Category: Europe

Zooming in on my hometown

The other day I walked through Leiden, the town I live in, and tried to look at my surroundings from a different perspective. I noticed the many plaques that adorn all sorts of old buildings and tell its history. Here are some of the things I saw:

As you can see, the two red keys are a recurring theme. This is because the coat of arms of Leiden depicts two red keys, crossed in an X-shape on a white background. These keys are a reference to St.Peter, who guards the entry way to heaven and after whom a large church in the city center is named. Because of this coat of arms, Leiden is referred to as the “Sleutelstad” (“the key city”).


The Green Heart of Holland

Just to get things out of the way and clear, I suggest you watch this little video first.

We Dutchies have become very accustomed to calling our country Holland. It is easier and faster to pronounce than the Netherlands and even though some die-hard people who live outside of the provinces North and South Holland may sometimes object, when our national football team plays, we all chant “Holland! Holland!” and never “Nederland! Nederland!”.

Anyway, my home country is very small. It is about half the size of the state of Maine (or half the size of the British mainland) and barely visible on most world maps  and globes I’ve seen. It is quite densely populated but we still manage to grow a lot of our own food. Our land provides us with enough vegetables that we can even export a great deal and recently our milk has come in even higher demand than it already was (especially since the 2008 Chinese milk scandal) so we need some meadows for our champion cow to stomp around in as well.

So, our cities are pretty crammed and our houses are not very big (especially compared to U.S. standards) and you can imagine we have very little space left for nature to just be… actually I’m not sure if we have any of that at all.  We are a well organized people and we expect our flora and fauna to be the same. Trees may grow, but not mess with our side walks. Water may flow, but only where and how we instruct it to (doesn’t always work). We have hares, rabbits and other undergrond critters sign contracts making them promise to not mess up our dykes.

All though we don’t have any real wilderness, we do have rural areas. Our most urban areas are in North and South Holland, as explained in the video above, but even there we do have some open spots. This area, in the middle of our nation, is usually referred to as the Green Heart.

It is an area where the inhabitants of our biggest cities as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague can escape to, to breathe in some fresh air, ride a bike, sail a boat, sniff a tulip, spot a bird… You know, the stuff we Dutchies like to do…

The green heart is special. It feels like the countryside, all though you can always see some big city’s skyline on the horizon. You can see swans, geese and ducks flying by almost as often as planes on their way to Schiphol airport. At night, you can’t see the stars, because of the many greenhouses and big towns around.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The farmers in the green heart are often of the intellectual type, compared to the ones in the real countryside. They are the ones that experiment with new potato species and experimental cowfeeding machines. They often have some business on the side, and provide tours for tourists that rush through our country in one or two days.

The green heart is also mentioned in most political parties’ programs. On the one side there are the parties that want to conserve and protect the area and fight against further expansion of houses and businesses into the green heart. On the other side the green heart is seen as an area of opportunies, where modern towns could grow, sustainable energy programs can be set up and our airport can expand into.

The green heart is an extremely compact chunk of Dutchness.

Lest we forget our souvenirs

A few weeks ago I went to visit my big brother in Paris. He is living there with his family in a cute appartment right by the Place de Saint Sulpice, which is what you see on this pic on the left. He will be there for the coming year and I intend to visit him as often as I can, as it is really not so far from where I live in the Netherlands and the drive there is lovely too. I had taken the toll-road on the way there and, since I wasn’t in a hurry, I decided to take the long way up and enjoy the landscape a bit more on my way back.

En route, I kept seeing signs pointing in certain directions saying “Circuit du Souvenir”. And I kept thinking, “How nice, there’s a whole route you can take to buy souvenirs!” I may not have been in a hurry, but I didn’t have much time to stray off my path either, so I told myself I would take this road on my next trip to France and see what kind of nice artifacts and delicious foods they were selling on what I imagined would be a cute road, with lovely panoramic views, passing by traditional cheesemakers, wineries, charcuterie- and pastry shops.

I had decided not to drive back in one go, but spread it out over 2 days, so I had to find a place to spend the night. I stopped in a town called Peronne, where I was told there would be several hotels charging decent prices. I arrived after sundown, but did manage to find a hotel with an available room and even found a place to get a bite to eat before hitting the bed.

PeronneI saw there was a big old fortress in the village that I wanted to check out for a bit in the morning, before driving the last stretch back home. So that’s what I did. I walked over to the fortress in the morning and saw the town was quite a bit more touristy than I had initially thought, and I was especially surprised by the amount of Englilsh and Australian flags, which I thought was odd… But it soon became clear to me (and made me feel quite foolish for not realizing sooner)…

The fortress of Peronne was not just any fortress. It had been renovated in 1992 and now included a new section, which was a Museum of the Great War… and then pieces started to fall into place… I had seen some military graveyards along the way, but for some reason had associated this with the second world war only… Somewhere in the back of my mind I did know this area had played a big role in the First Wold War, but my history was clearly hazy.

