Girl Goes Dutch

(Above photos: Salmiak Drop; the licorice section at the grocery store)

EET SMAKELIJK!
Dutch Dining

The last time I traveled, I was deciding what to order from a seafood place at the airport in Boston. I was, as always, tempted to order the lobster roll, but once the woman told me the ridiculous price, I reconsidered. (I’m happy to pay the market price for an excellent lobster roll, but I’d rather be sitting on a dock in Cape Cod to enjoy it.) “Actually, can I have the shrimp wrap?” I asked, pointing to the pre-made selection under cooled glass at my right.

The woman in line behind me smiled knowingly as she stepped up to order. “I might get that, too. Fewer calories,” she added conspiratorially.

I looked at her in surprise, then smiled politely and went my way. Her comment made me a little sad; calorie count hadn’t factored into my decision. I realized I hadn’t even thought about calories in a while, almost certainly because I’m married to a European and live in Europe, where people have managed to retain a modicum of sanity regarding what they consume. What could more effectively suck all of the inherent pleasure out of dining than singling out your dishes, one by one, and analyzing their fat, sugar, or carbohydrate content? Besides, this American obsessing isn’t working—we still have the highest obesity rate of any country in the world.

At the extreme ends of the eating disorder spectrum, you have binge-eating, anorexia and bulimia, but it seems to me that vast numbers of American men and women exhibit signs of some sort of disordered eating. “Disordered eating” is a term that actually encompasses a wide range of irregular eating behaviors—for example, excessive exercise, obsessively counting calories, eliminating certain food groups from your diet entirely (other than being vegetarian, or for religious reasons), intentionally skipping meals, consistently overeating when you’re not hungry, and thinking about food more than 50% of the time. The list doesn’t end there, either, and it describes plenty of my American friends and acquaintances.

In America, it’s normal to be weird about food. But, of course, this neurosis is anything but normal, because it means everyone is devoting way too much thought to something fairly simple. Normal is a relative term, but for my money, what’s “normal” is eating a moderate amount of food from every food group, every day—and doing so without devoting an inordinate amount of thought to it. I think the American obsessing actually overrides our better natures, and makes people more likely to overindulge, or severely limit, what they eat. A glut of thought leads to a glut of consumption (or a glut of restraint).

I can honestly say I have hardly ever heard a Dutch person mention calories in any conversation I’ve had here. Food is something you eat when you’re hungry. If you want to lose weight, you eat less of it, especially sweets. But you don’t agonize over different menu choices or pore over nutritional labels in the grocery store, and you don’t discuss your caloric concerns ad nauseum to friends and family. And you would certainly never burden a stranger in the airport with this behavior.

When I tried to explain the Atkins diet to my husband, he didn’t understand what I was talking about. 

“You know, it’s when people cut out all carbohydrates—no bread, no pasta, no refined carbohydrates.”

“No bread?” he asked, incredulous. Then, deadly serious, “I would die.”

And he would. He eats about a loaf of bread every two to three days.  Breakfast is coffee, yogurt mixed with nuts and fruit, and/or a peanut butter sandwich. He sometimes brings another sandwich or two (two pieces of bread with a slice of cheese, jam, or peanut butter in the middle) to the office as a snack, or to have with lunch. Sometimes he’ll even have one after dinner. Yes, he is a runner with a high metabolism, but if bread were really the culprit of America’s obesity, my husband would still be bigger than he is. And the way he eats is similar to the way all Dutch people eat—their bread consumption is through the roof. The almighty sandwich is a key staple of the Dutch diet, eaten at either breakfast or, more commonly, lunch, and sometimes both. My husband says this is changing, that people are eating more salad at lunch, and expanding their culinary horizons. As far as I can tell, though, sandwiches, or “broodjes” (often served open-faced, with the top piece of bread on the side) still make up the majority of the lunch menu at any Dutch café, and in private homes. And even if you do order a salad, it will likely be served with a large slice of bread on the side! Because without bread, how could it be enough?

Maybe the Dutch don’t gain weight from eating all this bread because they’re often eating bread that was baked in a bakery. And even if the bread is purchased at the grocery store, there’s still a whole section of “fresh-baked” bread that is made on-site. My husband and I buy either from bakeries or the fresh-made kind from the grocery store and keep it in the freezer, so when it’s open, we only have a few days to eat it. Luckily, this is not a problem due to my husband’s amazing capacity to wolf it down. Now that my daughter is one and a half, she is also starting to pull her weight in the bread-eating department.

