John Lichfield: The life cycle of the Dutch teenager

Emmeloord Notebook: Teenagers chatted each other up by cycling in slow circles, without dismounting
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The Independent Online

Sitting on the terrace of a restaurant in Emmeloord, in the Netherlands, I had an idea for a Dutch teen movie. The script would be the same as a dozen Hollywood teen movies. Small town teenagers would be trying to discover the joys of sex; parents and police would be trying to stop their fun.

The difference would be that the Dutch teenagers would not be revving and honking around downtown in noisy convertibles. They would be riding bicycles. Working title: Miss Dutch Graffiti Cheese Pie.

As we sat on the terrace surveying the nightlife of Emmeloord (population 24,000) the entire teenage population went past us at least three times. Ethnic Dutch teenagers and some Moroccans, they were all riding bikes. They eyed each other up and chatted each other up by cycling in slow circles, without dismounting.

How civilised. Emmeloord is the closest you will come to a town built for the bicycle. Until 66 years ago, it was 30 feet beneath the sea. When the Dutch government came to map this newly drained land in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was decreed that the towns and villages should be an "easy bicycle ride" apart from one another.

Half a century later, the whole of Noordoostpolder ("North-East Polder) and the other polders reclaimed from the Zuiderzee, still feel as neat and pristine as a freshly painted watercolour. The rest of the Netherlands is a mega-suburb, in which the ancient town centres are marooned like 17th-century Dutch masters in a dull, modern art museum. Up here in the polder country, you find air and space and immense fields of potatoes.

Everything seemed so orderly and sensible and restrained. Could anything plausibly happen to drive the plot of Miss Dutch Graffiti Cheese Pie? A friend from Amsterdam solved my problem and shattered my illusions. "Up there," he said, "they have one of the worst youth drug problems in the Netherlands."

A challenge for a tooth fairy

I was in Noordoostpolder to investigate the immense by-catch of ice-age fossils – from woolly mammoths to sabre–toothed cats – accidentally fished by Dutch beam trawlers from the sea bottom. Before the 1940s, Noordoostpolder was a branch of the North Sea; until 8,000 years ago, the North Sea was land.

I had my 11-year-old daughter, Grace, with me. A kindly fisherman-turned-fossil trader gave her the tooth of baby mammoth which had died about 40,000 years ago. The fist-sized black tooth with its ugly, jagged root now has pride of place among her china dolls and teddy bears.