Wednesday, December 30, 2009


One annoying aspect of living in the Netherlands is that there seems to be a thousand ways to say everything. This is also true in English, but the Dutch seem to have assigned a specific meaning for each way of saying something that is absolutely specific to a situation, and to address something out of context is to render one's intentions useless. I'm exaggerating, of course. But consider the start of the new year/end of the old, for instance: this year oudejaar seems to be in vogue, whereas last year the term oudenieuw was bandied about with great relish. Literally, they mean "old year" and "old-and-new" (year), respectively. Oudejaarslot therefore means the closing of the old year--literally. Slot is some tense (possibly perfect?) of the verb sluiten, which means "to close".

But this time of year, like those elsewhere in the world, is reserved for eating lots of olliebollen, drinking lots of champagne, hanging around with lots of friends, and lighting lots of fireworks. Rotterdam has a major fireworks display, but for the most part mom-and-pop stores supply most of the whizz-bang for the transition between the years.

My boyfriend dedicates a good chunk of his savings to this. This year, he bought maybe 20 kg of explosives. If it seems excessive, consider that many people buy much more. He considers it as his one night of debauchery, as fireworks are illegal for the other 364 days of the year. This doesn't preclude the neighborhood kids from buying the small whizzer-bangers in the month before.

The turning of the year is a time to reflect, for me--what went wrong, what went right--and to make resolutions for next year. Thanks to the recession and the terrible state of economics, it's easy to get caught up in everything that's wrong with the world these days. But we should also make some time to be grateful for the little things and loves in our life that get us through the day, or that smile that awaits us when we get home.

Monday, December 14, 2009


The Dutch love gardens. But given that this is December and plants are hard to keep alive, they'll settle for Christmas trees instead: Christmas tree farmers are everywhere these days, selling their conifers at rock-bottom prices. Literally--we bought ours for €15, and it's at least twice as big as the one we got last year.

Gardening stores such as Intratuin are quick to take advantage of this to bulk up wilting sales in the winter months--the store near our apartment has cleared out all of the deck furniture that clogged the area between the pet section and indoor plants, filling the shelves with fragile glass balls and mountains of tinsel and holly and lights and ornaments and ribbons and angels and stars and....

Suffice it to say that "overkill" is an understatement. Even though it's just one section of the store, the sheer pandemonium of color and lights and glitter are enough to make you never want to see Christmas again. But we braved the ravaging hordes to find the ornaments that we wanted: our tree has traditionally--as of last year--been decorated according to a red-and-gold theme, so this year we continued to enlarge upon it, since our tree was bigger. In addition to the balls, we bought some branches, and a string of pearls.

It adds up. Decorating a tree to look like a store model is an expensive endeavor, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise--so many balls, so much tinsel, and all of it has to be might think it strange, then, that so many people are so fond of decorating their trees.

But I think the price of a new set of glass balls is but a small price to pay for starting our own little tradition. And at this time of year, that's something special.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cat expenses

We are the owner (or minions, I'm not sure which) of three very cute cats. My boyfriend and I love them dearly, and all of them love us back--we think. Well, we can hope they do. They know their names, and they cuddle in our laps or on the keyboard when we're at the computer, and the bed at night is simply not complete without the Tweeb huddling on top of one of us. Most nights, that would be my boyfriend, as they now live with him and him alone, for 4 days a week. Often, we get Shadow, too--she likes the radiator, and rarely, Leto joins us.

Cat expenses here are like cat expenses in any other pet-owning society: we take the Tweeb to the vet a few times a year to monitor her renal function. Shadow and Leto have been as healthy as horses in their time with us--Leto is a tad bit overweight but we're working on correcting that. He is definitely lighter than he used to be--not by much, but enough to note the different. So for those two, we've delayed vet visits, although Shadow will need booster shots, soon. We plan on getting all three of them vetted April of next year, to the tune of what will most likely be €300.

