Saturday, August 24, 2013

Day 1 & 2 in the Netherlands :: Utrecht

Utrecht was a whirl and a whim and a blur and a grin and a whole lot of Dutch people.

Coraline auf Deutsch

On Friday morning, I got up at 5:30 AM to start my train journey to Utrecht, Netherlands. I caught my first train at 6:15 AM in order to get on the long-stretch train from Zürich, Switzerland to Stuttgart, Germany.

Stuttgart gave me a few hour layover to wander, eat some fish, and feel ready to move on. The next train took me to Köln, also in Germany. That layover was short enough for a salad and not much more before I was whisked away on my final train to Utrecht.

On the train ride over, I was seated with a Dutch family of three (the dad was working). We played card games together, they shared snacks with me, and we enjoyed getting together over the hours. They gave me an invitation to visit their windmill. Later on that weekend I called but they were away the day when I would've been able to visit.

Arriving in Utrecht, I walked around the station twice before settling by a pole, hoping Ynette, my host, would find me.

Ynette and I lived together for a  month in Ukraine.

Within minutes she was there and the reunion was sweet and soulful. We hopped on the bus and headed for her flat, around 10-15 minutes from city centre.

We dropped off my bags, I washed off a few days of muck in the shower, and then headed out immediately to her friends' home. Tonight she was having a reunion with a group of friends she had gone to nursing school with around a  decade ago. I felt blessed to be able to spend my first night in Netherlands with such a crew. The food was lekker – barbecue, salads, bread, fruit, cheese, and an alcoholic beverage that was like if you mixed yoghurt with vodka and put a basil leaf on top.

The next morning we enjoyed sleeping in and a proper Dutch breakfast of sprinkles (hagelslag) and bread before hopping on Ynette's bikes and cycling towards the center of town. This was my first time biking in the Netherlands – something I had long wanted to do- and I wasn't disappointed. I think bike-culture in Netherlands deserves its own post – as does drop and the Red Light District.

I am going to be Frank (he's a nice man) and tell you that I wasn't, honestly, all that thrilled to be looking at another city with cobblestone streets.

I really wasn't... but I soon became so.

Utrecht wasn't like all the other cities I've visited like I thought it would be. It had a totally different vibe to it that I applauded and relished. The feel of the town wasn't West-coast – but it had aspects of what I crave in a culture. There are a lot of things going right in Holland.

Bike culture.
How they oft frequent the outdoors in leisure, strolls, eating, and just hanging out.
They had diversity.
They had different social levels, but I barely saw any folks begging (in Germany, I saw over 15 in one hour – that's way too many).
Drop (licorice).

In the city centre, we started to work on my list of things to do and see in the Netherlands. We had crafted the list up a month earlier.


Lots of food to eat. Luckily, with two people (and later on three when Jess, Ynette's sister, joined us) it was manageable.

We took our time at a café and I got to try out Dutch “coffee-wrong” - as it was literally translated. It was coffee with warm milk (sorry body, I know you hate dairy). Then I got to try Kroket which isn't like anything I'd eaten before. Apparently they have have McKrokets at McDonalds....

There were small windy stone streets with tall, worth glancing at, buildings on each side. My favourite was a small house (the smallest in the area) that was rawther crooked. The paths along the canals that wound through the streets were lined with markets. The flower sellers bantered out to the crowds, making sure that we couldn't accidentally miss the opportunity to take such beauty home with us.

We climbed to the top of this church.

At 1:30 PM, we went to the tourist center, locked up our bags as ordered, and climbed up the JFFJ stairs of the Utrecht Dom. It's the tallest church in Netherlands. The tour guide was engaging and the views at the top were worth the 9 euro (which is over the daily income of most of my Ukrainian friends after they work for 10 hours).

Since Netherlands was flat, it was sort of like seeing forever. We could see Ynette's flat and everywhere we had been that day.

Way back during the war, Holland went through all of their bells and labelled them by age and worth A – M with M being the most valuable bells. The reason being was that lil' ol' Deutschland wanted to melt down the bells to use in the war. One by one, the Dutch let go of their bells, starting with the newer ones. Eventually, the war was over and a handful of the bells were leftover – especially the M-bells Because of this method of labeling, though, the bells worth the most to the people of the Netherlands are still ringing today and you can still see them with their “M” labels.

On the way down tower, I got to chat with two men from Zurich.

We then strolled to the market so I could get a chance to try out Dutch cheese (it was on the list). A few squares were enough to tell me that it was good cheese, but pretty much just that. Good cheese. My life in Switzerland spoiled me in the world of cheese. I can appreciate cheese elsewhere, but my tastebuds are rarely blown out of this world.

The three highlights of the markets, for me, were the sweets and bicycle gear.

We stopped by a drop (licorice) stand and loaded up a bag. Ynnete knew just what types to buy and kept pointing to little box after box. “These are made with honey,” and “These are salty,” she would tell me. We got cats and swans and pigs and coins and moons and a little boy going pee (the Belgian statue).

We also got some fresh stroopwafels hot off the grill-thing. They were still gooey and notably more wonderful than the stoopwafels I had had pre-packaged.

We met up with Ynnete's sister, Jess, and headed down into the canals where Ynnete got pooped on by a bird. One of the boats took us around, giving us an entirely new perspective on the city. I think we also ate about half a bag of drop.

After that came suitcase shopping (success) and skirt shopping (not success). I can now say that I've biked through a Dutch city while holding onto a bright yellow suitcase on the rack with one hand.

Then, behold and behold and low and high and... Simone was to be arriving! Simone was the other Dutch girl I lived with. They came as a pair. That reunion was also sweet. Now the Netherlands really felt like home. Simone manages to always to coax a smile out of you.

Once again, we hopped on our bikes and set off through Utrecht. Since we only had two bikes, Simone was on the back of mine. I was impressed that she was able to manage to hop on and off the bike without me ever having to stop.

At Jess's, we made whole wheat pancakes for dinner. Dutch pancakes are  a lot thinner than Americans but thicker than the French crepe.

We talked. We shared pictures. We tried to look pregnant. We biked home.

Tried to get read for bed. And slept.
I love these women.

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