The Dutch love of starch doesn’t end with bread, either. In Dutch grocery stores, there is an entire freezer section devoted to potatoes—all sizes of peeled, chopped, or mashed potatoes in plastic bags, some with flavorings (including barbecue), ready for any Dutchie to boil, fry, bake or mash and have for dinner. Stamppot (literally, “mashed pot”) is a quintessential Dutch dish—mashed potato with various other veggies thrown in. Varieties of stamppot include hutspot (“mixed pot”), which is mashed potato with carrot, onion, and bacon; stamppot boerenkool, which is mashed potato with kale; stamppot zuurkool, which is mashed potato with sauerkraut, and stamppot spinazie, which is mashed potato with spinach. Potato, po-tah-to.

“It’s comfort food. Wintry,” I said, the first time my husband made hutspot for me. “It’s very good, but it doesn’t strike me as year-round fare.”

“Well yeah, we don’t eat it in the summer, either. It was how we survived during the war,” he explained. “The Spanish surrounded Leiden in the late 1500s and we had to live on what we had inside the city walls. So now it’s a national dish.”

Chalk it up to Dutch practicality that what they ate when they were starving is still something they’re proud to eat today. If I had to eat something when I was starving, I’d be more than happy to leave it behind permanently in times of plenty. But this is a typical Dutch way of thinking: if it was good enough for them, then, it’s good enough for me, now. Their stamppot pride may also have to do with the fact that the Dutch never developed their own cuisine of the kind you find in France, Italy, Japan or India, to name a few fabulous examples. Instead, they have the aforementioned sandwiches, potatoes, and a few other dishes and specialties: mackerel and haring (herring), (due to their proximity to the sea), pannekoeken (Dutch pancakes, which are more like the French crepes than their American counterparts), poffertjes (puffed pastries), cheese (including Gouda and Edam, to name two of the most internationally known varieties), and drop (licorice).

Dutch licorice needs its own explanation. The candy section in every Dutch grocery store has two halves: one that has the chocolate and fruity sweets, and right next to it, one devoted solely to varieties of drop. The Dutch must start eating it very young, because there’s just no way something this bitter, even when sweetened with honey, is anything other than an acquired taste.

Forget Twizzlers or Good n’ Plenty; drop is totally different. It’s generally brown or black in color, and it often isn’t sweet at all. Coming from the land of corn syrup, this was really strange to me—what’s the point of candy if it isn’t sweet, or at least sweet-and-sour? There are many varieties and flavors of drop: with honey (this is the only one I can stomach), salted, sweet and salted (mixed), double-salted (yuck!), and “salmiak”, which is licorice flavored with—wait for it—AMMONIUM CHLORIDE, for an extra astringent flavor. What the what?!?! (I asked several Dutch people what the hell “salmiak” was before turning to Google, because none of them knew. Nerdy sidebar, courtesy of Wikipedia: “the word salmiak is derived from an archaic Latin name for ammonium chloride, sal ammoniacus, meaning “salt of Ammon.” “Ammon” in turn refers to the temple of Ammon, where ancient Greeks first found ammonium chloride.) I don’t know how you say “absolutely revolting” in Greek or Latin, but as far as I’m concerned, that should also be on the Salmiak packaging. I shudder just thinking about it.

However, If you hate bread, potatoes, cheese, and licorice, don’t worry! The Dutch, much like the English, realized that most other countries had them beat when it came to cuisine. The major cities in the Netherlands have excellent restaurants featuring food from all over the world. And thanks to the direct nature of the Dutch character, no Dutchie would ever be offended if a visitor politely declined their offer of drop. After all, that means more for them. 

“Life is short, but there is always time enough for courtesy.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Above: A Dutch girl models a typically Dutch street expression.