Needless to say, this will definitely require some advanced planning on our part. We both have healthy savings accounts, and while we don't have any problem with the concept of paying mega moola for cat care, the practical aspect can sometimes be a little tricky to attain. We've got a rather nifty system for saving for planned expenses: jars, into which we empty our loose change or small notes. This year I'd set up 2. One for a fancy-shmancy dinner, and one to help out with Christmas presents. In both jars we've exceeded our expectations. The only downside, as far as we can tell, is that there's no interest being earned on any of it.

It's a rather good way to save up for big things, actually. Being able to watch coins accumulate towards a bigger goal is quite gratifying--and when you take your coins to the bank and dump them all in the coin-counting hopper, it's almost exciting to wait for the total to come back. I'm fairly good at estimating how much we have, but even I've been surprised--and always in a good way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Don't Mess With Grandma

Last night I was stopped at a red light, idly twiddling my thumbs waiting for the light to change, when we (me and the two other moped/scooter riders) see a little old lady jaywalking against the light. Not entirely notable, since jaywalking is one of those little crimes that everybody commits, but then she walked up to one of the scooters next to me and proceeded to say something along the lines of, "My bike was stolen and the thief went that way!" She then climbed on the back of the scooter and the guy took off in the direction she was pointing in.

I sincerely hope she gave the bike thief a good purse-whomping.

One of the little-known, less-bragged about facts of life in the Netherlands is that bike thievery is rampant. You wouldn't think so, given how orderly life is otherwise, but the fact is most bike locks are crap and even the best won't deter a thief hell-bent on mischief.

One of the still-lesser known facts of life in the Netherlands is just how much a good bike can cost. You can have utter pieces of crap for €50--I've bought one, and rode it into the ground. A good new bike can easily set one back €500, and usually costs even more. Even a used bike runs up to several hundred euros, so it's understandable why people get so upset when their bikes get stolen.

An apparent contributor to this problem is, apparently, that very few people in the Netherlands actually know how to lock a bike. It is astounding how many people lock their bikes with a simple cable-padlock combination. Cables are by far the WORST thing you can use to restrain your bike--the thinnest ones can be snicked with a pocket knife, and the thicker ones require only a small chainsaw. Most people have a little c-lock, one that's attached to the bike at the back and is locked and unlocked with a key. Such locks are pretty good--you can't easily bust those without busting the bike--but not foolproof to anybody who can pick a lock. I've had my bike lock picked--my bike was moved, but not stolen. Chains and u-locks can also be broken with relative ease, but these require time--on the order of 20 minutes.

There really is no way to prevent a thief from making off with your bike if he really wants to. Which is why the best way to prevent bike thievery is to prevent him from wanting to. Breaking locks is not a quiet endeavor, and it can take a long time, so parking your bike where someone is likely to hear the sound of a snapping lock. And putting on multiple locks, which might seem like overkill, is also useful--it means that a would-be thief needs more time to break them all, time which he won't have if he's just pretending to be a guy who's got a stuck lock. I have 2 locks on my bike, but I'm never under any illusion that either will be useful against a determined thief. Really, all you can do is increase the odds of having a thief get caught in the act.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Language Barrier

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went shopping in Maastricht--we bought silver candlesticks for ourselves (to replace the thrift-store thingums that had broken) and wandered into and out of some pretty nifty shops. Then we tried to find a Chinese restaurant for lunch. It took us almost 40 minutes, but eventually we were able to find one. And it was good--evidenced by the fact that my boyfriend, normally of a dainty and ladylike disposition when it comes to his food, shoveled nearly 5 servings of food down his gullet. PLUS an appetizer, and soup--we'd ordered one of those XX/person menus, where you get a soup, starter, and main course. It was good, although not quite as delicious as food in, say, Chinatown, New York.

In most of the Netherlands, "Chinese food" actually means "Chinese-Indonesian food", which is pretty good by itself but terrible if you were expecting, well, anything like the Chinese food you'd find in the States, or anywhere else in the world where "Chinese food" actually means "Chinese food". And again, this is largely historical: up until the 1950s, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, and when they granted Indonesia its independence, they also gave anybody who feared to stay there a get-into-Holland-free pass. To this day, when you go to the supermarket, you will often find one aisle, or part of one aisle, covered in red-and-yellow packets of stuff for bami, nasi goreng, or prawn crackers.

