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On the road . July 2010 . Germany, Netherlands and Belgium

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Pierre-Yves pad, Paris, France, 18-08-10
Getting right back to where you started from

Frankfurt - Germany to Londerzeel - Belgium (12 cycle days; 17 rest days; 804km; 1643m)

Frankfurt Airport to Kelkheim (20km; 157m)
Kelkheim to Stuerzelberg (83km; 489m)
Stuerzelberg to Grietherort (101km; 110m)
Grietherort to Zevenaar (33km; 26m)
Zevenaar to Eesveen (124km; 173m)
Eesveen to Bolsward (62km; 57m)
Bolsward to Amsterdam (93km; 138m)
Amsterdam to Utrecht (44km; 67m)
Utrecht to Wassenaar (71km; 97m)
Wassenaar to Rotterdam (34km; 49m)
Rotterdam to Essen (73km; 165m)
Essen to Londerzeel (68km; 115m)

Asparagus and Strawberries
Flying in over Europe looking at neatly fielded summer crops of gold and green is as nostalgic as it is exciting. We arrive seven hours later than expected at 4.05pm, due to a tiresome delay in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Dreading the customs shenanigans we've become accustomed to in Latin American countries, we are pleasantly surprised when absolutely no-one is waiting to check whether I only have two kilos of delicious Brazilian coffee, or that I am not carrying any unwanted food items into Europe.

The immigration procedure is also as harmless and with our bike boxes in toe, we worm our way into the arrivals hall and then further a field to the taxi bay. Everyone that smokes hangs out here. Putting the bikes back together and repacking the bags takes the usual three quarters of an hour to an hour. We are ready, at least in spirit, to make up for lost time. Though, the likelihood of catching up on a whole days cycling is fairly slim.

Finding our way out of the airport is a little difficult. First inclination is to ride in the wrong, but convenient direction up a one way street and then cycle on the highway: both actions more likely ending up in a fine in Europe. After a bit of acclimatisation, we find ourselves pedalling along farmland bike paths: poppies and marigolds; asparagus and summer fragranced strawberries; golden crops of wheat; and masses of the dreaded stinging nettle. Camping in Norbert's farm near Kelkheim (20km; 157m) comes as a necessity after Ali gets a flat tyre and our jet-lagged bodies can cope no more - well mine in any case.

It is difficult to comprehend the tranquility after living in chaos for such a long period of time. The first thing that hits you is the silence: no hooting and tooting cars; no screaming people, but then again no one is dancing in the streets either; no street sellers surrounded in a maze of colour; no plazas overflowing with people. Tonight: just fireflies arching quietly and birds softly twittering to the silence of a red evening sunset.

Nothing changed; something new
After hitting the town of Limburg, we realise that a train ride is in order to get us back on track for the festivities lined up in Zevenaar on Sunday evening. Sixty euros resulting in a bit of shock hyperventilation and a couple of hours later, we step out in Köln. Plenty of city manoeuvring and annoying bike paths that keep swapping road-sides before we are well and truly out of suburbia. Quite a confusing path, but none so as the mixture of languages swirling around in my head. "Yes" is still firmly embedded as "Si" and "Gracias" just sounds better than "Danke". And then there's the Dutch that is trickling back into the brain cells too. A guy approaches me and says: "Wie gehts?" I reply: "Muy bien, dankuwel". I really am a linguistic mess. Not much changed there then.

The campground in Stuerzelberg (83km; 489m) is hardly glorious with its lack of showers, but it is only 5 euros per person and it is also only for one night.

Following the Rhine is a great way to get through the country. Scenes of lengthy barges cruising colourfully along on a summer's day are familiar territory. Nothing much has changed here. The following evening we arrive in Grietherort (101km; 110m) to roar of merriment from locals. Germany has scored another goal against Argentina. We, on the other hand, have something else to celebrate. This campground is the place where we spent our first night of the tour. Again it is all quite recognizable: and I mean right down to the field rabbits: I'm sure they are the same bunnies we saw nearly four years ago.

Zevenaar (33km; 26m) is an easy ride: everything is so flat compared with Brazil. South America already seems so far away. Arriving first at Theo's, it is a little weird to be knocking on the door of someone you haven't seen for four years, especially when we had no intention of actually coming back. Conversation soon picks up as if we had never left. The same strangeness comes over us as we wander into SnookerCentre Zevenaar, where Aaldrik used to work. We have no idea who will be there; who will come to celebrate our return. Waltzing through the doors and there they are: the same happy faces, pretty much in the same places as before. Arno, Dann,; Kevi; and Ralph. Over the course of the evening Willie and Jacqueline, Sanne, Rick, Ben, Martine, Suzanne, Jasper and Joyce, Theo of course, come in too. Before we know it, there's a small party of old faces assembled and auspicious enough for the owner, another Theo, to shout a round of drinks. Thanks to Jasper behind the bar, we stay well into the wee hours of the morning.

