Gezelligheid vs Hygge

9 January 2017

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Hygge is being pitched as one of the reasons Danish adults are the happiest in the world. My first thought is that hygge is a brilliant marketing concept plus an appealing interior decorating trend. To me, hygge suggests wrapping up warm inside while it is snowing outdoors, lovely chunky knits, candles, log fires, pork roast, mulled wine and gingerbread, hearts and fairy lights. What’s not to like? It’s kind of Christmas but without the stress. On the other hand, when I read descriptions of it suggesting it’s not just about being warm and cozy but also about togetherness, I’m strangely reminded of that supposedly uniquely Dutch concept of gezelligheid.
Mind you, gezelligheid can’t really compete on the design front – you’re more likely to see anoraks and waterproof trousers since we get more rain than snow. And though Dutch people like blankets, they’re rather fond on the fleece kind. To make matters worse, they are still wearing onesies long after that trend was declared as dead as old Marley. My kids bought new ones again at Christmas. Incidentally, yesterday I came across an article by a Dutch journalist who moved to Denmark. She struggled to fit in at first, before realizing she dressed more scruffily, with stains on her clothes and mismatching accessories. The Danes are described as neat and tidy, law-abiding, and more formal. They didn’t get her silly jokes or her Dutch bluntness.

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Anyway, let’s look at the attributes of gezelligheid. In Holland it takes place in ‘brown cafés’ where you drink beer or genever or at home with a borrel with bitterballen and croquettes, or while skating together on natural ice. Gezelligheid is claiming a section of the park by stringing bunting in the trees and having a barbecue or picnic on a rug, or stopping at market stalls selling oliebollen. A bustling street market is always gezellig. Gezellig shouldn’t be expensive or pretentious. It should be accessible to all. It’s a biscuit tin on the table and a mug of coffee. It’s a spontaneous ‘koek –en-zopie’ stall selling warming refreshments for after your ice-skate. It’s hot chocolate or pea soup and the sound of lively chatter. It’s hygge but without the fairy magic.

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My uncle married a Danish woman so I grew up with a half-Danish cousin, Lotte. She tells me hygge definitely existed in Denmark when she was young. ‘You would have a hygge evening on your own or hygge with friends – an enjoyable cosy get-together. It’s not a new invention, though I’m a bit surprised it’s suddenly everywhere (Maybe all the Nordic dramas!)’

In his beautifully-produced and well-written The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking writes that the word hygge originates from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’ (in comparison, gezelligheid originates from the word for ‘companionship’). In fact, he even goes on to discuss the similarity between the two concepts before concluding that the Dutch variant is more sociable, while the Danish one is more insular. He writes that as a researcher at the Institute for Happiness, being with other people is perhaps the most important ingredient to happiness, so I’ll take that as a bonus point for gezelligheid.
The dark side of hygge is that since it is close-knit and home-focused, it’s apparently hard to break into Danish society as an outsider. But there’s plenty of positives too. It’s appealing to introverts, and simplicity and modesty are central tenets. Ingredients for hygge are light (though the Danes are unwittingly poisoning themselves with all the candles – oh no!), warmth, equality, togetherness, comfort and shelter. They sound like the perfect ingredients for happiness and getting through the dark days of winter. It’s not surprising that Brits are jumping on the bandwagon.


My Dutch Life: Maaike Koning

9 December 2016

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Maaike Koning is a Dutch photographer living in Amsterdam with her partner, a photo editor, and their two children, Sam and Sverre, aged twelve and nine. She loves to be outside: biking, gardening and hiking, and enjoys visiting museums and collecting photography books. The entire family travelled through Australia for four months a couple of years ago. She is currently working on several assignments for design and communication agencies and researching a new portrait series.

How long have you been a photographer?

I started studying photographic design at the art college (KABK) in The Hague in 1995 and graduated in 1999. So somewhere in between, I probably ‘became’ a photographer. I got my first job just after I’d graduated. My boyfriend and I took pictures of the kitchen staff for a restaurant guide to London and Amsterdam. We had a great time enjoying all the free food we got in those restaurants.

Was it difficult to find work at first?

