Stuff Dutch People Think Is Dutch

23 August 2016



I’ve long been a fan of Colleen Geske’s entertaining blog Colleen, who is Canadian, has lived in the Netherlands as long as I have and has spent time cataloguing all the peculiarities of the Lowlands. Topics include: ‘Speaking in expressions’, ‘Impossibly steep stairs’, ‘White leggings’ and ‘Borrels’. In 2013, she self-published a book of the same title with 60 of these blog posts. It’s fun and recognizable and I definitely recommend it. Just recently I bought her follow-up book Stuff Dutch People Say, which being a linguist, is right up my street. The Dutch language is riddled with often peculiar idiom (they speak in expressions, after all) and Colleen sets about explaining where some of these things come from, as well as discussing Dutch words that have made their way into the English language (coleslaw – kool-sla, for example).  

It’s probably easier for an outsider moving into a particular culture to isolate the things that seem typically Dutch, than for a Dutch person themselves. It’s easy to assume particular behaviours or objects are normal, until a foreigner points them out to you. The same thing happens to me with Englishness sometimes.  A Dutch friend pointed out to me last week that fumbling teenage sex at a bus-stop or in the back of a parked car was not something many Dutch people had ever experienced since most of them lost their virginity at home. A more obvious example of cultural difference is English people abroad constantly having to ask for milk to put in their tea (and then: regular milk, please, not coffee creamer!).

All that said, a new book has just come out in which the Dutch have a go at explaining themselves. The Netherlands in 26 Iconic Objects, edited by Wim Brands and Jeroen van Kan and published by Uitgeverij Balans contains 26 short essays each by a different Dutch writer. I confess to having been an insider on the project since I translated two of the essays myself (‘Ice-Skates’ by Maarten t Hart and ‘Biscuit Tin’ by Maartje Wortel). Although many of the objects chosen weren’t invented by the Dutch, their adoption into Dutch culture highlights something about the natural character. In the case of the essays I translated, ice-skates were probably invented in Scandinavia but became particularly useful in a water-filled country that froze over in the winter. Skating on natural ice in a pair of noren is especially Dutch. Us Brits have got biscuit tins too, of course, but we don’t do that thing of offering our guests just a single biscuit. It’s the single biscuit that exemplifies Dutch frugality.

I’d never heard of a Bolknak (Maarten Asscher’s contribution). It turns out to be a Dutch-produced cigar for the bourgeois classes (not something us foreigners associate with the Dutch – where’s that flat society?). But it also fell out of production many years ago. Clogs, bulbs, herring carts, stroopwafels sure, but ecstacy pills? The writer Renee Kelder claims that cargo-bike mums even take them on occasion, as do Dutch people in their sixties. A ‘drugs holiday’ from the straitjacket of Calvinism. And what to think of geraniums which I always associate with the Greek islands myself? According to Bram Bakker, geraniums are a Dutch cipher for old age as it used to be – ‘sitting behind the geraniums’ as the Dutch expression goes. It’s something modern Dutch oldies wouldn’t be seen dead doing, apparently.

Dutch Youth Are Happy – What’s Going On?

22 August 2016




I’m convinced that when Pharrell Williams sang “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you”, he was actually addressing the millions of Dutch youth growing up happy. After all, Dutch children are the happiest kids in the world. And recent research from the Central Bureau of Statistics, once again confirms the sentiment. Dutch people between the ages of twelve and twenty five are quite happy and satisfied with their lives. In particular, they are quite content with:


And contrary to the infamous reputation of Amsterdam being the capital of mayhem (prostitution, alcohol, and drugs), Dutch youth are are less likely to engage in underage smoking, drinking, cannabis use and sex. Apparently, for these happy, well-adjusted and satisfied youth, being square is the latest trend.


It’s in stark contrast with the current state of affairs with their Anglophone counterparts. British teenagers are among the unhappiest – they feel they face too much pressure at school, are concerned that they are too fat, and engage in unhealthy drinking behaviors. And alarmingly, more and more American teens – about one out of nine – experience a major depressive episode.


