The first thing you need to remember when returning to Amsterdam is that, like an incoming missile, the bicycles make no noise before they hit you. They can be coming from any direction, and they seem to have the right of way no matter what. Apparently, it is perfectly logical in the mind of a Dutch bicyclist that one should not slow down from their 15 mph speed when entering a pedestrian-packed walkway. "What could possibly go wrong?" they seem to think. The only thing bicyclists in this city seem to fear are motorized scooters, which appear to have the right to drive on sidewalks, through public parks, and probably, though we never actually witnessed this, directly through people's living rooms.
Actually, we are impressed by the preponderance of bicyclists in this city (about 40 % of all traffic here rolls on two wheels), and we wish American cities were this bike friendly! The car traffic is almost non-existent and the lack of exhaust fumes is a joy. The incentives to encourage people to bicycle have resulted in the preservation of the city and less of a car culture, cleaner air, and quieter streets throughout the Netherlands. While sitting in a sidewalk cafe, you can watch life go by instead of viewing something that is the equivalent of the San Diego freeway at 6:00 p.m.
We managed to make it through the driving rain to our apartment in the charming Jordaan neighborhood with only a few close encounters with cyclists. That night, during a walk to dinner for Rijsttafel (which literally means "rice table", an Indonesian feast - and local specialty as a result of the large Indonesian population here - centered around rice with about a dozen small plates of various meat and vegetable dishes and interesting condiments, most of which were wonderful), it was hard not to believe that we were experiencing a cold December evening. All of the twinkling decorative lights helped add to the illusion, though none of them were put up for Christmas--they were just there because they are pretty and reflect nicely off the canals.
"Coffee shops" are a lot different here than your American Denny's and they have names like Grey Area, Mellow Yellow, 420 Cafe and Amnesia. The one we visited consisted of a space big enough for about half a dozen people to stand, a counter, and room for two very cheerful people behind the counter who offered selections with names like 24-karat, Duster, and Holy Grail. Another shop that we visited had an equally friendly "barista" in front who offered us a menu with a dazzling selection of herbs but, ironically, we actually went there just to see a guy holed up in the back room selling containers of home-made goulash and fresh bread to take out!
The country takes a tolerant approach to things other places forbid. Prostitution is allowed in Red Light Districts throughout the Netherlands, marijuana is openly sold and smoked in "coffeeshops", while "smart shops" sell mind-bending mushrooms, truffles and other "all natural" psychedelics. Several decades after being legalized in the Netherlands, marijuana causes about as much excitement here as a bottle of beer. The Dutch aren't necessarily more tolerant or decadent than the rest of us - just very pragmatic and looking for smart solutions. They have found that strict regulation of prostitution and the soft-drug trade has helped minimize many of the problems associated with them, such as street crime, gang warfare, organized crime, and hard-drug use. Also, the Dutch are quick to point to studies showing that half as many Dutch smoke pot, per capita, as Americans do.
Nonetheless, as we stroll around town and smell the scent of cannabis in the air, we can't help but wonder just how many people are walking around stoned. With the knowledge that magic mushrooms are also sold legally here, we began to wonder just how many were walking around tripping. But actually, the decriminalization of these drugs has supposedly not led to any rise in their use, and abusers are not closeted so they are probably more likely to seek treatment.
Now we are out of the cities, off in our leased car to explore the smaller towns and countryside. The first small town we visit turns out to be a good choice: Edam. From Amsterdam, we pass by low-lying moist green pastures with cows and sheep grazing, broken up by tall trees still full of leaves just starting to give way to autumn. One can't help but feel plunked down into the middle of a Rembrandt landscape as all of those images from art history class and museum tours start coming to mind.
Edam has cobbled streets and quaint brick bridges over canals with ducks and swans lazily paddling about. Many of the gabled buildings, some of them beginning to slump at odd angles, were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Trees line the canals throughout the town and the tourist has a difficult time deciding upon which calorie splurge to indulge in with the many cheese shops, charcuteries and bakeries which beckon. Since we got a late start, we choose a couple of sandwiches of roast beef, pate and local cheese on chewy fresh baguettes with truffle chips and a bottle of rosé.
From there we travel north on a highway that crosses a part of the North Sea that looks to be about the equivalent distance as the English Channel. This is just an example of the incredible engineering you see on the roads here.
We arrive at Otterlo at the end of the day to stay at an inn above what turns out to be a pretty good restaurant, serving pumpkin risotto and a medley of roasted winter vegetables. Otterlo is on the outskirts of a huge park that houses a modern art museum with the second largest Van Gogh collection in the world. Bicycles are free at the entrance to the park (the park has about 1,700 bicycles available to visitors!), which is great since it is a brisk and sunny October day, so we ride about 4 miles to the museum along paths through moors and scruffy pine forests.
More charm awaits us in Delft. Formerly a large textile trading center, many grand buildings and churches were built here during its heyday back in the 1600's. Built around a huge and picturesque town square (one that is too large to get completely into a photograph--sorry), there are many adjacent side streets to explore in the old city. We drift into a beer bar featuring over 300 varieties that provides a nice cozy place to rest as the afternoon temperatures start to drop. There we meet a man born and raised in Louisiana who now lives full-time in Delft having attained dual citizenship. He complained about work being difficult to find for an immigrant. In his opinion, even a professional who is foreign born is on the bottom rung of the hiring ladder. Nonetheless, he had no regrets about his decision and no interest in returning to the States. Apparently, being an American does not come naturally to some.
Compared to Delft, Ghent is a big city with trams ready to run you over every time you try to cross a street. Despite its canals and narrow back streets lined with 400-500 year old homes, Ghent is now a vibrant university town but with a bit of a workaday feel to it. It is just not as charming as Amsterdam, Edam or Delft. Our room is in a neighborhood outside the historical center, and as we pass by the corner pub and look through the window, a band member with wild and frizzy blond hair playing bass in a heavy metal band waves for us to come inside. Unfortunately, after a long walk and a large Moroccan meal of couscous, we just want to head home to catch up with e-mails and get a good night's sleep before heading to Belgium in the morning.