Ladies in Windows

Michael and I have been in the Netherlands now for four weeks.  During much of that time, Michael has been wondering to his increasing bewilderment, “Where is Utrecht’s red light district?”  (In case you don’t
remember an earlier blog, our apartment is located – so we were told – on “the edge” of the red light district.”

In Amsterdam the red light district is hard to miss once you’re in the midst of it. There are both neon-lit and colorfully painted signs advertising brothels, sex shops, head shops, and even an Erotic Museum.  What most people do not know is that Amsterdam’s red light district has been ensconced in the central area of the old city since the 14th century.  Yep. Over 700 years. And, yet, throughout the centuries, the district has always thrived with families, tradesmen and business living cheek to jowl with the brothels and bars.  In fact, my guide book says the area was so full of rich folks, that this stretch of canals and streets was known as the “Velvet  Canal”.  While the area may not be quite so prosperous now — prostitution is now controlled by the government – every block will have at least one establishment with huge, ground-level windows in which the ladies display themselves to attract potential customers.  However, because it is so mixed in with business, bars, restaurants and dwellings, the windows’
interiors sometimes aren’t visible until you are literally standing in front of
one of them.

Oh – just to set the record straight, the triple-X flags all over Amsterdam aren’t advertisingthe location of brothels or sex shops.  The red flag with the three white crosses of St. Andrew on a black band is the emblem for Amsterdam and thus the city’s flag.

Nearly an Incident

Having now spent four days in Amsterdam – it’s a quick 25 minutes by train from Utrecht – I’ve become pretty good at navigating through the city.  A few days ago I managed to get five of us through the warren of side streets to several destinations, one of which was the red light district.  It seems like the three people with us, Matt & Caralynn and Veronica, all visiting medical professionals from the States, hadn’t been to Amsterdam before but all had heard of the famous red light district.  And of course, everyone wanted to go to the most sought-after tourist destination in the city.  We are, after all, tourists.

Let me point out something I have learned here:  there is a certain
etiquette that is intrinsic to the red light district.  No native of Amsterdam stops and gawks at the scantily clad women lounging, standing, preening, reading or whatever in their individual display windows.  For Amsterdammers, it’s just business as usual.  Tourists on the other hand, tend to come to an abrupt standstill, point open-mouthed, giggle, turn red, throw elbows at each other and otherwise make fools of themselves.  For the most part, the ladies just ignore these ignoramuses, but there is one activity that incenses the ladies – and their brothel’s bouncer:  taking pictures.

I can understand this.
Who wants to be made fun of or belittled?  And the guidebooks warn you:   you start snapping pictures of the ladies in the windows, the bouncers or ladies themselves may rough up the witless tourists, and smash their cameras in their fury or toss them in the nearest canal.

So it was with major trepidation I suddenly hear behind me one of our merry band loudly exclaim in sudden revelation: “What?  This is the red light district?  Oh, I gotta get a picture of this!”

I whipped around and hollered, “No!  No pictures!  Stop!”  I had visions of our group being rushed by half naked women and Turkish bouncers and pricey smart phones and digital cameras summarily tossed into the nearest canal.

Thankfully, she did stop.  I explained how taking pictures was considered a gaffe, at best, all the while eyeing some tough looking men lounging under nearby brothel windows and scowling at us:  the bouncers.

So, we did what everyone does:  stand at a distance and pretend to take
pictures of scenic canals amid throngs of gawking tourists while hoping to catch in the frame — at long distance — at least one of Amsterdam’s “window ladies”.  The rest of the day went without incident.

Back in Utrecht

So, back to Utrecht.   Where was the red light district?

To be sure, it couldn’t possibly be the size of Amsterdam’s, but still.  Turns out, it’s similar to Amsterdam’s, albeit smaller by far:  all mixed in with family dwellings, general shops and restaurants.

Last week I found it, purely by accident, ambling down a narrow side street I’d walked upon a couple of times before.  A twitch of movement caught the corner of my eye and I turned my head to find a red head in a bikini with garters and fishnet stockings lounging on a chaise in a large picture window.  Bingo.
As I gazed up and down the street, I realized that about half the
establishments had the oversized, ground level windows and there was a tough looking, muscular guy hanging out by himself about half way down the street – all of which should have given me a clue.  At a little after noon, about a fourth of the windows were occupied, the others had interior curtains drawn over them.  It also dawned on me that the earlier times I’d walked this street, it had been on my early morning excursions to the local supermarket, way too early for the women to be on display.

I looked up to check the name of the street so I could later identify for Michael which of the tiny side streets the red light district was on.  I started laughing out loud and just had to take a picture.  I think you will all agree with me that a street name has seldom been so descriptive:


And here’s a look at Hardebollenstraat in the morning, about the only time it is safe to take pictures:

Hardebollenstraat in early morning -- deserted and window curtains closed

Ladies' "advertizing" windows


Gouda, Not Just a Cheese Town

Weighing in the Cheese at the Waag, Gouda, South Holland

Gouda, in the province of South Holland, is one of the prettiest and most charing towns we’ve seen yet.  As are most Dutch towns and cities, Gouda has a network of lovely canals throughout.  In Gouda’s case, the canals around the old town are shaped in a series of ringed horsecollars.

One of the smaller canals

Gouda is most famous for its cheese.  Both the town and the cheese are pronounced “khowduh” and not the “goo-duh” that Americans are prone to say.

Gouda still maintains a weekly cheese market where a great ceremony is made of inspecting and weighing the cheese.  We were informed by a very proper and polite woman at the local Waag, or weighing house, that this weekly show was “put on for the tourists.”  The cheese is almost all produced in industrialized creameries although there are a few cottage creameries still functioning.

In the picture below, if you look closely you can see some of the wooden litter-like trays the cheesemongers used to carry in their cheeses to be weighed at the Waag, including some of the original weights.

Nevertheless, the Saturday we visited, the locals’ market was in full swing with everything from a wide selection of cheeses to fruits & vegetables, meats, clothing, and housewares.  What is fascinating to me is that these weekly markets have been held in the same square, the Nieuwe Markt, for several hundred years — and this is the new market.  (The city was destroyed by fire in   1361 and again in 1438 so anything built after then is considered “new”.)

