Sunday, August 2, 2009

Final thoughts

Well...this is my final Dutch Cheese blog entry as I will be leaving the Netherlands on 5th August and, after my Grand Asian Adventure, will arrive back 'home' in England at the end of the month. My stuff is already there having been transported back to Leeds courtesy of a friendly lorry-driver passing by on his way back to the UK from Hamburg in Germany. I had been thinking of buying/hiring a van but getting a part-load space in a truck turned out to be a cheaper option. It was all a bit short notice but I manged to pack my stuff up and have been living in a rather bare space for the past month although my various visitors have added welcome warmth and decoration to the place.

My first visitor of the month was Anne, who came to celebrate her retirement and our joint birthdays. Added together, we are now, quite shockingly, aged 97! Although the weather was rather mixed, we had a lovely weekend wandering around the city and sampling its edible delights including a wonderful Moroccan banquet at Moro. On my actual birthday we went to see a very good exhibition of Cuban art at the Groninger Museum and I was most impressed by my edible art birthday cake! Unfortunately, Anne had a rather long journey home due to train delays. In fact, all my visitors and prospective visitors have had difficult journeys this month.

My second set of visitors, the Bedford family, arrived a little later than planned having unfortunately missed their original flight (oops!) and been delayed on their re-booked one. The delay had its upside, however, as Alex, my three-year-old godson, was allowed to sit in the cockpit with the pilot's hat and sunglasses on once they eventually landed at Schipol Airport. A real treat for Alex who was very excited to finally be in Holland. This is the fourth time Alex has visited me in a foreign country and it was lovely to once again see the world through his eyes. It was his brother Olly's first trip abroad and I hope to experience many more holidays with them both (and their parents, Annie and Jon) in the years to come.

Unfortunately, the weather over the weekend the Bedfords were here was again somewhat mixed and involved a couple of torrential downpours which left us soaked to the skin at times. Nevertheless, we had a super time seeing the sights in and around Groningen. The highlight for me was our trip to the zoo at Emmen (Emmen Dierenpark). As the bus driver on the way there informed us, it's the nicest zoo in the Netherlands! We saw sealions, monkeys, butterflies, elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, warthogs, meerkats, moose, prairie dogs and some rather excitable red-bottomed baboons amongst other animals. However, I think it was the kodiak bears and tiger that really stole our hearts. You can see a few more pictures from our day on my flickr site.

Disappointingly, my final set of visitors who were booked in never actually made it. Helen and Phil were due to be here for my final weekend in Groningen but, unfortunately, Helen was taken ill. I hope she is now recovered and that we can reschedule a weekend away together at some other point.

I've now come to the end of my time here in the Netherlands and as is now one of my traditions when I leave a country I have been living in, I have been reflecting on some of the things I will and won't miss about the place.

Things I won't miss:
  • Dutch directness

  • the low sky (i.e. the grey and damp winter weather)
  • bureaucracy
  • the evil looks you receive if you don't walk on the right-hand-side of the pavement/corridor/stairs
  • the flatness
  • the proliferation of dog poo

  • Sunday closing
  • single beds
  • people pushing in front of you
  • high taxes
Things I will miss:
  • Clogland-based friends
  • free coffee in the supermarket
  • the excellent thrice-weekly market
  • free toiletries in the loo

  • free gift wrapping in shops

  • the underground rubbish bins

  • the coffee shop 'aroma'

  • the range of different beers

  • the bells

  • car-free living

As many of you are aware, this past year has fortunately not seen any major personal disasters but has not been one of my most enjoyable or easiest. However, despite some grey days, it has had its good moments and I have some fond memories of time spent here with friends - both old and new, Dutch and non-Dutch. I've learnt a lot about what I do and don't want/need from work, life and my surrounding environment which, I hope, will bode me well for the future...whatever that might entail. So...thanks for sticking with me's to the next adventure!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What? No Frisian Cows?

June did not get off to a good start as I was really rather poorly with a nasty virus that resulted in me losing my voice completely. Whilst this was a relief to some, it is not great if you're a teacher. The throat and chest infection I'd picked up lingered for a while so for a while I've sounded a bit like Eartha Kitt. I thought about taking up a new career as a blues singer but decided against it as even with my newly-acquired gravelly bases, I don't think anyone would have paid to hear me sing.

For a bit of R ‘n’ R, I was very kindly invited by my colleague, Mary-Ann, and her husband, Ben, to spend the weekend with them at their home in Leeuwarden. Leeuwarden is the capital of Friesland, the original home of the milk-producing, black and white Frisian cows that can be seen grazing in almost every field in this part of the world. However, I was most dismayed to learn that the symbol of Friesland is not a cow but a golden ram playing with a ball. I couldn’t quite work that one out!

Mary-Ann sometimes works as a city guide so I was treated to a private guided tour of the place, which is quite different to Groningen in feel. It’s much more curvy and even has hillocks. I got quite excited by the lack of straight lines and flatness!

As well as being famous for its cows, pottery and being the original seat of the Dutch royal family, the town was also the birthplace of MC Escher and Mata Hari.

