"I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all." -Michelangelo
"I would give ten years off the beginning of my life to see, only once, Tyrannosaurus Rex come rearing up from the elms of Central Park, a Morgan police horse screaming in its jaws. We can never have enough nature." -Edward Abbey
I had to turn the porch light on, clap my hands, and shout a few words this morning before I let the dogs outside to go for a walk. There were grizzly bear prints in the front yard about a week ago, a sign that I still can't simply walk from the front door to my car without looking over my shoulder. Over the weekend, Jasper and Sula barked their hearts out at a herd of deer crossing the river, which subsequently annoyed the two bald eagles perched nearby on an old gray cottonwood. Pretty wild, this place I call home.
I just returned to Montana after spending some time with friends in northern Europe. The Netherlands and Sweden. Time spent pedaling fat tires through residential neighborhoods of Amsterdam, hopping on and off Trams 12 and 14, picking up a few things for dinner at the Albert Heijn down the street, and stopping by corner bars or cafes for coffee and gezellig
. Every morning, I walked or pedaled
past the Balkan bakery, two Moroccan bakeries, the Iranian bakery, and a few Turkish eateries. I heard Dutch, English, Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish within a few blocks of the apartment in which I was staying. And any number of languages once I set foot in the Canal District. A major worldly destination. A real city.
The Netherlands, I came to find out, is incredibly compact. I educated my friends in Amsterdam on what is considered to be "nearby" in the States. My good friend lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. A six hour drive. Pretty close. My mother lives in Salt Lake City. Five hours. Not bad. My dad lives just outside Denver. Twelve hours. A good jaunt. And my sister lives in eastern Nebraska. Seventeen hours. A day's worth of driving if you've got enough coffee. In the Netherlands, though, nearby has an entirely different meaning. Six hours of driving and you're in southern France. Seventeen hours of driving and you're in Belarus or Morocco, depending on your route. I came to learn that The Hague, a 40 minute train ride, is not nearby. Utrecht, only a 20 minute train ride, is also not nearby. Nearby, it turns out, is any place you can pedal your bike to in less than 45 minutes.
Thankfully, my friends and I boarded a few trains, borrowed a car, and visited The Hague (the political epicenter for international legal affairs), Utrecht (with a female to male ratio of about 7:3, so I'm told), and small fishing villages of North Holland. And despite the close distances between one city and the next, the skies of Holland seem to go on forever. Montana is known as Big Sky Country, but the Netherlands could make a strong case as well.
In the middle of my visit in Holland, I hopped a flight to what is arguably Sweden's seventh largest city: Linkoping. My
second visit to Scandinavia during the chilly, low light conditions of the winter months. Still no Scandinavian midnight sun to my name. Despite the late sunrises, early sunsets, fog, and general wet weather, my stint in Sweden was supreme. My friend and I hopped trains to various cities in southern Sweden, took a ride on a boat that nosed its way into the Baltic Sea and back, and meandered through the 1000 year old alleys of Stockholm. A gorgeous city. Classy, clean, and cosmopolitan (if, as a Montanan, I am permitted to say such things). We borrowed a car and drove to remarkably bland Swedish castles, through the clouds, forests, and farms that make up the southern third of the country. Immense stands of trees, open farmlands, icy rivers, and lakes, lakes, lakes. Beyond its city limits, Sweden is very Woebegone, believe it or not.
It was good to be in Sweden, blending in with the pedestrian traffic in its clean and classy cities, enjoying a drink with friends at the corner pub for the low price of 5 Euros a pint. Seeing the origins of quirky idiosyncrasies found in Minnesota and Wisconsin and its mythic Viking culture.
At the close of my Swedish tenure, I returned to Amsterdam for another week of Dutch cityscapes, afternoons in Vondelpark, and delicious restaurants from the far reaches of the world. It felt natural and cozy. A familiar feeling, almost like visiting a neighborhood you used to live in. Very gezellig. And it was good to be in Amsterdam among the bikes, pedestrians, and canals, even though it was a far cry from any wilderness you could find in the Northern Rockies of Montana. Yet here I am today, back in the Northern Rockies of Montana, hooping and hollering in the morning to make sure any grizzly bears in the area know I'm coming out the front door. Pretty wild, this idea that thoroughly different worlds can all feel like home if you allow them to.
Of course, it helps when you're in good company.