One of the dozens of stalls at the local Saturday market

Another major attraction in the town of Gouda are the stained glass windows of Sint Jan’s Kerk (St. John’s Church), also known as the Grote Kerk,  or “Great Church

Sint Jan’s is the largest cross-shaped church in the Netherlands, and it is, indeed, huge.  So huge, in fact, it was impossible to take a single picture of it.  And the stained glass windows, made between 1530 and 1603, are some of the loveliest and largest I’ve ever seen.  Here are two pictures which are impossible in which to see detail, but give just a slight taste of how vibrant some of the colors are.

And some more pictures from around Gouda:

Onef the old city gates

The Town Hall, dating from the 15th Century

Michael standing on the old lane called, "Behind the Fish Market"

Gouda has a less serious believe it or not.  Here is a roof decoration along one of the smaller canals:

As improbable as this sounds, an internet search clearly identified the creator of this statue as Gijs (pronounced “Guy”) Assmann, of all names, a contemporary Dutch artist.

I’ll leave you now with what I think is the quintessential image of a beautiful Dutch town.

Wandering Through the Netherlands. (Or is it Holland?)

Skiffs Along Harbor Dike, Hoorn, North Holland

Many people are confused between Holland and the Netherlands.  And, okay, I will confess, before embarking on this adventure, I used the two appellations interchangeably.  My mistake. Or was it?  (More on that later…)

“The Kingdom of the Netherlands” (abbreviated NL) is the official name of this constitutional monarchy comprised of 12 provinces on the European
continent, as well as three now separate but equally participating “countries” in the Caribbean:  Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten.  (The Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius have a unique standing as “special municipalities” within the kingdom.)  Formerly of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but now fully independent countries, are Suriname and a large number of islands which comprise Indonesia.

I can hear the groans from across the Atlantic.  Hang on, there is a reason for this didactic history lesson.  (I’d like to see any of you try and sum up over a thousand years of history in just one paragraph!)

Of the 12 Netherlands provinces that form the core of the country, there  are two “Hollands”:  North Holland and South Holland.  And lest anyone dare think, “So what’s the difference in such a small country?” — let me tell you that we received a stern clarification from a very proper South Holland woman just the other day.  It’s kind of like we have two Carolinas (as well as two Dakotas), and woe be to the ignoramus who decides to lump the citizenry of North and South of any of them together.  Enough said of political subdivisions within countries.

Here’s a map to give you the picture of where these 12 provinces are in relation to each other:

Netherlands Political Map

The point is, technically the country is called “the Netherlands”, not “Holland”, as there is more to the country than just the provinces with “Holland” in their names.  Notice I said “technically”.  In talking to people, I have noticed that many Dutch use both names interchangeably – which really can get confusing.  But I suspect that old habits die hard, even for the Dutch.  Either that, or a lot of people from the central area of NL snobbishly think that the heart of the Netherlands is in the combined provinces of North and South Holland and Utrecht and kind of ignore the nether regions. (Kinda like that old poster reflecting a New Yorker’s vision of the U.S. as featuring a dominant Manhattan with a lot of blank space before getting to San Francisco.)  To be fair, and in fact, the vast majority of the population, as living in the centrally-located city and province of
Utrecht, we have been visiting mostly within these three provinces.

This past weekend, however, we took the opportunity to visit two unusual towns, one each in North and South Holland.


Hoorn (pronounced “horn”) is in North Holland, NE of Amsterdam (see above map).  It is a beautiful little harbor town, founded way back in 716 C.E.   From the late 1500s to 1700s Hoorn’s claim to fame was as a major seaport for the vastly rich and powerful Dutch East India Company, also known by its Dutch initials, “VOC”.  The VOC had its own fleet to ply the seven seas, traveling to and fro primarily between Hoorn and other seaports in what was then Holland and the spice islands of the Dutch East Indies – now Indonesia.

The VOC also had its own army to guard its fleet and put down any local rebellions when the natives got annoyed at being exploited for their spices.  In fact, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a native of Hoorn,served the VOC first as an officer then as governor of the East Indies and gained infamy for his ruthlessness in squashing native rebellions.  He also rebuilt the main city of Western Java – after destroying much of the city as he conquered it – and secured it for the VOC under the name of Batavia.  The city, later renamed Djakarta, is now the capital of Indonesia.

(And just to annoy you all with just a tad more history, the Dutch VOC also established a way station at the southern tip of southern Africa so that their ships could stop to resupply with fresh water and vegetables, livestock and catch the latest news coming west from the Spice Islands.  This way station grew into the colony of Cape Town, from which the nation of South Africa eventually emerged a few centuries later.  Going in the opposite direction, another son of Hoorn, navigating for a VOC fleet, named the southernmost tip of South America “Kaap Hoorn” in honor of his home town.  Again, I’m hyper-condensing history so as not to bore or get too side-tracked.)

So:  Hoorn has a lot of cool history.  And cool buildings.  One of the neatest by far was this tower down at the old harbor, which looks like it was sliced in half down the middle, hence the name, the Hoofdtoren:

the Hoofdtoren

The Hoofdtoren is now a small restaurant where we relaxedwith friends Matt and Caralynn Warden over a late lunch.

the Hoofdtoren from the front

Lunch was followed by a post-prandial stroll around the town, which, like virtually every Dutch city or town I’ve seen on foot or from train, is ringed and riddled with lovely canals.  At least one Hoorn resident seemed a little confused, however.  This duck definitely is looking for waves in the wrong place, one of the town’s canals:

Surf's Up! (Maybe for this duck)

Probably the most charming feature of Hoorn was its many old houses lining the old town and canals. Michael absolutely fell in love with Hoorn and was already making plans to move there.

Michael checing out the real estate again

But despite the gray weather, you can see why:

The Waag, or Weighing House, where all incoming goods were weighed and taxed

One of the Museums

And, finally, a picture of me and Michael.