Tuesday evening, after one of the Netherlands world cup games, we pay another visit to the snooker centre and anyone else that we didn't seen on Sunday is here now; fully furnished in bright orange of course. They are also very merry about the outcome of the match and it is nice to see that the Dutch haven't lost their spirit when it comes to football. After four years of travel and generally never knowing what is around the corner, being in an environment where nothing has changed, is actually something quite new for us.

The Arnhem Agenda
Kees from de Gelderlander newspaper contacted us before we arrived in Europe and had arranged an interview for the Monday morning. That was just before I leave for my appointment in Arnhem with Haakon: my former periodontist.

Entering the train station in the small city where we used to live, it is obvious that not too much has happened in the last four years. It was a construction mess before we left and it is now too. There is the addition of a falafel shop in the arcade, which I am pleased about. This fast food store seems to have popped up all over Arnhem, as have the bike stores. The addition of more of the latter style of business hasn't in any way brought down the price of anything pertaining to bicycles though. A wander around town before and after the rendezvous with the teeth specialist, sees Monday out the way. A pleasant evening is spent wandering around the Kermis fair with Theo and then chatting into another evenings wee hours at home.

Tuesday is a little more hectic: into Arnhem again for a shopping fix and Ali attempts to renew his drivers license. Due to our "no fixed address" status, this proves way too difficult for the council personnel to comprehend and he gives up trying; a meet-up with friends at café Metropole is full of surprises before heading out to Frank and Maggie's for a cosy dinner. There after, we return to the snooker centre. Another day passes into the next.

Wednesday has even more on the schedule: I visit Suzette for lunch and an inspirational chat and then head off to see the graduation work at the Arnhem Art Academy where I studied Fine Art. We then make our way on foot along reminiscently sweet smelling Oleinda trees to Masha and Joost's house for dinner. A friend of theirs is celebrating his birthday, so a nightcap in a one of the city's pub takes us well into Thursday morning.

A delicious breakfast before some last minute shopping and then a quick visit to our old neighbourhood fills the day. We head back to Theo's for a Chinese meal, rest up and pack up: readying us for the beginning of the Tour de Nederland. The agenda in Arnhem and surroundings has been completed.

The Tour de Nederland
The next leg of the journey sees us on a hurricane route through the Netherlands. First stop Eesveen (124km; 173m) with Kunny (Ali's youngest sister), Adriaan, Lennart and Stijn. I visit a supermarket prior to our arrival and somehow get this urge for all things Dutch: gevulde koek [shortbread cake pastry with marzipan filling]; pannenkoek met kaas en stroop [pancakes with melted cheese and golden syrup] and good old spinazie [spinach]. I couldn't resist buying these ingredients and since Adriaan has a deft hand in the kitchen, we are cooked up some excellently typical Dutch fare, with the addition of groenteburgers [vegetarian burgers] of course.

One delicious addition to the Dutch kitchen is that they like to have apple sauce with their potatoes and meat and not just with pork like in English tradition. In recent years, other sauces have emerged on the market as well. Tonight's table spoils us with an apricot and a rhubarb puree as well as the usual apple variety.

Adriaan takes me one step closer to gastronomic heaven by cooking us pancakes for lunch the next day. I really have been dreaming about them. A dorpsfeest [village festival] takes place. Stijn is part of the parade and Adriaan and Lennart are taking photographs at the party in the late afternoon. Aaldrik has to pick up bank paperwork from the post office and that leaves Kunny and I to just sit around drinking coffee and chatting. After a Chinese dinner, Bob and Janet (Ali's oldest sister) pay a visit which leads to an impromptu lunch at their house in Heerenveen, the following day on our way to Bolsward (62km; 57m). So far The Tour is pretty well confined to eating and drinking well, with just a spattering of cycling involved.

Reina, Aaldrik's mother, is delighted to see us as much as we are her, but our five night stay comes to an end all too quick. Besides the usual dining table conversations over umpteen dozen cups of coffee, I wash, clean and scrub every single item in our kit: from coverbags, panniers and tent, to matresses, cooking equipment and clothes. The sewing machine is made good use of too. We also arrive to a bedroom full of boxes from sponsors, (all mentioned above under the thank you section) and it is like Christmas opening everything up. And just like festive times, there are quite a few surprises as well.

Elizabeth from the Leeuwarder Courant spends a lengthy two hours interviewing us for one of our nicest articles to date. Being a double page spread, it is also the biggest. [See article in Dutch or in English] Harmke ( Aaldrik's sister too), Ronald and Rinske and her boyfriend come round for a chat and we take Reina for a tour of the famous Sonnema factory in Bolsward. They produce Beerenburg, a Frisian alcoholic drink produced by adding a mixture of herbs and spices to jenever. An Amsterdam spice merchant, Hendrik Beerenburg, to whom the drink obviously owes its name, began the company in 1860. Sonnema today has of course changed dramatically, but the company still declares that the secret recipe has not.

