I have read so much about how bicycle friendly Amsterdam is, and how Europe is so far ahead of the US when it comes to environmental issues in general. Because I can’t wait for her to return home (in a couple of weeks) to hear all about her adventure, I decided to interview Randi and her boyfriend Pieter Dijkshoorn, who teaches Dutch language and culture to immigrants, to hear their account of how living in Amsterdam compares to New York City.
UB: Randi, in New York you mainly circulate by bike. Do you bike in Amsterdam? What is the infrastructure (bike lanes, parking, et c) like? How do most people travel around the city?
RC: When I was in Amsterdam last summer I only rode my bike- except a few times I took a tram when it was really rainy. This winter I haven't always had access to a bike, and I live very close to Centraal Station where the Metro runs, and my editor lives right on the Metro line, so I've been taking the Metro often. It is so cold and rainy here in the winter, biking is no fun. It has been a nice experience to learn more about the public transit system here.
The basic infrastructure here is geared for bikers to rule the roads. Very few cars enter the cobblestone heart of the city, and they drive very slow and carefully, extremely aware of bikers and pedestrians. On wider streets there are separate lanes for: Cars, bikes, pedestrians, and trams. Each lane has its own distinct light- a little person for the pedestrians, a bike for the bikers, and a regular light for the cars. There seem to be no yellow light, just green, flashing green and red. Also on some bigger intersections there are countdowns to signal when the light will change, especially for bikers.
One of the things that is most difficult to adjust to in Amsterdam is that people are not as impatient as in New York. Bikers stop at a red light and wait for it to change. The lights are timed very carefully - when a car has a green light, they might only have a window of 30 seconds to make that turn, so it is important to respect their chance at the light. When I first arrived here I was acting very New Yorky - impatient. I wanted to 'jump' red lights, and found it impossible to just stand and wait. Finally I've learned how to keep still, breathe, and enjoy the break.
When I returned to New York last summer I was on the Hudson River bike path, stopped at a red light, enjoying the chance to breathe and look around. Suddenly I realized that many bikes were passing me, ignoring the light. There is something about New York that makes us all in such a hurry, we don't want to wait, we don't expect anyone to wait for us.
I was watching some footage of New York the other day and I was simply shocked at the level of environmental noise! The screeching of the breaks of public buses down our avenues, the sound of the breaks in the subways. The metro here is quiet, the buses don't screech, and the sound of the tram on the tracks, and its cute bell, are really just quaint. I think New York's old transportation system, that is so impressive - that my great grandfather helped to build, blasting the tunnels at the turn of the last century - places a great deal of psychic, brain stress on us. I understand why so many people wear iPods in New York, and not in Amsterdam.
I also think that some people are more sensitive, and as a sensitive type, I feel a great deal of peace living somewhere calm, human. Here the loudest sounds on the streets are the large packs of horny mammals- young white boys- American and British tourists- drunk, stoned, looking for sex. They are a constant part of the landscape, and I live in a very touristy neighborhood - but they are not 'native' - and are tolerated because they help the economy, but they are not a part of normal Dutch life.
But that brings me to the much larger, more complex questions of Dutch 'tolerance'- a concept that from the outside appears the opposite of what it is. Dutch tolerate legal marijuana and prostitution, but that doesn't mean they like it. They are very practical people who believe in self-policing. You don't pay to enter the public transportation system - you stamp your ticket, or carry a pass, and only if you are stopped by 'control' do you have to prove that you paid. People are expected to do the right thing, and a good deal of the time they do.
RC: Well, I try to remember to bring my bag, but I don't always. Also when I shop at the farmers market they actually do give plastic bags. I shop more frequently here than in New York, and I'm also sharing the job with my boyfriend, so I experience much fewer plastic bags in my life.
On the other hand, we use large plastic garbage bags here, they are very strong and good quality. In New York I use plastic shopping bags for garbage to go down the chute in my apartment building, so the bags are re-used.
This time in Amsterdam I've been trying to be more realistic and less idealistic in my observation. There is waste here, there are plastic bags, it isn't perfect…
In the grocery store not only do you bring your own bags, but you also bag your food yourself. In most grocery stores there are two counters where the groceries go,- so two people can be bagging their groceries. But in smaller, more crowded stores sometimes there is only one.
The other day I was bagging my groceries. I brought a bag but it wasn't big enough. There ARE free bags you can take, but they are very thin and small. I was trying to bag everything, there was a long line behind me, I wound up having to buy a plastic bag for 40cents, and I found myself getting very anxious... thinking people in the line were becoming frustrated.
But they weren't. Amsterdammers are just patient. At a restaurant you could wait 20 minutes to get a menu, or your drink. People are simply not in a hurry, and don't seem on the brink of irritation the way we are in New York. Also, waiters and waitresses aren't earning their wages in tips, so they aren't always trying to charm you.
PD: It is environmental thinking: when you get plastic bag, it will add to all the plastic bags. They are a bit of a threat to the environment. Sometimes they get into the ocean and there are all kinds of plastics in the oceans. They are going to break down into small particles and end up in the sand on beaches, and that's most dangerous, so they say.
RC: When did you start bringing your own bags when shopping?
PD: Some people do it, others don't, and sometimes you forget. It was in the 70's, there was a lot of environmental thinking in the 70's. The message was: bring your linen bag, for example.
RC: Did people complain? Did they do it?
PD: Who would complain? The plastic bag manufacturers, maybe. The shop owner must buy them, I guess, so maybe he has fewer bags to buy!
