Archive for the ‘Netherlands’ Category

Hup Oranje hup! A Dutch victory!

July 6, 2010

Wessel cheers on his national team from Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

We haven’t had great weather in rainy Florida this week, but we did have one big treat: the Netherlands made the World Cup final match for the first time since 1978! Woo-hoo. Today’s score: 3 to 2, beating  Uruguay. We don’t even have cable at home, but here in Florida we have an array of channels for our renters, including, of course, ESPN. Lucky us. We’ll be back in North Carolina for the championship game on Sunday. Germany or Spain, here we come!

Dutch players rejoice after referee finally calls the game

The Netherlands celebrates in Amsterdam after the big win

We survived Amsterdam’s orange crush

May 11, 2010

Early-morning Queen`s Day prep at Leidseplein square in Amsterdam

From the air, Queen’s Day in Amsterdam must look like one giant, pulsating orange blob. It certainly felt that way from the ground.  

Since the late Queen Juliana took office in 1948, the Netherlands has celebrated Koninginnedag on April 30. Now her daughter, Beatrix, sits in the throne in the House of Orange, but the day remains the same because B’s birthday is Jan. 31, and who wants to play outside then?

Different towns celebrate with different levels of intensity, and not surprisingly, Amsterdam’s fest is the most intense. But all Queen’s Day events feature “vrijmarkten,” or free markets, where folks set up little yard sales/street sales/flea markets all over town, featuring the usual yard sale treasures and trash.

Diane out-oranged many locals (thanks to Wessel for hat loan)

In Amsterdam, where we were, the crowds started to pour into town around noontime, with many folks dressed in orange clothing, wigs, boas, hats, nail polish and even fake eyelashes. Wessel wore a lovely blow-up orange crown the entire day. I was decked out in orange sweat pants and an orange top. I felt foolish early in the day, and proud later, after fielding many compliments (at least that’s how I chose to interpret the attention).

By far the majority of partiers were in their teens and twenties, but there was a smattering of old folks like us. Beer and vodka were the drinks of choice, and the youngsters started early. We stopped at the Museumplein for a look at the pop/rock concert, then literally had to dance our way through a street party before we reached Vondelpark, a long, narrow park that on Queen’s Day becomes a haven for families.

Friends entertain the crowd at Vondelpark

Vondelpark was our favorite stop, as it was plenty festive but not rowdy. Little kids and families set up their little yard sales, and also made games and sold homemade trinkets.  (This was also the only place with ample portable potties, FYI.) A lot of kids were drumming for dollars, and one man set up a drumming station, charging $5 for five minutes of drumming.  One man staffed a “compliment station” – 50 cents for a little compliment, 75 cents for a big one, and $1.50 for an “ego boost.”

Pilot of paper airplane challenges the ash cloud in the best game ever

Our favorite silly game was “Challenge the Ash Cloud,” created by three friends in Amsterdam. A painted half-collapsed umbrella signified the Iceland volcano. It “erupted” whenever one of them worked a bike pump that blew air from the bottom, pushing out a mountain of flour. The contestant had to fly a paper airplane over the volcano’s mouth and land it safely on the runway. Three throws cost about $1, but if you could spell Eyjafjallajökull (which we witnessed someone do), you got to play for free. It was hilarious.

The Prinsengracht canal is jam-packed with boats, most blaring dance music

At around 5, we started to follow some of the more popular canals, which were packed with boats of all shapes and sizes. Several were set up like party barges, complete with DJs with turntables and giant speakers. Then we came upon the craziest sight of all – for about the length of one city block, from one bridge to another, the canal was so jammed that the boats could barely move forward. It was like standing outside of a dozen open-air discos. One boat even had a smoke machine on it. It was  joyous and crazy and loud.

By about 8, we realized we’d never make it to the very center of town without suffocating in a sea of people, most  of them by then filled with alcohol, so we headed away from the merriment, basking in the glow of the orange.

To Amsterdam from Russia with love

February 6, 2010

The Hermitage Amsterdam is housed in the Amstelhof on the Amstel River

Let’s just agree to put aside, shall we, the hookers and hash. The Amsterdam you don’t hear as much about is filled with beautiful historic buildings, great restaurants and cafes, funky design shops, and world-class art museums. That’s what the city is to us.

