This weekend a near hurricane has descended on the Netherlands with inches of sideways rain. As I write this my little potted plant from Albert Hein has just blown off the windowsill, and the wind is howling. Needless to say we did not get out for a Sunday bike or hike. Instead, we watched a lot of “Black Sails” and planned our own sailing adventure around the Caribbean this summer though we may need to find our own sunken treasure to finance it all. This week I wanted to share with you a Sunday bike from a few weeks ago when the weather was much nicer.
For this bike ride we set out toward the village of De Lutte, a tiny municipality right across the German/Dutch border from Bad Bentheim. I had been hearing rumors that between De Lutte and Oldenzaal there was a “berg,” a mountain, named Tankenberg. The highest point in our state of Overijssel, in fact. Web sites about visiting the mountain talk about the difficulty of the ride to its top and strategize about how best to ascend. The “mountain” is 85 meters or 278 feet above sea level. By way of comparison, the Dom Tower in Utrecht is about 1.5 times the height of Tankenberg.
Given that the Netherlands is one of the flattest countries in the world the status of Tankenberg as a mountain is all about perspective. Last week during my Dutch lessons I read a story of a little girl who goes sledding, which led me to ask where in the world Dutch children go sledding when it snows. Do their parents simply drag them along behind their bikes? Growing up I always went sledding on the dam for the lake where my house is. I’d sled down, drag the sled back up the little mound, and sled back down, again and again and again. I estimate that the Tankenberg mountain had barely more of an incline grade than this sledding hill.
Here is a list of ten other things about the Netherlands that challenge my perspective as an American:
1. French Fries as a separate meal and with mayonnaise. Okay, so this is not necessarily just a Dutch thing, but the Dutch are big into French Fries and even bigger to putting mayonnaise-based sauces on them. There are entire restaurants dedicated to just French Fries. Plain ketchup usually has to be requested. On the other hand, unlike in America sandwiches, meals, etc., do not come automatically with French Fries. In fact, sandwiches do not come with any side. Order a wrap here, and it will be a wrap, likely delicious, but just a wrap nonetheless on an otherwise naked plate. For 10 euros. French fries are a separate food item, to be eaten from French Fry restaurants, not with sandwiches.
2. The issue of birthdays. Dutch people love sweets. A lot. At the market there are candy stores where not only children but adults fill baggies full of candy. At the movie theater there is candy by the kilo. Also, Dutch people love cake. And birthdays. Guess who brings the cake when it’s someone’s birthday? The person whose birthday it is! Apparently failing to bring your own birthday cake is incredibly rude to your coworkers, classmates, friends, etc. What?! In America if my co-workers had not gotten me flowers and a cake (or something similar) I would have spent the day super bummed out. Here, the offending birthday boy or girl might get a frank Dutch tongue-lashing. This is one Dutch tradition I refuse to accept, and, if we are still here next year for my birthday, I hope someone takes pity on me and takes me out for some cake (preferably with ice cream) and pays for my slice (and theirs.) Also different is that for someone’s birthday people shake hands and wish the person celebrating his or her birthday congratulations as well as telling his or her family members congratulations as well. Congratulations for not dying? For getting older? For not killing your husband/wife/daughter/father in the past year?
3. Appointment-setting and punctuality. The Dutch do not do the art of “just dropping by.” They have paper calendars and schedule every meeting with every friend, relative, and associate as an appointment. “Oh, I have an appointment at the bar with friend x and then 1 hour later another appointment at the bar with friend y.” I have not had a pocket calendar since high school, and, aside from work-related things do not schedule anything, even in an electronic calendar. Also, Dutch people are really on time. To the dot on time. In America, for meeting with friends I treat everything as a rough estimate of 30 minutes give-or-take unless we are on a strict deadline for something, such as catching a train. Most of my American friends push this to 1-2 hours approximations as being acceptable times for hanging out to start. When I am late, and I always am to meet up with any Dutch person, I feel quite horrible, as they are always standing next to their bikes, waiting for me. This goes back to the whole appointment scheduling, and, unfortunately, I have not gotten any better about absolute to-the-minute punctuality.
4. Meals. The Dutch eat really early, around 5:30 or 6 p.m. As a result, many restaurants begin to close up by 9 p.m., just when I am ready to head out to dinner. In addition, they generally only eat one hot meal a day. The other meal will necessarily be a sandwich, and the menus always have both hot and cold sandwich categories. I have not discovered if French Fries count as a meal or a snack and so are not measured against the hot meal quota.
5. Popcorn and the movies. In the Netherlands sugar is put on popcorn, not salt and butter. This goes back to their love of sugar. This popcorn is DELICIOUS. Also, movie theaters actually close the doors before the movies start, preventing you from entering. I kid you not we arrived at a theater once about 5 minutes ahead of when the movie was scheduled to start, and the usher, waiting outside of the doors for us, said, “Oh, you are the last ones with tickets; we were waiting for you; now we can start.” And then he shut the doors behind us. Also, yes, there are assigned seats and intermissions at the movies, but America seems to be the only country that does not follow this rule. More candy and sugary popcorn during the break!
6. Meat quality v. meat quantity. There are a LOT of animals in the Netherlands. The Frenchman rides his bike past an entire flock of sheep every day on the way to his laboratory. However, the meat quality at the market/supermarket is poor, poor, poor, and, even with all of the sheep, it’s nearly impossible to find any lamb meat. What do people do with all of these animals if not eat them? Are they simply pets? Are they used to pull wintertime sleds?
7. On what is healthy. One would think that Dutch people are overall really healthy. After all, don’t they ride their bikes everywhere? And, while it is true that no one is obese, bike riding seems to be where a healthy lifestyle ends for many Dutch people as they smoke like chimneys and eat diets full of fried fish, garlic butter, pancakes, chocolate sprinkles, waffles, ham and cheese sandwiches, mashed potatoes, french fries, and fast food from alley-way vending machine restaurants. On the other hand, in American we drive our cars to and from the gym and Whole Foods but, according to the CDC 69% of Americans age 20 and over are overweight with 35.1% of those being obese. Only about 13% of the Dutch are overweight, and I’ve yet to see an obese person in the Netherlands.
8. Credit card logic. Though I’ve tried to explain the logic of accepting credit cards to many a Dutch shop owner they still refuse to even acknowledge my position that the minimal fee charged per transaction will be negated by the increased revenue they’ll bring in if they accept credit cards. Shop owners turn gleeful when bills are paid with 5 and 10 cent pieces. In America, paying an entire meal with dimes might get you cursed at. In the Netherlands you might be given a few extra pieces of candy.
9. Is it a coffeeshop or a “coffee”shop or a cafe? Starbucks is a cafe. Bulldogs is a coffeeshop. There is a world of difference, and the two should not ever be confused unless you want a lot of sideways glances.
10. Taboo topics of conversation about legal activities. The Dutch are famously tolerant of other people’s choices, so, being an inquisitive American I have tried on multiple occasions to strike up deep conversations with Dutch people their true thoughts on the subjects of soft drugs and prostitutes with well thought out, probing questions. Turns out, I simply make them uncomfortable. I even had someone ask me very seriously if I was an investigative journalist. Though the Dutch may be tolerant they’d rather not actually discuss the legalities, perceptions, and consequences of lifestyle choices.