Kerstboom-fire

A little light on tinsel, but still nice.

The holiday season in the Netherlands is officially over. I say this not because it’s approaching the middle of January and the festive lights are down, but because I witnessed an enormous fire in which hundreds upon hundreds of Christmas trees were burned. No horrible mistake was made. No bureaucratic oversight lost track of a gas can, flint, and tinder. The only thing this Wicker Man-style effigy was missing was Nick Cage in a bear suit punching a woman in the face. Oh, and it was publicly supported and officially sanctioned by Amsterdam’s government.

Merry 10.2% Christmas!

Back to that in a moment. The holiday season started oddly. Liz was back in the US for the two weeks before Christmas and I talked to my cat to the point where catnip was no longer an escape. Julia also lost interest in catnip. Christmas itself was weird in as much as it was my first in a  European city. Our friends Nick and Rachel hosted dinner on Christmas Eve, we all wore a wig, and I sported a very rapey mustache. Christmas day was at our apartment, I made eggs, and all our friends were secretly thankful not to have to deal with their respective dickhead cousins (not you, Chris). To cap the night off, I had a very fancy Westvleteren 12.

Traditional Dutch Christmas attire.

New Year’s was more strange. Fireworks here are illegal all year, except from 10 am on Dec. 31 to 2 am on January 1. But don’t be fooled, you’ll be scared shitless for several preceding days. You’ll be even more scared if you’re like me, a dog. My heart was racing from Dec. 29 until the early morning hours of 2012. Julia, a cat, was more peaceful sitting in the apartment listening to the numerous explosions than I was. I hate to admit I’m a sissy, but I guess I am. Every time a firework went off, you could find me curled up in a fetal position in the corner.

Early in the morning on New Year’s Eve I went to buy some groceries. A young lad lit an explosive. Bracing for the explosion, I saw only green and then red sparks and then a pleasant silence. Convinced of the hilarity of these scamps, I chuckle to myself and get on my bike. Calmly pedaling, enjoying the brisk air, I see a plastic bag floating in the wind. I think how beautiful it is and I keep riding towards home. Then, suddenly, I hear a loud noise. It’s an adorable puppy yipping away. A few feet later, I get startled by a loud noise. Even with all the emissions standards here, a backfiring exhaust is terrifying. Finally past all the commotion, I set off for a relaxed breakfast. Unsuspectingly alarmed by a homeless man shouting, Phew, I gather myself again. Then I promptly crap myself when the peaceful red/green firecracker turns out to be a quarter stick of dynamite. It’s blast shatters my bowels and makes my heart seize. Thanks kid, you’ve killed an unrecognized, unheralded, and undeserving national hero, of Micronesia.

All day long I dreaded going outside. In fact, all day long I dreaded hearing the sporadic IEDs going off outside. I knew I wasn’t in Kabul, but did I really?Every time my brain told me to be a man, my good reason and heart palpitations told my brain to go to hell. The remaining daylight hours were spent trying to steel myself against the bike ride I knew I’d have to make later on.

Unlock rear wheel. Breathe. Unlock front chain. Breathe. Mount bike. Firecracker, wince. Repeat wincing. All of Amsterdam seemed to be in a frenzy of pyrotechnics. On average It’s not terribly shocking. I empathize. In fact, I’ve spent a big portion of my adolescence setting off illegal fireworks. Take a common firework that shoots into the air and explodes. If you break off the part that sticks into the ground and light the fuse, you have a terrifying unguided missile that seemingly chases the nearest target. I’m not proud of this, nor is it particularly fun, but I’ve done it. A lot. Empathizing doesn’t imply liking, right?

The party we went to was very nice and at 11:50 pm we all ascended to the roof deck. My jaw dropped. In the US, you grow accustomed to big events being accompanied by big fireworks displays. You expect to be wowed by 10-15 minutes of sheer extravagance. Satisfied, you finish your champagne and head home. In Amsterdam, you walk up the stairs to the roof deck and are assaulted from all sides. Everywhere you look you see fireworks. In every direction you look there are good, not great, explosions. You raise your glass, kiss your partner, and wish everyone a Happy New Year. But it’s not over. After 90 minutes of continued explosions, I was getting tired of being anxious. Riding home was equally joyful because children and hooligans were still blowing things up.