Most museumgoers associate Amsterdam with the world-class Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. But now there’s a third art attraction pulling in the crowds. Last summer, the Netherlands capital opened the Hermitage Amsterdam, a branch of the renowned State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (where I hope to some day go). This Hermitage is run by a local foundation and independently financed.

The 17th-century Amstelhof was formerly used as a state-run home for the elderly

Wessel and I had the chance to visit in November. The weather was dreary but the place was packed. Everything about it is magnificent, from its setting along the bustling Amstel River to its location in the Amstelhof, a 17th-century building formerly used as a state-run home for the elderly.

The restored 107,000-square-foot building holds rotating and permanent exhibit space, a restaurant, outdoor terrace, courtyard, auditorium, children’s wing, and gift shops.

Church Hall with a view of the river

Our favorite spot (and everyone else’s, it seemed) was the Church Hall, a grand gathering area with large windows overlooking the Amstel. A smattering of comfy chairs faces the windows and they’re always filled.

The exhibit we saw, the inaugural (it ended Jan. 31) naturally focused on Russia, specifically on the Russian Court. The pageantry, polish, and pearls were lovely, but I’m much more interested in the upcoming show, opening March 6 (through Sept. 17). Called “Matisse to Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art from the Hermitage,” the 75-piece modern-art showstopper is expected to draw huge crowds. The Hermitage has one of the world’s finest collections of early-20th-century French masters and famed Russian painters, so this will be a blockbuster. Most of the works in this show are usually on permanent display in Russia.

Metal fence with camellia blossoms near the back side of the museum

We’ll be back in Amsterdam in April, and will gladly fight the crowds to see this collection. On this trip, it will (hopefully) be warm enough to rest up in the courtyard, admiring the Hermitage from the outside

Admission for adults is a stiff $22, but that’s Europe for you.

My new favorite wine is wienerful!

December 19, 2009

I have a new favorite wine — the most wienerful wine in the world! Alas, from what I can tell, it’s not available in making its way throughout the Northeast and, soonish (2011/12) across the United States. I’m counting on my readers to investigate and report back.

I spotted the French wine Longue-Dog Grenache Syrah while checking out wines in the Netherlands, at the Super de Boer, a basic Dutch supermarket chain (just bought by Jumbo, FYI). I screamed, in that way that I do when I see something so wienerfully wonderful.

Here are the things I love about Longue-Dog. First, the dachshund, duh. Its image is not only stretched across the front of the label but continues around the back. Snazzy. There’s also a cute little wiener head on the neck label.

Longue-Dog Grenache Syrah, the most wienerful wine in the world

The name, too, is fun. It’s a play on words — for the Languedoc region of France. Languedoc, in the south, supplies a third of the country’s grapes and is France’s largest wine region — though its least known. I assume (but don’t know) that Longue-Dog comes from Languedoc grapes. Apparently the region is trying to become more known by consumers.

I have a brilliant idea. Start selling Longue-Dog in the United States. That would bring tail wags all around!

The bottle label has a tail-wagging part two

According to the small print on the back of the label, Longue-Dog is made by Boutinot, a wine producer and distributor based in the UK and started by Frenchman Paul Boutinot. I emailed Boutinot’s customer service address, but didn’t hear a bark back. (UPDATE Jan 22, 2010: Heard from Boutinot today. They’re “nearing” a launch in US. Yee-haw! )

Can anyone help, s’il vous plait?

Happy Sinterklaas, wherever you are

December 5, 2009

Sinterklaas visits a store during his busy three-week stay in the Netherlands

Wessel and I spent Thanksgiving week in the Netherlands, but of course there was no celebration of the Pilgrims in America (though they did depart from Leiden, in Holland). Instead, we were bombarded with images of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten.

Many say that Sinterklaas is the inspiration for our Santa Claus. Sint looks a bit like Santa, though his belly is smaller. He comes by boat from Spain (I still don’t get that part) mid-November, and his arrival is televised throughout the country. For a few weeks, he visits towns throughout the country. Like Santa, Sint has the uncanny ability to be omnipresent.

