Here’s an example of why I like the Netherlands:
I show up in the middle of the night at the outskirts of Den Bosch, where I will be living for the next four days; having found it by dead reckoning and blind luck and following highway signs after the navigation system in the Volvo I’m driving proved itself to be a bit of a practical joker.
Dutch street layouts are weird, at best, and after driving around for an hour, I realize that I am utterly lost and will be sleeping in my S60 if I don’t get some help; so I try asking directions at a strip-mall restaurant, to no avail.
While you can find a lot of English speakers in the city centers here, you get too far outside everyone just looks at you and says “Oort oort oort?” when you show them your map.
Because that’s what the Dutch language sounds like, to the untrained foreign ear: seal noises.
I pull into a gas station and the girl working the late shift says “Oort!”, but then goes all deer-in-the-headlights when I show her my maps and plead for assistance in my strange accent and bizarre patois.
By sheer chance, there’s a guy behind me waiting to pay for his gas who overhears, and speaks English. I show him the address I am trying to find, and he says “Oort, that’s a long way from here. Tell you what, I will drive there, and you can follow me”.
So I do, deep into downtown. When we get to the entrance to the street, it’s as far as he knows to go, and as we’re standing there talking a sort of homeless-looking dude comes over and joins in.
He knows the trick to getting into the street, which is blocked off from traffic (you have to push a button and speak into an intercom in the middle of the road, and they will drop a barricade that recedes into the street to let cars through). The gent then runs ahead of my vehicle all the way to the hotel so I don’t miss it, and then watches the car for me while I run in and ask the night porter where the parking is.
I give the guy my remaining euros for his trouble, oh yes I do.
Once I’m hotellerized, I go out looking for a bank, and come upon two twentysomething women, who are closing up some sort of trendy shop. I ask them about a bank machine, and they look at each other and say “Oort oort oort?” and nod, and then the one who parlez the most Anglais says: “Yes, there’s one near here. I have to go, but my friend will take you to it”, and the other walks with me until we reach the ATM.
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The rolling papers they give you in Netherlands coffeeshops are the size of a paper towel. It seems like you get extra cred from the locals, though, when they see you dealing with one of the giant sheets instead of buying a pre-rolled the way most tourists do.
There’s a giant ex-military man acting as security at the entrance to one called simply “Kafe Smoke”, and they check your ID when you enter. A lot of the ‘shops do, the closer to the border you get.
I think its part of a push by the native Dutch to ban foreigners from the shops, because they’re getting tired of peeling lightweights who’ve never seen a joint before off the floor after a couple of hits of Haze; but I’ve never been refused entry when I show them my Canadian driver’s license.
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You have to be careful walking around randomly, because it’s really easy to get lost (and damn, I have been lost in Holland. Walked around Maastricht for three hours one night a couple years ago, when I thought I knew a shortcut back to my hotel).
Once you’re outside the downtown areas, all the buildings look the same, and the people seem to go to bed pretty early in the ‘suburbs’. Accordingly, when you see a light on as you pass one of the rows of units, you look inside; because it can be anything from a nail salon to a restaurant to a hash bar.
Or, because the zoning is kind of weird here, it can be somebody’s home, with a family sitting around in it watching TV. Of course, they all happen to look out the window at the instant you look in, and they’re all “WTF? Oort oort oort!”
All you can do is say: “Oh sor-ree, but try closing your fuggin’ curtains. Nice pajamas, btw”, and then scuttle quickly on your way, before they sic a weiner dog on you.
One time it was a woman standing there in a negligee, because they don’t always advertise the red-light districts very well, and I went all blushy and Jeez, Miss, close your fuggin’ curtai… and then I noticed the little neon X on the wall behind her and the colorfully-lit hallway lined with doors that I assume open onto the mating sheds… and I realized what was up.
(At least it isn’t like Belgium, though, where they will chase you out into the road if you make eye contact and go all huckstery:
“Ugly foreign man! Come! Come! I shall, how you say, slappen yuur junk around, in exchange for many Euros, ja? Oort!”, as you try to back away with some dignity, saying no! stop! young lady! there has been an horrible misunderstanding!
And as you do so, it will occur to you that to a dispassionate observer, or any CCTV camera that happens to be watching, it looks for all the world like you are haggling with a prostitute in the middle of the street).
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Anyhoo, having a wonderful time, wish you were here, etc., and that everything’s under control back home. Tomorrow I light out for Switzerland, guided ably by the finest electronics Volvo is able to provide. Oort!
*Please enjoy this photo of what is either a bull or a triceratops with half its face missing, outside a venue in downtown Den Bosch.