Dutch Tales (2019)
ADVENTURES IN UTRECHT
Originally published for Utrecht Central, a local English news site in 2020 - the newspaper folded in June 2021.
Real Expat Stories from The Netherlands
EPISODE #1: The Washing Machine
Our first flat in Utrecht had a washer and a dryer, conveniently located next to the food and appliances in our tiny kitchen. I’ve never seen this before - in America, laundry and lunch are strictly separate activities. No matter, we will adjust, adapt and move forward.
What? All the washer instructions are in Dutch. Surely there will be a manual online, right? Yes! In Chinese, French, German, and probably even braille… but not English. Fine, we’ll figure it out.
After a few minutes, we thought we had sorted it out. When I poured half a bottle of liquid laundry detergent into the soap reservoir, I figured this ‘smart device’ would use only as much as each load required. Brilliant!
But I was making multiple mistakes. I had filled the water reservoir of the dryer, which has nothing to do with the soap reservoir. Through a combination of stupidity and arrogance, we let the machines run with a load of towels while we went to the grocery store. (see Adventures in Utrecht #2) Feeling pretty good about our big brains, we strolled down to Albert’s Hennie (our cheeky name for AH) and shopped for a half hour.
Upon returning home I noticed foam squeezing out the front door as I turned our key. What followed was a soft, silent tidal wave of foam in slow motion because our entire apartment was filled with white bubbles and suds (zeepsop) up to our waist. It was also pouring down all 24 steps and out our front door. (photo courtesy of a nasty neighbor and posted online).
Over the next half hour, the neighbors were both civil and cruel to us, laughing like seagulls as they helped us clean up the mess. Fortunately, we had closed our living room door so our possessions were safe, but the carpet took weeks to dry and ultimately had to be replaced, yet another weird experience for a later story.
P.S. – Ok, the carpet replacement was crazy as well. The workmen brought in the flooring, perfectly cut it to our living room. Then, they gave us a can of glue (with some instructions in Dutch) and left. No padding, no nails, no stretching, just a sheet of Berber and a can of glue. Today, the carpet remains unsecured and the glue unopened - it's for the next tenet, we’re just not doing it.
EPISODE #2: Why is the Water on Fire?
When we first moved to Utrecht, we went food shopping at Albert’s Hennie and brought back the groceries in a half dozen heavy plastic bags that made our fingers bleed. Some items were familiar but in unusual packages - like hotdogs floating in a laboratory jar or mayonnaise in a toothpaste tube. Other foods were totally unfamiliar and Dutch, like dripping stroopwafels and bags of drop.
‘DROP’ is a candy; a licorice rope made of sugar, used chewing gum, and oil spill residue. When you eat it, the candy ‘drops’ out of your mouth as you cough up blackened phlegm and spit it out. I think that’s where the name comes from, but I’m not sure about that.
Anyways, rather than buy Evian, Aquafina, or Fiji Water I selected a local brand of bottled water called ‘Azijn’, the AH store brand I guess, hoping to save money. (Dutch people, keep it together now)
After we got home and cleaned up the foam off of the refrigerator (see Adventures in Utrecht #1) I put the bottle in the fridge to chill and took a nap that involuntarily became a long, deep sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night. I was half asleep cracked open a new bottle of ice-cold ‘Azijn’. I drank it down fast like a Tour de France winner. After some big gulps I was immediately fully awake, eyes popping, gasping for breath, and coughing. A moment later my wife rushed in as I was puking into the sink and screaming “Aaahhh! The water is on fire! Why is the water is on fire? It burns!”
Yes, I had swallowed a large dosage of pure white vinegar from that cold, clear innocent-looking bottle.
Turns out 'Azijn' in Dutch for vinegar; we signed up for Dutch lessons the next day.
EPISODE #3: The Special Poffertjes Bag
Dutch people already know the magic of poffertjes - delicious coin-sized pancakes made of batter, powdered sugar and love. I say love because they are best are made by hand, often on a special iron grill passed down by generations of swollen Dutchmen for about four euros a serving. We discovered them shortly after moving here from Trump’s America in downtown Utrecht. You can usually only get them during the holidays or festivals but we found them at a cafe and ordered three dozen of these sweet little buttons - but that’s just the start of the story.
Truth be told, my wife and I bought far too many treats for one sitting - how typically American. We decided to save the remainder but had no way to carry lots of tiny, sticky sugar pies back home in a purse or handbag. (I don’t know why I didn’t just ask for a box or bag from our waitress – maybe it was shame or pride.)
