by David Small
I finally mailed in my application for a Dutch driver's license. Expats here get lots of perks, including exchanging your U.S. license for a Dutch one without a test. I don't plan to buy a car but the idea of a motorcycle adventure through Europe seems too good to pass up: two weeks on the road, stopping in small towns with tan lines around my goggles, ordering a foreign beer. I envision at some point taking a small man-powered raft-like ferry to cross a body of water, logging miles, crossing through fields, really making a go of it.
I can’t write about drivers in Holland, but in regards to Martha's last update, I agree that Oregonians are bad drivers. But not in a bad way. They mean well. Their hearts are in the right place. The level of courtesy is charming, but also extremely annoying if you need to get to work, or if you're a cyclist who loses valuable momentum because a driver incorrectly stops to let you or another cyclist cross the street. This ruins everything.
I'm surprised there are more accidents in Portland than other cities. In accidents here, I'm told nobody sues each other. Instead everyone carries personal liability insurance, so if I run into you because I'm riding a bicycle with only the left half of the handlebars in tact and maybe I've had a couple strong Belgian beers or I'm distracted by something odd or beautiful and your arm gets broken, my insurance pays for it. I think it's $3 per month. I really don't know since all my insurance documents are in Dutch and the rep wasn't super helpful in explaining things. She did tell me that dental insurance is terrible here and I shouldn't buy it and that dentists are also bad and I should "consider not getting dental work in the Netherlands." A Dutch insurance agent told me this.
Drivers here tend to look out for cyclists and pedestrians. They have to. We're everywhere. Someone told me fault in an accident is determined by who had the larger vehicle. Car hits cyclist? Car's fault. Cyclist hits pedestrian? Cyclist's fault. Pedestrian hits dog? Pedestrian is probably a bad person. The streets are fairly mellow and there's very little horn honking, except for the annoying little mopeds who terrorize the bicycle lanes.
The only aggression I experience on my commute is when it's time to board the train. Generally the trains are full at rush hour, and everyone jockeys for position to board. The women and children first thing goes out the window. Ten or twenty people cram through a single-wide door, and if you're not aggressive you get on last, which means you're unlikely to get a window seat and you'll likely have to face opposite the train's direction and what the hell kind of a way to start the day is that—going backwards.
I've started taking the later train to work. It’s an international train that takes real travelers to Berlin after it drops us workers off in Hilversum 20 miles southeast from Amsterdam. Some days I fantasize about not getting off, just staying aboard and going to Berlin instead of work. I had the same fantasy back in Portland when I commuted by car and was pretty burnt out on my job. Heading west on the 26 toward Beaverton, I often thought about skipping the exit and driving the 75 miles to the coast and jumping in the freezing cold Pacific Ocean to remind myself I was still alive and that I was still in control. Instead I left the country.
True to my plans to travel more in the new year, I took a few days off work this month and went to Budapest. Turns out Budapest in January is quite cold, but who remembers the weather? Besides, it was a spontaneous trip with an exciting Italian girl I met at a Spanish language meetup. We stayed with her friends: an American guy about my age who teaches economics as a tenured professor and his Italian girlfriend, an energetic grad student at the same university. We made American-style pancakes for breakfast one morning, and the girls made Italian-style pasta for dinner. I didn't know what pasta was supposed to taste like until now. Americans, they explained, use low-quality pasta and overcook it until it's mushy. I guess most of us do.
Another night we went to a quaint Hungarian bistro, where the professor explained political economics to me and we talked about the world of academia and dating Italian girls or "trying to date" Italian girls, as I put it. I explained what copywriting was with admittedly little enthusiasm. Seeing people do what their most passionate about is both inspiring and cause for self reflection; it reminded me again that I've gotten off track with my recent career decisions. Then I reminded myself that those decisions somehow brought me here, to Budapest, where I'm having dinner with interesting people I would never have otherwise met, and this negated any real sense of regret or worry about my career choices.
Hungarians do magical things with duck and some kind of hairy pig unique to the region. We drank rich local wines and followed dinner with espresso and pálinka, a strong Hungarian brandy made from fermented fruit. It's like fire going down, like American moonshine or Mexican mescal but with a nice fruity aftertaste. I really should have brought a bottle home.
Budapest is incredibly cheap compared to Amsterdam. Two bottles of wine, four appetizers, main courses and drinks and the whole meal cost only 30 euros each, and the cab home was less than 2 euros, though you pay in forints, the local currency, which makes it even cheaper. Local wages are generally very low, as is the cost of living, so bringing in outside Euros makes you feel wealthy in comparison. Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, but some EU countries keep their currency, something we didn't know until we arrived at the airport and learned that a metro to the city cost 550 forints (less than 2 euros). A good espresso costs the same.
I left Budapest wanting to know more. Hungary is the farthest east I’ve ever been, and my first time in a formerly communist country. After WWII, it was occupied under Soviet rule until 1989 when Hungary became a democracy and adopted capitalism. Many atrocities, of which I know almost nothing, occurred on the streets we wandered through each day. It's so beautiful it’s hard to imagine the reality of its complex and tragic history. Without context, it’s just another beautiful European city with castles and stunning architecture, made even more beautiful by falling snow and good company.