MC Escher was a mathematically-insp
ired artist and I’m sure many of you are familiar with his illusionary creations.

You may be less familiar with Mata Hari, who was an exotic dancer and courtesan executed for espionage during World War I.
Born as Margaretha Zelle, she left the Netherlands as a young woman after a turbulent upbringing and, along with her new husband, headed to the Dutch East Indies. There, she studied the local culture, including traditional dance, and adopted her Malay name, Mata Hari, meaning "eye of the day" or the sun. Following the breakdown of her marriage, she moved to Paris where she performed as a circus horse rider and posed as an artist's model before becoming an exotic dancer. In her dance act she pretended she was a Javan princess and seemingly fooled those who were entertained by her as to her real origins.

As a result of her success as an exotic dancer, Mata Hari had affairs with high-ranking military officers, millionaire industrialists, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries, including the German crown prince. Her relationships and liaisons with these powerful men frequently took her across international borders. It was during this period that she claimed to have been a French spy. However, in 1917, she was arrested in Paris and accused of being a double-agent, spying for Germany. Following her trial, she was executed by firing squad at the age of 41.

Rumors circulating after her death were that she had blown a kiss to her executioners and that, in an attempt to distract them, she had flung open her coat and exposed her naked body at the same time as declaring, "Harlot, yes, but traitor, never!"

This infamous Dutch woman is now immortalized in a statue in the middle of Leeuwarden.
Apparently, locals often donate their own clothing to cover up her curvaceous assets as they wander past.

After a walking tour of the city, Ben and Mary-Ann later drove me to a small town on the edge of the Ijsselmeer (Ijssel Lake). Hindeloopen is one of the eleven ‘cities’ on the route of the Elfstedentocht (Journey of Eleven Cities) speed-skating competition. The competition is rarely held as the ice on the canals, lakes and rivers on the 200km route must be frozen to a thickness of 15cm to support the weight of the 15,000 amateur skaters who take part.

I was also interested to learn that the sailors who used to live in Hindeloopen would have a small anchor placed on a hook at the top of their houses. When they were away on a voyage, often working for the Dutch East India Company, the anchor would be removed to indicate that they were not at home. Perhaps this is the origin of the saying ‘anchors away’?

We later visited Beetsterzwaag, where we enjoyed a lovely meal, although I was a little disappointed not to see the village’s most famous resident, the Dutch film actor, who starred in Blade Runner and the Guinness adverts, Rutger Hauer. Mind you, the restaurant didn’t serve the Irish nectar so perhaps that’s why?

Things are pretty quiet at work now as the teaching semester has come to an end and all the grading is complete. Many of my colleagues start their holidays next week but I’ve decided to work through until early August and take my holiday during the final three weeks of my contract.

As an end-of-academic-year celebration, my department organized what is called a ‘Doe Dag’ (Do Day). All staff members were invited to participate in a day of 'group activities' in the local area as a team-building exercise. Bathed in glorious sunshine, I cycled 20 km (that almost qualifies me to be a true Dutchie!) and spent the afternoon mucking about in various boats on the two lakes. In the evening, we enjoyed a lovely barbecue at a lakeside restaurant. I was also quite touched to be given a leaving present by my colleagues although I must admit I felt a bit of a fraud as I’ve not exactly worked there very long and am not officially leaving for a while yet.

I’ve still got a few classes taking place at Gasunie, a large gas company in the area, where I've been teaching on and off throughout the year. It's located in quite an amazing building - not a straight line in the place. I've also been running some teacher-training sessions on using blogs and other Web 2.0 tools in the classroom, which I've enjoyed putting together. I must be honest though and say that I can’t wait for my own holiday to arrive. The countdown has begun.

My plan is to spend most of August travelling around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China before returning to Europe and moving my stuff back to Leeds. I’m starting a temporary teaching job at the University of York (UK) in early September. After that my plans are a bit less certain although things seem to be moving in terms of my application for Canadian residency. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my residency status might be through by the end of this year and I can head back to Toronto once more. I guess it's a case of 'have clogs, will travel'!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Weddings and Window Shopping...with a difference

It's been a pretty hectic month with one thing and another. Much of it filled with sunshine and fun. I think the Netherlands is starting to emerge from its gloomy winter. The bikes are sprouting grass and flowers, the terraces of the cafes and bars are all buzzing, and my students already look disgustingly bronzed (the joy of wifi means they can write their assignments outside...apparently!).

Along with a couple of colleagues/friends, Caroline from Ireland and Hana from the Czech Republic, I decided to complete my own 'academic' assignment. Our task was to sit the beer exam and graduate from the Beer Academy (read: walk out the door without falling over).

The Beer Academy sells over 100 different beers from all over the world (not to mention the whisky). We decided sampling over 100 might be a bit much and settled for a modest six. Trust me...six was more than enough! Some of the Belgian beers have an alcohol content of 12%...and taste like pop. We had a great night and all three of us made it through the door at the end of the night in a reasonably upright state...but then things started to go a bit wobbly! Negotiating bicycles, cobbled streets and canals can be a bit taxing when one is slightly under the influence! Still...we graduated and have the certificates to prove it.