Difficult but not impossible. I was really eager to make money out of it… I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (startstipendium) in the year I graduated, so I had time to work on a nice portfolio and buy a good camera. It made things easier. My graduation project was a book about different phases of women’s lives. Making a book was unusual in the pre-digital period. I sold quite a lot of books to design agencies, which meant they did not forget my work and remembered me when they had a suitable assignment. I also joined a photographers’ agency in my first year. But still, the first eight years were off and on, with either having lots of jobs and being incredibly busy, or looking for jobs for months. The last eight years, I have worked for clients who give me enough space for my own style. I also published a book about people and places in Amsterdam Noord. It reflects the identity of this part of Amsterdam, long known as an underprivileged area. Below is a picture from the book. Mr and Mrs De Vries have been married for seventy years, have always lived in Noord and experienced the severe flooding in Oostzaan in 1960 when they witnessed their home-made furniture floating out of the house.

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Have you been influenced by any other Dutch photographers? 

There are so many fantastic talents, not only in Holland. I did my internship with photographer and director Yani. He inspired me a lot. His playful approach to assignments is enviable. Bertien van Manen is one of my favourite documentary photographers. I love the book she made about Russia: A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters.

Ed van de Elsken is pretty unique and great. He is one of the documentary photographers who shows that you don’t need to go far away to make great series. Alec Soth, an American photographer, is one of my favourites these days. I love his style and light and the subjects he chooses.

What do you think makes a good photographer?

Difficult… It can be many things. First I would say it’s quite crucial that a photographer develops a style that makes him or her identifiable and recognizable. (This is also important for clients.) Photographers that know what they are doing and why. The photography I love is where the use of daylight is stunning without claiming the entire picture and where the people or animals or moment intrigue me. Then, there is always one very important thing: how people react to the photographer. It all has to do with ‘taste’ and it’s great if it feels like the perfect expression or moment. This does not necessarily mean the sitter has to think it’s a great picture of him or her, but it usually means the viewer is intrigued by the picture, because of something in the picture.

Dutch photographers, artists and architects are all famous for being good with light? Is the light special here? Or is the lack of light in the winter a reason to seek it out and cherish it?

Some people say the beautiful light has to do with the reflection of the sea in the clouds, which makes the light great in a big part of Holland, and also because of the ‘flatness’. I don’t really know. I do know it can be a real challenge. Winters are dark, you really have to search for the light sometimes, but when there’s a sunny day, the light can be awesome. In summer, there is totally different light, so Dutch photographers are experienced in lots of different types of light.

You lived in Australia for a while, would you rather live somewhere other than Holland?

For a long period, I thought I could live in Australia. I lived there for a year when I was younger. I love the wild nature and the infinite space. But when we travelled there with the kids, it felt too far away from home for the long term and the space and hot climate was too much for a daily life. I also realized it was too late for the kids to move. We love our life in Amsterdam far too much to move away for a long time. It gave me peace of mind to realize this.

The trip was great. We did a lot of wild camping, fishing, hiking, we stayed at an aboriginal farm for a while. The kids learned a lot. They shared some of their adventures with their classmates on a blog.

What’s your experience of raising children here? Does it mirror your own childhood or are you doing things differently?

Holland is great for raising kids. It’s quite safe and you can find anything you want for them. My childhood was a bit more free than what I can give my own kids in Amsterdam and I think I grew up a bit more independent than them. I grew up on the edge of a small village. Our large garden bordered a wood in which I’d go on daily expeditions with my brother or friends. We’d build huts, run around, jump over ditches and hide in an empty house. We all cycled alone to school, in my case from the age of seven.

When our daughter was born, we were living in Amsterdam West in a third-floor apartment. I wanted a house with a garden before she could walk, or at least a few trees and a lawn, so that Sam could go on mini-expeditions like the ones I’d been on, without me always having to be there. We found the right house in Amsterdam Noord. Now that the children are older, their ‘territory’ has expanded to fields, woods, and cycle and walking paths in the area. I think it’s important for them to go on expeditions alone. I want them to make their own decisions and, most importantly, have a lot of fun, without their parents hovering over them. Maybe that’s something typically Dutch, letting your children off the leash. In the end it’s also really handy for parents when their children are independent.

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What are the main challenges of raising kids in Holland?

I think the pitfalls can be found in social pressure. For a while, it was a trend to send your children to a crèche for four days a week. I really had to defend myself for choosing not to do that. The children went to a host mother (gastouder) two days a week and for the rest of the time we were either at home or the grandparents helped out. Having less money as a result can also be a choice. Anyway, when your children go to school, there’s more time for work again.

