Monthly Archives: March 2011

HOUSEBOAT

Before I moved to the Netherlands, many friends teased me about going to a country that had legalized pot and prostitution. Naturally, I knew about this but I thought it was mainly in Amsterdam. But when I got here I discovered that if you stand on a corner too long in the old part of Utrecht, you can get a little high. When I say old, I mean streets that are 500 years old –that  kind of old. And I also discovered that  Utrecht (the fourth largest city in NL) has quite a busy red light district.

All I can say is that you have to see it to believe it.

There is a canal in Utrecht that has houseboats anchored along the side. Cars drive very slowly along the houseboats and the drivers are checking out the women that are available. This happens 24 hours a day. They look into the windows and if they are interested, I assume they pull over. But the flow of traffic is constant, so if a decision is made, you must move quickly to get out of the way. As I drove over the bridge (it is called the Red Bridge) of this canal on a Saturday afternoon, I saw about 50 cars crawling past the houseboats. I never saw a single person, just houseboats and cars. I wondered how they parked their car and entered the boat. To find a parking space in downtown Utrecht is a miracle in itself, and I am curious about how the drivers manage to park and then conduct business. I am already thinking of a new career move: valet parking. The best way I can describe this is to imagine the drive through at McDonald’s at dinner time…very slow, but a reward at the end.

This just fascinates me and I really cannot take it all in. I found out later that I was only looking at one side of the bridge, the other side is equally as busy.

This is legal and from afar, it looks like a unique business. Rarely are the police needed in this area, and I didn’t see any police presence that day.

Come to Utrecht and I will show you the Domtoren-the highest tower in the NL. I will show you cobblestone streets and canals built in the early Middle Ages. It is really a beautiful city of old and new. But I bet that I will hear you say: “can we go to that bridge and check out the houseboats?” Of course, I thought you would never ask.

Go to my post Midnight Run to read about my further adventures with the houseboats.

Recommended reading: Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

                                          Private Hotel of gentle ladies by Ellen Cooney

                                          Keeper of the House by Rebecca T. Godwin

 

PS  has anyone figured out that there is a theme to the titles of these posts? Any guesses?

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SHORT CUTS

Here are some quick observations from the last few days:

On a quiet Sunday morning, I saw this giant balloon figure in a neighbor’s front yard. I had never seen anything like it before, but it looked like an elderly woman who was about 14 feet tall.

I found out that it was Sarah, of Abraham and Sarah. When someone turns 50 years old, they have either a blow up figure of Sarah or Abraham in their yard. This not only signifies turning 50, but that there will be some sort of celebration. I would assume that rental companies are very busy with these figures.

Birthdays are very big in the Netherlands, and I know that they are big in America too. But there is a different feel here, that is hard for me to explain. It is a great opportunity for families to get together, and they don’t let a birthday go by without some kind of party—no matter what the age. And they use the word “congratulations” to anyone who is celebrating a birthday. Everyone comes up to the birthday person, shakes their hand and says “congratulations”.

Okay, my favorite view of the week happened in old Utrecht. I have written about the army of bicycles that are out and about, but this bicycle was a little different and it made me smile. A man was riding a bike that had a large wooden box in front of it with wheels. I had seen these before as they are great for making deliveries, especially in the city. But on this day, the box had two blonde, curly haired little girls inside (ages 3 and 4) and they were laughing. Sitting in front of the girls were two Jack Russell dogs peeking over the box and all four of them were facing the front. As the girls were laughing, I could have sworn the dogs were smiling.

Finally, my most favorite Dutch phrase of the week: upon eating a dinner I had made, the 9 year old boy said, “Jane, this is so good it is like an angel is peeing on my tongue.” It had to be explained to me that this was very high praise in the Netherlands and as I continue to prepare some meals, my goal is to get that angel back on everyone’s tongue.

Living here feels like I am back in school. There are so many things that I am learning. So many things I am seeing and hearing for the first time. I will next post about legal prostitution in the Netherlands. As I saw what I saw I thought “I can’t wait to write about this.”

What I am currently reading: Sister by Rosamund Lupton

EASY RIDER

Upon first arriving in the Netherlands, I noticed two things right away—the impressive number of cows and bicycles. As I write this, cows are still in hibernation and are not out and about. I think they poke their heads out when they see that the tulips have returned.

But bicycles are out year round. In all sorts of weather, and I mean, rain, ice and snow, people are riding their bikes.

