Finally after six long months of cold, wet and dark the Spring Equinox has arrived, the first day in the year when day and night are of equal length. From now until September 21 the days will be longer than the nights and boy, does that lift the spirits.
After months of seeing the sun through a watery beige haze, or an insipid cream in a washed out blue sky (if we were lucky), it’s now making its journey north with bright expansive rays bringing the promise of warmth.
Through the winter months interaction with the Dutch is limited – the population scuttle from the cosiness of their homes only when necessary. They dress to match the climate in shades of black and charcoal, merging with the murky greyness, silent and ethereal as they go about their business in hostile silence. Contact with this semi-hibernating species is met with frowns, glares and words spat viciously. A wearing time for everyone.
All that is over, at least for the next six months. The past few days have been a flurry of activity as the Dutch have thrown off their winter slough, ditched the dull heavy clothes of winter and emerged into the spring, blinking in the unaccustomed brightness, waking as if from a depressing and gloomy dream and raring to go.
As the Captain and I lay propped up in bed over the weekend, we had a wonderful view of the comings and goings of the local populace beyond the sheep field next to us. We have an uninterrupted view of woodland, a bike path, a footpath and ruiter route (horse path). This past weekend it was like Grand Central Station before Christmas.
The bike clubs are back. The Lycra Lads in all their glory, professionally equipped with the latest cycling gadgets. We sipped tea and watched them swish past at ludicrous speed in their go-faster helmets, black lycra shorts and matching tops.
The Orange club had the most members this weekend, 26 of them in a tight cluster racing for their lives. After them a group in various shades of blue, strung out (literally?) in a loose line with two or three here, a couple there, someone huffing and puffing at the back, undisciplined and a little unfit after the winter hiatus. They were followed by the casual weekend bike riders – American or British. They always chat, this is a social event, spending family time like the Dutch.
The give away they’re not Dutch are the safety helmets which define them immediately as foreigners. Other than the professional bikers the only people who wear bike helmets for safety in the Netherlands are the Americans and the Brits. Look round the streets of Amsterdam or The Hague and the everyday person going about their business doesn’t wear a helmet.
The behaviour of the Dutch on bikes is enough to guarantee the Health and Safety Executives of the USA and the UK an immediate cardiac arrest. What they forget is all Dutch kids ride bikes as soon as they can walk – bikes have precedence over cars in ALL situations, there are bike paths everywhere so a safe environment for bike users.
However, it’s still a shock to watch teens on their way to school, usually with someone sitting side-saddle on the pannier over the back wheel, cell phone glued to ear. They ride all over the road if there’s no bike path, five abreast at least and everyone deals with it. No helmets in site.
Finally, we watched a Dutch family cycle past. Mom on a solid beast of a bike with toddler on a seat behind her, babe strapped into a seat on the handlebars in front, and the eldest peddling furiously on a small cycle at her side. Dad was ahead of the group oblivious to the chaos behind.
We’ve often debated this scene – it looks so chauvinistic, especially when Dutch men play such an active and hands on role in family life and parenting in particular. We have decided Dad is probably a little too relaxed when out with the kids so Mom has decided she has to take control – he can’t be trusted to watch the kids or protect them from the onslaught of the Lycra Lads at full pelt.
Mixed into this mêlée were dogs trotting alongside bikes like the carriage dogs of old. Focused, joyous, tails high and having the time of their lives.
On the footpath things were no less rushed. Walking groups with matching anoraks consulted laminated maps and pointed vaguely in all directions, cameras and notebooks at the ready (why?) and into the colourful mayhem the runners wove their way, eyes rolling at such low impact activity.
Dog walkers strolled with old canines ambling slowly at their sides, relieved to feel the heat in their bones after months of aching cold. Even their tails were raised and you saw the happiness shining through clouded eyes as they plodded from the main footpath and wobbled into the wood.
The finale of our weekend spectacle was the emergence of sleek, full bodied horse flesh from the wood onto the ruiter route. Tightly reined in, tails flicking and switching, ears pricked as they sensed the open space of the grass path ahead, we watched their muscles contract under the gleaming rippled flesh as they pranced in the warming air.
In between our morning sips of tea we placed bets as to whether the riders would hold their horses in check or allow them to run free. Almost as good as Cheltenham Races.
Mingled with all this activity was the ceaseless chirping and cooing of the birds finally convinced it’s time to build nests and mate. The swans are back too – they return each year to nest by the pond outside, raising their brood with devotion and serenity.
In the field just up the road the first spring lambs were frisking in a field by a canal, where the weeping willows are almost in full leaf.
All this in one of the most densely populated countries in the world and only 6km from the centre of The Hague. Unbelievable. Spring has finally arrived and life in the Netherlands doesn’t get much better than this.