The following week I flew back to England once again and enjoyed a lovely few days in sunny Yorkshire catching up with family, friends and former colleagues. My fourth trip back in two months was for a very special reason. It was to attend the wedding celebration for one of my best friends, Bee, who is now hitched to her lovely fella, Harry. Bee, Harry and their children looked fab in their stylish outfits and the whole event was really enjoyable. Congratulations to one very special family!

Last weekend was another long weekend here in the Netherlands - there's been quite a run of national holiays in the past couple of months! I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam and was blessed with fantastic weather. I also managed to get a good deal on a brand new and rather fancy hotel in the south of the city. A former colleague of mine, Jude, was in Amsterdam for a long weekend so we met up and did a bit of exploring together.

We had a lovely afternoon exploring the markets and sampling the speciality food on offer in the trendy Jordaan area before heading over to De Wallen, the Red-Light District. Here, we joined a rather unusual walking tour around the area. Berna Meijer, who has a PhD in Prostitution of all things and runs tours on behalf of the Prostitution Information Centre, told us about the history and nature of prostitution in the area.

I'd wanted to learn more about what life is really like for the prostitutes following a documentary I saw last year.

The documentary followed two women from the Hampshire Womens' Institute who were running a campaign to decriminalise prostitution and legalise brothels. Their argument being that prostitution is one of the oldest 'professions' in the world and it isn't going to go away but it can be made safer for all those involved and affected by it. Their campaign was launched in response to the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 by the 'Suffolk Strangler', Steve Wright. Women who work in this industry are all somebody's daughter and, in many cases, sisters and mothers. Jean Johnson, along with the late Shirley Landells, toured a number of countries in order to research what was happening elsewhere and how the situation could be made better for the 8000 prostitutes working in the UK in order to campaign for changes to the law in the UK.

In Amsterdam, there are estimated to be 300+ prostitutes working in the De Wallen area during any a 24-hour period, the majority of whom are women. The district tends to be zoned according to the nationality/ethnic origin of the women and there is also an area where trans-sexuals are based. The profession is legally recognised by the Dutch authorities and prostitutes are required to pay tax. This is apparently calculated in the same way as taxi drivers have their tax calculated, based on a percentage of the annual tourism income received by the city. Prostitutes are self-employed although it is acknowledged that trafficking and pimping, usually by their partners, is a significant problem. As the prostitutes are considered to be 'legal', they are able to access healthcare services in the same way as other Dutch taxpayers. However, contrary to what I had thought, regular testing and health checks are not obligatory although there are many clinics in the local area.

Amsterdam's mayor is trying to clean up the area and, in 2007, the city closed down fifty windows - all owned by one man - and bought eighteen of his properties from him. The city plans to close more in the future. Many of the closed windows are now being used to promote a fashion initiative, Red Light Fashion in an effort to redefine the area. One of the properties no longer in use is now used to show those on the walking tour what it is really like behind the windows.

The property we visited had two windows over-looking the canal. Apparently, all the windows and rooms are always inter-connected with other windows and rooms for safety reasons. We learnt that the windows are always lit by two coloured and blue. The red is 'traditional' and associated with 'lust' and the blue is there to highlight the clothes, whatever they may be, that the prostitute wears. The prostitutes negotiate deals for their services based on an average time period of 15 minutes. They tend to charge between 30 and 50 euros for this. Rent for the window and room is charged per 8-hour shift and is usually between 100 and 150 euros a shift. I'll let you do the maths and work out who is really making money from this business.

The communal area with the windows in the property we visited was very hot and, as a group of about 15 people, we attracted quite a lot of attention. After listening to our guide for about 20 minutes, one woman decided to cut to the chase and asked, 'Where's the bed?' We were shown into one of the two 'bedrooms' which, to be honest, was much more comfortable than I imagined it would be. The decor was really quite smart and there were the obligatory washing facilities. We were also advised not to touch any buttons or switches as panic alarms linked directly to the police station were located all over the room.

Before leaving, I decided to experience what it was like to sit in the window for a few minutes as Jean and Shirley had done in the documentary. It was a strange experience and not one that I wish to repeat in my lifetime. Yes, I was propositioned. No, it didn't feel good. What it did do was help me understand a little bit more about what life is like from the prostitute's perspective. I think we have to accept that prostitution is something that will never go away and, as distasteful as the industry may be, perhaps regulating it is certainly a better and safer option for those involved than driving it underground and persisting with a system where prostitutes are forced to walk the streets.

On a slightly different note, whilst in Amsterdam I also checked out the Royal Palace on the Dam, one of Queen Beatrix's official residences. The palace is currently being renovated and will be open to receive visitors in June. If you go, you will be able to hear my dulcit tones describing the various state rooms and decoration as I've just done the voiceover for the English audioguide, or 'podcatcher' - to give it its official name. So...I wonder if that now means I can wear a plaque that says 'By Royal Appointment'? What would Queenie say though if she knew I'd been hanging out in the Red Light District's windows? Hmmm.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

April Sunshine & Shoes

My parents came to Groningen for their second visit this month. They eventually arrived by car on Good Friday having crossed the North Sea by ferry and had an enjoyable day admiring the tulips in the bulb fields at the Keukenhof. They also brought the sunshine with them and we enjoyed three glorious days of sunshine and warmth over the Easter weekend.