There are more bicycles in the Netherlands than people—about 18 million of these two wheelers.

In America, when a child gets a bike it is more for fun and recreation. Men and women ride bikes, but it is mainly a form of exercise.

Here, bicycles are not only a way of life, but they are a necessity. There are no school buses in this country, so children either walk or bike to school. Adults will use their bikes to get to work or do errands. Don’t get me wrong, Dutch people have cars and they use them. But parking is a major issue and it is easier to ride your bike to the train station and hop on the train to the city. They have special bike spaces at bus and train stations so you can park your bike while you are at work. It is also great for the environment and for the roads. There are bike lanes EVERYWHERE and the Dutch know how to maneuver through the crazy city traffic and also around sheep and ducks.

In a Dutch person’s life they will normally go through five bicycles, as they start when they are pretty young. These bikes are really well made, are heavy and strong and are not cheap. The average cost of a new adult bike is around 700 euros (about $970.00).

These bikes have front baskets or boxes, front and back child seats, lights, bells, and most people have saddle bags (just like the old West). You can fill those bags with lots of groceries.

As time goes on, I will post more about the bike culture. It is a daily event for me to watch the Dutch on bikes—from children going to school in the rain to an elderly woman flying by me with bags filled with shopping. She rides as if she has done this her whole life, and she probably has.

Recommended reading: The memory of running by Ron McLarty

DINER

The first time I ordered a cup of coffee in the Netherlands, a nice cup and saucer was put in front of me. A little cookie was sitting on the edge of the saucer.

I thought that was a nice touch. Oh, how innocent I was!

When I finished drinking my coffee in three good sips, I looked around for the waiter.

“What are you looking for?”
‘’I want a refill, can you get his attention when he comes around?”
“Jane, there are no refills in the Netherlands.”

My world came to a screeching halt. The world I knew where wonderful men and women came to your table with a pot of coffee. A world where you finally have to put out your hand over your mug and say “Thanks, I’ve had enough.”

The Dutch don’t know that phrase when it comes to coffee or tea and they certainly don’t know about mugs. You can buy big mugs in stores, but you will rarely be served a mug of coffee or tea.

Back to my first traumatic coffee scene: I was simply stunned by the idea that this dinkie cup of coffee was all I was going to get. But a comforting voice said “but you do get a free cookie.” Wow. I would have given back the cookie for a few more drops of coffee.

Don’t think tea drinkers are immune to this rule—if you want a second cup of tea, and you still have your original tea bag, you will still be charged full price for another cup of hot water, plus a new tea bag, which is about 2-3 euros.

This is what I don’t get: this is a country with lots of water. This is a country that is obsessed with water. So here I am, a thirsty American, just wanting a refill. You would think they would be happy to pour me some liquid, albeit coffee.

By the way, if you want a plain glass of water you must ask for tap water. A glass will come with two teeny tiny ice cubes floating at the top. The good news—there is no charge for this. The bad news—no free cookie.

Recommended reading: Owl and Moon Café by JoAnn Mapson
Love and Biology at the center of the universe by Jennie Shortridge

UP

When I was very young my grandfather would measure me, my sister and cousins by having us stand by the old stove. Each pencil line represented a child and we knew whose line was who.

As the oldest in this group, my line was always at the top. In school pictures, I always stood in the back with the other tall kids. I could not imagine being an average or short height.

Until now.

With my recent move to the Netherlands, I am looking up a lot. Not just at windmills or church steeples, but at the Dutch people.

The Dutch are the tallest people in the world and at 5’8”, I sometimes feel like a Smurf in the land of Avatar.

The two most amazing things I have noticed is how the Dutch can drive very small cars and manage to fold themselves into these same cars. They bend, bow and breathe their way into the driver’s seat. And god help anyone who has to get into the back seat.

The other impressive thing is how the Dutch duck. Are there special classes on how to protect Dutch heads or how else can they survive walking through doorways? They must be born with a built in instinct to mind their heads. I suspect that ladder sales in the Netherlands are very low…who needs them here?
I hold my breath when I see a tall person come into a small space, but they manage the ceilings quite well. But I am still in awe of a 6’8” man who steps out of a car that normally holds 8 circus clowns.

I see so many things differently now that I am in the Netherlands. But I never thought I would be looking up so much. But I admit, it is a lovely view.

Recommended reading: The Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken