Bike to work day – the Dutch example

I have 8500 bicycles waiting for me at over 300 locations around the country

Today is the Bike to Work Day in the Netherlands. It may not come as a surprise to you that a lot of people in the Netherlands cycle to work. But have you wondered why? Pro-cycling attitude of employers is no small part of the reason for the high percentages of Dutch cycling commuters. I am fortunate enough to work for Sweco, a company that goes the extra mile in promoting cycling to work.

There are, of course, the usual things (for the Dutch, at least). Proper bicycle sheds, showers and lockers at our offices, tax-free bicycle financing scheme, access to the OV-fiets (the Dutch Railways shared bicycles) are all pretty much standard at Dutch companies. If an employee purchases a new bike, Sweco is also paying for the bicycle insurance and extra’s such as rain gear.

But here’s the extra mile – at Sweco we get paid to cycle. Yes, that’s right – I get money for cycling. The kilometers I cycle are refunded just as car kilometers are, so that even my modest commute of less than 5 km earns me almost 2 Euro each day. It won’t make me rich, but its more than enough to pay for the purchase and maintenance of my bike. Business kilometers pay even more, so that choosing for the bicycle to go to a customer actually pays.

I cycle to work because its fun. Working at Sweco, a bike-friendly company, makes it even easier to cycle to work. I hope more employers around the world will follow Sweco’s example – making the world an easier place to cycle, one bicycle ride at a time.

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2017 set to bring record numbers of Americans to Europe for third year in a row

2015 and 2016 have both been record years in terms of U.S. tourists arriving in Europe, and 2017 seems firmly placed to be third record year in a row. Why wouldn’t they come? The American economy is doing well, the Euro is on a 12-year low (just 1.07 USD for one Euro!) and Europe is a safe, pleasant and immensely variable destination. Added bonus – many Americans have European roots, so even without direct relatives still living on the “old continent”, its always fun to see the town where your great-great grandmother came from back in 1882.

Euro vs USD exchange rate over the past 10 years (source: http://www.tradingeconomics.com)

Rotterdam

In recent years my city – Rotterdam – has become increasingly popular with tourists as well, becoming the second most popular Dutch city. Rotterdam will probably never surpass Amsterdam, which gets more than 10 times as many visitors. Nevertheless, with the increased popularity of the sea cruise, not a week goes by without 2, 3 or even 4 cruise vessels docking in Rotterdam. You know what that means – Americans! Europeans welcome the American visitors and their $$. In addition, the visitors bring with them a perhaps even more valuable commodity – free entertainment. As my fellow writer WD Fyfe has so nicely put it in his guest post: “You are just as exotic to the locals as they are to you.” Here are a few of my own observations on the habits and customs of the American visitor to Europe.

  1. Americans tend to think everything in Europe is “cute” and “small”.
    Cut it out. Its not “quaint little Cologne“. Cologne is a city of over a million people, the centre of a metropolitan region with a population of 3 million. It lies in the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, with over 10 million people, the third largest metropolitan in the EU. Just because the city centre looks old, doesn’t mean its a cute little village. Same goes for Amsterdam, Brussels, Prague and all other major European capitals. Such comments are especially funny when made by Farmer John and Pumpkin Jane from Springfield, Illinois. Although even if you come from the suburbs of Chicago, its still no excuse to pretend you’re living in a cyberpunk 3D Futurama-meets-Fifth Element-style SuperCity, and you feel agoraphobic in these European “quaint little cities”.

    Quaint little Cologne

  2. Speaking of Chicago, you’re not in mortal danger in Europe.
    Dear American visitors. You’re not “surviving” Brussels. You haven’t “braved” Paris. Your few days in London were not a selfless act of courage. Yes, in 2015 and 2016 there were several high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, with almost 200 people killed in both years. No, you’re not in mortal danger from the moment you step on European soil until the moment you leave. Think of it – in Chicago, 700 people were murdered in 2016! How does that compare to the risks posed by terrorism threat in Europe? Right – relax and get a bullet-proof vest when you get back to USA.
  3. Since I mentioned bravery – there’s nothing “daring” in visiting Budapest.
    For some reason, Americans still believe the Iron Curtain is crossing Europe. Therefore, they tend to describe their day-trip to Budapest as a hair-raising plunge into the Great Unknown, where Stasi agents lurk on every corner. Stop it. You’re not “boldly going where no one has gone before”. Prague and Budapest are not even in Eastern Europe – its Central Europe. Both cities are in the Top 10 of most visited cities in the world. Countries like Estonia welcome more tourists per capita than Spain or Italy. Trust me – they’ve seen tourists before you. They know how to strip you of your dollars. Its not by robbing you, silly – its by selling you rubbish guided tours and ridiculous chariot rides.