But suffice it to say that most of the so-called Chinese restaurants in the Netherlands actually serve Indonesian food, so a Chinese restaurant that actually serves Chinese food is hard to find. Even so, I suppose it says a lot about Dutch food when I ask you to believe me when I say that even being tricked into eating something swimming in sauce is a delightful alternative to eating your standard Dutch pea soup.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

It's not uncommon for kermissen(?) to appear in cities whenever there are special days--or even if there are not. A quick glance at my el-cheapo international planner reveals that, of all the countries listed (and there are a fair number) the Netherlands has the fewest national holidays of the lot, although that's more than made up for by the generous--sometimes overly--vacation policies (I have no way to take all of my vacation days, even if I wanted to). So many of these carnivals--complete with merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, fried-friedness stands, and rigged carnival games pop up along with unofficially-recognized (read: religious) days of celebration.

Sinterklaas (see last post) is one such Dutch quasi-holiday that is in decline, not the least because to celebrate it properly is actually something of a pain in the ass. It involves assembling a present of sorts that pokes fun at someone's bad habits/personal foibles, and then writing a rhyming poem about the gift. You begin to understand why the whole Christmas-open-presents-drink-champagne thing is so popular--all that requires is decorating a friggin' tree, and plenty of booze.

Also, there is more and more...discomfort, shall we say, about the Zwarten Pieten. In the US, for instance, it's a terrible crime, almost, to put on blackface and go cavorting about handing out cookies. That this tradition is an old one and that the Black Peters are one of the more popular holiday figures cuts no ice with the politically-sensitive. So what you see more and more these days is kids dressed up in the costumes but sans makeup. A reasonable compromise, I suppose--I'm just waiting until they turn Black Peters into Peter Blacks...

In spite of this, the holidays are a merry time, and that means carnivals. Most photographs of Maastricht show a bright sunny day, a string of old-fashioned cafes, and a veritable field of tables and chairs full of people sitting around drinking beer and smiling. What they don't show is that right next to the field is a road, and right next to the road is a huge open space, large enough to be a parking lot for all of the tourists if the Dutch were any more practical. As it is, they have other uses for the space, which includes assembling a giant ferris wheel and an outdoor skating rink.

And this being Maastricht, it wouldn't be complete without tents selling all kinds of pretty wares, from jewelry to samurai swords (alas, not the real things). Waffel vendors and sausage-sellers also abound, so the whole experience of wandering through the crowded plein is one of overwhelming happiness--happy colors, shining lights, the cold air on your nose*, smells of warm waffels filling your nose. It almost makes me think that winter is worth celebrating. Almost. After all, I still have a 20-minute ride to get to my apartment.

*Maastricht, despite being further south than, say, Nijmegen, is actually a little colder than Nijmegen and very much colder than a coastal city such as Leiden. This is in part because it is further inland than most of the Netherlands (having Belgium in the way and all that), and in part because it's at the foothills of the Ardennes, a rather small mountain chain but one that's enough, apparently, to drive down icy blasts of air into the regions surrounding them.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gebakken Kibbeling en Zwarte Piet

It's that time of year again. I'm not talking about the post-Thanksgiving mega-sales bash shopping shindig that all the poor sods in the US have to endure, because that's also here, although to a much lesser extent (this is Holland, and the people are Dutch). I'm talking about the other things that make this season endurable--nay, enjoyable, even, if you're like me and hate cold wind and rain.

Allow me to preface by saying that the days here are short come the winter--during the winter solstice, the sun doesn't rise until after 8 am and goes down a little after 4 pm. And that's if you're lucky enough to see the sun at all, which is rare enough in general in the Netherlands and a freak meteorological event during the winter. So if you're prone to depression like I am, well, shit.

The other thing about Dutch winters is that they're not really cold, compared to an East Coast winter. Snow is a rarity; the Elfstedentocht was last held in 1997. You don't get that crisp, bracing cold, but rather a damp, soul-sucking kind of cold that makes you think that spring is some kind of a cruel joke. Especially if you're caught out in the middle of nowhere and it starts pouring suddenly, as it is wont to do.

