Reprising the role of travel agent!
Let's just say it has been a while since last I posted. During this time my family and I moved to the UK, where I took a job at Durham University -- which, if some of you recall, was the reason I started this blog, as I came to Durham in 2012 on Sabbatical. Well, I guess we liked the place. As of August 2022, I will have finished my fourth year here. I also recently passed the Life in the UK test and sucessfully applied for Settlement, or what is more technically called Indefinite Leave to Remain! So, I can basically live here. Next year (after twelve months of settling) I can apply for citizenship. For those of you who are in love with "all things UK", you should give a practice test a go. My British friends have enjoyed seeing how well they can do. I am great at the history but terrible on sport.
No sooner did we move to the UK when the pandemic hit and travel was postponed for a rather long time. The pandemic is still here, and we are still vigilant -- wearing our masks, staying out of crowded indoor restaurants and crowded spaces and places, regularly testing, and trying to do our small part to protect those who are vulnerable or putting themselves out there everyday to keep our world running! Much thanks to you all!!!! We support our local restaurants (or when traveling) by getting take-away and eating in outdoor spaces, even when it is 4 or 5 Celsius/40-45 Fahrenheit.
Inevitably, however, our worlds have begun moving again, and travel is a part of that. So, with a rather significant degree of nervousness, we started traveling and found out that, yes indeed, you can travel rather safely if smart, and you can reduce risk, do the work you traveled to do, and still have a lot of fun.
Case in point, taking the ferry to buy bikes in the Netherlands.
How to buy Dutch bikes and get them to the UK -- Oh, and do so in 36 hours!
Maggie (my wife), Ruby (my daugther) and I do not own cars. We either walk or use public transportation, which is one of the top five reasons we moved to Europe. There are those days, however, when having a bike would be nice, particularly a nice City Bike, on the back of which we can put groceries and various other purchases. We have had our eyes on a Gazelle City Bike, the crème de la crème, the volvo of city bikes.
With such credentials comes a high price tag! In the UK we are talking about new bikes starting at £1.5k to £2k, and even used bikes being over £700, if you wanted something higher-end. There is a land, however, where bikes outnumber people, and where living on a bike is similar to growing up in car country. The Netherlands!
I spend a lot of time in the Netherlands as a function of the work I do with colleagues at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Amsterdam, and because of a book I am writing with one of my best friends and colleagues, Lasse Gerrits, who is at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam.
Do not get me wrong, Amsterdam is beautiful. It is one of my favourite cities. Its history is just as rich. The massive impact the Dutch have had on the world does not get the attention it deserves. I highly recommend Amsterdam by Russell Shorto. Absolutely brilliant! The IAS gave me a copy as a parting gift for one of my chats and I could not put it down.
Still, I love Rotterdam.
Rotterdam reminds me a lot of Cleveland, Ohio, in the States, where I lived for 30 years. Rotterdam is a working-class city that had to rebuild itself. Unlike Cleveland, it took post-industrialism, global warming, and the collapsing environment seriously, and transformed itself into a green place. When folks say to me, "Oh, well, sure, of course they do that in the Netherlands; but it is not possible here." I respond back, "That is not true, it is all about making hard decisions." For an overview, here is a BBC article.
Case in point: bikes!
Two weeks ago I traveled to the IAS and then Rotterdam for work. I told Lasse that Maggie and I wanted to buy used bikes while there.
"What?," he said. "Why would you do that?"
"Because, this is the capital of bikes and used bikes here are like used cars in the States . . . they are everywhere. So you can get something high-end for cheap as it is not as precious."
"Makes sense. . . but how are you going to get them home?"
This may sound slightly mad, but I thought: I can buy two used bikes in the Netherlands and transport them to the UK and still spend less money then if I bought them new or used in the UK. Prior to traveling to Rotterdam, Maggie and I found a number of really excellent websites that, for a rather small fee, would box and transport your bike from Rotterdam to York, where we live in the UK. The problem was that you needed one day of stting around at a hotel or flat for them to deliver the box. Another day doing the same for them to be picked up. Plus a day to actually see some shops and buy the bikes. I did not have that kind of time. Maggie and I decided to give up on the idea. Perhaps we could just go to Rotterdam and look at the bikes and get inspired.
So, on our lunch break from work, Lasse took us bicycle sightseeing. He took us to this brilliant shop near the University, called 010 Bikes. It was a blast.
Then we did what we said we absolutely would not do. We bought two used upscale Gazelle bikes -- one for Maggie and one for me -- for a grand total of £430. A dream of a lifetime! We test rode them, Lasse rode them as well and gave us a "thumbs up"; the shop gave the bikes a quick once-over; we paid for the bikes; and rode them back to campus.
"So," Lasse asked again, "How are you getting them home?"
A long painful pause of silence. . . .
"I've not figured that out yet."
Another rather long moment of pause. . .
Maggie said, "You know Brian, if there is a will there is a way."
