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


Om Sri Ganeshaya Namah

The above mantra is a dedication to the Hindu god, Ganesha. The familiar elephant-headed son of Shiva is said to be the remover of obstacles. It is considered good luck to honor Ganesha before embarking on a new adventure.

Though I'm not Hindu, I honor Ganesha today because we finally received a positive letter from the immigration department. I've been awarded my residence permit! While I still have a few more hoops to jump through until I'm completely settled, this is a HUGE step forward.



Identity Crisis

Adding to my melancholy, this story hit Dutch press yesterday: Verdonk wants to require everyone to speak Dutch in public.

Rita Verdonk is a controversial figure in Dutch politics. Not an elected official, she oversees the Dutch immigration department. She represents the backlash against the multiculturalism and acceptance that the Dutch are famous for. Since Vincent Van Gogh's grandson, Theo, was shot by a Muslim two years ago, the tide has been changing. It seems that lovely Rita "Verdonkey," as she's sometimes called, is leading the surge.

Her ideas are a bit schizophrenic, however. On the one hand, she institutes policies that sweeten the deal for highly-skilled workers considering job opportunities in the Netherlands. Her most recent random act of kindness was to offer the trailing spouses and partners of "knowledge workers" (that's me!) instant access to the Dutch labor market. That's bureaucrat-speak for "work permits."

Then again, she comes out with the racist, xenophobic crap found in the above article.

The back story is that the Dutch, like many Europeans these days, are growing more and more uneasy about their Muslim immigrant populations. After a few bombings, assassinations and riots, it's hard to blame them. Whereas the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by outsiders on temporary visas, European terrorists tend to strike from within. Who wouldn't feel betrayed?

The Dutch approach has been to devise ways of making their new countrymen feel more a part of Dutch society. On paper, this seems a laudable gesture. In practice, it goes a little more like this:

Some among the Muslim population find Dutch tolerance, particularly of drugs, sex and gay marriage, to be a bit offensive. In return, many Dutch find it offensive that Muslims would move to a new country, not embrace their new Western freedoms, and criticize the host country's values. In retaliation, they legislate Dutch-style tolerance upon the populace.

They offer (require) integration courses for newcomers to help orient them to Dutch culture. About 90 percent language instruction and 10 percent "how to use a strippen kaart," the dirty little secret is that the course may have been instituted as a way of getting Muslim women out of the house... you know because their domineering husbands prefer to keep them locked up at home.

A more overt act of discrimination appeared in the news a week ago. Even the BBC reported that Dutch lawmakers approved a burqa ban citing two reasons: 1) because it's not what Dutch people wear and 2) because we don't know what they're hiding under there. Apparently already a law in Belgium, police there say it is making race relations worse.

Verdonkey has since softened the tone of her language idea, but the notion is still out there. In trying not to appear racist (too late!), the policy would be universally applied to all immigrants, even me. Because there would be no way to enforce the rules, some believe that Dutch citizens would instead confront foreigners themselves. Hard to see how this would make you feel part of one big, Dutch family.

To play devil's advocate, there's something to the notion that if you choose to move to another country, the responsibility to get along lies with you. As an American, I'm not unfamiliar with this concept. Those who left the shores of the old world to start anew changed their names, refused to speak their mother tongue, and raised their children as Americans. Though, there are some who occasionally complain about Spanish speakers, they are quickly reminded that there is no official language in the U.S.

Above all else, we Americans prize our freedom of speech. A close second is our religious freedom. EVEN after 9/11, EVEN when Muslim leaders call for jihad against Americans, and EVEN as nuts as he is, George Bush, GEORGE W. BUSH, counsels religious tolerance.

B-, ever the rule-breaking Aussie, has referred to our new home as a police state. Me, I can't believe I was given an opportunity to highlight Bush in a positive light. I may have to go back to bed.



The Honeymoon's Over

It's been two months to the day since I arrived in the Netherlands.

A lot of people ask me how I like it here. In spite of the question's simplicity, the answer is not so easy to work out. My answer is a resounding: I guess so.