The smell of burning sulfur, the haze of smoke, and large smoldering masses set to the soundtrack of constant but infrequent explosions makes you thing of Platoon. But don’t be dumb, you’re in Amsterdam and there’s no war. If you’re impressionable and stupid like me though, you can convince yourself of anything.

The holiday season is capped off on the first Sunday of January. You’ll see children and adults dragging trees to a central square in Holland. In Amsterdam, people flock to Museumplein with hundreds of Christmas trees. All these trees lead to two huge piles of dried out trees. They’re dry for a good, weird reason. Watering trees in the Netherlands may or may not be a crime against humanity. The most common tree comes with a wooden cross nailed to the bottom. It makes a lot of sense for stability, less for watering. These dry twigs are piled 20-30 feet high. Then they’re set on fire. The next few hours are spent feeding the fire with Christmas trees. Weirdness aside, it’s beautiful. Pine burns super fast, making the fire billow and roll. I’ll spare you the terrible imagery and just put some pictures below. The live band was festive. The free Chocomel was delicious. The enormously tall Dutch people with their uncommonly tall children on their shoulders made views tough to come by. If you’re an expat in Holland, take shelter during New Year’s and make sure you see this weird, holiday rite.

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Eten & Drinken: Czech Wait Staff

“You’ve got to check out the food in Prague!”

From a friend, it sounds like an endorsement. From an enemy, it sounds strangely ominous. Objectively, it’s a pretty stupid thing to say. Try to go to Prague for a few days and not “check out” any food. You’ll starve. Then again, if you go to Prague for several days and try to eat specifically Czech food, starving doesn’t seem so bad.

Me, pumped for goulash!

You might, just might, like the food in the Czech Republic, but unless you really like jerks, you will not like the service. Switching from the US, where wait staff are slaves to the seductive lure of tips, to Amsterdam has been a rough transition. Amsterdam is a wasteland for attentive service. They speak English and are occasionally pleasant, but it’s a Herculean effort to be noticed. However, if you think the Dutch are standoffish, I guarantee you’ll think the Dutch wait staff is simply charming after a trip to Prague.

By way of example, Liz and I went to a highly regarded restaurant in Prague. TripAdvisor liked it, as did the guidebooks and a few locals we met. I shouldn’t hold the menu being written in Czech as a fault, but I will. So damn angry. Šťastný! See? It feels like your eyes just got punched in the face. And, šťastný means happy.

At home and in everyday life, I like bread a lot. When bread gets placed in front of my gaping maw at a restaurant, I lose what little self-control I have. I could have ordered a baguette for my appetizer and a boule of sourdough for the main course. Don’t care, give me that free bread. And that’s where those crafty Czechs get you. It’s not free. I know, right? Take a deep breath and calm down; it’s only everything you know to be right and good in this world being violently uprooted. It’s not like the bread is expensive (20 CZK ≈ 1 USD). However, if you enjoy freedom and honesty, don’t touch the bread. Furthermore, you’ll find the ketchup, mustard, mayo, etc. in small, sealed bottles. Don’t be fooled by their diminutive cuteness. It’s not uncommon to get charged to add flavor to your meals.

Adorable, not gratis.

Before you get to enjoy your bread-less meal sans condiments, you’ll notice the Jedi mind trick the wait staff is trying to pull off. The ever so subtle up-sell of any item you order.

“You want tap water? I’d really recommend the Dom Perignon.”

“Ok, one side salad. Would you like gold croutons on that?”

“Yes, the trout is very nice, but can I interest you in a NASA space shuttle?

I managed to resist the up-sell every time. My guess is that even if I indulged in the roasted pork with a side of Rolls Royce, their implacable scowls would linger. Every time I thanked the waiter for something, his head snapped to attention, made eye contact, and silently mouthed “I will kill you.” In fairness it could have been a Czech phrase meaning the same thing.

