Family Night in Prison

If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?


But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.

As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.

“I don’t have my bag!”

His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.

“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.

The keys to the vacation house? OH CRAP!

“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.

We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.

If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.

But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.

Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.

Leeuwarden or Bust!

As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.

I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.

Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.

I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left.  The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.

We walked the four hundred meters and arrived at Blokhuispoort, our final destination.

We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!

The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.

img_7920We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.

It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?

“We’ll take it!”

 The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.

We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.

Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.

What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.

I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.


The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.

If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.

Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.

The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.

Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.


Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?

In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.


In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.

So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.




Home way from home away from home

When we flew into Schiphol airport outside Amsterdam, I had a great sense of relief: Relief that the long plane ride was over, excitement to see my husband again, and the shoulder-relaxing sensation of being back home. And there I’ve said it. Home. Usually, that’s a term I reserve solely for central California, the place where I grew up and where I just spent the last five and a half weeks staying with family and friends. That is the place where people speak my language. Not only the English language, but Central-California-Coast English.

In this particular liberal leaning dialect, all know that the Monsanto Corporation, with their genetically modified crops, is evil; that gay rights are inalienable rights; that tomatoes and blackberries are things to be picked fresh off the vine and eaten immediately; that open space is a valuable commodity that should be preserved; live music a treasure to the soul, humor a form of religion, and speaking wittily, yet openly and kindly with others a way of life.

After spending five and a half weeks in California, I almost felt like I’d moved back home. Almost. The problem was, my sweet husband hadn’t come with us. He was back in The Hague, holding down the fort, working on the house, skyping and calling us every other day, and reminding my son and I by his mere absence, that we had another home on the other side of the ocean. The incredible sunshine, cultural familiarity, friends, family and all the charms that “my California” offers are far more compelling than the most creatively designed sales brochure or million dollar ad campaign. Nothing can sell you more than being understood, comfortable and wanted. And a big part of me wanted to stay.

Yet, now that I’m back in The Netherlands, I want to be here too. Not only because my husband is here and my job is here, but because our three-level apartment in The Hague has become our home away from home, the school Ezra attends his school and the people we’ve met our other community. Perhaps I’m a much simpler creature than I want to believe, and one of those hand crocheted little wall hangers that says “home is where the heart is” sums up my ability to transition so easily from one culture to the other. Or, maybe I’m just culturally slutty in that seventies, free loving, Crosby, Stills and Nash “Love the One Your With” way.

In either case, neither world is perfect. Here in The Hague I can ride public transport, walk or bicycle to just about anywhere I need to be, providing me the rare ability to avoid car culture altogether–a virtual impossibility should I live back in California. If I want the European experience, I only need step outside my door. If I want a European vacation, I need only a free weekend to venture by train to another city, or country, for that matter, and gaze upon breathtaking town squares from the 1600s, something I can also do in my “home away from home” town.

On the other hand, although Arie Jan picked up quite a bit of CCC English during his six years with me in California, I haven’t met anyone else who truly speaks my dialect. On top of that, I communicate most of the day in a foreign language I haven’t yet mastered, meaning that I feel held back, and unable to fully express myself. Yet there is something exciting about the daily challenge of language acquisition. It is as if my every waking day is a treasure hunt, and every person I interact with potentially the one to offer up a new Dutch word, that upon that day transitions from a word I keep forgetting, to one given over to my permanent collection. How would you weigh being understood immediately compared to a daily treasure hunt?

And more importantly, where is home? Where is my home away from home? And which city becomes my home away from home away from home? I would never want to be described as two-faced, because of course that expression holds only a very negative connotation. But I do have two worlds in which I reside. And when it comes down to it, I’m leaning much more heavily toward the promiscuous approach to my two cultures of Love the One your With.

Dutch headline news can really break through the ice

Tonight, I joined Arie Jan on the couch to watch the 8:00 news to catch up on world events. Something serious must be going on inside Holland, I thought, as there on the screen was a somber looking Dutch man speaking before an expansive collection of brightly colored microphones. His countenance, continuously lit up by flashes of light, suggested there were more reporters at this live news conference then there are Stroopwafels in Holland.

Had there been an international attack I had somehow missed out on? Or maybe Holland was pulling out of the European Union? Was Queen Beatrix okay? Was Holland sinking into the ocean at a faster rate than earlier calculated, putting us all in imminent danger? I tried to connect the gravity of the image before me with the weathery words I was picking up: lakes, water, ice, snow, freezing point, centimeters, volunteers, ice thaw.