Images of Zwarte Piet are everywhere

Instead of elves, Sint has the assistance of a bevy of black men and women. It’s true. They’re the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes (though many are women). These are white people with their faces painted black. Yep, it sounds scarily like our minstrel shows of yore. At one point they were said to be Sint’s slaves then a few decades ago they suddenly became “friends.” Regardless, as an American, I was pretty chagrined to see Piet images everywhere, including toy Pieten, banners, and window decorations. I tried to engage a few Dutch relatives in talks about Piet, but that didn’t go over well.

Zwarte Pieten in a TV show that runs daily while Sinterklaas is in the country

The best overview of the Piet issue I found is here  in the German magazine Spiegel. The funniest take on Zwarte Pieten was written by my former classmate David Sedaris in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men.” (It’s in his 2004 book “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.”)

Zwarte Pieten play music in one of the shopping streets of Alphen aan den Rijn

Finally, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten get down to business on the night of Dec. 5 (Sinterklaasavond), when they leave gifts for the children outside to be opened on Pakjesavond — the evening of the packages. The Dutch also celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, with a tree and a big meal, but no gifts.

Diane meets the real Sinterklaas!

A week ago, on the day we flew back home, we made a stop in Alphen aan den Rijn to visit a friend’s shop. In the distance, Wessel heard the sounds of a marching band and tore off, shouting for me to follow. We turned a corner and there they were! Sinterklaas with his Zwarte Pieten, playing horns and marching through town! Though I’d rather the Petes were elves, I did enjoy the spectacle. And I got a hug from Sinterklaas!

As if there aren’t enough cultural problems with Sinterklaas, now another issue is brewing. Because of the country’s growing Muslim population, some folks object to the cross on Sint’s headdress, and many Sints now wear a solid red hat. I apparently met a “real” Sinterklaas, bearing a cross and leading his six to eight black men.

Cruising for a brews-ing in Amsterdam

September 3, 2009

While Amsterdam has great art, architecture, modern design and so much more, what do people associate the Dutch capital with? Legalized pot smoking and prostitution. This drives Wessel crazy, rightfully so. Also, as he points out to everyone, that’s one part of one big city. Other regions of his homeland are more sedate, even conservative.

Now, after a recent brewhaha, more of the world has seen yet another party-laden side of Amsterdam — beer bikes, or party bikes. These ridiculous things have accident written all over them, yet they do make me laugh.

For the uninitiated, a beer bike (“bierfiets” in Dutch) is a pedal-powered bar holding 10 to 17 people who are served beer while pedaling through the city. Only one (non-drinking) person steers. That still, of course, has not prevented accidents. Last month, three women were injured when the bike tried to zip through a tunnel that was too low. Oops. Other mishaps have occurred, leading to said brewhaha.

Nonetheless, on Monday Amsterdam officials vowed that the (side)show would go on. The city is, after all, the headquarters for Heineken (which, by the way, the Dutch do not think is a premium beer. Because it’s not!)

Comic character Obelix would probably have summarized the situation as: “Rare jongens die Amsterdammers!”

Forget blue, what about Carolina oranje?

May 12, 2009
The Netherlands has had queens for more than a century

The Netherlands has had queens for more than a century

While the Dutch celebrate Queen’s Day in the Netherlands on April 30, here in the middle of North Carolina the Dutchies celebrate it when they have a nearby available weekend.

Here what it’s called in Dutch: Koninginnedag. I have yet to master that pronunciation. Want to give it a try after listening to this lesson?

Diane and Queen Beatrix go head to head at Dehullu sculpture park in Gees

Diane and Queen Beatrix go head to head at Dehullu sculpture park in Gees

We don’t have anything in the US to compare to Queen’s Day. It’s a day that the royal family, who represent the “House of Orange,” which is a family line and not an “oranje huis,” or house painted orange, come out and play with the common folks. (Sadly this year’s festivities were marred by a loony-toon who drove into a crowd in the city of Apeldoorn, killing seven people and himself.) The whole country parties, but Amsterdam really goes wild.

Though the Royals once took an important leadership role in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, they now are largely symbolic though still admired. Queen Beatrix especially still plays an important part in uniting the country in times of turmoil. And of course the royals keep the paparazzi and gossip rags busy.

