bat country

•January 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

They party on boats in the dead of winter. I’m serious.

Leiden in the daylight is your typical glimpse of Europe: pigeons devouring leftover table scraps and hooting defiantly, mothers giving their children a lift on their bicycle luggage rack, good-natured old men walking six dachshunds at a time.

When the sun goes down and the pigeons roost, however, it’s a different story. The university students come out and the cobblestone streets carry a different vibe. The only things that remain open past 6pm are frituuren (fast food), pubs (the legal age for alcohol and tobacco consumption is sixteen), and coffeeshops (where small amounts of soft drugs, such as marijuana, are permitted to be sold under Dutch law for personal consumption).

The typical American “bar scene” doesn’t really exist here. Small groups of friends gather for drinks in pubs, which are very low-key and offer up hearty dinner fare.

As with most restaurants here, service is pretty much non-existant. It will drive you nuts. It’s not that the employees aren’t doing their jobs – they just assume that you’d like to be left alone. It’s not uncommon for friends and families to linger for two or three hours in a cafe or restaurant, so your best bet is to ask for the check when you receive your main course. Sodas, waters, and tea are served in annoyingly small glasses to us Americans. If you want a refill, it’s all up to you to ask for it – and you will be charged. The Dutch are notoriously cheap and frugal, hence the term “going Dutch.”

An American “large” soft drink vs. a European “large.” Do we really need that much soda?

I was informed by a Dutchman that the Dutch “in-joke” regarding Americans is, “Would you like a refill?” They simply cannot fathom why an American  server would ask them multiple times throughout the course of their meal whether or not they would like another 36 oz soft drink. To them, it’s excessive and unnecessary.

We could learn a lot from the Dutch regarding patience, excess and instant gratification. Just spend some time in a pub with the local 20-something crowd and you’ll see what I mean.


where it’s at

•January 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I guess if you totally love octopus, Markt is your lucky day.

Most stores in the Netherlands close surprisingly early to us Americans – usually by 6pm. So every Saturday, thousands of Dutchmen and women flock to Markt, a tradition that goes back nearly 1,000 years.

Markt is what we might call a farmer’s market, but much, much bigger. Each city has their own, and Leiden’s is an open-air market that takes place along the canals in the old city center. Produce and animal products are fresh, local, and cheap – so cheap that it really doesn’t make much sense to buy it at the grocery store. My friend Pauline got a basketball-sized bunch of spinach and a huge bundle of carrots for one euro apiece (roughly 1.4 dollars.) The variety is astonishing, too.

And it’s not just limited to food – there’s clothes, bedsheets, textiles, toiletries, you name it. I got a pair of hand-made gloves for a measly five euro.

One of the biggest draws of Markt – and, admittedly, of the entire country – is a beautiful invention called the stroopwafel, or “syrup wafer,” which looks like this:

The real reason Dutch children rank among the happiest in the world.

They can be purchased at just about any store, but they are made fresh each week at Markt right before your eyes, cut up into samples and heaped on a plate for your tasting pleasure. The smell of warm dough, caramel and cinnamon is irresistable.

They are usually enjoyed with coffee or tea and laid over the top of the mug, where the steam from the drink softens the syrup inside. I think they’re enjoyable with everything and walked away with an armful!

ruff stuff

•January 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Mine’s the ugly one.

Music artists ‘Matt & Kim’ state in their song “Lessons Learned:”

Never let your mark erase / ’cause broken bones can be replaced

so I decided to buy a bike. I think it was a better idea on paper.

Everyone says it’s impossible to unlearn riding a bike, but I beg to differ. It’s been about two years since I rode a bike for any significant amount of time, and it was in a nice, quiet suburb, not a busy city with bike lanes.

“Second-hand bike? I have. Go on, you can ride it a little bit, if you would like to buy,” offered the clerk at Fiets 2000 in a thick accent.

I chose the ugliest one, hoping that it would deter theft, which is a common problem here. I swung my leg over the bike and pushed off. I wobbled for a couple yards, swerved into the road, overcompensated my steering to correct it, and fell into a car.

“You just need a little practice, and then I am finding you riding all over the city,” he told me, with great enthusiasm, while he rung me up. “Or beneath a truck.”

The bikes here, even the nice ones, are ridiculously minimalistic. There’s nothing to absorb shock, and the tires are very thin, meaning that the slightest touch can send you flying in another direction. But you know what? I’m kinda diggin’ it.

sun’s gonna rise

•January 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I don’t know what this was, but it was huge. And bold.

Some observations I have made over the past week:

1. While the weather is generally mild, sunny days are few and far between here. Protip:  It does not matter when I go to do my shopping, because as soon as I return from my walk, the sun will come out. Always.

2. I should really just accept that native Dutchmen and Dutchwomen have senses we do not. They can listen to their iPods walking down the street because they can telepathically predict when a bicyclist is coming up behind them.  I can not. I won’t be doing that again.

3.  Europeans, on the whole, get by (and live happily) on much less than we do. I don’t necessarily mean money – the cost of living is quite high here – but space is very limited, especially in the Netherlands, so everything is much smaller.

4. On that note… consumer society. There’s no Target or Wal-mart. And you have to (gasp) walk quite a ways to find what you need. Finding a flat iron took nearly three days and found me covering two or three miles in the shopping square. Additionally, just about everything (except frituuren,  fried food shops, and bars) closes at 6pm.

So despite the fact that everyone looks like they’re in a constant hurry, the country as a whole is pretty laid-back.

chase the morning

•January 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I can’t believe I’ve already been in The Netherlands for two days!

I’ll be honest – the trip was a pretty stressful experience. Delays are no big deal, but delay after delay when you haven’t eaten or slept in over a day, well, that’s when it kind of becomes a big deal.

When I finally arrived in Amsterdam, I met up with eight other Webster students and caught a taxi to the college city of Leiden. The highway took us through the countryside, which, as the taxi driver explained, is “about as Dutch as it gets.”

I’ve lived in Vermont – which is fairly rural –  all my life, but I’ve never seen so many different kinds of birds – huge swans and cranes, little ducks and pigeons, all huddled around holes in the ice and preening in the morning mist. It was breathtaking!

My apartment complex is located right in the center of Leiden, a short walk from the main shopping street “Harlemenstraat.” Canals surround the building and the sun rises on a huge windmill in the distance each day. It really doesn’t get any more Dutch than this!

it’s been a long december…

•December 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’m sitting here at the computer wondering how one acquires so much stuff over the course of a semester while I pack up for break. It’s really quite magical how a stark white, 12 x 12 room becomes so you. That’s one of the things I love about college.

One of my professors hugged me and wished me good luck. She said, “I hope you find your voice over there. You have a lot to say.” I was really touched. I hope I do, too.

On a side note, I caught this picture walking back to my residence building. I won’t miss the cold, but I’ll miss views like this!

reluctantly crouched at the starting line…

•December 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I was sitting in the dining hall here at SVC this morning when it hit me that this was the last lazy Sunday I’d be spending here in over nine months. The last Kelli Gassaway veggie omelette, no mushroom. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” echoed from the kitchen.

I bawled like a little girl. I’m gonna miss it here so much!

Truth is, I’ve been so busy getting my paperwork in order over the last few months that it hadn’t even hit me yet that I was studying abroad. So many little things to remember – three copies of everything in different pieces of luggage. Be prepared to prove to the Dutch government you have enough in the bank to support yourself. They value eye contact and speak directly.

But it’s done now. My ducks are in a row. All I have left to do is wait!