When studies come up stating overall well being, the knee-jerk reaction is for many to simply attribute the main reason as a government with family friendly social policies. Even the Dutch are vocally envious of their Scandinavian neighbors, especially in terms of parental leave for fathers.


But here is the caveat – it simply can’t all be because of family-friendly social policies. Scandinavian countries have much more generous social policies, yet it’s the Dutch youth that come out on top time and time again.  Don’t get me wrong, generous parental benefits are quite helpful.  But I’m also pragmatic and chances are, it may take some time before this actually happens. So in the meantime, I’d love to know exactly what Dutch parents are doing right. We all can’t move to the Netherlands, but we can learn from them. What do you think are the reasons for all the happy youth in Holland?

Looking in from the Outside: Brexit for Expats

16 August 2016


I flew to Manchester last weekend for a friend’s tenth wedding anniversary. It was the first time I’d been back since the referendum. The grey-haired Englishwoman sitting next to me on the plane looked at me slightly askance when I said I’d voted for Britain to stay in the EU. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Well’, I said, ‘I live in Amsterdam. It’s a no-brainer for me. The fact I can live and work there is thanks to the EU. And there are great advantages to living in Holland. The society is less hierarchical and class-driven than the UK. There’s much less of a gap between rich and poor. And it’s the best place in the world to bring up kids. Actually, that’s why I’ve stayed – to put my kids through the Dutch state school system in a place where being happy is more important than being successful,’ I explained.

It had never occurred to her that the EU was a two-way street. Like millions of others, she’d been force-fed a terrifying polemic. Five million Poles, just waiting to get in and plunder the NHS! But the EU isn’t all about foreigners taking advantage of the British welfare state. The 1.2 million British expats living in the EU got something in return. I was taking advantage of the Dutch healthcare and education system. I’ve long benefited from the EU. I spent my gap year working in France. I learnt more than just the language. The French taught me how to dress, what to eat, how to behave in society. They turned me into a European. Three years after that, I returned to France, at Lyon university, thanks to the Erasmus exchange programme which paid for my study costs. And now I’m living in the Netherlands bringing up my happy children. It’s no utopia but the big ideas are in place.

I’ve been putting off writing about Brexit for weeks. The main reason is politics. I’m too much of a pragmatist to enjoy politics. There’s a glaring gap between big ideas and the administration of real-life politics which results in endless bureaucracy and nothing really getting done. Charles Dickens’ Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit always comes to mind. And yes, that is one of the problems with the European Union – it requires administration. But administration and its accompanying ludicracy is a necessary evil. It’s something separate from the big idea that led to the creation of the European Union in the first place. The EU was created essentially to keep the peace in the wake of the second world war. In this, it has been largely successful. It has also been important in fostering a European identity, in creating unity (albeit flawed).

“We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides,” writes Tobias Stone in his thoughtful essay ‘History tells us what will happen  next with Brexit and TrumpI’d thought Britain was becoming more receptive to foreign ideas and cultures: Scandi-crime box sets, French parenting, Danish hygge, translated literature. But the liberal intellectuals who buy into these things are still a minority. How do you reach those people that (international) culture doesn’t reach? I’m afraid the answer is to be found in politics. Britain needs to take a leaf out of the Dutch book and figure out how to reduce social inequality. One key factor in this might be to create a more egalitarian school system. Prioritise the teaching of foreign languages. Cultivate dialogue and exchange. Value happiness above success. Big ideas, which will require administration.


Dutch School Culture of Mediocrity

12 August 2016



As an Asian American mom with a four year old about to start elementary school in the Netherlands, I’m a bit apprehensive. There is this infamous 6-minus mentality (‘zesjescultuur’) that he will be introduced to. Applying the ABCDF scale, this would be loosely translated as a grade equivalent of a D, D- or even an F. As a parent who values education, intrinsic motivation and good old fashion hard work, the Dutch school culture of mediocrity is my biggest nightmare. A fellow expat mom in a Facebook group I am part of voiced similar concerns, doubting whether or not she made the best decision for her children. A fellow Dutch parent, Ian Macdonald, responded with the best mic drop I have ever come across. His response resonated deeply with me and assuaged my fears, concerns, doubts and guilt.