If you need a drink other than water, remember that you speak no Czech and know nothing about Czech wine. Liz and I had three waiters at this particular restaurant. It’s an all out barrage of offers, none of which are clear. You have three foreign auctioneers listing choices in a confusing blend of Czech, English, and sign language. They’ll bring bottles out to your table and leave them there even if you didn’t order them. Since price lists are non-existent and you need a depressant to settle your nerves, just order a beer. Czech beers aren’t great, but they are really cheap, which makes

Pilsner Urquell = Original Source Pilsner

Pilsner Urquell is the crown jewel of Czech beers. Pubs and restaurants alike claim to have “the best Pilsner Urquell in Prague.” I assume the beer  comes from bottles or kegs, sold to bars from the same distributor. The only way one bar’s beer can be better than another’s is through someone else’s hijinx or if that beer sat for a very long time. And since Czech annual per capita beer consumption is around 156 liters, stale beer is unlikely. I remember liking Pilsner Urquell well enough in the US. I’m also the type of guy that thinks Heineken tastes better in Amsterdam. My delusions aside, every time I had the “best Pilsner Urquell in Prague,” it was not. Still, they’re cheap and after enough beers you can forget your waiter is a dick.

You’ll promptly get your drinks 20 minutes later and your meal in another brief 30. I’m all for a leisurely dinner, but unless you have saintly patience, you will get irritated. On the whole, Czech food is unreliable. One in four meals we had were good, and those other three were very mediocre. Those iffy meals become worse when you have an ass of a waiter. That ass of a waiter becomes more of an ass when you get the bill and it looks a lot higher than the number you had in your head.

That's a lovely mustache you have there.

When the check arrives there are a few things you should do. First, wake up. You will have fallen asleep during the hour between your last bite and the bill coming. Second, withhold gasps if the bill is seriously inflated. The slightest outward anger may incite the waiter to move from dour to “territorial silver-back.” Third, break out your over-sized visor and olde-tyme accountant garb to scrutinize your check. There’s good chance you’ve been charged extra for something, possibly the condiments. If you have touched them, there is no use in arguing. If you haven’t, argue away. The waiter already hates you. When then bill still seems too high, think back and try to remember why you ordered two bowls of goulash. Right, you didn’t. The restaurant double charged you.

“Remember how much you enjoyed those buttery, garlicky escargot?”

“Not really. That’s weird.”

“You can’t taste them because you didn’t eat them because you didn’t order them.”

“No no no. Surely I ate them since it’s on the bill. The simplest answer is amnesia or taste bud failure. Our waiter is an angelic saint.”

Look carefully at your bill. Don’t only look at the number of items printed out. Look for the “x 2” after some items, another way of snaring tourists. And to be honest, if you confront the wait staff they’ll readily admit they made a mistake, fix the bill, and show genuine contrition. You can tip if you want to, but it’s not really expected on account of the wait staff being difficult.

I’ve read many a website claiming that Czech service is intentionally distant because they think this is more professional. That may be true; however, it may also be an excuse to treat tourists like jerks. Go out and eat food in Prague and be your own judge. This is only a cautionary tale.

Czech Please, Days 2-5

After waiting two months, I figure anyone who reads this blog will have forgotten completely about my trip to the Czech Republic. My plan worked flawlessly, but it turns out the plan itself was horribly flawed. Alienate family and friends, potentially readers. Check. Force an untimely blog for no reason. Check. Think sanely. Nah.

I’ll give a quick rundown of the highlights in Prague in this post ans then obsessively focus on some of the weirder, less important things in the next. By way of reminder, our hostel was basically a 18th century opium den minus the charm. Not one of the highlights. Summer in Prague is pretty oppressive, the hostel had no A/C, and smoking of all sorts was allowed. Needless to say, it smelled fantastic.

Back to being concise-ish. Here are a handful of the highlights from the Czech Republic.

Jumping, for no apparent reason.

1.) Prague Castle

It’s amazing. You should go.

Liz and I visited on the hottest day Prague had seen in several years, which made the public transit ride to the largest ancient castle in the world pretty smelly. The Czech language surely is aggressive and I got my fair share of scowls, all of which was forgiven by the hairy, fat man grinding on my arm as I sat on the trolley. So affectionate. It’s more than a castle. It’s a complex, replete with gorgeous cathedral, luxurious palace, armored keep, a little town that looks like a Czech-Diagon Alley, and manicured gardens. All the tourist guides will list this as a must-do. You really should make it a priority. Don’t be one of those smug travelers, yearning to be different by avoiding the popular sites to see the “real” Prague. A lot of the real Prague is dirty and boring. Sure, you can look up and see beautiful spires across the city, but you’ll look down to realize you were robbed and stepped in dog poop. Go to Prague Castle, think you’re Eddard Stark, thank me profusely.

