30 Aug

After a short flight and a slightly bumpy landing I arrived back on English soil late last Friday night. I’ve returned to the land of rain, red buses and tea for a week of catching up with friends, family and trying to remember how much the British pound is worth.

After five years of living in Holland returning to England for a few days always feels a little strange at first. There are a lot of little (and a few big) differences between the two countries which I have to acclimatize to again each time. However, after a day or two I usually stop confusing the staff in London shops by saying, “Dank U,” (Thank you) and, “Dag,” (Bye).

The language change is also confusing in another way. When I am in Holland I filter out a lot of the background conversations of passers by (with out realizing it) because I can’t easily understand most of them. Returning to England is like suddenly being cured of deafness. I can understand every conversation with in earshot again and it makes it hard to ignore them. I suddenly have a small window of insight into the lives of the people I pass in the street. This makes it more like getting my hearing back during a TV soap opera. It’s hard to explain if you have not experienced it yourself but some of the strangest things I’ve heard in the last few days include:

“You better stop skimming money off the top before you get caught.”
“I think I took too much of my medication. I can’t feel my fingers or toes.”
They could be lines from an episode of Eastenders.

There is also a big difference in atmosphere between London and Amsterdam which is most noticeable in the ambient noise of the two cities. The soundtrack to London is all bleeping traffic lights, police sirens and barking dog. For Amsterdam the soundtrack is bicycle bells, canal boat engines and loud tourists.

By the time I’m fully used to it all again it will be time to return to Holland and do the whole thing in reverse again. However, at least I don’t confuse Dutch shop staff as much when I speak English to them as I do when I accidentally speak Dutch to British shop staff.

24 Aug

As I stepped off the train at Amsterdam on the fourth day (of my parents visit) my phone started to ring. My mum was calling. Since they had booked their hotel before I knew I would be moving we were staying in different towns and had to meet up in Amsterdam each morning.

“Are you at Amsterdam yet?” She asked when I answered the phone.

“Yeah, I just got here.” It was the first time I was not late due to my inability to function in the mornings, something my parents kept on taking the Mickey out of me for.

“Ok… Well… We got off at the wrong stop and ended up at the Arena. We’ll be there as soon as we can.” She explained. I was finally able to take the Mickey out of them in return.

When they arrived we made our way to a traditional Dutch village near Zaandam. It’s an open air museum made up of old 19th century Dutch houses, factories and windmills all brought together from different areas of the country and restored. They even have the very first Albert Heijn shop from 1887. Albert Heijn is now the biggest chain of super markets in Holland.

We did not get lost trying to find the place like we had the other days. However, we did get lost trying to find our way back since we thought we could find a quicker way to return.

If you have not already guessed; both my parents love to travel and enjoy very long walks. Several people have commented on the amazing distances they will stroll in order to do a bit of sight seeing. I myself work behind a desk and spend most my days more or less stationary. I’m not used to hiking such long distances so by the fifth day I was starting to limp as I tried to keep up with my parents while they made jokes about young people having no stamina. Luckily this was the one day during their visit that we did not get lost.

We spent the morning looking around the Hortus Botanical Gardens and in the afternoon the Artis Zoo (both in Amsterdam). Since Artis is a Zoo there are a lot of animals (of course) but during our visit there were a few that were out of place. Our encounter with the Heron on the first day had seemed strange but the Zoo was practically under going a Heron invasion. They were every where, hiding amongst the flamingos, sneaking between the penguins, acting shifty around the camels. If there was food available in an open enclosure (and there was no animal likely to eat them) the Herons had taken over. Most of the animals had given up trying to chase them away. Luckily for us they did not try to nick our food when we stopped off for a bite to eat.

My parents returned to England the next day and I finally had time to recover from the week. I’ll be seeing them again tomorrow when I fly to England for the week to catch up with friends and family.

20 Aug

We should have learnt from the first day (of my parents visit) when our search for a nature reserve led to us becoming lost in Amsterdam. However, both my parents are nature lovers so we tried out luck again on the second day. This time we were in search of ‘The Dr. Costerus Botanical Gardens’ in Hilversum and it did not take long for us to get lost again.

The map we had picked up from the tourist board (just a few moments before) was not very useful. It had no road names; in fact a lot of the roads were not even on it. The road signs were even less helpful largely due to the fact that there were none. So we ended up walking around the area, trying to find it. The confused looks on our faces must have shown because a very kind Dutch lady stopped as she was cycling by and asked if we needed help. She was able to tell us exactly were it was and it came as no surprise that we had walked straight past it. Not only was it down a small alleyway but the huge sign that stood over the entrance to ‘Dr. Costerus’ Botanical Gardens’ was also heavily over grown with some of Dr. Costerus’ ivy.

Although the name suggested it could have been a magical land of candy trees and chocolate grass (Willa Wonka’s Factory) or a creepy garden of freakish mutant plants and animals (The Island of Dr. Moreau) it turned out to be just someone’s back garden. We spent just five minutes looking around after half an hour of trying to find it.

The rest of the day was spent showing my parents the new house and town I now live in. They had visited the old house but I had never really had them over as guests before. I cooked dinner as they watched TV. It was kind of strange but also fun having the role reversal. The cat was very happy with the situation as well. As far as she was concerned it meant more people to pay attention to her. My parents both loved the new place and the playful cat.

