traded it, quite stupidly, for Suriname) I was hanging out to see the original.
Luckily, one of Paul’s good friends, Marlon, lives in Haarlem with his girlfriend Daphne. They had agreed to show me around town, and I was only too happy to oblige.
Haarlem is a lovely city, full of canals, great little boutique shops, and wide buildings, atypical of Holland. It’s newest attraction is also a beauty; it’s a large brewery similar to Little Creatures, that resides in an old church. Stained glass is behind the bar, you sit at long tables like pews, and it’s pretty cool. Definitely one for the tourist brochures.
I have talked a lot about bikes. I keep saying they are everywhere, and everyone rides them. In order to make this fact even clearer, they ride them so much that it wouldn’t occur to any of them that perhaps a two-hour ride through sand dunes is a bit tricky for a large section of the population. It’s just not the case here. Everyone can do this.
Even Caitlyn. Sort of. The bike I had was massive and I put on a very brave face when climbing aboard. I had never been so tall. I figured as long as I kept riding, I shouldn’t have any problems. I just couldn’t stop, because then I would most definitely fall.
Somehow I managed this for a while, slowing down at intersections rather than coming to a complete stop, helped by the fact that cyclists have right of way at roundabouts. I got through the city, and its lovely suburbs full of the biggest houses I’d seen in any Dutch city. Haarlem is less than ten minutes from Amsterdam, and as the capital’s so expensive, and the houses are tiny, the affluent middle class have long descended on Haarlem.
But I couldn’t stop and take any pictures, as I was certain I would face-plant when applying the brakes. On we went, up and down sand dunes. I started struggling the closer we got to the shore, but the salt air kept me going. I could do this.
“We’re stopping,” Marlon called to me from ahead. “You’ve got to take a picture of these cows.”
“It’s OK,” I replied quickly. “They’re very nice cows.”
“Exactly. When do you see cows on sand dunes? Stop and take a picture.”
At least I fell to the right, with the sand breaking my landing. I wanted to lift the bike over my head like Godzilla and chuck it onto those cows.
But I didn’t do that. One, because I struggle to open sauce jars let alone lift a bike, but also because I was in Holland. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, inspect your bruise and keep on riding. Because the other option is to walk, and the Dutch just don’t do that.