On Nov. 23, 2005 I moved to The Hague from Washington, DC. This is my new Dutch life.


Transition Neighborhood

I didn't mention it before because I didn't want to spoil Christmas, but my bike was stolen! Like B-'s seat, I had it for a whopping 10 days before it vanished.

I discovered the injustice on Christmas Eve. Not even the remnants of my broken lock could be found. It seems that shady characters skulk around in vans, break the locks and drive off with the bikes - probably selling them in Amsterdam. So the rub is that if I cut my losses and buy a used bike, chances are that some other woman not so unlike myself (a Lilliputian among giants) is probably secretly searching her block hoping she just forgot where she parked.

The sad thing is that just the day before I was thinking that I should rough it up a bit to make it less interesting to thieves. A lot of good thinking does.

We realized we're living in a transition neighborhood. A few blocks to the North, the streets are cleaner and the window boxes well maintained. Head a few blocks to the South and it just goes downhill. Cafes and cute shops to the North. Coffee shops (they don't sell coffee) and car stereo dealers to the South.

It bothers me that our little square with its very own olie bollen stand is littered with cans and wrappers. My plan is to get one of those litter spears and start cleaning it up. Wonder what my neighbors would think of that.

The upshot is that renovations are underway in many of the buildings on the square. My immediate neighbors are young professionals, some with new babies. My hope is that the transition will happen quickly and we'll soon enjoy a nice cafe-lined square. If DC can clean up 14th street, surely The Hague can just spruce up the fringes of Duinoord.

As for the bike- Seems my insurance deductible is more than the cost of the bike, so it's not worth reporting the loss. Unfortunately, I need to replace it and soon. Ouch! Between that and Dutch lessons, I'll soon be properly broke.


Let it sneeuw. Let it sneeuw. Let it sneeuw.

It's beginning to feel a lot like - oh wait that was last week.

After just a bit of snow and hail yesterday (I've seen more hail in the past couple of weeks than I have my whole life), we woke to a nice blanket of snow this morning.

They don't seem too inclined to plow our streets, so there's a bit of an ice pack on the roads. This would surely shut DC down, but it looks like business as usual out there.

I love snow. :)



Lost in Translation

I feel like a 4 year old. Not only can I not read or speak Dutch, but the affect of speaking stilted sentences to non-native speakers is having a toll on my command of English.

Sure sure, I'm picking up vocabulary here and there, but I don't even know the Dutch word for "good bye." Wait, that's not true. I've seen the words, but God help me to pronounce them.

There's a myth widely perpetrated by Americans who visit The Netherlands on vacation: everyone speaks English. I'm here to debunk that myth.

It's true that some Dutch speak English and even speak it quite well. They tend to be professionals or have jobs in parts of the city where non-Dutch speakers are more likely to be. In my neighborhood, this isn't the case. The usual interaction I have with adults these days consists of gesturing, one-word sentences or pointing to words in my Dutch-English dictionary.

When I find an English speaker, I feel a bit ashamed.

I don't blame the Dutch for not speaking much English. Americans could learn a thing or two from the mere effort to become bilingual. What bothers me is that the expectation is that English is spoken everywhere. Even The Hague's language guidebook for foreigners is only offered in Dutch.

It's simply not true that English is spoken everywhere, and if you're going to spend any time in this country you should set your mind to learning Dutch. So, I've been researching Dutch language classes and hope to start a course in January.

** Caution. This next bit gets rather geeky, and I suspect only one person will find this interesting.**

Not that I need convincing, but one language school hosts several web pages dedicated to the worthiness of attaining Dutch literacy. In a section that "attempts" to make the case that Dutch isn't all that hard to learn or all that different from English, they blame English for Dutch being difficult to pronounce. In reference to something they call the "great vowel shift," they inform English speakers that, in fact, Dutch pronunciation is more phonetic.

As if! A hundred points goes to anyone who can properly pronounce "voorbereidingen," "slechtstscrijvende" or even "kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamheden." Rob's not allowed to play.

So, I looked up this so-called "vowel shift." According to one Harvard scholar, a shift in the pronunciation of long vowel sounds indeed began around the 15th century when we quit speaking Middle English (remember those recordings in high school?). The affect is that words like "sheep," used to be pronounced like "shape." Who knows, then, how you'd pronounce "shape." I haven't bothered to investigate deeper.