“Oh My God,” I said to Arie Jan. “Is all of this about whether or not that big skating event will go forward?”

“I’m afraid so,” Arie Jan said. “The Dutch take their skating very seriously. Either that, or there’s not much going on in the world.”

Well, in the world of skating, Elfstedentocht is a big deal. It is described as the world’s largest speed skating competition, going through eleven cities and traversing close to 200 kilometers. And, it is only possible if the weather conditions are just right–e.g. if enough rivers and lakes and waterways that form a contiguous skating path through the eleven cities have reached a deep enough freeze.

Thus, it requires the cooperation of not only thousands of volunteers, but of mother nature herself providing the right conditions and the Elfstedentocht commission verifying that the conditions are suitable. And sadly, despite the one day of snow we had last week, and despite all of the Dutch already out there skating on every patch of frozen water they can find, the conditions were not yet up to par for the world’s largest speed skating competition to go forward.

But after 15 more minutes of continuous news coverage, I switched to BBC without too much flinching on my husband’s part to discover that indeed, the rest of the world was still out there, covering stories that had very little to do with speeding across the ice.

If you are Dutch and you are reading this right now, then my apologies to the insult I am bringing on your motherland. But really, 15 minutes of prime time news coverage for live footage on whether or not the 11 city skating event will go forward? These are the moments when living in Holland feels more like being a member of a provincial town where all eyes turn inward toward the upcoming parade or pageant, than an internationally renowned country that influenced far-reaching parts of the world through its seafaring, trading and business practices.

Now, if I only knew an elfstedentocht economist who could explain the monetary benefits of 200 kilometers of speed skating, or a sociologist or historian who could enlighten me on how this race is connected to the sinew that binds together the Dutch national spirit, then I might just see that elfstedentocht is not only plausibly linked to the origins of Dutch worldliness, but does indeed warrant 15 minutes of prime time.

Yelling into a crowd

Sitting on a raised basement, our living room is positioned a half story above street level. This provides us with a tree lined view of the urban bike paths, street and busy tram lines just high enough to be seen by passersby, and just low enough that the branches don’t obscure our view. The first few months of living here I was acutely aware of the people outside, suffering from the strange sensation of being on display.  But with the passage of time, that perception has changed. Much like a person living next to a playground no longer notices the playful screams and laughter of children at recess time, now I hardly notice the people outside.  Unless the patterns change.

One Monday afternoon as I stood in the living room, my eyes were suddenly pulled outside. No longer was there the languid movement of people going about their business, but a sudden cluster of dark-haired teenagers along the tram line. They pressed in against the metal guard rail as they surrounded two young girls gesticulating wildly toward one another.  Soon a cat fight broke out. For a good three seconds, the situation felt humorous, in that uncomfortable, sitcom sort of way as the girls started pushing one another and pulling hair. But as the crowd of 20 or so teenagers got sucked into the burst of violent energy the fight quickly escalated. Fists flew, other students got involved and within 10 seconds one girl lost her balance, falling to the hard cement. Other kids began kicking.

I quickly unlocked the glass door, stepped out on the balcony and shouted in a deep guttural voice “Stop now! Or I’ll call the police!” I clapped my hands loudly to emphasize the seriousness of my words. The teenagers fled like rats from a cat, running off in multiple directions. Several quickly turned to see me and my husband, who was now beside me, and just as quckly turned away, as if afraid we were memorizing the contours of their round young faces for a police report.

It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed a crowd-induced fight. Nor was it the first time I’d found myself suddenly yelling into a crowd. My first trip to Italy over a decade ago provided for just such an occasion.

My traveling partner and I arrived late one July evening in the Rome Train Station to discover that the strike that had delayed us several hours in Napoli was also in full swing in this station. Blurry eyed with heavy packs on our backs, we didn’t look forward to the prospect of finding a hotel past midnight in peak tourist season. But then a stocky middle-aged Italian woman approached us.

“Need a hotel tonight?” We’d become quite used to such forward solicitations from the Italians, but knew to keep our guard up in Rome. Or at least I did.

