Monday, May 05, 2008

My Time in the Netherlands

A Touch of Dutch recently returned a comment I made on one of her posts and asked if I visit The Netherlands often. I can't say that I do, but I have probably spent more time there than the average traveler, and more time there than in any other foreign country.

Fy first visit to a foreign country (not counting day trips to Tijuana and Vancouver B.C.) was to the NL in 1994 as a college student on exchange. I spent 3 months living in Groningen (although I didn't do much in the way of school while I was there) in an international "dorm" (Albertine Agnesplein) which was about a mile from the Zernike complex where the spatial sciences classes were held and about a mile from the center of town. I developed a love for the Dutch in those few months and returned for a visit to both Amsterdam and Groningen in 2001.

Actually, we arrived in Amsterdam on September 10, 2001 and spent the day September 11, 2001 in Groningen, returning to Centraal Station in Amsterdam around midnight that night. I remember seeing a crowd of people at the cafe/bar in the station gathered around the television watching the news. Unfortunately it was in Dutch and we were tired and just wanting to get back to our room to sleep and didn't pay it much attention beyond wondering what was going on. The next morning, no one said anything to us on our way out, or as we boarded a train to head on to Germany. It wasn't until later that day on a boat on the Rhine that we realized something big was happening, but again, the bartenders on the boat were watching a German news broadcast and at first we thought it was just a plane crash. They tried to explain what was happening in limited English and we got the jist of it, but it wasn't until that night when we logged onto CNN in an internet cafe that we learned the full extent of what had happened back home. It was surreal to be abroad while it was all happening. We visited several countries that visit, and everyone was shook up by it, astounded that something like that could happen in America. There was a lot of fear as to what the events would mean for not just America, but the rest of the world.

On a side note, I was also in the NL when I heard the news of Kurt Cobain death in 1994. Being that home was Seattle, this was really big news - lots of stuff going on back home that I completely missed.

So then my third trip to the NL was in 2003 when we had friends living in Leiden who we stayed with for a week. I have to say, I am so glad to have had the perspective of living in the NL as opposed to just the typical tourist experience for two of my three visits. This is a country that just has such a uniqueness to daily life. At first I was irritated and confounded by the closure of stores from 6:00 pm on Saturday until 9:00 or 10:00 am Monday mornings (1:00 pm Mondays for some shops!) but afterwhile came to appreciate it. As a tourist you don't really get the feel of what Dutch life is all about. I am sure there are many experiences I did not get to, but I felt lucky to really get to taste Dutch life.

So what are some of my likes and dislikes?

It is the perfect balance of unique and comfortable, old and modern. You get to experience a change of culture while still feeling comfortable without too much adjustment or culture shock. Lots of fun. And the Dutch are for the most part so easy going and welcoming. And where else can you be in a foreign country with a different language but not have a problem with language barriers? (Well, maybe Ireland but you still hear English spoken in the streets for the most part.) Anyone under 60 is pretty much fluent in English and doesn't think twice about switching to English. And I love the Dutch accent. Crystal clear perfect English but I like the Dutch accent even better than British or Irish or Australian.

And I found the Dutch people on the whole to be extremely well educated and worldly, in the sense that not only are they almost universally multi-ligual (beyond Dutch and English many speak fluent French, and often German, Italian and or Spanish as well!!!) but they tend to be very knowledgeable on world politics, events, and pop-culture. It is very easy to strike up an engaging coversation on a myriad of topics at a cafe or pub or on the train with the person next to you.

Rail travel. I loved walking to the station and traveling by rail, to the next town, or the next country, sometimes spur of the moment. And being able to stop by the local market or the central open air markets in town on the way home.

Biking everywhere! So fast and cheap and no parking worries.

I love going to "the local" pub in the evenings. Since they are usually only patronized by locals from that particular neighborhood, everyone in the pub knows each other and being a visitor you get a lot of attention and great conversation over cheap beer with a cozy atmosphere. And you can walk to and from so you don't have to worry about how much you have to drink!

I love going to the store and trying to find stuff in another language, thinking you have found what you are looking for but finding something new and slightly different, sometimes better, sometimes frustratingly not at all what you were hoping for (like laundry detergent!!!) My favorites, Cassis (black currant)soda and those snack chips that are like a cheeto covered peanut with spicy coating, yogurt (I love the liquidy kind, the stuff you get here is just not the same) and lunch at HEMA! They have the best broodjes (the wheat bread with seeds filled with that herbed cream cheese I can only find in the NL) and their cream of mushroom soup is the best I've ever had. Plus I love the view, (at least at the ones in Groningen and Leiden which are the only two I have been to.)Koffie served the Dutch way, strong, in a little cup and saucer with a biscuit, at a table outside at the edge of the market. I love the little individually wrapped sugar cubes (or should I say sugar rectangles?) even though I don't drink my koffie with sugar.

Crystal clean windows, with minimal drapes right up against the sidewalk, inviting you to peek in the windows. Trying to peek in windows without looking too obvious. And all the plants in the windows!

Things I dislike

Dutch customer service (oxymoron cause for the most part there is no such thing except in small sole-proprietor shops) - especially when the answer is "its impossible" when what is really meant is "no, what you are asking is too much trouble and I don't want to be bothered." No bending the rules in the Netherlands! The Dutch bring new meaning to the phrase "by the book." And yet, on the opposite end of that spectrum, there is an extreme tolerance of breaking the law or bending the rules(squatters, prostitution, drugs - drugs are still not "legal" and yet you can buy a myriad of pot and hash at any number of coffeshops.) It's funny because it seems like the Dutch sweat the small stuff and turn a blind eye to the "big" stuff.

Dog poop. Nothing worse than a nice walk along the canals or in the shopping district only to have you foot slip in the tell-tale mush of a fresh pile of dog doo.

Too much rain and wind!!

Trying to ask about something in Dutch (like a recommendation for rijstafel) that is a name brand or non-translatable and not being understood no matter how sure you are that you have said it correctly. We Americans can understand most English words spoken in even the heaviest of accents but the Dutch cannot seem to understand Dutch spoken with an accent! (Although I am sure my accent is worse than most!)

Overall though, I love the NL and would not at all mind living there!


A Touch of Dutch said...

Wow! Thanks for posting this! It's interesting indeed to read not only your experiences, and what experiences you've had! But it is also interesting to read your view on life over here in Holland. So yes, again, thanks for posting this :)

I have your blog saved on my favorites and finally got some extra time to come look around on my favorite blogs today and glad I did. Keep up the good work & have a very nice weekend :)

A Touch of Dutch said...

Wanted to let you know I linked this blog entry to my blog :) Thanks again for posting this!