The Windmills of Kinderdijk


Probably the most iconic Dutch symbol is the traditional windmill, or windmolen.  As one travels about the Netherlands, there’s usually one, possibly two, windmills scattered in the landscape, isolated in the fields, but seldom are the great sails moving, as many are no longer operational. Sadly, there are only about a thousand or so windmolen left in the entire country.  One source claims there about 1,150 windmills remaining, although the Dutch will only “count” a windmill if it is fully operational.  Thus, to see several majestic windmills, sails rotating in the wind, such as these above at Kinderdijk, is a sight to warm a tourist’s campy heart.

The Kinderdijk is a small town situated on a piece of land jutting out among the polders and at the confluence of the Lek and Noord, about 7 miles east of Rotterdam in South Holland province.  For those of you up on your Dutch, the name means (literally translated), “Children Dike” – more on the reason for this catchy moniker later.  This water-sodden stretch of fields and marshes  lying amidst the canals, dikes and rivers is called polders, or low-lying stretches of land (often below sea level), that are kept more or less usable by continual draining and controlling the amount of water entering the area. The polders themselves are of three types: marshes, reclaimed land (from both sea and river deltas) used for crops or grazing, and flood plains. The use of windmills to pump out excess groundwater, dikes, sluices, lockes and canals has been part of Dutch culture – and survival – for centuries. The nineteen remaining windmills of the Kinderdijk are actually still working windmills, although now modern technology does the lion’s share of pumping out water and land reclamation throughout the  modern Netherlands. However, for centuries, the windmills played an important role in pumping from the polders into the canals overloads of ground water, flood waters, and in area nearest the North Sea, high tide water.

The polders, marshes and fields both, lying among the canals large and small, and their containing dikes.

The polders, marshes and fields both, lying among the canals large and small, and their containing dikes.

The Dutch are famous for their centuries-long battle with the sea. There is a reason behind the adage: God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.  I’ve heard estimates that as much as half of modern-day Netherlands was once below sea-level and has since been reclaimed, although most on-line sources seem to think the actual amount is somewhere between 25-30%.  However, a great deal of the “land” in Netherlands remains below sea-level, about 27%, kept dry and protected by a system of pumps sluices, canals and the thousands of dikes that contain and channel the water away from the workable, livable land.

This is, of course, a rather simplistic explanation of an intricate system and tug-of-war with the sea that the country has waged for hundreds of years. So far, the Netherlands seems to be winning, as it keeps adding reclaimed land bit by bit over the centuries. In 1986 a whole brand new, 12th province was proclaimed, Flevoland, from what had once been an inland sea. (More on this in a later blog.)

But back to the Kinderdijk. Yes, it’s a tourist attraction, these 19 windmills, sails a-turning, lining the canals, pumping out their share of groundwater. Yet as touristy as they are, the Kinderdijk is also a recreational area, drawing many hikers and bikers to the miles of paths topping the hundreds of dikes in this great polder.

Hiking and biking along the dikes between the canals and polders.

Hiking and biking along the dikes between the canals and polders.

Being ultimate tourists, we opted for a half-hour canal boat ride in order to gawk and snap pictures at a closer range. Accompanied by Michael’s brother David and his wife Joyce, who’ve been visiting us from Wisconsin, we all hopped on the next boat and cast off.

David & Joyce Rolnick

David & Joyce Rolnick

Michael and me.

Michael and me.

A few things I noticed immediately as we drew closer to the windmills was their shape – octagonal – whereas they’d seemed a roundish cone shape from a distance; that the majority of the sails (the four long arms that turn in the wind) didn’t have “sail cloth” in them; and, that the mills were thatched.



All the windmills here dated from about 1740. This one has partial sails unfurled on its sails.

Another windmill with two sails unfurled. Notice the house and arbor next to it. Several of the windmills have people living in and/or next to them.

Another windmill with two sails unfurled. Notice the house and arbor next to it. Several of the windmills have people living in and/or next to them.

What I found out, in brief, is the following:

  • The traditional Dutch windmill is a “smock mill,” a later variation of mill that has developed over the years from “tower” mills, to “post” and “hollow-post” mills. Essentially, they’re upright vertical structures with the sails attached near the top face of the mill.
  • The “smock” mill is so-named because it usually has an octagonal structure, usually made of a wooden frame and “smocked” or covered with thatching, boards, canvas, or other materials.
  • The “sails” are actually the framework for the arms of the windmill that turn in the wind and generate power – in this case, to pump water out of the fields. Other functions of windmills have been to turn millstones to grind grain, to operate saws, etc.
  • All the Dutch windmills sails have cloth material or wooden slats that can be spread open or shut, depending on the strength of the wind as well as how much power is needed from the wind on a given day. This particular day was quite windy so most of the sails didn’t have their cloth or wooden slats spread out. Only a couple of windmills had the sails partly spread on them.
  • Spreading the cloth or slats still means you have to stop the mill, and manually spread the cloth or unfold the slats. However, I believe now a hydraulic ladder is used, somewhat like a “cherry picker,” to hoist the mill operator up to reach the higher portions of the sails. I spied one folded up next to a mill, but didn’t get a good picture.

