On the way home from the airport from my trip to the Netherlands, my sweetie asked me, “So what are the Dutch doing that the Americans could do more of?” (I love his questions!) Here are a few answers:
1. Driving smaller cars.
Traffic was thick in Amsterdam, but except for delivery vans (also small), often a Mini-Cooper was the largest car on the road. Traffic felt more human sized, not so intimidating. When I commented on the size of the cars, a Dutch friend lamented that they are getting bigger. Don’t do as we have done! I wanted to say. My favorite car was this tiny red car, in a photo courtesy here of susieredshoes at Flickr.
2. Riding more bikes.
There are almost as many bikes as people (1 million) in Amsterdam. I saw business-suited and high-heeled bikers commuting to work every day, many of them talking on cell phones. Driving cars in the city is officially discouraged through outrageous parking fees and ubiquitous speed bumps on side streets. Biking is encouraged through equally ubiquitous bike lanes. The official way to enjoy Amsterdam is to rent a bike and take your own tour. I detest biking next to traffic, so I passed on that experience, but I’m told that Amsterdam is the safest of the European cities when it comes to accidents. Pedestrians cross every which way, and bikes, cars, and trams race down every arterial street, but no one collides. Everyone looks out for everyone else on the road.
3. Growing green roofs.
The Netherlands and Germany are the places to be when it comes to using the green power of living roofs. NPR reports that green roofs have been used for decades already in those countries. Green roofs reduce stormwater runoff and lower urban heat by providing dirt and plant oases in the middle of paved environments. They insulate buildings from both heat and noise. My hotel room faced not onto the street (thank goodness!) but onto a quiet inner courtyard with a few parking spots. I loved gazing at the roofs, towers, and green roof right outside my room:
4. Reviving old, environmentally friendly skills and crafts.
On my last day in the Netherlands I took a train out to Rhenen and visited an open-air cultural museum near Arnhem. Ordinary buildings such as old farmhouses have been transported to a parklike setting and their interiors restored, with multilingual volunteers in period costume describing the customs and way of life. Organic gardens are grown using heirloom varieties of vegetables, including a leafy green that tasted like a wilder and spicier cousin of spinach. The volunteer on duty in a nineteenth-century farmhouse, who was dressed in long skirts and a small black cap, was stirring it into an omelet in an iron skillet over a coal-burning stove.
Outside, handcrafted fences provided a beautiful pasture for a few sheep. I tried to wiggle the fence. It was extremely solid and wouldn’t budge.
The farmhouse below, built in the 1700s and occupied into the twentieth century, housed both animals and humans in one great room. The reed roofs of these buildings were amazing—a foot thick and dense with fibers. The reeds, my hosts explained, are hollow, so they siphon the water downward. So many layers of reeds are placed on top of one another that water never reaches the base of the thick mat.
Reed roofs are making a comeback in the Netherlands—but only in the most expensive houses. Insurance premiums are astronomical, especially in forested areas.
The blue wash on the outside was an astonishing shade of cobalt; it was applied because it was thought to deter flies. My friend told me that if I reproduced it accurately, no one would believe it. This is as close as I can get:
5. Getting together with friends.
I can’t believe I forgot to talk about one of the most important things I enjoyed in the Netherlands. Every evening the many town squares are packed with people sitting at cafe tables on the street sharing dinner or a beer and talking with their friends. I didn’t get a good photo of it, but picture hundreds of little cafe tables on both sides of a plaza lined with bars and restaurants. Every table is full of people. The talk and laughter go on half the night, sometimes longer. Why don’t Americans get together regularly with our friends? I asked myself. Why are we content to be so isolated? I decided to let the Netherlanders help me change my life. Friends, expect more invitations from me to get together over a beer or soda!