Having the car meant we were able to get out and about in the car and explore this area of the Netherlands in a bit more detail. We saw quite a lot of the northern provinces in the few days they were here. We visited the pretty harbour town of Harlingen in Friesland where my mum indulged herself with a portion of chips and mayo that she'd been hankering after for some time. Strangely, for my mum, she skipped on the fish.

We drove back along the coast overlooking the Frisian Islands and mudflats. I was navigating and felt compelled to make a slight inland deviation to a small village that held so much promise but was, quite frankly, something of a disappointment once we got there. The village is called Sexbierum...but, from what I saw, it exhibited no visible signs of any of the three elements it claimed as its defining characteristics! Apparently, the village sign gets stolen on a regular basis.

On Easter Sunday we decided to give a wee nod to the religious festival by visiting the cloisters at a former monastery built in the 15th century in Ter Apel. We then moved on to the village of
Bourtange, which sits practically on the German border. Bourtange was built by William of Orange in 1580 to help protect the eastern approaches to Groningen. It's really rather pretty and built in a star-shape. Now restored, it was packed full of day-trippers enjoying ice creams and cold drinks in the village square. I first visited Bourtange when I was a student and some fellow classmates were doing a work placement here. They were living in a shed on the local campsite and counting cows in a field by day...exciting stuff!

The next day I took my parents along to see an exhibition of paintings by J.W.Waterhouse at the Groninger Museum. For me, it was a bit like having your parents come and watch you in a school play. I had done the voiceover work for the audioguide to the exhibition and so spent a couple of hours cringing as my parents insisted on listening to every description of every painting.

Not long after I waved my folks off I then saw them again. I flew back to Leeds for a couple of days before heading on down to London and back to Groningen for a week. I then repeated the same journey a week later! It was all quite hectic being a European commuter but I managed to catch up with some friends and join in various celebrations, so it was well worth it.

In between my various plane, train and automobile journeys (one of which included a close encounter with a ferret!!), I managed to cross yet another border. Just a few miles down the road from Groningen is the Dutch-German border and a world of slightly cheaper and larger-size shoe shopping opportunities beckons. So...three women and one dog set off for a spot of shoe shopping one sunny Saturday afternoon. Our expedition to investigate what lurked on the many racks of big-footed pedi-wear was rather productive and between us we returned home with twelve, yes twelve, pairs of shoes! Imelda Marcos eat your heart out!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sun, Seals, Sex...and Wales!

Well, spring has now officially sprung. The tulips are everywhere. Am I living in Holland, by any chance?

Amid all the rain, grey skies and drizzle, my month has been full of metaphorical sunshine in the form of being able to spend some quality time with friends. It's been a month of visitors and visits.

Jess and Nick were the first to arrive for a long weekend split between Groningen and Amsterdam. We had a very relaxing few days catching up and hanging out in Groningen's cafes and bars. I also got to know the city a bit better as we ventured into almost every furniture and lighting shop there is in order to provide Nick with some interior inspiration! We also went on a mini(-bus) adventure along the backroads of the province, past various windmills, to the small village of Pieterburen, not far from the coast. Pieterburen is home to the Lenie 't Hart Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre.

I first heard of the seal sanctuary when I was a student and it was offering one of four work placements available to me and my fellow Erasmus Scheme students on my Environmental Management degree programme. All four of us put our names in a hat for the chance to work there. I was one of the ones who lost! In hindsight, I don't think I'd have coped with all the fishy goings on if I'm really honest so perhaps it was a bit of a blessing. I ended up working somewhat further south for Natuurmonumenten in the Oisterwijkse woods and fens instead.

The seal sanctuary was established in Lenie 't Hart's back garden where she nursed sick seals back to health in a tin bath. It has since expanded and now houses a museum as well as various swimming pools containing various species of seal in different stages of recovery. Most appeared to have been suffering from wounds caused by nets and worms. Despite their motley appearance, however, they seemed to be full of character and we had a good laugh watching one seal 'couple' who were clearly having a love/hate relationship!

The following week I experienced a Geordie invasion when Mick eventually arrived having fled from a burning train en route. When he later told me the plane he went home on had an aborted landing as well, I started to get quite worried about his karma! However, the sun shone on us this particular weekend and we spent an enjoyable Saturday afternoon sipping (rather small) beers in the fresh air overlooking the main square, known as the Big Market (with one 'g'), just to make him feel at home. For those of you who know Mick, you'll probably also know he has a penchant for what I call, 'funny food'...the best I could conjure up that weekend was chips and peanut butter sauce - a Dutch speciality. I'm not sure if its unique taste was fully appreciated.

