Ben Coates says he got the idea to write about Europe’s perhaps greatest river while skating on it one Dutch winter. He overpaid for a pair of skates, headed out to the nearest canal and saw the Netherlands in an entirely different light.
The Rhine traces the, well, the Rhine from its mouth on the Dutch coast to its source, Lake Toma in Switzerland. The book is part travelogue, part history book and part social commentary as author Ben Coates takes the reader from the Netherlands to Switzerland, with stops in Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
Coates, a Brit who was living in Rotterdam at the time, has previously written a book about living in the Netherlands, Why The Dutch Are Different, a book often recommended to newcomers trying to understand the new culture they have found themselves in.
Like his first book, Coates entwines his personal observations with historical events and current context. His discussion of the Germany city of Cologne starts with his own experience of the city’s Pride festival, moves to the Roman history of the history and a mention of the Reformation and ends with a discussion of the multiple sexual assaults during 2015 New Year’s Eve celebrations in the city.
Much of the book’s charm lies in Coates’ sometimes humorous, sometimes topical metaphors in his descriptions. He writes about ‘shipping containers stacked like cereal boxes in the supermarket’ and ‘high-rise towers stretched away from the water like a bar graph’.
There are no Robert Macfarlane-esque descriptors of a tree’s philosophy as demonstrated by its shades of green, but Coates does have a way with straightforward turns of phrase. He has, dare we say, a Dutch approach to description: practical, efficient but effective.
If you follow Coates on Twitter, you will be familiar with his sometimes controversial opinions about the Dutch, ranging from the wearing of bike helmets to their supposed work ethic. If you enjoy his takes, you’ll enjoy this book.
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