However, there are a few good things about this season, and they make everything better. Well, less miserable:

Fried fish: Gebakken kibbeling is sort of like fish sticks: chunks of fish, floured, and deep-fried, served hot with a little cup of mayonnaise-like sauce. Strictly speaking, not purely a cold-weather treat, although it's the author's opinion that cold noses and warm fish complement each other perfectly. They're better than fish sticks because you can tell that the fish chunks are actual pieces of formerly-swimming beings.

Fried bread: Oliebollen and their various permutations are also immensely popular. These are seasonal--you can't find Olibollen for 10 months of the year, and they only start selling them in November. By "they" I mean the people who make their living selling these things. They're basically beer-bread dough, with raisins, deep-fried. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, and eat. Various permutations include appelbollen, which is what it sounds like, and a few others that I'm forgetting at the moment. Personally, I'm not really a fan of these, but a few on New Year's Eve brings in the New Year like nothing else.

Waffels: For whatever reason, these are far far far more prevalent in Maastricht than in the rest of the Netherlands. Fresh-made, sprinkled again with powdered sugar--they're a treat, although how the hell one eats them without lookingl like you've just snorted some bad blow is beyond me.

And thank God for Sinterklaas: December 5 is the traditional gift-exchange day, although more and more people do as the Americans do and exchange gifts on December 25, probably because it makes more sense to have a lavish party when you've been granted a vacation rather than just a mere afternoon so that you can pick up your kids--as is the case almost everywhere. Still, Sinterklaas gets its fair share of presents and advertisements--it's treated as a prelude to Christmas by the merchants, and with a mixture of zealous adherence and indifference by the Dutch: zealous adherence if you're new to the country and they want to teach you how to do a proper Dutch holiday season, and relative indifference by everybody else. But it is relatively safe to say that most people don't start going overboard for Christmas until after Sinterklaas. That is, while the advertisements for Sinterklaas are prevalent, they're not the ONLY thing floating around, whereas after Sinterklaas, Christmas becomes the ONLY thing that one sees.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

It's kind of weird to be reading the BBC's News site and then finding out that one of their columnists has remembered that today is Thanksgiving. Because, what I did today:

- Got up
- Showered
- Ate breakfast
- Biked to work
- Worked
- Read Mark Mardell's column
- Realized today was Thanksgiving

I've always felt kind of guilty about Thanksgiving--I'm rather disconnected emotionally, and I'm always under the impression that I should be more thankful than I am. That is, I am plenty thankful that I have a family, a loving boyfriend who is taking care of our 3 kitties, the 3 kitties, a job, a nice roof over my head (now that it's no longer leaking), and money to do the things I want. Mostly. That is, I'm always pretty grateful for these things, and a lot more (that it usually rains during the day or during the night but not during my commute, for instance), like how lucky I am that most of the people I've happened to run into are friendly, or at least not intolerable, etc etc.

So I just don't feel like I need to feel extra-thankful on Thanksgiving. I guess that's why, in terms of holidays, oddly, it's the one that I really don't miss much. Christmas and New Year's is also done in the Netherlands, and there's a Dutch version of Veteran's Day and the summer vacation season resembles a long, protracted Labor Day. But there's no European equivalent of Thanksgiving, and, frankly, I couldn't care less. I never did like turkey.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I must confess that I jaywalk with a frequency that would be alarming if it weren't for the fact that I am also ridiculously, perhaps needlessly, careful when I do it. Sometimes it's because there really aren't any cars. Sometimes it's because there's not a crosswalk in sight. Sometimes it's because the sidewalk has run out.

It is hard to be a pedestrian, no matter where you go. Even in the Netherlands, life is far easier for you if you have a set of wheels, even if they are powered by your own two feet. Pedestrians here not only have to look out for cars, but bicyclists, who are far less careful of walkers than drivers are. My theory is that, if you're driving, you're already looking out for cyclists, so a pedestrian isn't entirely a surprise. On the other hand, if you're a cyclist, you don't need to look out for pedestrians (even though you should), largely because it's harder to kill someone on a bike.