“Yeah. How much?” my travel mate said. Seriously? Wouldn’t it be safer to find something on our own? I thought. In a less seedy part of town? While I was doing my best to convey these thoughts through a series of eyebrow contortions, he made a deal and we started following her out of the train station. But just then, my eye caught a break in the pattern.

A fight broke out not 20 feet from where we stood. A group of lanky young Italians started attacking a dodgy looking man in his thirties. A metal luggage cart was lifted in the air and came crashing down on his head. I’d learned a few words in Italian and suddenly I found myself shouting:

“Polizia! Polizia!” The police came quickly and broke up the fight. I wondered if it was too late, as an impressive pool of blood was already forming beneath the motionless man, staining the marble floor of the train station. The woman who we continued to follow out of the station told us that it would have been fine if this man had been killed as he was a known drug dealer. Great, I’m headed back to a hotel with a woman who knows the squalid underbelly of this ancient city and condones vigilante style murder.

If Wikipedia were seeking a photo of seedy, this hotel would not disappoint. When I complained that the shared bathroom and shower was too dirty to even consider using, the woman called her mother to come mop it up. Mom, hunched and thick, must have been in her late 70s. I wondered if the Italians had an elder abuse hotline, or if this was the way things worked in this part of town. The beds were so awful that we slept on the floor on our sleeping pads. But we survived.

Speaking of survival in the true meaning of the word, I wonder if that man in Rome so many years ago survived and why I was the only person to take action. It was, after all, a hot summer night in peak tourist season with plenty of other people around. Of course I like to think that I helped save this stranger, rather than witnessing his murder.

I’ve heard stories from close friends who have also had these situations; there is someone in their midst, a tragedy unfolding and they are the only ones to respond.  I’m not suggesting some sort of moral superiority. I didn’t choose social work or another selfless career. I haven’t received any citizen awards for outstanding public service.

It’s more that I wonder what is it that makes one person break out of her awe-struck gaze at a situation unfolding and take action, and another stay fearfully or apathetically locked in place? Remember, for the first few seconds of witnessing the cat fight by the tram line, I participated as a spectator. But I broke out of that role and took action.

I can think of a few reasons I find my voice in these situations: I grew up with older brothers around and had to hold my own, providing my lungs with lots of training; I was raised with strong Christian ethics to do the right thing; my formative years were spent in a small country town where girls never got hit when they spoke up (at least not in public) and I’ve had the great good fortune of avoiding violent situations. So perhaps someone with a rougher background might say the reason I speak up is that I don’t know any better.

And on the flip side, why do violent actions often stem out of groups? One answer I found is “deindividuation.”  Deinidividuation, according to a SouthSource article, is when you lose your sense of self-awareness when in a group. Suddenly, you feel anonymous and no longer individually responsible for your actions, as “everybody’s doing it” and you are just an anonymous member of this anonymous group–thus the potential for acting more boldly, or violently. But if you are in a large group that is witnessing something violent, wouldn’t you boldly protest? I’m not sure if it works in the reverse as well.

The next time I’m in a large group, I will try to keep the concept of deindividuation in mind. But in terms of staying true to who I am, I have to wonder; Now that I’m an official urban dweller with a daily view to the tram lines outside my window, will time wear down my good Samaritan reflexes, if I can call it that, or is this a characteristic that will stay with me to the end? I pray it will be the latter.

A bite into consciousness

Yesterday morning I put on my sweats and raincoat and headed to Den Haagse Bos. As my feet left the pavement and landed on the gravel path leading between the leafy green trees, I inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of nature. Usually this transition from the built environment to a more natural one creates a sense of calm, as if I’ve left the pressures of modern life behind. But that day, the darkened sky and rain cast the forest in a less friendly light. The birds weren’t singing. There was hardly anyone in sight.

As I walked along the dark paths lined with growing puddles,  I thought of Sicko, the Michael Moore documentary we’d watched the night before. We’d only caught the second half, but that was enough to suck us in to the horror of U.S. health insurance coverage.  The film showed that health care in France was about 190,000 times better than in the U.S., unless you’re a U.S. senator, that is. How is it that the U.S. can be the richest country in the world (is this still the case, actually?) and still not have universal health care? How is it that over 50 million Americans are uninsured? Why are the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay provided better health coverage than most Americans? The dismal weather seemed appropriate for such a line of thought.