So far, much of my routine is the same. In the end, we all work, eat and sleep. I miss my friends, coworkers and fellow yogis terribly. At the same time, I cherish this time that B- and I have to go on a new adventure together. It's easy to see the next chapter of my life spreading out in front of me.

They say that people go through a honeymoon period when they move to a new country - the phase when you fall instantly in love with your new way of life. The thing is, it's not that different here. I don't walk outside and spin around with outstretched arms, marveling at the European-ness of it all. Frankly, this isn't Paris or London. It just is what it is.

The second phase of being in a new country is hating the new country. I think I'm moving into that phase. In my defense, I think I'm just pissed off because my immigration application is still not finalized. What should have taken 3 weeks, has so far taken 3 months. I don't exactly feel welcome.

On Sunday, I get to go home for a week. :)



Blink Blink

Yesterday marked Day 2 of my Dutch language course. Only 37 hours till fluency. YES!

I didn't bother to report on Day 1 mainly because we covered everyday vocabulary, about 30% of which are the same in English. After Day 1, I thought I was on a roll. While others worried over the correct pronunciation of Engels*, I was thinking ahead to the Dutch novels I'd write, set in windmills, involving lots of bicycle thievery. Of course, I'd be the spunky Amerikaanse that busts up the bicycle mob, downing a few lazy cops and bureaucrats on the take...


Highlights from Monday include three fruits and veggies all named "apple."

appel - apple
aartappel - potato
sinaasappel - orange

Yesterday's class started out well enough. Anyone have any questions about the homework? After a little review, we moved on to vocabulary about the Netherlands. I learned that canals are to the Dutch as snow is to the Eskimos. That is to say they have at least three words for "canal." Very important in a boggy sort of country as this.

About fifteen minutes into the class, after only 1 hour 45 minutes of total Dutch instruction, and in typical Dutch fashion (that is to say, direct to the point of cruelty), our teacher blew our minds!

Ye bastards, I call you definite articles!

You know what a definite article is - that simple little word that we use to talk about specific things: "the." English speakers are blessed, BLESSED, with simplicity. In other languages, like French and Spanish, we tip toe out of our comfort zone to learn masculine and feminine nouns with their corresponding articles. Our solace? With a few exceptions, there are rules to guide you in knowing which article to use.

The Dutch have a curious direct article syntax that bleeds into the spelling of some pronouns and adjectives. Let's see if I understand this correctly, and can break it down for you:

1) The are two direct articles: de and het. Technically, one is for neuter nouns and one is for masculine and feminine nouns. It doesn't matter which is which b/c there are NO guidelines. You have to memorize which article goes with which word. The instructor tried to soften the blow by pointing out that 70% of the words use de. If that were all there was to it, then sure. But it's not.

2) If you are talking about a noun that uses de as its definite article, AND you are actually talking about this noun in a general sense using an indefinite article (in English "a" or "an"), AND you slap an adjective in front of the noun, THEN you change the bloody spelling of the adjective by adding an "e" on the end of the word. In some cases the spelling changes more dramatically.

Now for the problems with the pronoun/adjectives: this, that, these, those, and the occasional, though terribly incorrect, them (Pass me them thar peas, Maw.).

3) Basically, de nouns and het nouns have their own corresponding "this" and "that."
de --> deze (this) and die (that)
het --> dit (this) and dat (that)

4) When using the indirect article, you just use dit and dat.

5) This distinction also infects the words for "which." De takes welke, and het takes welk.

All of this information was transferred to us in the way that language instructors always do - she pieced it out to us in Dutch, hoping that we'd catch on through repetition. To all language instructors everywhere, on Day 2 that doesn't work.

Granted, I manufactured a few too many Zs the night before and my brain was a bit muddy. I spent the whole half of the class scratching my head. I was not alone. At one point, one woman asked if we could take a break and do something a bit easier. Apparently there isn't anything easier b/c we moved on to verb conjugation.

It wasn't all for naught, however. I learned what might be the unintentional origin of the word "bling." Behold, blinken, the Dutch word for "shine."

* Engels is the Dutch world for English. For some, it's a challenge b/c the "eng" is pronounced like the end of verbs like "walking," "talking," etc.



