Schrijver en essayist Matthew Stadler woont en werkt tijdelijk in Rotterdam. Op scherpzinnige wijze observeert hij tweewekelijks de maasstad. Vandaag deel 5: 'Wheels'.
The wheel remains man's greatest invention. And nowhere are its salubrious effects more fully on display than in Rotterdam. The great majority of Rotterdammers only venture past their front doors on some arrangement of wheels, usually a bicycle, automobile, or the now-common electrical carts that resemble nothing so much as an ambulatory throne for the monarch who must occasionally leave his castle to survey the surrounding kingdom and buy groceries.
These plush, low-slung thrones, typically mounted on three wheels (two in the rear engaged to a powerful, silent electric motor, and one in front to steer with) creep so silently they could swarm the pews of the Laurenskerk without interrupting our quiet prayers to the humanist god whom we celebrate there. In the crowded Saturday market, these thrones dash between a shopper and his merchandise in the time it takes a normal man to bend over and inspect a head of cabbage, quiet as mice yet as commanding as the warm, confident stares of their pilots.
Old people pilot them, generally. The cart makes up for some infirmity or other. Very large people sometimes use them, too, and lately I have seen great numbers of normally-sized people of about my age (mid-50s) seated snugly, whispering past me on their electrical carts in the bicycle lanes. Like motor scooters, these rolling thrones are neither fish nor fowl. They resemble a small portion of the living room, unmoored and set on wheels. Recumbent in his chair, the monarch gathers around him just enough floor and shelf space to conduct his life in public.
I'm writing this over a delicious coffee at the Rotterdam central library's cafe terrace, perched above the bustle of the market. I count seven electrical carts in my immediate view, easily identifiable by the distinct patterns of blockage they create. In that same view there are at least ten or fifteen bicycles, almost all of them wheeled alongside the rider (unlike carts, bikes cannot be ridden through the market), and four or five times that many shopping carts, every one of them running on wheels. The bikes and shopping carts also create problems in the market, but nothing to compare with the electrical cart. Baby strollers are worse than all of these, of course. But who can hate a baby?
Let me develop that thought. Like the electric thrones, the baby strollers of our time present an entirely new public presence. The child is no longer laid aside in its low, modestly-sized bed, tucked into sleep and forgotten. Today's stroller is less a bed and more a podium or plinth, raising the infant to display height, as if it should be looked at. The proud parents stare, of course, but for the rest of us the child's elevation is only ridiculous and preening. The child becomes a miniature tyrant, the scale-model of the much larger tyrant they will someday grow up to be, when they graduate from their strollers to the rolling thrones.
In between the luxury of infancy and the age of thrones, most Rotterdammers move around town on bicycles. I am in that long interlude now myself. The city is marvelous on bikes. On bikes we are at our most nimble and gracious, moving in thick, swift rivers of traffic without rancor or misstep. No obstruction defeats us. And there are many obstructions—the great sandy beaches of street construction, seas of cafe terrace chairs, dawdling pedestrians and lurching cars, or, worse, the unpredictable bulk of the myriad strollers and thrones. On bikes, we flow swiftly across or past them, adjusting our course in concert by some shared kinetic intelligence that the bicycle liberates in man.
It's wonderful to see small children piloting their own bikes—a badge of independence and responsibility. Or, better, the athletic strides of the seven-year old on his Razor scooter, matching his mother's pace on her omafiets, with the powerful thrusts of his leg. Imagine the sedentary monarch on his electric throne navigating the city with such a modest, sporty allotment! He would only fall to the ground in despair, crushing the slim scooter beneath him.
I'd like to take all of the throne pilots and put each one in the front-end of a bakfiets, to be driven around by their family or friends. I hope that's not cruel or unfeeling. Like small children, they should be treated with respect, but never allowed to pilot anything nor make adult decisions. They can bellow or cajole from the luxury of their carriage, or just cry until they grow tired and fall asleep. Sometimes, when I am least generous, I imagine a war between the wheeled tribes of Rotterdam. I feel confident that the bike-riders will win. We can tip the electrical carts over, like cows, rendering the monarchs helpless. The cars will pose a greater challenge, but maybe they'll be slowed by the overturned carts.