The Rotterdam Blaak Station at 10 Pm Sunday night is a scene struck from a 1980s Hollywood dystopia. Crystalline cube houses jut across a busy highway interchange. Incongruous, fading tiles line escalators ten stories deep, leading into a cavernous substation like a modern version of Piranesi’s Carceri. The year is 1985 or 1986, perhaps, and through the slightest flap of a butterfly’s wings, the present seems to have gone awry, to have returned to a rather sullied and disturbed self.
It is my thirteenth day in the Netherlands, and I am again in a new city. Rotterdam is not a city of postcards moments. To the American traveler, it strikes as oddly familiar note. It has the feeling of a place that hosted an unknown World Expo in the mid-70s, or thought about building a people-mover or a monorail, but lacked funding. Standing in the city center, there are scant few canals draped in yellow lights and even fewer dutch townhouses and houseboats. Here, the lights are fluorescent, and the skyscrapers…well, there are skyscrapers.
Wayfinding by Night
I am headed towards Capelle aan den Ijssel, a suburb of Rotterdam to the east where I will be staying a few nights, and I have decided to find my way there by bike. I call this activity ‘wayfinding by night,’ as I have only the vaguest impression of my direction. To the south, I have the sea. To the north, the metro.
Night wayfinding, I have discovered, is one of the most thrilling way to experience (or test) a city’s bicycle system. Liberated from the bustle of car traffic, and imbued with the strange paranoia encircling night on the outskirts of Rotterdam, the bicyclist is freed to roam his domain. I cycle past a bourgeoisie district of genteel homes spared in the bombing of the city during WWII, through Erasmus University, and eventually pass under the city’s ring road. I am searching for clues- landmarks–bridges, skyscrapers, highways. Rotterdam is full of them, but the bicycle paths snake in and around the city’s infrastructure in convoluted, endless loops. Signage offers little help at the city’s edge. (At one point my only options seemed to be biking 18 km west to Gouda or 15 km north to Delft.)
Near the city limits, Rotterdam transitions into a massive mesh of suburban tracts. These, however, are not suburbs of cul-de-sacs and picket fences. These are Dutch suburbs. And the Dutch like to use their land as efficiently as possible (given that most of it is technically sea). I ride past row upon row of modern houses lit by Ikea lamps and floating on bog-land half deep in a mossy stew. Tall apartment complexes from the sixties and seventies hail the city’s end, surely some mysterious crime-ridden banlieue of bandits at the outskirts.
Just as my spirit wanes, I find a metro station and solicit the help of a few Dutch tweens (who have clearly been singing pop songs to one another in what appears to be a mock American game show competition). I bike confidently onward, but promptly lose my way, finding myself suddenly in a dense Dutch neighborhood of streets named after composers. Rotaries crowned by oversized instruments mock the silence of Capelle.
Near the one hour mark of my wayfinding expedition, I rediscover the sea and find my way inland along a tall dike. From there, the lights of the Europoort are barely visible and I consider where the signs might lead me if I continue biking. To Dordrecht…Eindhoven…Maastricht…even Cologne? Instead, I ride down a smooth red bike path back into the residential fabric of Rotterdam, find my bed for the night, and leave that to another night of wayfinding at the outskirts of Rotterdam.