Learning to Ride

When I first found out that I would be living in the Netherlands, there were many things that I was excited about.  One of them was having the opportunity to experience what it’s like to live in a place where cycling is really the primary mode of transportation.  I have not been disappointed in this regard.  I’ve always enjoyed being on a bike and so I was eager to give it a try here.

I waited ten whole days before buying a used bike and equipping it with a set of panniers.  Despite being relatively comfortable on a bicycle, I was a bit nervous because there are so many bikes here.  It seems that it’s how everyone in Groningen gets around.  I decided that my first few outings should be at quieter times of the day, so as not to get swallowed up by rush hour traffic.

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My new bike, before the addition of panniers
In comparison to California, the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is incredibly well-developed.  In the towns, there are dedicated bike lanes that have their own traffic lights.  On major roads, these bike lanes are sometimes two lanes wide in each direction.  One of my first challenges was figuring out how to negotiate the large intersections.  When the cyclists have a green light, its green in all directions.  No cars move, but there are bikes everywhere, coming at you from the left, right, and every imaginable diagonal.  I believe that you are supposed to yield to those coming from the right, but you also do not want to stop in the process, so the trick seems to be to carefully increase or decrease your speed until you make it through the gauntlet.  I’m still not completely confident when traversing a busy intersection.
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Farmland north of Groningen
There is also a network of bike routes that extends all over the country, 32,000 km in total.  I’ve started to venture onto the routes that make up the “junction network” of paths.  On these routes, intersections are numbered which makes planning your journey pretty easy.  You can purchase a map of all the routes, or visit an online planner.  Then, it’s a bit like doing a “connect the dots” activity.  Today I road from 86 to 87 to 95 to 55 to 57 and so on.  You really don’t need to consult a map (or your iPhone) at all when your riding.  It’s really cool.
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Helmet and 4 layers of clothing, very un-Dutch
On today’s ride, I made it out of the city and into the countryside.  I cycled along canals, polders, drawbridges and country roads and saw various birds, sheep, shaggy ponies, cows and a windmill.  It was awesome!  The only negative is the wind that whips across the perfectly flat countryside.  I had forgotten that sometimes you don’t notice a tailwind until you change directions and suddenly find yourself face to face with a nasty headwind.
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Windmill on a farm
Next up on the bike front for me is figuring out how to take it on a train so that I can explore a little further afield.

Walk or Bike?

It’s raining, as I’m sure it will do many more times during my stay.  I have to leave the cozy warmth of my apartment.  Is it better to walk or to bike in the rain?  If I walk, I’ll be out in the rain longer.  If I bike, the rain will pelt me harder.  I can’t decide.  I’ll have to do an experiment.

Settling In

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I’ve spent my first week here getting settled in my new home.  I’ve learned how to do some critical everyday tasks: grocery shop, send snail mail, get to the university, stay warm for the most part, ride public transportation, cross the road without being oblivious to bicyclists, throw away my trash, and do laundry.  The latter turned out to be almost a full day of work for a variety of reasons.
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In addition to settling in, I attended a series of meetings organized by the Fulbright Center in the Netherlands.  The meeting took place at the residence of the US Ambassador, Timothy Broas, as well as the Dutch Ministry of Education both of which are located in the Hague (Den Haag in Dutch).  It was a very memorable day, albeit on the stressful side.  Den Haag is almost 3 hours away from Groningen by train, so I went down the day before and stayed in a hotel. I didn’t want to stress out about being late to this meeting.  In the comfort of the ambassador’s reception room, surrounded by pictures of him shaking the hands of various people of gravitas (President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Malala Yousafzai etc), the three of us Fulbrighters met with the two directors of the Netherland’s Fulbright Center to go over some logistics.  It was great also to have the opportunity to meet three Dutch teachers who had recently returned from visiting schools in Massachusetts.  Then, we sat down for a formal lunch hosted by Ambassador Broas.  I happened to be sat next to the Dutch Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, and was so thankful that my parents had taught me good table manners.  I felt a bit overwhelmed by the experience, but once we started talking about our projects and interests, all was well.
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During the afternoon, we were treated to a presentation on the Dutch educational system at the office of the Ministry of Education.  It was fascinating!  I have to spend some time studying it a bit more as it is very different from our system in the US.  The presentation ended with a statement of what the Ministry perceives as their challenge:  “Our children are the happiest in the world, but how can we make them also the best achievers?”.  I continue to be struck by this.  Are they really the happiest?  According to a UNICEF study titled An Overview of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries, Dutch children hold the number 1 spot.  My students in San Jose, California sometimes have so much drive to achieve that they are not the happiest.  Many schools in my area are actively looking for ways to help students strike the right balance. It seems that they are looking for the right balance here too.  One factor that I’m certain has an impact is that all Dutch students who complete high school with passing scores can go to a Dutch university.  This takes the pressure off, right?

A Visit to the British Library

I’ve spent my first 48 hours in Europe with my sister in London. Yesterday, my sister needed to scout out the British Library for an upcoming project that her students will be doing, so I went too.  The British Library is part museum, part library.  We spent the majority of our time in the gallery that is the home to many really interesting documents.  Manuscripts of some remarkable works of literature handwritten by their authors (Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, Percy Shelley).  I loved seeing the edits these authors made to their own great works.  Random bits of paper with the lyrics to Beatles’ songs scrawled on them by Ringo Star and John Lennon.  I saw a good number of illuminated medieval manuscripts including a great one of Vergil’s Aeneid which was open to the beginning of the second book, the very first lines of Vergil that I ever read.  There was also a Gutenberg Bible that was spectacular.  In addition to the document gallery, we checked out a special exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.   On display were various illustrated editions of the story, art work inspired by Alice, and lots of toys.  It was cool, but I remain troubled by a drawing of the Cheshire Cat that I can’t shake…

Dutch Masters

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“Maid Milking” – Gerard ter Borch

Amidst all the logistical preparations, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about Dutch history, culture and art before I leave for the Netherlands.  At the moment, I’m visiting my brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and niece on the East Coast and had the opportunity to check out the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It was my first time at the museum and it’s an amazing place.  As luck would have it, they’ve got a special exhibit at the moment called “Class Distinctions:  Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.”  I feel like I have a decent foundation in Italian renaissance art.  The scenes depicted are usually familiar to me because they are often focused on the ancient world.  However, what I saw at the MFA today was totally different despite being from more or less the same time period.  I particularly liked the paintings that were chosen as representations of manual laborers and farm workers.  They were a welcome change of pace from mythology.  I really enjoyed their focus on depicting the real world as workers experienced it.  But my very favorite thing of all was all the spaniels in paintings… Very cool!  I’m looking forward to exploring the world of Dutch painting much more when I’m in the Netherlands.

Going to Groningen

For whatever reason, Groningen wasn’t even on my radar of cities that could end up being my home for the first half of 2016.  When I found out that’s where I’d be, the first thing I did was double check it’s location on a map.  Yep, it’s really far north.  I need to be ready Mapfor weather that’s colder and days that are shorter than I’m used to.  I bought a warm, waterproof coat and knitted myself another thick scarf.  I’ve learned that Groningen’s university was established in 1614 because the regional assembly wanted a university in the area.  Today, about a quarter of Groningen’s residents are students at the university.  I was very excited to find out that Groningen is also know as “The World Cycling City.”  There are lots of dedicated cycling paths and lanes as well as a car-free zones in the city.  I’m looking forward to getting back on a bike in a town that is designed for biking.