From Bolsward we head into the wind towards the ferry at Stavoren, sailing across the Ijsselmeeer to Enkhuizen, cutting off about 30 kilometers of path into the Dutch capital. It is no for nothing that this area has a large number of windmills and it is renowned as one of the best wind surfing regions. The pedal is hampered a little and we only just make the boat with literally two minutes to spare.

The Dutch are recognised for their engineering prowess when it comes to controlling waterways and the creation of the average 5 to 6 metre deep Ijsselmeer in 1932 is nothing short of genius. The Zuiderzee was closed by a 32 kilometre long dam, known as the Afsluitdijk, making this 1100 km² lake, bordering Flevoland, North Holland and Friesland, the largest in western Europe.

Just outside Oosthuizen, Ali's rear wheel skewer snaps. Though we are not aware of the reason yet - his hub has siezed up - he sticks a spoke through and bends it up tight for the few kilometres into the village. There is no real bike repair place, just a garage, but miraculously they have a secondhand quick release skewer that fits. Unfortunately after quite a bit of messing around with the bolts on the hub, only a few hundred metres down the road and the wheel locks again. There is nothing left to do but put another spoke in and cycle ever so slowly into Purmerend, 10 kilometres further on.

We make it and it is fixed after a whopping hundred and something euros later: Ali needs a new wheel, but considering the 60,000 plus kilometres of revolutions since 1995, I guess that's not a bad innings.

Our goal was to be in Ilpendam, 10 kilometres north of Amsterdam, to pick up a runner up prize in a photography competition conducted by the Dutch Touring Bike Association: De Wereldfietser. Maaike is no longer at home, but she has left the goodies hanging on the doorknob. We fly the rest of the way into the city. The beauty about the Tour de Nederland so far, is that we have not deviated from bike paths. While it can be a little confusing sometimes, all in all it is just a brilliant way to get around the country. The only problem you will likely face here is wind and that can be debilitating. Rain may also thwart your trip, but up until now we have managed to stay mostly dry. I am still in wonderment over the fact that we just slide, ever so easily, into the heart of an 800,000 population city.

We meet up with Stan - who we sailed with from Panama to Colombia - and his family, right smack bang in the middle of Amsterdam (93km; 138m) and stay for two nights in their rather hip renovated old school house. They are busy with a neighbourhood wedding for a lot of the time, but that gives us the space to visit the De Vakatiefietsers shop and wander around this popular capital city.

A short and scenic journey to Utrecht (44km; 67m) only takes a couple of hours due to glorious tailwind. We stay with Arjen and Jan, who we met up with Mexico just under a year and a half ago. Arjen studied at the same Art university as me and still dabbles in his own work as well as run a promotional film production business: Imagomagie. It is always inspirational to be around Arjen and Jan, who also, apart from his day to day work, plays clarinet in a band. Arjen organises a couple of get togethers with old classmates and Evert and Wil: a visit to a Chinese restaurant; a pizza and salad evening starting with cool prosecco and boutique beer. The tour is progressing nicely, even though we are still sticking mostly to the food and drink regime with very little cycling involved.

Next port of call, Wassenaar - near The Hague (71km; 97m), where we land on the doorstep of my effervescent ex-boss from the language school I taught at. The next few days are dedicated to crossing off the appointments on another tight schedule. Apart from the two visits to the council for renewing our passports, all other engagements are tonnes of fun: dining with Hayley and Frans in the backyard where we are lodging; meeting Friedel and Andrew from TravellingTwo for the first time, even though we have had plenty of e-mail contact over the course of our tour and doing a podcast interview with them; lunching in Warmond with Victor and Marlene - a couple we cycled with in Malaysia; and catching up with Chris and Amanda - two former English teaching colleges.

Passport pantomime only child's play
Everything goes well at the council house considering the rather discouraging correspondence e-mails we initially received from them. We knew in advance that our current passports are not considered as categorical proof of our Dutch nationality, so Ali decided and correctly so, to enquire a good couple of months prior to our visit.

His first correspondence clearly states that we are travelling around the world by bike; that he is born and bred in the Netherlands; and that I am an Australian who acquired Dutch citizenship in 2002. His question about what sort of documents we must bring with us for passport renewal results in a rather intimidating response. Apparently and according to the woman replying: if we can't show what our ties with the Netherlands are, then she cannot help us. Suggestions from her regarding documented proof of bike routes; bank statements and hotel receipts from each country due to our "travelling status" all seem a little daunting.

A following e-mail from Aaldrik then asks exactly how many bank statements and whether they need one from each of the 43 countries we have visited instigates something to the effect of: If you live overseas then you have to bring your resident papers from the country you are staying in, with a declaration of your nationality. Without this we cannot handle your case. We can't accept four years worth of bank statements.