"Hey mason, you're doing it wrong."

2.) Wallenstein Gardens

If you like topiary (and who doesn’t?) and free admission, this is well worth it. You can also see peacocks roaming the grounds. A word to the wise, peacocks are boring. They’re the “cock tease” of the animal kingdom. You know they have this amazing plumage, but all they’ll do is flaunt their ability to fly awkwardly a foot off the ground for 6 seconds. You can also witness the primary reason the Czech Republic has not adopted the euro. Most sources will site political instability and unstable economic footing. The real reason is the inability of Czechs to build a wall properly. Local tourism hails the Dripstone Wall as an architectural marvel, but it exemplifies the backwardness of Czech infrastructure.

“If you concentrate, you can see all sorts of little creatures in the wall. It’s like a Magic-Eye poster.”

“Vaclav, illusions don’t inspire economic confidence. Use a level next time, and some bricks.”

“Our peacocks are very nice.”

Warning: Objects here look cooler than in real life.

3.) Astronomical Clock via Charles Bridge

Walk across the Charles Bridge at pretty much any time and it’ll be packed with tourists. That said, it’s still worth it. The bridge itself is fine. It gets you across a river without getting your feet wet. There are no trolls living under it. The views from the bridge are the real lure. Head toward the city center and see hundreds of spires, a patchwork of anachronistic architecture that comes together wonderfully. Look back toward Prague Castle and see, er, Prague Castle. It’s amazing. You should go. Either side of the bridge looks over the Vltava river. Sunset is painfully pretty, and other times in the day only slightly less so. Keep reminding yourself of how iconic the Charles Bridge is as you head through the city center toward the Astronomical Clock. Are you excited for the proverbial icing on that bridge-y cake? Too bad. You’re diabetic and can’t have icing. Not diabetic? Still too bad. The Astronomical Clock is stupid. It looks like a cuckoo clock you’d get in a cereal box, but a lot bigger. This is one of the “must-dos” that you can avoid, unless you’re really into that state-fair vibe and like being disappointed.

Insert asparagus joke here.

4.) Bukowski’s Bar

You walk up to a little plaza near the Kafka museums and you see two unique looking statues across from one another. Interest piqued, you investigate. They statues are peeing into a pool. and are moving around in weird patterns. You ponder why they’re moving so randomly. Then you remember that it’s the most obvious thing in the world and you’re a big dumb idiot. Of course when you send a text message to the statues they will pee you’re message into the pool. As your synapses catch their breath, you realize your central nervous system needs to be depressed. You could read some Bukowski, but that’s just no fun. Or you could go to Bukowski’s Bar in Žižkov. You’ll see mainly expats. You’ll also see 50 eurocent beers during happy hour. You should go.

I thought this chandelier would be more sparkly.

5.) Kutna Hora

This is the place to visit if you’ve ever wondered what a heavy metal video would look like in real life. To be precise, when you get off the train, 35 minutes from Prague, you won’t think you’re in a heavy metal video. You’ll think you’re in 1980’s Eastern Europe complete with babushkas, unattended children, and freewheeling chickens. When you finally enter the Sedlec Ossuary, put some Iron Maiden on the iPod to set the mood. When soil from Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified) was sprinkled at this church, all the religious nuts wanted to be buried here. Being tiny, there were literally generations of skeletons piling up. Inspiration struck and the church underwent some modest redecoration, with 40-70 thousand bones. Wall hangings – bones. Door knobs – bones. Pillars – bones. Bone-tooth comb – plastic. Chandelier – bones. As macabre as it sounds, it really isn’t. It is one of the most uniue things I’ve ever seen. If you have time to kill while in Prague, take a train to Kutna Hora to see this gem(?). The rest of the town actually has a lot to see as well.

What? Skulls? Where?

Coat of Arms: House Sepultura.

"Aren't they darling? We picked them up last year in the Poconos."

Tune in next time when I obsess about weird(er) things.

Mijn Fiets Diaries

A quintessential part of being Dutch is being abnormally tall. I’m 5’9”. The Dutch are also blunt, occasionally bordering on confrontational. I actively avoid conflict. What’s a short and sheepish expat to do? I could learn the language, but that’s all kinds of effort. I could buy a bike, but that … no, no that sounds alright.