For whatever the reason, I saw a grocery across the street and decided to quickly buy some plastic bags to carry our Dutch desserts home while my wife waited for the check. I tried to find them myself but I ended up asking a non-Dutch immigrant employee because I was in a hurry. I suspect I explained what I needed very poorly but the worker brought me a box that looked correct. (see top picture)
What I thought was a package of small plastic bags was actually 30 “ijsblokzakjes” or ice cube bags. But I was blissfully ignorant of this fact when I ran back to the café, where my wife and the server were chatting while waiting for me.
I noticed the amused face of our waitress as I explained myself as I pulled out the bag and began. This wasn’t a normal sandwich pouch however, this was a weird plastic mistake. It kinda seemed like a lot of little pockets inside a sandwich bag. Puzzled, I slowly decided this was a special poffertje bag, complete with separate compartments for each delightful morsel. I struggled to insert each poffertje, one by one, carefully into the little pockets. Our waitress began to laugh out loud and take pictures with her cell phone. Other people tried to understand what was happening and also began to smile and point.
Before I knew it, images of the stupid American with his special leftover poffertje bag were all over Instagram and Twitter. Our server finally brought us a little box and helped us fill it with sad, embarrassed poffertjes. We could still hear people laughing as we left, wondering what other surprises await in this strange land.
EPISODE #4: Piss Frites
The Dutch are strangely obsessed with what some visitors would call “French Fries” (frites) to the point of weirdness. These deep fried potato strips are consumed as a meal in itself in Holland, forget the unhealthy side dish most Americans are familiar with. Dutchies eat an average of 18 kilograms a year, not including the half kilo of creamy maynonaise balanced on top. Yes, frities are ‘number one’ here in The Netherlands, so is that why they’re associated with pee? Let me explain.
Not long after moving to Utrecht, I came across a chain of restaurants that felt that associating their food with a urinating child is ok. (Photo 1) Would you eat at a burger restaurant with a toilet logo? I think not.
The ‘Mannekin Pis Child ‘(Photo 3) is a famous bronze statue in Belgium, where frites were actually invented. It’s also the logo of this well-known fast food chain. (Photo 2) Understanding why fries are associated with urination was a mystery to me and I was desparate to understand. As an foreigner I was horrified to think that perhaps it was one of the many sauces they offered - Please no.
My imagination boiled with ideas. Are fried frities are so good that literally ANY fluid tastes amazing on them?! It doesn’t seem all that crazy when you actually see the variety of sauces available. One assumes that toddler urine is NOT an real choice unless you have a creepy arrangement with some kid -which is both undeniably wrong and absolutely illegal.
By far the most popular ‘frietsaus’ is just a big glob of Dutch mayonnaise - originally made from spoiled milk, orphan tears and whale blubber. After that, the choices just get more diverse.
The list of actual frietsaus options include ‘patat met’ and ‘potatje joppie’ with curry, both popular in the north. Kapsalon, ketchup and melted cheese are also popular, but mostly enjoyed by portly tourists and drunk football fans – not so much the theater crowd. Fussy party girls prefer less mess, often choosing salt, pepper or garlic butter to keep the fries drier and to keep stains off their knock-off designer clothes.
In the south, I don’t know who won the potato war but the ‘pataje oorlog’ sauce includes both onions and peanut sate, battling for your tastebuds attention. Less popular (for good reason) are nutmustard and paprika – often presented for spicy foreign palettes. The flavor offerings seem limitless. Can cavier and toothpaste options be far behind?
That said, a good brushing after a cone of Dutch ‘piss fries’ might be the best choice of all!
EPISODE #5: Souvenirs
Tacky, disturbing, and often inappropriate - Dutch souvenirs are everywhere, and where quantity rules - quality suffers. In Utrecht, these are found at a slick store called ‘Piet Snot’, but it s’not really that good – they try too hard.
I mean, how desperate were Delft craftsmen were when they decided to taint their centuries-old ceramic tradition by producing “Cow Coitus” saltshakers for the masses – classy. S’not!
Of course, marijuana imagery rules most gift shops in the major
Dutch cities, which is ironic since Netherlanders don’t smoke near
as much herb as most of their European neighbors. And while I can
understand stuff like lighters, clothes and tote bags with the leaf,
I have a harder time with other concepts.
For example, does a Dutch windmill bong really send the right message as a keepsake? Surely your “I ♥ Weed” bumper sticker or marijuana roach clip keychain can’t look good when the cops pull you over. Likewise, I wonder about the reality of a pot leaf air freshener or the taste of a coffee-hemp blend of ‘Arabica & BlueBall Kush’.
And by the way American friends, no Dutchies wear wooden shoes until late at night. You’ll never find pictures of them, just try. Apparently clogs lost their 400-year hold on Dutch fashion recently and now it’s all very secretive. I’ve heard it’s because they want to keep their midnight meetings in the parks under wraps – but they sound like a stable of three-legged horses in the dark. Weekend nights they say you can hear them clattering down cobblestone streets like a parade of drunk jockeys during carnival season. I’ve even heard that in dry weather their shoes will catch on fire if the Dutchie runs fast enough – which may explain the annual Christmas bonfire of wooden shoes at The Hague – I think.