Orange was the dominant color during celebrations of De Wieken

Orange dominated De Wieken feest

So every year, no doubt in Dutch clubs around the world, expatriates gather to celebrate their homeland. On Saturday, Wessel and about 40 others from De Wieken (wings of the windmill) Club gathered in Raleigh in their finest orange to dine atop orange tablecloths, and wave the Dutch flag, which in fact is red, white, and blue. They played Dutch trivia (Wessel’s team won!) and then sjoelen (pronounced SHOE-len), a century-plus-old shuffle-board type game.

Special cake to celebrate Queen's Day

Special cake to celebrate Queen's Day

Next on De Wieken’s list is our favorite event, the yearly rijsttafel, featuring Indonesian dishes that the Dutch first started eating after they invaded and colonized the archipelago in the 1600s. Regular readers will recall that Wessel won top prize for his “hete eieren,” or hot eggs. What will he cook up this year? He’s not even telling the royals.

Lang leve de koningin! Hoera! Hoera! Hoera!

Dutch dilemma? It’s all in a name

March 16, 2009
Wessel is a citizen of the Netherlands

All Dutch citizens carry passports from “the Netherlands,” not “Holland”

Don’t mention Holland to my Dutch family unless you mean it or you’ll get this smarty-pants answer:  I’m not from Holland.

Wait, how can a Dutch citizen not be from Holland?

Because the Netherlands has an identity crisis.

Yes, the country is officially, legally, and historically named the Netherlands. Or, in Dutch, Nederland, as in “low country.” Hence the NL country abbreviation you see on car stickers. The country is bordered by Belgium, Germany, and the North Sea. To the west, across the water, is England. (And, for the record, the Netherlands is not part of Scandinavia, as some people mistakenly think.)

So what’s with the name Holland?

Well, two things, one official and one not. 
The provinces of North and South Holland are in the west of the Netherlands

The provinces of North and South Holland are in the west of the Netherlands

The Netherlands has 12 provinces. Two of those are North Holland and South Holland on the west coast. Until 1840, they were one province, called Holland. Their residents were, and still are, Hollanders. The country’s largest and most well-known cities are in Holland — Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.

So, Holland has always been the most powerful and populated part of the Netherlands. But it’s only a part of the country. (This conundrum has similarities with the whole United Kingdom / England / Great Britain thing, which we won’t even get into here, will we?)

Dutch guilder that was in use before introduction of the euro in 2002

Dutch guilder that was in use before introduction of the euro in 2002

As you can guess, my Dutch family members are not from those provinces, therefore they’re not from the official Holland. They’re from the province of Drenthe, in the northeast, which is more rural and has the country’s lowest population density. (Americans, think Nebraska with canals.)

Holland is used as the commercial name for The Netherlands

Much to the Koks’ dismay, “Holland” is used on most Dutch souvenirs

Making matters even worse for them, the name Holland has, unofficially, been used interchangeably with the Netherlands for many years now. Many Dutch people from all provinces say they’re from Holland. Even the country’s tourism website, run by The Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, is called Holland.com. Personally, I’ve met several non-Hollanders who refer to their country as Holland.

So, while my famiy’s provincial sensitivity is understandable, I do think they’re fighting a losing battle, and one that does not appear to have all that many soldiers these days. But, as a family member through marriage, I feel compelled to join in and fight the good fight, too. I hereby dedicate this blog post to the Familie Kok and their fellow non-Hollanders. Lang Leve Nederland!

Untours is unparalleled in the travel industry

February 24, 2009
Sampling Dutch street food is among the Untours travel experiences

You, too, can sample street food in Leiden (in this case, herring) on an Untours trip

Even before I knew much about Untours, the Pennsylvania-based (un)tour company, I loved their travel offerings and attitude. Untours supports longer-term travel with a home base, so visitors have a chance to dig deeper than the usual surface tourist activities.

They provide accommodations for one or two weeks, mostly in Europe (they just added a couple North American locations). For a reasonable fee, you get lodging (with a kitchen), air travel (rare) and an English-speaking local host (unheard of). It’s similar to independent travel, but with someone to hold your hand if needed.