Buying and riding a bike in Amsterdam is practical. It’s no grand gesture and it sure isn’t anything I can use to wheedle my way into the hearts and minds of the Dutch people. But dammit, I want it to be.

"One if by land, two thousand if by bike." -Dutch Paul Revere

The Dutch obsession with the bicycle (fiets, rijwielen, tweewieler) is profound. Since most of Holland is impossibly flat and the cities are compact, bikes a great way to travel. Pedaling is a lot faster than walking when you need to bring some disgusting licorice candies to grandma and two wheels will beat two feet when there’s a priority on getting to the market before they close at 5pm (markets have bank hours in Amsterdam).

Germans Steal Bikes! Historical Accuracies Abound!

The love fest for bikes is more than simple practicality. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands during World War II, German soldiers confiscated thousands of Dutch bicycles. No longer could you simply bike secret messages to the resistance, now you had to walk. And let’s be honest, walking is the worst. The bikes left in Dutch hands were stolen by German soldiers fleeing the Netherlands when it was apparent that the Nazis were losing. Thieving Nazis led Dutch bicycle usage to dip noticeably during and immediately after WWII.

In cities like London, WWII saw an increase of bicycle usage. The increase was grudging. Heavy petrol rationing and no occupying Nazis were the main drivers of bicycles gaining popularity. The British saw bikes as an irritating necessity forced upon them by war. They had to give up their automobiles, which were becoming popular before the war, in favor of slower, less comfortable bikes that actually require middling effort to pedal. The Dutch, on the other hand, had their bikes stolen. Their beloved fiets were now being used by the Germans. Daily life was disrupted and part of their identity had been lost. I know that seems melodramatic, but there is truth in there somewhere. The British quickly turned their backs/asses on bicycles after WWII and rekindled their relationship with automobiles. The Dutch happily and proudly reverted to cycling.

When Princess Beatrix married Claus von Amsberg on March 10, 1966 there were big-time protests in Amsterdam.

“Super cool story, bro. Now say something relevant or shut up.”

Anachronistically offensive, sir!

My inner monologue is a dick. The riots happened because Claus was a German who had served in the Hitler Youth. Real or imagined, some Dutch citizens drew a connection to Nazism and decided a riot was in order. A memorable slogan of the protest was “Mijn fiets terug!” (Give me back my bike). It’s not “I like Ike!” but the slogan lasted. In 2006 some Dutch football fans had Nazi helmets made (orange, of course, because accuracy is paramount) and shirts imprinted with “Mijn fiets terug!” The idea was to wear them at the World Cup when the Netherlands played Germany. That serendipity never happened, but the Germans were still pissed. If you find yourself saying “Mijn fiets terug” nowadays there are only a few possible reasons.

1.) You’re an old Dutch person having a flashback.

2.) You’re a young Dutch douche trying to annoy German tourists.

3.) You’re learning Dutch, you think you’re ordering coffee.

3.) Psychosis.

4.) A junkie has just stolen your bike.

So, this was only a long-winded and un-riveting introduction to many future long-winded and un-riveting posts about stuff that happens on my bike. A city of bike riding giants that herd like cattle ensures nuggets of excitement and humor. I’ll be here to drain the fun and the funny from both, so please come back and read. Oh, and Liz bought a bike too. She wasn’t an expert at first. She still isn’t.

Biking with Liz (mild dramatization)

Zwarte Piet

Something weird happens in Holland in early December. Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) starts to make his rounds, which isn’t the weird part. He looks like our American Santa, if a gluten allergy kept him from eating all those cookies and he discovered P90X. Still, that’s not the weird part. Sinterklaas’ trusty companion is called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Pete helps the jolly saint determine the good and the bad and deliver presents atop the roofs. Yet still, this is pretty normal. Pete could pass for a D.W. Griffith’s character. We’ve arrived at the weirdness.

I feel uncomfortable.

And no, this isn’t racist. No. No, really. It isn’t. At least not in the Netherlands. If you’re an American, I’ll give you a few minutes to let the stroke you’re having subside a little. If you’re Dutch, I’ll let you start to get angry, ready to say that I don’t understand your culture.

Want to know a bit more about Dutch culture, by way of Zwarte Piet? I know, a very clever name. Here’s a neat little trick. Do you suffer from recurring amnesia? Does it cause you to forget where and when you are? Is it tearing you apart? Of course it is! Well, you can pinpoint the date and your location if you ever find yourself being approached constantly by people (obviously white) completely covered in black make-up with large red lips, an afro, and Sean Connery’s get-up from Highlander.

