We didn’t leave right away, of course.
A couple more days at the squat in Leiden…. working the security-barricade door at a huge techno party; “Whaddya mean everyone has to have invitations? Nobody has an invitation!”…. an impromptu scavenger hunt, conceived on a whim, with our legs dangling over the canal: one broken inner tube, some cat hair, and a poster with Dutch written on it; one white flower, a high-pitched noise, and one shoestring; all found within 45 minutes on the brisk Spring streets of Leiden…. a speech, requested by our host after a Wednesday night eetcafe, about my trip and my philosophies…. one final, quiet dinner with Sandor – an oldschool squatter with the use of only one arm(still rides his bike – coaster brake – still rolls spliffs no problem and still cooks vegan gourmet deliciousness)…. some city sights we didn’t discover till our last day…. aah Leiden – one of the gems of Holland.
A couple more days in Amsterdam… to say goodbye I suppose, though it isn’t hard to find reasons to stay. I was just getting back to Casa Robino with a big load of dumpster dived vegetables as Lily and Mandi were coming out. And as we were dividing the goodies on the street, Robin just happened to return right at that moment from a big hitchhiking trip to Slovenia(the Casa operates just fine without him). He was shaven-headed now and wrote “HITCH HIKE” in huge chalk letters on the sidewalk, his whole body beaming with pure joy of life. Hitchhiking sounds like a lot of fun, in a serendipitous magic-of-people kinda way. Wish I could try it… but for now I am all bike.
I scored an interview with the Netherlands national press agency, the ANP. The kid said it was his third or fourth interview – I guess they don’t send heavy-hitter grizzled pro reporters to interview American bike bums. I told him, “That’s cool, I’m new at this too.” His Engels was, like most Dutch people’s, excellent. Coffee was on the agency and there was a photographer too. The next day, an article(in Dutch) about my tour and my principles was published in dozens of online and hardcopy papers. But of course, despite saying he would, he didn’t notify me when or where it would be published – those reporters, can I trust ’em? – so it was only random chance I was able to get hold of a copy. “Ik ben tegen snelheid” : “I am against speed.”
Leaving Casa Robino – this time for real – was a slow process. Natural. The snail in me couldn’t bear to hurry, especially after such a momentous time there.
The scheduled day of departure didn’t feel quite right. The day after, it still felt rushed and I wanted to do a little more around the house. On day three, as the sun came up over Amsterdam, I was finally ready to leave. The time was right, and the way had opened itself. Having been out all night, I woke Lily with a kiss and a cup of tea. We said goodbye to Robin – all other nomads were asleep – and after a few final adjustments, we were on our way to Paris!
It reminded me of the day I left home, a little – low on sleep, emotionally taxed, but ecstatic to be on the road again. And not going to make it very far that first day – we stopped in Leiden for some more final goodbyes.
On my way to meet Josta, my first Dutch friend, I passed a group of squatters I knew, outside the local police precinct. They were exercising their rights, giving away free vegan dumpstered food(Food Not Bombs) and banging on djembes right there on the steps of the copshop; one of the crew was inside, in jail, and they were there for support. What a nice feeling it must be, to be sitting in jail, and every time the front door opens, you can hear your friends shouting and making music, just for you. Later the homie was released, and we all sat on the roof of “the Couch” drinking beer and getting the scoop. The cops had taken his fingerprints but still don’t know his name….
Next on our way was Delft, where we had some other friends to visit at another krakhuis. There I was contacted by a Dutch TV show requesting an interview – they had seen the ANP article somewhere – so we delayed for a day. We made vegan pizza from scratch – the secret is hummus in the sauce – and Lily screened her documentary for a house full of folks. I fixed a coffeetable. And there was this bike dude Jason, an American doing PhD work at the huge engineering school in Delft. “Bike handling” – what a program! Live in Holland, the center of the bicycle universe, and study bikes all day every day with other bike nerds. Wow. He has a totally bike-centro blog on http://www.moorebicycles.blogspot.com/
In the morning I went to the train station to meet the TV crew for the interview. My television debut, how exciting! While I was waiting, I spoke congenially with an elderly couple – seeing my loaded bike there had reminded them of their youth, and a few happy weeks touring across Europe on bikes. Then the charismatic producer appeared – I think he had been spying on me beforehand – and bought me coffee and food. A couple minutes later, a smooth TV personality in a black suit and red tie arrived with the camera guy, and we went out into the rain to do the interview. This slick fella, a Turkish-descent, well-manicured celebrity, standing with the coldsore on his lip away from the camera, was one of “De Jakhalzen” – a small, comedic relief portion of a show called De Wereld Draait Door – The World Keeps Spinning, Holland’s most popular primetime show. He offered me to stand under his umbrella with him – “Uhh, no thanks… when it rains, I just get wet.” And so he put up his umbrella and got wet too – probably his wettest interview ever =P
They put a mic and wireless battery thingy on me and began rolling. Within minutes I got the gist – they weren’t here to give me an opportunity to promote alternative methods of transportation; I was the opportunity. This wasn’t unbiased journalism, this was comedy television. He started asking me questions about Americans thinking they were heroes and leaving messes behind – read: US foreign policy – trying to get a rise out of me or hoping I’d slip up and say something they could shamelessly edit for millions of Dutch people to laugh at over their dinner ofstampot. I didn’t slip – I was actually surprised how cool I was on camera. He prodded me on my trust in humankind – “People LIE, man!” – and tried to get me to ridiculously ask people at the station if I could stay with them tonight. Then, as we’re talking about what I eat and what equipment I carry, he gestures behind him – “Your bike, I mean, it must weigh a lot… hey – where is your bike?”
