Royals and Flowers in Utrecht

Brushing Shoulders with Dutch Royalty

As Americans, we generally are unimpressed by the concept of royalty and the fanfare that accompanies persons of hereditary stature. But I will confess it was a remarkable occurrence to find myself standing in a crowd, waiting for the King and Queen of the Netherlands to pass by. Michael had returned from work to find me with Corinne, drinking coffee (a very Dutch pastime) and said, excitement reverberating from every democratic gene: “Don’t you know the King and Queen are coming? They’re supposed to pass by just a block from here.”

Caffeinated as we were to the gills, Corinne and I decided to see for ourselves if Michael was hallucinating or whether we were hallucinating Michael. Nope, he was right.  The Dutch version of the Secret Service and the Utrecht police had blocked off about 2 blocks square of vehicular traffic to allow the newly-enthroned royal couple to pass among their subjects in their first “official” visit to Utrecht.  However, the hoi polloi (including us) were allowed to line the streets along which Willem-Alexander and Maxima would stroll, winding their way from one official ceremony to the next royal happening in Utrecht.

Queen Maxima

Queen Maxima

After experiencing almost military-style scanners and shake-downs at presidential inaugurations in recent years, I was quite surprised that here the common people were allowed so close to the king and queen. In fact, both royals walked the sides of the streets, smiling broadly, greeting people, shaking outstretched hands. The king repeatedly thanked people for coming. The queen bee-lined to the smallest children, but I didn’t see any babies being crowd-surfed for royal smackeroos.

King Willem Alexander

King Willem Alexander, as seen from behind, waving to his subjects

It was actually pretty remarkable, as I was about a meter from the king, and I’ve never been within a mile of any of our presidents. Unfortunately, the close-up shot Corinne took of the king was ruined by some guy sticking his bald head in front of the camera. (No, it was not Michael.)

Why the big fuss over this king and queen? Willem-Alexander is the first king of the Netherlands since 1890, his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother having ruled quite nicely as his predecessors for over a century. However – and also in the tradition of her own mother – (former) Queen Beatrix abdicated on April 30, officially to allow a new generation to take over the titular reins.

For years, Willem-Alexander has tried to outgrow his nickname as “Prins Pils,” the moniker he acquired as a hard-partying, beer-swilling, not-so-serious student at the University of Leiden. It is not an image he was fond of, apparently. Since then, he’s cleaned up his jet-set, party-boy image, and developed expertise (I use this loosely) in water management and infrastructure (whatever that means).

His marriage to Argentinian beauty Maxima in 2002 was highly controversial, as her father had been the Agricultural Minister there during that country’s internal “Dirty War” of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  However, Maxima apparently has won over all those stolid, resistant Dutch hearts in the intervening years, first by learning Dutch, then participating in many charity events. One of her most recent publicity stunts occurred this past September, when she donned wetsuit and goggles to swim in Amsterdam’s canals for a charity  fund-raiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Event organizers claimed the canal water was the cleanest it had been in years, but I’m not sure I would have swum 2 meters, much less 2 kilometers in that water as Maxima did. What would be worse, the canal in its natural state or after its chemical “treatment” in preparation of the royal bather? I’ll bet she headed right for the Royal Aesthetician for a facial and body scrub after that swill – I mean, “swim.”


Photo credit:

The Flora Hof of Utrecht

I was strolling through central Utrecht the other day and spied a beautiful courtyard next to the Dom, the landmark cathedral tower which symbolizes Utrecht. On previous passes, the heavy iron gates had been closed, preventing even a glimpse of what was inside. Apparently, this beautiful little courtyard, or hof, in Dutch, is a small segment of quite a large nursery and gardens that have been here for a couple hundred years. This lovely little courtyard has been restored and is now opened to the public.


Flora Hof

On the interior walls of the courtyard, however, are stone reliefs which are quite violent and in conflict with the peacefulness of the flowery oasis. Various reliefs depict a child being dismembered, a bishop’s hand being devoured, and a person about to be bludgeoned with a truncheon. I couldn’t find much information on line about these stone sculptures. Sketchy sources said they depicted scenes from the life of St. Martin, the patron saint of Utrecht, or of St. Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht.  And while St. Willibrord had been in northern Netherlands, as well as Utrecht, I couldn’t find any specific tales that correlated with these stone reliefs, although he and his merry band of disciples did have some violent run-ins with local pagans.

Child Mutilation

Child Mutilation


Nonetheless, the little courtyard serves as a pleasant oasis and place to sit for a bit of respite outside the bustle of one of Utrecht’s busiest byways.

Another angle of the flower courtyard with the Dom toren looming in the background.

Another angle of the flower courtyard with the Dom toren looming in the background.

And, in final sign-off, a view of the Dom as it towers over the Oudegracht, or “Old Canal.”


Cultural Adjustments

Cultural Differences Can Be More Than Amusing

Michael and I have been living in the Netherlands for nearly five weeks now and we’ve become accustomed to the essentials: we watch out for speed demon bicyclists – they’re everywhere!; we can easily distinguish between the 1- and 2-Euro coins; and we can read the European
train time tables with relative ease and little mishap (no small feat!) However – and you knew that was coming – there are a number of cultural differences that we’ve noted. Some are amusing, some perplexing or frustrating, others – being Dutch – eminently practical — yet most have added to our ultimate enjoyment of living in the Netherlands.

