I just started a new job, and in the way of academic life, I had to move. I put some things in storage, hopped on a plane with two suitcases, and hey presto, I live in the Netherlands now. The new job is with ASTRON, the Dutch institute for radio astronomy, and it's going really well. Living in a new country actually takes more getting used to.
For one thing, in spite of the fact that I live in arguably the most pedestrianized city in Europe, and in a densely-populated country with good transit systems and cities built when rapid transit meant corn-fed horses, I find myself tempted to carpool to work. See, the thing is, ASTRON was built in the middle of a national park in order to minimize interference with the radio telescope that was also being built. Since the fifties, though, radio astronomy has made a few strides, and the telescope is now used chiefly in education. The telescopes we do use are all off-site, so we're in the middle of the park for historical reasons. It means we're twelve kilometers from the nearest train station, and even the bus drops you off in the village of Lhee, a kilometer or so away from work. So a ride to work is tempting. Fortunately, this is the Netherlands, so I've been biking.
This country is bicycle-centric to a degree that's a little hard to explain. I mean, you walk out of any train station and there's a huge area of bike parking; in full-fledged cities it's usually a multi-story parking garage. In city centers but also the backcountry it seems that there are as many bike lanes and paths as roads for cars; on my way to work the paved bike path often runs alongside a dirt road. But the biggest difference is attitude: in Canadian cities, there are people who bike to work every day, but it's usually kind of political — ask them and they'll usually say something about climate change or car culture or self-sufficiency. Here if you ask someone why they're a bicyclist and they will probably give you a funny look. It's not that you're a bicyclist, here, it's just that the way you get somewhere is by hopping on a bike. It shows in the bicycles too: the bikes here are designed for casual riding. Your posture is comfortably upright (which, incidentally, makes it a lot easier to be aware of your surroundings), nobody wears a helmet, even the bike locks are designed for convenience. Most locks are attached to the frame and just clamp the back wheel in place. So lots of bikes aren't even locked to anything. Not only does this make finding a parking spot easy, it means if there are a row of bikes all lined up, you can shift them over to make room for one more. As for safety, well, there are so many bikes on the road, drivers have just reconciled themselves to dodging bicycles. Not to mention the dedicated bike lanes.
I confess, my ride to work is a little unusual — at twelve kilometers each way every day, it's a bit more than a casual ride. But I really couldn't ask for a nicer route: the first segment follows the “Koningspad” (the King's path), which curves across the heath, then I cross the highway on a rural overpass and cut into the national park, where I ride through the forest the rest of the way. All summer I've been passing tourists, from mountain bikers to old folks riding side-by-side holding hands to Dutch Scouts, all of whom travelled to spend their vacation time riding the same paths I take to work.
Winter here is not up to Montreal standards, I'm told, but when it gets cold and dark the charm may wear off and I may start asking around the other Groningen residents to see if there's room in somebody's carpool. But then there will be owls, and more deer, and the stars out in the country. We'll see.