In Ian Macdonald’s own words, posted with his permission:


I think that, when expats are throwing around glib terms like “the Dutch school culture of mediocrity”, they should glance around at the society they have chosen to live in and ask themselves ‘Does this appear to be a mediocre society populated by mediocre people with mediocre accomplishments, values and norms?’


Because if the answer is yes, then I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but you might just have moved to the wrong country.


If the answer is no, however, then you might consider that the Dutch educational system must be getting a lot right, even if it is getting a few things wrong. After all, this society is, to a very large extent, defined and administered by a population that is the direct product of that educational system.


If this society was permeated by the so-called zesjescultuur (6/10 mentality), then it wouldn’t bear much resemblance to the rather nice place to live that it is; and it wouldn’t have caused so many of us to objectively choose to make it our home, raise our families here and live out our futures here.


Whilst it’s arguably true that the Dutch educational system does promote the general ethos that being merely good enough is, well, good enough, that doesn’t mean that higher achievement is actively discouraged. It isn’t.


The pervasive value that is instilled in our children — and, equally importantly, the adults they become — is that they don’t have to be top of the class or the best at what they do to be (considered) worthwhile human-beings.


It’s subtle. It’s not drilled into anyone, but broadly speaking, it’s elemental to this society that there is as much dignity in manning the check-out at the Albert Heijn as there is in being prime-minister.


People are not defined in this society by how far they have risen in education or the workplace. And thank goodness for that, because countries where that *is* the case are miserable, even unsafe places to live.


You can see this reflected in the Dutch workplace, where the structure is much less hierarchical than in many other countries. The CEO or director doesn’t order people around American-style, and subordinates don’t live in fear of upsetting their more powerful superiors. The higher you are in the organisational chart, the more responsibilities you carry and the greater the rewards, but everyone typically treats each other with the same degree of respect, no matter whether they’re running the company or wheeling the cart containing the internal post.


Dutch society instills in children the supremely important value of being happy with who they are, and to find their own level; not the level their parents would like them to have, or their teachers. However, that doesn’t mean that children are left to function below their natural ability.


If every child who scored a 6 was routinely told “You can do better”, I don’t think we’d have the society of proud high-achievers that some seem to think. Rather, we’d have far more miserable and disillusioned children growing up to become miserable and disillusioned adults.


We’d have a society like the USA, which boasts the richest, most ambitious working population in the western world, but also — not coincidentally — the least happy people in the west. We’d measure ourselves relative to what others around us have achieved and accrued, rather than by considering how far we ourselves have come. We’d allow our success to be defined by what others expect of us, not by what we would otherwise be content to expect of ourselves. We’d forever be telling ourselves that we’ll be happy when our next goal is achieved, instead of being happy with who are where we are today.


Personally, I’d rather that children — not just my own, but all children in society — were content as 6’s, rather than forever sad that they hadn’t attained the 7 or higher that others had always told them they could have. Feeling like a failure and a disappointment does not make for happy, well-adjusted members of society.


I think it’s hard to take on board for people from more competitive cultures, but there really are more important things in life than striving to be the absolute best you can be at everything you undertake. There are even more important things than a university education. Lasting happiness doesn’t actually depend on either one.


Of course, some people really do naturally want to be the best at everything they do, and that’s fine if the urge comes from within, rather than being imposed from without. Children find their own level through self-belief. It’s the job teachers to fire their imagination and nurture that self-belief as it blossoms. That’s a far cry from simply repeating the mantra “You could do better.”


University is not the pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow. it is not the be-all and end-all of young adulthood that some parents would have their children believe. It is merely one possible path, and not a path suited to each and every child, or even to each and every highly intelligent child.


Success is important, but how you define success is perhaps even more important. It’s about being happy, which is not necessarily the same thing as achieving the highest grades, followed by a place at a top university and then a high-earning job in industry.