Though an interesting tour of linguistic history, this explanation does little to boost my confidence. It hardly makes a difference given that I don't speak the Pardoner's English. Perhaps Chaucer would have had an easier time with Dutch. My money's on "probably not."



Post Holiday Wrap-Up

The run up to Christmas this year was much like any other. Busy at work, busy in life, and not quite feeling that holiday spirit. With everything else going on in our lives, Christmas snuck up on is a bit more stealthily than in years past.

I haven't been completely slacking on my blog, though. I spent some time setting up a .mac account so I can post photo galleries. If you're so inclined, check out some photos of The Hague.

The week leading up to Christmas included another dash down to Rotterdam to file still more immigration paperwork. On the way back, I stopped through Delft for some Christmas prezzies. While there, I took a quick tour of the Royal Delft porcelain factory. I was happy to discover that not all Delftware is cheezy, and in fact some of it is quite nice - though extremely expensive.

Happily, the Dutch embrace Christmas, or Kerst, a bit more enthusiastically than they do Sinterklaas. Christmas tree vendors cropped up once Sinterklaas set sale for his home in Spain. Dutch homes everywhere were soon decorated with the usual holiday decorations you see back in the States. Carolers, violinists and even a horse-drawn organ (above) were common sights.

After an unsuccessful search for a kennel with a vacancy, B- and I realized that we'd spend our first European Christmas just the four of us (Me, B-, dog and cat) in The Hague. So we enthusiastically bought and decorated a tree and set about planning our Christmas dinner. Despite a ruined hollandaise sauce, our meal was quite yummy.

Though our spread was modest, our 1st and 2nd Kerstdagen (the Dutch officially celebrate two days for Christmas) were filled with love, cheer and phone calls to family all over the world.

Vrolijke Kerstmis en Gelukkige Nieuwjaar!



Life in the Blogosphere

I realize that the following comments have nothing to do with the Netherlands. However, my new life in Holland affords me a bit more free time than I had before. So, I guess this is what I'm doing with it.

Today I clicked on the "Next Blog" link that appears in the upper corner of Blogspot sites. In return, I learned something really cool about my computer - it has Hindi fonts loaded on it!

I dunno what this blog is, but the text looks cool:

As a new blogger, I'm starting to feel the lure of the blogosphere. I never before felt the urge to read blogs. Now that I have my own blog, I find myself wanting to read more and more and more. It's crack.

I dig the "Next Blog" button.

As an aside (I guess this whole entry is an aside), when I spell-checked this article, I discovered that Blogger's dictionary doesn't have any form of the word 'blog' in it.


New Wheels

This morning, I made a giant leap towards integration into Dutch society. I bought a bicycle.

Of course I already own a bike -- a really nice Trek commuter bike. On paper it would be perfect as my new mode of transportation. However, its many features would attract thieves and it'd be gone -- one piece at a time. B- and I plan to use our fancy bikes for bicycle touring in the Spring and Summer months.

I made a half-assed attempt at buying a used junker only to find that most used shops don't carry bikes in my size, which is to say "extra-small." The Dutch are giant people.

So, I trotted down the road to my local tweewielerbedrif, literally "two-wheeler business," for a new one. The shopkeeper was nice enough, but spoke no English whatsoever (I'll go over the myth that the Dutch speak English in a later post). I happened to have my Dutch-English dictionary, but the transaction mostly took place with him saying a lot of stuff and me nodding. I'm pretty sure that I have a warranty, and that I need to go back for a few tune-ups.

My new Dutch-style bike is very old school - sit upright on a big cushy seat. Really, it's quite leisurely to tour around the city. While it's common to see bikes with no speeds and back-pedal breaks, mine has 3 speeds and hand breaks. These features alone make me nervous that my bike will soon be stolen.

Other unique features include a built in pannier with wheel guard and a headlight powered by a generator-- generating energy from the rotation of the front wheel. My dad had one of these lights on his German bike back in the 70s. It's nice to see they're still in use.

On the subject of theft, apparently bike thievery is quite prevalent. B-'s seat was stolen within 2 weeks of bike ownership. My new ride has a locking mechanism that prevents the back wheel from rotating. I guess in theory, if someone were to break through my Kryptonite lock, they still couldn't ride the bike.