The same goes for all the things your kids do outside school, like music, sports and their swimming diploma. In the Netherlands, parents start with those things very early. I wonder whether it’s really the right thing for every child and I think it’s better to wait until they discover their own interests. I find the school days long enough, certainly for young children.

What you do have in Amsterdam is a lot of choice in terms of education. It’s great that everything is possible, but in total that makes a lot of choices and it can be quite overwhelming. It’s nice if parents are able to choose a path that suits their children, without taking too much notice of what everyone else thinks.

 

All photos (c) Maaike Koning, 2016

 

 

Giethoorn The Fairytale Dutch Village of Your Dreams

9 August 2016

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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.

 

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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.

 

Nostalgia
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.  

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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.

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Going Dutch: Volendam and Marken

29 July 2016

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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.

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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

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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 [http://noorderpark.nl/] 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 [http://www.hetisnu.nl/], and Noorderparkkamer. Readings at bookshop ‘Over het water’.


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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.

 

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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.

 

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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).

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

A Love Letter to the Netherlands

3 May 2016

A Love Letter to the Netherlands

 

Dear Dutchland,

You’re officially known as the Netherlands mainly by the Dutch, but often referred to simply as Holland by the rest of the world, or the Low Countries for those who are more intimately acquainted with you. But to me, you are “Dutchland”, the world in which I choose to see you and turn my face towards the sun (if we’re lucky and it’s around).

Visiting Amsterdam to enjoy your country’s liberal attitude towards certain illicit behaviours is what you’re (in)famous for. But actually moving here and setting up roots, especially in one of your villages, is not a “thing” like moving to Paris, or somewhere under the Tuscan sun.

Celebrating King’s Day, Liberation Day and Memorial Day has put me in a reflective mood. There are several facets of life here that has enriched mine and my family’s life. Let me count the ways.

 

Being fashionably thrifty

It’s quite refreshing to live in a culture that embraces the virtue of living within one’s means. The Dutch understand that #thestruggleisreal and don’t try to put up to pretenses. Perhaps the best known example is the urban legend about Prime Minister Willem Drees and an American diplomat after World War II. When the American diplomat came to visit the Prime Minister’s home to discuss what America could do to support the Dutch economy, apparently Mrs. Drees served him a cup of tea with just ONE cookie. The American was so shocked at the meager hospitality that he considered it a clear indication that the Dutch needed a lot of assistance to climb out of poverty. Little did the American know that the “one cookie experience” and the modest home was simply Dutch thriftiness.

 

The biking life

The bicycle isn’t some trendy hipster accessory. It’s an actual means of transportation for the Dutch. And I’m a certified bakfiets (cargo bike) mommy which is akin to the suburban American mom with a minivan. Though at times it can be a pain biking through hail, snow, wind, and rain – sometimes all in one day – I’m grateful for the regular dose of exercise and not to be living a big portion of my life stuck in traffic and fighting for parking spaces. I also look forward to the days when my kids can cycle independently to and from school, their various sports practices and whatever it is on their social agenda.

 

Love Letter to the Netherlands

 

Yes to sandwiches for breakfast and lunch and pancakes for dinner

A Singaporean expat friend once asked me, “What’s the difference between a Dutch breakfast and a Dutch lunch?”  I was stumped.

She answered,  “The three hours in between the two meals.”

Once you get past the monotony of having sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, you realize how pragmatic and genius it is. No need to think or spend precious time preparing elaborate meals. Adulting with a four-year-old and a baby has been so much easier thanks to the no fuss approach to meals. Just set the table with breads, slices of cheese, butter and hagelslag and they’re happily eating. On days when we just had enough of all the crying and tantrums, we can just serve pancakes for dinner. And since the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, this way of eating can’t be detrimental to the physical development of children.

 

Refreshingly direct and honest communication

The Dutch are often mistaken for being rude and too opinionated, especially by expats. But after living here almost ten years, I’ve learned to bite the bullet and appreciate it. After all the tears and insecurities, I’ve developed a thick skin. I always know where I stand. And I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons why I’m so much happier – no second guessing, no passive aggressive communication, no uncertainty. If anything happens to be lost in translation, we can all just have a meeting to talk it out. And as they say, all the problems in the world can be solved with a pot of tea and a heart to heart.

 

Not giving a f*ck

One of the most liberating aspects of living in this country is that the Dutch don’t seem to give a f*ck. They live life according to their values and don’t try to live up to societal standards or bow to the pressure to be perfect and successful. It extends to parenting where they try their absolute best, but at the end of the day, being good enough more than suffices. And their parenting approach leads to their kids being the happiest in the world.

