Holiday in Hannover

This past weekend we went to visit some family friends in Hannover, Germany. They just returned to Hannover two months ago after a five year hiatus, and they were eager to show us this place that they will now call home again.

We took a tour of the city by bike which began in a huge forest area right near their house.  Before entering the forest though, we rode by their church.

We biked through the forest for a while finally emerging in a field area before entering city streets.  We biked along the street (carefully because there was a triathlon going on) for a bit before biking along the large man-made Maschsee Lake.  Our friends told us that this lake (which I regrettably have no pictures of myself) was dug by hand during the Third Reich to keep people busy and not thinking too much.  It is a really large lake so one can only imagine how intense the construction must have been.  It is a beautiful spot for boats and rowing and there is a swim beach and club to one end.  We stopped at a beer garden along the lake and had a drink which was very nice.

We then biked to the new city hall which is still very old by American standards.

We saw an old gate and wall of the city and then on to the old city hall, a church in the area and a walk around some of the streets in the old part of the city.

We had lunch near the old part of the city.  I didn’t take any pictures (not like me, I know) but it was really good.  One dish was a traditional German style potato pasta with mushrooms and cream and the other was mushrooms on rosti (hashbrown style potato).  Of course, we had a little more German beer as well.

After lunch, we biked through the more alternative or “punk,” as our friends called it, neighborhood which had a more artistic feel.

Then it was on to the formal gardens, Herrenhausen.  The gardens were built in Hannover because the House of Hannover has a tie to the British Monarchy.  The grounds were very large with many different garden alcoves and huge fountains.  There was also a grotto with a modern art interior.  There were so many women at the garden having pictures done in their wedding gowns that I lost track of the number we saw.

After the gardens, we biked through more park space in front of the university and then through the more modern parts of the city on our way back to their section of the city.  Near their home is a pedestrian area where no cars or bikes are allowed.  It is lined with shops and restaurants.  Children can lay out blankets along the path with used items for sale any day of the week all year long as a way to make a little money.  They even had a carousel and we were told that they have a really nice Christmas market there in December (might be worth a return visit!).

On Sunday, they took us to Marienburg Castle which was about 30 minutes drive from their house.  The castle was once a gift to a princess who was not happy with it as it did not have a heating system.  The castle was fairly large and very pretty.  We toured the inside and then walked around some crafter stalls and a children’s area as there was a summer festival going on.

Sadly, that was all we had time for on this weekend visit, but we would definitely consider going back as there seems to be a lot to do and see there (and of course we would love to spend more time with our friends).

Happy Anniversary-Year 3 In the Books

This year marks the end of our 3rd year in the Netherlands.  This year has been interesting to say the least.  It has probably been our most isolated year since we moved here.  We saw few neighbors, went to basically no stores or restaurants, didn’t travel, my husband didn’t go to the office more than a dozen times during the entire year, I saw very few other parents and only went on to school grounds a dozen or so times and our son spent half of the school year at home with almost no interaction with any kids except during digital classes or meetings.  Our daughter was the only one of us who probably had more social interaction this year than any other due to a special relationship that wasn’t going to be slowed down by Covid.  In a lot of ways, we really felt that we were being cheated out of the experience of living abroad this past year.  We tried to make the most of it-we tried to get out and enjoy the nature areas around us, tried to get together with friends a few times that felt safe, tried to  have fun with special occasions and holidays.  And while I think we did succeed with that for the most part, for about a quarter of the year our efforts were overshadowed by a huge cloud of uncertainty as we tried to determine what the end of this year would bring-would we stay or go.  And if we went, where would we go to and if we stayed, how would that impact the future. A decision like that is hard enough for adults but factor in the impact on your children, and it becomes agonizing. This coupled with worries over how our decisions would impact our families and an enormous amount of stress and time pressure on my husband as he navigated the next chapter for his business made the first part of this year very tough.  And while the decision to stay finally became clear, it brought with it a whole new host of decisions and uncertainties about what happens in the next couple of years and beyond which made this year an emotionally challenging year to say the least.

While closing a very big chapter of our lives by making the decision to stay and to sell our house in the States rather than return last month as originally planned feels strange, we are feeling pretty good about our decision to spend more time living here.  This has been an incredible experience for all of us.  While it isn’t always easy to deal with the uncertainties, the volatility and the complications that come with living in a foreign country and an expat community, it has really opened our eyes to the wider world, to all the possibilities out there (which is sometimes a problem itself) and to the fact that you can feel at home and build a life in many places.  And while the complications and uncertainties are not over, we are looking forward to making the most of our time here, to continuing to learn more about the world and explore new places, to meeting and spending more time with the amazing people in our community and to continuing to grow through this experience.