WOMEN AND CHILDREN LAST
The Dutch have many wonderful qualities—natural beauty, forthrightness, efficiency—but good manners is not one of them. Granted, I live in Amsterdam, a city that may not be nationally representative. But regardless, I have never seen so many people walk around looking, if not angry, then at least fundamentally out of sorts. I call it “stone face,” because these expressions are truly impenetrable—not a glimmer of a smile, not a hint of warmth—and you can forget about a greeting. I tried smiling at people when I first came here, because compared to New York City, Amsterdam felt like a big village to me. I quickly gave it up when my friendly nods were met with uncomprehending, steely stares.
To me, stone face is actually indicative of a greater lack of cultural finesse. Men do not hold doors for women, men do not take coats for women, and nobody (neither men nor women!) makes way for women pushing baby strollers, which I know because I have to fight my way through the streets of Amsterdam every day with one. (“Women and children first” is not a sentiment that caught on here.) And it is these fundamental pleasantries, more than anything else, that I miss about the United States. It’s such a simple thing that makes such a big difference.
Manners are a universal way of indicating that you understand you do not exist in a vacuum, that there are other people you must account for and share physical space with. Furthermore, good manners signal a certain level of intelligence and refinement, or at the very least, a good upbringing. Women can, and should, be chivalrous as well—holding doors for others, making way for one another when passing on the street. But there’s something especially classy and charming about chivalrous men, those who hold a door without a second thought, or immediately stand up on the metro if a pregnant woman steps into the train car. These are true gentlemen, and such behavior is the soul of elegance. I think it’s so lovely because it demonstrates a deep-seated respect for your fellow mankind. At heart, it’s a way of taking care of someone, even someone you never met, and that is a beautiful thing.
It’s very difficult to explain the importance of manners to people who rarely practice them, to make the manner-less masses understand how much common courtesy would improve every interaction. The Dutch are aware that foreigners think they are rude, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. And when I try to explain why it bothers me so much, they often don’t get it. What’s worse, they don’t seem at all worried that they are offending people—but there you have it. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they don’t miss what they don’t have. Since the Dutch haven’t collectively tried being polite all the time, they don’t understand that life is more enjoyable when that’s how everyone operates. So to them, it’s no big deal.
I’ve heard various defenses for Dutch rudeness—it’s because the culture is egalitarian; it’s because the Netherlands has an individualistic culture; it’s because the Dutch are so honest and direct—but these flimsy excuses are just that—flimsy. The U.S. is also an egalitarian and individualistic culture, and people there are much more polite. Even in New York, a city with eleven times the population of Amsterdam, people of every race, age, and gender offered to help me carry my stroller down the escalator at Penn Station when they saw that I was alone with a baby. It was wonderful, and so helpful. I felt so grateful, appreciative, and relieved.
As for the third excuse: how does being “honest and direct” translate to being rude? I can make the logical leap from “direct” to “tactless”, maybe—but not to outright rudeness. I am honest and direct myself—if asked, I will (tactfully) tell you if a color doesn’t suit you, or if I might use a little more spice in a certain dish—but that doesn’t mean I would bump into an old lady on the street without apologizing. I actually think it’s because I’m honest and direct that I am more prone to be courteous. Courtesy is an extension of honesty, not a contradiction to it. It acknowledges the natural differences between people’s strengths and weaknesses and gracefully compensates for them.
In my day-to-day life, the rudeness I experience is frustrating for two reasons: because it is utterly foreign to me to act so boorish, and because I am inevitably the one who ends up excusing myself even when I am not at fault. It’s a reflex; I was raised to say “excuse me” when almost-colliding with someone or cutting them off. I was taught to smile at the cashier in the supermarket and ask her how she is. But apparently, very few people in the Netherlands were. So I end up personally doing it for everyone, which is wearying and lonely work.
The strangest thing about the PDR, as I’ll call it—Public Displays of Rudeness—is that Dutch people are usually friendly if you meet them in a private home, an office, or any other setting that is not out in public, really. I have had wonderful conversations with Dutch people I just met at birthday parties, dinner parties, and weddings, and on the whole I find the Dutch to be open, pleasant conversational partners. So it’s a mystery to me how these seemingly easygoing people, were I to come across them on the street, might shove by me on the sidewalk or callously ignore my pathetic attempts to get my stroller up a few stairs.
Dutchies, please consider this essay a call-to-arms. Moms, dads, daycare workers, nannies, grandmas and grandpas: let’s raise this next generation of Dutch children not only to say “please” and “thank you,” but also to say “excuse me” and “sorry.” Let’s teach them to patiently wait their turn in line, to aid the elderly and infirm, to let ladies go first, to nod and smile at passersby. I promise you, the Netherlands will be a happier place, and one more highly regarded by everyone else in the world who comes to visit or live here.

“Life is short, but there is always time enough for courtesy.” 
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Above: A Dutch girl models a typically Dutch street expression.

WOMEN AND CHILDREN LAST

The Dutch have many wonderful qualities—natural beauty, forthrightness, efficiency—but good manners is not one of them. Granted, I live in Amsterdam, a city that may not be nationally representative. But regardless, I have never seen so many people walk around looking, if not angry, then at least fundamentally out of sorts. I call it “stone face,” because these expressions are truly impenetrable—not a glimmer of a smile, not a hint of warmth—and you can forget about a greeting. I tried smiling at people when I first came here, because compared to New York City, Amsterdam felt like a big village to me. I quickly gave it up when my friendly nods were met with uncomprehending, steely stares.