The Dutch have got this largely right, which is why this country is still largely a nice place to live; although I must admit that I have seen a lot of dilution of its values since moving here in 1991. Then again, *everywhere* seems to be getting worse over time.


Call me a born again Dutch nationalist, but when I look at the UK and the US, I see very little that I wish this country would emulate; and that includes education.

Learn or Play in the Summer Holidays?

11 August 2016


                  Photo copyright © Maaike Koning, 2016

I remember being taken on one of the most boring summer holidays ever as a child: ‘Les Chateaux de la Loire’ it said in the brochure – the castles of the Loire Valley in France. I think we visited pretty much every one of the 140 chateaux. We were clocking up three or four a day, in any case. The countryside was dull, the Loire was monotonous and after a while, the castles became a blur. By week two, I was refusing to leave the back seat of the car, preferring to turn back to the first page of The Swiss Family Robinson and start reading the book all over again. My mum, who was a teacher, told me that I was missing out on a wonderful learning opportunity. Think of all the poor working class children who didn’t have such opportunities and would go back to school in September with a learning gap, she said.

This was my first exposure to the idea of the ‘summer slide’ as it is now known. The ‘summer slide’ is supposed to occur when children are not intellectually stimulated during the long six week holiday and forget what they have learned. It sits uncomfortably with the notion that boredom is actually good for kids. Psychologists argue that boredom allows children to develop ‘internal stimulus’ which enables the development of creativity. Are working class kids more creative then, as a result? But the idea of free-ranging bored children in the summer holidays doesn’t chime with our (middle-class)compulsion to ‘consciously cultivate’ our kids in order to give them the best start in life. It is easier to take the safe path and provide structured education in the holidays.

These days in the UK, summer tutoring is practically the norm for middle-class families, especially those who can’t afford private education and try to make up the deficit this way. Many state schools are now offering enrichment lessons over the summer holidays and there are plenty of private companies offering high level courses like Debate Chamber. Some parents even send their kids on academic courses abroad. The idea of a ‘crammer’ is nothing newIt used to be a place to retake failed GCSEs or A levels or coach children for common entrance exams. The problem is that summer education risks becoming the norm for all children, raising the stakes, and making it even more impossible for less privileged children to keep up.

The crammer concept has now blown over to the Netherlands where Education Secretary, Sander Dekker, has announced plans to introduce summer schools in which children can work on subjects in which they have fallen behind. The Netherlands has a more egalitarian school system: there is no gaping chasm between rich and poor because everyone can attend the same good state schools. However, what they do have, which the UK doesn’t have – is children having to repeat a year if their results aren’t good enough. At primary school, this seems like a good idea – a proportion of young children aren’t ready to enter the learning stream at six years old and can hang back a year in nursery grade and play a bit more. There is no shame in this. Children who learn more slowly are given a chance to go at their own pace. Gifted children can move up through the classes more quickly.

At secondary school, however, having to repeat a year can be demotivating for the student. If the child could catch up on the subjects they failed during the summer, they could proceed to the next year. It makes sense and, of course, is cheaper for the government. But I hope the Netherlands sticks with the crammer concept and things don’t go too far down the road of increasing stakes and decreasing returns. Where are my own kids this week? My son’s on a surf camp on the island of Texel and my daughter’s on a mixed sports camp in Amsterdam. Personally, I think they’ll garner more useful life skills doing sports out in the fresh air than they would in an academic environment. What do you think? What are your kids doing this summer?

Giethoorn The Fairytale Dutch Village of Your Dreams

9 August 2016



Taking “inburgering” (Dutch cultural integration) to another level, I decided to take my family to a day out in Giethoorn. Apparently, according to Buzzfeed, Giethoorn is one of the most charming places in the world to see before you die. What is it about this obscure Dutch village of only 2,620 inhabitants that has garnered so much international attention? Why is it that around 200,000 Chinese tourists flock to this unassuming, quaint town every year?  