Another constant, no matter what city you're in, is that you're only as safe as how well you know the place. That is, which intersections to avoid at what hours (or completely)--the "tricks of the trade" for sliiiiding into a bike lane that's been interrupted by 4 lanes of traffic. The first time I rode up to Kelly Drive I was startled to find that there were no traffic lights--and indeed, not even a "YIELD" sign--between Kelly Drive and the Franklin Boulevard. Just a painted bike lane cutting across the aforementioned 4 lanes of traffic.

I've heard (from a friend in the US, incidently) that in the Netherlands they're in the process of taking down traffic lights to make things safer. You read that right--safer. The theory goes that, when drivers are called upon to stop or yield or go depending on their own judgment, they're usually much better about it than a traffic light is. And, perhaps more relevant, traffic moves faster. I don't know if any of it is true, but I do know that there are some intersections that would benefit from lights. Mostly because my heart is trying to crawl out of my throat when I go through them.

Really, the biggest problem with making streets safer (traffic-wise, not crime-wise) is cars. Yes, you can blame crazy cyclists for doing crazy shit like riding the wrong way down a one-way street, and stupid pedestrians for jaywalking, but when push comes to shove, cars do the worst damage, and as such, should be more tightly controlled. I don't care how you cut it--a man on a bike is not going to kill a pedestrian, barring a truly freaky accident--but a man in a car will probably kill the person he hits. Drivers complain about their "rights" being impinged upon, but they forget that they don't have to drive.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


In Dutch cities you have a city center, where you go shopping. There may be small stores scattered throughout the rest of the town, where you can get stuff that you might not want to run all the way to town for, but by and large most of the economy is made in the center of the cities. This is where the life and the character of the city is most apparent--if you want to get a feel for city, that's where you go, sit down with a cup of coffee, and watch the people go by.

Nijmegen is, in many ways, more Dutch than most cities. The open market, where vendors try to outdo each other and the stores in their rock-bottom (sometimes with good reason!) prices, is bigger than it is in many cities, and that's not counting the secondhand book sellers, who set up their shops elsewhere. In the permanent stores, SALE signs abound: they're not trying to entice the young and the broke, who gravitate towards stores like Prijs Meppers (outlet stores) by default, but the older, more established citizenry, who begrudge every penny spent. These are not middling stores like H&M, which have sales every single day, but fairly high-end places--places that will tailor a suit for you, and where a sales clerk waits upon your every whim. But in the end, it's all about the price, and while the citizens of Nijmegen are more than happy to shell out for quality items, there comes a point where the quality is worth less to them than the money spent.

This is, in a large part, why you will never find stores carrying labels like Karl Lagerfeld, Miu Miu, Prada, or any of the fashionista's wet dreams, in Nijmegen. But in Maastricht, where living beautifully is part and parcel of living, there is an entire quadrant of town devoted to these kinds of stores, and on the outskirts of the town center, a loose ring of outlet stores so that even the young and broke can partake of the consumerism.

But I would venture that the citizens of Maastricht are not any happier than their more Protestant counterparts in the rest of the country. In the rest of the Netherlands, your misery or your happiness are largely of your own making--there are always exigent circumstances, of course, but at the very least you are not presented with an unattainable (for most incomes) standard of living every time you venture into town to do your Saturday shopping.

But that's for most people: I must confess that I really like going through this part of town. Not because I imagine that I'll actually own any of it--I'm far too pragmatic to even think of buying a €60 scarf, being the klutz that I am--but simply because it makes me happy to see beautiful things. Beauty is hard to come by these days--in art, you have to MAKE A STATEMENT; in film, it's ALL ABOUT THE STORY; in food, it's as much about TASTE as it is about PRESENTATION. Very few things are as impractical as €500 jackets and €300 shoes--one does not buy such things for their practical value. For me, things create an obligation, one that I'd much rather not have--if you're spending three digits on something, you'll want it to last, and in order to make it last, you'll have to invest in maintaining it.

