Do or do not: the 31 Day Dutch Challenge

When I went back to visit the US, a lot of folks asked me how my Dutch was coming along. My stock answer was “not great.” I’ve made improvements, but I’m behind where I thought I would be by now: I’m slow to speak, I pretend to understand things I don’t, trip over grammar, I am too hesitant to ask people to repeat things I don’t understand, and I rarely speak Dutch at home. But I do take classes, and I am trying, and these things take time, right? And besides, as this writer so eloquently put it: 

Then I stayed with my friends in Austin and their super-cute twins who were just learning to roll over when I left. Now they speak complete, grammatically correct sentences. While I was impressed, and they are clearly above average, a little part of me couldn’t help but be a little bit saddened that I hadn’t made more of my three years in the Netherlands. It was a stok achter de deur (incentive) that I needed to step it up with my Dutch.

Everyone knows that children have several advantages when learning languages – aside from being immersed in the language, they have greater neuroplasticity. As adults, new information has to compete with what we already know. Destin Sandlin from Smarter Every Day, does an excellent job of explaining how entrenched certain processes, even simple ones like riding a bike, are in our minds. He demonstrated this by riding a “backwards” bicycle – one that his welder friends engineered so that he had to turn the handlebars left to turn right, and vice versa. They bet him that he would not be able to ride it and initially they were right.

Seriously, watch it. While the analogy isn’t perfect, it does illustrate how learning different grammar rules, word order, conjugation can feel as tricky as riding a backwards bicycle can be, and just how much serious time and effort is required to learn something new. And cramming won’t cut it – because as he says – “knowledge does not equal understanding”.

But I know that adults can learn Dutch well, because I’ve met (and solicited advice) from quite a few of them. Here are a few bits of advice that I frequently remind myself of:

Do or do not. There is no try. One of the most helpful pieces of advice offered was in response to me saying (in Dutch) that I was trying to learn the language. The woman I was speaking with got all Yoda on me, by telling me that I shouldn’t try, but do. She also said that I shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Dutch is a hard language, because by telling myself that, I’m implicitly giving myself an excuse to give up on it.

I’m going to make mistakes. The advice offered on, makes for a good mantra: Fuck it – I will make mistakes, and I need to dust off and move on. Which sounds obvious, but trust me it’s not, and it can be highly frustrating.

So…what are those goals again? Here are my Dutch goals for August. Please hold me accountable for them! If I meet them I buy myself a Fitbit and if I don’t meet them, I fess up to all of you.

Dutch goals August

The flashcards are for building vocabulary, the Taaltempo book has timed exercises that help me with speaking, response time and conjugation, and the Language Café is a bar in Utrecht where people who are learning Dutch can meet and have conversations.

Thanks for being stok achter de deur. I’ll be back with some updates next week.


Dickens Festijn Deventer

When we first arrived in the Netherlands, Manon asked her aunt, who loves to travel, what her favorite city was. We were surprised when she mentioned Deventer, a medium sized town about an hour away from the German border. Last year*, we decided to go to the Dickens Festijn, a Christmas market and festival for Charles Dickens held every year. Every year, 150,000 visitors converge on this relatively small town of 100,000 over one weekend – this year it’s this weekend (Dec. 19 – 20) to watch about 1,000 performers dress up as either a character in one of Dickens’ books, or a random English character from 19th century. The website mentioned that people could wait an hour and a half to get into the town. Part of me wanted to go just to figure out why it was so popular.

People appear to flock to it because of the spectacle, not because they are Charles Dickens fanatics. The event is also a clever way to compete with the Christmas markets in Germany. All the characters are represented, Mrs. Haversom, Pip, Scrooge as well as carolers, town drunks (in character, of course), hecklers, and vagabonds. There are street vendors yelling out delightfully strange English phrases such as “Sausage on a bread!” (broodje worst) and “very nice pancakes!”

If you can handle crowds, are a Dickens fan (although this isn’t a requirement), or are just looking for something different/offbeat to do this weekend – you may want to check out the Dickens Festijn. If you detest crowds and the fest doesn’t appeal to you, Deventer is still a great day-trip. It’s a charming, medieval town with great shopping, and fun bars and restaurants.

