Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Some last Dutch tales…

Smoking it

The Netherlands has had strict tobacco-smoking legislation* in place since 2008, and there are very few places where you can enjoy a cigarette or 20. Apparently it’s technically legal for a restaurant or pub to set aside an outside smoking area, but because of the weather and the very restricted space in Amsterdam, this hasn’t happened in a big way (or anywhere we went).

So, after a very truncated meal on my birthday, my sister Bev, my friend Michele and I were left wondering how to spend the rest of the evening. We decided to take a walk from our hotel and see what presented itself, and what did was simply delightful: a corner pub that totally ignored the smoking legislation, and was staffed by a friendly young Dutchman who might have been Leonardo di Caprio’s younger and better-looking brother. We were by far the oldest people in the pub – all the other customers were Mr Di Caprio’s friends, all in their 20s (and it’s worth mentioning here that the Dutch are, generally speaking, a very goodlooking nation, particularly the youngsters). Not only that, but these young people were playing, listening to and dancing to ‘our’ music – not the doef-doef-doef crap that, for instance, my own kids are such fans of, but Dire Straits, The Police, Bob Marley, David Bowie… We were in heaven, sitting in a dark corner, smoking fags, and occasionally breaking into song, while the beautiful young Mr Di Caprio kept us supplied with red wine. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to see in 47.

* An interesting adjunct to the Dutch tobacco laws is this: marijuana is technically illegal in Holland, but a ‘tolerance’ programme is in place, where as long as long as you’re over 18, you won’t be prosecuted for smoking joints. However, you will be prosecuted for smoking tobacco in a smoke-free space, which means that if you smoke a pure marijuana cigarette in an Amsterdam coffee shop, you’re not really breaking the law; but if you mix it with tobacco, you are.

Hoofing it

I’ve never been a girl scout but my sister made clear her reluctance to be the chief map-reader in a foreign city and my friend Michele has trouble finding her way off a rugby field. So I ended up clutching the guidebook and steering us through the streets of Amsterdam. It’s not a hard city to negotiate, as it’s laid out in a semi-circular pattern around a series of canals, but it takes a while to get used to it. So, the fifth or so time I was asked, when we’d been walking for what seemed like hours and still hadn’t found our hotel, ‘Are you sure we’re going the right way?’, I had a sense of humour failure and snapped, ‘No, because I don’t live here either.’

And map-reading is by no means the only challenge to the Amsterdam pedestrian. As  mentioned, the city teems with trams, buses, cars and bicycles, and a moment’s hesitation at a busy cross-street might easily see you flattened by any of them. We laughed hysterically at the notion that a tourist should rent a bicycle to get the best out of the city – cycling here might be physically easy because it’s so flat, but just negotiating the streets on foot requires eyes in the back of your head and the reflexes of an Olympic gymnast; we simply couldn’t conceive of trying, as newcomers, to join the huge population of fast-moving cyclists. (Above: a very rare sign in Amsterdam - the only one of its kind, in fact, that we saw.)

We were on Utrechtsestraat one evening, looking for a place to have dinner, and because the street is lined on both sides with restaurants, we had to cross it several times to squash our noses up against the windows and stare at what the people inside were eating. Michele took such severe emotional strain each time we crossed (taking life and limb in our hands, and often causing racing cyclists to ding their bells crossly at us) that the fourth time we decided to do so, she said, ‘That’s it. I’m not crossing again. If you decide to eat on that side of the street, you can just bring me a takeaway.’

Hearing – and watching – it

Also in Utrechtsestraat is a record store called Concerto, and we were thrilled that same night to discover that a Tom Waits CD, Bad As Me, was being released there. A Tom Waits tribute band was installed on a tiny platform and the shop was crammed with fans. The band was absolutely amazing – the singer gave a very convincing Waits rendition, and I developed an immediate crush on the bear-like trombone-player, and would have thrown my panties at him if I hadn’t been wearing two pairs of tights over them, which made them hard to take off. We loved just coming across this fabulous impromptu concert on a random and freezing Wednesday night in the city centre.