I think that's what makes most people unhappy: they see something, and decide that if they get it, they'll be happy. But they might not realize how much care they'll have to put into taking care of it, whatever it is, and soon it's not the pretty shiny thing they saw in the window any more, but something that's collected dust and tarnished in the back of their closet. So they whip out their plastic and get another pretty thing, and so on.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Home is where I lay my cat

I came home early this weekend--I was finished everything, and realized I could pack my bags and arrive in Nijmegen at a not-unseemly hour. This is, in fact, a rather big deal, because it's a 2+ hour trip between Nijmegen, where my boyfriend is, and Maastricht, where I now work and where I will permanently settle over this coming month.

I'd made the decision to move to Maastricht because, after 17 months of commuting between Leiden and Nijmegen, I'd had enough of the NS--to be completely fair, it's a pretty decent train service, but when it's bad, it's BAD (you know it). For now, I'm residing in "company housing" until my lease kicks in and I can start moving stuff, which I anticipate taking a few weeks, as I don't have a car and so will have to move just about everything by bike. The whole situation makes for a nauseatingly-head-spinning state of limbo, as I work to settle the question of where my home is.

Home, for me, is my boyfriend's apartment, where he is keeping our three cats until I've settled down: Shadow, my loveable and gentle git (below, left); the Tweeb, a little old lady (below, right); and Leto, our newest addition (above). It would not be a lie to say that the cats make up our home--they lend an air of contentment, reminding us to be grateful for simple things like each other, good food, and a clean toilet--and their antics provide plenty of amusement. But home is also in the (comparative) opulence of the place, with it's many antiquated (or at least old) pieces of furnture, complemented by the state of stark cleanliness which we both work very hard at to keep it in (how's that for prepositions?). I think a large part of what makes a home is how well you know where the dust bunnies hide...

I don't know if I could ever make Maastricht a home in the same way that Philadelphia used to be mine: I still get an adrenaline rush every time I remember living in that smoggy dump of a city, the only thing left after I stopped counting how many ways I could've been run over (I rode a bike in Philly, too). You lose a part of yourself to the places you almost die in, I think--or maybe it's just that you gain a whole new appreciation for the life you have when you come within a hair of losing it. Either way, the fact that the Dutch are far better at accommodating bikers means that there will have to be another way to define "home" in the Netherlands.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Netherlands =/= Dutch

It's commonly said by most natives that Maastricht isn't really Dutch, but then again, sometimes I get the feeling that they'd say that about any region of the country outside of the Randstad. Take Groningen, for instance: the regional dialect/language (depending on who you talk to) is actually Friesian, which you might think is related to Dutch, but some reasonably knowledgeable friends assure me it's actually pretty...Welsh. As in, if you went to Wales and started speaking Friesian, people might look at you funny but they'd understand.

Friesland (where Groningen is) is exemplary because the effort to distinguish itself from the rest of the Netherlands is so extreme: when the street signs are bilingual and someone from Holland proper (like my boyfriend) can't make heads or tails of the language, it can indeed feel like an entirely different country. But the region is still unmistakably Dutch--you see it in the architecture, and the (regrettable) organ grinders/accordionists on the street corners, and the people, oddly. There is an unmistakable sense of propriety and hustle-bustle that one gets in the streets of Groningen, the same sense as you'd get in, say, Leiden.

Maastricht, however, is more like what I've always imagined Paris to be like: elegant. The elegance is not just in the architecture, but also in the feel of the city. The sense of propriety isn't like in the rest of the Netherlands, where they live in a continuous fear of the Almighty raining fire and brimstone upon them if they live too lavishly--okay, that's an exaggeration. But in the rest of the country, there is a sense of deliberate restraint, a feeling that one must always guard his actions, lest his neighbors think him improprer. That's not the case in Maastricht. You get the impression that doing things beautifully is simply the way things are. Modern stores are integrated into the 19th century architecture, so that a small colored sign is the only indication that it's there. The sole exception is the outdoors mall, which is entirely new (and by "new" I mean "built after WWII), yet the facade still somehow manages to avoid being butt-ugly-post-modern.

