words + photos by Eric Lucas
The bumper sticker that caught my eye was on one of those big, glistening, jet-black ¾-ton dual-wheel pickups that are never, ever driven by women. It was named after a horned beast. There was a gun rack on the back glass. Twin exhausts gargled fumes and dripped pustulence. A CB antenna rose skyward. The driver had on a tractor-company ball cap.
The sticker said, “Stop Global Whining.”
What was really strange was the location for this spectacle—the historic center of Amsterdam, right next to one of the city’s lovely canals.
I mean it—if you believed me, even for a few seconds, you have obviously never been to Amsterdam and were fooled by my fictional ruse, which I devised to make a point about the world and traveling around in it. This iconic ultra-American pickup, guzzling diesel like an old drunk, with the sticker sneering at global warming, would never, ever be seen in Amsterdam.
I actually saw it in Eastern Oregon, a beautiful place I happen to like. It’s got towering mountains, secret canyons, ancient trees, hidden stream valleys with songbirds in breeze-tossed willows. It has many fine residents; and also some who are under-educated and have never been to Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, not only do people not drive around in massive pickups that could not be parked anywhere, bikes outnumber residents. There are twice as many bicycles in Holland as there are people. While its citizens use their own muscles to get themselves around, unlike monster-truck owners in Oregon, Hollandaise “whining” about global warming is actually alarm. Most of Amsterdam is below sea level. Amsterdam’s famous airport, Schiphol, international aviation’s 3rd-biggest hub, is the lowest point in the area. Its name means “ship hole” because the site used to be a lake that was notorious for boat-busting weather.
It’s not underwater any more. It was “reclaimed,” part of a quarter of Holland that was once below water. Schiphol is 3 meters below the mean level of the North Sea, about 30 kilometers away. Amsterdam itself ranges from just above sea level to 2 meters below. One third of Holland is below sea level, and the whole country stays dry behind a massive series of dikes and dams that keep the water at bay.
These are amazing feats of engineering, these dams, canals and sluice gates that blend a below-sea-level nation with the waters that define it. I cruised Amsterdam’s canals last spring with a charming family whose handmade gouda cheese (Old Amsterdam brand) made a delightful contrast to the smoked raw beef sausage (osseworst) it accompanied. It was a bit bizarre to realize that we were sailing below sea level.
I could not help thinking, both in Amsterdam and eastern Oregon, how much good it might accomplish for each side to visit the other and experience a few things, ranging from culinary oddities to natural fact.
For example, I’m sure the average inland US resident would cringe at the idea of raw Dutch sausage—even a couple of my world-traveler American companions turned green when offered osseworst. Yet the average Amsterdamer would gasp when served the 30-ounce steak that’s the signature item at Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant in Silver Lake, Oregon. Yep, a 2 1/2-pound steak. Or a whole chicken—per customer. We took a Finnish exchange student there once and she was dumbfounded.
Likewise, perhaps Americans who visit the Netherlands would reconsider sneering at climate change if they stood atop the damworks at Neeltje Jans, along the barrier islands in southern Holland’s Zeeland province. The North Sea prowls and surges restlessly against the miles of cofferdams here, huge engineering marvels designed to let the tides flow most of the time, but to hold back the sea when storms roll. The pressure against 2 kilometers of dikes during flood tides equals billions of pounds; raise the sea 6 inches, a fairly modest projection of global warming, and that pressure heightens exponentially.
“So, you buy into this global warming nonsense?” a Kentucky visitor asked our tour guide as we gaped at the huge hydraulic levers that raise and lower the dike doors. The Dutch guide courteously explained that his country has no choice but to “buy into” scientific fact.
Later, one of my Dutch hosts asked me: “What is it with people from your country?”
To that, I guess I’d say: Please make your way to Summer Lake, Oregon, where afternoon dust devils raise columns of alkali chalk from the lake bed a thousand feet into the air, and you might have to park your car on the highway while a cattle drive goes by. This is where those 4-pound steaks come from. This lakebed will never, ever be drained and diked to become a global airport. Aside from steaks, the landscape seems suited to grow a wild, insular provincialism that confounds the rest of the world, but as Will Rogers said, everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.