Boating it

My sister, my Dad and I did a little boat tour of the Naarden canals which, together with various battlements and casements, constitute the fort-village. It was our first day so we were still battling with the language, and the boatman had only a smattering of English, so mainly we just sat there and enjoyed the scenery while he kept up a non-stop Dutch narrative over (bizarrely) a powerful sound system (it was just a little boat, as you can see at right). An hour later, when it came time to dock, the boatman somehow misjudged things, and spent the next 20 minutes trying to park his boat. As we went fruitlessly backwards and forwards and *bump* and backwards and forwards and *bump* and backwards and forwards and so on, I felt like an embattled mom with children engaging in risky behaviour - my Dad was endangering his fingers by gamely trying to secure the boat to the embankment by way of a bungey chord, and my sister had a fit of the uncontrollable giggles. We’d had only about 2 hours sleep after a very long and uncomfortable flight, and this was a sure sign of overtiredness; when this used to happen to my actual kids I immediately sent them to bed because tears were sure to follow. Fortunately, the boatman finally got the boat docked and we got off before my Dad crushed his fingers or Bev burst into hysterical tears.

Speaking it

I was pleasantly surprised, during the first couple of days in Holland, to discover how close to Afrikaans written Dutch is – the sentence constructions differ slightly but so many of the words are either exactly the same or very similar that it’s really easy to translate. The spoken language is another matter – the accent is so unfamiliar that it sounds, well, utterly foreign.

But after a few days I realised something useful: if you speak Afrikaans with an English accent, you’re basically speaking Dutch. It is the one and only time in my entire life that my atrocious Afrikaans accent (which is really just Afrikaans words spoken with an English accent, and is a source of huge entertainment for my Afrikaans friends) has worked to my advantage, and I had many happy, completely understandable conversations with Dutch people in English-accented Afrikaans.

I loved this plaque honouring the coastguard on the island of Ameland. The Dutch word ‘paraat’ (meaning ‘ready’) is the same in Afrikaans, and in South Africa is often used by English-speaking people too – although in South Africans of my age it has a slightly derogatory connotation, probably because it was used to describe the (mainly Afrikaans-speaking) officers in the SADF during the 1980s civil war, when our brothers and boyfriends were conscripted, usually very much against their will.

Some random English words pop up in Dutch, for instance, ‘fruit’ (rather than the Afrikaans ‘vrugte’), as seen on this mobile market, which brings us to…

… Eating it

I’ve mentioned the fantastic food we had everywhere we went in Holland, but this was a real treat: the mobile fruit and veggie market that arrives in the town of Naarden twice a week in a gigantic refrigerated truck. It’s a one-man show – the owner of the truck goes to the fresh-produce auctions at dawn’s crack, loads up his corner-shop-on-wheels, and drives to his customers. He had every conceivable seasonal fruit and vegetable on display, and everything looked fresh and crisp. He even had a nifty mobile connection to the bank, which meant you could pay by card (if your card hadn’t been blocked by the automatic ticket machine at Centraal Station).

Stereotyping it

I last visited Holland in 1981, and my pictures from that trip are mainly of windmills, clogs and flowers. It’s actually rare to see the old-fashioned type of windmill in working order in Holland any more, but the new type of windmill – used to generate power – can be seen everywhere. The Dutch consider them eyesores, apparently, but I think they’re marvellous – gigantic and monumental, and in my opinion an improvement to the otherwise somewhat mind-numbing landscape of flat-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see fields and canals.

No-one wears clogs any more, unless you count the woman in traditional Dutch dress at Madurodam in Den Hague, who posed for pictures with tourists clutching a huge wheel of cheese, and typed SMSs on her cellphone in between photo ops. This clog tree was outside the ‘clog factory’ (not really a clog factory) in Marken.
Dutch cheeses are, of course, utterly fabulous. (Although I took exception to a Dutchwoman who declared all English cheeses to be ‘crap’ – I’ve tasted some cheddars and cheshires that easily measure up to the Dutch cheeses.) One of the most amazing things is that in ordinary supermarkets there are cheese counters that you could spend hours at, with every kind of Dutch cheese available, and all freshly cut from the wheel when you order it.

When it comes to flowers, I mentioned FloraHolland, the huge Dutch flower market. What I didn’t mention is that the flowers in Holland are ridiculously cheap, ridiculously plentiful, and all smell like flowers. A bunch of, say, 8 St Joseph’s lilies, which may cost up to R200 in South Africa and last about a week, cost about R20 in Holland and seem to last forever.

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1 comment:

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