I was incredibly fortunate to have recently spent a few weeks holiday in Amsterdam and England visiting family and just kicking around. Besides the incredible, historic icons that are literally around every corner, the fabulous scenery, and the absolutely stellar beer, there were a few major differences in the lifestyle over there that made me rethink my own small corner of the planet when I returned home.
We spent three full days tearing around Amsterdam (a city of over 2 million) and during our time there we saw three (count ‘em: three) overweight people. Everyone, but everyone, gets around by bicycle, on foot, or by riding mass transit (trams, buses or trains). All ages, from young mums on bikes with a baby in a baby-seat behind them and two older children in a kind of barrow attached to the front, to seniors, ride everywhere. We saw older business executives in three-piece suits, the young office crowd, and shoppers with carriers and panniers full of groceries. Bicycles are bar none, the number one mode of transport of choice. These were not high-end 12-speeds with shocks and mountain bike tires, they were the old school three (and no) speed, coaster brake bicycles of my youth. Granted, Amsterdam is flat as a pancake (which by the way are a delicious Dutch specialty) and a concentrated city, but it was still an amazing thing to behold. Though their smoking and drinking laws are hugely more relaxed than ours in the anal west, they appeared markedly more fit and healthy than us.
In Amsterdam and all parts of Southern England that we travelled through, I was struck by the blatant lack of excess stuff people possess. Everyone functions quite well in living spaces much smaller than here and seems to get by with much less. I saw not one dishwasher in my travels, nor a single house with more than one bathroom. In kitchens, there was one cupboard of pots and pans and no appliance garages full of blenders, food processors, coffee and pasta makers. People had clothes that fit in their (one!) closet and a chest of drawers. There were no basements, attics, or garages full of stuff and nary a rental storage locker to be seen.
In England, gas (or petrol) was running about one pound, 45 pence (roughly $2.30) per litre so people—those who actually owned cars— seriously thought through any journeys that they had to make. Great Britain still has a pretty decent train, tube, and bus system, but again people did a lot of walking. They walk to the shops, to the post office, to the pub, and to visit friends. Although the number of overweight people was much larger in Britain than in Amsterdam, you rarely saw anyone who was morbidly obese.
In Britain, laws are still tight on where you can build, so green spaces are everywhere. Once you leave a city, town, or village you immediately know that you’re in the country. Urban sprawl is kept in check and small farms are working, flourishing entities. It was lambing season while we were there and the countryside was dotted with flocks. In towns, most people lucky enough to have a house with a yard generally have a vegetable garden where they grow their own.
Britain is in year two of a serious drought and people are taking the problem seriously. You see rain barrels behind garden sheds and houses and people are conscious of things like running the tap to wash vegetables, brush teeth, or doing dishes. Every single toilet (in both countries) that we ran across was a dual flush model and most every public washroom charged a fee. (Even good old McDonald’s dinged you 50 euros and sadly, cities in both countries are littered with every kind of western fast-food franchise you could imagine.)
Granted, we are not Europe or England and the land and lifestyle there is vastly different from here, but perhaps there are some lessons to be learned. We could definitely start with the beer.