Oh. My. God. My bike was gone.
Minutes earlier, out of the corner of my eye, I had seen someone move it, but I was almost positive it was the producer, and I just thought he was putting it somewhere better. I could tell it was a gag – no wonder the producer was dressed like a bike thief – and they had been planning it the whole time. The camera kept taping, but I don’t think I gave them the reaction they were hoping for; I told him to call his producer. “Oh he’s putting money in the meter, is he?” “If this isn’t a gimmick, then yes, I do want you to call the police.” The jackal tried to keep the joke going, but eventually the guy came back and we had a laugh. Dicks.
The only fun part was when they taped me riding, shadowing me in their car. They had already told me it was okay, even encouraged, to swear, so when there was another cyclist coming, I told them, with genuine rancor, to “Get the fu€k out of his way, give the man some room!” And they got some good shots of me saying, “I’m not in any hurry.”
In the end, they seemed like pretty cool guys, despite the whole rape-you-for-laughs veneer; I think they were actually feeling a little guilty when they left. And I learned an important lesson – a dubious prospect for promoting my message is not worth my integrity. I’ve got a good sense of humor, and my dignity isn’t much of a foundation for my ego, but still – the last thing I want is to make bicycle touring seem laughable.
Their bigwig emailed me and said they’d air it in one or two days. I wanted to see it, of course, but we decided to hit the road and just try and find a TV to watch it on wherever we happened to be. I picked up a little leather case from the squat’s free-shop, for my spice kit; we said goodbye, and pedalled off in the drizzle.
We passed through Den Haag and Rotterdam on our way to the coast, and followed the North Sea Southwards, battling the wind – it’s not a good sign when there’s a hundred huge wind turbines, all pointing in your direction and spinning like mad – and crossing the mighty dykes that hold back the sea. Fifty percent of the Netherlands(literally the “low land”) is below sea level, and much of the country’s land was actually manufactured – as in: erect a big wall, fill the sea with dirt, drain off any leftover water, and build houses. And somehow it works; they used to use old-tech windmill-driven pumps, but now it’s all electronic I guess. Hope global warming doesn’t wipe ’em out!
First night out, we stopped in Renesse for water and to try to find a TV. Water was easy, but people weren’t offering their cozy sitting rooms to two dirty hobos. We did, however, get a lead on a Christian vicar whose home is an official stop for pilgrims on the famous Santiago de Campostela trail – which is actually in Spain, but people head there from much, much farther away. We found his house and his wife was appropriately welcoming. She invited us in, fed us coffee and biscuits, and spoke politely before going back to what she was doing. When Peter the Priest got home, he gave me the official Santiago de Campostela bike-pilgrim stamp and agreed to watch De Wereld Draait Door with us. And we were treated to a great family dinner! Their son said it was great to have guests – “Mom always cooks better food when there are guests.”
But my segment didn’t show, and after the credits rolled, sitting there a little embarrassed, Peter told us that he and his family “had their own program for the evening.” It was a polite eviction. We were more than a little surprised – what priest kicks out two poor travelers after dark, anyway? Maybe he thought we were just conning him for a meal and a place to stay…. But they had been more than hospitable already, and anyway, we had a tent. We found a sign out at some rural crossroads that said “Camping –> 2 km” and the grass under the sign was looking pretty lush… we pitched up right there in the ditch and laid in our winter hats and gloves, looking at the stars.
The next day we passed through Goes and stopped at the library to check on De Wereld Draait Door – the bigwig said she would email me – but the library was closed. There was an intercom though, and after I brazenly buzzed it, someone actually answered! After a quick explanation, she agreed to let me in and use the internet – in a closed library! I love public libraries, hot damn! But of course there was no info on my segment. Shyeh, media.