And what better way to see and experience Giethoorn than taking a two hour private boat tour with Smit Giethoorn. Plus, I hoped to get some insider information, pseudo journalism style. Our guide Jordy was more than happy to oblige.
So here are some reasons as to why I think Giethoorn is to be considered a place where you can live out your fairytale dreams:


A Village with No Roads

Who wouldn’t want to see a village that essentially has no roads and cars? Rather, the only way to access the village is by the preferred traditional method of boats, or by bicycle. And thanks to “whisper boats” (boats with a noiseless electric engine) reigning supreme on the canals, the peace and tranquility of the Dutch countryside of Giethoorn is maintained.





Traditional Thatched-roof Homes with Perfectly Manicured Gardens

When you have a cluster of traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens on their own separate islands only reachable by boats and bridges with bike paths, it’s easy to create a once in a lifetime, breathtaking experience. And what can never be replicated, not even by Disney, are the authentic 18th and 19th century Dutch farm houses filled with local families whose roots go way back. Giethoorn is not a museum or an amusement park. it is a thriving,close-knit community which takes pride in preserving its village and sharing it with the rest of the world.


A Nod to Dutch Tradition

Giethoorn was first established around 1230 by a group of fugitives from the Mediterranean. The village evolved when locals discovered a prized treasure: peat, a precursor to coal that can be used as an energy source when dried. The canals and surrounding lakes were actually formed inadvertently as the locals extracted the peat. Hence the canals are only about one meter deep and the surrounding lakes and waterways are not that much deeper. Giethoorn exemplifies the Dutch saying “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland”.


Good Old Fashion Gezelligheid

One can’t really escape describing anything Dutch without referring to gezelligheid, an untranslatable Dutch word that embodies the feelings of wellbeing, coziness, love, belonging, and warmth. Floating through the bucolic village on a boat with your nearest and dearest can make anyone a sentimental fool.


Giethoorn and the surrounding lake area also brings lots of nostalgia. The well-preserved homes, canals and bridges really do transport you to another time. It’s also a place where generations of Dutch children and teens spend the summer at nearby sailing camps making memories with thirty or so of their newly acquainted BFFs (sailing classmates). And naturally, it’s also the setting of wistful recollections of puppy love, random hookups and romantic happily ever afters.  





Enjoying the Chinese Tourists

The Chinese love Giethoorn so much that they are probably the reason why Giethoorn made it to the most recent international edition of Monopoly, alongside glamorous heavyweights Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Madrid and Lisbon. Their enthusiasm for Giethoorn paparazzi style is infectious. They’ve traveled thousands of miles and across several time zones just to see this unassuming Dutch village (as part of their Euro tour package of course). If that isn’t heartwarming, I don’t know what is. (Brilliant business idea to throw out there: wouldn’t it be amazing if a dim sum restaurant opened up in Giethoorn catering to the enthusiastic tourists?)


Genius Marketing

Dutch villages, towns and cities should take some notes with the brilliant marketing campaigns of Giethoorn. While Giethoorn is definitely unique in regards to having no roads, the country is littered with other villages brimming with picturesque canals, wooden bridges and traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens. There are other breathtaking places in the Netherlands – the star fortified village of Naarden, for example – that remain off the beaten path or are virtually ignored by tourists.


Added bonus material we learned thanks to our Dutch guide Jordy:


Family Trees

Each house in the village traditionally has a white tree above their front door. The tree symbolizes the family. The size of the tree depends on the size of the family. The Smit family is by far the largest family in the village – their tree is so large that it needs to be against the wall of the house.


Goat Coat of Arms

The coat of arms of Giethoorn are two goat horns. Though there are no longer any goats around, it’s still a nod to how it was way back when. It is also the origin of the name of the village: Geytenhorn (goat horn) became Giethoorn.


Setting of Fanfare

An absolute must-watch Dutch comedy classic (1958) Fanfare by master filmaker Bert Haanstra takes places in old Giethoorn, way before the tourists.


