On my first weekend in the Netherlands, we made a day trip to Leiden, which is half an hour by bus from Noordwijk, the beach where we were staying. Public transport is very expensive in Europe, although there are lots of very efficient buses, trains and trams, a single return ticket on this bus was about $9. What I love is the laidback atmosphere and open-mindedness of the people. Although I have not yet seen they gay capital of Amsterdam with its red light district, sex shops and drug paraphanalia, I think this attitude is epitomised by the treatment of dogs everywhere. They ride buses and trains, are let off their leads to run free in the dunes, and are carried into shops and restaurants. Apparently, some pubs cater for dog owners by providing biscuits at the bar, and none of this is in the least bit unusual. Obviously these dogs are well trained and well behaved, I think it would be quite a different experience if we tried it with my dog, or my friend’s pets from back home. Life seems to run at a slower pace, which can be frustrating in shops, with a very different idea of customer service, but is mostly enjoyable, feeling like I am really on holiday. The one exception, is on the roads.
With large motorways where the speed limit is difficult to determine, and busy suburban streets being shared by pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses and trams alike, there is an apparent lack of self preservation as everyone zooms around, ignoring most road rules and common sense. Add to this that they are on the other side of the road, which takes some adjusting for tourists like me. Most people ride their bicycles since the whole country is flat. Although I was already aware that everyone has bikes, nothing really prepares you for the thousands of bikes you see everywhere. They have a four level ‘bikepark’ at Central station, where bikes are placed on hydraulic levers so they can be stacked on top of each other. No-one wears helmets, even on scooters which they also ride on the bike paths. There are so many different types of bikes, including trailers, baskets and saddlebags galore, and the skill of the riders is highly impressive. I have witnessed people riding two bikes, steering the second with their spare hand. It is common to see people pedalling along with no hands, texting or carrying bags of shopping instead. Some people use dual bikes where a smaller child’s bike is attached to the back, though many children as young as two or three are riding their own bikes, or adults ride along with several children balanced on the one bike.
With so many different vehicles sharing roads and bike paths, you have to look many times before crossing the road. Once I had mastered looking left first, walking on the right side of the path, and not staring in awe at the dangerous behaviour of the locals, I was partially ready to walk about town. Unfortunately, the road rules are very lax, and you have to remember to wait for cars when you get to a crossing, as drivers are supposed to give way, but many come tearing through regardless. You also need to wait for lights before crossing in most areas, but the lights conveniently count down for you, so you know how long it will be before you can cross again. I kept in mind the golden rule Tegan taught me on my first day, “if you hear a bell, run like hell” as this is often the only warning you have that you are about to be run over. It doesn’t help that I spend a lot of time looking up in awe at the beautiful buildings and scenery, or staring through the screen of my camera, like a Japanese tourist. With my eyes off the road, I have a tendency to drift onto bike paths, as they are right next to the footpath, much to the angst of Tegs and Timmy, who are constantly reminding me to get back on the asphalt.
Once in Leiden, we visited a local coffee shop, then went to smoke on the green grassy hill, in front of the canal, under the windmill. It was from this picturesque location that I watched my first sunset on the other side of the world with my little sister. We had a great time, catching up on all the details of her trip so far, then it was time to go home. It’s amazing how quickly the temperature drops as soon as the sun disappears. Everyone said how lucky I was to experience three days of full sun when I first arrived, I figured I had brought the Australian sun with me. I am yet to buy a proper coat, though I know I will need one soon, as it is predicted to be the coldest Winter in years. The locals are already rugged up, although it’s not that cold, my hoodie will suffice for now. Despite my inappropriate attire, and a camera permanently attached to my wrist, I am often approached for advice at transport crossroads in a foreign language. I usually respond with “I’m Sorry” in my broad Australian accent, at which they realise their mistake, I am just another tourist, and ask someone else.
I consider myself an intelligent and well-educated person, but have quickly discovered that it counts for nothing as I travel around. Most of the people here are bilingual, if not quadrilingual. I am forever grateful that most people speak English, and that signs or announcements often have English translations, for the arrogant unilingual English speaking tourists who never bothered to learn another language. I am glad I have good map reading skills, the transport systems are simple and try to force myself to learn some new words each day. I always read the papers in another language, hoping to work out what certain words mean, like a jigsaw puzzle. Over time I think I will learn to read and understand some other languages, but will probably still speak like a toddler, as the range of dialects and emphasis on different sounds are quite challenging. I am definitely going to spend time learning another language when I get home, but for now will continue to bumble my way through Europe, smiling politely and demonstrating my stupidity, and thanking all the wonderful people who patiently take time to help me and explain things in English.