After storing our bikes at Lasse's place, we went to lunch with another colleague and friend, Sophia, to chat about all-thing qualitative complexity methods and social science. At lunch I brought up the bikes. We went round and round about how to get the bikes home. Trains? Post? Finally, Sophia said, "Have you considered taking the ferry? Lasse agreed.
"The ferry?" For real?
Taking the Ferry
A little known mode of travel to us newly arrived immigrants in the UK -- which our European friends knew about and have taken -- was the ferry. The best way to cross the channel, they say! I have never been on a ferry, let alone a sea-worthy boat. This was all new territory. On the last day of our trip to Rotterdam, at the airport, with five hours of waiting on our hands, Maggie and I started looking at ferries.
The ecological imprint of flying is an aspect of my work I am burdended by. Trains are a great alternative, but the Eurostar presently does not allow you to transport bikes. I needed to do this trip the following week, and I needed to do it quick and cheap, and in less than 36 hours!
That is when we found P&O Ferries.
Given it was recently Father's Day and I was looking for something fun to do with Ruby, we decided she and I would go the following week. We put together our plan.
Easy peasy, right? It was a total hoot! The Ferry was full of pensioners, truck drivers, and motor bike enthusiasts. Short of a few families, everyone was 50 years or older. The first leg of the trip was brilliant!
Well almost! Sea sickness, it is a real thing. There were times when I thought my head was going one way and the ship the other. The key seems to be to forget about it and get on with it. Stay Calm and Carry On.
Arriving at Lasse's place, we went to lunch, chatted about work a bit, and then got the bikes. It was 1PM. We were 17 hours into the trip. We had the bikes and were ready to go.
Here, however, was the first of several problems we had to solve. Public transportation does not go to the Rotterdam P&O Port and a taxi would run around €110 or more. But, being it is the Netherlands, there are bike paths all the way there, including going over massive motorway bridges!
And so we set off.
Fififteen minutes into the ride I got a flat tire! Urgggggggh! Time was ticking, we had a lot of miles to make up and we were stopped flat. What to do? Try to get air and keep riding? Nope. It immediately went flat again. We went to the first bike place. They could fix it but not until the next day. Sorry, that is not going to work.
We decided to go back to the shop where we bought the bikes. A two mile walk back. They would fix the bike on the spot! Awesome guys! A nail the size of a pin had punctured the tire. What luck!
We waited for them to fix the bike, found an ATM machine to pay in cash (VISA does not work often in the Netherlands) and made our way back to the route to start all over again.
We had lost an hour and a half. It was now 3PM. I also forgot to mention that it was about 23 Celsius/74 Fahrenheit and, despite Google Maps in hand, we really had no idea where we were going. Backpacks on our bike racks, we once again set out on our route.
After about two hours of traveling, we seemed to be getting nowhere. We were dehydrated and starting to become sun burnt. Ruby asked, "How far are we?" I looked at the map. How could we have only gone only three miles in two hours? We still had 18 miles to go. What was happening?
That is when we realised I had read the map wrong. Fu*K!!!! The map said 41 kilometers, not 27 kilometers! That is 25 miles, not 17. How are we going to do this? Panic set in. "Time to dig deep and ride," Rudy said, "We need to pick up the pace."
The second problem was that Google Map does not provide bike routes. Instead, it kept giving us ways to walk there, including taking a few stairwells -- a major statement on where we are regarding travel. So we had to stay fully alert and adjust for errors, which we made. All-in-all, it was 18 miles of mental and physical courage. But also pure joy! I know it sounds cliché, but it was one of those bucket-list experiences. Ruby and I had such a wonderful time!
Through the Dutch suburbs we rode -- which are absolutely gorgeous, by the way! -- then onward into the port district, with massive factories all around and nothing but motorways on either side of us. It was surreal. We even had to pause while this massive lift bridge on the major motorway lifted to let a ship pass. Believe it or not, but the bridge had a two-way bike lane! Two bridge guards stood watch, drinking a cup of coffee and busting our chops as they could see we were novices. But, they did laughingly acknowledge our focus. We were going to make it!
Four hours later, around 7PM, we could see light at the end of the tunnel. More correctly, we could see the Ferry! It was still three miles away, but there it was, in plain sight. Peddle, peddle, peddle, knees hurting, sweating everywhere, hungry, tired, and . . . if I am honest, . . a bit of chaffing!
Finally, we arrived at P&O Ferry, amongst cars and truckers, gas fumes and all, with little time to spare. We checked in our bikes. Exhausted, we each ate an entire pizza in the pub, drank our wine, watched a movie, crashed, woke the next day, ate our full English, got on our bikes, rode them three miles to the Hull station in the rain, secured them on the train, rode to York, met Maggie, and then walked them to our flat. All in less than 36 hours.
Bikes (£430 total) + Ferry tickets (£430 total) + food etc (£40) + UK train (£30) = 860£k. What a trip!