My mind wandered over to my to do list: small things at work, maybe a blog post, trying a recipe out of the Sneaky Chef to get some extra healthy nutrients into my 4-year-old. Suddenly there was a man walking toward me, startling me into the present. There was something about him that made me uneasy. In his mid to late fifties, he had loose gray curls and a haggard look on his unfriendly face. I bristled, suddenly feeling less cozy and thoughtful in this forest I’d come to know, and more aware that I was indeed walking alone in an unpopulated forest in a big city.

A thimble-sized shot of adrenaline coursed through my veins as I walked firmly past him. I didn’t feel fear so much as strength, as if I had tapped into a primal, animalistic response.  The type where feathers puff and muscles flex; a don’t-fuck-with-me sign in your energetic field.  Moments later, a black, mid-sized dog came running down the path, and based on his unkept appearance, I was sure he was with the man.

It happened so quickly I couldn’t make sense of it. Instead of running past me, the black, mangy looking dog attacked, growling as he snapped at my leg. Just as quickly he was gone. So much for my animal instincts. I looked down at my sweat pants to see a gaping hole exposing my white skin. Had it actually bitten me? I peered into the rip to see two little red spots where his teeth had just broken the skin. No blood poured out, but the skin was broken. I called after the man in Dutch.

“Your dog just bit me!” A normal reaction would be for the dog owner to apologize profusely, but this man just ran after his dog, yelling for it to come back. Perhaps he was as shocked as I was.We weren’t nearly as isolated as I imagined, as a couple with a cute, friendly little dog came upon us. They saw the look on my face and slowed their pace. I explained to them what had just happened and they were shocked. Top news story of the day. They stopped and waited with me.

They suggested that the man pay for a new pair of pants. This man, whom I had viewed as a threat a few minutes before, now seemed less scary and more like someone who had been beaten down by life. I had never thought of asking him to buy me a pair of pants. This is a very Dutch way of thinking when it comes to taking responsibility for a wrong doing.

Let’s just say I agreed the man could buy me another pair of sweat pants. Wouldn’t that require exchanging information? Giving him my address to mail a check? They don’t actually use checks here, but wire money directly to your account. Was I supposed to give this stranger, who gave me a bad vibe,  my bank account number? At the time, my mind couldn’t grasp onto any of these ideas, and all I wanted to do was to continue on my walk. Yet, I did want one thing from him.

“You can’t let that dog off his leash. He’s clearly dangerous.” He seemed to agree.

By the time I got back home and told Arie Jan what had happened, the idea of rabies and other unknown terrible diseases you can get from an animal bite had made an impressive number of laps through my mind. But Arie Jan–usually my Rock of Gibraltar when it comes to keeping me away from those ruminating thoughts–joined in on the refrain. When was the last time I had a tetanus shot? We need to get you to a doctor.

I usually lead a pretty healthy life, save a dog bite now and again, and thus visiting a Dutch doctor’s office was to be  a new experience. Well now. Come to think of it. In light of Michael Moore’s documentary, I had been wondering what the Dutch universal health care system was like.

We called a local doctor’s office and were told to come right over. Because I’m married to a Dutch man, and have my work permit, I am covered under his plan. We hopped on our bicycles and rode through the pouring rain to the office, about 6 minutes away. When we got there, and pulled off our dripping rain coats, we were handed a four page health history form. Ten minutes later, I was whisked into an office. A friendly female doctor looked at my wound and decided a tetanus shot was in order on the premise of better safe than sorry. That was it. No line. No co-pay. No health insurance paperwork. Hopefully I won’t have to revise this story with any ghastly updates about the Dutch health system, but my first experience was, needles aside,  rather pleasant.

We mentioned the dog bite incident to two people in church that day–one who is a police volunteer and happens to have a medical hotline programmed into her phone, and a nice Indonesian woman who works in the office, as Arie Jan had to go with me to do the initial paperwork and we needed someone to be on hand for the clients in the church.

But news of my bite spread like rabies. Just about everyone I’ve seen since that bite into consciousness has asked me about my leg. And you know what, sometimes it feels good to know people are talking about you.

Shopping like a Dutchie

It is the subtle, day to day differences that bring home the fact you are not in Kansas anymore, but living in a foreign country. Our trip to the Dutch grocery store Albert Hein yesterday made this all too clear.

