Double Dutch- Belgium and the Netherlands

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Train to Brussels, Belgium
  • Day 2: Train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands (aka Den Bosch)
  • Days 3-8: Frolicking around Netherlands (Amsterdam, Den Bosch and Utrecht) with friends

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: June 3-11, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

It seems lately I am always writing these posts while on some form of transportation. Today I am writing on a bus from the southern part of the Netherlands to Cologne, Germany (which in German is called Koln, Deutschland- how did our language mess up the names of their places so much?). I was supposed to be on a train, but bad weather in Germany meant the trains were canceled and replaced by smaller, less comfortable, slightly smelly and way too warm busses. Bus rides seem to take forever- train rides tend to go by quickly, but being on a bus makes time move more slowly.

On a more macro level, our experience of time on this trip has been interesting- in a lot of ways it seems hard to believe that Tim and I are already almost 5 months in to our journey. Time has been going by quickly and we only have a month and a half left in Europe before heading to Thailand. On the other hand, January and hiking the Inca Trail feels like it was years ago. We think this is because it was so many experiences ago. While only a few months separate current Sarah from the Sarah who hiked the Inca Trail, numerous perspective-changing experiences have occurred- San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, hiking in Patagonia, going to Antarctica, beach vacation in Uruguay, my biking accident in Mendoza, seeing one of my best friends and college roommate in London for the first time in over a year, the stresses of Morocco, the nostalgia and excitement of being back in southern France for the first time since studying abroad there, and now, most recently, getting to reconnect with numerous work friends in the Netherlands where our former company has an office. We are only 5 months in, but they have been dense with experience.

We just wrapped up our time in Belgium and the Netherlands, leisurely enjoying Dutch culture. From France, we first stopped in Brussels in Belgium for two nights. We weren’t there long, but we really enjoyed this quirky, international city in a tiny country. We used Marriott points to stay at a hotel near the city center, and being Platinum members of the Marriott rewards program, they sent us a plate of cheeses and a bottle of wine up to our room. It was the same food and wine they have available in the executive lounge we have access to as Platinum members for free anyway, but it was really nice to just have it in our room waiting for us. We especially appreciated it as this was after a long day of travel from France (you may recall this was the day I was eating canned food in the train station and being pitied by strangers).

The next day, our only full day in the city, we did one of the free walking tours with the same company we’ve been using for free tours since London. This tour was probably my second favorite (London being my favorite). Our tour guide was a quirky, friendly, funny man named Senna who had an amazing way of wording things that I found hilarious. For example, when it started raining, he said that the sky was “vomiting all over us like bleghhhhh!” while shaking his head imitating someone vomiting. It was these kinds of ridiculous uncensored descriptions that made his tour very fun despite the pouring rain. The two key take-aways we gleaned from this tour are that, firstly, this is a strange little country, and secondly, they may be little but they have big global impact. Why do I say Brussels is strange? Well, they really like odd things. For example, comic books are huge there among adults as well as children. The characters are engrained in their culture and painted on their buildings. Additionally, there is a small fountain of a young boy peeing called Manneken Pis- literally, “little boy figure peeing” that is very famous in town. This little fellow also has over 800 custom designed outfits celebrating different holidays, personal occasions (people can request costumes for him) and random events. Somehow, this little fellow has become the symbol of Brussels. Senna also described the people as rather reclusive and fearful of too much socialization. So I picture the typical local bunkered down inside his or her home, avoiding people, reading comic books and obsessing over an outfit request for Manneken Pis. I find it quite charming.

So, yes, I think Brussels is a very quirky place, but it is also a key player in world politics and history. For example, it was the assassination of their duke that caused WWI to break out, and it was thanks to their military power, however weak, that Germany was delayed in taking France in WWII, earning the Allies just a little bit more time to prepare and strategize. Today, it is the seat of the European Union governing nearly all of Europe, and President Obama happened to be there on business the same day as us.

We also had a wonderful food experience here. We enjoyed Belgian hot chocolate, which is literally warm milk with a creamy chocolate bar melting away in it. It is deliciously rich and smooth. We also tried a Belgian stout beer, the famous fries and a few of the famous sauce options (Samurai and American sauce, apparently), as well as a liege waffle. The waffle in particular was a significant experience – yes, it is a Belgian waffle, but not how we make them in the States. The liege waffle is made with chunks of sugar in the batter, and when cooked, the sugar crystalizes into these little clusters throughout the dough. The waffle is perfect eaten plain without any toppings- it’s sweet and dense and great as is.

After two nights in Brussels, we took a train north to ’s-Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch for short, in the Netherlands. We have several friends who live there and in Utrecht which is 30 minutes north, since the company where I used to work has an office in Den Bosch and we know a lot of people who transferred there over the past few years. We stayed at my friend Becky’s apartment, which was really great. She has a very spacious and comfortable apartment. It was also a lot of fun seeing Becky again since we also got to see her when she was on vacation in Santiago in April.