And while you’re at it,  come join our Facebook page for more Dutch gezelligheid. Guaranteed to distract you at work and help you procrastinate.

Parenting a Puppy Part 3: The Teenage Years

4 August 2016



There’s this hilarious bit in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of A Tiger Mother in which her extreme parenting techniques have only partially worked on her two daughters and she gets a dog. Naturally she’s convinced her dog is a genius and she’s going to be able to get it to learn all kinds of things with some discipline. Turns out the dog’s not that bright and much of her coaching fails. I think Chua is prepared for her husband’s and the reader’s laughter at this point. She’s fully aware of her own compulsive drive to push and improve and the way it descends into farce.

I’m in a similar position, owning a puppy now that my children (aged 9 and 12) have become quite independent and no longer need me like they used to. I can test out my parenting techniques on the dog. The only thing is my aims aren’t the same as Chua’s. I’m rather proud of my children – they are smart and likeable and help out at least some of the time. But where much of my Dutch-influenced parenting has been about teaching them independence, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, these aren’t exactly talents you want to instil in a dog. A safe dog is an obedient dog. It doesn’t run away and it doesn’t jump up at people.

While thinking about this, it strikes me that one advantage to Pippa being a dog rather than a child is that I’m not desperate for her to like me. I don’t care if I upset her by asking her to sit and wait rather than run after that man on a bike. I want an obedient, safe dog more than I want one that can do tricks and think for itself. I’m convinced that discipline is what makes a dog happy. This is somewhat true of children, too, I expect. They need structure and clarity, but things do get complicated by wanting them to love you. It makes enforcing discipline harder. Dogs love you anyway. Thank God for that.

The crazy thing about dogs is that they grow up super fast. They double in size in a matter of weeks and all of their milk teeth drop out in the space of a fortnight. At least Pippa’s have. Compare this to my 12 year-old, still waiting for his last two molars to go so that he can get his first brace fitted. Parenting a puppy is like living on fast forward. Blink and you miss it. But unfortunately all this accelerated physical growth doesn’t correlate to accelerated learning. They don’t learn all the commands in a matter of days. It takes months and months for them to figure out what you want and decide to obey.

Deciding to obey is also a thing. Having finally got a few commands instilled in her, Pippa is just hitting puberty and her behaviour is starting to get a bit more rebellious: running off down the road instead of getting in the car, chasing other dogs and children when called to heel, ignoring requests to drop those dirty nappy wipes. She knows what I want her to do, but she’s deliberately ignoring the stuff she doesn’t want to hear. People tell me you just need to stay calm and patient and get through this stage; it’ll pass. All dogs calm down and get easier. Funny thing that, is this going to be the secret to dealing with teenage children, too?

Going Dutch: Volendam and Marken

29 July 2016


photo of Marken from the ferry 


Since my father was visiting us from California, we wanted him to experience a bit of Dutch nostalgia and witness first hand one of Europe’s most charming countrysides. Luckily, the Netherlands is such a tiny country that chances are we could get to any destination within a reasonable amount of time. We sought our sights up North, just half an hour from Amsterdam in Waterland – a municipality of North Holland consisting of the famed, picturesque villages of Edam, Volendam, and Marken. With a squirmy one-year-old and a rambunctious four-year-old in tow, the day-trip needed to be something easy, convenient and relaxed – so we aimed for two out of the three tourist destinations (Volendam and Marken).


Upon arriving at the marina of Volendam, my father explains out loud, “So basically Volendam is the Dutch version of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. I love it!” I nodded yes as my eyes wandered onto the promenade lined with souvenir shops, bars and restaurants, and hordes of tourists. The major differences, I pointed out, are that Volendam is a couple of hundred years older and here you can be enticed by Dutch delicacies such as kibbeling, herring, and smoked eel. They even have their own dialect.