It's not a stereotype, the Dutch ride bikes everywhere. With dedicated bike lanes on all major streets and special traffic signals, it's one of the most efficient ways to get around. I'm eager to start exploring my new home!



Museum Day: Gemeente Museum Den Haag

The Netherlands is full of museums, so we thought we'd take a few hours this weekend to check one out.

Up the road from our house is the Gemeente Museum Den Haag, or City Museum of The Hague, as well as the Museon and the Fotomuseum Den Haag. They all appear to be part of the same complex, only you're required to purchase a different ticket for each wing.

We originally set out to visit the Fotomuseum, but ended up in the Museon which is a family-oriented natural history museum. We asked the woman at the desk about seeing the photographs and she nodded and directed us through the door and to the left.

Though a bit confused we found ourselves in a really great photography exhibit on tour from the UK -- Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2005. In the end, we got to see a lot of great (and inspirational) nature shots.

Some of my favorites:
-- Egret in the Snow
-- Termite Catching
-- Japanese Macaque Eating Cherry Blossom
-- Mistaken Identity
-- Ancient Snow Gum
-- Elephants Below Mt. Kilimanjaro
-- Beech in the Mist
-- Lava by Moonlight
-- Red Squirrel Pose
-- Chimpanzee Meditation
-- Blue Dasher

With only 30 minutes left before closing, we headed over to the Gemeente Museum, which houses a really nice collection of early and late Piet Mondriaan paintings including the famous "Victory Boogie Woogie." To my surprise, the well-known colored squares of "Victory" were constructed with not just a little bit of electrical tape!

The maze-like interior of the Gemeente Museum begins in what looks (and even smells a bit) like a big tile bathroom. Then you sort of criss-cross through halls containing a mix of paintings, decorative art, antique furniture and several rooms of centuries-old gold and silver serving pieces made by artisans in The Hague.

To afford the luxury of a sprint through a museum, earlier we purchased Museum Kaarts for just under 30 Euro each. The cards get you into museums all over the country for no additional fee, as many times as you like, up to a year. You need only visit about 6 times to earn the price of the card.

While it's not quite the free admission we enjoyed in DC, the Museum Kaart does take the sting away a bit.



Delft Where

It's been a slow week here in Den Haag. B-'s Dad was in town for a few days, so we found ourselves playing tour guides for a city we barely know. With his Dad on his way, B-'s been working late nights to catch up - a trend I hope doesn't stick.

To catch a glimpse of the quaint and cozy 'old world' life that the Netherlands is famous for, we headed over to Delft. Delft is home to Johannes Vermeer (of "Girl with a pearl earring" fame) and Delftware, the hand-painted pottery that the Dutch copied from the Chinese. You've seen Delftware even if you don't know it - white salt and pepper shakers, plates and vases all delicately painted with blue windmills, tulips and copies of Vermeer paintings.

Delft lives up to its reputation as a very cute Dutch village, complete with canals, old churches, a big square and an ornate town hall. Our brief winter tour was quite nice, but it's easy to imagine the place overrun with tourists in the high season.

Delft canal and old church with its leaning tower.

Wooden shoe outside a tourist shop.

View of the old church and Delft from the new church tower. The "new" church was constructed in the 14th century.



Racism - Just in time for the Holidays

Yesterday was Sinterklaas Day, the gift-giving portion of the Dutch holiday season.

The Sinterklaas tradition goes a little like this:

Sint Nikolaas (St. Nicholas), the patron saint of children as well as seamen, merchants, archers, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, prisoners, Russia and Amsterdam, was also fond of giving secret gifts. Hmm gotta hand it to the Dutch to be the first to bring merchants and children together. Convenient.

Sinterklaas lives in Spain (no one knows why) and once a year he takes a boat up to the Netherlands with his pal Zwarte Piet, Black Peter. Black Peter helps him compile the famous list of children who are naughty and nice. They turn up mid-November to much fanfare in one of the Netherlands port cities, and then proceed to celebrate in shopping areas until December 5.

On the night of December 5, legend has it that Sinterklaas and Black Peter ride a white horse on the rooftops of Dutch houses and apartment buildings bringing treats to good little children. Sound familiar? Generally he sends Black Peter down the chimney, or through the radiator pipe if that's more convenient, to deposit chocolates and other goodies in wooden shoes.

