Last week we spent a few days in Amsterdam. Like many other Americans, the first thing I noticed about the city was the bike culture.
Amsterdam’s transport is a diverse and complex web of car lanes, bus lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks, tram tracks, train tracks, subways, and, of course, canals. But there’s just no contest…the bike reigns supreme. I spent hours looking at bikes while I walked around the city, taking photos of bike traffic during rush hour, and marveling over the massive three-storey bicycle parking garage at the building where Galen’s team was holding meetings all week.
The advantage of being a tourist is that you can hang around in the parking garage taking photos and marveling over the beauty of morning sunshine on hundreds of bicycles while other folks are locking up their trusty steeds and heading to the office.
As impressed as I was with the sheer size of this garage and the cute personalization of some of the bikes, the real show is rush hour. There’s something about feeling the breeze of a woman in a business suit zipping by you on a beat up bike, using one hand to chat on her cell phone and the other to grip a briefcase and a handlebar simultaneously. Words and photographs are powerful, but the adrenaline rush of seeing this chick headed straight for you is lost on the page. We’ll have to make do with a shot of heavy traffic.
Do you ever get bored with taking the kids to school in the car?
It would be easy to judge this mom because her son isn’t wearing a helmet or sitting on a proper seat. But here’s the thing…the reason values differ from place to place is because life differs from place to place. I will use Houston’s car culture as an example. If I told a random Czech person that in my old neighborhood in Houston we drove 150 meters to the grocery instead of walking, he would think we were lazy (and he would also wonder why I was talking to him). If that same Czech lived in my Houston neighborhood for a couple of weeks in July, he would see that carrying home 20 pounds of food from the grocery store in 100-degree heat is a terrible idea, particularly on high-traffic streets where there are no sidewalks and the asphalt ends where the steep drainage ditches begin.
See? Context is everything. What I know about life in Amsterdam is almost exactly zero, save for the fact that I observed fantastic infrastructure for biking. There is a lot less interaction between cars and bikes than there would be in any American city. From conversations I had with a handful of people during my visit, I got the impression that Dutch people learn to bike approximately ten seconds after they learn to walk. In a country where everyone bikes as naturally as they walk, are biking accidents only as frequent as walking accidents?
Anyway. I’m not judging this mom.
One thing that absolutely blew me away about this whole bike thing was the modesty of the bikes. I didn’t get the feeling tha there was a race to outdo one another with the shinier, faster, more advanced bike. Quite the opposite. It really appeared that functionality was primary, with an occasional dose of cute on the side.
You may have noticed massive locks on the bikes. Theft for resale is a problem. But tossing bikes in the canals is a also bit of a local sport. Every year, the city fishes thousands of bikes out of the water. Whatever the reason for the disappearance of a bike, imagine the feeling of walking out of a store with your toddler and 25 pounds of purchases, a mile and a half from home, only to find your bike gone missing. Whether your bike was brand new or worth less than your shoes, you’d still miss it equally. That’s why people put giant locks on total beaters. And maybe it’s why they don’t care what the bike looks like. They just value what it does for them.
For fun, here’s a trip to the other end of the transpo spectrum.
As soon as we left the restaurant, we took a wrong turn. We realized it about a kilometer too late to do anything efficient about it.
As we stood on the side of the road trying to decide what to do, a cyclist whizzed past and yodeled a greeting to us. Yep. He YODELED.
Nothing breaks the tension like a yodel, my friend. If you are ever really stressed and crazy hot, feeling frustrated because you just cost yourself an extra hour of hard labor, and suffering major pain in your legs and feet, just yodel. If you can’t yodel–and we can’t, believe me, the cyclist inspired several minutes of hilarious attempts–imagining yodeling is probably sufficient.
The Yodeling Cyclist has to be the most authentically European scene I’ve ever witnessed. Even more European than The Guy Sipping Cappuccino at the Baseball Game.