 

Love,

Rina Mae

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Glamping at De Groene Hoeve (Feather Down Farm Holidays)

6 July 2015

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When BoerenBed (Feather Down Farm Stays) invited us to a “glamping” trip at the De Groene Hoeve in exchange for a review, we couldn’t resist. The premise was that we would be given a gentle introduction to the world of camping while getting a glimpse of authentic farm life.

My three year old was ecstatic, repeatedly exclaiming weeks ahead to anyone who would listen – “Kamperen op de boerderij” (Camping on the farm). His enthusiasm was reassuring. My Dutch husband, who has years of camping experience from his youth, was amused. As someone who grew up in the (sub)urban jungles of San Francisco, I was intrigued and a bit apprehensive. Not one to turn down an adventure, I went with an open-mind.

De Groene Hoeve is run by husband and wife Cees and Niki Groenendijk. They operate an organic goat farm comprised of eighty-six milking goats. Like any proper farm, there’s also plenty of other animals to keep the goats company – two dogs, a cat, a horse, a pony, two piglets, bunnies, chickens and the occasional shy fox. There are also friendly neighborly cows in the distance. By the looks of it, these goats and other animals were quite happy.

As soon as we arrived at the farm in the early evening, Niki seemed to magically appear to greet us. She speaks impeccable English with a charming British accent. We appreciate her hands-on, personal approach to giving us (and all the other guests) a crash course in the ins-and-outs of the camping grounds and the farm.

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Betere Boeren Bed Tent (Feather Down Farm Tent)

Each Betere Boeren Bed Tent offers all the benefits of camping – nostalgia for a simpler, imagined past and communing with nature – with several modern conveniences. Each large canvas tent is fully equipped like a miniature two-bedroom apartment (one with bunk beds and the other with a queen size bed), a fully equipped kitchen with cold running water, a living room with a dining area and sofa, and private bathroom facilities. And of course, decorative pieces scattered here and there, real hardwood floors and windows you can open and close that all add to the feeling of gezelligheid, a Dutch word that embodies coziness, warmth and love. And the highlight for many kids (and even adults) is cupboard type bed that can easily be shared by two children, or serve as a great reading nook.

The rest – such as building your own fire, living without electricity and being off the grid (no internet connection) – is part of the charm. It’s when the real camping begins.

For gourmands and camping enthusiasts, there’s a wood-oven stove right in the center of each tent (the beating heart) and an outdoor wood cooker. And never fear – there’s freshly chopped wood and a fire building starter kit right at your fingertips. There’s the option to dine indoors, or outside depending on your mood and the weather.

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Part of the highlight of the trip was on Saturday evening when Niki and Cees hosted a homemade pizza party for all the campers. It’s easy to fall in love with their rustic outdoor eating area with a large king size table and their wood-fired brick oven. The pizza was delicious and the homemade strawberry goat ice-cream was divine. It was also a great way to meet other families.

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It’s all about living to the rhythm of the land.” shares Niki.

I couldn’t help but reciprocate with an understanding smile. For starters, living off the grid (no internet connection and spotty cell phone reception) can do wonders for the soul. It guarantees families the time and space to do a lot of bonding with each other, free from the distractions of everyday modern life. Its quaintness and peacefulness lends to the atmosphere of slow living. The cozy campground, limited to only five tents and far away from the nearest road, is structured in a way to allow toddlers and young children to roam safely.

And no need to worry about planning activities – just starting the fires and keeping them going is an exercise in communication, patience and resourcefulness. Though it took us about two hours on our first try, we appreciated the sense of accomplishment of finally having a hot fire to cook food. There’s something quite refreshing and honest about making meals the old-school way.

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As assured by Niki before our arrival,  De Groene Hoeve really has everything that a family needs for a comfortable stay. All we needed was to bring ourselves and practical clothing for camping. There is a fully equipped store offering organic and locally grown products from other Dutch farmers, as well as basic necessities such as olive oils, soaps, etc.

As we were leaving, Niki offered our son a vintage toy truck. We accepted on the premise that it was merely a loan and that we would hopefully return it next year. De Groene Hoeve has definitely gotten this American-Dutch family hooked on glamping.