And now, it’s time to revisit those goals from the start of this third year:

  1. Take some family bike excursions to work up to a several hour biking trip in the spring/summer – while we skimped a little on the bike excursions leading up to it, we did bike to Kinderdijk a couple of months ago as a family.  That is about a 2.5 hour roundtrip excursion.  It was a lot of fun and there were hardly any complaints.  Now that we know we can do it, we have plans to try a few other trips in the future.
  2. Visit more places (I’m not giving up on this one; I just need Covid to cooperate!) – it didn’t cooperate!  This year was almost entirely tripless thanks to lockdowns and closed borders.  However, we tried to make the most of what we could do by taking a short trip to the south of the Netherlands, taking a few driving excursions and most recently taking a day trip to Belgium.
  3. Complete a couple of artistic projects that I have worked up as well as a cross-stitch that I have been doing on and off for about 20 years (mostly off which is probably the problem) – the cross-stitch is nearly done!  I think I need about 2 more days.  As to the other artistic projects, I only worked on one or two.
  4. Walk for an hour at least 3 times a week – I did this with no consistency.  In the fall, I did some walking and biking.  In the winter, we did take several walks in the evening but they were not an hour long.  By spring, I completely gave up on the weather and just took walks here and there.
  5. Play tennis weekly with another couple and with moms at school (again I need Covid to cooperate) – and again, it did not.  Tennis courts were closed most of the year.  We do not have open courts available to play, so if the facility was closed, there was no playing.

All in all, I would say I did alright on last year’s goals but not great.  I did add a few goals in recent months-working on Dutch and Portuguese and learning to play the piano.  I have been doing pretty well with those things and have been pleased with my progress.  I also decided to complete the Everest Challenge offered through my kids’ school.  It involved a lot of flights of stairs in a 1 month period, but I did it.

So, what are my goals for year 4?

  1. Continue to progress with Dutch, Portuguese and piano.
  2. Get back to a consistent workout plan to lose some extra weight and get in shape.
  3. Read at least 1 book a month.
  4. Travel and visit a few more places in the Netherlands that we want to see (for goodness sake Covid, give a girl a break!)
  5. Take more bike trips

There you have it-another year in the books and now on to year four.  To all of you that have come along for the ride through this blog during these past three years, thank you!  I hope you have enjoyed yourself and gotten a small glimpse into life as an expat, and I hope you will continue to tag along as we move forward.  Here’s wishing all of us a fabulous fourth!

Waterloo

This past week, after a year without travel outside the country, we finally drove across the border without restriction.  For this momentous occasion, we decided to head to Waterloo in Belgium, a mere two hours from our house.

Waterloo (and yes we were humming the song the entire time) is the site of the famous battle in which Napoleon attempted to rebuild his empire by reforming his Imperial Garde and taking Belgian and Dutch land, but instead met with a crushing defeat from a combined force of British, Dutch, Belgian and German soldiers led by Duke Wellington.  The battle was a particularly brutal one.  By the end of the day of fighting, 40,000 men and 10,000 horses lay dead or seriously injured on the field.

Using a historical walking route provided by the Boy Scouts of America in this region of Europe, our first stop was to see Le Caillou, the farmhouse that Napoleon used as his headquarters the night before the battle.

 

Next, we stopped at an observation point that Napoleon used when he returned to the battlefield in the late afternoon (apparently he spent the day at an inn further down the road due to an attack of colitis that was incredibly painful).  The Imperial Garde could see the battlefield from this location, but they never had a view of the full field until the battle was almost over, something which proved devastating to their efforts. 

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Our walk took us past the L’Aigle Blesse statue erected to symbolize the fall of the Imperial Garde.  This particular spot was chosen because it was there that the Garde had their last defenses. 

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From there, we began walking through the fields where the battle was fought toward Hougoumont Farm.  Here, the Garde spent many hours attempting to take the farm from the British, but even after heavy casualties and burning the chateau and chapel of the farm down, they were unable to succeed.

Next, we made our way through more of the fields to the path leading to the ridge that proved to be a key to the battle.  This ridge allowed the British forces to remain unseen by the Imperial Garde.  The Garde, believing that the British had been scattered and crippled, charged the area, discovering that the British were merely below the ridge after they were too close to allow for success. 

Today, what remained of the ridge is part of the earth used to build the Butte du Lion (lion monument) which commemorates the battle. 