I’d like to point out how bundled up we are.  This photo was taken on June 17.  Right now those of you in the DC area are sweltering in the early summer heat.  Most assuredly, we are not.  In fact, I’ve had to buy a scarf since coming here and wish I could find gloves.  Trust me, the North Sea does bring very cool temperatures – and rain – to this country even in summer.

The day was not complete without merriment.  Here first Michael, then Matt, clowned around with a silent audience:

In closing this blog, I can’t help but pass on one other fascinating fact.  At the beginning I noted Hoorn’s former fame as a major seaport.  Yes, the VOC is no more and the renowned Dutch enterprise is no longer based on the spice trade.  But that’s not why Hoorn is no longer a seaport.
It doesn’t have access to a sea any longer – not since 1932 when the
government finished off a massive sea dike between North Holland and Friesland  which cut off the Zuider Zee (and Hoorn and several other former seaports) from the North Sea.  So, technically, Hoorn is now, well, a lakeport.

Stay tuned for the next stop on Gouda.

Map showing Afsluitdijk Dyke

Pimp My Bike, Dutch Style

The turquoise says it all: I Pimped My Bike!

Half of the fun of walking around the cities of the Netherlands is checking out how individuals deck out their bikes.  While there are some common themes – the addition of color or flowers, different styles of baskets and seats, modifications for children – the Dutch have some very interesting ways of decking out their bicycles.  And, if you’ve been following this blog, bicycles are an essential aspect of Dutch society.  Bikes are not just an ecologically sound form of transport (a very considerable concern here), they are a statement of independence and a (pardon the pun) free-wheeling joie de vie.

So this blog is less about yakking, and more about showing you
some of the more interesting decked-out bikes I’ve seen in my travels around Utrecht, Amsterdam and den Haag.  I do want to point out that the vast majority of bikes are not well-decorated, probably because the nicer the bike, the more likely it is to get stolen.  In the words of my Dutch friend, Corinne, “You don’t want a really nice bike – it will get stolen.”  So here’s to the brave souls who risk theft just to have a unique bicycle that reflects the owner’s personality.

Flower Power Bikes

Probably the most common form of bike decoration is the twining of artificial flowers among handlebars, seats, and other bike parts.

Flowery handlebars. Check out the purple bike in the background.

Flowers front and rear

All decked out in pink

Probably the most common form of functional modification is the different types of additions made to bikes to accommodate children.  I have seen bicycles with 2 and 3 kids strapped into various types of seats, front and aft.  Then there are what I call the “baby barrows” – front end attachments that look like wheelbarrows that can hold up to 4 kids in them. Or merchandise,  plants or dogs.

Family Outing with "Baby Barrow" in Amsterdam

Training wheels with assistance

Gynecologist's baby bike

Check out the wind screen on this babymobile.

Decked out babby barrow

Two-toddler bike

Adding panniers or baskets also expresses some individuality:

Functional but flowery

Universal student all-purpose crate

Colorful Panniers


Porcelain tulips!


And just the smaller touches, adding color, new seating,
bells or even….wheel widgets and polka dots!

Wheel Widgets!

Teenie, weenie,

Definitely a little girl''s bike

In Amsterdam, we saw a number of bicycle taxis.  Probably the coolest looking one was this:

Smokin' Bicycle Taxi

And there is the creative bicycle parking, from en masse chainings to rails and lamp posts to double decker bike stands….

…to multi-plex bicycle garages:

Dead or just parked?

Not for everyone is the pedal-pushing bicycle. There are a few scooters and even — gasp! — motorcycles to be seen, although both are a minute minority compared to the sheer number of bicycles.  

And, wrapping this up, the bicycle bumper sticker, as with bumper stickers everywhere, states a political message.  In this case, to voice support for a national student’s organization, JSVU.  (Still haven’t figured out what the letters stand for.   And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it: go see “Dutch is a Pirate Language”.)

Cheeseheads in Paradise

OK, technically, Michael and I are not cheese heads.  We’ve never lived in Wisconsin, and probably never will, not through any problem with Wisconsin:  we just may not come back from Cheese Heaven, AKA the Netherlands, the land of a thousand goudas, their most popular cheese.  (BTW, pronounced properly, in Dutch, “gouda”  sounds something like khoutduh.  For more fun Dutch pronunciations, see Blog
#4, “Dutch is a Pirate Language”.)

We have become acclimated quickly to this culture of cheese.  We have at
least three types of Dutch cheeses on hand daily.  We eat cheese for meals, snacks, hors d’oeuvres, after dinner with fruit.  We love the cheese
here – whatever kinds they happen to be.  And we are still learning the names of different types of Dutch cheese.  Gouda and Edam are just the two most widely known to us as Americans.

Thankfully, I’ve found a cheese stall which sets up in the station plaza
square twice a week; the friendly, English-speaking proprietor gives me “taste slices” to help along the selection process. I plan on visiting often.

Curious about these new cheeses we’re eating – and hopelessly ignorant of them – I turned to cyber sleuthing.  I found out some very
interesting facts about the cheese and dairy industry as a whole in the

  • This small European country is actually the world’s largest exporter of dairy products, sending the majority of their cheeses to Western Europe, America, and Japan.
  • Gouda is the Netherlands’ most famous cheese and is also its biggest export, accounting for more than 60% of the country’s cheese production.
  • The Dutch have long been into raising cattle; their remains have been found in the northern part of the Netherlands dating back to 1600 B.C.E.  In Friesland (in the north of the
    Netherlands) pots were discovered which indicate that as early as 200 B.C.E.,
    cheese was being made there.
  • An extensive cheese trade has existed since the Middle Ages.
    • Around the year 1100 Dutch bargemen paid their tolls in cheese at Koblenz in Germany.
    • In bills of the city of Rotterdam dating back to 1426, mention is made of the profession of `caescoper’ (cheesemonger).
    • Beginning in the 12 century, several towns obtained the right to hold a dairy market.  Many of these markets are still held today in the traditional cheese towns of Gouda, Edam, Alkmaar and Hoorn.

A Dutch cheese market, with shoppers ready to come in

  • For centuries cheese making was a craft usually undertaken by women. Nowadays over 98% of all Dutch cheese is produced in modern creameries.

