Agent Orange, Travels in the Netherlands – The Netherlands, Europe
I stagger through the strange house looking for my clothes, coffee and, most importantly, some aspirin. My head is pounding and I am having trouble pulling the previous night into a coherent story, which doesn’t involve flagons of beer, vodka shots and table dancing. It’s only when I stagger into the dining room and see a strange, pajama-clad Dutch man, sitting drinking coffee at the table, do I realise that I have made a horrible mistake.
"Did you enjoy my daughter last night?" he asks without a trace of malice or impending violence.
For once I am lost for words.
"Oh, and there is some coffee in the pot."
I grab the coffee, try to back out of the room so he doesn’t see the scratches on my back, and hope that the ground will open up and swallow me.
And so begins my ten-year love-hate relationship with this strange and often disturbing nation that today, still shocks and amuses me in equal measure.
Amsterdam, I think, one sunny Saturday morning, as I wake up on the steps of the Hotel De Europe with a blinding hangover, isn’t a nice place when you are off your face. Trams are rattling along cobbled streets, unfeasibly tall people, each carrying a bunch of tulips, peddle sit-up-and-beg bikes along the pavement. Everyone looks blonde and is wearing gaily coloured wooden clogs. I pick myself up, dust myself down, and stagger back to my hotel. I skip the breakfast buffet, climb the ridiculously steep stairs to my room, undress and collapse onto my bed.
A few minutes later, without so much as a knock, two burly builders enter my room and proceed to knock down the wall. Ten minutes later, two more builders arrive and proceed to remove the windows. I hastily pull on some clothes and stagger down to reception.
"There seems to be a construction crew demolishing my room."
"Yes, that is correct. They will remodel the room today."
"It’s 7 o’clock on Sunday morning, are you insane?"
"Well, did you not think that the room was a good bargain?"
"Yes, it should be done by tomorrow. I am sure you can sleep around the work."
Useful Dutch Expression #1: Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven, He who has butter on his head should stay out the sun.
After a complex journey, which involves navigating the Dutch Railway (whose online timetable is so convoluted that even the locals blanch at its mention), I arrive at the Grand Hotel. From the outside it looks anything but grand. It has a crumbling façade, peeling paintwork and a junkie is shooting up in the car park. Inside is little better, and the management has chosen the romance of candlelight over the obvious benefits of electric lighting. When I finally arrive at reception (after nearly fracturing various parts of my body on pieces of furniture which jump from shadows), the receptionist looks at me like I have just crapped on her carpet.
"Can I have a room with an Internet connection, please?"
"Can I have a non-smoking room, please?"
"Is the bar serving food?"
"Can I book an early morning call?"
"Is this hotel called The Grand Hotel for a reason or are you simply being ironic?"
"Well, we like to think that it’s very gezelling."
Yes, I think, that wonderful Dutch concept of gezelling: don’t rock the boat, keep things nice and pretend everything is fine – even when it’s blatantly not.
When I find my colleague in the bar, he is nursing a warm beer. The barman offers a sneer when I order in Dutch, and then spends the whole night loudly abusing me to the locals.
Useful Dutch Expression #2: Ikke, ikke en de rest kan stikken, me, me, the rest can choke.
I am standing behind the goal on a Champions League night. The atmosphere is electric. It’s a few minutes to kick-off and I can feel ripples of excitement running through the crowd. The exceptionally tall man next to me wraps his PSV scarf around my neck and asks if I know the official PSV song. I tell him I don’t, so he sings it for me:
"Oh PSV, PSV, PSV….Oh PSV, PSV,PSV….Oh PSV…"
And then the game kicks off and forty thousand people take to their feet, begin to bounce and sing at the top of their voice.
"Oh PSV, PSV, PSV….Oh PSV, PSV,PSV….Oh PSV…"
Ninety minutes later, when the game is done and dusted, the two sets of fans mingle in the street, swap shirts and scarves and compliment each other on a great performance.
Useful Dutch Expression #3: Is de maan als een schuit, dan valt er geen regen uit. When the moon is a boat, no rain will fall.
French Guiana – Suriname Boarder – Maastricht
"What do you mean I need a bloody visa?" I shout at the customs official in Dutch. "I am virtually Dutch. You have to let me in."
He shakes his head, tosses me back my passport and returns to feeding his chickens, which leaves me stuck in no-man’s land, in this forgotten corner of South America.
The wiry looking Dutch man who had offered to fly me from Suriname to Brazil in his private plane shakes his head and calls the official a scrotum. We both blanch, as this is one of the most powerful Dutch insults. He then suggests that we return to Cayenne and consider this matter over a beer.
After each beer I rattle my glass expectantly, wink at my friend and suggest that he might like to get the next drinks in. My friend, however, always seems to be either in the toilet, on the phone or elsewhere when it comes to actually paying for a round. After several hours of this, I finally snap.
"Look, Alfons, if you don’t get the beers in, then I am going home."
And so with much show and tutting, he gets the drinks in. Shortly after that, I pass out.
Nine years later I am heading out to dinner in Maastricht. It is a balmy evening and I am looking forward to some of the delicious onion soup that this region seems to specialise in. Deciding to stop and have a beer before dinner, I enter the first bar I see only to find Alfons holding court at the bar.
"Ah, Philip," he smiles as if it is normal for me to walk into his local. "Get the beers in, it’s your round."
