Daniel Adler Bikes Through Delft

"View of Delft," by Vermeer.

Rotterdam was the largest port in the world after the war until Shanghai overtook it a few years ago. That makes it very international, and a big service city. To get on the subway I needed to wait in line to get a subway card which alone was 8 euro. Then I got on the subway and following Chantal’s directions, past the apartment building, past the pond and into the one on the right, sat and read Walden for fifteen minutes until she rode up on her bicycle with her short curls bobbing. She was nice and we talked and learned about each other. She ate some leftovers which she didn’t immediately offer and which I then ate only after she left for her sports classes. I put the meat and pepper mix between some bread she had and made Dutch Sloppy Joes.

Then I went to the C1000 supermarket. I saw an orange pate called Filet Americaine. I asked a couple of young guys what the hell was that. They looked it over and tried to explain. “Meat?” They consulted, “Kind of.” I laughed. Fucking Dutch. “Is it good?” I asked. They nodded vehemently. I put it in my basket. Helpful guys. I had seen a case of beer, beautiful German pilsner in Chantal’s kitchen, so I figured a six-pack of the same kind would be a nice gesture. Then I asked another guy about the best cookies to buy, holding the package I had chosen. “Is this good?” He nodded. “So-so?” He nodded. “Can you show me a good one?” He handed me a heavy pack of stroopwaffles which you have to microwave for twenty seconds on a napkin and eat with coffee and be careful the syrup between the waffles doesn’t ooze out and burn you.

When Chantal got home, I told her what I wanted to see and do. I offered her a beer but she doesn’t do alcohol, nor does she drink coffee or smoke. The case had been brought for her housewarming party and she was trying to get rid of it, so there went my gesture. But she did say I could use her bike tomorrow since she was going to take the subway to go to the Asian supermarket to get groceries for the Asian CouchSurfing dinner she was hosting in the evening. And exhausted I got to bed before midnight.

I knew it was going to be a big day so even though it was 815, I had had eight hours and was ready. Chantal talked with me over a map, led me downstairs to show me the bike closet. I came back up to finish my coffee and prepare. I made a couple of sandwiches, one with the weird filet americaine, and another with Sicilian victuals. I added a beer for good measure.

Even the doorknobs are dutch. Solid steel round doorknobs that make heavy mechanical sounds when you close them. Chantal’s bike is an old Dutch cruiser, big boat of a thing that probably weighs fifty pounds. I wheeled it out of its closet and locked the door with the old timey key with the two teeth and it bumped and clanged and pretty soon I was out in Holland, paralleling the tracks, biking the country the way it was meant to be.

It’s weird that some water is higher than other water but I guess that’s part of how the Dutch learned to live with water everywhere, and their mastery of it led to their figuring out the best way to do other things, such as making doorknobs, and not farming, instead navigating the seas and trading, which saved their backs and is probably why they’re so tall.

If you look at Holland on Google Maps you can literally see tiny parcels of land sectioned off by water, with tiny sheep eating the grass. And it’s true. The whole country is little rectangles with water fences. Floating in the canals are birds of an incredible variety, reminiscent of the detailed masterpieces painted by Hondecoeter. Partridges, red, green, yellow, brown, spectacular fowl! I saw a long-haired mule, which looked like a Northern European tapir nibbling at the bright green grass. I also got lost. One weirdo I asked said that way, and I was about to ask him something else when he put his earbud back in and looked at the approaching bus and said, “I have to catch the bus now.”

At one point I asked an old lady who had no idea where Delft was and instead of saying Danke vell, I said Dankeloo, which sounds really silly and must have sounded even sillier to a Dutch person who knew what I was trying to say. Then I realized it’s, thank you well, except Dutch, and now I remember it. After so many people laughed when I told them I’m biking to Delft I thought that my original plan of getting to Vermeer’s town and to The Hague had been too ambitious and that I might not even get to Delft at all and will just get lost, and I said, it’s okay, if that happens it will be what was supposed to happen and I kept going. Another man gave me my first good directions; he told me to go to Brueguenhoenschaf or something a little less German and before I left, turned with his brown eyes and salt and pepper hair blowing in the wind and held up a finger and said, “Remember, there are two directions, with the wind and against it.”  As I biked against the nor’wester I was headed the right way.

At one point, when I began to feel it in my bottom, I stopped on the side of the bike lane and looked out over the green field as I peeled an orange. The wind carried a man’s whistle from behind me. I heard the honk of two construction men talking in a nearby house. I cast the peel into the little canal in front of me, thinking I could probably jump over it if I needed to.

At another point, I found myself biking down a little Dutch street, looking into all of the open bay windows where the inhabitants had crafted a horticultural display: cacti, orchids, poinsettias, all very exact and representative of the owner’s personality and preferences. Granny was just like that, everything in her house has to be just so, beautifully displayed so that if anyone enters they will appreciate her very Dutch attention to detail.

Soon I was in Delft, that beautiful little Dutch city where they used to make the blue and white. My first stop was the church, because I knew from Vermeer’s “View of Delft” that the churches are particularly beautiful. I first went to the New Church, which was built in the 16th century. There was a beautiful caged sculpture where the altar would have been and a Canova bas-relief in the ambulatory. On the right side of the nave were ancient gravestones four hundred years old, marking where men from the ages are “begraven.” The exhibit traced the history of Delft, the Prince of Orange, who lay buried there, and all of his descendents, who came to rule the British throne.

I took my lunch in the square, across from the town hall, eating my americain filet sandwich, which was like a mustardy meat paste and went well with my German pilsner. Then I walked to the 13th century Old Church, which wasn’t nearly as informative, but which did have Vermeer’s grave. I admired the quaint shops and bought a large bar of hazelnut chocolate, you know, to keep me going on the rest of the bike trip.

Den Haag to see the Mauritshuis. It was already three, I probably wouldn’t have too much time. It’s only ten kilometers away though, so I got there at 330 and rushed into the museum, which offered a free audio guide. I saw the Memling, the Cranach, the stately Holbeins, the Rubens, the Van Dycks, and then upstairs to the big boys. When I got into the Vermeer room, a Brit lectured a group of Americans on the “Girl With the Peal Earring,” which I have seen before on display in Washington, and which is great, but across the room was the piece de resistance, the “View of Delft.”

It helped that I had seen Delft earlier, its high church towers, quaint houses. The fact that I didn’t see it in the sun didn’t really phase me anymore. When I saw this painting I nearly choked. It wasn’t just the use of color and depiction of light, which is apparent in any reproduction, no, it was the up close pointillism, which surely Rembrandt must have noted and tried to imitate and enhance, and the layering of paint which Cezanne used to convey depth and detail and texture. The audio guide noted that Van Gogh marveled at the colors used in creating this painting, and it became clear to me, not only that Vermeer was one of the first impressionists, hence his popularity surging in the late 19th century, but furthermore that he is one of the greatest painters of all time.

I was the penultimate one to visit the cloakroom. I couldn’t bike home, me bum was far too sore. Maybe a little of the way, since I’m not allowed to bring my bike on the metro during rush hour, nor am I willing to spend seven euro on a bike ticket to bring it on the train. I asked a Viking girl on bike how to get to Rotterdam and she said that’s too far. She raised her eyebrows when I told her I biked here this morning. Then she said follow me to the Central Train Station. When we got there she said I should just take the train, hook my bike up illegally and sit away from it, so if anyone asks whose bike it is, no one will know. So we said goodbye and I did just that. By the time I got to Rotterdam Centraal it was 630 and I could take my bike on the metro back to Chantal’s house. I arrived just in time for her Asian dinner, with some other Couchsurfers from the Rotterdam area.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.

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