The next day, after a rather epic journey that involved various train changes, buses and much blustering from both of us about how rubbish the trains in Europe are, we eventually arrived in Amsterdam. I was then led on a circular tour of De Wallen area, otherwise known as the red-light district. It's actually a rather attractive part of the city with lovely old buildings and pretty canals. However, lining the canals are the sex shops, peep shows and coffee shops selling marijuana. There's also the infamous 'windows' where prostitutes openly display their wares and legally ply their trade. We spent the rest of the day observing the window action from a distance (in a bar) could say it was a kind of anthropological study, I suppose!

The following week I flew back to the UK and spent a lovely weekend visiting friends in both Brighton and Windsor. It was great to spend time with Jo, Jules, Leo and baby Seth in their newly extended home. I had lots of fun blowing bubbles and playing swingball and, no matter what Leo says, I’m still laying claim to the Swingball Champion’s Trophy! In Windsor, it was lovely to see my godson, Alex, and the rest of his clan: Annie, Jon and baby Olly. I now do a very good rendition of ‘Chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me…’ having attended a singing class given to fifteen under-4 year olds (and myself) by the very enthusiastic ‘Music Lady’. Even Annie later admitted she’d dragged me along in order to scare me. It worked!

Later in the week, I moved on to Cardiff, capital of Wales. My colleague and I were attending the IATEFL Conference, a gathering of TEFL teachers from all over the world. Although there were some interesting sessions and a chance to see a few of the TEFL ‘gurus’ speak, it was also a chance for me to catch up with some former colleagues/friends from my Cairo and Leeds days: Sue, Julie, Laura and Rachel. I was very fortunate to stay with Rachel (who was not actually attending the conference) and be given a guided tour of her city. The new Cardiff Marina area is great with some really innovative architecture in the form of the Welsh Assembly Building and the Millennium Centre, nicknamed 'the armadillo'. I also managed to squeeze in dinner with my parents, who happened to be in town on one of their caravanning trips. I shall see them again next week for Easter. So, on that note, I shall finish and wish you all a Happy Easter full of chocolate delights!

Chick, chick, chick, chicken…

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A-Z of Dutch Culture

A couple of years ago I tasked my students to come up with an A-Z of British cultural icons after I heard about the Icons of England project I've had a lot of time on my hands this month (read = I've not done much that's blogworthy!), I decided to set myself the same task...but for Dutch cultural icons. So, here goes...


Now part of Heineken, the Amstel brewery was named after the river which lends its name to both the beer and the city of Amsterdam itself. Which came first? The city or the beer?


Quite simply they're everywhere and no more more so than in my adopted town:

Percentage of journeys by bicycle in Dutch cities: 34%
Percentage of journeys by bicycle in Groningen: 45%

Canal Skating

The Dutch can get quite excited about life when the canals freeze! Much debate took place this year as to whether the 'elfstedentocht' might take place. This is a speed skating race which takes place on the waterways surrounding eleven cities in the northern province of Friesland. However, despite the big freeze, the ice did not meet the minimum 15cm thickness this year.

Drug Policy

The Netherlands is the only Western country where the purchase of small amounts of cannabis is de-criminalized. The stuff sold in the Dutch 'coffeeshops' is also stronger than found elsewhere. The average concentration of THC in the cannabis has increased from 9% 1998 to 18% 2005.


Loved by children - perhaps because you can make play-dough from the rind - this relatively tasteless Dutch cheese was once, due to its easy portability, the world's most popular cheese (between the 14th and 18th centuries).

Friesian cows

These cows don't 'moo', they 'moe'! The distinctive black and white cows, also known as Holsteins, are the world's biggest dairy producers.

Golden Age

The Golden Age was a period in Dutch history, around the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, science, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. The country was seriously wealthy...mainly due to the efforts of the Dutch East India Company - possibly the world's first-ever multinational corporation.


Otherwise known as chocolate sprinkles, jimmies or hundreds-and-thousands, 'hagelslag' is often served on bread as a breakfast treat. Named after its resemblance to a weather phenomenon prominent in the Netherlands, hail (hagel). The Dutch apparently eat about 14 million kilos of 'hagelslag' per year on about 850 million slices of bread. Not bad going for a population of roughly 16.5 million.


This former Dutch colony still has strong ties with the Netherlands and continues to add spice, colour and flavour to the culinary offerings of it's former colonial power which became very rich as a result of Indonesia's spicy offerings. It's really amazing what a bit of nutmeg can do - from small seeds and all that!


Thought to be the original gin. This strong alcholic spirit (with around 42% alcohol) is made from juniper berries and was first sold as a medicine in the 16th Century.


The Dutch word for 'clogs'. Roughly three million clogs are made annually in the Netherlands. About half are produced for the tourist market and the rest are used as protective footwear by industrial workers - they pass all European safety standards apparently!


Known as 'drop' to the Dutch who are the world's number one munchers of these black sweets. The average Cloggie is said to consume four and a half pounds of the stuff each year.


A Yiddish nickname given to Amsterdam - a city which has piles! Amsterdam is entirely built on piles, huge stakes driven into the ground. The Centraal Station, for example, has 6000 piles holding it up.