  4. Copenhagen is a hidden gem of Europe” – yes, exact quote.
    I’m sure that’s the reason you can’t even see the statue of the Little Mermaid, let alone take a good photo of it. The crowds of tourists are there to hide this gem. Look – just because you haven’t heard of a place or a city, doesn’t mean its “new”. Something is “a hidden gem”, “a route less taken” or “off the beaten track” if its actually less haunted by the masses. A place like Gent, a region like Pyrenees or a country like Moldova might qualify for such a term, because they are not immediately recognized by everyone. In the more touristy places its also possible to find “hidden gems” or go “off the beaten track“. But calling Copenhagen “a hidden gem” is about the longest stretch ever.
  5. I know it’s a shock to you, but not everything is better in America.
    Of course, this one is not limited to Europe. Americans are known throughout the world for compulsively trying to prove that everything is better in America. I recall one especially fanatical American, who, in front of a Belgian, a German and a Czech, tried to argue that the best beers in the world are being made in Boulder, Colorado. And all that in a Danish pub. Of course, it didn’t occur to him that a)it’s a matter of taste b)nobody actually cared and c)he was making a complete fool of himself. Seriously – why do Americans try to make a pissing contest out of everything? It only shows your deeply engraved inferiority complex, darlings. No need to argue with the French about who’s wine is better, with the Germans about who’s cars are faster, with the Greek about who’s state debt is bigger and with the Russians about who’s president is insaner.

    French wine is just better.

Dear citizens of America visiting Europe in their masses this summer. Please chill out. You’re on vacation. We wish you a pleasant stay and hope you never change. Life would be so dull without you.

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The biggest Small European Country

Back in 2015, I’ve written a post titled “How to choose a (small European) country“. I pondered on all the reasons I had to move, and on the challenges posed by choosing a new place. I won’t keep you in suspension – I did move. Out of Rotterdam. Not too far though – the municipal border of Rotterdam is about 500 meters away. But its a whole different country I am living in now. Since a few weeks, I live in  the biggest country in Europe – Suburbia. Here’s how it happened.

In the post I mentioned, I set down several criteria for a new place to live in. I was looking for a properly run country, with a pleasant climate, where I speak the language, in Europe, close to mountains and not too far from the family. After some though, and to my big surprise, I discovered I already lived in such a country, and the need to find a new one was rather less urgent than I though. As you perhaps recall, my test for a “properly run” country was the quality of the tap water. The Dutch tap water is the best in the whole world, so the country is obviously properly run. To determine whether the climate is pleasant I came up with the “wine test” – if the climate is good for wine, its good for me. While the Netherlands is best known for its beer, there are about 200 commercial wine yards spread throughout the country, so the Dutch score again. After 14 years spent here, I speak the language very well, so its another one for Holland. The country is obviously in Europe, so that criterion is satisfied, too. The proximity to mountains is a bit more difficult one. However, the Ardennes are just a couple of hours drive away, and the Alps are within a day’s drive. Sadly, the night train connection to Switzerland has been discontinued, but it’s not like I was using it every month or something. Finally, I wanted to live close to the family. Since we were pretty settled on remaining in the Netherlands, we though we might as well get the best of it – and grandma and the cousins are within cycling distance. I think we’ll be visiting them more often than I would visit glaciers, so its quite a good deal.

And so, I’m still blogging from a small European country – the biggest one of all – Suburbia.

 

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Boys will be boys (as far as Playmobil is concerned)

As I was clearing up the last remains of the holiday season, I came across the Playmobil brochure. In case you’re not familiar with the concept – its a bit like Lego, but for younger children. My kids (aged 2 and 4 now) love it, and we have quite a collection by now. I browsed through the brochure, and noticed something weird. It seemed as if there were no women in the Playmobil universe. Not only the figures were all male,  the children depicted playing with them were also exclusively boys. A while ago I came across a pack of dinosaurs stickers labelled “For boys aged 7 to 14″ and got pretty crossed about it. As if girls don’t like dinosaurs (my daughter loves them). So I decided to look into the Playmobil gender issue a bit closer.

I took a couple of post-its and a pen, and started checking the pages. I noted the Playmobil men doing “typical men stuff” like being a pilot and the Playmobil women (there were some after all) doing “typical women stuff” like being a stewardess, and vice-versa. After about 10 pages (the brochure has 60) I got fed up and quit counting. Counting on seemed a bit useless, as the results were rather clear.

  Men stuff Neutral stuff Women stuff
Men 110 5 0
Women 19 10 15
Playmobil: Man = pilot Woman = stewardess

Playmobil: Man = pilot, woman = stewardess

On the face of it, it wouldn’t have been so bad. After all, the women that did get to exists in the Playmobil universe got their share of opportunities in life. Sadly, that was not exactly the case. Going through the rest of the brochure, I did find plenty of Playmobil women. The second half of the brochure was full of them. And you’ll never guess what they were doing… OK, I’m joking – you can probably  fill it in yourself. Here it comes – as far as Playmobil is concerned, women exist to be pretty and shut up (the princesses), take care of the children (the moms and care-takers) and to spend money on shopping, beauty spa’s and vacations (the rest of them). What makes it even worse is that the Playmobil guy who does not want to be the macho man is pretty screwed. I found just one guy in the whole Playmobil shopping centre  who looked pretty gay , and the only dude in the daycare centre is the math teacher – how sad is that?