"You remember," he continues, "I bought the last one in Cayenne."
Useful Dutch Expression #4: Wat baten een kaars en bril als de uil niet ziet en wil, What is the use of candles and glasses if the owl doesn’t want to see?
"Oh my god," I think, one summer afternoon when I find myself lost in central Rotterdam. "This place truly is terrible."
Useful Dutch Expression #5: Al regende het varkens, je kreeg er geen borstel van, Even a rain of pigs doesn’t give you a brush.
I am taking a break from visiting some of Europe’s greatest art galleries. I am sitting on a park bench, enjoying the late Autumn sunshine when the pretty, young girl next to me flips out her cell-phone and takes a call.
"Yes, my day was quite nice. The baker had made some nice fresh rolls so I picked up a couple on my way to work. We had a good gossip around the coffee pot at lunch time and then I had an abortion on the way home."
Useful Dutch Expression #6: De toekomst is een boek met zeven sloten, The future is a book with seven locks.
I am sitting in a small brown café with a large portion of apple pie and whipped cream in front of me. I have just bought everyone in the bar a drink and I attempt once more to pronounce the name of this town. I manage the first seventeen syllables ok, but then my tongue has a spasm and the locals dissolve into fits of hysterics.
Useful Dutch Expression #7: Lekker is slechts een vinger lang, Tasty is just a finger long.
It’s a sad and sombre day. Today, fifty years ago, the armistice was signed in this town and today, the veterans from Operation Market Garden will march through town, present their colours and remember what they gave their youth for. Prince Bernard will accept their salutes and countless people will line the streets and offer their silent gratitude to the last generation of soldiers who can truly be called heroes. I lean on a lamppost and proudly wave my Union Jack. When my local regiment marches past, I feel a lump in my throat and feel proud to be British. One of the older veterans, who is hunched in a wheel chair, sees my lone Union Jack flag amongst so many Dutch flags and offers me a sly wink. I could not possibly conceive his bravery. Later when I lay flowers at the British military cemetery, I think of the many British people who willingly gave their life for the Dutch.
Later, the town explodes into a riot of colour, music and beer. Parties go on late into the night. Anouk plays a scorching set on the main stage and during the anthemic song, Nobody’s Wife, she drops her guitar and dances like she is having a seizure. From the VIP balcony, the veterans look on bemused.
Useful Dutch Expression #8: Bij hem komt de maan al door de wolken, His moon is already breaking the clouds.
It's the Queen’s Birthday today and the country is a mass of orange. At seven o’clock this morning, I was in Amsterdam buying a train ticket and was perhaps the only person not wearing orange. The station conductor tried to get me to wear a special Dutch Railways orange hat, but I declined.
Every house has an orange flag, everyone is drinking from orange cans of beer and little children are painted, head to toe, with orange face paint. My son and I wander around the Town Square, but neither of us likes the noise or bustle, so we head to the local park to play football and hide in the shadows. Even there, the trees are decked with orange and there is a mock medieval battle being staged. My son doesn’t like this either, and I am pleased to take him back to the hotel and laze the day away reading books.
That night the streets once more explode in waves of music, beer and orange. I stop to ask people about the House of Orange and their queen, but am met by blank stares. Eventually, a girl with multiple piercings and tattoos tells me, "Look, who cares about the queen or the flag, it’s just an excuse to go out and get drunk". She then lights a joint and slinks back into the crowd.
Useful Dutch Expression #9: Een man met baard, daar is een vrouw bij bewaard, A bearded man is a woman provided for.
The white-sand beach curves away into the distance and the only sound is the soft rustle of the wind in the dunes. The sun sinks slowly into the sea and the day seems portentous and wonderful. A white shirted waiter wanders over from a local café and places a cold beer next to me. It’s on the house and comes with the view, he tells me. I assume, quite correctly, that he isn’t Dutch, as no Dutch man would willingly offer a stranger a drink.
Vieland seems wasted on the Dutch. Devoid of cars, possessing its own archaic and complex language, and with miles and miles of pristine beach, this is as close to paradise as you can possibly get in Europe. Life here slows down to the basic elements. I feel strangely content. Each day I rise with the sun, walk for hours collecting shells and driftwood on the deserted beach, and then retire to a small café for pancakes and beer. I sit there writing until the sun dissolves into the sea and the night has moved from deep shades of red to inky black. When I walk back to the hotel, I gaze at the stars and I can not remember being so happy. On my last night, I write my name on the beach, watch the moonrise and think that quite possibly, I will come here to die.
Useful Dutch Expression #10: Heb je geen paard, gebruik dan een ezel, If you don’t have a horse, use a donkey.
After ten years and countless trips to The Netherlands, people often ask me which part I like the best. When I say the view from a 747 as it banks out over the North Sea and heads towards London, hardly anyone is surprised.
About the Author
Award winning writer, Philip Blazdell, has been travelling to The Netherlands for the last ten years, and would like to point out that every story in this article is absolutely true. When not in The Netherlands, he can be found in places as diverse as North Korea, Japan, Maryland, Sweden or Turkey. He lives out of a small rolling suitcase, thinks SKYPE is the best invention ever, and plans to soon settle down and write his memoirs – or at least the bits he can remember. He has contributed countless articles to BootsnAll, knows that there is no such thing as "The World Court", and still doesn’t have a web page. When not travelling, or eating peanut butter cakes, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (angry Cloggies need not bother).