RC: What about the concern it could be unsanitary?
PD: Yeah, unsanitary, nobody cared about it, really. Why, because it is old? Your items are often in plastic already, so the bag would be, for example, one pile of germs, and they wouldn't get into the plastic. All the articles are protected. Nobody died from it, no.
RC: But the other day you bought cauliflower not in plastic and put it in your backpack. The same dirty backpack you put everything in.
PD: But you have to cook it. You cook it and the germs will be dead.
UB: Last year after a shorter trip over there, you told me it was hard to keep bringing your own bag in NY when everyone else wasn't. Will any of your Dutch habits survive the transition back to New York living this time?
RC: This is such a good question! I feel a bit more inspired to shop at the farmers market... but I wonder if that will happen. I don't think my plastic bag use in New York is much of a problem - I generally have just enough plastic bags to throw my garbage away. I really want to think hard about Freshdirect (the grocery delivery service) could someone do an environmental study on it? I like Freshdirect, when I shop that way I always have food in the house and feel more in control of my spending than when I shop at the store around the corner.
UB: When I was in Geneva (for a few months, 20 years ago) there were giant recycling containers near the supermarkets. We would bring our glass bottles, and separate them by color into different slots. I imagine the Swiss recycle plastic now, too. How do the Dutch recycle? Do you think they produce as much waste (about 4 1/2 pounds per person daily) as Americans? Do they use as much packaging or as many disposables as we do?
RC: Can you tell me about recycling here? What do you recycle, and what don’t you?
PD: A lot of things. Of course paper, glass.
RC: What do you do with paper?
PD: It goes in the paper box, around the corner, next to the glass box.
RC: And you get refunds on some glass? A deposit?
PD: For beer bottles, for cola bottles, plastic bottles also. They were very expensive, the deposit used to be a guilder! Now it is 20cents.
RC: How much back on a beer bottle?
PD: Small 10, bigger 20.
RC: Do ... how to call ... homeless or vagrant people collect bottles for deposit?
PD: Yeah, some people do.
RC: There is NO plastic or can recycling here!
UB: How do you think Amsterdam compares to NY (or urban US generally) on housing, in terms of energy efficiency, affordability, density, ...) ?
PD: It is a new era of using wind energy. People talk a lot about energy, they have the wind energy for the last 30 years. There's a windmill in North Amsterdam.
RC: There's a power plant when you come down the Haarlemmerdijk- you see smoke stacks, what is that for?
PD: It is an electricity center with oil or coal.
RC: Do you notice it?
PD: Of course when it is beautiful weather you see it and you see that smoke comes from it.
RC: How do most people heat their homes?
PD: Gas, it is the cheapest form of fuel, cheaper than electricity.
RC: Do most people in apartments buy their own heating stove?
PD: Sometimes you have central heating added to the house, if you don't have that, you have to buy your own stove like me. And you pay a lot extra when you have the central heating system, that is included in your rent, like everywhere.
RC: Do you know you much you pay for gas?
PD: I pay, I don't know, gas and electricity together are about 50 euro. It is complicated, it was more but the electricity and gas company split- the market is coming ...
RC: De-regulation and privatization?
P: Yes with all these things, the phone and post offices... so yes I pay about 60 euros for gas and electric.
RC: Back to energy efficiency, do people talk about this stuff? How to make a home more energy efficient? Insulation?
PD: Insulation of windows is the main thing, the most cold comes from windows. More things, people who try to put solar panels on their roof, you can have a subsidy not for the installation of the panels, but a subsidy for the using of the ... when you use it you get a credit added to your bill because they want to stimulate it.
RC: Amsterdam has lots of historic preservation regulation: you can't put brand new window styles in certain houses, right? There were regulations about double glass windows, subsidizing for it, but not any more. In other words, the windows still have to be in the old fashioned style, on the front.
PD: You have to wait on the beauty commission. They can be very particular.
RC: So that affects energy efficiency?
PD: The companies use it to sell products, say we are "duurzaam" (“keeping lasting value”), green energy... new word, all the companies try to say it, because it'll sell products better. It could be the case.
RC: I think that the Dutch are very careful with their money -
PD: I guess so, they are known for it.
RC: So using less energy isn't only about protecting the environment, it is also about saving money. Somehow I think this suggests a relationship between the American debting lifestyle and the environmental crisis.
UB: Here is a big one: Rising sea levels could devastate Holland, which is partially below sea level. Does this affect how seriously the Dutch take the threat of global warming? How is the government dealing with this? Is it something people just expect the government to deal with or is everyone aware of the issue?
PD: Holland is partially below sea level.
Of course, the new idea is the TERP, a man made hill, and you can build a house on it as they used to before because there were lots of floods. You can still see them in Fresia, now they try to construct a terp, build a house on it, just to make it safe...
RC: Flooding in your lifetime?
PD: When I was born there was a big flood- the last catastrophe, all Zeeland was under water. It was 1953. After that they made the delta 'works'- which they tried to sell to New Orleans also, they could hold a flood with it.
RC: Did New Orleans buy it?
PD: There were advisers in Holland who went to New Orleans, I don't know if they sold anything.
RC: How is the government dealing with it?
PD: A problem, nobody will deny. There is a special secretary of state, Jacqeline Cramer- she deals with the environmental problems in general.
RC: I asked you the other day, how many articles normally about environmental issues in the paper each day?
PD: Yeah every day, you could say every second page there is something about environmental problems.
(All photos by Randi Cecchine. See the rest of the series here.)