As I said, a shortened edition of history.

I also found out that many of these mills are occupied. Michael asked the boatman, who said that it was possible to rent the windmills. Looking at  mills and at their detached houses showed an interesting mix of 18th and 21st centuries. And pictures always speak a thousand words:

A man tending a grape arbor and garden at his house, next to a windmill.

A man tending a grape arbor and garden at his house, next to a windmill.

This windmill owner or renter had goats in a walk-in shed structure.

This windmill owner or renter had goats in a walk-in shed structure.

This mill, older than the others, had been renovated in 1984.

This mill, older than the others, had been renovated in 1984.

Anyone spot the anachronistic intrusion  in this "typical" Dutch portrait? (Yup, that's a satellite dish mounted on the apex of the house's roof!)

Anyone spot the anachronistic intrusion in this “typical” Dutch portrait? (Yup, that’s a satellite dish mounted on the apex of the house’s roof!)

One last photo: "romantic landscape."

One last photo: “romantic landscape.” Actually, what Michael is saying is, “Carol, we have GOT to live in one of these windmills!” and I’m saying, “And YOU have GOT to be kidding!”

Couldn’t resist adding a bit of Dutch nationalism as a final picture.


Small Towns, Large Vistas

Thatched cottage in Giethoorn, the “Venice of the Netherlands”

Michael and I have now been back in the Netherlands a month and, of course, enjoying it very much — despite another colder-than-usual and rainy summer.  In between teaching and seeing friends, we’ve tried to go on a few side trips.  Most of these have been one-day side trips out of Utrecht, to Amsterdam, Leiden, den Bosch and Giethoorn, the subject of this blog.

A student had mentioned this water-bound village to Michael, and a subsequent Google search brought up only a little information.  Nevertheless, I figured out the train and bus routes and off we went.

Giethoorn is a quaint, lovely village in north-central Netherlands known as “the Venice of the North” or “the Venice of the Netherlands.”  Second to Amsterdam, which is a dozen times larger, Giethoorn has more canals (about 4 miles) than any other locale in Holland.  In fact, the “avenues” of the town are all canals, and the “streets” bicycle paths.  In fact, the bicycle paths are a recent addition.  The preferred way of getting about town is on foot, hoofing it over the more than 50 small wooden bridges, or by “punters” or, more recently, small boats powered by quiet electric motors.

Image (1) a-giethoorn-holland-canals-15.jpg for post 24003

One of the thatched houses of Giethoorn. Notice the two punters to the right. They are flattish-bottomed boats propelled by one person standing in the rear, using a long oar to push off the shallow bottoms of the canals — much like the gondoliers of Venice. 

Giethoorn was established in 1230 by people from the “Mediterranean region.”  (Note:  I did try and find out more specifically what part of the Mediterranean but have been stymied thus far.)  Apparently the landscape was littered with wild goats’ horns, so the fledgling town was name Geytenhorn, or horn of goats.  Later this was shortened to Geythorn and then adapted to Giethoorn.  The shallow lakes surrounding the town were formed by the harvesting of peat from the naturally-forming peat bogs in the area.  Reeds from the marshes were also plentiful, hence the abundance of thatched roofs in the village.  There are about 2600+ year-round residents today in the village, but a thriving, contained vacationers’ area has sprouted up between the town proper and the lake:

Small, cheaply built, rectangular wooden vacation houses such as this were being advertised for sale for 150,000 Euros.

Punters on the lake outside of Giethoorn

Panoramic lake view. There are many such shallow lakes in the area.


It seemed several thatched cottages included art studios, as this one.

Most of the above pictures were taken from a “tour boat,” one of about three dozen that clog the waterways of Giethoorn.  It wasn’t the most informative tour ever taken, and I think next time we’ll venture out on our own.  In addition to the tour boats, vendors are hawking “whisper” boats, electric-motored little dinghies for people who wish to tour on their own.  While I didn’t notice any bike rentals, I’m sure there is at least one in this tourist-oriented town.  However, one can rent bikes at the train station in Steenwijk, the station closest to Giethoorn.

Getting to Giethoorn wasn’t difficult, and we ended up having a lovely time chatting with a gregarious bus driver. From the station you can take Bus #70 or rent a bike for the (approximately) 7m/10 km round trip to Giethoorn and back. As it was, we took the bus, and this friendly bus driver not only made sure we got off at the correct stop, he told us when he’d next be by, and he made sure we were delivered to the train on time.  I love the Dutch!

So, I will close what has probably been my shortest blog ever.  Stay tuned for additional posts on smaller venues in Holland!


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!

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

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?