ON AND OFF THE RAILS


When you arrive in a Dutch city, several things strike you instantly. As you may know, the Dutch are the tallest race in Europe: men and women of Amazonian proportions are everywhere, which for me at 6 feet tall in my stocking feet is absolute heaven. I quite often find myself following someone down the street for a while, just for the sheer joy of feeling small. I'm bound to be arrested any day now.

Holland is also flat. Very flat. One of the reasons it is absolutely overrun with cyclists. I always thought of cyclists as gentle people - vicars with socks tucked into trousers, retired ladies in headscarves, that sort of thing. But I have had my eyes well and truly opened. They are a numerous and fearless breed, having no truck with traffic lights, zebra crossings or other irritating factors like pedestrians, who need an Exorcist-style 360-degree rotating head to ensure safe passage across the road.

Dutch bikes are usually dirty, rusty and decrepit, due to the high incidence of bike theft - the more battered the bike, the less tempting it is for the re-cycler I suppose - but quite why it isn't considered essential to have brakes I haven't quite worked out yet. You can tell I'm a foreigner - I still stop at red lights and don't ding my bell furiously at people for no reason. Perhaps I would if I actually had a bell.

Wonderful as it is to be out in the open air, it's windy and rainy here much of time, which let's face it is not good news for hair, so the bike is often left at home to accumulate more rust while I hop on the tram. The tram system here is marvellous, not least because it offers a valuable insight into the Dutch character. These people simply do not know how to queue. I'm not sure they even have a word for it. Seemingly mild-mannered folk turn into barging, elbow-jabbing, oath-muttering delinquents when faced with an approaching tram. We're all getting on, I feel like shouting, why the stampede!? It must be a Dutch trait, like Russians swearing and singing... or the Irish swearing and singing.

The train system laughs in the face of any service I've experienced in Britain, but still it seems to be getting progressively worse, with more delays, cancelled services and higher fares than ever before. And the reason for this chaos? Privatisation of course! And if you ever needed proof that more unites us in Europe than divides us: my train to work was cancelled the other day. The reason? Leaves on the line.


copyright Kathy Clugston 2005