Off the Grid: A Lengthy Entry

I write to you at 8:40pm on a Thursday evening from the quiet of a small cottage on a canal in Groot-Ammers. You will pronounce that the way I did – “Groot”, like the adorable tree creature from Guardians of the Galaxy, but we will both be wrong. It is pronounced “Grote”, but the “Gr” combo sounds guttaral, the way a German would pronounce “rot”. I know this because I explained several times to several different people where I was going, and no one could understand me. This extended beyond pronunciation though; when I pulled up a map and showed them, they registered no understanding, merely offered a shrug.

This is the kind of place I love. There is something about Groot-Ammers that reminds me of Longyearbyen, a small town with one road that makes getting lost impossible.

I found Groot-Ammers on a map back in May, after Jen and I had been selected to present at the IB Global Conference in the Hague at the start of our October break. I had already signed up for the Amsterdam Marathon at the end of May, and both events bookended my holiday. Why not find a quiet place in the Netherlands to explore between two big events? I Googled something like “places to see in the Netherlands” and eventually an AirBnB with photos of windmills, cows, and a tiny house popped up. I was sold.

Jen and I presented at the Hague on Saturday, both of us quite sick but proud. On Sunday, I brunched with Alexa at Walter Benedict, and we toasted to the first time this academic year that we went out and caught up on life as friends. (We are friends; but our lives are mostly consumed with work talk.)

On Monday, I left the Hague on a 4:16pm tram that promised to, four other modes of transportation later, deposit me in Groot Ammers. But this was not to be.

I rode Tram 1 from Kneuterdijk at 4:16pm to Delft Station. There, I meant to catch an Intercity train to Dordrecht, but instead boarded a Sprinter thinking, mistakenly, that it would be faster (it is not; there were more stops). It didn’t matter either way. Arriving in Dordrecht, there was another train to catch at 5:25pm, but it was delayed by 5 minutes, so whether I’d taken the Intercity or the Sprinter was really insignificant.

I boarded the next train – and, by the way, Dutch trains are packed. It was standing room only for me, my giant purse, and my boxy suitcase with the weird Christmas ribbons I’d braided around the handles. Nearby, someone coughed viciously.

The train from Dordrecht was meant to drop me in Gorinchem at 6:02, with 6 full minutes to transfer from platform to bus station to catch the 74 bus into Groot-Ammers at 6:08. Instead, the train I was on decided to stop completely, a station away from Gorinchem. An announcement came over the PA and the woman seated across from me met my eyes and shook her head.

“I don’t understand,” I told her in English. She explained: “We all have to get off the train here.”

We did this, then shuffled en masse across the platform. The bus from Gorinchem to Groot-Ammers departed, and the next one I could take would arrive at 7:08.

A new train pulled in, we all boarded, and soon I was standing at Gorinchem station with an ETA of 7:35pm. My AirBnB hosts explained that the only restaurant in town was closed on Mondays, but the grocery store would be open until 8pm. My heart soared (a town with ONE restaurant!) and plummeted (8pm). I had no food and I felt angry at the number of delays. If this were a Swiss train or bus, I reasoned, this would never happen.

“But travel! It’s an adventure!” Dan texted.

“I’ll pay the money next time,” I wrote back. “This sucks.”

The money referred to a taxi from my hotel in The Hague to Groot-Ammers, which I learned would cost 140 Euro. I had turned this down in favor of the 2.5 hour ordeal of 1 tram, 2 trains, and 1 bus that promised to land me where I needed to be by 6:30pm.

At 6:55pm, I stood in Gorinchem, a lonely outpost with only a burger joint and a 50-cent bathroom (with actual human feces smeared on the floor) to entertain me until 7:08. The 74 bus pulled in at 6:55 and a strange mechanical arm descended from what looked like a lightpost to charge the bus. When the arm retracted, though, the bus driver looked upset. He drove the bus around the roundabout and pulled in again under the charging station. The bus illuminated the next stop (Nieuw-Lekkerland), then shut completely off. Everything about this seemed hopeless.

At 7:05, a man put out his cigarette and boarded the bus. I followed behind, wrangling my heavy suitcase onto the bus and somehow cracking my OV-Chipkaarte in the process. I pressed it to the machine and it worked.