Some of our favorite cheeses I still don’t know the names of.  My personal favorites are the “oude kaas” or “old cheese”, the type that has crystalized a bit through the aging process.  Some of these hae been goudas, another type is simply called “old Amsterdam”, and others I’m still not sure what their names are.  A more recent favorite — suggested by our new cheesemonger — is a cheese with caraway seeds in it:  delicious!  Many goudas are made with different herbs blended in, and those are on the shopping list for tomorrow’s visit to the cheesemonger.

A well-stocked cheese stall.

Look for more musings on Dutch culinary treats such as bitterballen, already mentioned but worthy of greater examination; raw herring appetizers, the famous Rijstaafel and more.

OK, here’s what a real Wisconsin cheesehead looks like:

And, yes, we rooted for the Packers in this past Super Bowl!

June 14, 2011

Dutch is a pirate language


That one word describes not only the frustration I feel about my total inability to learn Dutch, but the atonalities in that vented expletive also sum up the essence of Dutch:  when in doubt, lengthen your “ahrs” and gargle for that phlegm that’s been stuck in the back of your throat for the last several days.  Our friend Terry, who lived here for four years, claims that Dutch is a pirate language not because they stole it from anyone — it IS German-based — but because spoken Dutch sounds like a bunch of pirates communicating between bouts of expectorant-hacking.

I never thought I’d ever say that German is (a) a relatively easy language to figure out and (b) sounds a whole lot nicer compared to….well…Dutch.   Because Dutch is fairly closely based on German, and because I pride myself on my heretofore relatively facile ability to pick up on new languages, I’d entered into our Netherlands adventure assuming I’d be able to at least learn a few key phrases fairly easily and rapidly.  What a pipe dream that was.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is NOT about whether or not I love the Dutch language or all things Dutch.  I LOVE the Netherlands.  I LOVE the people I’ve met (even those very inconsiderately loud [and gorgeous] gaggle of girls that live above us).  I have found almost every aspect of life here entertaining and satisfying.
Except the language.  I have found myself hopelessly unable to master the first thing about how to pronounce and speak the language.  I stare and stare at my puny Berlitz guide to Dutch and for the life of me, after 10 minutes of practice, still can’t remember how to pronounce all those dipthongs.

Thank god everyone speaks English.  Otherwise I’d be lost in a sea of mispronounced dipthongs and phlegm.
I am definitely a romance language person.  After all, romance languages, based  on Latin form  the base of many of the predominant languages of the world. Thank you Julius Caesar.

French, Spanish, even Italian, I’ve managed to pick up in my travels sufficiently to get around and make myself understood (the big exception being a “conversation” with two elderly ladies in Lucca, Italy, whose instructions in the local dialect so befuddled me I told Michael just to drive to the next town and we’d look for a hotel there). Note to Carol: ask directions of younger people who may just give you directions in the official language of the country and not some local dialect that bears no resemblance to said official language.

Anyway, the point is, Dutch utterly baffles me.  I can’t get the pronunciation or the rhythm of Dutch, both essential accomplishments for me to be able to even pick apart the simplest menu.  Compounding my inability to get the hang of Dutch, despite or even whatever German I know – and I assure you it is minimal – interferes with my ability to either pronounce or remember the vowelic rules of Dutch.  (I made up “vowelic” – sounds totally appropriate to me, given the cirumstances!)

So, what has helped me go completely around the bend trying to learn Dutch is that the pronunciation rules of German hold no sway here, no matter how much Dutch theoretically resembles German.  So I’m adrift in a voewlic and vocabularic nightmare that seems to have no way out.  Okay, so it is not politically correct to assume that Dutch is even remotely pronounced like German, despite its Germanic foundations.   I’m guilty of wanting an easy, pronounceable way out of this linguistic nightmare.

Repeat the mantra:  thank god everyone speaks English.

So here’s the most important book I didn’t bring.

My little 3×4 Berlitz “cheat-book” clearly isn’t up to the task.  I need at least a 20 page pronuniciation guide and at least a hundred pages of audio links to begin to do this language justice.  For the first time in my life, I’m a language nightmare.  Doesn’t sit well.

Here’s some example of some of the very different pronunciations I am continuing to grapple with:  Ou, ui, ee and the ever-present “g”

–“Oude” means “old”.  It’s pronounced “ow-tduh”, not “ood”.  Unfortunately for me, there’s a whole LOT of “oude” things in this country, none of which I pronounce correctly. Like “oude kaas”, which mean “old cheese”, as in the cheese you want to eat until you turn into a cheese puff ball.  More on cheese in the next blog.
–“ui” such as Uithof, the local name for the University of Utrecht, is not pronounced “u-ee-hof” but “aw” is as in “saw”.
—  “ee” is pronounced like a long “a” in English, so the word zee which means “sea”, as in North Sea, is pronounced “zay”.  [Just to make things difficult, if you combine “ee” with some other letters – like in the word twee (which means “two”) and because the letter “w” is pronounced as “v”, the correct pronunciation comes out as “tvay”.   Wish I’d learned to say that properly before buying train tickets in Amsterdam…..]
–And then there’s the befuddling letter “g”.   Why does everything on the menu in this country begin with “g”?  In Dutch, the letter “g” is pronounced with that hairball-inducing “hkaachkt” expulsion that makes me want to apologize for spitting missiles of phlegm on people. Obviously, to say the least, I have not mastered the “g” sound in Dutch.

What’s even more vile than listening to me or Michael trying to pronounce “g” is the visual presented:  the facial-contortion of a human inducing a hairball.  (Or was it the recently ingested bitterballen,  the national “treat” of deep-fried, cast-off animal meat parts in of a tad gravy – I kid you not!)  Here’s a photo so you can identify these little “appetizer” demons.  Don’t they look innocuous, like deep-fried meatballs?

They are NOT innocuous.  To quote my friend Karin, my guru on all things Dutch, they are made of discarded animal parts that you don’t want to know about (eyeballs, tails and innards, to begin with).  Makes me want to wax nostalgic for that god-awful scrapple my roommate, Patti, fed me for “sustenance” the morning of my most important grad school exam.  I went into that exam weak from barfing up breakfast.  Enough said about both culinary experiences.