“Am I in an American minstrel show in the early 1900s?”

“Don’t be stupid, stupid. Of course you … well, actually maybe.”

“This is tearing me apart!”

“Do the people have annoying facial hair, weird fashion, and seem only to travel by bicycle?”

“Yes, mostly.”

“Well, then you’re in luck. And you’re certainly not in … Shit. Are there a lot of white belts, silly hats, and guys on the verge of crying over an Arcade Fire song?”

“Mostly.”

“Hah, take that!”

“Take what? Where am I? This trick sucks.”

Not really okay even a century ago.

You’re probably not in deep in the 19th century American south. Probably a Dutch hipster café around December 5, 2010-ish. I think the point I was trying to make is that the Zwarte Piet phenomenon feels incredibly anachronistic. It’s a tough sell if you’re an American or a black resident of the Netherlands not intimately familiar with the tradition. Some Dutch people will try to brace the image of Zwarte Piet by telling you he’s black because he guards the chimney for Sinterklaas and gets covered in soot. If that explanation does it for you, may I interest you in some of my snake oil?

He's on a horse.

Stay with me for a few moments as I nerd out. The American image of Santa Claus dates to an 1836 cartoon by Thomas Nast. The plump, jolly image of Santa gained popularity through song and advertising, so much so that many barely know where he comes from. Santa Claus is based on the Dutch Sinterklaas, who is thin, rides a horse, carries a staff and travels with Zwarte Piet. Pete lets him know who has been good or bad, so Sinterklaas can deliver chocolate letters via the chimney to good children on December 5th, the day before his feestdag (feast day, holiday). If you’re a crappy kid, you get coal, or a bundle of birch sticks. If you’re really crappy, Zwarte Piet takes you away in a sack to Spain where you’re beaten with said birch sticks. This may be why the US dropped the Black Pete/punishment part.

The Dutch take their inspiration from St. Nicolas, a 4th century bishop from Myrna, Turkey. He did some pretty saintly things, especially for the poor and unhappy. This jolly, white-bearded religious man in a white dress and red cloak was supposedly born on Dec. 5th or 6th.  Now turn to the Germanic god Odin (Wodin), who was also a white-bearded old man that rode an 8-legged horse through the sky to deliver light and wisdom to good people during the darkest days of the year, December. He traveled with two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who sat atop the homes Odin visited, informing him of the good and bad deeds of the mortals.

“Snnoooore. Snnoooore. Oh god! Oh, oh, I just had the worst dream. Someone was droning on about things that no one cares about. It was the worst.”

“Droning? You don’t care about…”

“Nightmares are real!”

Whether in the name of political correctness or to make kids less scared about being kidnapped by Al Jolson, the Zwarte Piet tradition has been watered down over the years. He’s black because he’s a chimney sweep covered in soot, not a Moorish Judge Judy and executioner. He no longer beats and kidnaps bad children; he tosses out pepernoten (gingerbread-ish cookies). Kids probably appreciate it. Less fear is good. But there’s a non-trivial number of expats and local immigrants who are not thrilled about the racist image (real or imagined).

To generalize horribly, many Dutch feel that a criticism of Zwarte Piet is a personal attack on their values or an all out attack on Christmas. They deny any racist connotations. Bear in mind that the Dutch like to remind you of how blunt they are and how un-politically correct they are. So, they either genuinely see no harm in the image or are toeing the line of what they can get away with. The latter is clearly the more irritating proposition. You have a history of colonialism, a large immigrant population, and you claim to be incredibly tolerant and diverse. Even if there is no racist intent, it’s easy to see people are bothered. And, Zwarte Peten are just creepy and sort of weird.

All that said, it could be a lot worse. You could be in Austria and have a goat-headed demon named Krampus follow St. Nick around. He’s large, covered in chains and takes really naughty kids back to his lair and eats them. And you’d be in Austria.

Scary beyond all reason? Yep, that's a Krampus.

Eten & Drinken: A Dutch Treat?

A nice sentiment.

What’s worse than a jerk who doesn’t update his blog? A mediocre attempt to deflect his sloth. But, take solace in the fact that the dust collected on the internet is a nightmare, and don’t get me started on the tumbleweeds. Also, I’m subjecting myself to something gross right now for your edification and potential enjoyment.

