By Mark van Engeland

 
A road by any other name...

Ok.  The first thing you notice, when debarking the ferry, is that the Dutch, like most Europeans, drive on the wrong side of the road.
That, of itself, is not a problem.  I've driven through France (as quickly as possible), and around most of southern Europe; so driving on the right is easy enough.  There are very few genuine pros or cons as to which side of the road it is actually best to drive on; but I've always felt happy that, in English cars, my right hand stays safely on the steering-wheel, where it belongs.  I'll go out on a limb, here, and take that as a postulate which would suggest that left-handed people are happier with left-hand-drive cars; and that ambidextrous people all wish they could live in Malta, where driving down the middle of the road is the norm.
No, the real problems come later, once you're out of the dock and in traffic.
As I say, I've driven all over the place ({Cars are made to be driven} + {England is small} => Go somewhere bigger) but the Dutch roads are in a class of their own!

A little background, first:
Transport is not so car-oriented in the Netherlands as it is in England (thank God!).  Almost the entire country is covered by a cheap tram system, and equally cheap buses -- which run on time!  More on these (and the infamous 'strippenkaart') later.
Then there are the bicycles.  Millions of them!
Holland is flat (a brief time-out, here, to explain the term: 'Holland'.  The country where I am living is called the Netherlands.  The Netherlands consists of regions, one of which is Holland.  I shall go into the historical reasons for this in a later article.  The important thing to remember is that Holland is not a country in itself, but only a region of the Netherlands, which is.  Nederlanders can get quite shirty if you get this wrong; and rightly so -- I doubt many Scots appreciate being called English, either, and calling me a Welshman will get you a black eye.  I am in Rotterdam, which is in Holland, which is in the Netherlands, Okey-dokey?)
Now, when I say Holland is flat, I mean Holland is flat!
If you come here looking for long walks in rambling hills and dales, you are going to be very, very disappointed.  Looking out over a Dutch landscape is like looking out over the sea -- but with trees, and grass, and moo-cows, and things.
What does this mean?  It means bicycles!
In Birmingham (the original one, in England), where I lived before I came here, all eight million residents own three cars each, and somehow manage to have them all on the road at the same time, all the time, day in, day out.  In Rotterdam, the same effect seems to have been achieved with bicycles.
Everyone rides around on bikes because it's easy to cycle on flat roads (weather notwithstanding).
What this, and the excellent public transport system, amount to is that, unlike in most other parts of the western world, the car is not the main form of personal transport.
In fact, if you take away business, commercial, and public vehicles, there is hardly a car on the road -- and most of those are German, English, or Belgian!
Everywhere you look there are cycle racks, all full; bikes chained to trees and lampposts; cycle paths running parallel with roads; or -- and this is the biggie -- cycle lanes!
Bikes even have their own traffic lights at road junctions!
A junction where, say, five roads intersect must need a Pentium 2 to handle the hideously complex calculations that are required to keep all the bikes, pedestrians, buses, and trams flowing smoothly ... Oh, and to let the occasional car pass through, too.  Better make it a Pentium 3.

So much for background.  Back to the point.
My first real battle with the Dutch road-marking system took place at a square called Marconiplein (plein = square, but there are no spaces in Dutch road names; so 'Easy Street' would not be called 'Gemakkelijke Straat', but Gemakkelijkestraat')(although I'd rather stick with 'Easy Street'!  I mean, Jesus!  Peter Piper picked, and all that...).
Marconiplein is a large, traffic-light controlled junction; about the size of a football field; where five roads intersect.  There is also a tram station and a bus station feeding into the junction; and there are lanes for cyclists weaving all around and through it.
The junction is all road; one great big area of tarmac; with lines and symbols painted on it to indicate where one is supposed to go.
Four of the five roads which feed the junction (Schiedamseweg, Vierhavenstraat, Mathenesserweg, and Tjalklaan -- I tell you, it's an absolute bloody nightmare asking for directions in the Netherlands!) are dual carriageways (that means there are two lanes going in each direction -- English terminology).
Each of the five roads either have cycle paths running parallel to them, or have cycle lanes; and each of the cycle paths/lanes have their own traffic signals.
Pedestrian crossings are run by signals.
Trams, which have absolute precedence on Dutch roads, run straight through the centre of the junction, and do whatever the hell they like.