Back to Pirate Dutch.

On top of all the  occasional tongue-twister vowel combinations that make no sense to my 59 years of English lanaguage, I came across the triple-vowel whammy, “ eeu”.  Huh?  What popped to mind was an adolescent expression of distaste, but I knew that couldn’t be right.  So I at the medical conference we went to, I asked Ernie, a Dutch physician with near-perfect English, how that was pronounced, and he said it comes out sounding sort of like the oo’s in “moose“ with a hint of “uh” somewhere in there…..but not exactly. Ernie said quite apologetically (the Dutch are so polite!):  “There’s no real translation of that sound into English.”   No kidding.  But whatever the pronunciation, I will certainly botch it!

But to the heart of the matter:  The frequent doubling of “aa” in Dutch is what definitely provides the pirate inflection into the language.  The double “a” has an elongated, deep-throat “aahhhhh” sound to it, again making you look and sound like an expectorating camel – or pirate. 

For the grand finale of this little treatise, I thought I’d share  the most confounding word I’ve come across — besides the street name at the beginning of this blog.   If I can ever pronounce it before I leave in 2+ more months, I will be ecstatic:  wegwerpscheermesjes, which means disposable razors – thank god I brought a supply!

Stay tuned for more musings on “going Dutch”!

Setting Up House in Utrecht

We have now been in the Netherlands two weeks.   About 6 days ago, we moved from “The Cave”, our initial hotel-apartment, to our “semi-permanent” apartment at Wijde Begijnestraat 86.  Translated, that means we live at apartment number 86 on the street called Wijde Begijnestraat.

However, since we arrived 14 days ago, we’ve visited a number of cities.  As I write, I’m in a hotel room in a lovely sea-side town called Egmond aan Zee (pronounced  ”Eckhht-mand on Zay”) where we are attending a conference for Dutch emergency medicine physicians. Michael gave his excellent paper today and it seemed well-received.

Okay, back to the street and apartment where we live.  Like many streets in Utrecht, it doesn’t go in a straight line, but this one, Wijde Begijnestraat, takes the cake:  it is V-shaped.  So in this picture…

…the white building with the awning in the middle actually is the tip of the “V”, and Wijde Begijnestraat goes up both the left and right side from that point.  We actually live on the left side of the V, opposite those two turquoise balconies you can see in the distance.

Confusing as this dual-directional street can be it is additionally confounding because several streets in the immediate vicinity have the unpronounceable “Begijnestraat” as partof their name. Hence:

And there are a couple more:

I received some weird looks taking photos of street signs, let me tell you.

On to the interior of our apartment.  It is comfy and pretty adequate for two people and by Dutch standards, a pretty roomy 1-bedroom flat.  (Technically it’s a 2-bedroom but you couldn’t fit a bed into the second one, maybe a crib if you took everything else out.)  Here’s a view of the right side of the living room.  The open door (notice the door prop) leads to the front hall, bedroom(s) and bath.  In the foreground is the dining room table which I use as my desk.

Here is the left side of the living room, also showing our little balcony.  The room has a great deal of natural light, which is quite lovely, but it is a fairly small space.  Anyone who comes to visit would either have to squeeze onto one of the loveseats or sleep on the floor and risk getting stepped on by Michael when he strolls in to make his a.m. coffee.

and the kitchenette, contiguous to the dining area: 

and finally, our bed – which takes up 99% of the “master” bedroom, or “kamer”:

and the so-called “2nd kamer”:

So, any of you planning on coming for a visit, plan on bringing a sleeping bag!

So, where’s the Red Light District?

This is what Michael keeps asking…every day.  Neither one of us has figured that one out yet.  Or if there really is one in Utrecht, we sure aren’t living in or on the edge of it as far as we can tell.  Unlike Amsterdam, there are no half-naked women posing in broad windows, nor are there provocative signs advertising women, boys or toys.  (Well, I guess there a couple of small sex shops, a couple of streets over, but I honestly didn’t notice them until going over pictures.  They are that unobtrusive and innocuous.)  But we do have a couple of head shops, aka the local “coffee house”.)

When we return to Utrecht this weekend, I will finish up the next installment.  Until then, it’s happy living and train-hopping in the Netherlands!

Lessons Learned in Amsterdam

Speeding up the Learning Curve…

… essential skill or accomplishment if you want to survive a block on foot in Amsterdam!

Michael and I just returned from a hectic 2-day whirl through Amsterdam.  In many respects, Michael would say it’s a miracle I’m here to relate our experiences, given the number of near-misses I’ve/we’ve had in less than 48 hours.  In the parlance of business meetings and lecture halls, the “take aways” from our mini-trip are:

  1. Never, never, never step out of a “safe” pedestrian zone without checking and rechecking in all directions for tram, bus, car and – above all! – bicycle traffic.
  2. Cobblestones can cripple or maim you.
  3. Potholes are not a phenomenon of modern sidewalks and roadways;  i.e., cobblestones and pavers can be dislodged, creating little potholes just big enough for a size 7 ½ shoe to trip over.
  4. “Gawking while walking” is NOT okay.  Not only do you look stupid, you stand a better than 90% chance of screwing up learning point #1.  Need I say more?  Gawk only if seated in a café, bus, canal
    boat or propped up against a solid wall, preferably one that’s been standing at least 200 years so you know it won’t collapse under you.  Note: gawking while leaning against a less than 3-foot canal railing (where they exist) is not a good move, either. Not unless you are less than 3-foot, six inches or have a hankering to swim in the canal.
  5. Final caveat: If you’ve been drinking or imbibing in other available substances, your odds of tripping, falling or getting pulverized by some form of speeding vehicle on 2-, 3-, 4- or other multiple wheels goes straight to 100% if you don’t scrupulously follow numbers

Okay, since I’m writing this from the relative safety of our new apartment in Utrecht, I’ve obviously survived my first adult experience in
Amsterdam.  (Get your minds out of the gutter, my friends.  The last time I was in Amsterdam I was only 8 ½!  The “worst” I did in Amsterdam the last two days was drink two Jaegermeister shooters.  More on that later.)