The French influence is not merely wishful thinking: France and its bickering with Germany, not to mention Napoleon, has alternatively taken over, turned back, annexed, redrawn boundaries, with enough frequency that it's a small wonder that the region isn't any more French. Belgium, a country with arguably more identity issues than the Netherlands, shares a greater historical and cultural similarity with Maastricht than Maastricht does with the rest of the Netherlands--indeed, it's as if Maastricht and most of south Limburg was attached to the country as an afterthought.

I bring all this up because my previous lab was very international and all of the people there took great delight in sharing little tidbits of life in China, India, Surinam, England, the US (me), and the Netherlands. It became apparent that the Dutch take their culture very seriously, inasmuch as it differentiates them from the rest of Europe, now that clogs are no longer (actually, they never were--only farmers wore them) in style. But one must ask whether it's possible to have a sense of national identity when there are parts of the country that have their own language, and their own history. The immigration question also poses certain identity challenges.

It's fairly easy to say that someone with dark skin or an epicanthic fold is not Dutch. It's fairly easy to point to someone who speaks Dutch fluently as Dutch, but it's also extremely easy to be extremely wrong on both counts. Being Dutch must, by default, mean something different from being Netherlandish--but is it possible to say it means to be Dutch, when people insist on their own cultural disparities?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

You want persnickety?

This article illustrates a particularly persistence instance of persnicketiness that perseveres in the polders. It's called "The Hague" in English--calling it just "Hague" sounds kind of funny, to me--and in Dutch it's Den Haag. But then, why is the city of 's-Hertogenbosch frequently referred to as "Den Bosch", even in official correspondence? I should know--in my dealings with the immigration office, which is in 's-Hertogenbosch, the return addresses for many of the forms says "Den Bosch".

For most people the two names are the same, and I've gotten to the point, thanks to the many announcements by the train stations, where I really don't notice what name they use any more. I will confess to being very confused the first few times, in part because a name like 's-Hertogenbosch looks intimidatingly scary to hear, much less pronounce, to a noob of the Dutch language; but also because--well, where does the "Den" part of "Den Bosch" come from?

So we can assume that, in the past, the area around 's-Hertogenbosch was a place where nobles hunted. Which begs the question of why it's called "De (Hoge) Veluwe" (a park in the middle of Holland that was a favorite hunting ground of nobles, and is still used for hunting today) rather than "Den Veluwe". Maybe it's because there aren't any nobles around any more--or rather, there are, but they're just not noble any more (my boyfriend can trace his ancestors back 400 years; me, it stops with my grandparents). Or maybe, now that "commoners" can hunt there, it's not worthy of the definite article.

Difficult. Not Complicated.

I often wonder if there's any correlation between a country's language and the way its people think. The Dutch language is very difficult, in that the list of rules of spelling and/or grammar is full of exceptions to those rules--although the exceptions do make sense once you get the gist of them. But it isn't complicated: subject/object placement is, for the most part, pretty constant, and if you have an extensive enough background in Latin or Romance languages (I took Spanish for 5 years) you can usually figure out the vocabulary pretty quickly. Of course, watching Mythbusters with subtitles greatly helps. As does Pan's Labyrinth, although watching that movie made my head spin the first time--the movie is Spanish, the subtitles are Dutch.

This post comes about because over the past few weeks the trash Nazis have become incredibly strict about tagging bags that are put out even a few hours too early. Trash is collected once a week. It must be places in these special trash bags (green, with DAR printed on it), in designated spots, no earlier than 5 pm the day before your postcode's (=zip code) pickup date. Otherwise the TN's will label your bag with a huge yellow sticker, and then you will get a fine, because they will go through your trash until they find your address on it. Difficult? Yes. Complicated? Not really--the rule is the rule. Follow it, and you'll be all right.

That's life in the Netherlands, in general. The absurdly strict adherence to asinine rules makes for what's commonly perceived as a wholesome, peaceful, and prosperous life. To be completely fair, the trash rule does make sense when it's the heat of summer--riding past a midden of trash bags when the sun has yet to go down for another 4 hours reminds you to be thankful that such a rule exists. At the same time, though, you must wonder: is this what my taxes are paying for?