So, for your information, here follows a small pinch of history. For more about Peronne and the region’s history, please look here.

For almost the whole of the war, the town of Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2nd September 1918 by Australian troops. Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war! Everyday, the bells of the Town Hall ring out “La Madelon”, a popular French song from the Great War.

So…… then I finally got my brain going and it suddenly hit me, souvenir means “to remember” in French… so the Circuit de Souvenir wasn’t this awesome route of artsy fartsy food and drinks I had imagined, but was actually a remembrance trail passing war monuments and military burial sites… hence all the British and Australian flags everywhere…. d’oh!

Last Sunday was remembrance Sunday in Great Britain and I suspect some activities must have taken place in Peronne and surroundings as well. In the Netherlands it was an ordinary day, with the only reminder being the poppies pinned on the dresses of British celebrities on TV (which to most will probably have gone unnoticed). We Dutchies played no role in the great war whatsoever, as we had declared ourselves neutral as soon as trouble started brewing. So I guess that is why we don’t commemorate the victims of this war and hardly discuss it in our history classes at all.  :-S

And this year was special too, because it’s a full century after the Great war started, so I did my best to catch up on my lack of knowledge and payed respects in my own way, and do so again by sharing this story with you.

A blog that especially moved me was by a fellow blogger, Dean Richards, who emphasized we should remember, but not glorify war. I leave you with a quote from his blog, to read and chew on for a bit…

We say lest we forget, but we have already forgotten. In fact, we have never known it in the first place. We see only heroes and glory, but forget the death and the destruction, the complete futility of war that takes so many victims for so little reason. War doesn’t solve problems, it never has, yet here we are, not pitying its victims, but glorifying them, as if their victimhood is something to be desired.

You missed…

A little more than one week for my departure. What am I going to miss?
Forget baguettes and croissants, this is bread!

I just ate breakfast. I love breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day and I indulge in it as much as I can. We Dutchies like our breads. Good sturdy wholemeal bread with all sorts of toppings. In my opinion, it is one of the things we excel in most (besides watermanagement and creating Doutzen Kroes) and it is most definitely one of the things I am going to miss very much during my travels.

Now, there are some very stereotypical Dutch products, that foreigners have to have tried at least once to understand our palate. Dutch cheeses are sold all around the world and all though I love a piece of good ripe cheese on a piece of fresh baked brown bread, I think I will manage 3 months without it just fine. Same goes for drop (or liquorice). People that haven’t grown up eating drop will never understand how we have ever come to see it as a treat. It is one of our favorite japes, to present foreigners with our drop (especially our salty varieties) and watch their faces twitch and spasm until they spit it out. Come to think of it, maybe I will take some with me and if I remember, I’ll make a video of the faces of my new Ecuadorian friends when they try it. I just hope they will still be my friends afterwards…
varieties of Dutch cheese
Varieties of drop


Another Dutch product that actually does do very well amongst foreigners, are stroopwafels. They are waffle-cookies with syrup in between. Very simple, very sweet, very much appreciated. Nobody spits these out, unless they have diabetes… I think I might take a couple of packets of these along with me as well (possibly to help people rinse away the drop-taste).



And last but not least I would like to mention appelstroop, which translates to apple syrup. It is one of my favorite things in the world and if I could, I would eat it all day long. It is a product that not all of my fellow countrymen and -women appreciate the way I do, but it is perhaps the thing I will miss most while abroad.

cute traditional appelstroop cans
… but the cheaper varieties are actually tastier i.m.o

The taste of Appelstroop can best be described as sweet and slightly tart (sourish). It is absolutely delicious on (here we go again) wholegrain bread, possibly in combination with a piece of cheese or bacon. You can also use it to add to the flavor of a good beef-stew.

So… just a little more than a week before my departure. And then three months from now I will write about which Ecuadorian foodstuffs I am going to miss back in Holland.

Can’t wait!

Zero degrees

At this very moment the temperature outside my window is somewhere around zero degrees Celsius. Last week it was stil snowing and freezing quite a bit, but today it’s starting to feel like spring.

A bit more than a month from now, zero degrees will mean something completely different; Zero degrees latitude, that is. It will probably rain quite a bit, but with about 25 degrees Celsius difference it’s not all that bad. It’s hard to imagine how it will all be, but I’m looking forward to it. I’ve still got quite a bit to take care of, but I’ll be ready when the time comes.