Everyday on my way to class I rattle through a large park on my 1970’s grandma bike. The park sits just a few short blocks from the canal that marks the perimeter of the old city. The bike path through the park resembles a bike highway connecting the city to the university campus and at all hours hoards of ancient, rusty single-speed bikes can be seen clanking on by. There is a large pond in the park with a fountain that was just turned on for the season a few weeks ago, and the water it casts never fails to create a rainbow when the afternoon peeks out from behind the low, familiar clouds. The walking paths meander along the pond and loop around a large open field, marked by a neat outline of strategically placed trees that catch wayward frisbees and provide a very small amount of shade. The park, in all its beauty, is a great example of the Dutch landscaping style; every tree stands in a tidy row and the bushes are all strictly groomed. The grassy patch in the middle of the park is a respite from the dense brick buildings of the city center and a well-known gathering spot.
I have watched the park transform from its shivering February emptiness into a living room of sorts. Throughout late March and April, a few brave pioneers would come to the park to have a quiet lunch or a short frisbee toss, while the rest of the city biked by in their winter jackets. It was only a few short weeks ago now that the park began to attract more visitors. A few groups of three or four could be seen sitting on the benches or strolling the trails and there was a growing sense of spring as bicycles could be seen parked under trees that were letting out their buds. A handful of days ago, on the warmest day of the year so far, a Wednesday by chance, my friends and I decided to stop by the park for an early afternoon frisbee toss, expecting to find enough open airspace for a frisbee to safely fly. Instead of open air, however, we rolled up to the park to find a cloud of barbeque smoke filtering the sunlight over the field, and underneath the haze circles of sun-seekers huddled around small grills, each group backed up to the next in a sort of honeycomb pattern. The only green to be seen was in the newborn leaves, as the grass had turned to a sea of untanned thighs and shoulders coming out of hiding for the first time in a while. We scrapped our plans immediately and went in search of some small space to claim, and after a short search we spotted a vacancy at the edge of the grass. We sat there in sunlight and slight surprise at the sheer number of people in the park at such a seemingly off time. There we were, in the middle of standard work and school hours, surrounded by multitudes of adults and children among the throngs of university students. It was a thorough cross-section of society, like a barbeque census. There were businesspeople reading the financial times on the benches, old couples warming their hunched backs on the walking paths, a man playing the air drums in an air rock band, parents with children of all ages enjoying midday family time, and a group of teenagers passing around a canister of what seemed to all the world to be laughing gas. Seemingly every segment of society was accounted for in the same park. It was a city planner’s utopia. The only worry of the police, even with all the public drinking and the conspicuous group of teenagers, was in making sure that all the grills in use didn’t burn the grass. In reality, the police had no other pressing matters to tend to in the park. This was a relaxed scene: a casual, everyday get-together. Nobody was compensating for a week of nose-to-the-grindstone labor. It was merely a midday celebration of the always long-overdue sunshine.
Perhaps scenes like this can be found anywhere. On the Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, for example, people gather in much the same manner to meet and study and chat and enjoy the view and public buzz. The difference, however, between Utrecht and the places I have come to know back home lies mostly in the extent to which people spend their lives in public. In Utrecht, a short circle around the old canal will introduce you to countless urban gathering places like the café-lined squares or the medieval canal wharfs now home to tables and chairs. In the old city, seemingly every curving cobblestone street leads to some shared space where inhabitants sip Heineken and eat bitterbollen and slow life down to a pedestrian pace. At times the city appears to be one big living room separated only by rows of old brick buildings and church towers whose afternoon shadow people have been sitting under since long before Madison ever saw a single homestead. Utrecht is in large part defined by its cosy, café filled center, which every afternoon and evening is filled with people who aren’t in a hurry. There are no backyards to retreat into and frontyards are cobblestone streets, so people are pushed to the public parks and cafés where conversations percolate over slowly vanishing pilsners, and whatever rush exists is crowded out and forgotten in conversation. And in these parks and cafés even somebody four thousand miles from his legal home can find comfort and calm in a new lifestyle, a lifestyle from which I will no doubt have a hard time returning.