Rome is among the travel destions in Italy

Rome is among the destinations in Italy

Also terrific are Untours’ off-the-beaten path destinations. In Holland, untourists stay in the charming university town of Leiden instead of the big city of Amsterdam, in Greece it’s Nafplio instead of Athens, and in Switzerland Untours offers up Ticino, Oberland and villages between Interlaken and Lucerne. It doesn’t ignore big cities completely, especially in Italy and France, the top destinations. Italy choices include Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also Sicily and Amalfi. It’s similar for France. You can choose among Paris, Normandy, Alsace, and more.

I was surprised when Untours, now in its 34th year, recently added New York City and Quebec City to its offerings. Makes me wonder what’s next. Exciting!

Paris at night with its monuments bathed in illumination

"The Eiffel Tower at night is magical," reported one Untours traveler

While I haven’t traveled with Untours, I’ve interviewed several people who have, and they’ve all loved the experience of feeling like they were living in a community instead of merely passing through. For those of you who just have to be on the move, there are ways to combine destinations with Untours “Samplers.” Untours aren’t cheap, but from what travelers tell me, they’re a bargain when you factor in meals, airfare, etc. Check out the prices for yourself and let me know what you think.

Hal Taussig on his daily ride to work

Hal Taussig on his regular ride to work

Like I said, I’ve already loved Untours for years because I had a great feeling about them and their business practices. So I wasn’t surprised but I sure was impressed when last year I learned about Untours founder and president Hal Taussig, 84. Despite his very successful business, he and his wife live in a modest home. Since 1992 they’ve given $5 million in profits from the business to the Untours Foundation, which they founded to help enterprises around the world that create jobs that improve the lives of the poor. Untours has been engaging in “travel philanthropy” way before it became de rigueur. Hal has gotten some great press lately, but you can tell that he’s not in it for the publicity. Thank you, Hal, for inspiring us as travelers and as human beings!

Still falling in love

February 14, 2009
Wessel's first snow shoe experience

Wessel's first snowshoe experience

I remember it so clearly. On our first date, Wessel arrived at my house in his boxy 21-year-old Mercedes Benz with his rented snowshoes and recently purchased cross-country skis. I was living in Quincy, Mass., near Boston, and Wessel lived a little south of me, in Hull. He’d moved from the Netherlands only a few months earlier for work (medical diagnostics).

Wessel is a big long-distance ice skater, but he’d only recently learned to ski, and he’d never snowshoed. That winter of 2002-3 had been wonderful for snow sports, and I often went to the nearby Blue Hills Reservation to take it all in.

We had first met on Valentine’s Day 2003, at the Delta baggage carousel at Logan Airport in Boston. Two weeks later, we met up for coffee, but mostly it was for an interview for the little ditty I wrote about his crazy ice-skating odyssey for my Boston Globe travel column. Our first “real” date was on March 8, 2003.

Diane takes a break

Diane takes a break

The activities were my idea. Since he’d only recently begun to ski, I figured we’d be equals on the snow, as I’ve skiied like a beginner for a decade now. And, of course, anyone can snowshoe.

The day was perfect, with deep snow, brilliantly blue skies, and little wind. We skied first, gliding slowly over the mostly flat trails, flanked with evergreens and bare branches. The snow sparkled. We talked and laughed and shared life stories.

Out in the Blue Hills as long as daylight allowed us

We didn't leave the Blue Hills until the moon started to rise

The snowshoe portion was all laughs. Wessel thought the sport, featuring giant foot coverings like tennis racquets, was pretty hilarious. We walked through the woods, creating our own trails as we went, then climbed up a hill to a rocky outcrop, where we could see the Boston skyline. We sat on a huge slab of granite to eat our sandwiches and I remember feeling the energy zing between us. I didn’t want the day to end. We left under a rising moon.

I invited Wessel to stay for dinner, figuring, sadly, that he probably had other plans, or had had enough for one date. Instead, he said yes. Woo-hoo! I cooked a simple pasta dish, and we shared a bottle of red wine. We talked and talked and hugged and hugged, and Wessel left around 1 a.m.

We started falling in love that day, and it hasn’t stopped.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my dear. Happy Valentine’s to all.