But these are all rumors, I have yet to see any proof of this. Still, it all sounds strangely possible in the land of orange doesn’t it?
EPISODE #6: Dutch Feats of Strength - Bicycles
It had been more than two decades since I seriously rode a bicycle when I first arrived in Utrecht. But it was soon clear that the modern bicycle was an unofficial hallmark of the Dutch, which makes perfect sense for a small, flat, frugal country like The Netherlands.
The sheer number of bikes you see is overwhelming, especially coming from a place with none. The Orange have become two-wheeled acrobats, managing feats better seen under a circus tent than a busy Dutch intersection. I was blown away by the image of a cigarette-smoking mother of two, with groceries and an infant on the handlebars, and an umbrella protecting the toddler behind her holding a tennis racket, a Rubik’s cube, and a glass of hot tea. Ok, I’m kidding about the tea.
It’s obviously an essential tool as well, so I got a nice one immediately and began working up some kind of stamina on the thing. Day after day I rode hard, but the grey-haired locals were blasting past me in the bike lane, so I pedaled harder. I came home absolutely exhausted trying to keep up with these crusty old batwings, flying by on their Gazelles and Urban Arrows. Frankly, I was baffled by what amazingly strong bikers my elderly neighbors were, and a little jealous!
But eventually I saw an older man zoom up a small hill without pedaling at all, and then I knew something was up. Were these people blessed somehow? Did they have some psychic bike-specific superpower? Had the Dutch covertly mastered gravity!? Was I doomed to ride behind fat ass tourists and overfilled bakfiets forever?
And at that prospect I decided to take a kickstand and arm myself with knowledge.
The ‘secret’ reality these Dutch senior citizens were embracing: e-bikes - elektrische fietsen.
E-bikes are uncommon and very expensive in what was once America, but they are big business in Holland and the industry has been growing exponentially since my arrival. Turns out that powered pedals are very popular with the over 60 crowd, along with judgmental glances and not-so-subtle racism. Riding together, they’re quite dangerous…depending on the weather.
Avoid engagement with these Hell’s Angels of the cycling world: “Don’t judge me youngster, I was in the war – where were you?!”
Anyways, now that the ‘war heroes’ have bought these jet skis with tires, the ‘greatest generation’ has become a real threat to public safety. E-bikes go fast, and when I see that geriatric death stare coming at me at highway speeds, I do wonder about reaction time. A ‘senior moment’ going that fast makes you an urban kamikaze, and a threat to mailboxes and house pets everywhere. Is that really how you want to go out, killing fluffy? Just ride an oma fiets instead speed-racer and give us all a break.
EPISODE #7: Dutch TV with Dr. Pol
A friend who had lived in the Netherlands warned me about bad Dutch TV before I moved to Utrecht, but I just thought it was a shallow comment.
Well, I sit corrected.
I don’t know about the rest of Holland, but there's something WEIRD about television in Utrecht, and his name is Dr. Jan Pol, Large Animal Veterinarian.
The “INCREDIBLE DR.POL” airs for two hours every evening here in his hometown of Utrecht - the Dutch must LOVE this guy ‘cause that’s a lot of screen time. He’s famous in America as a talented, no-nonsense large animal veterinarian with a heart of old – this ancient grandpa looks like a big toe with a mustache. Now he freezes his ass off in snowy Michigan, so much of the show looks like a Himalayan yak farm.
In most episodes the geezer drives wildly through blizzards to attend to afflicted cows and horses in the middle of the night –wow – what a hero. Maybe that’s just doing your job. But it also seems that ten times a week the good doctor finds some reason to jam his arm inside a future cheeseburger in an uncensored procedure that should definitely be censored.
Apparently ‘cow fisting’ is his answer to almost any medical problem - breech birth, diarrhea, rabies, gambling addiction – it’s a “go-to” cure with a “go-away” smell. Digging around in this bovine cookie jar plays way outside of my idea of family television at dinnertime. And it’s unsettling to see how much Jan enjoys ‘checking the oil’ of a pregnant cow or a distressed thoroughbred. I finally stopped watching it at home, but I still see the show unintentionally sometimes. Let me explain.
The Dutch don’t believe in curtains, so while passing my neighbors townhouses at night I can see what my fellow citizens are watching. Accordingly, cycling on my street can sometimes reveal a sadistic rotoscope of TVs - all tuned to ‘Docktor Mengele’ pulling another blockage out of a freezing heifer. I learned to ignore this prime-time horror show eventually, I instead focus on getting home with my daily groceries - milk, cheese, yogurt and steaks for supper.