The Dutch language. Officialy spoken by 22 million people as a native language and around 5 million people as a second language. It's also a parent language to other creole languages such as Afrikaans, spoken in South Africa and Namibia.


Ever wondered why the Dutch wear orange rather than the colours of their national flag (red, white and blue) at football matches? It all boils down to the fact their royal family are from the House of Orange. It is said that during World War II Dutch housewives often made sure that their laundry was hung out to dry in a particular order: something orange, something red, something white, and something blue…


There is (apparently!) a saying: God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland. The Dutch are experts in reclaiming and protecting land from water, particularly their own. They are so well-practiced in building polders that their skills have been employed in constructing the artificial palm-tree shaped islands in Dubai.

Queen's Day

For over 100 years, the Netherlands has had a queen on its throne. The incumbent queen is Queen Beatrix who has her official birthday on 30th April each year. The Dutch go a bit bonkers on this day and everyone and everything turns orange while selling their wares on street stalls as the country turns into one giant flea market.

Royal Delft

Royal Delft is the leading producer of Delftware, blue and white pottery made in and around the town of Delft. You can have your own Delftware plate decorated for a mere snip at 225 euros a pop.


A stroopwafel is a waffle-type biscuit made from two thin layers of baked batter with a caramel-like syrup filling in the middle. Originating from Gouda they are proof that the town is made of more than just cheese.


Not Dutch...but often claimed to be Turkish in origin. In the 17th Century Tulipomania reached fever pitch and three rare tulip bulbs changed hands for the equivalent of the price of a house.


The Dutch word for onion and the most difficult 'easy' word in Dutch to me!


Vla is basically custard and is a very popular pud in the Netherlands. It comes in a variety of flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, banana, raspberry, banana, and some with bits of fruit or chocolate chips mixed together with the vla. I'm particularly impressed by Dr Oetker's Paula variety, which is chocolate vla with small amounts of vanilla vla. The vla resembles the hide of a Freisian cow. All I can say is they must have very special cows working on Dr Oetker's farm.


Synonymous with the flatter than flat Dutch lanscape, windmills have to some extent built the country itself. As well as being used to mill grain, they were also used for land drainage as much of the Netherlands is below sea level. Schipol Airport, for example, is four metres below sea level. Nowadays, you are more likely to see modern energy-producing wind turbines in operation but there are still over 1000 operating traditional windmills turning their sails.


Yep...there's no holding back. Sex is everywhere. In the red light districts, in the newspapers, in the shop windows, and on the telly. The Dutch talk about it to the point where, quite frankly, it's almost unsexy! Still, they have the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe so perhaps that's how they do it?


This letter doesn't really exist in Dutch. Instead, the letter 'j' tends to be pronounced in the same way as the English 'y'. My nerdy linguist friends will note the phoneme we use in English for the 'y' sound is /j/.


As I'm scaping the barrel on this one I've gone for the Dutch version of P.T.O...sadly this is a blog so you can' I better end there!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Winter Warmers & Criminal Tendencies

January was cold, very cold! Although, to be fair, probably not as chilly as other parts of Europe. Indeed, whilst the UK was experiencing the worst snow for years, we had none here, just over the water in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it has still been rather nippy so I’ve been very grateful for the warmth offered by having some of my closest friends to visit in the last month.
My first visit of the year was from Bee and Fred, who literally arrived on the midnight train.

We had a lovely weekend exploring both Groningen and Amsterdam. Fred had been briefed on all things Dutch with the aid of a classic book, Hendrike the Cow, so we had fun pointing out the sights similar to those Hendrike saw on her travels.
We toured the canals of Groningen, saw green cheese in the market, admired the tulips, rode on a tram in Amsterdam and ate traditional pancakes on board a pirate ship. Fred also enjoyed sampling hagelslag, a Dutch delicacy which is basically chocolate sprinkles on toast. Gastronomic heaven! It was lovely to see them both and be able to spend some quality time together.

Last weekend, one of my other friends acquired during my Cairo days, Rachel, flew over from Cardiff. We were on something of a mission given that last time we got together our drunken antics involved someone (not me!) falling off a stool in a Liverpool wine bar. Disgraceful behaviour! Needless to say, we had a couple of boozy nights in the bars and restaurants of Groningen with lots of good ole girly chatter and plotting for future adventures. Rachel was very generous in her efforts to help the shops of Groningen get through the recession and much sitting on her suitcase was required before she departed.

The rest of my month was fairly quiet after the mad marking flurry at the end of the semester in early January. I’m not teaching very much at the moment although have acquired a couple of small group classes teaching staff from Gasunie (the gas arm of Shell) and RDW (the Dutch driving licence authority akin to DVLA in the UK). As things are not so busy at work, I took a day off mid-month to go down to The Hague and the Egyptian Embassy. I needed to apply for a police certificate from the Egyptian Embassy stating that I do not have a criminal record in Egypt. This ended up being a rather ‘interesting’ day out.