Finally, we walked past La Haie Sainte, another farmhouse used by Duke Wellington.  This one was so close to the Duke’s battle line that is would have been devastating if the Garde took control, so a group of German soldiers were assigned to protect it.  Again, the Garde spent great effort attempting to take the farmhouse but the Germans, though very few survived, managed to defend it. 

The final point that we saw was La Belle Alliance, which in addition to being the inn where Napoleon spent much of the battle due to his colitis, is also where Duke Wellington and the Prince of Prussia (who provided late aide to the British troops on the battlefield) met to declare their victory after the battle was over. 

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All in all, it was a nice day for a long walk and an interesting lesson in history.  And to make the trip really worthwhile, there was also a stop in Brussels for some Belgian waffles!

Hopefully this was the first of travel posts to come in the not too distant future.  Until then!

Marvelous Maastricht

It finally happened-after almost a year without a single bit of travel, we were able to take a mini vacation.  Granted, we didn’t feel ready to leave The Netherlands, but nonetheless the idea of a long weekend away seemed like a nice escape.  So we headed south to Maastricht, which has an ancient history of both Roman occupation and serving as a river crossing point in medieval times.  

On our first day, we spent time in the city of Maastricht.  We checked out some of the churches in the city such as St. Servatius and the Bascilica of Our Lady.  

 

We also saw this old church which is now a home with a laboratory in the lower levels.

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We also wandered by the Servaas Bridge and along the old fortification wall of the city where we took a quick look at the old city gate known as Helpoort.  We strolled through a park on the edge of the University of Maastricht before heading back to the city square for dinner.

On our second day, we went hiking in the nearby Oehoe Vallei in the morning which is situated near mine caves and a quarry. We even saw this big manor from the trail.

In the afternoon, we toured Fort Sint Pieter and the North Caves. The caves began as marlstone mines but also served as hideouts and were used by farmers in the past. Napoleon was once in the caves as well.  More recently they were opened to artists and feature some really cool artwork.

On our third day we went to Margraten which is the site of the American WWII cemetery.  This particular cemetery is the one at which Dutch families pass down the responsibility of tending their “adopted” graves which you can read about in my other post A Time for Remembrance, A Time for Celebration.

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We also went to Drielandenpunt which is the three corners area of The Netherlands.  This is where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet.  It is also the home of the highest point in The Netherlands-not very high, huh?!  While we were here we did a fun outdoor labyrinth which I think we finished in record time.

In the afternoon we went hiking at another nature park called De Dellen as well as near our campground.

 

 

And of course no trip would be complete without food.  While there was nothing too interesting, we did try the famous Limburg (that is the region Maastricht is in) Asparagus soup, many local drinks including several beers and apple juice made from the many fruit trees growing in the region, and the even more famous Limburg pie known as vlaai.  There were a lot of variations of that one but our favorite was gooseberry.

So there you have it-our first attempt at traveling again.  Fingers crossed that you will see more adventurous travel posts in the near future!

Goodbyes Are Hard

Everyone said what an adventure we would have becoming expats and moving to Europe.  And while we have definitely had adventures and amazing experiences, it’s still just the day in and day out business of life most of the time.  And most of the time that is fine-maybe not what you all picture-but it’s good and normal.  However, some days are just hard and sad.  Not knowing what comes next and where “next” might take place is hard, and right now seems to be a time when that is on our mind a lot.  But being in an environment in which you are surrounded by people in this sort of volatile and temporary existence of expats, you find that the worst part, the saddest part, is what happens every year at this time; friends leave and things change.  I am generally not a person who likes change.  I like to make plans for the long term and have stability.  Living as an expat is hard for that type of person, and some days I really am not sure how I am managing it.  But this cycle of watching people that we care about, that have been an important part of our lives, pack up and move on and knowing that it could be the last time we ever see them or that our connection will likely diminish over time is hard and sad and sometimes makes me question what we are even doing in this situation.  I know no one really likes these posts where I don’t talk about the interesting and exciting things we are doing, but this is part of the picture.  Life is hard and choosing to live as expats is hard-it can’t all be adventures and excitement.  And since I started this blog to share this time in our life with you all, I feel like I have to share these parts as well.  So just know that today is a sad day and tomorrow will likely be better.  And to everyone who has been an important part of our lives and experiences,  know that we will always be thankful for our time with you no matter where you are or where we find ourselves.  Because even if we haven’t talked much or seen each other in years, you are still in our thoughts and hearts and you will have a place there forever.