First, the entire store is like a never ending Dutch lesson. Even if you know the basics–banaan, sla, brood, kaas, melk, (bananas, lettuce, bread, cheese, milk)–a more robust lesson is available on the back of any packaged good, from ingredients, company messaging to instructions. For example, by reading the description on the back of Ezra’s Weleda children’s toothpaste,  I learned an important collection of words that later came up in conversation and impressed my Dutch husband.

The Dutch tend to buy only what they need for the next few days and the layout of the store reflects this. The aisles are closer together, and most people shop with a small hand basket you can carry or roll on wheels with an extended handle, rather than the full cart to which we are accustomed. This tendency to buy just a little is also a reflection of preferred transportation methods of many shoppers; they buy only what they can take away by bicycle, carry down the street with two arms, or easily haul on and off the tram.

Of course, there is a universal similarity in the way a store is laid out; fruits and vegetables, dairy and bread on the perimeter; the farther in you go, the more processed the food becomes. But, in a Dutch supermarket,  the bread, dairy and cheese sections receive a disproportionate amount of real estate. I imagine the pasta, cheese and vegetable sections of an Italian grocery would similarly receive more space.

One thing that continues to throw me off is the metric system over here. Liquids are measured in deciliters and liters rather than ounces and gallons, and an egg carton offers up ten eggs, rather than our customary twelve.

Although most grocery stores are of this smaller scale, The Dutch have caught on to the Costco concept as well. A large store called Sligro, with a  parking lot full of cars and not a single bicycle in sight, is for large scale shopping by businesses, mainly restaurants and hotels. Here, you can buy 10 kilos of ground coffee, excessively large trays of meats and cheeses, commercial cleaning supplies, etc. I pushed an unwieldy cart through the store that even makes the American shopping cart look small as I accompanied my current manager on a shopping trip for the church kitchen. Although Sligro is geared toward businesses, I was offered a free Sligro membership through an Expat organization. It’s as if they think we might just buy half the store and put it all in storage in our expat basements and second freezers.

Back at the more Dutch scale neighborhood grocery store, we headed to the check out stand, in line with 20 other people who waited with noteworthy patience to purchase a handful of items.  Although I still have the desire to have a well stocked pantry, I find myself going to the store more often, and purchasing less, as if trying to do it the Dutch way. Each time, however, a few canned goods slip their way into my cart which I don’t need immediately, and my proverbial pantry grows.

An uncoddled nation

In America, we are protected from our own stupidity. Okay, not in all cases. Sometimes it is encouraged: eat crappy things, buy more than you can afford, believe Fox News, go shopping to do your part in solving the country’s financial woes.

Yet, America is also very serious about safety and coddles us as if we are irrational beings, incapable of deciphering the obvious. For example, a cup of hot coffee may have the following label: Be Careful! The content of this cup is hot and could burn you!

If a street is closed, large signage in neon colors is placed at the entrance. In case this didn’t get our attention, or we can’t read, the area is fenced off, just to make sure we don’t trip, fall, get injured and, more importantly, sue.

If a metro line runs through a city, quite often there are guard rails along the tracks, with specified entry and exit points. We wouldn’t want someone who was, say, focused on a very important cell phone call, to accidentally walk in front of the metro.

In Holland, you’re on your own. Multiple tram lines run through the urban centers, and pedestrians, bicycles and cars cross the tracks at their own will and risk. Sure, there are flashing lights at major crossings, but no guard rails go down.

If a postman or delivery person can’t find a parking place, they will simply park half on the sidewalk  and half on the bike path–and no one cares. There are no bright orange cones placed before or after to state the obvious. It’s up to you to figure out how to go on your merry way.

In a densely populated European city with a well-integrated public transport system,  it’s just not possible to coddle the populace at every moment.  And, it isn’t necessary. People pay attention because they have to, and because lawsuits based on not paying attention are just not acceptable or common.

I’m not saying this is entirely good. The other day, we were cycling along, and discovered the road was closed. However, there was a small opening for pedestrians and cyclists. We proceeded forth and entered a construction pit. Metal panels had been laid down as a makeshift cycling or walking path and we muddled our way through the site, around tractors and drop offs. It felt adventurous in a way, but if we’d gotten hurt, we would be on our “onus.”

I suppose the European coddling comes in the form of health care, quality education and other services provided for free or at a very low cost, and the multiple, paid vacations.  I much prefer this type of coddling. And, paying attention is empowering!