Learning from the Netherlands: Bread, bikes and business


I got back from vacation last night, so I’m still a little jet-lagged and full of good resolutions that may fade away or get ground under the weight of work. Still, a once-in-a-decade excursion could be life-altering, and I did learn a lot, whether I manage to incorporate the lessons in daily life or not. 

Lesson #1: Bread should be fresh. “We don’t have croissants on Sunday,” someone explained to me, “because they have to be fresh and the bakery is closed.” For three days in Utrecht, we had breakfast delivered to us every morning, bed-and-breakfast style. In Amsterdam, Barcelona and Budapest, I went out every morning to buy fresh croissants, hard rolls, cheese, fruit … and enjoyed walking the early morning streets, talking to the bakers and grocers, and sharing the fresh food. 

Lesson #2: Bikes rule in Utrecht, and all over the Netherlands. The parking lot next to the train station is  filled with hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikes — not cars. The streets have bike lanes, and people walking and on bikes clearly outnumber cars in the center of the city. People bike everywhere and for everything, with bike carriers for children, dogs, and extra passengers, riding sidesaddle on the flat carrier behind the bike seat. A variety of baskets and panniers hold everything — bags of groceries, books, bunches of flowers, baguettes. Some bike handles are adorned with ropes of synthetic flowers, which makes it much easier to spot your bike in the parking lot.

Flat terrain and single-speed bikes made biking easy and painless. Though it’s harder here, especially for my aging knees, I’m looking forward to the challenge of Bike/Walk week, June 2-10. 

Lesson #3: People in the Netherlands seem to believe there’s more to life than work. Most stores, including grocery stores, close by around 6 p.m. and re-open at 8 or 9 a.m. We still did just fine. The Dutch work fewer hours than any other country in the European Union, and far fewer than in the United States. A good idea, I think, especially if that means more time for biking.