*Why am I writing about the Dickens Festijn now, when we went last year? Last year, I wanted to do everything Christmas-y, so we went to Cologne, and attended Gouda by Kaarslicht, and by the time it came to the Dickens Festijn, I Could. Not. Write. Another. Thing. About. Christmas.

Hoge Veluwe National Park and Kröller Müller Museum

Netherlands GelderlandOne thing that I was looking forward to when we moved here was having fall again. I grew up outside Chicago, and when I moved to Texas, I missed a typical fall day – crisp and slightly chilly air, the sound of leaves crunching under my feet, the leaves turning colors and falling, instead of being fried to a crisp and dropping after they’d finally given up. Of course, I neglected to think of some of the downsides to fall, like the darker and grey and rainy days. So whenever we have a sunny, warm fall day like the ones I remembered, it’s imperative that we go outside and enjoy it. This weekend we made a trip to one of my favorite places in the Netherlands – the Hoge Veluwe National Park.

We’ve been to the Hoge Veluwe several times since moving here, first on a whim to see the Kröller Müller Museum, and then the last two times after we realized that the park itself was gorgeous and worth a visit. Their free white bikes are the best way to discover the enormous park – at 5,400 hectares, it’s about a forth the size of Amsterdam, or a little over half the size of Manhattan. They were scarce last weekend, since everyone had the same idea. An upside/downside on the bikes is that they can’t be locked, so when you spot a free one, it’s yours. We spent the first half of our day on foot and then grabbed bikes. Parts of the park don’t even feel like Europe –with its tall grass and craggy trees, it seems more like an African savannah.


FullSizeRenderThe Kröller Müller Museum itself is beautiful – its architecture still seems modern and is lit with natural light. It also has the second largest Van Gogh collection in the world. Helene Kröller Müller, the museum’s founder, was one of the first art collectors interested in his work. It’s interesting to see is how profound an influence relocating to France had on Van Gogh’s paintings. His early work in the Netherlands was dark and often depicted scenes of poverty – compare dark composition of The Potato Eaters to vivid blues and yellows used in Starry Night. Their collection isn’t limited to Van Gogh – it also contains Mondrian, Seurat, Gauguin and Picasso.

A fire damaged the park in the spring of 2014. The museum was evacuated, and all the artwork was moved to a fireproof location. The damage wasn’t visible to us, either because the park is so large, or we were too busy looking up at the leaves to notice.

Bodegraven – Borefts Bier Festival

Netherlands Zuid-HollandI haven’t said much about where we live, probably because there’s not much to say. A friend of ours calls Bodegraven “boterham” (sandwich in Dutch), and that’s fairly accurate. It is a small village in the Randstad right in between Rotterdam (30 km northeast) and Utrecht (30 km west).

This weekend is the best time for craft beer fans to visit Bodegraven. The Boerefts Bier Festival starts today (Friday September 25, 2015) and runs until Sat. Sept. 26th from 12 – 22:00. Microbreweries from Latvia, to Sweden to Portland, Oregon (USA) are coming to town to participate. This year’s fest features about twenty brewers (including the host brewery – De Molen) from about nine different countries, and is a great way to introduce yourself to craft beers in the EU. The cost is 20 euro for six beers and a glass. Traveling by train is best – De Molen is about a ten-minute walk (stumbling distance!) from the station.

The festival’s host, Brouwerij De Molen is a great brewery on its own accord. They consider themselves to be an experimental brewer, and it’s easy to tell that they are willing to take chances by just reviewing the beers they will be offering at the festival (Wasabi Saison, anyone?) They export approximately 70% of their beer to other countries. Their beer is quite good; I’m a fan of their Hop & Top and the Amarillo beers.

Fun fact: De Molen is listed on Rate Beer’s Top Places To Have A Beer In The World for 2015.