The Dutch can also be thanked for the dreaded office party tradition, Secret Santa. Dutch adults celebrate Sinterklaas by drawing names to determine who'll they'll buy a present for. The presents are given anonymously with a hand-written poem, poking fun of the person receiving the gift. So, it's also a bit of a roast.

But let's talk a bit about Black Peter. It's said that he's a moor. Fair enough, I guess. But is it really necessary to dress him up like a clown? Black face, big afro, bright red lips? We also know that the real Saint Nicholas lived in Turkey, perhaps he should be a bit less, uhm, Dutch looking as well. Others say that Black Peter is black because he crawls around in chimneys. That wouldn't explain the big afro and red lips or why his clothes aren't dirty.

In doing research on Sinterklaas, I came across one person who suggests that Black Peter might actually spank naughty children and even whisk them away to Spain. Useful parenting aid, I suppose. "Be nice or Black Peter will take you away."

Let's just put it out there - Dutch traders brought the first slaves to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. So, it's not hard to imagine that Black Peter was less of a 'pal' to Sinterklaas, and more likely his personal servant. We'll just say slave. You can say what you will about American political correctness, but I can't shake the feeling that this is a seriously insensitive tradition, especially given the Netherlands' very checkered past.

The characterization of Black Peter as goofy clown or dark stranger that steals naughty children in the night would not be tolerated in modern America. Perhaps it's because the Dutch don't have to live everyday with the product of their historical bad deeds. It's easy to say to your kids, "Oh Black Peter is just fun" when they don't go to school with the ancestors of your former slaves.

What's interesting is that there are a lot of immigrants from former Dutch colonies in the Netherlands. Perhaps when you choose to move to a country for economic opportunity (as opposed to enslaved and deposited there), you tolerate the culture of your adopted land. Or so the French thought.



At the Skankateria

B- and I vowed to explore our new city on the weekends even if the weather threatens to drive us to the couch with a cup of tea and a book.

On Saturday, we decided to check out the centrum, or city center. The best shopping in town can be found along narrow, cobble-stone streets in the oldest part of the city. Highlights include the Passage, a 19th century glass covered street and a 13th century square.

Of the moment fashion can only be described as "heavy metal skank." Maybe this trend is sweeping America too, but certainly not in career-minded DC. Nearly every shoe shop proudly displays spike-heeled 'ef me' boots, all in colors guaranteed to look worn from so many walks of shame within days. To round out your look as Tommy Lee's groupie faded denim mini-skirts, teased hair and smudged makeup are also the rage.

You have options, however. If that look doesn't suit you, how about drawing inspiration from Inuit communities? Faux fur is also a hit, especially on boots. The more you look like you're trekking to the North Pole, the better.

Today, we trammed up to "De Fred" or Frederik Hendrikslaan, supposedly one of the best shopping streets in town. Perhaps if more stores had been open, we'd have been more impressed. Alas, not so much.



News Flash

It did not rain today.

Even though I have seen the sun break through for a few hours here and there, it's been 10 days since I have had a rain free day (including 2 days in DC).

It's important not to overlook the small miracles in life.



Girl About Town

I finally had the time and a reason to leave the neighborhood the past couple of mornings. It's not that I didn't want to venture out into the wide Dutch world, but mostly I had other stuff to do. Tomorrow morning, I'm going down to Rotterdam - now that's European living!

It might not seem like much, but Rotterdam is two towns away and only 15 minutes by Sneltrein, or fast train. This is another 'cool thing about the Netherlands' - the place is so small and the transport efficient enough that you can live and work in entirely different cities. The commute for B- is no worse than when we lived inside the beltway.

Travel within a city is accomplished by tram (looks a bit like San Francisco's MUNI) or bus. To pay for your ride, you use these cards called strippen kaarts. You fold the card over to a blank 'strip' and stick it in a stamp machine. I have no idea what the stamp says, but occasionally a guy will come around and see that you used the right number of strips for your trip.

This is where it gets a little complicated. Travel within one zone costs two strips, and then goes up for each zone you cross. You "just have to know" if you'll cross zones.

You take the train to travel between cities, and it's reasonably cheap and fast. Living in Den Haag puts us about 40 minutes to Amsterdam and 20 minutes to Rotterdam. Very easy day trips! Don't let the word Sneltrein fool you, though. It's not really fast, as in bullet train fast, it just doesn't stop as much. Still, it beats sitting in traffic... Or living in Rotterdam.