To me, stone face is actually indicative of a greater lack of cultural finesse. Men do not hold doors for women, men do not take coats for women, and nobody (neither men nor women!) makes way for women pushing baby strollers, which I know because I have to fight my way through the streets of Amsterdam every day with one. (“Women and children first” is not a sentiment that caught on here.) And it is these fundamental pleasantries, more than anything else, that I miss about the United States. It’s such a simple thing that makes such a big difference.

Manners are a universal way of indicating that you understand you do not exist in a vacuum, that there are other people you must account for and share physical space with. Furthermore, good manners signal a certain level of intelligence and refinement, or at the very least, a good upbringing. Women can, and should, be chivalrous as well—holding doors for others, making way for one another when passing on the street. But there’s something especially classy and charming about chivalrous men, those who hold a door without a second thought, or immediately stand up on the metro if a pregnant woman steps into the train car. These are true gentlemen, and such behavior is the soul of elegance. I think it’s so lovely because it demonstrates a deep-seated respect for your fellow mankind. At heart, it’s a way of taking care of someone, even someone you never met, and that is a beautiful thing.

It’s very difficult to explain the importance of manners to people who rarely practice them, to make the manner-less masses understand how much common courtesy would improve every interaction. The Dutch are aware that foreigners think they are rude, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. And when I try to explain why it bothers me so much, they often don’t get it. What’s worse, they don’t seem at all worried that they are offending people—but there you have it. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they don’t miss what they don’t have. Since the Dutch haven’t collectively tried being polite all the time, they don’t understand that life is more enjoyable when that’s how everyone operates. So to them, it’s no big deal.

I’ve heard various defenses for Dutch rudeness—it’s because the culture is egalitarian; it’s because the Netherlands has an individualistic culture; it’s because the Dutch are so honest and direct—but these flimsy excuses are just that—flimsy. The U.S. is also an egalitarian and individualistic culture, and people there are much more polite. Even in New York, a city with eleven times the population of Amsterdam, people of every race, age, and gender offered to help me carry my stroller down the escalator at Penn Station when they saw that I was alone with a baby. It was wonderful, and so helpful. I felt so grateful, appreciative, and relieved.

As for the third excuse: how does being “honest and direct” translate to being rude? I can make the logical leap from “direct” to “tactless”, maybe—but not to outright rudeness. I am honest and direct myself—if asked, I will (tactfully) tell you if a color doesn’t suit you, or if I might use a little more spice in a certain dish—but that doesn’t mean I would bump into an old lady on the street without apologizing. I actually think it’s because I’m honest and direct that I am more prone to be courteous. Courtesy is an extension of honesty, not a contradiction to it. It acknowledges the natural differences between people’s strengths and weaknesses and gracefully compensates for them.

In my day-to-day life, the rudeness I experience is frustrating for two reasons: because it is utterly foreign to me to act so boorish, and because I am inevitably the one who ends up excusing myself even when I am not at fault. It’s a reflex; I was raised to say “excuse me” when almost-colliding with someone or cutting them off. I was taught to smile at the cashier in the supermarket and ask her how she is. But apparently, very few people in the Netherlands were. So I end up personally doing it for everyone, which is wearying and lonely work.

The strangest thing about the PDR, as I’ll call it—Public Displays of Rudeness—is that Dutch people are usually friendly if you meet them in a private home, an office, or any other setting that is not out in public, really. I have had wonderful conversations with Dutch people I just met at birthday parties, dinner parties, and weddings, and on the whole I find the Dutch to be open, pleasant conversational partners. So it’s a mystery to me how these seemingly easygoing people, were I to come across them on the street, might shove by me on the sidewalk or callously ignore my pathetic attempts to get my stroller up a few stairs.

Dutchies, please consider this essay a call-to-arms. Moms, dads, daycare workers, nannies, grandmas and grandpas: let’s raise this next generation of Dutch children not only to say “please” and “thank you,” but also to say “excuse me” and “sorry.” Let’s teach them to patiently wait their turn in line, to aid the elderly and infirm, to let ladies go first, to nod and smile at passersby. I promise you, the Netherlands will be a happier place, and one more highly regarded by everyone else in the world who comes to visit or live here.

THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL

“Who are these people?”
This was a question posed by one of my bridesmaids as we stood next to the dance floor at my wedding reception. I looked out and saw the usual assortment of gyrating bodies and small groups laughing, sipping cocktails.
“What do you mean? Who?”
“The Dutch guests”—she made a sweeping gesture with her arm that encompassed the entire room—“are all beautiful. It looks like you hired models.”
I laughed. “Actually, a couple of them are, or were, models,” I replied, pointing out a childhood friend of my husband and another man and woman, all Dutch. But as I looked around the rest of the room, I had to admit—taken as a whole and individually, the Dutch guests were amazingly attractive. Definitely above the American average.
Now that I live in Amsterdam, I can confirm that it wasn’t just my wedding reception (though I do think that my husband happens to have some friends who are “really really ridiculously good-looking,” to quote Zoolander). The Netherlands as a whole seems to have way more than its fair share of fair people. And I mean “fair” in every sense of the word—light in complexion, beautiful, and fair-minded. We’ll leave aside fair-mindedness for the time being, though, to focus on purely superficial qualities.
Besides a few tribes in Africa, The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. The average height for men is just shy of 6 feet, and the average height for women is just over 5’6”. Many Northern European nations are tall—the average heights in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are all close behind the Netherlands. Tall Germanic ancestors and a high standard of living in all of these countries partially explains their great lengths, but scientists can’t explain why the Dutch seem to have kept on growing (though their heights finally appear to be tapering off).
Whatever the reason might be, it certainly makes for striking people, especially in combination with fair coloring. It’s like living in a city of Vikings who have traded in their traditional garb of horned hats and animal pelts for modern-day T-shirts and blue jeans… jeans with really long inseams.
The Dutch are not beautiful just because a lot of them have light hair and eyes, either—it’s that, dark or fair, many people here seem to have the symmetry of features that is widely considered beautiful, regardless of skin or hair tone. That said, I do see countless shades of blond on the streets of Amsterdam every day, from the rosy-cheeked platinum blond children to the women biking by, long legs pedaling, their thick, honeyed tresses cascading down their backs. Not fair, I think. Not fair to be so tall and slim, with what I now call “fairytale hair” and startlingly blue eyes. I echo my bridesmaid’s sentiment in my head often—who are these people? And why are these recessive traits (blond hair, blue eyes) so prevalent in the Netherlands and the rest of Northern Europe, and so rare in most of the rest of the world?
I did a little research, and learned that light hair, skin and eyes are all traits resulting from low amounts of melanin. In sun-scarce Northern European countries, pale skin may have evolved as a way to help people absorb enough sunlight to make vitamin D. (People with darker skin generally didn’t do well in places without lots of sun; they got rickets and died). And because the genes for hair, eyes, and skin appear to be somewhat related to one another, the hair and eyes got lighter as the skin did.
The second theory is that blond hair and blue eyes are the result of two separate genetic accidents that both occurred about 10,000 years ago, and then spread through the population via sexual selection. Originally, everyone had brown hair and brown eyes. Then, somewhere along the northwest coast of the Black Sea, one individual had a genetic mutation that resulted in blue eyes. This rogue gene did not “make” blue pigment in the iris; rather, it turned off the mechanism that produced brown melanin pigment. Blue is what you see when there’s no brown.[1] Likewise, the mutation in the gene for hair color also turned down the signal for melanin production, resulting in lighter hair[i]—blond is what you see when there’s less pigment.
Incidentally, that’s how bleach works—hydrogen peroxide removes pigment from your hair. The more pigment is bleached away, the lighter your hair will be. As they do the world over, many women here, and even some men, highlight their hair. While many people in Holland are blond as children, their hair usually darkens at least a few shades by the time they reach adulthood. Still, though—I have peered at many a blond head on the street. Even if the hair is highlighted, the base color often isn’t much darker. Look at the hairline; examine the eyebrows. With or without salon assistance, a lot of these people are natural blonds.
My husband, to my surprise and endless delight, has his own highlighting story. (Blond as a child, his hair is now a light brown). When he was 16 years old, his school class took a trip to Rome. He and his friends had heard that the Italian girls were especially enamored of blond-haired guys, so he and some friends decided to highlight their hair before they went.
“You highlighted your hair? Yourself?” I asked, incredulous. I don’t know any guys that have highlighted their hair, at least not any that would admit to it. And I definitely didn’t realize I had married one. “With what?”
He shrugged. “Some kind of peroxide solution,” he said. “It was the day and age of the Backstreet Boys—Nick Carter,” he added, as though this explained everything. (Nick Carter, a singer, was the youngest member of the Backstreet Boys. He had a butt-cut—cheek-length hair with a center part—and his hair was highlighted in an extremely un-subtle way. He was, however, very cute).
I laughed. “So you guys wanted to look like Nick Carter?”
He snorted (a touch immodestly, I thought). “We already did look like Nick Carter. We’re Dutchies; we were already blond. But, we figured, the blonder, the better.” He winked.
“So did you pick up lots of girls?”
“We were 16—the point wasn’t necessarily to pick up girls; it was just to get the attention of girls.”
“Ok, well, did you?”
 He grinned. “We did.”
