The Flying Dutchmen
Taking a step out of Scotland for the weekend brought me some new perspectives on my home country. This is the first. There might be a mini-series, or there might not 🙂
I went to Amsterdam for the weekend. It was a lot more… Dutch… than I was subconsciously expecting it to be.
Because it is a physically small nation, I thought, wrongly, that it would maybe be kind of like Scotland; I wondered why I hadn’t heard it held up as a possible model for an independent Scotland.
It is not like Scotland. It has three times the population of Scotland and is very densely populated in comparison. It is a natural, geographical hub; in centuries gone by it was the largest shipping port. Now Schipol airport is the gateway to everywhere.
Ignorantly, I thought Amsterdam would be far smaller than it is. The pictures I had seen of canals and bicycles I guess I thought were classic postcard shots. I didn’t realize there were so many canals and so many bicycles.
People ride bicycles lickety split along all the bicycle lanes that weave along the pavements. The cyclists have right of way. Cars are few, far between and crawl sheepishly along the canal sides looking out of place. Pedestrians step gingerly off the kerb hoping against hope they are looking in the right direction to avoid getting a bicycle wedged in their side, a moped clipping them or a tram getting just that little bit too close.
The striking thing for me was the almost universal lack of helmets, and a welcome lack of lycra. These people were dressed in normal clothes, going about their normal lives. On a bike.
In Scotland, generally, if you are going cycling, it is an activity. You are going to do something aerobic. It might warrant a mention on facebook as you set out. You might even post a selfie of you in your helmet, cycling shades, luminous yellow jacked, padded cycling shorts, cycling gloves, sooking out of your cycling water bottle, posing with your hybrid.
In Amsterdam, generally, if you are going cycling, it isn’t. You are going to buy cakes, pick up a friend, go to work, the park, home…
In our defence, cycling here is, in fact, aerobic. The hills are an issue. You need gears. The lack of cycle lanes here are also an issue. No one expects to get their toes run over by a bike when they step out from the pavement to cross the road. It’s the cars that swing thoughtlessly by, while the cyclists and their bikes feel squashed out of the way. That’s why the helmets and the luminous jackets are so necessary.
But we have been made to live in a culture of fear. As soon as a child gets on a bike, the nervous tension begins to rise about the supposed necessary fall. If I see an adult without a helmet here, I think something politically correct but along the lines of “idiot”. In Amsterdam, the lack of helmets makes me wonder what the head injury stats are for the city. Even if the stats are low, one doesn’t want to be the one with the head injury. Might as well wear a helmet. But still – we have been terrified as a nation into making many purchases of cycling accessories that a nation of cyclists don’t have.
The other absolutely striking thing: how many obese people did I see in Amsterdam?
Almost none. And the few overweight people were tourists. (I think).
No one in Amsterdam is fat.
They are all thin.
Yet another thing that Scotland does not have in common with The Netherlands.
Our collective obesity is worsening. The inactivity in this country is embedded into the culture by the built environment.
Cycle lanes and large scale pedestrianisation are my handy solution for today. I think that planners should be required to have cycle lanes on every new/improved road.
Unless we want to continue to congeal in our vat of chip fat, imagining that we do exercise.