Now that the safety stuff is out of the way, here are some more thoughts on Amsterdam:

  1. Michael would gladly move here in a heartbeat if
    offered a position.  He might even work
    for free.  As you can see, he’s already
    checking out the real estate:

Anyone recognize the plants on either side of Michael?  And he IS in front of a real estate office, not a “coffee shop”!

2. Amsterdam is awash in canals and bikes.  The city has several multi-story garages for bicycles only.  I kid you not.  Here’s a 4-level garage for just bikes at the central rail station.

We saw several such bicycle garages
in Amsterdam, as well as the standard “parking” of bikes against any lamppost,
gutter spout or rail, often 3 to 5 bikes deep.

And, speaking of bicycles being “awash” and “deep”,
Amsterdam has about 100 kilometers of canals, most of which do not have railings  along the banks.  Therefore, having happy bikers roll into the canals is a frequent and daily occurrence.  For that matter, an average of one car a week ends up in a canal.  With space at a premium throughout the Netherlands, bikes and cars squeeze into “parking” wherever the driver-operator perceives a space to be had, often within inches of the drink. 

IMHO, I would venture to suggest that the
frequency of bikers and auto drivers ending up in the canal has a lot more to do with the amount of substances consumed by the drivers than their observational or parking skills.  Or maybe better phrasing: it’s a matter of substances consumed impairing skills of any sort….

3. Amsterdam is not completely a biker’s paradise. In fact, bikes are at the heart of this beautiful city’s hottest crime wave:  60,000 bicycles per year are stolen in this city of 700,000.  You do the math.  Seriously, bike theft is the number one crime issue in Amsterdam (albeit a relatively innocuous one unless it’s your bike!).  Hello, police departments everywhere in the
U.S.? Have you checked your crime stats recently?  And, no, the Amsterdam P.D. is not taking foreign applicants right now.

4.  Amsterdam is a very happy city.  In fact, we learned that a recent study found that the Dutch, in general, are the happiest people in Europe, if not  the world.  The Dutch scored the highest on all kinds of “wellness”, “wellbeing” and “satisfaction” criteria, and from what I’ve experienced so far, the study is right on target.  Moreover, the “happy factor” extends to
expats who have chosen to live in the Netherlands.  We fell in with a bunch of friendly expats courtesy of our friend and medical compeñero, Terry Mulligan, who lived here for four years and, being a gregarious guy himself, made a lot of Dutch and expat friends alike.  Here we are with
some of them at a café in Amsterdam:

From the left:  Renée Mennie, 8 ¾ months pregnant, who is Dutch; her British husband, Stuart; Michael (notice the happy grin and the empty Heineken glass); and Terry Mulligan (American, and not yet so happy because his food’s late and he hasn’t drunk his beer). Special note:  the author wasn’t drinking anything stronger than coffee at this point, hence the clarity of the picture.

During the course of the afternoon and going into the evening, various other expats joined us at one café or another:  Allen, another Brit; Zach, a Canadian; and Richard, an Aussie. There’s a reason for giving their genealogy; continue reading.

5.  Beware of drinking with expats from the former British Empire.  And never, never, never think you can even keep up with them.  And besting a Brit or Aussie at swilling beer?  Fegeddaboutit!  Having learned those lessons eons ago, I stuck to wine with bottles of water chaser. Until about 11 p.m.  Ah, yes.  That’s where the Jaegermeister came in.  Michael and I wisely had our two shooters and hightailed it out the door to the relative safety of the streets.  And our hotel.

6.  Other “happy” factors from Amsterdam.  (Warning: the author personally hasn’t tried any of the following and can’t vouch for authenticity of any of these factors truly making one happy.)

When you travel in England, a striking observation is the number of pubs scattered throughout the cities and country towns, about one every block or so. The Brits refer to either the closest pub or their favorite,
within-walking-distance pub as their “local” (for obvious reasons, it must be walkable).  Amsterdam isn’t shy on establishments offering alcoholic beverages (but they’ve adopted the cooler French “café” nomenclature).  But the true “local” establishments here are the coffee shops, where one can purchase small amounts of marijuana for consumption on the premises.  Those you can find on nearly every block throughout downtown Amsterdam, thus contributing to the continued state of happiness of the Dutch people. At least, the people we observed lounging around in the coffee shops looked rather happy, if in a dreamy, zoned-out way. The Bulldog claims to be the oldest coffee shop in Amsterdam, begotten way back in 1975:

However, I was told that there were other coffee shops prior to this Bull Dog.  Supposedly, the original coffee shop was housed in a police station.  Talk about have the cops keeping a close watch on the action. Does this mean they had substations in the whore houses?

Renée and Stuart Mennie live on the edge of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, so in all our comings and goings and to-ings and fro-ings Michael and I saw quite a lot of the wares on display, as well as all the various establishments that sell the assistive accoutrements
of the world’s oldest act, whether performed by professionals or hapless
amateurs.  (OK, for the country hicks among you, I’m talking about the sex  shops, dummies!)

Being a good little tourist, I did not photograph any of the ladies in their windows or even the colorfully enticing door signs of their establishments.
Apparently, this is frowned upon and actively acted upon, as in you
could be relieved of your camera by an enraged madam/monsieur or the
establishment bouncer.  But I did sneak a photo of this unique little sign that was stuck in the corner of the door to one of the smaller assistive devices shops:
And now for the real reason we’re in the Netherlands….

Michael and Terry Mulligan have been working quite hard on their lecture series for the medical school class they are teaching.  Terry, who first taught this class a few years ago, will be here for another week, then returns to the States, where he’s a colleague of Michael’s at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.  The class they are teaching is for
second-year students, who have had little, if any, clinical experience, so to
have two experienced, high-powered clinicians giving them the scoop on real emergency medicine as practiced in the real world is rather thrilling.  At least none of them has fallen asleep yet.

On the other hand, teaching this class hasn’t exactly been a hardship for the two of them either.  Michael came home positively glowing after the first day.  Out of 29 students, all but about 4 were women and, to use his words, “they’re ALL BEAUTIFUL!”

Need I say more?