Though I am generally drawn to darker coloring in others, the allure of blond hair is certainly not lost on me. Blond as a child, my hair darkened to a light brown by the time I was eight or nine. The summer I was thirteen, a neighbor friend—I’ll call her Jenny—and I tried to highlight our hair. She’d read an article in Seventeen magazine extolling the bleaching properties of lemon juice and salt, and after camp one afternoon we headed over to her house to test it out. Standing in her kitchen, we earnestly squeezed lemon halves and sprinkled salt over each other’s heads, as though we were dressing filet of sole. Then we lay in the sun next to her pool, hoping our matted, crispy tangles would turn golden. A few sweaty, sticky hours later, I headed home, washed the concoction out under the shower, blew my hair dry, and stood hopefully in front of the mirror. Nothing.
We called each other to discuss our results. 
“I think it’s a little lighter,” she chirped, tentative but hopeful. “But… it’s kind of hard to tell.” Jenny was half of Italian descent, a beautiful, popular girl a year older than I was. She had brown eyes and brown hair that naturally streaked golden in the sun while her skin effortlessly tanned. She really didn’t need the lemon juice to begin with.
“Yeah,” I was leaning forward, inches from the mirror, examining my head with the obsessive fervor that only a teenage girl can muster. “It’s really hard to tell.” I was not popular, and I didn’t tan very well at all. I needed this to work.
Unsatisfied with the Seventeen method but ultimately undeterred, I went to CVS and bought a bottle of Sun-In. (For the unenlightened: Sun-In was a popular product in the mid-to-late nineties that was basically a mixture of water, hydrogen peroxide, and a flowery scent that only half-hid the pungent smell of the peroxide. It cost about seven bucks.) I carefully saturated a few pieces around my face; when they touched my cheeks, my skin started itching. The instructions said to “relax in the sun or blow dry.” I’d be damned if I was going to spend any more time sweltering in July humidity for nothing; I locked the bathroom door and put the hairdryer on its highest heat. At first, it was disastrous: the strands turned an unfortunate shade of orange. Panicked, I consulted the label again; it said to put in more “until the desired shade was achieved.” Too late to turn back now!  I repeated the process, and it actually worked: I had my first blond highlights. I had a rash on my cheeks and a scorched scalp, but I had highlights. Looking back, I am amazed that my hair did not fall out of my head on the spot.
I used Sun-In, or something like it, every so often throughout high school to get the “sun-kissed” look promised on the packaging. I must have gotten pretty good at applying it, because in the photos from those years, my hair (miraculously) doesn’t look orange, and my skin and scalp appear to be unharmed. In college I started professionally highlighting it, which is of course what anyone should do if they want to change their hair color without looking like they lost a bet. Except for a brief stint in my mid-twenties when I was too broke to afford it, I’ve been highlighting it ever since.
“But your natural color is so pretty,” my mother would say. “Why don’t you just leave it be?”
“My natural color is boring!” I would reply. Since my hair wasn’t raven-dark, or otherwise remarkable in any way, I figured it might as well be blond. I clung to the fact that I was blond as a child as proof that I wasn’t totally faking it.
Once I moved to Amsterdam, the jig was up. Any illusions I harbored about my own “natural” blondness were shattered in the presence of so much actual natural blondness. In fact, being blond didn’t seem so special anymore. I dyed my hair brown and started to let my natural color grow in. I should add that I was also miserably pregnant, and I wanted a hair color that did not call to mind sunshine and happy days. I wanted it dark, to reflect my general first-trimester crankiness. Sure enough, though, I got tired of waiting for it to grow in, and after the baby was born I went back to highlighting it.
Regardless of what they look like and what color hair they have, one thing is clear: the Dutch don’t spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, or fussing over, either their individual appearance or that of their countrymen. One of the key things you have to understand about the Dutch character is that it is frowned upon to think you are better than somebody else, for any reason. Did you happen to be born looking like Doutzen Kroes (a Dutch Victoria’s Secret supermodel)? Well, don’t get on your high horse.
By contrast, in the U.S., and especially in New York (birthplace of the metrosexual man), people are quite preoccupied with appearances—both their own, and other people’s. And we tend to fawn over those who are considered aesthetically blessed. Often, upon meeting a beautiful or handsome person, the first thing mentioned to others about the encounter later will be the fact that the person was beautiful or handsome. That’s not true in Holland. People naturally notice other people who are good looking, but they generally don’t comment unless the person is a real stunner—which would practically make them a god or goddess to an American. Moreover, the Dutch don’t focus on the way someone looks—even if the person could conceivably grace the cover of a magazine, so what? If your average Dutch person ran into Doutzen on the street, they would treat her exactly the way they would anyone else. They might even go out of their way to ignore her, just to drive home the point that she is not special just because she happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.
At first I thought people here might be oblivious to each other’s good looks because they all seemed above average to me—an “if everyone’s beautiful, then nobody is” situation. That could play a part, but I think it’s more that the Dutch are simply too practical to be easily seduced by something as fleeting, and randomly apportioned, as the pleasing arrangement of someone’s features or the luster of their (golden) hair. I, however, am not at all immune, and spent the first few months here swiveling my head to stare at men, women and children everywhere I went. If the objects of my admiration had known my thoughts, they probably would have been flattered, but also slightly bemused. Maybe they would even have responded with a thought stream of their own: You do know that looks don’t ultimately matter, right?
Well, everyone “knows” that. But intellectually understanding an overarching truth is different from understanding your everyday experience. And in my experience, looks matter more to your average American—and WAY more to your average New Yorker—than to your average Dutch person. So it’s refreshing, if baffling, to live somewhere where nobody really cares whether you look like Gisele or the hunchback of Notre Dame. Get in line. Beauty or beast, you’ll have to wait, just like everyone else.