For a megadose of Dutch kitsch, we took photos in traditional Dutch clothing at Foto de Boer. According to local lore (workers), there really isn’t much of a difference in terms of price and quality from the various shops because they are all under one ownership. My four-year-old and dad enjoyed dressing up and playing with the various props. My dad even offered to buy the male costume for the boys for Halloween until I told him that it wasn’t celebrated in the Netherlands.


photo of Volendam  from the ferry


The moment we were done taking pictures, we headed straight for the twenty-minute ferry ride to Marken on the Volendam Marken Express. Stepping onto the boat provided a welcome relief from the touristy crowds and a quiet sanctuary promising a bit more of an authentic experience.


Referred to by locals as ‘Mereke’, the island of Marken is a traditional Dutch fishing village with a population of 1,810. First established in the thirteenth century by monks and situated on the former Zuiderzee, Marken evolved into a harbor for whaling and herring fishing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1957, a dike was constructed, connecting the island of Marken to the rest of the country and transforming it into an off-the-beaten path tourist attraction.

We had a two hour leisurely lunch at the seaside terrace of Café-Restaurant Land en Zeezicht. The lunch was delicious, but when we visit again, I’d love to try one of the small market stands offering the local seafood fare.

We then explored the hidden alleyways and back roads of the village, allowing my oldest boy to run around and my baby to fall asleep in the stroller.  The well-preserved village with green wooden houses built on pillars, perfectly manicured lawns, and laundry hanging out to dry, made it easy to imagine going back a hundred years or so.


By the time we were headed home, we had our fill of going Dutch and grateful for experiencing a beautiful town that time seemed to forget. An added bonus on the late afternoon ferry ride home was seeing all the boats and yachts sailing into the sunset, a nod to the rich boating tradition of the Dutch. 

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Ten Reasons Amsterdam-Noord is the Perfect Post-Hipster Paradise

20 July 2016


First a confession: I’m not a hipster, even though I live in North Amsterdam aka Amsterdam-Noord – the equivalent of Berlin’s Kreuzberg, London’s Hackney or New York’s Williamsberg. It’s been the place to live in Amsterdam for about five years now and has been lauded the hipster capital of the Netherlands There’s plenty that’s as hipster-clichéd as the marketing term, from the restaurants and bars around the graffiti-covered industrial terrain at NSDM-wharf, to Oedipus microbrewery which has built itself a make-shift bar in an old factory building [Gedempte Hamerkanaal 85], to Café de Ceuvel which is a cool bar and simultaneously a project to reclaim and cleanse polluted land. Long gone are the days when Noord was the place the gallows hung and criminals and anti-socials were housed in an experimental closed community.* Urban wasteland regeneration, here we go.

The thing is, I moved here nine years ago, upscaling to give us space for our second child. I’m a bit too old to be a hipster but hey, even the hipsters have settled down and had kids by now. So here are the reasons Amsterdam-Noord is great for both pre- and post-hipster generations:


1. Space and light. The massive Noorderpark [] runs right through the centre of the neighbourhood. If you cycle just 10 minutes further north you hit rural Waterland with its polders, dykes and windmills. You can’t get more Dutch.  


2. Few tourists. Fortunately, most tourist maps cover the area south of Central Station.


3. Free ferry across the IJ to blow away the cobwebs as you enter and leave your paradise. The river forms a psychological buffer to the stresses of city life.


4. Culture. EYE film museum & cinema, the Tolhuistuin complex (Paradiso, for great bands), plus there are all kinds of musical and theatrical activities going on in, e.g. at the Roze Tanker [], and Noorderparkkamer. Readings at bookshop ‘Over het water’.

Great primary schools like Het Wespennest, De Bijenkorf, Elzenhagen and Montessori Boven ‘t IJ.


6.Great secondary schools like Hyperion Lyceum, Damstede Lyceum, De Nieuwe Havo, Clusius College.


7. Idyllic Dutch streets full of crooked houses such as the Nieuwendammerdijk and Buiksloterdijk give a real village feel.


8. Friendly neighbours. My street has its own Facebook group and plenty of joint activities for young and old such as barbecues, in-house concerts and Easter egg hunts. The pavement becomes a massive communal living room in the summer.