As I had to be at the embassy before midday, I needed to get an early train from Groningen. It takes about three hours to get to The Hague by train from here. I crawled out of bed, walked to the station and bought my ticket in a sleepy haze. As the doors on the train closed, the conductor announced that this service was bound for The Hague and that discount tickets were not valid as it was before nine o’clock. Ooops! I had used my discount card to purchase my ticket. I decided the only thing to do was declare my error before the conductor checked my ticket and ask to purchase a top-up ticket. No. Not possible. My only option was to either buy a new ticket for the entire journey with a forty per cent premium on top or disembark at the next station and buy a new ticket. I chose the latter. I then got off the train and bought my new ticket. Stupidly, and probably because I was still not entirely awake, I bought a return ticket…I must have pressed the wrong button. I then had to change to change twice and eventually arrived in The Hague an hour and a half later than planned.

However, I still made it to the Egyptian Embassy before it closed and was somewhat amused by the whole experience. I entered the building through the basement and was greeted by a wall of smoke and lots of Egyptian men in baggy brown suits puffing away. Once I explained my situation, I was taken into a backroom littered with paperwork. Eventually, the right application form was located and I dictated the information required to my ‘handler’. I was then finger-printed and acquired a set of lovely blue fingertips. When I asked for a letter to prove I had made the application, I was instructed to sit at the embassy computer and type it myself. I’m not sure if this is standard embassy procedure but needless to say I did as instructed. The letter was then duly signed and stamped. Before leaving, my ‘handler’ who had already told me about the fact his wife and kids were in Cairo and ascertained that I was single decided to take it upon himself to ask me out for lunch. Whilst a kind invitation, it was not exactly something I felt comfortable with but what does one do? Running through my head I’m thinking that I need this certificate processed and he holds the power. I declined saying (truthfully!) that I needed to get back to Groningen for a US Presidential Inauguration Party (you can see me make an appearance toasting Obama with a glass of champers in the video below!). My Egyptian 'handler' then asked me if he could call me from time to time on the number I’d had to provide for the application form ‘to chat’. I explained that if it was to do with my application I was happy for him to call but otherwise, I did not think it was appropriate. He seemed to accept this. So, whether I ever receive my police certificate remains to be seen…but at least I have the paper that says I applied!

I went on my way and after a short wander around The Hague I got back on the train to Groningen. This time I had the right ticket so anticipated a trouble-free journey. How wrong I was! The train conductor came through to check my tickets and asked to check my annual discount pass. I presented it to him but was then told it had expired. This could not be. I had only purchased it in October. However, what I had been issued with was a temporary card only valid until January 11th. The replacement card had never been sent and I hadn’t realised. At that point, I was near tears and almost threw my already finger-printed hands up in the air saying “Take me away, and lock me up now!” I’m not sure the ever so serious train conductor could cope with a clearly emotional English woman so he did his best to pacify me, told me he understood it was not my fault and said that he would let me off as long as I promised to go straight to the ticket office in Groningen. Phew! Quite ironic that my fare-dodging (although unintentional) could have lead to a criminal conviction in one country while the purpose of my journey was trying to prove I didn’t have any convictions in another!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Going somewhere? Anywhere?

Well, the festive season is now over and I hope you all had a lovely time.

I was back in Leeds - twice! My first visit was a pre-Christmas trip back to celebrate the Ruby wedding anniversary of some very special people, Rose and Chris. My second visit was for Christmas itself - two visits a week apart almost made me feel like I was commuting. I stayed with my folks over Christmas and it was the usual full-on works of over-indulgence and catching up with friends and family. A nice time was had by all!

After a rather hectic week of socialising, I decided to take myself off for some solitary recuperation. My plan was to spend five days in Marrakech chilling out in a lovely riad and taking in all the colour and spice the city has to offer. This is did!

I stayed in a lovely riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an internal courtyard with a roof terrace. On my first afternoon at the Riad Tizwa, I was able to sit on the terrace relaxing in the warm sunshine with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance and listen to one of my favourite sounds in the world, the call to prayer.

In the evening I wandered down to the Djemaa-El-Fna and watched the square come to life with storytellers, musicians, snake charmers, water sellers, witch doctors, henna artists and food stalls all busy drumming up trade.

The next day, after a wonderful breakfast, I set off with the intention of getting lost. I entered the medina and spent the rest of the day trying to find my way out! On the way, I found lots of fascinating sections...the dyers souk, the spice market, butchers row, the basket weavers and the brass beaters. I also visited the Marrakech Museum and Ben Youssef Medersa which reminded me of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. I couldn't believe that at one time 900 students of Islam slept there!

On my third day, it rained! However, I had already planned to do a Moroccan cookery course, which was fortunate. I met my fellow cooks - three Dutchies and two Spaniards - at the Cafe de France. Our 'masterchef', Gemma (also Dutch!), runs Souk Cuisine, and on meeting us split the group into two teams and set us a challenge. Each team was given a shopping list and purseful of dirhams, Moroccan money. We had two hours to buy all the items on our lists. Gemma took us to her favourite stalls in the medina and, on the way, we learnt a great deal that we would perhaps otherwise have never known about. For example, all the stallholders have nicknames e.g. the man who sells mint is known as Sidi Mint, the man who sells egg sandwiches is known as Sidi Egg and Gemma...well, she's known as Lala Plastic Bag! We also saw whole lambs being placed in sealed underground ovens and smoked over cedarwood, visited a district bakery where locals can take their own items for baking and learnt that as well as kohl used on your eyes acting as an eye liner, it also prevents conjunctivitis and that cumin can help with diarrhoea.