As the day waned and evening came, I could no longer lift my feet off the road. I was shuffling. It wasn’t because my muscles were tired; my legs are plenty strong after living in this hilly city for a year and a half. The problem was the friction of my shoes rubbing against my monstrous blisters. Technically, the blisters were a secondary problem. My feet were blistering because they were super swollen, which made my shoes fit badly. They were super swollen because…well, we’ll get there.
Alex, on the other hand, was a champ. He sported his 30-lb pack like it was a sweater. On one long uphill grade, he was walking backwards, facing me, push-stepping like a boxer, punching the air, and playing the theme song to Rocky on his iPhone. “Come on, Mom! You’ve got this!”
It was adorable and my heart swelled with love for him. BUT. Everything hurt so badly. The rash on my legs that burned like fire and itched like mad had spread to my arms and was looking like blood just under my skin. I had blisters on the balls of my feet the size of white grapes, not to mention what was going on with my heels and toes. Could I do it? Would we make it to Sedlčany?
Eventually Alex started walking frontwards again and we sang along with his iPhone to take our minds off of my complaints. As long as I live, I will treasure our walk along that country road singing Stairway to Heaven.
We stumbled into town at sunset and noted the locations of the pharmacy and the doctor’s office on the main street. We’d be needing those in the morning.
With a little more Czech language awesomeness from yours truly, we found our way to the hostel. What possessed me to book a hostel for that night? I wanted the trip to include a wide range of accommodations as part of the adventure. I’d never actually been inside a hostel. When we walked into our room, I realized it was a better idea in theory than it was in reality.
It was spotless, but who wants to walk down the pitch-black hallway in the middle of the night to go pee? Not me and not Alex. And the skeevy men who happen pop out of their rooms while you’re on your way back to your monastic cell after your shower? Guh-ross.
More on theory vs. reality in Day 5: The Dermatologist and the Taxi Driver.
When we did reach Neveklov, I realized why I hadn’t been able to find any hotels or pensions in my online searches. It is a pretty sad little place. The entire town was evacuated during World War II and was turned into a shooting range for the SS. When people returned after the war, they found their wells poisoned, their fields destroyed, and their buildings in shambles. There have been renewal efforts since the mid-20th century, but we saw nearly no one in this town and the part we walked through looked as though it could have been the 1950s.
On the bright side, our lunch in a little diner turned out to be really fun–and a bit of a self-esteem boost. I wanted to know whether we could take a shortcut and stop in Červený Hrádek, but I wasn’t sure whether we would find accommodations, so I took a deep breath and approached the waitress and her four friends clustered at the bar.
Me: “Dobrý den.”
Them: “Dobrý den.”
Me: “Myslíte jsou ubytování v Červený Hrádek?” (Do you think there are accommodations in Červený Hrádek?)
Waitress: (Rapid stream of Czech, a fair amount of which I understood, but most of which I didn’t. She said there were probably not lodgings in Červený Hrádek but there are plenty in Sedlčany.)
Me: “Ano, já vím. Ale chci ubytování blizko Neveklov a Sedlčany je daleko.” (I know there are lodgings in Sedlčany, but I want something close to Neveklov and Sedlčany is far.)
Waitress: (Rapid stream of Czech. This time I understood all of it. She was telling me that the bus was coming in 10 minutes and it was a short ride to Sedlčany . I had to explain that we couldn’t take the bus.)
I won’t bore you with more Czech dialogue (and suspect grammar), but I will brag a bit and say that I sustained this conversation for about four or five minutes. At some point after that, one of the men switched to English. I had two exchanges with him before I even noticed we had changed languages!
I was overjoyed to find that my switching was so natural, and then I was really amused that he had let me mangle his language for so long before revealing that he was perfectly fluent in English. We all had a great laugh before he and I continued the conversation in English and established that Alex and I would indeed have to go all the way to Sedlčany. They couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to walk from Prague to Vienna, but they wished us all the best and treated us to dessert on the house. That diner was a highlight of the trip for me.
(Alex’s highlight that day was one of those what happens in Sedlčany stays in Sedlčany sorts of things. It, too, involved me using the Czech language…and unflinchingly shooting Czech moonshine. Not a very good example for my kid, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.)
