Bangers and splash - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

December 31, 2006

Bangers and splash

Breda, Etten-Leur, St-Willerbrord, Roosendaal, Wouw, Bergen-op-Zoom

Everybody has odd ideas about the people next door. In Luxembourg - so small that it can vanish if you stand behind a tree - people on one side doubtless say that folks round here are OK but over the other side... well, you should see them over there... they'd steal the shoes from under your feet... and intermarried, oh my goodness yes!

Holland isn't exempt.

For convenience of gossips and scandalmongers, the country is divided by two big rivers flowing east to west to the North Sea. Those between the rivers have the money, power, arrogance and the bad manners. The centre has big cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, stuck together in what's known as the Randstad. To those outside, people between the rivers are too fond of themselves, speak like crows (especially in Amsterdam) and doubt whether life exists more than 50km from their homes.

North of the rivers are the fields and restored sea bed of, well, the north. There is nothing there. There are more cows than people. If the north wasn't flat, it would be Wales, a place where not everybody speaks the national language and where everybody knows someone distantly related to a cow. The north is unknown territory and most people are happy to keep it that way.

South of the rivers, people have trouble uncrossing their eyes before they talk. They are short and dark and never happier than when they're pushing a wheelbarrow. More, they're Catholics and the women wear their wedding rings on their right hand.

If the Randstad and the north have anything against the people of the south, it's that they're VIRTUALLY BELGIANS!

There is no greater insult.

It was into the south that I was headed, first to Bergen-op-Zoom ("hills on the edge", which shows what goes for humour in the oppressively flat land of the Netherlands) and then next day south across the border to Antwerp and across Flanders. And the wind blew. And the rain fell. Out in the North Sea, ferries from England had been cancelled. But nothing was going to stop the under-18s of Holland from setting off fireworks in the street

All nations have their own ideas about fireworks. Americans presumably set them off on July 4. Here in France, it's on July 14 (which only tourists call Bastille Day: in France it's simply "July 14") and in Britain they gather around bonfires and burn Catholics in effigy on November 5. Why? Because back in 1605 a Catholic tried to blow up Parliament.

In Spain and, I now realise, in Holland, it's December 31.

Holland is a small and densely populated country in which land is scarce and houses are tiny and joined in strings. The stairs rise at a dizzying angle. That means there is little garden to set off fireworks. Which is why they're set off in the street. Here and there, formal displays were going off despite the storm. But everywhere else, in every village, boys lit bangers of ear-splitting power and threw them into the road.

Before cars and motorcyclists, which they could see, they showed caution. Before me, they were less enlightened. To be fair, a bicycle is quiet and not very big and often the boys had lit the fuse and thrown the banger before they spotted me. In their position, I'd have let go of the thing as well. Politeness has its limits.

The first time a tube of compressed gunpowder goes off beneath your pedals is noticeable. You get used to a lot in a lifetime but being blown up can be a novelty. I had a good wobble the first time. Then I grew bolder and I'd ride as close to the banger as I could. Usually it wasn't very near. But twice I managed to ride over it as it exploded.

What's it like? Well, it's a bit like a puncture in reverse. The bike shudders upwards rather than downwards.

I remember seeing a film in my childhood of the first solo flight across the Atlantic. In it, the pilot was trying to decide whether a fly in the cockpit was adding to the plane's weight and therefore its fuel consumption while it was on the wing. If it landed, yes, it added to the weight. But what effect did the beating of its wings have when it was flying?

I rode the rest of the way distracting myself from the storm by trying to decide how much a small explosion beneath your wheels raised the pressure within the tyres. I never did decide. But it did mean I didn't notice when the wind tore off the flap at the bottom of my front mudguard. The attachment was still there but the square of mud flap was in a ditch somewhere. It had been a novel day.

Tomorrow: to the village of the man who wished he'd never been champion of the world.

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