Once our shopping was complete, we then took everything back to Gemma's home...a dar (riad without a garden) tucked away down an alleyway in the medina. There we met Ayesha, who kept a watchful eye on us as we each prepared a traditional dish for a rather splendid Moroccan lunch.

Our menu consisted of:

Moroccan salads - zahlouk (fried aubergine & tomato salad) [my dish!], tomato salad, courgette salad and carrot salad
Fresh sardines
Fish tagine
Almond Cookies
Moroccan wine

The lunch was delicious with great company...the course was due to finish at 3:30 but we eventually left the table around 5pm...and the best washing up! I'd also earned myself a new nickname...Lala Zahlouk!

That was New Year's Eve and I went back to the riad feeling rather full yet knowing I had another Moroccan banquet awaiting me there! It was a lovely evening spent eating yet more salads and tagine accompanied by wine in the riad's candlelit courtyard and among a great group of people! Eventually, I dragged myself to bed and awoke late the next day with the most almighty hangover! Put it this way, I was not the only one sitting on the roof at breakfast with my sunglasses on. The rest of the day was spent at the beautiful Marjorelle Garden, owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent, and then with some of my fellow hangover sufferers sitting in the sunshine at the Grand Cafe de la Poste.

My final day, or so I thought (more on that later!), I visited the El Badi Palace and saw the storks nesting in the ruined walls before heading to Hammam Ziani where I sweated, was scrubbed clean and then pummelled to pieces. It was great! I came away feeling all shiny and new. In the evening, I went to the Dar Moha for dinner with my parents, who had flown in that morning in order to enjoy a ten day break in Marrakech and the seaside town of Essaouira. We had a lovely meal and it was a super way to end my holiday.

The next morning I went to the airport to catch my flight to Bremen in Germany, from where my plan was to get a bus back to Groningen. All appeared fine although it was somewhat hazy and a few of the early morning flights had been delayed but by 9:30am were beginning to shift. I was flying RyanAir and the 9:40am flight to Frankfurt left, a bit later than planned, but took off with no problems. However, there were no other RyanAir planes on the runway and my flight had been due to take off at 9:45am. At noon, my flight and another RyanAir flight to Bristol were called to gate 5, where we were told the flight was cancelled and that we should take the landing cards being handed out and proceed back through immigration where a RyanAir representative would sort out a hotel as the next flights would be departing on Tuesday 6th January (it was Saturday 3rd!). Four hundred people did as instructed only to find there was no RyanAir representative. I joined a queue at the ground crew's office which is where I stood until 4:30pm. I was not far from the front with at least 300 people behind me. No-one told us anything, no refreshments were offered and all that was being offered by the ground crew was assistance to get on alternative flights, as long as we paid for them. At 4:30 pm, the staff shut up shop. They told us there were no more available scheduled flights until after the 12th January and that we should sort ourselves out! To put it mildly, we were not best pleased. People around me were in floods of tears and there were many families and elderly people who were at a loss at what to do as RyanAir were not responding to their phone calls.

I eventually gave up and decided that I could achieve nothing further at the airport so managed to track down my parent's hotel where I was very grateful to be offered a bed for the night and access to the internet. I was able to book myself on a charter flight out on the Tuesday via Agadir back to Amsterdam. It meant I had to miss two days of work but this was the first flight out to my part of Europe that I could get on. The next two days I joined my parents in Essaouira and, as there was nothing else I could do at that point, decided to make the most of my extended holiday by exploring the pretty seaside town and surfer's paradise. On the way there we came across the famous Moroccan tree climbing goats...on closer inspection, however, these creatures had obviously been placed in the trees as they were tied on!

Eventually, I flew home OK on the Tuesday with no delays or further hiccups thanks to Transavia. Although Essaouira was lovely and it was good to spend time with my folks, I could have done without the additional expense (I estimate this to be in the region of 800 euros in terms of additional flights, hotels, taxis and other expenses!). I gather some people who couldn't get on a flight eventually got the train to Tangier, crossed to Spain by ferry and had to take a flight from Malaga! Take note, dear friends, budget airlines are budget prices for a reason - as I have discovered, they do not have to compensate you beyond a direct fare refund and are not ATOL protected. I have to say, I think I've learnt my lesson and will NOT be travelling with RyanAir EVER AGAIN!! That's a promise Mr O'Leary!

Anyway, I'm now back in Groningen where the canals are frozen and many people are having a great time skating along them. Personally, I think they're nuts as I can definitely see great big cracks in some sections!

Happy New Year! Gelukking nieuw jaar! Sana'a saida!