The fourth day of our hike started at midday, which was against our self-imposed rules. That late start was a dark cloud over the whole day, even though it was the result of wonderful things: a horseback riding lesson, clean laundry, and a nice, cool morning on the farm. We ended up walking during the hottest part of the day and it felt like we walked longer because we were on the road until 8:45 pm.
We’d agreed that we would stop in Neveklov for a meal, but shortly before we reached the town we saw a chateau on a small pond. Often, castles have cafés for tourists and I thought it would be fun to eat there. I was also angling for a rest…Alex was a tough cookie at this point and I was going to manipulate my way into sitting down as soon as possible, whatever it took.
Alex protested stopping at the chateau, but I convinced him. As we crossed the footbridge we saw a sign depicting the grounds. There was a brewery, a cherry orchard, a crafts workshop, sleeping quarters, a laundry room…I longed to hang around and visit all of these historical exhibits. Alas, no time.
We walked through the sallyport and into the courtyard, and I bribed Alex to take a peek into the brewery before looking for the restaurant. We were surprised to find that the brewery was no brewery at all. It was just offices. As we closed the door and turned around, a man in a strange jumpsuit with a doctor’s badge approached us and addressed us a bit harshly.
It seems as though we’d wandered into an institution for the mentally disabled. We weren’t going to find a café there. We were promptly excused.
Alex had a lot of fun with the I told you so’s for the next 5 kilometers.
This polished, spotless horse farm is run by the sweetest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met. There is no end to the nice things I can say about our stay at Hřebčín Favory.
After we checked in on Sunday night, I was in too much pain to go to dinner. The staff fixed us spaghetti bolognese and let Alex bring it to our room. Alex was getting distressed over my condition—part of the rash was beginning to turn darker red, like blood just under the skin, and it was spreading quickly—so he forced me to go downstairs and ask for help. I am always hesitant to do that sort of thing, but the owner and her crew were so kind and compassionate. They found a couple of gels to relieve the pain and itching and told me to hang onto them.
The next morning, they arranged for me to use the washing machine while Alex had a riding lesson—clean socks! Woo hoo! The housekeeper and I had a good time making our way through a Czenglish conversation and the riding instructor skipped her break to give Alex his lesson early so we could get back on the road.
During their ride, the instructor and Alex discussed some misperceptions about Americans. She told him that quite a few people think none of us know that Africa is a continent. Alex told her, “That’s just one person! We’re not all like that.” It’s a very embarrassing situation and it comes up more often than you might think. We do our part for damage control, though. We know Africa is a continent AND an ocean.
I met up with Alex at the bottom of the hill and we got back on the road. The farms rolled by and the sun got hotter.
There was something wrong with my legs…I didn’t know what, but my skin was burning and itching like nothing I’d ever experienced. I wondered if it had something to do with the stinging nettles from Day 1, or the strange gunk on a stone wall where I sat on Day 2. Regardless, the pain and itching were out of control.
We came upon the sweetest sight…a grandfather and grandson feeding sheep along the road. The white-haired old man had pushed his tiny, towheaded grandson to this spot in an old wheelbarrow, where the child was now standing, grinning, while they both pushed grass through the fence to gentle sheep. They were a beautiful portrait, shirtless and tanned in cut off jeans, one weathered and the other glowing, oblivious to the world, their colors blending with the world around them as if the two of them were simply a manifestation of the wheat fields and blue sky. It would have been perfect, but it seemed wrong to take their picture…as if I would have taken the purity out of the moment.
Alex’s motivation impressed me. He counted off the remaining kilometers and called out each village as we passed through it, noting how close we were getting to the horse farm. We were fascinated by a shrine in one village: what we loved best was that the flowers inside were in Dannon yogurt containers. We could really get a sense of the person who put them there, frugal and devoted.
When we crested a hill just past Dunavice and Alex spotted Hřebčin Favory, we both let out a cheer. He was doing great, but I was a mess. He patiently walked his pathetic mama up to the horse farm and we checked into our room in the pension.