Hi there and thanks for having me.
My message is short – everyone should go to Holland. Yes, to stuff your face with pancakes, to hear the wind in the trees lining every road, to marvel at what’s on offer in the red light district’s sex shops, even to have a brownie, if you’re so inclined. Most of all though, everyone should go to Holland to see what can be achieved when those in charge have your back.
I’ll level with you – I’m very critical of what’s been happening in Britain for the last 6 years or so. Previously, I was disillusioned with how my home country – Poland, handled itself and its newly acquired freedom, to the point that I left and never went back. So, as you see, I’m not likely to be objective in my assessment of Holland. Especially given I’m quite simply in love with it.
My infatuation started with the ride through a forest outside of Ijmuiden, filled with the scent of the ritual playing out all over the continent each September – the end of summer and return to school. Bit damp, bit cold, fir-tree oils permeating the air, conkers falling on your head and the stunning autumnal colours you can feast your eyes on.
It never takes too long to ride out of a city or town to enjoy the invariably open, flat and rural landscape – although this might be connected to simply not having to think about anything else but keeping your legs moving, listening to the roaring wind and moving out of the way of the cyclist bombing down the lane in the opposite direction every so often.
You go for hours, and as much as there are plenty of cars around and it does take several shaky attempts to finally believe that you do have a priority on the roundabout and even a pimped-up Subaru will stop for you, we were surprised by the lack of places to stop and refresh yourself. No services, no cafes anywhere and no pubs – we ended up going to a police station to use their toilets in one almost ill-timed act of utter desperation. You have to plan, prepare and think on your feet.
Similarly, there is very little in terms of convenience in the supermarkets. You will not be able to buy a packaged, limp sandwich of no discernible taste or colour, or a box of greasy pasta salad to keep you going. In fact, you will find that apart from some obvious staples (cheese, yogurt, smoothies, cold cuts) there is very little processed and convenience food available. This means that you prepare lunch on your own knees, cutting fresh rolls with a Swiss army knife and hiding from the howling wind in a bus shelter, because public benches are also in short supply. Although, I didn’t mind the crumbs all over my clothes and in the panniers and having to plan ahead each day. I didn’t even mind getting rained on relentlessly whilst eating either. It felt to me a small price to pay for lack of associated litter everywhere, cars idling en-masse at drive-throughs, poor-quality food pushed on to me and a visible absence of what here is sometimes referred to as the “obesity crisis”.
Holland lets you breathe – it gives you no frills and down-to-Earth, but functional and balanced living. Kids on bikes, to and from school in blustery conditions, fully in charge of their journeys home. No parents, no cars, no hi-viz vests – pure freedom. So many people, mainly women, cycling seemingly without much effort between towns and villages, covering distances impossible to cover uninterrupted in Cheshire.
We got chatting to a Dutch couple who were camping with a gaggle of 10-year-old girls (a birthday party), and they told us about laws passed in the country which prohibit development of out-of-town large retail parks. This allows the high streets to thrive because instead of one massive shop serving several towns and everyone driving to it, there is a selection of shops in each town. Clothes stores, mattress and bed purveyors, stationers, and most shocking of all – a thriving greengrocer next door to the Albert Heijn supermarket in Middleburg.
On the other hand, Holland is not immune to issues faced by other countries either. Currently, there is a dispute regarding reduction of farming-related nitrogen emissions and the farmers are protesting against it by hanging the Dutch flags upside down by their fields all over the country. As our German friend said, it a very neat and civilised way to protest.
Civilised, in fact, seems to be the most fitting word to describe Holland. We strolled in Rotterdam and I uttered in complete astonishment: where are the homeless people? Imagine that – I was surprised. One wild thing to be surprised by: there was a distinct lack of well-watered revellers trying to find their noisy way home after dark even in Amsterdam. I don’t know if this has something to do with the ubiquitous canals acting as a sufficient deterrent to pissed up shenanigans or the drinking culture is different to what is considered normal in the UK.
The country is immaculate. Clean, well-kept, unspoilt and with some of the most stunning residential areas I could have imagined. Roads are routinely lined with trees and instead of hedges, fields are marked with water filled ditches, covered in lily pads, teeming with wildlife. Even the many wind turbines do not feel oppressive.
Yes, the Dutch pay very high income tax in comparison to the British (https://expatax.nl/tax-rates-in-the-netherlands-2022/) but it clearly is used for the benefit of the people. The state provides and maintains to a high standard open spaces in which to exercise, relax, walk your dog or just be. The cities and towns are clean, bustling and safe. I felt settled and at ease and not like a product expected to constantly provide an income to someone else or to accept austerity driven, substandard anything.
I couldn’t see much presence of giant corporations with the naked eye, and I do hope that this state of affairs will never change. We are so immersed in it in the UK, we forget what havoc rampant capitalism and resulting consumerism can wreak in society as well as on more granular, community and individual levels. Everything becomes a commodity, including you and me. Holland seems to be dodging this bullet for now and people appear to be largely immune to the illusions of well targeted PR and, dare I say it, happier for it.
I felt happier. I felt I could make choices for myself and wasn’t being constantly coerced into something that I wouldn’t care for otherwise. It makes you strong and in control of your life and I will hold on to this feeling just as I held on to the omnipresent line of the Dutch horizon in the most challenging parts of the journey.
[…] I will defer to Milena’s wonderful account of her impressions of the trip, which you can find here, and which she expresses with way more emotional eloquence than I am […]