The night that we got into town, Thursday, we went out to dinner with Becky and had some authentic Dutch food and a brief tour of her town. We ordered a plate of charcuterie which came with several types of mustard, something called bitterballen which are fried balls of dough filled with gravy, and little egg rolls but filled with cheese. After dinner, we went to a local bar that was decorated in a very cozy way- there were knick knacks everywhere, dim lighting, and a pleasant atmosphere. Becky said it was a “brown bar”, meaning that it was an old local bar where everything inside has turned brown from all of the smoking inside of it. We ordered some Dutch beers (I had a Chouffre- it tasted like whipped cream) and several more of our friends met up with us- Billy, Nenad, and Kelsey. Becky then introduced us to a typical Dutch shot that tasted like licorice. We had a really fun night talking with locals, who were curious as to why American tourists were in small town Den Bosch. Tim danced with Inke, an awesome lady we all made friends with.

Most of our friends left the Netherlands on Friday to head out of town for the weekend, which was just a bad coincidence with the planning of the dates we were going to be in town, but we enjoyed spending Friday relaxing at the apartment and watching the new season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix (we no longer have Netflix since Tim’s US-based account doesn’t work in Europe). We also had the luxury of doing laundry and cooking our own meals, including some of the French cookies we made in Lyon, but this time even better. Becky didn’t have a cookie sheet that we could find, but she did have a muffin tin, so we made our cookies by putting a thin layer of the chocolate chip cookie dough in the bottom of each, then an Oreo cookie, and then topped off with another layer of cookie dough. The result were amazing chocolate chip cookie muffins stuffed with Oreos. I don’t think I can eat cookies any other way again. Simply amazing!

The next day, Saturday, we got up early to take an hour long train into Amsterdam. Our first stop upon arrival was the Anne Frank House. The line was long (over an hour) but well worth the wait. The museum is actually the hiding place where Anne wrote her diary while in hiding with her family and four others during the Nazi occupation and deportation of Jews in the Netherlands during WWII. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, took the family into hiding two years after Nazi occupation of the region began, sensing that things were going to get dangerous for his family if they remained in their home. Otto transfered his business over to a German owner and worked with his administrative staff to have them help his family hide in the back annex of the warehouse. The Frank family, as well as their friends the van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer, lived for two years, not going outside once, in the upper floors of this annex. During the day when there were people working in the warehouse, they couldn’t make any noise lest somebody downstairs hear them. Sadly, someone betrayed the hiders, and Nazi officers showed up after two years of hiding to take them to the concentration camps. Anne and her sister died during the same month, just a month before the Allies liberated their camp. Otto was the only individual from this hideout to survive, and he made the decision to have Anne’s diary published and opened their hideout into a museum in 1960. Our visit was powerful and emotional – having read Anne’s diary when I was 10 or 11, it was a very special experience to physically be in the spaces she describes in her diary.

After our visit of the Anne Frank House, we sat in the main square by the national monument to eat lunch before a free walking tour of the city. Compared to some of our other tours, this one was less interesting, but one interesting topic I’ll mention here is that of the canals and land claimed from the sea. Amsterdam is a city at or below sea level, and much of the land is built up with canals and dams. This also means that the ground on which the buildings sit is very soft, causing the buildings to sink, tilt and get crooked. That is why, when you look along the streets lining the canals, many of the buildings look crooked.

After the tour, Tim and I walked around the infamous red light district. Being a Saturday afternoon, there were a ton of bachelor parties out and about enjoying what this area of Amsterdam has to offer. If you don’t know what that is, please just Google it. Contrary to what we thought coming into it, the red light district is actually a very nice neighborhood with family homes, children playing, churches, and every now and then little windows showcasing ladies of negotiable affection.

Sunday was another lazy day, finishing up the season of Orange is the New Black (we had to finish it while we had access to Becky’s Dutch Netflix account!) and cooking our own meals. Monday we headed into the city of Utrecht to meet up with our friends Blaire, Andrew and Tocco for a food festival. It was a really fun afternoon, and it was nice to see friends again, especially since the last time I’d seen several of them, they were living in Madison still and Tim and I had yet to leave for our trip. Needless to say, many life changing experiences had happened since we last saw each other, even though not much time has passed.

On our last day in the Netherlands, we went up to Amsterdam, where Becky was staying for work this week. We met up with Billy, Nenad and their new friend Melissa for drinks and then rented bikes to bike to dinner. I sat on the back of Tim’s bike which was a fun experience, and Billy says this is authentic Dutch bike riding. We had to take a ferry to get to the restaurant in North Amsterdam, which was a fun experience in and of itself and gave us awesome views. Dinner was at a great restaurant that was in an old warehouse converted into a dining space. The food was delicious and the conversation was fun. We ended the night at a bar near the central train station before Tim and I returned to crash at Becky’s hotel.

And so, we can now add the experience of finally getting to spend time back in our typical social circle that we had taken for granted while in Madison, and though we’ve all had big life changes, it is always reassuring to see how comfortable it can be to reconnect with friends even after a gap in time or experiences.

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