Here’s some unnecessary history. I had just enjoyed a thoroughly un-Dutch dinner with some friends when I got a thoroughly Dutch surprise at the end of the meal, a lollipop. I like mints, but a lollipop is a neat twist. Even more unnecessary history. I lack the restraint and will-power to eat a lollipop like a normal human being. I bite into candies almost immediately. Liz reluctantly lets me try anything she’s eating because I’ll compulsively chomp on it. Holy crap that was boring. Less on that story as details emerge, folks.

I held back a little with this Dutch lollipop because it was something new to me. It looked something like the Brach’s root beer barrel candies, so I was expecting a similar taste. Nope. It’s has the gross anise flavor that the Dutch are obsessed with. Tired of the only moderately sweet flavor and not liking the licorice taste, I chomped down to end the suffering.

“You don’t need to eat it, just throw it away.”

“Shut up, brain.”

Biting down only served to reduce the duration of the suffering, not the intensity. Picture a Tootsie-Pop of Blow-Pop. Now picture it tasting a bit metallic and a bit like cod liver oil. You bite into it and become angrily aware that there is a fine powder on the inside. Oh no, it’s not a poison to put you out of your misery. It’s salty and bitter with a distinctly acrid finish. You grow short of breath and seize up, which is a shame because the one clear message your brain is giving your body is to spit it out. You do that thing with your mouth that dogs do when you give them peanut butter. No, not inadvertently lick a pervert’s genitalia. Even though it’s not sweet a cloying aftertaste lingers. And lingers.

In the throes of disgust, self-hatred, and anger at Dutch confectioners, I missed some nuances of the horror. As retribution, I am eating one of these wretched candies as I write this. I’ll be taking you through this train wreck step by agonizing step.

I’ve been eating it like a normal human so far. It’s gross and I would not recommend it. I know it’s full of sugar, but it’s not that sweet. Maybe the people running the lollipop machine ran out of sugar halfway.

“Hey Jan, think anyone would notice if I used salt instead of sugar?”

“Nee nee. Good idea. You’re a crafty one, Dirk.”

Jan and Dirk were summarily fired. Unfortunately it was for running a black market office supply store of stolen paperclips, widgets, and post-it notepads. The Dutch fat cats at Semi-Sweet & Gross confections liked the mishap, ensuring the dreams of many expats would be crushed.

A nice sentiment gone awry.

Like the big dumb idiot I am, I bite into the anise-devil. Oh god. I think its gone bad. It still tastes like salt. But now the salt is mixed with lye, or bleach instead of sugar. Why do these things exist? It hurts my mouth. It might be caustic. My eyes can taste it. I just got up to walk it off like I’d been hit by a pitch in Little League. I manically waive my hand in front of my mouth because that works.

“Spit it out, Marc.”

“Shut up, brain.”

For the love of humanity, why?

I’m seeing this thing through to the end because I believe there is integrity in persistence. My disappointment quickly turned to anger. If you’re like me and find yourself getting mad at inanimate objects, candy or not, please stop reading this and call a therapist. To show the candy who’s the boss, I bit down harder and chewed aggressively. Another backfire. The badness somehow increased exponentially. I tag out because the integrity of persistence is stupid and overrated. You win, horrible Dutch treat. Being defeated by a non-sentient pile of sugar and vitriol is pretty depressing, so rest assured that the return to blogging was both physically and emotionally scarring.

My experience with it has made me question the existence of both rainbows and unicorns. Do not be fooled, this lollipop is not a pleasant after-dinner treat; it’s designed to incite anguish. If it accompanies your bill at a restaurant, do not eat it and do not tip your waiter, he was being a dick.

Moving In.

Something like this.

“Marc, why are you shuffling back and forth in the hallway, keeping Julia from getting up stairs? And, why have you been doing it for 15 minutes. And and, why do you keep doing an awful Gandalf, repeating “You shall not pass” way too much?”

“Why don’t you shut up, voice in my head.”

Aside from being a jerk, my inner monologue makes a good point. Rather than tormenting my cat via LOTR, I should probably let people know that Liz and I aren’t living in the streets of Amsterdam.