Ali returns another letter stating that as he mentioned in his opening inquiry, we are cycling around the world and that we do not live in each country. Hence, we don't have a permanent address either. He asks again what sort of paperwork is necessary to ordain that we have a bond with the country and that surely there must be specific rules with a list of suitable documents that suffice this requirement. He further argues that it was the correspondent who originally suggested bank statements as suitable proof. He would still like to know how many are considered necessary. Once again he reminds her that he is Dutch from birth and that I, have dual nationality.

The reply: If you want to renew your passport in the Hague, then we can't only accept bank statements. You have to bring proof that you are travelling by bicycle from the time that you signed out from your council in the Netherlands until now. Without this we cant process your request. As for your wife, it could require further investigation.

By this stage, Ali has had quite enough of the e-mail correspondence procedure and decides the next available Skype moment to telephone the council. The woman on the other end this time is a complete turn around. A couple of bank statements; a few printouts of the websites plus our passports with 'all those wonderful stamps' - her words not mine - will be more than satisfactory. We scheduled time with her at 11.00am on Tuesday morning.

Even with the prior appointment, we still have to wait in turn with one of those paper numbers in hand. Quickly enough, we may take a seat at the desk. The situation is explained and the clerk behind the counter takes our passports. Aaldrik's offer of bank statements; website pages; and travel receipts are refused. She says: "I consider your passports sufficient evidence."

Now how easy was that?

Everything achieved that we wanted to achieve and we move on to the final destination: Rotterdam (34km; 49m). Here, we not only catch up with Marnix but also on some overdue writing and web-work. He has a super fast and really reliable internet connection and being a bit of an internet-computer addict himself, we don't feel at all guilty for the hour upon hour of keyboard tapping, nor the blurry eyes from looking far too long at a computer screen. We break the visits to cyber space with a reunion with Evert and Wil to drink a cool Prosecco on their terrace before heading to an apparently amazing Chinese restaurant. Evert wrote in his invite: we will dine regally in a place where vegetarians are also received like royalty. He was spot on. The food is amazing!

Heiner, another ex-tutor from art school puts on a great spread one evening as well and basically the waistlines are expanding quite nicely. Meanwhile my bike is expertly welded by Marnix and the problem of the broken eyelets solved for good. Website is updated with June's info, which is a step in the right direction, but not yet reaching objective. But that will have to wait, because the direction we are now headed in, is towards Belgium to meet up with James for a day's bicycle beer tasting tour in honour of our four years on the road. If you want to plan your own bike tour take a look at the information on theTourisme Vlaams-Brabant or De Groenegordel websites.

Catching up with James
The trip to Londerzeel in Belgium takes two days from Rotterdam. We had thought we may be able to do it in one, but slight headwinds stopped any ideas like that. There is nothing at all exciting about the cycle really. Same old stuff we have seen by the bagful of late. Flat with farmland views for most of the first day. Signposting is really horrendous and we are unaware of which path we should take on many occasions. The campground Ottermeer Hoeve in Essen (73km; 165m) is contrastingly very easy to find. Its motto "camping in luxourious simplicity" is only half right. Luxourious it is not. Very simple it is and downright expensive at €18.00 for pitching a tent on a small field of grass with no electricity; no lights; no water tap on site; and no tables or chairs.

Riding in Belgium is so different than in The Netherlands. For a start, motorists are not as respecting of your presence and roads are in much poorer condition. The bike path system has no logic to it. Often you miss the cycle-lane entrance due to lack of signage and are then forced to ride on the main thoroughfare. And you have to stay there because cement curbing prevents you from getting back on the path.

The larger cities tend to have a network of bicycle lanes, but they are not easy to follow. We get lost on several occasions. Our route never really leaves the built up area the entire day. Again the campground Londerzeel (68km; 115m) is a huge disappointment. No amenities; no trees: just an open field and a hot sun burning down on you and your tent. The price tag: €13.00 and a five minute showers costs €1.00 euro extra.

A large group of Dutch campers have tried to claim the whole area: placing their tents in a circle around the field. We find a spot big enough for us on the far side and next to the quite out of place Spanish van - which leaves promptly the next morning. Our positioning still initiates the comment "Oh, someone has squeezed in between us" from a fellow camper. But nothing will dampen the spirits: we will see James again in a few hours. Ali rides off into Brussels to meet him at the train station.

The Big Belgium Beer tour
Seeing James again, for the tenth time, is just fabulous. Cycling for an entire day around Belgian breweries, sampling their wares, is also a real treat. These two indulgences combined are a perfect way to celebrate our four years on the road. If you would like to know how we feel about our experiences in the last 6 months, then I guess it would be best to read our latest: newsletter #11.

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