Some of the other standouts in Bodegraven:

Speciaal Bierwinkel

Overtocht 6. Run by Jan Kraan, it is a hybrid craft beer store and advertising agency. He also brews his own beers – one standout is the Limes Ale, a beer that’s gaining popularity in this area (on tap in Bodegraven, Woerden, etc.) Kraan’s store features Dutch and Belgium craft beers, and is organized by region. Don’t let the “Te Koop” (for sale) sign fool you, he is looking to expand and wants a larger storefront.

Fun fact: Every time we’ve visited his store, he was playing Pink Floyd.

Vinyl Voor Goed

Prins Hendrikstraat 14. This is a used LP store that donates proceeds from selected records to charity. The owner sold some of his own collection to get it started, and the LPs are priced fairly and in good condition. Top finds: This Year’s Model – Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Horses – Patti Smith. Open Thursday & Saturday 10:00 – 17:00; Friday 13:00 – 20:30; cash only.

De Zoete Inval

Noordstraat 6 Delicious coffee and gelato. Every cup of coffee comes with a mini gelato cone.

Vacation: The Netherlands vs. the U.S.

The Dutch refer to the first Saturday in August as “Zwarte Zaterdaag” or Black Saturday. It’s called “Black Saturday” because everyone hits the road (asphalt) to go on vacation. On August 1st, there was a traffic jam in France that was nearly 900 km (560 miles) long. Last year, the traffic jam was even worse.

The Dutch really value and prioritize vacations. Workers, as well as the unemployed, are given money (vekantie geld) dedicated for vacation. The way it works is 8% of a worker’s salary is withheld, and then given back in one paycheck. Initially, I was not a fan – if we wanted to take a vacation, why couldn’t we just save for it ourselves? Being an American, the laws of instant gratification dictate that I want that money NOW. But that was before that first paycheck came in, and we used it to help fund our 3-week long vacation. Now I love it.

That was the first time I took a three-week vacation but it won’t be my last. In Europe, long vacations are common. The idea is that vacations are restorative and make workers more (not less) productive. Manon (my spouse) is given 41 workdays off a year – 25 are actual vacation days, an additional 15 are for days when the office is shut around holidays and are negotiated by the construction industry’s labor union and she gets one extra day because she’s over forty. Her team didn’t expect her to work or be available while on vacation. The way it’s handled: before someone leaves for vacation, her team meets, work is divvied up, and that’s the end of it. Employees need to be somewhat cross trained, but that’s done throughout the year.

In the U.S. this is not common, or really accepted. Project Time Off found that in 2013 American workers forfeited a total of 169 million days of paid time off; surrendering $52.4 billion in benefits.

In the US, there’s more of a feeling that vacations (both long and otherwise) are expensive and unnecessary – and there can be a certain pride in not taking them. It’s similar to the “I’m so busy” humble brag – “this place needs me too much for me to go on vacation!” This attitude is summed up well in an obnoxious Cadillac ad:

What’s this commercial’s message? Dear rest of the world – Please don’t buy a Cadillac.

Another reason is Americans don’t take long vacations is fear, or more specifically the fear of being expendable – if a company can be without you for a month, do they really need you? The New York Times recently interviewed over 100 current and former employees about its highly competitive office culture, one that encourages employees to work long, hard and smart. It describes long work hours, constant evaluations (employees are able to send anonymous feedback to supervisors through an “Anytime Feedback Tool”) and a lack of empathy towards workers with personal crises. The interviewees mentioned that they began “internalizing Amazon’s priorities” – or putting pressure on themselves to maintain high standards. One reason that the culture is this way is to ensure that the company does not become complacent. Based on the interviews it has taken a tool on its workers*.

This is not to say Americans don’t take vacations, we definitely do. Those who don’t take vacations sometimes aren’t even rewarded for it. According to Project Time Off, employees who left 11-15 days of unused vacation time were less likely (6.5%) to receive a raise or bonus than someone who used all of his vacation days.

We spent our vacation in Canada, meeting friends and family, biking, and watching a few Women’s World Cup matches. We went to Montreal and Vancouver – both incredibly great cities. The Dutch perspective of vacations being restorative is right on – at least it is from my perspective.