Right.  So you approach the junction...

<Storytelling mode on>

    I'm slowing to a crawl, looking for where the road ends and the junction starts, when I see a row of equilateral triangles, each one about a foot across, painted on the road in front of me; maybe fifteen yards from where I think I am supposed to stop.
    I panic, looking frantically around me, because the triangles are pointing at me!
    Am I going the wrong way???  Am I driving on the wrong side of the road???
    No, that can't be, because the set of lights at the end of the lane is facing me.
    What are those...?
    Just beyond the triangles are two rows of squares.  BIG squares!
    I slam my foot on the anchor!
    Hell, in England you have to stop when there is a row of dashes across your path.  Bloody great squares must mean 'STOP!  For God's sake, STOP!'
    The chap behind me toots his horn.  Ok.  Maybe I shouldn't have stopped.  But what do big white triangles and big white squares mean?
    Terrific!  Another row of triangles, after the squares!
    But where do I stop?  There's nothing to say: 'The Junction Starts Here!'.
    Hell with it!  I stop just before the traffic light; even if there is nothing to mark the end of the road.
    I look out at the junction -- a huge, square-ish area.  Wide open.  Not a single bollard or traffic marker protrudes upward from the surface of the road.  No raised areas to form nice little guide-paths.  No helpful little blue signs with arrows on them.  Just lines.  Painted white lines.  In fact, so many lines are painted on the road that from a height it looks white, not black.
    Straight lines; curved lines; zigzag lines; thin lines; thick lines; lines of dots and dashes; lines of big squares; lines that cross over each other; lines that bounce off each other; lines that curl around and disappear up the back of the brush of the bloke who painted them...
    Ok.  Calm down.  You are here, and your exit is there.  What could be so hard about that?
    ...But, which of the six-million lines are the ones I'm supposed to follow???

      Marconiplein Prayer no.1
      Our Father, who art in Heaven,
      Please don't make me the first in the queue!
      Let there be some bugger in front of me
      That I may follow him
      In the hope that he's going where I want to go!

    So.  I'm at the front of the queue.
    I'm hoping that the lights stay red long enough for me to pick a set of lines that looks like it is meant for people who are going from where I am, to where I want to exit the junction.
    I spot a pair that are turning through a quarter-circle; but which sort-of lead on to some others that curve the other way.  The second pair are almost pointing at my exit; so I decide to follow a figure of 'S' through the box, and hope that I don't hit anything going in another direction.
    In England, this would be a nice, simple roundabout.

      Marconiplein Prayer no.2
      Dear Lord,
      I'm too old to die young,
      Please teach these idiots how to build bleeding roundabouts!

    Green!  The lights have changed to green!
    I bite the bullet, and pull out; my eyes set firmly on the path I think I have to take...
    I hear bells, and look around...
    ...and a couple of zillion tons of tram shoots across my path at, like, nine-hundred miles an hour!

<Storytelling mode off>

It turns out that all the two lines of big, white squares do is indicate a cycle path, crossing the road; and the triangles (they are affectionately called "sharks' teeth") indicate the line where you should give way to cross-traffic -- i.e. the 'end of the road' I was looking for.  The first set of sharks' teeth was to indicate that I had to give way to cyclists on the cycle path.  It's all very simple, once you know what the hell you're looking at!

Ooops!  I've over-filled my column-inches.  The Tale of an Englishman and Some Dutch Roads will continue in the next exciting episode; where we shall be looking at roundabouts, 'strippenkaart's, levels of precedence on Dutch roads, and yet more bicycles!

 

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