We spent the third day (today) browsing through the stalls at the Black Market. No, my parents were not shopping for deadly weapons, non-rationed meat or illegally harvested body parts. Although the name suggests otherwise the Black Market in Beverwijk is a normal legal market. I heard so much Dutch music while we were there that it might have actually improved my Dutch language skills but I’ll probably have to do everything in song.

We spent the evening at an Australian themed bar in Amsterdam. They serve kangaroo burgers which are almost as big as my head. I am still digesting mine at the moment and might feel hungry again sometime in 2008.

I’m not sure what we are doing tomorrow yet but hopefully it will not involve getting lost somewhere.

18 Aug

My parents love to travel and they are visiting me in Holland at the moment. They have come over quite often in the five years that I have been here. It’s good because it gives me the opportunity to see them and visit parts of Holland I normally would not. All though both my parents are avid gardeners and love to visit the flower market there are only so many times anyone can explore Amsterdam and the surrounding areas before they want to see something new. So when ever they come over now my mum searches the internet for new places we can go to. One of the things my mum found this time as she explored the web was a nature reserve in the out skirts of Amsterdam.

The idea of a nature reserve in Amsterdam sounded a little strange but she had brought the map with her. However, the map itself was not very useful. It was sketchy at best and had no street names on it. However the print out did have a list of directions so we started a process of elimination by finding out where the location was not. In other words we got lost. After checking a few tram stop maps (and hiding from the rain that suddenly started) we managed to get back on track.

The directions were getting easier to follow as we got closer or maybe they were getting easier to follow because they were all left turns. By the third left turn my dad started joking that we would end up where we started. By the fourth left turn it turned out that he was right. We found ourselves looking down a street that we had been at the other end of 10 minutes earlier. This time I spotted something none of us saw when we had passed it previously; a one way street sign. We then realized the map we had been following was for cars. During our walk we had taken into account the one way road system with out even realizing. Although we had finally found the right road (Slauinenweg) there was no sign of the nature reserve. It didn’t even seem like the kind of place a nature reserve would be. So we gave up and caught a tram back, spending the rest of the day looking around Amsterdam.

However if we had not gotten lost we would have never have seen this huge Heron suddenly land right next to us on a car in the middle of the street.

Another highlight of the day happened when my dad coursed a small panic at the half built Amsterdam Arena metro station. Some gardening accessories he had bought fell out of his bag and clanged on the floor. Several worried looking commuters suddenly looked up at the leaking ceiling as if they thought bits of it were falling off.

My parents are still here for a few more days so I’ll have more of our misadventures to write about. If anyone has any suggestions on were I could take them while they are here please feel free to leave them in the comments.

15 Aug

Fiets (bicycles) are a very common sight in Holland. They are a popular mode of transport and it is estimated that there are more then 16 million of them in the country. This number may or may not include the mangled, rusting, one-wheeled, non-roadworthy bicycles found chained to lamp posts, bridges or sunk at the bottom of the canals around the country. Even if it does there are still a lot of them in use every day.

Some bicycles look like rusty old frames that have been handed down through the family generation after generation. In most of these cases the locks seem to cost more then the bikes themselves and there is no need for a bell since the squeaking of the wheels is enough to give any pedestrian a fair warning. Some Dutch people like to paint or decorate their old bikes as well. When visiting Amsterdam it is usually guaranteed that you will see at least one bicycle chained to a bridge somewhere that has been decorated with plastic flowers or painted with bright circular patterns to make them more unique. Another reason for this could be to turn away bicycle thieves.

Unfortunately, Holland has a big problem with bicycle theft. It’s not unusual to see a shifty looking junky walking around with a stolen bike asking, “Fiets kopen?” (“Buy a bike?”). If they are able to sell it to someone for 10 or 15 euros it does not take long for that person to then lose the same bicycle to another junky later. It’s a perpetual cycle (no pun intended). It is said that having your bike stolen makes you a true Dutch person and it is a right of passage for all expatriates. I have not had my bike stolen yet but I did have it taken away once when the authorities thought it had been dumped (I got it back though).

Despite the risk of theft there are some more modern looking bicycles around (as well as the old) but the one thing you will hardly ever see is a mountain bike. This might be because you will hardly ever see any mountains, hills, valleys, declines or inclines in Holland and using a mountain bike for speed bumps would be over excessive. Holland is a very flat country but this is also part of what makes it a very good place for cycling.

There is over 4,500 miles of cycle path through out the country and a surprising amount of tourists mistake them for foot paths. This intrusion of territory (as they see it) is not always met with understanding by some cyclists. Some will leave it until the last possible second to ring their bell to let pedestrians (victims) know of their stealthy approach. When this happens the best thing to do is to pick a direction and jump because you won’t have any time to look around and judge the right direction to dodge anyway.

For a Dutch person a bike is not just a one person vehicle either. The rack on the back can be used as a second seat for a passenger who is willing to sit sideways and risk having their knees knocked off by any passing objects. I myself have accidentally jammed my feet into the back wheel of a bicycle (that I was the passenger on) in the past because it got too close to sign posts and parked cars for comfort.

It’s hard to say why cycling is so popular in Holland (compared to other countries). It could be because traffic laws favour bicycles over cars or that it is a way of staying healthy. It could also be that they are an easy way to get from one place to another and when all the available parking spots are full there are still lampposts, bridges, fences and other city objects that bicycles can be chained to. Maybe they simply like to terrorise pedestrians with them or they all liked the song Bicycle Race by Queen. Whatever the real reason is the Dutch seem to love their bicycles.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this either. A fellow ex-pat has also written about the Dutch fondness of the two wheeled transport.