9. Safe places for children to play away from busy traffic. Lots of parks and playgrounds, a skateboard park, paddling pool, new outdoor swimming pool. And lots of bike paths!


10. Waterfront restaurants providing a fantastic view plus reasonably-priced, delicious food like Hotel Goud Fazant, Stork, Il Pecorino Wilhelmina Dok, Loetje aan ‘t IJ. And near-the-waterfront restaurant, Café Modern.



Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Friesland

7 July 2016

I’ve just spent a week on the beautiful island of Terschelling learning the second official language of the Netherlands: Frisian. Friesland is a northern province with a long coastal line and a cluster of stunning islands. The archipelago of islands forms a chain along the coast of north-western Europe and belong not just to the Netherlands but also to Germany and Denmark as you proceed further north. Terschelling (Skylge in Frisian) has long been my favourite holiday destination in the Netherlands. It combines sweeping sandy beaches with dunes, pine forests and a large nature reserve. Think elaborately-layered skies, huge expanses of sand, and seabirds.




I was one of four Dutch-to-English translators invited on a beginner’s crash course in Frisian. A forthcoming anthology of Frisian literature needs to be translated for a British publisher and we’ll be rolling up our sleeves. The plan is to continue to improve our Frisian over the coming months, but luckily there will also be a Dutch translation we can consult. No one in their right mind would agree to translate from a language they’ve learned in a week. Years of exposure and cultural immersion are necessary to understand all the nuances of a language and produce a good translation. That said, the course was pretty intensive – right from the start we were taught in Frisian by the brilliant Anne Tjerk Popkema (Frisian men tend to be called either Anne or Tjerk – he has both), the translator of The Hobbit, amongst other books.

The reason we could understand enough Frisian to be taught in it is because it is from the same language family as Dutch (Germanic). The two languages have existed side by side throughout the centuries and given that all Frisians are bilingual and also speak Dutch, there’s been a fair amount of linguistic seepage. So far so good. But there’s an added complication. There isn’t just one type of Frisian. Broadly speaking, there are actually three different regional variations of the language. And like many minority languages, it tends to be spoken rather than written, so spellings vary individually. What we were learning was a kind of standardized Frisian that no one actually speaks.

Many of the words sound like Dutch words but once they’ve been written down, it’s harder to recognize them. And as in many related languages, there are ‘false friends’. Net in Dutch (just) is not the same as net in Frisian (not). A humorous advert plays with this distinction by having Frisians say ‘Het kan net’ (It’s not possible) to Dutch tourists who refuse to go away. Frisian is sometimes described as English’s first cousin, though to be honest, modern Frisian would be completely unintelligible to monoglot English speakers and more likely to be understood by Dutch, Germans and Danes. Old forms of Frisian are clearly related to (old) English, however, and have shared words like the and that.

Most people have heard of Frisian cows and there is a link: the first Frisians were cattle farmers, though the cows came in all shapes and sizes back then, around 3400BC. They weren’t the pretty black-and-white variety we have today. Other famous Frisian exports include horses (Dan Brown and his wife breed them), the dancing spy Mata Hari and supermodel Doutzen Kroes. The islands of Terschelling and Vlieland also produce cranberries. ‘Cranberries: good for pissing’ was printed on the stickers from one gift shop I visited to buy a thank you present for my mum who’d been looking after my kids all week. By then I’d learned enough Frisian to figure out the mistake – the Frisian verb to pee is pisje.

A surprise test on the last day of the course revealed my geographical ignorance of the area. The famous 200km-long skating tour, the Elfstedentocht, goes through eleven Frisian towns. I’m going to learn them off by heart in both languages in case I ever get tested again. Repeat after me: Ljouwert (Leeuwarden), Snits (Sneek), Drylts (IJlst), Sleat (Sloten), Starum (Stavorum), Hylpen (Hinderloopen), Warkum (Workum), Boalsert (Bolsward), Harns (Harlingen), Frjentsjer (Franeker), Dokkum (Dokkum).



With thanks to AFUK, the Dutch Foundation for Literature and Provincie Fryslân.