I've been putting off writing about this trip because I had honestly no idea where to begin! But after all the beginning is a pretty good place to start, so here it goes..
By midday on Friday, February 12th, Serena, Alistair, and I were in Serena's car and on our way to Holland. Despite getting lost once due to GPS and printed directions not agreeing with each other, Serena drove us through most of France without a hitch. We switched before the Belgian border, where I took over and got through the rest of France, Belgium, and eventually Holland, but first we stopped to pick up Liz in Libramont, Belgium. Driving through Libramont was simply havoc because of the construction going on in the city and the GPS had no idea how to get us to the train station (actually in its defense, the GPS did have an idea on how to get us there but it involved off roading to jump the car across a large chasm and cross straight over train tracks, but it wasn't my car after all...). Also, I should mention that it was snowing and about 28 degrees outside. Eventually we found Liz and were back in the car on our way after 15 minutes or so. I learned two important things on that road trip:
1) French highways are well paved but have expensive tolls and are plagued with horrible drivers; Belgian highways are free but in terrible condition and also full of Oregonian and Washingtonian-type drivers (a.k.a. never signal and ALWAYS in the left lane); and Holland has free, well paved highways with sensible, friendly drivers.
2) A liter of water drank at 2:00 pm = one stop every hour for three hours until your bladder is empty (just sayin..)
We got to the house we rented at nighttime, and while the inside was more than I could have imagined, it wasn't until the next morning that I appreciated the entire location. First of all, the cost for the house for 7 nights was 360 euros (about $490), and divided by the four of us came to be about $17.50 per person, per night. Not bad considering what we got: two bed rooms (with two beds per room), a huge bathroom with shower/tub, full kitchen, dining/living room with flat screen TV and plenty of English channels, and the whole house had heated floors! We even had a real coffee maker to make American coffee!! The best discovery was that in the cupboards the owners had left some little slices of heaven in your mouth that I came to learn were called "Stroopwafels." I can't begin to describe how good these things are... they are miniature round waffles with a layer of caramel in between. Suffice it to say that Alistair, Liz and I had them everyday for every meal. Definitely one of my favorite things about Holland, and worth going back for.
It was in the morning that the experience was made complete because I got to see our surroundings. Right as I stepped out the front door I looked to my right and what did I see? Sheep grazing and an old windmill. How. Awesome. I also got to take a good look at the bridge we came over to get to the house. You see, a canal runs alongside the street in Rijpwetering (the town we stayed in) and each house on the other side of the canal has their very own drawbridge! I couldn't have even dreamed this up with every Dutch stereotype I knew. If I ever get to go back to Holland I want to stay at that house again, it was just perfect. It's between the big cities (Lieden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, etc.) and very easy to drive around. When we went to Amsterdam (which was every day), we drove to a parking lot and took the train into the city which was about 40 minutes from front door of the house to Amsterdam's Centraal Staion. And it only cost 6 euros total for parking all day and four train tickets from the parking lot to Amsterdam and back (so less than 2 euros a person). It's all subsidized to get less cars in Amsterdam. Such a good deal and I appreciated being able to run around all day in the city and come back to the house in the country and relax before another big day.
As for Holland in general, it's small. The Netherlands itself (of which Holland is a region) is only about 200 miles across at it's widest and a little more than 100 miles north to south. It's also the most densely populated country in Europe with the majority of the people living in the cities. It's a bit reverse from the US though because only the rich can afford to live in the country, since land is so sparse it is extremely expensive. As the name suggests, nearly all land in the Netherlands is below sea level, which is why there are so many dikes, dams, and canals. Serena told me a Dutch saying that goes, "God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland."
The people I met were very nice, even if superficially, but that is what I'm used to coming from the US and it felt a bit like home. I encountered absolutely no language barrier since practically the entire population knows English. Dutch is also a fun language to listen to because it's the 3rd closest language to English (After Frisian, a dialect of Dutch), and so it sounds like a mix between a child speaking English and German. It would be a fun language to learn, and relatively easy with German and English already. Physically the Dutch are pretty big, as in tall. Mostly blond too, again like the stereotype. But I can't tell you how nice it was to make eye contact with someone on the street, if even accidentally, and being given a quick smile rather than a scowl (as is the case with the French).
Food. Where to begin... From what I saw and from what Serena told me, the only traditional Dutch food from Holland is potatoes. Other than that, their "traditional" meals are all imported cuisines from their vast former colonies, namely those in Indonesia. If you were visiting a Dutch person's house for dinner and they asked you if you had any preferences and you told them, "How about something Dutch?" You would most likely sit down to a meal of fried rice and meat on skewers with a spicy peanut sauce. It's a little bizarre but when you think about the Dutch having had holdings all over the world for centuries it starts to make sense. The Dutch drink of choice is actually wine, and there is a reason for that. A bit like the US, the Dutch idea of luxury is anything French. French food, French wine, and French fashion is very popular in Holland. Serena says pretty much any Dutch person would kill to live in France because to them it's the idea of the "good life," with good food, drink, and plenty of space to move around in (imagine going from the most densely populated country in Europe to the largest). But of course beer is always popular too, like Heineken, the second most recognized product in the world after Coca Cola.
I haven't been to the UK or Ireland yet, but of all the places I've visited in Europe so far, Holland felt the closest to home. It's amazing the difference in cultures between Latin countries like France and Germanic countries like Holland and for feeling a little less homesick nothing is better than a fellow Germanic country.
More on actual experiences in the next post! I've rambled on enough for the moment.