As my plane drops toward Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I can see what look like multiple alternative runways: broad pink, blue, and yellow strips that turn the fields around the coast into the flags of an imaginary nation. They are bands of flowers—tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils—and the plane rushes towards them like an overstimulated bee.
Bang. The wheels are down. And I am in the Low Countries, the flatlands, where the ground and the sky extend as far along the horizontal axis as the ruler can measure—and where the people stretch further on the vertical axis than anywhere else in Europe. This is a country of fairground-mirror contrasts: tall, thin, canal-side houses and wide, wide polders, reclaimed land that still shimmers like an ocean to the far horizon; steep spires and flat skating lakes; bicycles and pancakes.
I am heading for Groningen, in the north, to give a series of lectures. Getting from Schiphol to the railway takes only 10 minutes. The Dutch are a practical people, and the efficiency of their public transportation systems makes those of other countries look creaky. The train shot through flat fields crisscrossed with drainage ditches and occasionally punctuated with windmills. I, however, had no seat: The station platform was dominated by apprentice giants (i.e., students) who shouldered into the carriages, leaving lesser mortals standing forlornly like mushrooms in the forest.
“Oh, but you should have confronted them!” laughed my Dutch colleagues. “That’s the way here. It’s a very forthright society. You do what you want, and if the other person doesn’t like it, they let you know.”
Groningen is a moated city that is chiefly modern, but contains some older buildings of notable beauty, such as the Martini Tower—not a cocktail joint, but a 15th-century church campanile that rises 320 feet above the market square. Canals form a belt around the town’s belly so that, as in other Dutch cities, you are constantly crossing bridges, cresting parabolas over water on which the sun dances in a million tiny points of light. It is a pleasure that doesn’t pall.
Another joy is the carillons that mark the hours with a laughing waterfall of musical notes. While most European church bells go “dong” or “ding-dong-ding,” the ingenious mechanisms of the Dutch system allow bells to be tuned to notes and played as instruments, creating chimes with the magical tinkling resonance of a music box.
The downside of this, as I discovered while teaching in a room very close to the university bell tower, is that on certain days students are permitted to “play” the bells for an hour at a time. If you have ever tried to explain the finer points of Jane Eyre while competing with a bell tower that is pealing out the theme from The Godfather, you will pity my predicament.
The other major hazard in Groningen is bicycles. I have never, ever seen so many bicycles in one place. The square opposite the Academy Building, an impressive 1909 edifice in the style of the Dutch High Renaissance, features hundreds of bikes parked upright, with interlocking handlebars like a vast migratory herd of metal antelopes. To distinguish their bicycles from the crowd, some students resort to ingenious decorative schemes: plastic ivy draped around the frame, paintwork of pink and purple with green spots. Students can often be seen transporting large items, such as chairs, as they pedal. I even witnessed the extraordinary sight of a female student riding with a large wall-mirror gripped tightly between her handlebars. (I suspect that oncoming drivers saw only a hurtling flash of light and then an image of their own puzzled faces as she passed.)
Flowers are so cheap here that they are like salt and pepper. Every sidewalk café has pots of narcissi, tiny grape hyacinths, or green hellebores growing on the tables. In the market, you can pick up 10 roses or 25 tulips for about $3.30. It was tempting to buy an armful and go around pretending that I’d just sung Carmen at the Met.