Spot the math teacher

Spot the math teacher

I am a proud father of a girl and a boy. And I encourage them the best I can to dare and become whatever they want. My daughter now wants to be a pilot. And a doctor. And maybe a policewoman. My son is only two, but he really enjoys dancing ans singing, and if he’ll want to make a career out of it, who am I to say no? I say to both – go for it. But its really tough to encourage your children to follow their own path in life, when the advertisements, the toys companies, the movies and about every other industry imaginable are all not really cooperating on this gender equality thing.

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A new begin in 2017

Some things change, some things stay the same… Only constant seems to be that things never turn out what you expected them to be. Enough philosophy. Having made this blog dormant a few months ago, I now wake it up again. No promises, just rolling with it and we’ll see where this all goed to.

Its not that I haven’t been busy all this time – on the contrary, I’ve been very industrious. I have a new job and a new house, and I’ll post some details about both soon. And I’ve also been doing some writing, too (besides job application letters, that is). I’ve published quite a successful article in Vers Beton (“Fresh Concrete”), which is an online magazine “for the hard-thinking Rotterdammers”. The article, titled Waarom de A16 Rotterdam er niet mag komen”, is in Dutch, and in it I tell why I object to the construction of a new highway in the area. For those of you who don’t read Dutch, basically, I think there’s already plenty of highways around here and precious little green open space. In my view, smashing one of the last open areas near the city for the sake of a highway that will not even solve the congestion problems is a bad, bad idea. As usual, the pictures tell a much better tale than me.

a13_a16-1

This is where the A16 highway is planned.

a13_a16-2

There’s really not that much of such landscape left around Rotterdam

a13_a16-3

The swan song of the classic Dutch views

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US 2016 Elections – from a small European country’s perspective

Just a few days until the US Presidential Elections. From a Small European Country the big circus on the other side of the pond seems unreal, like a Reality TV freak show. I guess its partly because most small European countries are governed by multi-party parliaments, where coalition governments are necessarily formed to achieve a majority. This usually softens the rough edges in politics, at least after the elections. The American “winner takes all” system creates a different vibe and a much more personal election race.

Which brings me to the personality of the candidates. I and many other Europeans wonder how and why the proud American democracy comes up with two such losers to compete for the most important office on the planet. Not only that, both are accompanied by VP candidates that are designed to be absolutely anonymous to the point of being interchangeable without anyone noticing. By now, the race is not about who’s the most suitable candidate – its obvious both are completely incompetent and shouldn’t be allowed to be president of anything except a Florida condo association. Its about who is the least repelling.

In the blue corner – an older, frailer version of Bill Clinton (how’s that for democracy – having two families run the country among themselves?), mired in corruption scandals and elected via a highly dubious process in her party, defeating a visibly crippled candidate, who obviously stood no chance in the national elections. In the red corner – a walking scandal with the emotional maturity of a 5-year old (“No, you’re the one that’s unfit” – yes, Donald, and why not add to it “My Shwartz is bigger than yours” – oh, I forgot, you already said that) and the credibility of Comical Ali. Come on, America, is that really the best you’ve got?

In all honesty, I don’t like Hillary Clinton. Few people do, not even her own husband it seems. My guess is that any Republican candidate would have taken this election by a huge margin with Hillary as the opponent. Anyone but The Donald. The dude looks more and more like a Democratic conspiracy to make Hillary look good. I never thought I’d say it, but with The Donald as the alternative, even I prefer Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.

Every time he seems to be on his way up, The Donald manages to ruin his chances with an almost supernatural mastery. On the other hand, despite his ridiculousness, he still stands a chance to win. Which is sort of funny, in the way watching YouTube videos of crashing skateboarders is funny. Only this time its the only superpower in the world with a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons that’s going to crash on its balls and land on its head. I do wonder what else The Donald has to do or say to discourage the people that still think that voting for the political equivalent of Armageddon is a good idea.

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Cycling is Tel-O-Fun in Tel Aviv

Welcome to Tel Aviv – the flagship of the Middle East in bicycle friendliness

Bike Citizens Tel Aviv 3_v1_2

Tel Aviv’s compact layout, flat geography, mild climate and young population all combine to create a city that was destined to become a cycling hub. Cycling in Tel Aviv is fun, and nowadays it not just fun but also easy thanks to Tel-O-Fun, the city’s public bicycle program. The project was scheduled to be launched in 2008, but was delayed until the Israeli helmet law was amended in 2011. Once the mandatory helmet age was curbed to 18, Tel Aviv immediately launched the long-awaited Tel-O-Fun, and ignited a true cycling revolution. Bicycle rental stations popped up all around the city, and in a fortnight, the bicycle became a real alternative to the car in Tel Aviv.

Read more about Tel Aviv’s successful bike sharing program in my latest article in Bike Citizens Magazine.

Bike Citizens Tel Aviv 1_2

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