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Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

It started off as The Great Tulip Caper: Three days of biking through the bulb fields of Holland, staying at cozy bed and breakfasts and visiting charming towns, gardens and windmills. Then Iceland got involved and the trip truncated. Deftly adapting to new circumstances, my visiting friend and I rerouted a one-day excursion combining train and bike to maximize both the pedaling and flowering experience.

We opted for the bike shop located at Amsterdam Centraal. Although dauntingly heavy and ominously broken-in, not to mentioned bright red, our rides were deemed part of the adventure. After battling the ticket-purchasing process which erased any illusion Dutch efficiency, we sought out our track. Unfortunately, the entrance involved a narrow staircase with a 90-degree turn and a flood of pushy passengers who had just disembarked. Did I mention the bikes were made of iron?

With the exception of some confusion at our transfer station in Haarlem — Track 4 being located so that only Hogwarts students might guess its location — we smoothly arrived in Hillegom to a cool breeze saturated with the sweet scent of hyacinths. One more set of long steps down and we were on our way.

Both guidebooks and our biking map encouragingly print little tulips throughout the region. The late spring brought us past one field of disappointingly green tulip buds, but we pedaled on and were soon rewarded with row upon row of vibrant colors from tulips as well as hyacinths and daffodils, normally spent by this time.

The simple pleasure of biking through these fields could not be replicated by car, or certainly bus. Yes, the wind was nippy, but with so intoxicating an aroma, we envied the woman who carried her laundry out to line-dry.

Biking also enabled us to take on a late-day adventure after our long stroll through the Keukenhof gardens. With the advantage of long daylight hours, we decided to bike back to Amsterdam. 

It started off well. The Netherlands offers an incredible network of dedicated bikes lanes, often running parallel to roads, but safely separated from them. In addition, motorists plenty familiar with the concept of share the road, provide little concern in the few areas where lanes merge. We ventured off on one such path, soon finding ourselves pedaling past small homes along the side of a wide canal. Pens of sheep and gregarious horses greeted us along the way. Ducks and egrets fished in the waterways that outline every field. It was delightful.

Of course, we did not realize then that the route home would wind us around for 56 kilometers (35 miles). Nor had we come to grips with the reality of a natural feature we had considered: wind.

“I know you said Holland was flat,” my friend had written to me, “but it just occurred to me that Holland is also famous for windmills . . . WINDmills.”

We had made good time before that wall of force hit us. For the most part, the breeze had been to our backs, making the ride smooth and fast. Unfortunately, where our route redirected us into the oncoming gales was at an immensely boring stretch that circumvents the enormous Schipol International Airport.

Just when hope for a good end to the day dimmed, however, we came upon a pleasant surprise. Just past the airport, we stopped to gobble down a much-needed granola bar and examined two signs indicating Amsterdam but pointing in opposite directions. If my limited Dutch was correct, it seemed the one was via the woods or bos. After watching  a solitary jogger turn in, and thus convinced that it could not be too dangerous for two biking ladies at twilight, we followed.

The meandering, perfectly maintained paths drawn along trees and small grassy fields reinvigorated us. When we popped out in the southern outskirts of the city, our enthusiasm was more than amply restored to tackle the slightly more complex city biking. And when our last leg slipped us into Vondel Park we felt a surge of accomplishment as we pedaled past the royal residences and late-day strollers.

It ended up a great tulip caper indeed.

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After several passes through, around, under and across the massive Waterloo Station, we found ourselves on a ramp that seemed to indicate an exit but deposited us instead at the entry to a light rail train. On duty beside a card pass reader a train employee reminded passersby to touch up their cards before boarding.

“Excuse me, we’re looking for a bus station, bus station H?” I asked with hesitation and a slightly soft-toned high-pitch of innocent confusion I reserve for transportation workers who really do not have to help me at all.

“Hmmm. Do you know where the bus station is?” he asked the fellow rail employee beside him.

“If you go down these stairs, then take the first exit to your right . . .” she directed us. “But let me check on that, I’ll go with you.”

Although I tried to insist that her general instructions should put us in the right direction, she wouldn’t hear of it.

“I just don’t know the buses well. I’m just off work now and heading home on the train”

This, of course, made me feel even guiltier, only to be followed by even stupider when she walked with me to the information desk –which I had not seen before — as if I were a school child led by the hand.

And so it was with the kind assistance of at least four different transportation employees that we made our way to the H bus stop to catch our ride.

Stranger still was that this was not an isolated incident.

On a previous excursion we had failed to properly tap our Oyster Cards on entry and were charged nearly three times the fare upon exiting. I was incredulous as my husband insisted we wait in line for the tube information and help window to rectify the situation.

“What? Is she just going to take our word? Give us the dumb-ass discount?”

In fact, that is just what she did. She was a round lady with a great smile, and she warned us like a loving aunt.

“Oh, yes, you must make sure you tap your card or they will charge you the highest rate!”

And in less than sixty seconds, she had refunded the excess fare to our Oyster Cards.

General friendliness is sadly a pleasant surprise these days, particularly in a busy city. But coming from transportation workers? Even off-the-clock transportation workers?

It all became clear after the fact, when I read this:

London Underground operates the tube system, as part of Transport for London; they have nearly 13,000 employees. Their Stress Plan was initially developed as a pro-active health initiative to focus on reducing the organisation’s stress-related losses. Not only has it achieved this aim, but has benefited their employees by providing a model of health intervention, including time management, optimum physical health – including diet and exercise, work/life balance, relaxation, relationships at work and at home and personal responsibility and decision making.

If I have ever witnessed a more random but convincing proof of success for an employee program, I cannot recall it. If these were not — on average — the most genuinely happy employees around, I can not imagine it.

Our last case in point came as we were departing the city and picking up our Oyster Card deposit and refund. The gentleman behind the glass beside ours began a regular comedy routine with a Scottish woman just arrived in London. She too was quick with a wry retort.

“I’m just a foreign lady in a strange country.”

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