The Plot Thickens

B- and I snuck out in the wee hours of last night to tag my bike - nice ugly green paint. I also wrapped some tape around the light to make it look broken. The effort will likely be pointless, but you have to try, right?

While we were out painting, a neighbor came over to commiserate. She also lost two bikes recently. We learned a few things from her about protecting them.

--- It's best to have at least two types of locks b/c the thieves are usually only familiar with one type. I say that's wishful thinking. My first bike had two locks.

-- They break U-locks by flipping the bike upside down and pounding the lock on the ground. It supposedly breaks on its own weight. She said her neighbor saw her son's bike go out this way. The other neighbor apparently confronted the thief, who consequently pulled out a knife. Looks like I should add pepper spray to my shopping list when I go back to the States.

-- Don't let a chain lock rest on the ground. The tool they use apparently needs to be on the ground to work properly.

-- Do report the theft to the police. While they won't recover the bike, they should be made aware of the number of thefts in the area.

My yoga instructor is less optimistic about the whole situation. She's also had several bikes stolen, including one out of her house! From her, I learned:

-- The thieves are junkies selling bikes for drug money. The jerks (my word, not hers) turn them around for only 30-40 euro (about $35-45). They could at least work a better deal than that! B-'s coworker confirmed this the other day, noting that there's a bridge somewhere in Utrecht where one can go for a cheap (stolen) bike. The police occasionally crack down, but they tend to target the buyers instead of the sellers. Duh! Ever heard of plausible deniability?

-- She also confirmed that we're on the edge of a bad neighborhood, but bikes are not really safe in good neighborhoods either.

We learned from our neighbor that there's a web site for reporting stolen bikes. That doesn't make me feel too empowered. Anyone out there ever try to take back his/her neighborhood?

I also have to rant a bit about what seems like complacency at all levels regarding this bike theft situation. Everyone's bikes get stolen. But bikes are everywhere and not expensive. Who's so broke and shameful that they'd pay 30-40 euro for some poor guy's bike when they can get a legit one for not much more than that? It would seem that the police could do more to bust this whole operation up. With low overall crime rate, what else are they doing?




The Hague City Gets Its Buzz Back
The NY Times travel section featured a nice-ish piece about The Hague on Sunday. My man, Ivan, sent me the tip.

I'll confirm that many Many MANY people warned us that The Hague is boring. However, most agreed (save for one person) that anything was better than Rotterdam, our other choice. Dunno what kind of free-wheeling party lifestyle those folks partake, but generally we're lucky if we have enough time to eat a proper dinner each night. Maybe we're also boring.

The Hague is a lot like DC with it's international flavor and stateliness, the 'we're here to work' demeanor of its residents, and a pile of acronyms to learn. Lots of brain power here with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The PCA for those in the know), The International Court of Justice (eh-hem, The ICJ), and International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia - the Slobodan Milosevic trial, essentially.

With the absence of drug tourists (aka college kids wasted in the streets looking to blossom for the first time in Amsterdam's red light district- uhm gross), it seems that the Hague has a lot of other nice stuff on offer - theater, dance, art galleries and museums, not to mention location, location location. A quick train ride away, and we hit Amsterdam twice last week.

Maybe it's not as arty and striking as the big A, but it's a least a step up from the rot.



Bloody Hell

I've been a bit absent b/c our household goods recently arrived. We've been madly unpacking to bring order back to our lives. I was going to wait for a break to post photos and such.

I decided to preempt my hiatus to report that B-'s new bike was stolen last night! What the fuck, man?? My apologies to family members reading this post, but I think you'll agree that two stolen bikes and a bicycle seat are worth cursing over.

B- had been riding around on a small fold-up bike. It was proving to be a bit too crappy for city commuting, so he picked up a new, normal-sized bike. No frills, this new one - ugly, orange grandma bike that cost almost nothing.

This morning, NO MORE THAN FOUR DAYS SINCE PURCHASE, the bloody bike was gone. Bastards!



What's on Dutch TV?

New Year, New Look, New Feature: What's on Dutch TV?

