Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Getting Away From it All (and conquering some fears along the way)

Growing up, I have been afraid of a whole slew of things at one point or another: the costumed characters at Disney World, putting my head underwater when learning how to swim, being upside-down, roller coasters and any rides with big drops (still don’t like them, actually), the dark, the laundry room in our basement (probably has to do with the previous fear), loud noises (including balloons popping but not including, oddly enough, thunderstorms). Needless to say, I was also a very cautious child, and tended to do my best to avoid any situation where I might be at any risk of getting hurt (and yet the first sports I participated in with any sort of commitment where skiing and horseback riding; go figure).

I’m telling you all this to provide some context for what I am going to say next, the admission of which might shock you, nevertheless: I do not know how to ride a bike. Most people laugh when I first tell them this, as if they think I’m making a joke, but I am completely serious. How did I manage to get through childhood without learning this practically ubiquitous skill? Well, my parents did try to teach me when I was little, but after a few failed attempts I decided I was perfectly happy keeping both feet on the ground, thank you very much.

Which is why Todd’s idea for what to do for fun on Ameland Island this weekend filled me with apprehension and no small amount of dread: he wanted to rent a tandem bicycle.

Up til now I’d managed to diligently avoid Todd’s offers to teach me to ride (after one attempt back in Riverside, where after a few panicky minutes I declared the bike a death machine, he pretty much backed off that idea). But to be honest, there is pretty much nothing else to do on Ameland except go to the beach, and it was about 55 degrees and howling winds outside. So tandem biking it would have to be, unless we were intending to just sit in the apartment and stare at each other for a whole day.

Actually, that apartment was pretty nice. Todd wanted to go somewhere quiet for a weekend alone together before his five-day trip to Sweden and Norway. He also wanted to travel as far as possible within the Netherlands by train, and you can’t get much farther than Friesland (Maastricht is in Limburg, the southernmost Dutch province, while the Friesian islands are at the very northernmost part, in the North Sea). The plan was to spend one day and two nights in Ameland (our hotel upgraded us to a little apartment for only 60 euros a night), and then we would depart at the train station, Todd headed for Schippol Airport, me back to Maastricht.

So we departed Saturday morning, and several train changes, two bus rides and one ferry journey later:

we arrived at the village of Nes on Ameland in the late afternoon. It's a quaint little place, for sure, with adorable houses and well-kept gardens (and some friendly animals, too):

(The last one's a bit rain-blurred; luckily the threatened storm held off until the morning of our departure. Unluckily, this meant a mile-long walk to the ferry dock in nearly-horizontal rain. Bleh.)

There are only four tiny villages on the island; Nes, the second largest, is also the tourist hub, but there were hardly any tourists this weekend. In fact, besides a few school groups, the place was pretty much deserted. Hence, the upgrade to an apartment, which as I mentioned before was very nice and especially cozy with the wind whistling outside:

(It even had wireless internet!)

Plus a little balcony, which I would have taken full advantage of if I wasn't afraid of being swept off by an errant gust of wind.

That first night we struggled the few hundred meters against the wind into the village for dinner, and found a quirky little place with really nice servers and great food; we like it so much we returned the next night as well.

There were some couches along the wall, too, as well as outdoor seating with heaters. I could see myself coming here to do work on my laptop or some reading if we stayed longer.

 The next morning dawned gray and windy, with cold spatterings of rain, and I was secretly hopeful this bike excursion wouldn’t happen. But then the sky brightened, and though the wind was still strong, it was turning into a beautiful day. I accepted my fate, and 15 euros later, we were the proud owners of a tandem bicycle (til 6 p.m., anyway):

 And actually, after the first few minutes of sheer terror, it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have to do any balancing (my sticking point in the past), and just had to hang on for dear life and pedal. And, except for a few panic-stricken hours in the beginning when I discovered I had dropped my wallet somewhere (it was found and returned by a nice policeman, thank god!), we ended up having a very nice time, pedaling out to the western end of the island, past windswept fields with grazing Friesian horses, sheep and cows, to the largest village, Hollum, which was eerily quiet and empty on a Sunday. We rode out to the old lighthouse and climbed all the way to the top, where we were treated for our effort with quite a view: 

Going down was the hardest part, check out those stairs!

250 steps, according to Todd (yes, he counted).

By the time we got back my butt was sore and we were both ready for dinner.

All in all, I’m glad we went to Ameland. It’s an interesting place, with a definite end of the world feel, like many other windswept, coastal places of the world (it reminded Todd of places in Washington, and brought Montauk Point on Long Island to mind for me). We felt like we were on a beach vacation (near the hotel) and out in the country (further inland) at the same time. We also developed a new appreciation for why the Netherlands is famous for its windmills.

See the giant swan in the pic (click to enlarge)? There was a giant whale, too:

I imagine the island gets somewhat crowded on holiday weekends and in the summer, but when we were there we felt like we had the place practically to ourselves, which was a nice change of pace. I got the feeling the people there were hardier than their counterparts further south, used to years of isolation and inclement weather (the wind never stopped blowing the whole time we were there, and the walk to the ferry in horizontal rain was decidedly unpleasant). Maybe it gets more crowded during the summer or on holiday weekends, but while we were there we felt like we had the place practically to ourselves, which was a nice change of pace. Sometimes it’s good to get away from it all for a just a little while.

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