 


[1] http://www.livescience.com/9578-common-ancestor-blue-eyes.html




[i] I am oversimplifying these explanations a little—there are obviously many different shades of every color of hair, as well as many different shades of blue, green, hazel, and brown eyes, and that has to do with multiple alleles, the presence and absence of specific types of melanin, and certain gene combinations.

THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL

“Who are these people?”

This was a question posed by one of my bridesmaids as we stood next to the dance floor at my wedding reception. I looked out and saw the usual assortment of gyrating bodies and small groups laughing, sipping cocktails.

“What do you mean? Who?”

“The Dutch guests”—she made a sweeping gesture with her arm that encompassed the entire room—“are all beautiful. It looks like you hired models.”

I laughed. “Actually, a couple of them are, or were, models,” I replied, pointing out a childhood friend of my husband and another man and woman, all Dutch. But as I looked around the rest of the room, I had to admit—taken as a whole and individually, the Dutch guests were amazingly attractive. Definitely above the American average.

Now that I live in Amsterdam, I can confirm that it wasn’t just my wedding reception (though I do think that my husband happens to have some friends who are “really really ridiculously good-looking,” to quote Zoolander). The Netherlands as a whole seems to have way more than its fair share of fair people. And I mean “fair” in every sense of the word—light in complexion, beautiful, and fair-minded. We’ll leave aside fair-mindedness for the time being, though, to focus on purely superficial qualities.

Besides a few tribes in Africa, The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. The average height for men is just shy of 6 feet, and the average height for women is just over 5’6”. Many Northern European nations are tall—the average heights in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are all close behind the Netherlands. Tall Germanic ancestors and a high standard of living in all of these countries partially explains their great lengths, but scientists can’t explain why the Dutch seem to have kept on growing (though their heights finally appear to be tapering off).

Whatever the reason might be, it certainly makes for striking people, especially in combination with fair coloring. It’s like living in a city of Vikings who have traded in their traditional garb of horned hats and animal pelts for modern-day T-shirts and blue jeans… jeans with really long inseams.

The Dutch are not beautiful just because a lot of them have light hair and eyes, either—it’s that, dark or fair, many people here seem to have the symmetry of features that is widely considered beautiful, regardless of skin or hair tone. That said, I do see countless shades of blond on the streets of Amsterdam every day, from the rosy-cheeked platinum blond children to the women biking by, long legs pedaling, their thick, honeyed tresses cascading down their backs. Not fair, I think. Not fair to be so tall and slim, with what I now call “fairytale hair” and startlingly blue eyes. I echo my bridesmaid’s sentiment in my head often—who are these people? And why are these recessive traits (blond hair, blue eyes) so prevalent in the Netherlands and the rest of Northern Europe, and so rare in most of the rest of the world?

