Saturday, September 18, 2010

Comparative Studies 101

For an exchange student, life here in the Netherlands can be organized into distinct categories: expected differences, unexpected similarities, and unexpected differences. Based on background knowledge and previous posts it is easy to guess what belongs in the first two categories, but allow me to give a brief overview of the unexpected differences as of yet unrecounted.

1. The Architecture
Because of the limited land space, which is perpetually threatened by rising sea levels and sinking land masses, the Dutch must meticulously plan their cities, housing, and even the natural areas, to protect and conserve the environment and the unmistakable Dutch quality found in the city and countryside. With regards to the actual look and design of the buildings, there are common characteristics to be found in the old and the new. Roofs tend to be high and either orange or black, but tiled rather than shingled. Furthermore, houses have open floor plans with lots of windows to let it light, and people rarely have or use curtains because they are seen as unnecessary, signifying that the individual (and by extension society as a whole) has nothing to hide.

2. The Bike Roads
True, we expected bike lanes, but certainly not bike roads, and we definitely did not expect the bike lanes to be nearly as profuse. The reality, however, is a road system with abundant accommodations for cars, bikes, various motorized bikes (from motorcycles to motorized wheel chairs), and pedestrians. On the side of every road there is at least one bike lane. Yet, as the road becomes bigger, so do the bike lanes, often becoming two-laned bike roads on both sides of the road, which in many cases break off into independent bike roads that are actually short-cuts, allowing bikers to get to places much quicker. Moreover, these bike lanes/roads do not just remain in the cities, but extend beyond to the country and even along the highways to other cities (big and small) forming an intricate network of travel that is surprisingly vast, fun, and cheap -- the access fee simply being the purchase of a bike. Nevertheless, the most unexpected thing about the bike roads were all the different people using them, which brings me to my next difference.

3. Treatment of the Disabled
Interestingly enough, the Netherlands seems to be a great place to live for the physically and mentally disabled. It is extremely common to see someone in a wheel chair or motorized chair zooming down the bike lane next to you. There are all sorts of wheel chair/bike combinations that allow the person to pedal with their hands, or, perhaps just as often, the person in the wheelchair will bum a ride off their friend by simply holding on to the end of their bike. However, it is not just those in wheel chairs, or older people in motorized chairs, but even people with what we would consider severe conditions are able to take part in all this. There is one memory that always stand out in my mind, and that is of the paraplegic and his dog. One day I was out on the bike road heading away from the city and I came across a man walking his dog, although not how it is usually done. The dog's leash was fastened to the chair, while the man, who was clearly paralyzed from the neck-down, scooted along enjoying his Sunday afternoon and leading his dog, who was running, sniffing, and playing. I remember thinking then what a great place this must be, if even the most disabled are able to enjoy such a great degree of freedom. Even the mentally handicapped are able to enjoy more freedom and acceptance than I have ever seen at home. This country has a lot the U.S. could learn from with respect to acceptance and attitude.

Until Next Time,

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