Some of my US friends are threatening to head for the hills if TFF gets in today, and Holland has been mentioned as a possible bolthole. Here are some handy tips I wrote many years ago about the Dutch. Oh, and the Belgians.

Fashion

Still seems to have passed them by. Generally, if it is warm and waterproof, it is fashionable.

Shiny hosiery has just become the height of happening apparel for ladies. As a gentleman you can still sport a mullet or a vicious combover, and it will not make you a laughing stock. One of those silly beards-without-moustaches that make you look like some loner building weapons of mass destruction in your shed will not cause the Fashion Police to break out the baton rounds and tear gas. Even leather trousers don’t prompt so much as a snigger.

Poodlerockers Golden Earring are still acceptable, and are on their 30th anniversary tour. This is a powerful indicator of the current state of Netherlands popular music.

Architecture – An update

Build it high (so you can move to the upper storeys during flooding) with a steeply pent roof (so all the rain can run off) continues to be the Dutch way to do things. However I came through Rotterdam this week and was reminded of the ultimate incarnation of the wacky Dutch attitude to buildings. In this Mad City there is a crop of truly idiosyncratic buildings. Imagine a cube with a line that connects the vertices at the bottom left front, and the upper right rear. Turn the cube so that line becomes the vertical axis of rotation. Then build a house that way. This is stereochemistry at its most odd. Don’t even think about the mechanics of paperhanging……

Crime

It speaks volumes for the Netherlands and the Dutch that the most common crime by far is theft of bicycles (see Pastimes and Hobbies, Cycling  later). There are so many bikes in the country you cannot imagine who might need to nick one. Outside mainline railway stations there are no carparks. Not one. But there are always huge bikestands.

Amsterdam is supposed to be a pretty dodgy city. As someone who has spent a fair bit of time there, I just don’t buy that theory.

Pastimes and Hobbies

This is the country that invented pole vaulting. Given the climate, you might have expected the invention of mud wrestling. Or even, with a dawning realisation of the lack of hills (as an outsider I do sometimes get the impression the whole country is levelled off by a vast set of adjustable legs, like an unfeasibly large pool table), water skiing – ‘Hey, no mountains but I just had a brilliant idea’. Instead of sloping frozen water, we use flat, unfrozen water. Hot damn!’. Certainly they missed the opportunity to invent bog snorkelling (this they left to an Englishman, or at least someone born in Yorkshire), though the Dutch National team routinely perform quite well in this sport.

Golf

In Holland it seems to be a game of precision, rather than a test of power. Land is at such a premium that the whole idea of a 220 yard drive is ludicrous; a good connection with a putter will make most of the distance you need for a par 2 (I trust the golfers amongst my audience will give me some licence as I have no real grasp of the language or technicalities of this game). The average 18 holer looks like a UK pitch’n’putt set up. The good news is that there is no way on earth that you need to try and compensate for the run of the green; there is none, because it is completely flat. The water hazards (eg Den Zuider Zee) do not bear thinking about.

 Cycling

Not so much a sport, a way of life. Just about everybody in Holland owns a bicycle. These are not of the poncy Marin-titanium-framed school of bike building. These are proper, dignified, old fashioned, sit-up-and-beg bikes, with capacious baskets front and rear, and roller or backpedal brakes. One gear, and this is a long one due to the huge chainwheel and tiddly little rear sprocket. A single turn of the crank will move one of these cycling supertankers about 400 yards. When Alison and I took our bikes over, even flat out in 12th gear we were routinely left bobbing in the slipstream of some spritely octogenarians moving in a deceptively stately manner that equates to a speed only slightly below that of a small aircraft taking off.

Just as all mothers have the ability to distinguish the cry of their  newborn as opposed to any other, all Netherlanders have an uncanny inbuilt ability to distinguish their bicycles among the thousands (I mean that literally) of boneshakers that stretch as far as the eye can see in the massive bike parks.

Snacking

The Dutch clearly hanker after the old hunter/gatherer way of life, and have elevated snacking to a high art form. If you go, say, to pick up some dry cleaning, allow a good two hours for the task; schedule will run somewhat as follows.

  • Cycle to shops
  • Park bike, and lock it
  • Go to first coffee bar you find (Note. In Amsterdam you generally do not go to a coffeeshop. They tend not to sell much coffee, funnily enough, but you can get some first class cannabis)
  • Have a coffee with complimentary small cake, biscuit, or chocolate
  • Go to food stall for a hotdog or olliebollen (imagine a doughnut dense enough to have its own event horizon)
  • Collect dry cleaning
  • Time for lunch somewhere. Two courses minimum. Plus beer
  • Return to bike via another coffee bar
  • Buy some chocolates
  • Buy a sandwich to eat on the way home
  • Cycle home, cook some croquette potatoes to keep you going through the dark watches of the afternoon while you think about dinner

I cannot understand how the Dutch can have a diet that makes your arteries go ‘Clang’ if you even think about it, smoke like chimneys, take prodigious quantities of drugs, and still live to be about 102.

Camping

The Dutch are avid campers. Then they take the mickey out of the Belgians because they go caravanning. Weird. (Note. If you take a tent to Holland, be careful with your choice of campsite. Some are for naturists only, and this leads to some truly startling sights when happy campers are driving in tentpegs.)

Driving

Amsterdammers are the worst drivers in the world. Not the fastest, or maddest, just worst. They drive as if they have forgotten they are not on a bike, and that a car is some 12 feet longer and 5 feet wider. The authorities rescue up to a dozen vehicles a week from the canals. Enough said.

 Addendum – Belgium

General

Like a Netherlands with a bit more attitude.

Pastimes

Snacking

As per Holland

Tailgating at 80 mph

This is a country so small and densely populated they invented the sprout as a mini-cabbage more easily manhandled home through the crowds. Drivers are keen to keep traffic density at a maximum, and so drive fractions of an inch from the car in front. Not for the nervous.

Antwerp

There is a civic ordinance in all the Belgian cities I have spent time in – Ostende, Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels – that requires all bars to have in one corner a short, bearded bloke who mutters to himself. While I have experienced this syndrome in bars, cafes, and stations the world over, only in Belgium – specifically Antwerp – have I experienced it in the departure lounge at an international airport. I must have led a sheltered life……

In Amsterdam, the red light district is a pretty well defined area. In Antwerp, the boundaries are less clear. I ended up staying in a hotel just off the main square behind the station. As in all cities, areas around the station tend to be, errrrr, how shall we put this….where morals are on a shifting spectrum. In Antwerp, if a place says it is a Karaoke Café, it may not be. Ditto a Phillippinische Specialite restaurant may surprise the unwary diner. Bars called the Golden Boys and the New Queens, and Gay Ron’s Videotek leave you in little doubt as to the area you have strayed into.

On the other hand there are restaurants offering food from all corners of the world, mad Oriental shops full of dried jellyfish and stuff even I cannot identify, great record and book shops, lots of live music. Much like Soho in London, and very much my kinda town, but you do need to watch your wallet and how much cash is on display. Caution, but not paranoia, advised.

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