The other passenger on the bus, the man who had boarded before me, sat towards the front, so I lugged my suitcase up to the elevated portion of the bus at the back. Seeing this, the man got out of his seat and moved to sit directly behind me.

We sat on the bus, just us and the driver, until another woman boarded. The bus driver shouted something back to the man, who flashed him a thumbs-up. We sat. The bus was meant to depart at 19:08. It was 19:10. I went up to the driver.

“Are we delayed?” I asked him.

“No, no! We will go. We will go now. We’re just charging,” he said, pointing at the roof.

Minutes later, we took off. I finally settled. Outside, the world was dark. The bus flew at breakneck speed through each of the thirteen stops between Gornichen and Groot-Ammers. No one got on; no one got off. Outside there was nothing but miles of dark, flat land, and the darkest pink remnants of sunset.

I got off at Groot-Ammers (Fortuyn-Plein) and had 20 minutes to wander around the supermarket. I bought a bottle of Brouerij’Tij IPA and two boxes of Cup-a-Soup. I was hungry and tired. At the self check, my card wouldn’t scan. An employee came over and tapped her card against the scanner. I assumed it was because of the beer and a mandatory age check, but nothing seemed to fix the issue. Frustrated, I gathered my items and moved over to the human-staffed checkout.

“We don’t accept card,” the woman told me. “Cash only.”

This seemed bizarre, given their chip-reader keypad device, but I dug into my bag for my emergency euro fund and managed to procure just enough to cover the cost of dinner.

From there, I wheeled my suitcase around the corner to where the AirBnB was meant to be. A man came out and led me around the back of his house, down a pebbled path to a small cottage on a canal.

“There are solar-powered lights on this path,” he told me, “but…they’re not working now.”

He unlocked the door to a tiny cottage that was everything I dreamed it would be: a little living room with sliding glass doors and a view of the canal, a kitchen with a gas stove, and a steep ladder leading up to the loft, where I could sleep.

“Will that be enough?” he asked, pointing at my now-crushed box of Cup-a-Soup. “My wife just made a courgette pie. Can I bring you a piece?”

I eventually said yes, and he returned with a plate of heaping courgette pie, grapes he picked from the side of his house, and three apples.

“They’re Cox apples,” he said, “from the trees outside. You can’t get them at stores, but they’re the best.”

And so, 4.5 hours and 40 euros later, I settled into a homemade dinner in my little cottage in Groot-Ammers. (The alternative was a 55-minute taxi ride for 140 euros. Which would you choose?)

Groot-Ammers by E-Bike

On Tuesday morning, I awoke to the sound of birds chattering. I clambered down the ladder, got dressed, and went into town to the bakery I’d read about online. It was as delicious as they’d described. The AirBnB had coffee and a kettle, so I bought milk at the grocery store, a flaky croissant from the bakery, and settled down to that and a Cox apple for breakfast.

Lookin out my backdoor

The day was clear and sunny, and the forecast threatened rain for the rest of my stay, so I decided today would be the best day to check out the windmills at Kinderdijk. I messaged my hosts: what would be best? Could I run there? Kayak?

“It is too far by kayak,” they said, “but we have bikes for you.”

Rien, one of my hosts, had wheeled two e-bikes out of his shed. My first reaction was dismay, because I’d never ridden an e-bike and I had no idea how to charge one. What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned non-e-bike I wondered? I could ride 15km to Kinderdijk and 15km back, no problem.

“You’d be doing me a favor by taking this,” Rien said, patting the bike. “I think the battery is getting low, and you can’t charge it until it’s completely dead.”

“I’ll take it,” I said, “but I probably won’t use the e-bike.”

As he pressed through the “support” options from 1-3 on the e-bike, I was determined to never touch it. Who needed support? Also, what if “support” rocketed me off the side of a dike or something?

Rien also gave me a map and showed me how the bike trails are numbered. It’s brilliant, really. Groot-Ammers was surrounded by trails 67, 66, and 65. But from here to Kinderdijk, you just looked out for signs that took you from 67 to 7, 6, 5, 4, and finally 3.

“Take the first left, then over the dike, then right,” Rien told me, so I did. I wasn’t expecting a highway, but the road over the dike was a main one and didn’t feel right. After several turns around and confusion, I got back on the dike road and continued along until I saw a bike path sign pointing me down onto the polder.