Remembering the Past

As some of you may know, Rotterdam was hit very hard during WWII being extensively destroyed by bombing.  Like many of its neighboring countries, its Jewish residents were persecuted and resistance fighters worked around the Nazi regime to try to spare and improve the lives of Dutch citizens.  In the aftermath of Rotterdam’s destruction, a large majority of its population was encouraged to leave the country as there was nothing left here for residents and a process of rebuilding began.  While this destruction and rebirth is what gives Rotterdam its unique juxtaposition of old, traditional architecture with modern, original structures, the reasons for this rebirth have not been forgotten.  All over the city, one can find sculptures, art pieces, and memorials depicting the war, the unspeakable acts that citizens endured, and the heroes and fighting spirit that emerged. We recently spent an hour walking around the center of the city to view a few of these remembrances and reminders of the war. First up, was the former city hall building which features a lasting scar from the war; it is riddled with bullet holes.  The building is on a busy street that is a hub for shopping and dining in the area which makes it almost surreal to see the lasting reminder of such a dark and gruesome time that was not removed and distant but a reality of existence during that time. Next, we walked nearby to the police station where a lasting memorial to a group of resistance fighters who were shot by the Nazis can be viewed.  These types of memorials were erected after the war using wooden crosses, but many later became permanent fixtures such as this one. We made our way to a street that was about a 20-minute walk away, to see some “Stolpersteine” which translates to stumbling stones. These stones are set into the sidewalk in front of the former home of individuals who were exterminated or persecuted by the Nazis. This project was begun by a German artist in the 1990s. More than 70,000 stones can now be found throughout Europe and Russia and the artist oversees the installation of each one.  We found several up and down this particular street as well as on the surrounding streets. As we made our way back to our starting point, we found one of the markers delineating the line of fire that consumed the city after the bombing.  These markers outline the entire path of the wall of fire and feature the image of the “Destroyed City,” a sculpture depicting the city in the form of a man with his heart missing to symbolize the loss of the heart of the city due to the bombings, outlined in front of flames. The Destroyed City sculpture: destroyed city This map outlines the path of the wall of fire: Our final stop of the day was Loods 24.  This site which is closer to the river was the location from which the Jewish citizens of Rotterdam were loaded onto trains to be sent to concentration camps.  Children as young as 3 months were shipped out.  The names and ages of the known children can be found engraved on this monument. These markers, monuments, and scars throughout the city are evidence that the people of Rotterdam, rightfully, do not want to forget the past and the atrocities that occurred here, but as we took in the beauty of the day and our surroundings during our walk, we were also reminded that even amidst immense tragedy, we are capable of healing and building a future. **Remembrance day is May 4th in the Netherlands. I encourage you all to remember on this day and always so that we never repeat the past.

Elfstedentocht

As the cold descended on The Netherlands this past week, the country became very excited about the possibility of being able to hold the famed Elfstedentocht.  If you have never heard of it, the Elfstedentocht literally translates to the eleven cities tour, and it is the largest ice skating tour in the world at nearly 200 kilometers in length.  Both speed skaters and leisure skaters may enter the competition to skate along the natural ice that connects the eleven cities in Friesland, a northern province of The Netherlands, but there is a limit of 16,000 skaters.  The route traverses canals, rivers and lakes and must be completed by midnight on race day (the average time for completion for a speed skater is 7 hours).  The race is a beloved tradition and in 1986 the king himself (then just a prince at 18 years old) entered under an alias.  The first Elfstedentocht took place in 1909 and it has only been held 15 times since then.  Why?  Because the ice along the entire route must be 15 cm (6 in) thick in order for the race to take place.  The last time the Dutch were able to hold the race was 1997, so you can imagine the initial excitement about the possibility of the race taking place.  Sadly, before the cold even settled in, the race was declared a no-go due to Covid and the fact that it would draw too many crowds.  In fact, some predict that there will never again be an Elfstedentocht due to global warming and the need for the perfect winter conditions to maintain 15cm of ice thickness as well as the fact that the towns of Friesland may no longer be able to handle the crowds now that the internet and media presence increase the spotlight on these types of events drawing much larger crowds.  None the less, while they couldn’t have an Elfstedentoch this year, the Dutch definitely took to the ice everywhere and enjoyed some natural ice skating thanks to the weeklong subfreezing temperatures.  And while the fun may be over now, there is always the hope that next year will bring another chance to hit the ice!

