Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rotterdam to Amsterdam

There's a saying in Rotterdam. "Amsterdam has it. Rotterdam doesn't need it." Rotterdam has the biggest shipping port in Europe. 30 million tonnes of food, 30 of oil and 30 of non-perishable goods (read: things we mostly don't need) pass through Rotterdam's ports every year. During a boat tour of the tip of the iceberg of the harbour, the dry docks stretched in all directions like the set for the second season of The Wire. The honey bee colours of the shipping containers, the largest man-made docking area for freighters in the world. Ships with freeboard hundreds of feet high, built for the waves of the north sea and everything in between there and China.

And yet, walking the restaurant=packed street of Witte de Withstraate on my birthday, 20 ducklings in tow, and settling at a Tapas bar before heading to dancing, it felt like a cozy city, international in the languages one could hear on the street, not so much the endless stretches of the Rhine as it took its last stretch to the sea amidst towering piles of hand spinners, tea cups, tupperware and rayon.

Rotterdam is all modernity and coziness, cantilevered buildings designed by the group graduates of some inspiring architecture prof who loved the overhang a skyscraper could be pushed to, perhaps. And trams and open markets and condos with giant markets within their horseshoe shaped building, so that the kitchen windows look in to the market itself, and all you could buy for supper. After the Haussmann conformity of Paris and the medieval charm of Bruges, it was lovely to see where Europe might be headed, instead of mainly where it has been. Space. Light. Ingenuity. And the most elegant and caring serving staff I've ever met.

And now, Amsterdam. I am sitting on a corner in de Pijp, drinking wine and full from a Surinamese meal of coconut beef and noodles with Cam. We've just travelled around all day with Cornelia, a freelance planner who gives tours of the city's transportation infrastructure and sustainability planning initiatives by bike. We braved rush hour on bikes, all 21 of us (one is down with tonsillitis), along with thousands of other bikes. We visited entire streets that have been freed of cars and turned into grass-lined tram tracks and wide bike lanes framed by pedestrian walkways. In the middle of the city. "Sustainability for me is not about the environment," said Cornelia. "It is about liveability." And we need to convince people to be sustainable by appealing to what appeals to them. For the Dutch, she argues, it is economics, convenience. For the Germans in Freiburg, it is the environment. For Americans, it is ingenuity. Unless you know what appeals, you will never convince people to do anything. So what do Victorians want? What appeals to them? What would make them trade their cars for bikes? What would make our government put in light rail and take the train across the bridge and put in a tram to UVic and triple the transit system? What drives us?

These are the things I spend my day thinking about. A far cry from last year's trip. We are alive, and we need to do things better. We need to love things better. It feels good to be among the living again.