Some people ask me about Dutch tv programming. I don't actually watch a whole lot of it because, well, it's in Dutch and I don't speak Dutch. Occasionally, I'll catch an undubbed, American re-run. Sometimes it's "CSI," sometimes it's "Roseanne" - Yikes! (Un?)luckily, I have BBC 1.

So, I thought I'd flip the channels and tell you exactly what's on Dutch tv right now:

NED 1- nature show
NED 2- news
NED 3- life-size puppets singing in Dutch to the tune of "Row row row your boat"
RTL 4- home shopping show featuring tools
RTL 5- text messages gameshow*
SBS 6- British movie from the 70s
RTL 7- financial news
VERJE- Japanese anime, dubbed
NET 5- another SMS game show*
TALNI- bad computer anime featuring Barbie, dubbed
TVWST- guy burning something
STADH- still ads
INFOT- Girls talking to each other while ice skating. I think this channel highlights things to do around town. I guess I can go ice skating.
VRT 1- "The Persuaders" - some 70s British show. This episode is titled: The Old, The New and The Deadly
KETNC- still ads
BBC 1 - soap opera, could be "Neighbors"
BBC 2- b&w war movie
DLD 1- an ad for a DIY show
DLD 2- ad for a show called "Pommery and Liechenshmauf" (I think)
EURON- old b&w movie
Discovery- a show about hover crafts
Nat Geo- Greenpeace ad showing penguins waddling around with an oil tanker in the background
Animal Planet- bird watching
Euro Sport- tennis
MTV Europe- American rednecks riding around on quad bikes
TMF- music video, blonde woman playing a piano, too much eyeshadow
The Box- music video - white boy rap, bikini-clad babes jiggling and playing bongos
CNN World- show about tsunami recovery
BBC World- news
Fashion TV- fashion show clips
TV 5 (France)- movie featuring a young Jean Reno
RAI I (Italy)- could be a dub of K-9 cop
TVE 1 (Spain)- news

So, you see it's not so different from American TV - there's just less of it.

* Aside from the naked phone sex ads at night, perhaps the weirdest thing I've seen on Dutch tv are these game shows where anyone can play by texting the show. What's weird is that they put the announcer in front of a blue screen so they can project wacky scenes behind them. Then they just stand there yapping and yapping about some word puzzle. When the announcer needs a break, they cut to tv-dating ads. They'll display your photo and bio while playing a recorded message of you talking about yourself. It's kinda sad when you think about it.

So, that's what's on Dutch tv - right now.



It Was Mayhem

Random pops began a couple of weeks ago. I kept thinking that cars backfire a lot around here. It wasn't until a Christmas day stroll through the dingy park around the corner that we found the source of the noise... fireworks.

The Hague has the reputation of being the most explosive city in the Netherlands. Armed with this knowledge, we still weren't prepared for the absurdity of New Years Eve.

It officially started about 9am yesterday, when bands of teenagers began roaming the streets. Cigarettes dangling from their lips, they nonchalantly tossed firecrackers on the sidewalk, in the gutters, in garbage cans and in the occasional phone booth.

We were in a war zone. A near constant ratta-tat-tat sounded all around the city, a slow crescendo to the main event.

At 5pm the city shut down. Shop, restaurants, trains - everything closed. Hardly a car was on the road. We bagged our dinner plans and went home, shaking our heads at the missed opportunity of restaurants and bars to cash in on holiday revelry. In retrospect, we get it.

At sundown, the intensity picked up as people carted out whole paycheck's worth of explosives. These were proper fireworks, the kind you camp out for on 4th of July. Blasts boomed from all corners of the city. The dog was trembling and the cat was hiding in the bathroom.

We joined our neighbors on the square around 10 minutes to midnight, fireworks launching all round us. Inevitably, bonfires sprung up as people burned whatever they could get their hands on. Smoke stung our eyes and lungs, and all we could do was laugh and laugh. The generally staid Dutch seem to get it all out of their system at once on New Year's Eve.

Today, the streets are a wreck. Because there's no way I've adequately described last night's craziness, I leave you with scenes of the aftermath.

Remnants of massive rolls of firecrackers.

You'll remember this trash can from a previous post.

The shells of a particularly good display.

Yes those are bikes, microwaves and computers.