Bicycles, Trains and Automobiles

Over the past few months, we have explored many facets of daily life in The Netherlands, but I decided to save one of the most iconic for last-transportation (think the famous Dutch biking).  It’s true, the Dutch have some pretty impressive biking skills such as transporting multiple children and carrying rolls of carpet while biking, but there is more to getting around The Netherlands than just biking.  So, now it’s time to rev those engines and pump those legs as we dive into a few of the highlights of Dutch transportation.

  1. Transportation comes in many forms: feet, bicycles, mopeds and scooters, cars, buses, trams, trains and even boats.
  2. Sometimes it is easier to bike somewhere than to drive. Sure, you can move faster in a car, but if you have to navigate traffic, find a parking space which may be a distance from the location you are traveling to, then walk to said location plus pay for parking to boot, the bike makes more sense.  Also, if you aren’t traveling very far, taking the bike can be a lot quicker and easier than having to find parking.  Now, it’s true that the weather might discourage biking at times, but you will find that the Dutch will still ride regardless of the weather.  Maybe it’s because they are just used to it or don’t have any other way to get around or maybe it’s because they have gear such as waterproof jackets and pants and bike seat and basket covers that help to keep them more comfortable.
  3. Biking and walking are easy thanks to a good infrastructure. There are sidewalks for pedestrians everywhere and numerous pedestrian crossings.  Pedestrians have the right of way over cars unless it is at a light with a signal.  There are multitudes of bike stands for parking and securing a bike as well as bike paths everywhere.  Many times these paths runs alongside the road but are wide and easily distinguished from the road so cars can avoid bikes.  Other times, the paths may be completely separated from the road by a grass median.  Paths for bikes can also be found not just in the cities but in rural areas connecting cities as well.bike path nl2 bike path nl
  4. Getting a driver’s license in The Netherlands is an intensive process (luckily expats on the visa type that we have are able to simply exchange their American driver’s license rather than have to test). First off, you cannot drive a car alone until the age of 18 here (you can get a moped or scooter license sooner) but with all the other transportation options, it’s not that big of a deal.  You can take the theory test once you are 16 and at 16 ½ you can begin taking driving lessons.  At 17 you may take the road test.  If you pass before you are 18, you are allowed to drive with an adult in the car.  The theory exam takes about 1 hour and consists of 65 multiple choice questions.  The road test also takes about an hour and includes a basic vision test.  The tests can be quite difficult, so many people take driving lessons before testing.  These lessons are extremely expensive and range from around 1000 Euro for experienced drivers who need to learn Dutch traffic laws or refresh themselves to 2500 Euro for new drivers.  However, the process of obtaining a license is so involved that the roads here are generally very safe, and we honestly see very few traffic accidents.
  5. There are rules for bike and car interactions that everyone knows. Traffic lights have a separate signal for bikes so that they know when they have the right of way.  If a car is crossing over a bike path such as to turn onto a residential street, the bike has the right of way and cars know to check for bikers and let them pass before turning in (many streets actually have a buffer zone that allows the car to get off of the main road but wait to cross over the bike path).  There are lines drawn on bike paths and roads to indicate who has the right of way.  There are also safety rules for bikers which are subject to citation if they are not followed such as no cell phones in your hands and headlights must be used in the dark.
  6. Stop signs don’t exist. Instead you will find roundabouts and a strange system in which the person to your right always has the right of way unless you are on a “hump” in which case the person not on the hump has the right of way.  There are also occasions where lines drawn on the road indicate who has the preference.  And yes, I know many Americans are not comfortable with roundabouts and thus detest them, but they are actually much faster than waiting in a line up at a stop sign.  And with a little practice, you can learn to navigate some really large ones (though those often have traffic lights to help ensure that everyone stays safe). roundabout
  7. Parking a car can be a real chore. There are a few options for parking.  Parking garages and parallel parking along the street (usually paid though in some residential areas it is free) are the two main ways that people park here.  There are a few (and I mean a very few) parking lots and even fewer are free.  But for the most part, if you don’t like parallel parking, you aren’t going to enjoy driving here.  When you do park on the street, you can find a machine to pay for time on your parking space (and watch out because many spaces might have a time limit) or you can download a payment app on your phone.  There is a small surcharge for using the app, but it is so convenient.  You simply input your car’s tag number (it can be saved so that you just select from a list when you open the app) and then select the parking zone (zone numbers are clearly posted on signs near the spot).  You start the app and stop it when you return (unless you forget and pay a bit extra for your parking!) and that way you don’t have to guess how much time you need up front and have to go back to the parking machine to add more time.  And while most of my American friends enjoy driving a big, spacious car, that’s only going to cause you grief over here when it’s time to park (or navigate a street with tons of parked cars up and down it).  I have a very small car and I can’t tell you how glad I usually am because not only does it make it easier to park, but I also can usually find a space much easier because sometimes those spaces are small, and a big car just can’t pull it off.parked cars
  8. That brings us to tickets. If you park illegally or don’t pay, you probably won’t return to your car to find a paper ticket.  Instead, some months later, you will receive a ticket in the mail.  This goes for speeding, running lights and other traffic violations as well.  Now, it is possible that you might be pulled over by the police sometime, but it just doesn’t happen too often.  Generally speaking, speeding and running lights is caught on camera and police use a hand scanning system to check the parking spaces.  If you are pulled over, it’s typically not by a car with flashing lights in your rearview mirror.  Generally, the unmarked car will get in front of you with a flashing sign in the back window indicating that you need to follow them to pull over.
  9. If you opt to have a car for transportation, it is not uncommon for it to be leased. Owning a car in The Netherlands can be very expensive thanks to the taxes that you have to pay on a vehicle.  This makes leasing a car a more viable option for many.  In addition, there are tax breaks for those who own hybrid or electric vehicles so having at least a hybrid is very common here.  There are also parts of the city that are low emission zones so if you have an older vehicle that does not meet the new emission standards, you cannot drive in these areas.  If you do, you will be fined.Amsterdam
  10. There are tons of tram, train and bus stops. Trams take you within a city and not all cities have them.  They are found most readily in the larger cities.  Buses can take you within a city and also from one city to a nearby city.  Trains can take you within the city if it is a larger city (think subway type system), between cities or even between countries.  The train is most likely what you will use to cover larger distances.  If you are going to stay within the country, you can take a direct train (makes no stops between two cities) or an intercity which makes stops at various stations along the route from one city to another.  You can buy individual ride tickets at a counter or machine at stations and from the worker on the tram, or you can buy a rail card.  With the card, you can add money to your account to cover train and tram fare.  When you enter the station or when you board the tram, you tap your card on the reader.  You tap again when leaving the tram or station.  In this way, the trip is recorded and the price is deducted from your account.  Some cities have also begun testing readers on the trams that allow people to use their bank card to pay for the ride instead of having to buy a ticket or have a rail card.  Finally, you can take a bike on the train as well as dogs (small dogs for free, large dogs with a leash and dog ticket). tram nltrain nltrain nl2
  11. There are some very useful apps that can be downloaded to help with transportation in The Netherlands. I already mentioned the parking app.  There are also apps to notify you of the speed limit and where speed cameras are located.  There are apps for knowing the train and tram schedules and which train/tram you should take as well as what stops to use to get to a certain location.  Finally, there are also apps detailing biking and walking paths.