 

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Location

What’s also surreal is that the location of De Groene Hoeve. It’s conveniently located in the Northwestern part of the Netherlands between two historic Dutch fishing villages – Hoorn (8km) and Enkhuizen (13 km). Although it’s only a mere forty-five minutes away from Amsterdam, the bucolic surroundings transports you to another time.

Bonus Tips

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Take a cruise alongside the beautiful, historic city of Hoorn with Watertaxi Hoorn (ask for schipper Koen). Hoorn is definitely a hidden treasure off-the-beaten path.

Just a 15 minute drive away is Sprookjeswonderland (Fairytale Wonder Land) in Enkhuizen. It’s actually a wonderful getaway for families with children under the age of five.

InstaDutchland -Markthal Rotterdam

6 October 2014

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The lines of cars filing into the city of Rotterdam were invariably packed with self-proclaimed gourmands, architect buffs, modern art enthusiasts and curious day trippers. They’re eventually met by locals – cyclists and pedestrians – all congregating towards the middle of the city’s sprawling Blaak market square. The sense of urgency and excitement was palpable as they navigated towards parking spaces, entry ways, escalators and elevators. Their faces, softened by the Autumn sunlight, hungrily looked towards a mammoth horseshoe structure.

 

The building is the Markthal (Market Hall), Rotterdam’s latest architectural pride and joy. Designed by Winy Maas of Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, the country’s first indoor market opened last Wednesday (1 October 2014). It’s a food lover’s mecca – a sistine chapel of market stalls offering local, organic produce, artisanal gourmet crafts, restaurants, and regular Dutch fair. The Markthal is also a living community with 230 apartments built into the arch shaped structure.

 

The biggest surprise for us was the “Horn of Plenty” – a digital mural of 4,000 tiles that covers 36,000 square feet and displays brilliant high-resolution images of fish, vegetables, fruits and other items. Staring up at the spectacular mural makes one feel like one just went down Alice in Wonderland’s psychedelic rabbit hole. In collaboration with famed cartoon animator Pixar, Dutch artist Arno Coenen created a 3D optical illusion of produce and fauna falling from the sky. It’s art appreciation at its finest as people of all ages seemed mesmerized and in awe of the largest artwork in the world.

 

And the Markthal is definitely something for Rotterdam to be proud of. Markthal had garnered international intrigue and helped solidify Rotterdam’s place in The New York Times annual 52 Places to Go list in 2014. Not to forget to mention that it’s a “one up” in the friendly rivalry among “Amsterdammers” and “Rotterdammers”. Who could blame the Rotterdammers for being a bit smug and proud, whom like the rest of the tourist-worthy cities like Utrecht and Den Haag, had compete to play second fiddle to her more glamorous, world-renowned sister Amsterdam since time immemorial?

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Being a former Erasmus University graduate student (which explains my natural soft spot for Rotterdam), I couldn’t help but contemplate what the implications of installing a luxury, world-class marketplace would have to it’s overall character and personality. Rotterdam has been traditionally characterized as industrious, hardworking, down-to-earth…and working class. According to Judith Thissen in Industrial Cities: History and Future, Rotterdam gained the reputation of being a werkstad – a working class city- as early as the 1870s.

 

Rotterdam’s evolution from a blue-collar industrial area to an architect’s paradise and now  foodie destination has its roots in the city’s seaport – the Port of Rotterdam and World War II. After the Rotterdam Blitz where virtually the entire historic city center was demolished (as informed by every single Rotterdammer who comes across a foreigner or tourist), the reconstruction of Rotterdam became a playground for modernist architects. But the seaport, one of the largest in Europe and considered its gateway, and its middle class laborers, are still the bread and butter of Rotterdam.

 

The resulting hodgepodge of different modernist architectural styles was an urban city that didn’t fit the Dutch mold of gezelligheidLocal Rotterdam authorities have vocalized for years how difficult it was to attract residents and visitors to the urban jungle of concrete. According to Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, there was an overall consensus to “draw more residents and visitors to the center of Rotterdam, especially residents with a higher income who consequently support services in the city center.” Hence Markthal is a clear example of attempts at gentrification, a not-so-secret strategy for drawing in wealthier clientele into Rotterdam. But I wondered whether, or not targeting a certain clientele would be at the expense of driving away and alienating everyday citizens.