In all seriousness, Terry and Michael have their work cut out for them.
In this coming week they will meet with the Minister of Health for the
Netherlands; a representative from the U.S. Department of State with an interest in international health; and, Michael will be delivering a paper at the Dutch national convention for emergency physicians near Rotterdam.  And that’s just next week.  The goal is to help expand the University of
Maryland’s Emergency Department’s interests in international medicine – so it would seem they are off to an auspicious start!

So, stay tuned to future updates
from Michael and Carol!

Sunday, June 05, 2011

P.S.  Yesterday, as I was completing an earlier
section, our new friend Stuart Mennie, who had come back to Utrecht to carry on
the party, had arrived at our new apartment with Terry to initiate our first
happy hour in our new abode.  Stuart read over my shoulder with interest my quip, “Beware of drinking with expats from the former British Empire”, laughed and walked away muttering something about, “You would have to rub it in about the ‘former’ British Empire”!

Later on, in a continuation of expat British pride, Stuart tried to convince me (tongue in cheek) that the U.S. had not won the revolutionary war against the mother country.  As we bickered over that absurdity, I
reminded him we beat the pants off the Brits a second time in the war of 1812, which he also denied. To add ballast to the sinking ship of his claims, he finally countered that the land the White House is on is actually owned by Canada, formerly of the British Empire.  At that point I gave up the argument and we decamped to another café.  Anyone want to comment on that charge?

Michael & Carol’s Adventures in the Netherlands — Blog #1

First Days

Michael and I made it safely to the Netherlands, arriving in Amsterdam Thursday, May 26 and to Utrecht the next day.  We’re staying for a few days in a “hotel apartment” which, in reality, a 2-room converted warehouse on a canal, below street level.

If you look closely on the lower right side of the picture, you will see
arched doorways and windows set into the embankment below the street level.  Those lead to similar residences such as what we’re staying in, but on the left hand side of the canal.  Here’s a look-see at our “cave”:

This charming little abode is centrally
located in the oldest section of Utrecht so it’s very convenient for getting our bearings in  Utrecht. Rumor has it that the house above was owned by a
Catholic family who, during times of austere Protestant reign in the Netherlands, stored their vast wine cellars down here.  They obviously needed to keep a great deal of wine for ceremonial purposes… “The Cave”, as we are wont to call it, is actually quite nice, with a large living-dining area and has a tiny kitchen, so we’ve been mostly preparing our meals and dining in.  We’ve also been meeting our neighbors, who are terrific and so very interesting.  One is an amazing, very original artist, and others are professional in a variety of fields.  All believe in extended happy hour along the canal so forgive me any typos or lapses in grammar. The only pitfalls are the vaulted barrel ceilings, which are low enough on the sides that even I bang my head on them if I’m not paying attention.   On June 1st we move into our apartment about 1 and 1/2 km (3/4 mile) north of here.
More on that later.

Our journey here was not without incident(s), although all
relatively small.  We chose to spend the first night in one of the airport hotels near Amsterdam to catch up on sleep and to arrive in Utrecht before noon the next day (Friday), rather than push ourselves.  The airport hotel was more than adequate – and more than expensive when it came to breakfast the next day.  There was no a la cart breakfast, just a
lovely buffet…..which upon checkout we found had cost us €43, about  $65!  Oh well.

Back at the train depot under Schipol Airport (pronounced “sh-kip-hole”), I went up to the ticket window to purchase our train tickets to Utrecht.  I asked the agent if he spoke English, which he assured me he did.  I asked for two tickets to Utrecht for myself and my husband, paid as he requested, then he handed me one ticket. I said I needed tickets for two people, and held up two fingers.  He nodded, pointed to the ticket and said “Ja”.  We went through the scenario one more time and I figured perhaps it was like our special Eurail pass which is one ticket for two people traveling together.

I figured wrong.

The conductor came by about 5 minutes before we got to Utrecht (about 30 min. from Amsterdam) and we found that we needed a second ticket – of course!  To pay her on thetrain would result in a €35 fine for not having   the proper tickets.  Since she was getting off in Utrecht herself, she kindly offered to go with us to the ticket office, thus saving us a fair packet of change.  She also informed us we’d better get our bags down to the train doors, as we were about to arrive in Utrecht.  So scramble we did, and met heron the platform in record time.  Long  story short:  the ticket lines were horrendously long so, rather than give up her break, she gave us a free pass, admonishing us (albeit it very nicely) to make sure we didn’t screw up our tickets again.  Lesson learned:  start learning Dutch pronto.

About 3 hours later, as we were settling into our new abode, the Cave, I realized that in the scramble to get off the train, I’d left my Nook (electronic reader) on the train.  I was beside myself, because it contained all my reading material and all our guides for the next three months. Another long story short, after phone calls and a trek back to the Utrecht train station, we discovered that some honest soul found the e-reader and turned it in to the Dutch rail authorities, and I could go pick it up…in Nijmegan, an hour’s train ride away, and practically on the German border.  Michael was, as always, a good sport and made the trip with me.  By the time we got back to our cave apartment, it was after 7 p.m. – a long first day in Utrecht.

Navigating Utrecht

Over the weekend, we explored central Utrecht on foot.  Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in Europe, with its earliest settlement tracing back to the Romans.  It is centrally located in the Netherlands (abbreviated NL) and has a population of about 300,000.  This old city has been initially one of themore difficult places to navigate for the simple reason that the streets all change names after one block or less, reflecting how the city grew in not equally concentric rings over the centuries, with each new strip of buildings and canals adding a new name(s). As in any old European city, the streets are mostly narrow with twists and turns that can easily disorient the ablest of internal navigation systems.  A beautiful and saving point of reference is the “Dom Toren”, or cathedral tower, which is not only the tallest point in the old city, soaring 370 ft. into the sky, but the tallest structure in the Netherlands.  It is easily seen from most of the main
streets of the old center city. It also has dozens of bells, making it the
largest musical instrument in the NL.

Notice how the Dom tower stands alone, and has no church
attached to it.  At one time it was the bell tower of the cathedral, or Domkerk, which stands about 50 yards behind and to the left of the tower in the picture to the left.