So there you have it-Dutch transportation in a nutshell.  The transportation options available in The Netherlands make it pretty easy to get around both within a city and between other cities in the country.  In addition, it’s pretty easy to venture into other countries as well.  And best of all, it’s not too hard to multitask and get some physical activity in while you are getting around.  Coming from a place in the US that struggles to provide an adequate number of sidewalks and bike paths, I really love the infrastructure and choices for transportation in The Netherlands.  It doesn’t hurt to be able to easily drive (pre-Covid) across a border to other European countries as well although paying for parking everywhere will probably always be a hard pill to swallow!

Home Sweet Home

Since we have been exploring many facets of daily life in The Netherlands, it seems only fitting to talk about the place that we spend a majority of our daily lives, our home. There are several types of homes one might find here. There are apartments, some of which might be quite large and span several floors, row houses (the houses that look identical and share walls on either side forming a long row of houses), houses that look like free standing homes but are actually 2 houses that share a wall (think duplex) and stand alone homes. Within each of these categories, you can find many variations and floor plans (even within homes that look identical or are part of a row of houses), but there are a few common features that one can find in many homes.

  1. Dutch Stairs a.k.a. steep stairs– The Dutch are well known for their incredibly steep and narrow stairs-some curved, some straight up. Luckily, we have regular wide stairs in our home, but many of our friends have to contend with the steep stairs and mishaps are frequent. Several of our friends have had injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to broken arms. Of course the reason for the steep stairs is frequently space-houses here are more likely to be narrow but tall and homes are often compact so a steep stair allows for maximizing of floor space.
  2. Living Room Doors– In Dutch homes, the entry way is frequently cut off from the living room by a door. At first, I found this very strange and didn’t love the look of it, but sometimes it is actually nice to be able to cut off the sounds from the living room to the rest of the house. I believe the original intent was to keep the living room warmer by shutting it off from the entry way.20210128_073055
  3. Tiny Guest Bath– Most homes have a tiny guest bath with only a toilet and tiny sink featuring cold water only. Your guess is as good as mine as to why this would be desirable. Our guest bath is not tiny but I have seen some that are incredibly narrow and barely have any room between the sink and the toilet. Of course, it is possible to install a bigger sink but given the size of the bathroom, it wouldn’t be very practical. I am not a fan of the cold water only policy.20210128_073041
  4. Shelf Toilet– While we are on the subject of bathrooms, let’s talk about the shelf toilet. If you have never heard of this or seen one, it is essentially a toilet bowl that is not just a round open bowl as Americans are accustomed to but rather has a flat area to the back of the bowl and a small hole in the front. If you are thinking to yourself that this means that what is defecated will just sit on the flat part until flushing, you have just hit the nail on the head as to the purpose of the shelf toilet. Apparently, the Dutch used to use this as a means to give their health a little check every day by making sure things looked normal. I have had friends with shelf toilets in their home-they did not love it. We, thankfully, do not have any.shelf toilet
  5. The Tiny Room– In almost every house that we looked at before moving, there was what we dubbed the tiny room. There would be a master and at least one bedroom of adequate size and then a room that was so small it was unfathomable as to what it could even be used for. In our home, we have a room that is much smaller than the others though it is still of a size large enough to have a function which for us is the office.
  6. Basements Sadly, we don’t have one, but many homes do. They can range in size from a small walk-in space that can accommodate some pantry storage to larger areas for storage or a small workshop to full rooms that might be used as rec rooms or a bedroom.
