December 7, 2009

My Own Private Copenhagen

After World War II Dutch people began immigrating to Canada in droves. Like so many European nations ravaged by war, Holland's economy could not support its population and young people sought new lives abroad. Many Dutch immigrants came from farming families and so moved here to this area of British Columbia where the weather is mild and the soil very rich.

Dutch people are still immigrating here. I have a winter job working for a Dutch couple who came in the 1990's and set up an ornamental plant business. Three mornings a week, after I get my kids off to school I head over to the barn, about two kilometers from my house, where I pack rare and unusual roots and tubers with names like Giganteus (a type of bamboo) and Miscanthus (a beautiful ornamental grass), in peatmoss. The crates of roots are overwintered in a climate controlled room until February when they are shipped to or picked up by nursuries which plant them in containers and let them sprout into pretty little plants in greenhouses. They are then sold to garden centers or landscape designers in spring, ready for transplanting. Some of the roots and tubers are so unusual looking I once made a comment that I half expected them to start screaming like Professor Sprout's potted mandrakes in Harry Potter.

Early last week we had a couple of mild days so I rode my bike over to the barn. Halfway through the morning I looked out the window to check the weather, and to my dismay, the wind had picked up and the rain was falling in a slant. I hoped it would die down in time for me to cycle home at noon. Unfortunately, by twelve p.m. the rain and wind was still very much an issue so after my boss, Jake returned from feeding his daughters' horses, and at the insistence of his wife and business partner, Carola, I asked if I could get a ride home with my bike in their truck. They are extremely kind people and Jake almost immediately said, "Yaw, shoor". I say almost immediately because just for a moment I detected something of disapproval in his eyes. Sure enough, when we got in the truck and pulled onto the highway he said, "Obviously, you didn't grow up in Holland. This is nice weather for cycling in Holland!" He then went on to tell me about the high school kids in Holland who regularly cycle 25-30 kms. to school and back, and how when he and Carola first moved to Canada they thought all the high schools were hospitals because of the parking lots full of cars. Apparently, there are no parking lots at the schools in Holland, not even for the teachers. Feeling rather small I listened, awed at the environmental superiority of the Dutch, and thought of my German friend Ralf, who calls Canada 'The Drive-Thru Country".

I have noticed that many of the older Dutch residents of our area ride their bikes around town. It is easy here on the flats of the valley, at least when it isn't too windy. Last Friday, the morning was clear and blue-skied with no wind, so I donned my gore-tex pants and jacket, scarf, gloves, skullcap and then bike helmet and rode over to the barn. When Jake came in he said, "So, I see you brought your bike today. That's good!" I laughed and joked that I wouldn't have dared showing up in a car on such a fine day. I was also able to tell him that I'd grown up in the mountains with parents who refused to own a car until they inherited my grandmother's Chevy Belair after she died, and that I'd daily made my way to school and back in every kind of weather, as do my children. At noon, I bravely rode home in the warm sunshine without even the gore-tex pants, and felt content with myself.

This morning it was -5 degrees Celcius with an icy wind funnelling down the valley. I had the van, so I left the bike at home and drove to work. There are limits, even when one's Canadian pride is at stake. Jake refrained from comment. Besides, it rarely freezes in Holland.


  1. Well - there's a limit to how much one person can take and cycling even most of the time is very noble. I'm planning to try to use the car less. It becomes such a habit!

  2. Psst...Rebecca...You can delete this post after you read it...Copenhagen is in Denmark. :)

  3. Oh gosh. I knew someone would say that! I was actually referring to the upcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen. I guess I meant that I was having my own little personal meeting on the issues. But thanks!

  4. Oh, gee. I'm a lunk head. Sorry.

    I think my bike is in my mother's basement. This is really sad. You are motivating me.

  5. I have Copenhagen on the brain as I work for an enviro group that has 40 staffers over there right now. I am so hopeful! It is great to see alternative energy sources (including our own bicycling legs) get prominent attention these days! But you don't have to feel guilty taking the vehicle when it's needed. By the way, miscanthus is, I believe, one of the grasses that is touted as having great potential as a biofuel...far better than corn as it doesn't take so much energy to grow it (or nitrogen) and you can use the whole plant. And, I think there are less ecosystem issues (maybe it is a native midwest grass? not sure).

  6. Kate: It's great to hear from you. It is easier to be noble when my husband needs to use our one vehicle!

    Tracey: No worries! Like I said, I saw it coming.

    DrF Girl: I was just at work and found out that the Giganteus I thought was bamboo is actually a type of miscanthus, which they are growing specifically as biofuel. It is a brand new experiment for them and they are going to see how it goes!

  7. That's interesting! Here in Boston (UK) we share many similarities with Holland, and there are second and third generation Dutch families still living here. And I'm a cyclist, too. But never (if I can avoid it) in the rain. I'd rather walk. Somehow you get wetter on a bike than you ever do on foot. I don't have the luxury of a car most days, so it's either Shank's pony with a pushchair, or the bike with Charlie on the back!

  8. I ride with a bunch of hard-core cycling fanatics...we don't ride in the's not safe...the cars have a hard enough time seeing you when it's not raining...

  9. Riding your bike is refreshing to a degree (no pun intended) til it gets cold thats when uhh we gotta bring the car out.

  10. Tim: I did a little happy dance when I saw you and Charlie's faces on my followers list. I would definitely walk if I could get to work on time - that's my quandry. I've actually seen people around here ride their bike with one hand and hold an umbrella with the other!

    Jen: My husband is a cycling fanatic and he won't ride in the rain either. I suppose, like in Holland, if everyone is on bikes in special bike lanes, the cars wouldn't be so much of an issue!

    Paul: Thanks for stopping by! Come again soon!

  11. I worked for many years as a landscape designer in London and elsewhere so I know exactly what you mean, only we used to call such Triffids.
    As to the Dutch and for that matter the Flemish, I've visited there a few times and it is as bloody flat as a pancake, so anything they say about the bicycle should be taken with a grain of salt. It also gets as cold as you but with nothing to shelter you from the wind off the North Sea and about every five or so years they have this race on frozen canals.
    This time last year I was in Knokke and Sluis where I believe I have never been so cold.

  12. Hi Vince! Thanks for visiting.
    Regarding the flatness of the Dutch landscape - they build 1-speed bicycles, so that would tell us something! Jake was telling me Holland is at the same latitude as our Fraser River deltas. They do freeze sometimes, but rarely. I do believe you about the cold off the North Sea. I was at the doctor recently about some issue with my toes, and he said it was Chillblains. He said, "That's a word I haven't said since I left Scotland."

  13. Thanks for calling over to my blog. The phone exchange has just been enabled so I can indulge myself up loading photos.
    I looked in the Google Earth for the Fraser river and became fixated with the railway.
    I'm glad I know you are a Scot, we can communicate effortlessly for even if you have never had a word of Gaelic it remains a mist in the ear. But where are you on the Scottish independence thing. You are not one of those that thinks the Scone should be back under Edwards chair.

  14. So that's why you haven't had any new photos. I will visit again to see them. Anyway, my doctor is a Scot (it is he who hadn't said chillblains since he left Scotland). I have a lot of Scot in my blood (Lamb was my pre-married name) but am a couple of generations from those of my ancestors who lived there.
    I am not knowlegeable enough about Scotland's issues (much more aware of Ireland's) to comment on the independence thing, though.


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