I think I’ve found a pretty golden way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Two days ago our group was treated to a boat ride through Leiden’s canals. We met in the city center where people were eating late lunches and peering into boutique windows. Little toddlers were balancing on the back of their parents’ bikes (fiets). At one point, I glanced over my right shoulder to find an older couple eating ice cream cones on a bench by the water. We exchanged smiles and the man nodded.
We walked on to the white boat (wet from an early morning rain) in the center of all this Sunday activity and began the most peaceful ride through town. Here is Captain Jack: He called “Low bridge, low bridge. Watch your heads, low bridge!” whenever we passed under a … low bridge. There were many. In his heavy Dutch accent he pointed out the windmill where Rembrandt’s father worked, and the street where the boy was born. He routed us along the Hortus Botanicus; founded in 1590, it is the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. He told us that if you hold out a map of Leiden from the 16th century, you’ll still be able to get around town today – from that very map.
Jack said the canal wasn’t more than 2 meters deep, and you wouldn’t want to swim in it, but the body of water works. Many in Leiden live on the water in houseboats, others dock their boat in the canal outside their apartment. These canals and rivers move people and goods from point A to B. They act as sources of energy and defense, but are also just proof of human ingenuity. Amsterdam’s grachtengordel canal design, for instance, is mesmerizing even for the 21st century. Last week we also learned about the Netherlands’ Delta Works project in our quick Dutch history lesson. In 2010, the venture was completed after almost 55 years. There were 13 projects total, each one constructing dams and barriers in every province to save the country from flooding and high sea levels. We learned about the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier in particular; people here are proud of it, and they have every reason to be. If you have 10 minutes, do look around here . The United States consulted the Dutch engineers behind this project after Hurricane Katrina.
My favorite places have a sort of duality to them. Part of the reason I love Chicago is because you can stand on any city street and know there is water to one side of you. Fresh, wind-making, deep water. Concrete, noise, people, and busy days somehow align seamlessly with the quiet force of the Lake. It makes you feel alive, yes? Leiden has a bit of that duality, too. The buzz of the city center may enter your right ear, but from the left is just the calm lapping of the canal.