A Winter Long Past
I can still remember it: that Christmas morning in 2000 when my stepdad, Ken, bought me a bike. I insisted on riding it all around the freshly fallen snow of Leebrook Drive in Cincinnati. Sliding on the small hills of the empty streets, all of the sane kids still warm in their living rooms unwrapping gifts, we braved the midwest cold. Poor Ken biked behind me, doing his best to ensure he didn’t have to report back to my mom that I had busted my head open on Christmas. That bike would go back in the garage until spring when bicycle riding became a sensible activity, yet still not an easy one in our neighborhood where cars ruled the roads, and teenagers with brand new driver’s licenses sped by with little regard for human life.
Having been raised in the Midwest of the USA and later as a Colorado and Nevada transplant, I’ve grown accustomed to “hanging certain things up” in the winter to await more suitable times: your swimsuit, your BBQ grill, your bike. And in the summer in Nevada, similarly, your tent, lest you find yourself camping at midnight, sweating in the aptly named “Valley of Fire,” where overnight lows barely break below three digits.
A New Normal
In the Netherlands, a land where seasonal changes are more muted and subtle, fall gives way to winter as the days shorten, and the temperature drops a few degrees. There are no autumn leaves fading into winter wonderlands or a rush to put up Christmas lights once Thanksgiving has passed. There are no radio stations playing only Christmas music to put you in the mood for winter. In Holland, you ease into winter, and one day you wake up and realize that the sun is rising at 8:30 (and I use that term loosely as it rises behind a bank of ever-present cloud cover), and you need to wear a second coat and gloves to keep warm. This is the Dutch winter.
But in Holland, life goes on. The Dutch don’t retreat inside their homes when it gets dark, cold, and windy during these months. The wide-open curtains of all the houses reveal people going about their daily lives from before sunrise to after sunset. Christmas trees go up in every household, and the smell of wood-burning fire permeates the neighborhood air. The holiday season ends early, with Sinterklass arriving from Spain on a boat in late November and doling out his gifts at your front door in a burlap sack on December 5th. So before winter has actually even begun, perhaps the biggest part of the winter season as we know it in the USA is already over in The Netherlands.
An Unending Grip
But winter holds on. The days are windy and short, and the temperatures stay just above freezing, taunting you that rather than snow, it will rain instead. The open-air farmers markets, which in the USA are a hallmark of the spring harvest and an activity to be done under the sun, are seen year-round in Holland. Locals bundle up in their scarves and coats and scurry about buying cheeses, fresh pastries, seafood, and Stroopwaffels just as if it were a warm summer day. They are out in their exercise gear and gloves, running beside their canals. They are on their bicycles, pedaling away through the sleet, the wind, and the cold.
Snow is not common in The Netherlands. And when it comes, it punishes. Even a little bit disrupts the city in a way that makes it clear this is not a place meant to endure the stuff: Schiphol Airport and the rail lines become temporarily paralyzed, cars navigate the streets at speeds as if going over 15 KPH would bring about a catastrophic wreck, and the bikes, though they do go on, given that it is many a Dutchie’s sole mode of transportation, are a sight to behold. They slide on the ice back and forth; mothers hauling their children in their Bakfiets squint and swerve along the bike paths to avoid other bikes doing the same.
Life Goes On
But life goes on. And the Dutch, in their resilient way, no doubt developed by living in an area that punishes you for many months of the year, go about their lives and embrace it. They are even enamored by it. The biggest traffic jam I encountered biking our children to and from school on the first and only snowy days of the winter in January was the cyclists stopping to snap photos of their beautiful wonderland, rarely created by the combination of snow, canals, windmills, and bikes. To quote Taylor Swift: “it’s weird, but [stinking] beautiful” (edited to maintain this post’s PG-13 status).
I remember hanging that green bike up in the garage that Christmas, excited to ride it when the cold Midwest winter gave way to the warmth of spring. I never would take to biking as a regular mode of transportation growing up, except for in college when it gave me an excuse to roll out of bed 15 minutes before class and make the sprint across campus, coffee in hand, dodging hungover Miami girls in the quad. Little did I know that as an adoptive Dutchie, it would become just as much a part of life as a morning shower or walking the dog. But those short, cold, windy winter days in Amsterdam make your fireplace all the more “gezellig,” your sleep all the more “lekker,” and the Glühwein all the warmer.