The practical

Cash, not credit, is king. I was warned to have plenty of cash on hand, as many stores will not accept credit cards, and what a useful tip that was. Like most Americans, I was accustomed to paying for virtually everything by credit card: groceries, gas, haircuts, vet bills, movie tickets.

Not here. Grocery stores won’t take credit, and most other stores won’t either.  And where they do, there can be a hefty fee tacked on for using credit. For example, our initial hotel bill would have been 15% higher if we’d charged it.  So having cash on hand is essential, and probably better in terms of not over-extending yourself. And, of course, geldermats (ATMs) are ubiquitous.


The public urinal.  I’d grown up with seeing public urinals in France, so I was quick to recognize in them in Amsterdam and Utrecht. I also noticed that as in the one pictured below, they are often situated near large bars and cafés. Michael pointed out an oddity, though. He said that when he goes into men’s restrooms in restaurants, there are no urinals, but individual, completely enclosed toilet stalls. So, here’s the dichotomy: open air urinals which leave little to the imagination as to what the guy is doing, and, the completely closed off little pooping-and-pissing cabana.

Go figure!

He's not just singing in the rain...

There had to be something I didn’t like!

No ice, no free water. Water is not served automatically in restaurants, and when requesting water, your choices “with gas” or “without gas” — but “no charge” is not an option. In fact, a small bottle of water can cost  as much as a glass of beer. What is also remarkable (to me), is that the bottled water is rarely cold, and even more scarce are ice cubes. The eating and drinking establishments as a whole almost never serve you any drinks – water, sodas, tea, etc. – with ice in them.
And a couple of times when I have received my pricey bottle of water, the
accompanying glass had one, lone ice cube in it. One ice cube.

People who know me well are aware that I drink a lot of ice water. And I mean ice-cold water, as in filled-with-ice-cubes cold water. So, I have to admit, no ice and no free water has been a cultural adjustment for me. Solution? I went out and bought two icecube trays.

The charming

Hanging out is a national occupation.
Everyone knows that Americans work way too much. We work ridiculous hours, and in some professions the 60 hour+ workweek is de rigeur.
Contrast this idiotic workaholic predilection with the Dutch: does anyone work an 8-hour day? From about 11 a.m. until after 9 p.m. cafés and restaurants are packed with people, especially if it’s a nice day out. On a sunny day, outdoor lounge space is at a premium. In fact, I wonder where the restaurants store all their tables and chairs when it’s raining. Perhaps they have the opposite of a giant dehydration machine: when the sun’s out or the temperature rises above 18°C (65°F), café tables and chairs mushroom out of the sidewalks and plazas as people come flocking. And what’s really nice is the relaxed attitude of the servers: you want to nurse one cup of coffee or one small beer for the next 2 hours – no problem!

And people especially love to hang out by the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) in Utrecht for both drinks and dinner.

Michael is at lower right in blue shirt, back to camera.

Plaze with about 7 cafes near where we live
















Street performances. Nearly all of the street performances we’ve seen have been in Amsterdam, and they have ranged from amazingly good to the truly awful. In fact, one singer and her accompanying keyboardist were so bad that the café patrons didn’t just ignore them, they booed them. Tough audience!   Probably the most delightful “street” performance was by a 20-odd person orchestra on a train station in Breda. Totally an unexpected surprise. Betcha you’ve never seen that in the States!

Here’s a few performance “artists” from Amsterdam:

I wanted to scream after watching this guy for several minutes

Break dancing on the Leidesplein

If you can figure out what these guys were doing, you get a banana!

Brazilian Martial Arts -- these guys were flying!










The three-kiss greeting. The traditional Dutch greeting among friends
is three pecks on alternating cheeks. No one can explain why or how this customcame about, and why three kisses. But this is the normal greeting  among friendsupon arrival and departure.


Only in the Netherlands…

Parking violations are taken way too seriously!

We happened upon a vehicle being towed at the Nieuwe Markt plaza in Amsterdam. Given the narrow streets, Dutch have developed a unique method of hauling away vehiclesvthat are broken down, in accidents, or – as in this case – illegally parked.

And the fines for leaving your car in a no parking zone?
According to one of the policemen at this scene, the parking fine is about €70, plus another €400 for the tow fees, and then another €50 per day for each day your impounded vehicle is unclaimed. And, he added, if you try to abandon your vehicle, the city will sell it and keep the money, but you will still owe all the accumulated fines. Citizens will be tracked down to pay up and tourists can’t leave the country until they settle their fines. Good incentive to own a bicycle.


In a city with about 100 kilometers of canals…..

If you think about it, having a DHL delivery boat in Amsterdam
makes a whole lot of sense!


And the real whopper: the “Code Blue” bicycle.  Yup.
Michael went with his medical students for a tour of the ER at the
University of Utrecht hospital. The physician giving the tour pointed out a
bicycle with little cart attachments. She explained that whenever a “code blue” (cardiac arrest) occurred in the hospital, one of the ER physicians  hops on the bike and “pedal like crazy” to get to the afflicted patient, crash cart and all.

I wish he’d gotten a picture…

That’s all for now!

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

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?