And then it was just surreal. The bike paths ranged from paved to uneven rocks, and rode between trees, low-lying polders, cow fields, and canals filled with birds and ducks. I’m not a birder, but when you come to the Netherlands, you can’t help but be inundated by bird species.

At one point, I biked past two pheasants. I have never seen a pheasant that wasn’t being shot at in a British television series.

Once on the country roads, I decided to play with the e-bike features. Damn. An hour ago I’d been a staunch advocate of old tyme bikes and now, I write to you as a convert. What joy in pedaling across gorgeous countryside and having your bike match your pedal stroke.

I arrived in Kinderdijk after noon and parked the bike, had a cheese sandwich and a Coke Zero, and headed towards the windmills with a 16 Euro ticket.

Note: You do not have to buy a ticket to see Kinderdijk. I could’ve just biked through it. But the woman at the information desk assured me that I’d want to ride the boat and go into a windmill, and Kinderdijk is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I figured my money was going to a good cause.

Kinderdijk is a long road that takes you straight through two rows of windmills. Some of them are now museums, so I went into one and pressed a button to hear what it sounded like to sleep in a windmill. (Answer: Loud.)

Rien had told me to keep an eye out for what made the windmills different, but it was so sunny and bright (and I had packed no sunglasses) so there wasn’t much I could offer him when I returned. (Answer: The first windmills, he said, were built from stone, but they sunk. The later windmills were built from wood.)

Realizing I could bike through the windmills, I returned for my e-bike and hopped on, biking home via the backroads. In all, I biked 50km that afternoon, and it was perfection. There are some moments in life when, as you live them, you think, I’ll remember this someday, and it will be fond. This was one of them. Riding on untrafficked roads past windmills, cows, sheep, and neverending green expanses of land and water.

Windmills at Kinderdijk

Rien had suggested I cycle through De Donk, the oldest settlement in the Netherlands. “It’s a hill,” he said.

I did this, and paused on a bridge to check my map. An older man who had been biking ahead of me stopped and turned around. He started speaking to me in Dutch.

“English?” I said.

“Oh. Yes, this is a hill. The water underneath has been pushing it up for years, so…it’s a hill,” he told me.

Then he got on his bike and went on his way. This has been as shocking as the landscape: people who say hello to you, who smile at you, who randomly engage in conversation. The Swiss are private and offer a friendly smile on a hike, but the Dutch seem genuinely excited to see you and have a chat.

I pedaled home past a windmill, returned the bike, and took my book to the only restaurant in town that was open, Het Posthujs. There was no one else in there. From start to finish, no other person entered the restaurant. How do they stay in business?

I sat down with my book and was immediately waited on by a staff of very young individuals. One said, “Why are you here alone?”

“I’m traveling,” I told her.

“Ah, you saw the windmills today?”

It was an odd experience. I went back to the AirBnB and figured I’d do something different the next day.

Wednesday: E-Biking, Again.

I went to the grocery store and bought breakfast materials, made myself a lovely breakfast while looking out my backdoor over the canal. I did some writing – gosh, it’s been ages – and decided I’d take a stroll out on the Pilgrims Path, something Google said was filled with lovely hiking trails.

I exited my cottage to find Rien standing in the chicken coop, rubbing soap on an apple tree.

“Biological warfare,” he told me, “I used to use poison on these trees to fight the disease, but actually, a thick soap does the trick.”

I asked him about the Pilgrims Path, and he said there were plenty of signs in town marking the way. But I ended up wandering through the suburbs, unsure of where I was going, and definitely sure I did not want to be in the suburbs.

I gave up and returned to the cottage to take the e-bike out again.

“I can show you hiking paths,” Rien told me. But for now, he pointed out new paths I could take on the e-bike.

So off I went, exploring for another 3 hours.

The recipe for happiness is this: an e-bike, miles of polders, and a cool October afternoon in the Netherlands.

I returned to the cottage, showered, and hopped the 74 bus 5 stops away to Heeren aan de Lek, a lovely restaurant on the water where the ferry arrives from Schoonhoven. I read my book over a glass of Chardonnay, French onion soup, and a vegetable quiche. I took the 7:25pm bus back to Groot-Ammers and fell asleep.