  7. Windows Without Coverings. So, folklore has it that the Dutch used to be taxed based on how many windows they had. In an attempt to have plenty of light in their homes but pay less tax, the Dutch began putting large windows in the homes instead of many small ones. Today, these windows often feature windowsills with decorations that seem to be meant for any passersby rather than the homeowner. In addition, windows often have no coverings. Many of our neighbors have large windows with no coverings that look in on their kitchens. As we walk by their house, you can see them (from a very close range) cooking and eating. There have been a few uncomfortable moments when our gazes have met, but for the most part, being Dutch means you must become adept at looking without looking (or without being noticed anyway). And lest you think that you can just put up blinds and curtains and never open them, there have been several instances in The Netherlands of neighbors calling the police on a neighbor who always has their windows closed up because they believe drugs are being grown or some other unfavorable activities are taking place. We have blinds and curtains on most of our windows (we really need them on the bedroom windows for the summer months when the sun is up until 11 at night) but the curtains on our hallway windows and our living room and kitchen windows are very sheer and we open our blinds regularly.dutch window
  8. Wardrobes Instead of Closets– Now there are some homes with walk-in closets although they look a little different than the ones in the US and there are some with small closets built into the wall with sliding or folding style doors, but it is quite common to just use wardrobes to store clothing. We only have wardrobes in our home.
  9. No Air Conditioning and No Central Heat– Most homes in The Netherlands do not have air conditioning. In some homes, you will find room units mounted on the wall, but for the most part, people open windows and use fans. Plus, up until recent years, it generally didn’t get that hot in the summer. Now, we have had several weeks that have been really warm which makes the fan alone insufficient in tackling the heat. We also do not have central heat but use radiators or floor heating instead. The radiators are actually quite warm and the air does not seem as dry in the house using them versus the central air. The radiators can also be quite useful in drying clothes. Now, some homes do have what mimics central heating in that you have a unit with a thermostat to adjust temperature but this just controls the turning on and off of the radiators or floor heat rather than pumping warm air through the house through vents and ducts.
  10. Small Yards– Here, the yard is referred to as the garden. Now, if you live in a country house, you are going to have a large property. Also, several stand alone homes can have a decent sized yard. But for the most part, homes have very small gardens. Or at least, by many American standards, they are very small. I will note that it seems you can get used to small space and eventually can find it decent sized, though it is nothing compared to what you are used to, as we have found ourselves deeming some yards quite adequate when they would be tiny compared to what we were accustomed to in the US . Many gardens feature turf rather than grass, a shed ranging from quite small to rather large, a seating or dining area and maybe some plants. Some homes also have a small trampoline which is often just feet off the ground and a small pool (think soaking pool).garden 2garden 1
  11. Small Appliances– I know that anyone familiar with International House Hunters has probably seen the small appliances that many European homes feature. It is true that our refrigerator and oven are small. Not all homes have small refrigerators, although it is fairly common. Some people do have “American” sized ovens, but by far, most people I know have a small oven. Some of my friends complain that they can’t even cook a turkey for Thanksgiving because it won’t fit in their oven. Our dishwasher and microwave are probably a little smaller too but nothing too noticeable. Again, it’s one of those things that I think you just get used to and learn to adapt to.
  12. Drains– Okay guys, this one is gross. The drains in our showers have a little basket or cylinder piece that catches hair. It has to be regularly cleaned out. If it gets too full, some of the hair will go down into a little overflow drain area where the excess and a little water sits. This is disgusting, and I often feel like I might vomit in the course of cleaning it out. We aren’t sure who came up with this design, but this is one thing I really think the Dutch missed the mark on. And while we are on the subject of cleaning out drains, Dutch homes do not have garbage disposals so while we try to scrape most food scraps into our green recycle bin, some things still go into the drain trap which needs to be cleaned out when we are done washing up. Also a bit gross.20210128_110811
  13. Ventilation System– Most Dutch homes have some sort of ventilation system to combat mildewing. The system essentially sucks the moisture out of the air and filters out “polluted” air from the home replacing it with external air. There are several different types of systems ranging from a mechanical unit to actual vents above windows, but one complaint many people have is that they feel like the systems cause there to be more dust in the homes here than what they are used to in other countries. I have not really noticed this with our system. Much like a central air system, the unit in our home requires us to clean or change filters periodically.