 

While we strolled around the expansive Markthal, fighting the infamous Dutch crowds, I realized that my concerns were a bit naive. I made a loud sigh of relief when the everyday items – bread, cheeses, french fries, baked goods, and vegetables – were priced the same as what could be found at any other local market. For example, Mei Sum Bakery offered delicious Asian treats for the same price of €10 for 12 pieces as their flagship location at West Kruiskade. While Markthal might initially seem a bit out of place in juxtaposition to Rotterdam’s more modest character, I can sense the desire of local Rotterdammers (from all different backgrounds) to make something out of their beloved city’s new treasure. In fact, while my heart shouted out with glee with all the wonderful food, I became convinced that the Markthal was the new heart of Rotterdam.

 

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The future looks bright Rotterdam. Welcome to taking your rightful place as a world class destination.

 

P.S. Come connect with me on my Instragram account. Aside from writing, photography is my other passion.

InstaDutchland

29 September 2014

Staying true to making my blog more of a love letter, I’m starting a new blogging series called “InstaDutchland” posted (ambitiously) every Monday. Naturally, the hashtag I’m using is #InstaDutchland.

Inspired by my blogger friends Deepa from Currystrumpet and Esther from Urban Moms, I’m going to share with you guys my favorite new discoveries and regular places that nourish my soul. It’s also a special nod to one of my first readers who asked me to show her the Netherlands. There’s so many wonderful gems, especially hidden ones, scattered throughout this small Western European country. Hopefully it can ignite some wanderlust. Or even encourage locals to play tourist. At the very least, I hope it inspires people to simply step out of there homes and find beauty (nature, art, love, random acts of kindness) waiting outside of their doorstep.

On a more personal level, it’s a way for me to pause and to document the little things that bring joy to me and my family.

 

Here are my favorite “finds” for the week of September 22-28, 2014 (Yes, my “week” is from Monday to Sunday, at least for the first time around).

 

Verfdokter (Springweggarage)

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We were happily surprised to discover an artistic rendition of Utrecht’s historic Oudegracht at one of the most unlikely places – at the side of the Springweg garage. Graffiti artists Hendrik and Robert-Jan Brink, also known as the verfdokters (the paint doctors) painted the scene with the owner’s permission. It’s conveniently located right behind the Oudegracht and in close proximity to our favorite stores. We were absolutely thrilled and couldn’t resist a spontaneous photo shoot with my son.

 

The Zelfgemaakte Markt (ZGM)

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The Zelfgemaakte Markt (ZGM) is basically an Etsy’s fanatic’s dream come true. It’s a market where handmade and handcrafted goodies made by local Dutch artists, designers, gourmands and anything else that falls within the artisanal category. The clever namesake “Zelfgemaakte Markt” is translated as “I made it myself.” Adding to it’s novelty is the location – the Mariaplaats, a historical market site since 1391. Staying true to the Dutch love of thrift, all the items were reasonably priced and many would be considered steals. I couldn’t resist buying my toddler son a whale and two pillows made by SpijkerGoed for €40. SpijkerGoed is a new initiative started by two sister-in-laws bringing some new life to old jeans in the form of pillows, stuffed animals, and bags. I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have been their first customer!

 

Bartimeus Moestuin Doorn

Moestuin Doorn

 

When my dearest friend invited me to Baritimus Moestuin Doorn for a family date, I came with an open-mind. The website was relatively nondescript about the vegetable garden, leaving lots of room for imagination. In all honesty, I was more interested in seeing my friend and her family more than exploring a new place. Just entering the walled grounds where the garden was located was breathtaking. It’s possibly the most peaceful place I’ve ever visited for a while. We were completely awestruck to say the least.

 

It felt like a hipster’s fairy tale, the kind that you read in magazines, come to life. The inner geek in me was suddenly reminded of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – a magical place where one goes to seek sanctuary among the blooms and with one another. I’m convinced that it’s one of those places that have to visit yourself to fully comprehend it’s beauty. The added bonus: it’s literally only a five minute bike ride from my own home nestled in the woods of Doorn.

 

Perhaps my favorite find in vegetable garden is Theehuis ’t Sand. It was by far the prettiest cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I felt so fancy. And it might be just the right place for me to occasionally get some writing done. 

Next Saturday (4 October 2014) there is going to be the stekken-en-oogstmarkt (cuttings and harvest market) from 11:00 am to 3:00pm. Entrance is € 2,50 per person. Address: Driebergestraatweg 44, Doorn.

 

All photos taken on my IPhone 5s cause I’m “old school” like that. Come follow me on Instagram – I’d love and appreciate the company!