*It may be fairer to say that working at Amazon took a toll on those interviewed. Amazon disputes the article, and a number of employees have responded to it. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, said in response, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

Utrecht – Tour De France

Netherlands UtrechtUtrecht was the starting point for this year’s (2015) Tour de France. We were on vacation and weren’t able to see the send off, but the city has been buzzing with excitement since it was announced nearly two years ago.

Utrecht, a transit hub and university town, has begun to receive more attention and accolades in the past couple of years for reasons that have nothing to do with the Tour. Utrecht’s popularity largely stems from the charming historic buildings and cobblestone streets, the vibrancy that usually accompanies large university towns, and most importantly, its central location. Utrecht is the largest train hub in the Netherlands, making it easy for commuters to get to other cities in the Randstad such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Hague quickly. It is a café town, not a foodie town, as another U.S. expat put it, and that’s pretty accurate. Strolling through downtown, you can’t help but notice all the terraces with tables several rows deep, filled with patrons leisurely eating, drinking and people watching.

In short, we like Utrecht. Here’s why we don’t live there yet:

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 23.23.19

Continue reading “Utrecht – Tour De France”

Maastricht – Remembrance Day

Netherlands LimburgMaastricht may be located in the Netherlands, but its soul is Belgian. At least it feels more like Belgium than it does the Netherlands. Part of that could be attributed to proximity – Maastricht, at the southernmost tip of the Netherlands, closely borders Germany and Belgium. The south of the country is known for its “Bourgondish Levenshouding” (Bourgondish lifestyle), which emphasizes relaxing and enjoying life.

Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands – it has been occupied since the ancient Romans, and has approximately 1,660 listed historical buildings, making it second only to Amsterdam*. The day we arrived was rainy, so we didn’t get to sightsee as much as we would have liked. As we were walking back to the hotel – we heard a band playing Gun and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” (it sounds weird but they did a great job). It began to rain again so we ducked inside a dive bar to wait it out. The band came into the bar and did a few more songs, like Adele’s Skyfall:

The sound quality is not great – I am rocking an iPhone 3. Also, you can hear me say, “do you wanna do it” to Manon because she started steering my phone while I was filming.

Continue reading “Maastricht – Remembrance Day”

(I wanna go to the) Carnaval

Netherlands Noord Brabant

No time like a deadline – it’s Easter, and the last possible moment that I can describe Carnaval – a party that celebrates the beginning of Lent. It’s celebrated in the south of The Netherlands, the only portion that remains traditionally Catholic. We went to Den Bosch this year, and spent last year in Eindhoven. Den Bosch is the city here that is best known for Carnaval – they officially change their name to Oeteldonk during the festival. To me, it’s more Halloween than Marti Gras – the parades are smaller, and everyone participates by going in costume. Last year we did not have a costume, and we vowed not to do that again. The costume that we decided on this year was a hit but a bit too cumbersome to ever do again:


We also thought we would dodge sexual innuendo from other attendees, but we didn’t anticipate the question “Do you stack?” (Answer: No. I’m Duplo and Manon’s Lego). Here are a few pictures from the parade, as well as some of our favorite costumes:

Because we are old ladies, we found Eindhoven better than Den Bosch – which was a little too crowded. Also, and this was totally our fault, walking through crowded streets in boxes gets old pretty quickly.

Gouda bij Kaarslicht

Stadhuis not during Christmas
Stadhuis not during Christmas

Before we moved to the Netherlands, a friend of mine emailed me a picture of Gouda bij Kaarslicht (Gouda by Candlelight), and wrote, “you’ll get to see this!” Who knew that we would end up living a quick twenty-minute bus ride away from Gouda. Last year (2013) we weren’t able to attend, so we (I?) made sure that we were ready this time around. December 12, 2014 was a cold and rainy afternoon, so we were a little worried about whether this ceremony would go on but the evening cleared up, and likely reduced the crowds a little – which was a mazzel, or good fortune, according to Manon.Continue reading “Gouda bij Kaarslicht”