After looking for too long and waiting on the makelaars to stop being awful at their jobs, we decided on an apartment in a trendy part of Amsterdam. Our place is a two floor apartment in a neighborhood called De Pijp (“da pipe”). The apartment really is quite nice. I’ll let the pictures do more of the talking because words are the worst.

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The two biggest problems are the stairs and the stairs. No elevator means four flights of stairs every time you come home. Surely you’re just a whiny pain in the butt, right Marc? Nope. The stairs are less stair and more ladder, sitting at an ergonomically comfortable 75° incline. I wear a size 10.5 shoe, refuse to learn the EU size conversion, and very little part of my foot actually fits on any of the steps. Since every Dutch person is generally 7’1″ or taller, I assume they’re giant feet require equally giant clown shoes. Our apartment offers big-footed types two options: climb on tip-toes or walk up four flights sideways. There’s no bad option!

These wonderful stairs made moving in a cinch. Thankfully, Liz and I only brought over clothes. No furniture or appliances, but Liz may have tucked a bar or two of lead into her suitcases. To be fair, she does love her heavy metal. Calling the car I rented from Greenwheels a car is comically liberal. So much so that even the dour bellhops at our hotel had an uncharacteristic laugh at me trying to fit eight bags into my go-cart. Keep laughing, jerks, now I can genuinely rationalize my plan not to tip you. And the bags fit, like a glove.

I’ll now walk you through my flawless logic. I planned to rent a car, drive for the first time in Amsterdam, move all the stuff into the apartment, drive for the second time in Amsterdam, and get back to the car rental joint in under two hours. Airtight, huh? Wait, you didn’t see the plan there? Oh, you’re good because there wasn’t any, and therein lies the problem. I just sort of thought it would work. Me thinking, another problem.

Later in the day, the street actually fills up.

Greenwheels is a pretty great option for renting cars in Amsterdam. Granted, you have to get through the insufferable Dutch of the registration process. And, buying gas with Greenwheel’s gas card is a whole other hornet’s nest (more on that in a future post). I’m not a great driver, but I’m serviceable. I don’t usually get overwhelmed and I at least I can drive a standard. But, bikes are like lemmings in Amsterdam, each one following after the leader in an insane path to certain doom. That certain doom is most likely a canal boat or herring shop or Albert Heijn (a supermarket cult), but these bike-lemmings just circle the city and never fall to their death. Every corner and crossing holds 6 to 8 hundred tourists waiting to jump in front of your car. There are trams without any barriers that may or may not have the right of way. Every six feet or so there is a double-parked car. Taxis tailgate the trams, but there is no rule if non-taxis can. There are no discernible lanes. Amsterdam has exactly 5 streets that aren’t one-way. You’ll get lost like you were driving in a hedge maze. Alright already, Amsterdam, UNCLE! Jesus! I give up. Six kph through your cobblestone streets it is.

Ok, so the 5 km from rental place to apartment took 45 minutes. Reasonable. To make up time I parked illegally in a spot designated for electric cars. I’ll unpack the car, place the luggage in the entrance, lock the car, and then not have to go back and forth to the car. Brilliant. I’m in a flop sweat with all the bags in front of my door, car locked, ready to go. Door opens. It’s the size of a phone booth. Dammit. I put two suitcases in hall, locked the door, and then trekked the other six, 50 lbs. bags back to the car. No worries, I can definitely carry up two bags at a time. Naive. Two steps up the stairs and I dropped one suitcase, almost plummeting to my 1 foot high death. Eight trips up M.C. Escher-like stairs. Amazing. The last two suitcases were the toughest, especially since the sweat dripping down my hands made holding onto them particularly precarious.

Suitcases in, and now back to driving. This will be a dream now that I’m a veteran. Turns out I’m a vet with PTSD. I had 20 minutes to get back to the rental agency. Fifteen minutes and two strokes later, I merged into the traffic in front of our apartment. On schedule. Twenty-five minutes later I pulled into the rental agent’s parking spot, chest heaving with anxiety-riddled breaths.

Time to ride my bike back to the apartment and unpack. Thankfully, Liz’s discerning tastes and high standards assured that the apartment we found was a good one. Since I didn’t break my neck and Liz got to avoid my shenanigan, I’ll chalk this one up as a win. If you’re new to Amsterdam and need to drive around on a tight time-budget, take a Xanax and you’ll be fine.