Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Frozen, Not Stirred


The Dutch are without a doubt the masters of water management. After Hurricane Katrina, they offered to help the US build a containment system and help build dikes to hold back the Gulf of Mexico. There is no doubt in my mind that, if global warming persists, one very small country is going to get very, very rich from building things like Neeltje Jans. However, when it comes to FROZEN water management...let's just say the Dutch are, in general, a few cookies short of an Oreo. They just don't do it. Not on a national, local, or personal level.

The Nationale Spoorwegen is the unfortunate recipient of snow-induced rage across the country. Under normal circumstances, the NS is a competent enough train service--hardly Swiss, but not nearly as terrible as SEPTA, Philadelphia's contribution to the argument against public transit. However, put a little snow on the tracks, and everything grinds to a halt. It's irritating to be stuck at your station (especially one like Cuijk) for God-only-knows how long, or have to take roundabout way that extends your travel time by a gazillion (minutes? hours? days? I remain mercifully mum). But it's even more irritating to think that, in a country that moves up to 1 million riders a day by rail, that the NS hasn't come up with a way of removing snow in a timely fashion. After all, it's not like they've never seen snow before.

However, you can't bitch about crappy train service if you can't get to the station, and snow removal on a local level is similarly terrible. Worse, even--at the very least the trains were running a day after the most recent snow, even if they were so delayed you might as well have not tried. I didn't, because in Nijmegen, the buses weren't running until so late in the morning that, assuming that the trains were running on time, there was no point in going to work. Most of the major roads--i.e., the ones with more than two lanes--were cleared, but if you live in a residential neighborhood, you were wading through snowdrifts to get to the bus stop. At best the gemeente will salt the streets, but as everyone who's lived in a snowy area in the US knows, you actually have to move the snow off the road, first. In Maastricht the snow is allowed to lie for so long that the pressure of a thousand feet (and lots of cars) has melted and refrozen it such in parts of the city--in front of the train station, by my student house--it's easier to get around wearing ice skates. I wish I were just being snarky, but it's true.

Europeans (and most Americans) like to mock the American lawsuit-happy way of life, but there is one upside to the tendency to sue the bejeesus out of your neighbor, which is that within 24 hours of the snow stopping, EVERYBODY has shoveled off their driveway and sidewalks, and the more conscientious folks have salted their walkways. That just doesn't happen here: Maybe one house in four will shovel a path to the sidewalk, but not the sidewalk, and even fewer will shovel a path on the sidewalk itself. In my corner of Maastricht, the sidewalks are also skating-rinks-in-waiting, and it honestly surprises me that I haven't come upon any frozen bodies of little old ladies who've slipped and fallen and couldn't get up.

So the moral of the story is: chemistry matters, and polar bonds are more important than you might think. Give a little energy, and all is hunky dory. Take a little away, and you have effectively paralyzed 16 million people...


  1. Good post, I could write exactly the same about Irish (non)management of snow. Don't get me started on uselessness of salting the non-ploughed roads, no shoveling, etc.

    However, just to clarify, it is only *western* European countries that have this problem (the Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Ireland...). Countries in northern and central Europe clean the snow as soon as it falls - and this is done on all levels, from road authorities ploughing the roads as soon as the snow starts to fall, to individual households being legally bound to clean sidewalks in front of their houses. It is completely normal to be woken up the morning of every new snowfall at 5am by the sound of the metal shovel against pavement, as everyone hurries to clean sidewalks/car parks before the day starts for real.

  2. Wow, I didn't know that. I figured that countries like Switzerland and Finland would be great at it--the Swiss because they're Swiss, and the Finns and Swedes because they just know what to do with snow. Learn something new every day...

  3. Amazing that the Dutch snow management plan is to wait for it to melt. They will have to do better. This is just not working.

    And last year I went skating in Den Haag, and the children were indeed skating on the sidewalks.