Thursday – Exploring on Foot

On my last full day, I woke up to rain. I made breakfast and sat at the table writing for a good four hours. It’s amazing how fiction flows when you’re in a gorgeous little small town with views of ducks, nature, autumn, etc. And you have endless coffee satchets.

At 2pm, Rien knocked on the door.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” he asked, offering me another apple off the tree. “The rain is letting up.”

“Sure,” I said.

I put on Alexa’s coat (I did not pack my own) and my running shoes and followed him out.

“Is that all you have?” he asked, pointing to my shoes.

“Yes,” I told him. (I told him a few days ago I was running the Amsterdam Marathon and he said, ‘With no training?’ I’m grateful Rebecca warned me the Dutch are blunt.)

We hopped into his car and he drove off to the point of the hiking trail. We ventured down into cow fields that ran alongside the River Lek, which he told me about. His knowledge of history was fascinating. Even now, he explained, the farmers were revolting against the government, mainly because they’d been trying to do something about methane release and whatever measurement they put into place, they eventually rescinded, making the farmers angry. Rien pointed out the Dutch flags being flown upside-down, blue stripe-up. Revolt.

We walked across cow fields in a light drizzle, and I felt like a Bronte heroine roaming the moors.

“Where we are going, there is an artist that has been working on something for…a long time,” he told me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I will not disclose. You will see.”

We walked between cow pastures and riverbanks. Each time we came to a fence, we climbed over it. In Switzerland, the gates are there to be unlatched so you can walk safely through. Here, there are wooden planks screwed into the posts to serve as steps you can climb over, or you just climb up over the fence on your own. It felt more rugged, less organized.

The cows and sheep grazed alongside as we walked.

Finally, we came to a stretch of sand where, up ahead, a castle stood. A man stood beside a car parked in the cow pasture, and he raised his hand in greeting to us. As we approached, I realized this was the artwork and this was the artist.

Rien and the man conversed in Dutch, and I happily stood by watching, picking up snippets of Dutch that sounded German. The artist had been working on the castle for 16 years. During the day, he works a job as a sort of nurse; when he’s not working, he drives 30 minutes to this location to build his castle.

The castle is a way of unwinding. He has experimented with different types of material, rebuilding when the river rises and washes parts of it away. I asked Rien how it was legal for this man to build alongside a cow pasture, but Rien said that the land between the grass and the water is for public use.

“He had to answer to an inspector once,” Rien said, “but he explained that he’s put in steps to help keep the water from ruining the cow pastures, so he is helping.”

For a while, they spoke in Dutch and I looked on. Five cows came to the edge of the pasture and ran down the sandy slope to the riverbank, where they waded in and drank from the water. I have never seen cows in the water before.

“He is crazy,” Rien says in English, and the artist laughs.

“I am crazy!” he says. “I am persistent. I’m learning.”

“He has been building this for sixteen years,” Rien tells me.

“It’s an accomplishment,” I say.

“My grandfather, he was a Marconist in the War,” the artist tells us, miming the Morse-Code tapping with his finger. “He always said, ‘Take it easy, win the war.'” He gestures to the expansive castle, sixteen years in the making. “Take it easy, win the war.”

“She is crazy, too,” Rien says. “She’s running the Amsterdam marathon on Sunday.”

I tell them that isn’t crazy, not compared to the Jungfrau Marathon. But I haven’t trained for this one, I explain.

“Take it easy, win the war,” says the artist.

He shows us the new mold he’s working with, tells us how he’s managed to keep his work mostly secret, until Google Earth reflected it recently.

Rien talks about the joy that is working with your mind during the day and working with your hands after; he was a consultant once, and worked online, but spent his free time learning and renovating the tiny house I’m staying in, building it up piece by piece. He also hitchhiked across the US, East coast to west and back again, from San Francisco to New York in a VW. People are cool.

We finish our hike and get back to the car. It’s been 7km.

I go again to Heeren aan de Leek, because it was 40 euros for 2 glasses of wine, a bottle of water, a French onion soup, and a quiche. I think I’ve missed the 6:21 bus, which is ruination for me, but it arrives 9 minutes late and I hop on gratefully.

From dinner, I take the 8:25 bus – the last bus until 6:20am – back to Groot-Ammers. I don’t want to leave, but Utrecht is calling.

What a glorious little place this is, and how special. I am as inlove with this as I am with Longyearbyen.

Categories: Netherlands

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