So there you have it-the ins and outs of the Dutch home. While these features can be found in many homes, it is actually quite fun to see the unique features and layout of the homes once you are inside. And let’s be real, with all those big open windows, you might not even need to be invited in to check it out!

Paying Those Bills

This week I thought I would touch on a couple of features of banking and payment here in The Netherlands. Much like in the US, we have an account with a bank card.  The bank card has a chip and pin system.  When we are shopping at a physical location, we can tap the card for purchases under a certain price threshold, or we insert the card into a reader and enter our pin.  In addition, servers at restaurants and some vendors that deliver to your home such as our grocery delivery, carry a pin reader machine.  Rather than giving them your card to swipe, they insert the bill amount, you insert the card yourself and then enter the pin.  Finally, there are plenty of ATM machines at which we can get cash should we want it.  But, interesting fact about purchases in The Netherlands-very few people use credit cards and we don’t have checks.  So, you might ask how we pay for online purchases and bills we receive.

For online purchases outside of The Netherlands or when we travel outside of the Netherlands, we do have a credit card.  There isn’t much of a way around this.  However, for purchases within The Netherlands, we can use an online payment system called IDeal that transfers money from your account to a vendor.  This can be used for any online purchase.  There are two ways it works.  When you are ready to check out, you simply select that payment option and enter your bank name.  Then, if you have the mobile banking app, it will just bring up a page with your bill details.  When you select to complete the transaction, your app opens and you put in your passcode (different from your pincode that you use with a physical reader machine) and the transaction is complete.  The other option is that a barcode is generated as your payment details, and your banking app uses a barcode scanning feature on your phone so that you can scan the barcode which then brings up your payment details.  You then follow the same procedure of putting in your banking passcode to complete the transaction.   If the amount of the bill is over a certain value, then you use a verification system.  When you sign up for your account you receive both your bank card and a verification machine.  It looks like a little calculator.  When you need to verify a transaction, you slide your card into the machine and put in the code provided on the verification payment page.  Then the machine generates a code that you put into the verification payment page.  It’s just an added step to make sure that transactions are legit.  

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When we receive a bill from a service provider such as a doctor, our children’s music teachers, our school, a repair person, the government, etc., we go into our banking app and select to make a transaction.  We then put in the recipients name and account number which includes both letters to identify which bank their account is with and numbers to identify their account (yes, my American friends, I just said that people give out their account number in order to receive payment).  The app will note if the name and account match and if they don’t, you can still proceed, but you have received notice that something might be incorrect.  You then add the payment amount, a description of what the payment is for or a reference/statement number and when it should be paid.  You can also select if it is a recurring payment or simply a one time payment.  When you select complete, you are asked to enter your bank passcode and then the money is transferred.  It’s incredibly easy and saves on a lot of mailing in of bills.  It also allows people to transfer money to one another without having to write and then cash a check.  

So, there you have it.  The ease of payment in The Netherlands is really nice and there is very little concern of the security being compromised.  It’s just another piece of Dutch daily life.  Until next time!

 

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