Next door at a cafe we decided to have a hot cup of tea – it wasn’t warm in the Netherlands, by any definition, in early March. We passed a pair of beer-bellied and bearded old codgers outside; they asked where we were from(America! No! Australia!) and I complimented one of them on his crystal pendants. Minutes later, he comes inside and approaches our table with almost zero English, proffers his card(Bert – he’s a drum-maker), gives Lily one of his pendants(!), a rose quartz, and intimates that if we ever come to Katendijk, he will find space for us. Nice! Thanks old dude! Now, where’s Katendijk….
We found it on the map and it really wasn’t too far out of our way. We figured this was a chance to hang out with some locals – Bert was true Dutch for sure – and maybe even have a warm place to sleep for a change. Lily, having grown up in Vanuatu and Australia, is accustomed to tropical paradise – her first time seeing snow was last winter – and despite a few tricks up my sleeve to keep her warm, she was hurtin’ in those frosty nights.
So we pedalled to Katendijk to look for Bert. It wasn’t a big town but we didn’t see the street, so we went back to the bar to ask for directions, and who’s there drinking beer but our friend Bert! Of course he’s in the pub!
Lily bought him a beer and we chatted, but soon our common language was exhausted, and an awkward silence settled over the afternoon village pub. It seemed Bert couldn’t put us up in his place – some big mess, I gathered – and his girlfriend was sick or something…. He made phone calls, he spoke to the other brooding clientele; he looked embarrassed, he looked apologetic; we tried to tell him that any dirty corner of the floor was more than enough, but by the end of the beer, it was obvious we’d be out in the cold again. Thanks anyway Bert!
We never did find a warm place to sleep in Zuidland, but we huddled close and kept the pedals pumpin’. And we never did see the segment on De Wereld Draait Door – maybe they decided I hadn’t acted enough of a fool to make anything out of it. Probably for the best.
We traveled. We smiled and joked and flirted and said “hoi dag” to everyone we passed. We met strangers and were given stroopwaffles and pannenkaken. A woman delivering mail said she’d invite us for coffee if she wasn’t working. There were no hills, just gloriously flat bike paths along the dykes, with Dutch village roofs sticking up over the ridge and a cramped Dutch countryside full of sheep and horses.
Nearing the Belgian border, we were confronted with the Westerschelde, the huge estuary that connects Antwerp with the North Sea. As far west as we were, there was only a ferry service… but with one look in my eyes, Lily agreed to cycle east and find a different way. Farther on, we found a tunnel that goes under it – you can take your bike, and it’s free, but you and your bike have to get on a bus… sorry Lil, I don’t take buses either. A bit inconvenient, perhaps, but this just meant that we had to cycle all the way to the bridge crossing over the River Schelde, and in lieu of visiting Brugge or Gent, to reach Brussels via Antwerp instead.
Shortly before this massive industrial port city, we came to the town of Putte – the border town. We weren’t sure if this was pronounced like “putin,” the French word for asshole, so to confirm I asked some random girl, “Excuse me, which village is this?” I caught up to Lily, reporting, “That girl just called me an asshole!” They speak French, as well as Dutch, in Belgium – maybe the town got its name from border arguments year after year… “Putin!” “Tu putin!” “Non, tu putin!” “Mais non, TU putin!”
We didn’t see any huge sign saying, “Welcome to Belgique,” so I asked another cyclist if we were in Belgium yet – oops, it was a quarter mile ago. We went back for photos – no Belgium sign, just the Antwerp Province sign, but we still took the obligatory border shots. As we were preparing to continue – Lily was actually in the Netherlands, and I was in Belgium – tons of police started arriving by car and van-load, Dutch and Belgian both…. at first I was confused, but then I remembered which border this was. “The Netherlands…. riiiight. They’re setting up a roadblock to check for drugs.” Most of the cops just eyed us with passing interest, but one young buck approached me, saying something in Dutch, then English: “Where are you coming from?” Uh oh.
What I said was “Madison, Wisconsin,” which, thankfully, confused him slightly and pointed him in a “Wow, a world-wide bike tour” direction instead of a “We’re going to search you” direction, which is probably the way it would’ve gone if I had answered with “Netherlands,” or worse, “Amsterdam.” And I think they wouldn’t have been too pleased with a couple of the particular Dutch souvenirs I had stowed away in my panniers…. close. Too close for comfort! But before things got too involved, we saddled up and took off, and the Belgian police wished us a poorly translated “Good trip!”
Now why don’t they just say “bon voyage” like any other English speaker?