The bulk of the Domkerk, including a very attached bell tower, was built
over several decades in the 1300s.  In 1674 a freak tornado struck Utrecht, ripping through and destroying the nave of the church, which encompasses the main entrance and length of the church leading towards the alter. (For the uninitiated in gothic cathedral design, see:

Not only did the city not replace the whole front end of the cathedral, the denizens of Utrecht took quite a while to clean up the mess, a couple of hundred years per one source. So today the Domkerk and its former bell tower stand separately, with a beautiful little tree-filled plaza between them.

The Dom, as the tower’s called, is enormous.  Its base encompasses about one medieval-sized city block and a grand archway cut through the base that a (small) city bus can drive through.

Where the trees are in the photo below is the plaza between the two remaining sections of the cathedral. It’shad to tell from this angle, but the plaza is about 100 meters  square and is really quite lovely.

The Dutch and their Bikes

In addition to the medieval maze that makes it difficult to navigate the streets of Utrecht are the considerable safety hazards while afoot.  Forget how many times we’d read this in guidebooks or were told this, there are speeding bicycles everywhere and you’d better be alert because these bikers take no prisoners.  Utrecht is a university town, and while there
are youthful speed demons aplenty wielding cell phones, iPods and headphones while biking, Utrechtians of all ages take to their bikes as the primary form of transportation.  And, as one would expect from bikers who insist upon texting while cycling, among other activities, their full attention is not always focused on the roadway as they zip along.  While thus far Michael and I have remained uninjured by these bike demons, we have each had near-strikes from some of the more demented bikers.  In fact, bike-on-bike, bike-on-pedestrian and bike-on-other vehicle accidents are frequent and messy, according to an ER physician here.  Of course, it would help if the bikers wore helmets, but apparently it’s part of Dutch national pride to eschew such a ridiculous piece of equipment.  In
reality it’s probably more prudent for pedestrians to be wearing full body
armor when they venture out.  The number one rule here is bikes rule, and, number two is “stay out of our frikkin’ bike lanes!” — and woe to the pedestrian who forgets these life-essential caveats.

Here’s how it works.  On the larger streets there are wide lanes
that are for bicycle traffic only.  They run parallel to the vehicular traffic lane(s) on one side, and the pedestrian sidewalks on the other side of the bike lane. Notice I said “larger streets”.  There are not that many wide streets in the older part of Utrecht, so the majority of the time the reality is a very poorly-defined roadway that is shared by vehicles and bikes, with a narrow sidewalk running alongside.  However, where there are sidewalks, cafés will commandeer sidewalk space for their needs, and other businesses and homeowners routinely appropriate large chunks of sidewalks for whatever needs they have: mini-gardens, bike storage, pram storage, garbage cans, benches, etc.

Notice I said, “where there are sidewalks…”

Being such an old city, central Utrecht’s “main” streets are simply 10 foot-wide undifferentiated “roadways” that are shared by all.  Of course, these
narrow, cobbled streets are beautiful and quaint, but they also present a better than excellent chance of getting creamed by a speeding bicyclist. On the other hand, the very “greenness” of bikes outnumbering carbon-spewing vehicles thrills my eco-conscious soul, and I am enthralled – if not intimidated – by these speeding (but non-carbon emitting) bike demons zipping around me.

A rather small bike parking lot.  Notice how there are large spaces between the rows of bikes. 

This is only because the grocery store to the left is situated on a large sidewalk plaza, and pedestrians have actually been left a wide walking space traversing the plaza.  Stay tuned for more regarding Utrecht on two wheels,
including “Pimp My Bike, Dutch Style”.

First Impressions

So far, we love the Netherlands, the Dutch and Utrecht.  It’s been a wonderful four days of exploration and we can’t wait to learn more.
It’s a continual amazement, from the multitudes of mixed cultures to the
mixture of old city and 21st century as well as adjustments, all of
which have been positive.  I think Michael is ready to move here permanently. So far the only downsides are the cost and relative lack of
convenience:  everything here is far more expensive than in the U.S., and, you just don’t have the conveniences you’re used to, like breadth and depth of consumer choices and stores like a CVS.  So there have been some minor adjustments in mindset and expectations, but nothing we weren’t expecting.

Language here has only been a comical problem if we’ve tried
to pronounce Dutch words correctly.  Everyone speaks good English (well, that ticket agent at the Amsterdam train station being an exception), so getting around has not been a problem at all.  Although Dutch is Germanic-based, its pronunciation is different from German in many ways, so the written words often sound radically different from how one would
expect them.  A lesson in point is the street on which we will soon be living, a lesson neither one of us has quite mastered.

We will be moving to

Wijde Beginestraat 86 as of June 1st.  Most Americans would attempt to pronounce this “Widge-dee Begin-es-strat” and that would be so off base.  The correct, throat-hocking pronunciation is much closer to something like “Vy-duh Be-kahy-nah-sraaat” – and this is the closest in phonetic and actual pronunciation I’ve mastered, and I’m still not saying it correctly.  I guess I better not get lost or otherwise incapacitated.

And, oh yeah, since I brought that up….our future abode is just off a
main street that looks a tad like Haight Ashbury in San Fran in the late 60s, including at least one coffee shop, which does serve brown stuff, but nothing anything like coffee beans, if you know what I mean.  The streets are teeming with students and others under 30 (if not under 20) in all modes of dress and hair –uh – “arrangements”.

In addition to the coffee shops which exude a weird, sweet-smelling,
uh, incense (my mother is reading this, y’all!), there are tattoo parlors, ethnic fast food joints (stalls built into crevices in the outer walls of buildings), actual restaurants of all ethnic hues, most fairly exotic, weird clothing stalls, and, of course, a movie theater and a few liquor stores.  And one small grocery store.  I mean, these kids have their priorities in order!

And, we’ve been told that the city’s red light district is somewhere very close by, although in two excursions to our future neighborhood, I haven’t seen any ladies of the night. On the other hand, my last traipse through there was before noon, so the time of day may have been a clue why every female I saw was more or less adequately covered.  Even by Dutch

OK, that’s it from me.
Stay tuned for more adventures and commentary from Carol and Michael

Tuesday, May 31, 2011