Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lesson 1: Bags (a.k.a: “What do I do now?")

Come along with me on my first grocery store experience in Amsterdam … told as it unfolded. This occurred within a couple days of my move. The local grocery chain is called Albert Heijn (Heijn is pronounced like ‘hine” in Heineken, which incidentally is brewed two blocks from our apartment). There is a small Albert Heijn a 10 minute walk away. Here’s what happened once I entered the store for the first time.

This can’t be too tough – food is food, right? Ok, walk through this funky turnstile thing. Wait, where are the carts? Hmm, no carts … ok, how about baskets? Ah, yes … outside the turnstile thing. Ok, reach over, grab basket. So far, so good.

Let’s see, I’ll start with a bottle of olive oil. There it is … and oh, the label is only in Dutch. Well, I’m pretty sure that this is olive oil. It sure looks like it … and that word looks close enough to olive, so I’ll just drop it in my basket.

And here’s the pasta section – no problem: pasta is pasta. Looks like penne to me – drop it in.

Now, for some protein. Hmm … I don’t have a clue what any of this is. Not surprisingly -- well, surprisingly to me at this moment, all the meat names are in Dutch. I can’t tell if this package contains pork, lamb, or zebra tongue. I think I’ll pass on the meat.

Now for some milk. Hmm, I have no idea what I’m looking at. Looks of milk cartons here. What’s whole, what’s 2%, what’s skim, what’s that awful buttermilk stuff they like here? Ok … I see a word that looks like ‘half’ on this one, so I’ll assume that it’s 2%-ish … good enough, I’ll take it.

Beer – ok, I can handle beer shopping. Beer-wise, it’s nice to be so close to Belgium. Grab a six … easy. How about some wine? Whoah – huge selection & cheap, I love it.

Just a few more items to go. Shampoo… not a clue what any of this is. Oh good, this bottle has a description in Dutch, French, and Spanish. Yep, looks close enough. And finally, just need some detergent for the dishwasher. This box looks close. It’s either dishwashing detergent or spackle … or cake icing. I’ll take my chances. On to the checkout lane.

I heft the basket up to the conveyer belt and watch it ride down to the cashier. She utters “Chewbacca hhgrazinshayfer by-flup carburetor” (or something quite similar. I offer a blank stare and say “English, please”. She says “please take the items out of the basket. A line has formed behind me. This little store is packed tonight. Hurriedly (and already embarrassed) I start pulling items out of the basket. She scans the first few items and asks me if I have a bonus card. I say ‘no, but how do I get one?’ She stops the ringing-up process and hands me a form to fill out. I fill it out quickly – she continues to ring – the queue continues to grow. She finishes and I pay.

I walk to the end of the check-out table, where all of my new purchases are strewn. I suppose they’re short-staffed today. I decide that I’ll just bag the groceries myself – no worries, I loved bagging my own items in the States. Seems that they’re out of bags … ah, here’s a dispenser. I pull from the dispenser and a tiny, tiny clear vegetable bag pops out. I briefly consider trying to stuff groceries into these tiny bags and wisely realize that it would take 140 of these bags to fit all of my items. The cashier moves a divider and starts shoving the next person’s items down the lane. Everyone but the cashier looks at me.

“Excuse me … umm … what do I do now?”

Yes, that’s the smartest thing I could come up with at that moment. And it was that moment that I learned that you either bring or buy your bags! She informs me of this and I ask to please buy some bags. She’s out though, so she has to stop ringing up items, while the queue grows and grows. She walks to another counter and turns to ask “How many do you need?” I say “umm…. Enough to fit my groceries.” Apparently, that logic isn’t clear enough … so I say 3.

She finishes with the next person and I’m still cramming items into bags. Shove in the beer bottles, shove in the wine, shove in the egg carton (oops!), shove in the bread. Hurry, hurry, hurry – you look like a moron. Shove in the stuff that’s either laundry detergent or candy … shove it the carton that is either butter-milk and pepper yogurt or drain cleaner. Grab three over-stuff bags and bolt for the door. Whew!

Yes, I survived my first grocery shopping experience … the first of many occasions where laughing at my self and my ignorance was the best medicine!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cycling in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is paradise for cyclists … well, a near-paradise. If the Alps were within an hour or two by bike, then it would be utopia. It’s close though. I’ve never seen a culture so bike-centric --- bikes rule the road here. It’s just fantastic. There are few roads without a dedicated bike lane or an adjacent path, and when you actually have to ride on the road – you own the road.

Bikes have more road rights than cars here. I read that there are 11,000 miles of bike lanes in the Netherlands. I can believe it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are less than 11,000 miles of auto roads in the country. Here, you don’t take “the bike path” somewhere, because there are thousands of “the bikepaths”. Pick any road, set off, and chances are you’ll either have dedicated lane or a separate path. Every intersection you come to … even out in the country … will have signs pointing to the next village or town, with the distance marked for cyclists.

Especially in Amsterdam, people rely more on bikes than cars. Regardless of the season, weather, or time of day, you see a constant stream of bikes passing by. Old, young, slow, fast, no passengers, 3 passengers, thin, American tourist nearly hit by a tram, etc. You see bikes carrying the oddest, most unimaginable loads, like garbage cans, potted plants, large moving boxes, Christmas trees, and families of four (and I'm not exaggerating at all -- if anything, I'll leaving too much out!). Walk the streets (and past enormous bike parking garages) and you hear a cacophony of bike bells and creaky bike parts. It’s glorious music to my ears.

For several reasons, we decided not own cars in the Netherlands, so we do everything by bike or public transportation. First of all, it just seems like a great challenge to live several years without a car … saves money, less impact on the environment, less hassle, less stress, etc. Second, we live on a canal in the central part of the city, where the waiting list for parking is 3-5 years. And finally, biking is just plain fun. We were the freaks in Denver and Atlanta who biked to work in a culture that appreciates pimped-out Escalades and Hummers more than self-powered … anything … so it’s just wonderful to experience a culture that is so intensely into cycling for everyday life that they just don’t think anything of it. In fact, I think that they think we’re freaks for making such a big deal of it!

As life-by-bike rolls on, please stay tuned for the upcoming parts of this series. Stories in the pipeline include: “My new SUV”, “Cobbles and rails”, “Wide Load: Carting the Espresso Machine”, "Dutch Mountains", and “The commute”.