I did a little research, and learned that light hair, skin and eyes are all traits resulting from low amounts of melanin. In sun-scarce Northern European countries, pale skin may have evolved as a way to help people absorb enough sunlight to make vitamin D. (People with darker skin generally didn’t do well in places without lots of sun; they got rickets and died). And because the genes for hair, eyes, and skin appear to be somewhat related to one another, the hair and eyes got lighter as the skin did.

The second theory is that blond hair and blue eyes are the result of two separate genetic accidents that both occurred about 10,000 years ago, and then spread through the population via sexual selection. Originally, everyone had brown hair and brown eyes. Then, somewhere along the northwest coast of the Black Sea, one individual had a genetic mutation that resulted in blue eyes. This rogue gene did not “make” blue pigment in the iris; rather, it turned off the mechanism that produced brown melanin pigment. Blue is what you see when there’s no brown.[1] Likewise, the mutation in the gene for hair color also turned down the signal for melanin production, resulting in lighter hair[i]—blond is what you see when there’s less pigment.

Incidentally, that’s how bleach works—hydrogen peroxide removes pigment from your hair. The more pigment is bleached away, the lighter your hair will be. As they do the world over, many women here, and even some men, highlight their hair. While many people in Holland are blond as children, their hair usually darkens at least a few shades by the time they reach adulthood. Still, though—I have peered at many a blond head on the street. Even if the hair is highlighted, the base color often isn’t much darker. Look at the hairline; examine the eyebrows. With or without salon assistance, a lot of these people are natural blonds.

My husband, to my surprise and endless delight, has his own highlighting story. (Blond as a child, his hair is now a light brown). When he was 16 years old, his school class took a trip to Rome. He and his friends had heard that the Italian girls were especially enamored of blond-haired guys, so he and some friends decided to highlight their hair before they went.

You highlighted your hair? Yourself?” I asked, incredulous. I don’t know any guys that have highlighted their hair, at least not any that would admit to it. And I definitely didn’t realize I had married one. “With what?”

He shrugged. “Some kind of peroxide solution,” he said. “It was the day and age of the Backstreet Boys—Nick Carter,” he added, as though this explained everything. (Nick Carter, a singer, was the youngest member of the Backstreet Boys. He had a butt-cut—cheek-length hair with a center part—and his hair was highlighted in an extremely un-subtle way. He was, however, very cute).

I laughed. “So you guys wanted to look like Nick Carter?”

He snorted (a touch immodestly, I thought). “We already did look like Nick Carter. We’re Dutchies; we were already blond. But, we figured, the blonder, the better.” He winked.

“So did you pick up lots of girls?”

“We were 16—the point wasn’t necessarily to pick up girls; it was just to get the attention of girls.”

“Ok, well, did you?”

 He grinned. “We did.”

Though I am generally drawn to darker coloring in others, the allure of blond hair is certainly not lost on me. Blond as a child, my hair darkened to a light brown by the time I was eight or nine. The summer I was thirteen, a neighbor friend—I’ll call her Jenny—and I tried to highlight our hair. She’d read an article in Seventeen magazine extolling the bleaching properties of lemon juice and salt, and after camp one afternoon we headed over to her house to test it out. Standing in her kitchen, we earnestly squeezed lemon halves and sprinkled salt over each other’s heads, as though we were dressing filet of sole. Then we lay in the sun next to her pool, hoping our matted, crispy tangles would turn golden. A few sweaty, sticky hours later, I headed home, washed the concoction out under the shower, blew my hair dry, and stood hopefully in front of the mirror. Nothing.

We called each other to discuss our results. 

“I think it’s a little lighter,” she chirped, tentative but hopeful. “But… it’s kind of hard to tell.” Jenny was half of Italian descent, a beautiful, popular girl a year older than I was. She had brown eyes and brown hair that naturally streaked golden in the sun while her skin effortlessly tanned. She really didn’t need the lemon juice to begin with.

“Yeah,” I was leaning forward, inches from the mirror, examining my head with the obsessive fervor that only a teenage girl can muster. “It’s really hard to tell.” I was not popular, and I didn’t tan very well at all. I needed this to work.

Unsatisfied with the Seventeen method but ultimately undeterred, I went to CVS and bought a bottle of Sun-In. (For the unenlightened: Sun-In was a popular product in the mid-to-late nineties that was basically a mixture of water, hydrogen peroxide, and a flowery scent that only half-hid the pungent smell of the peroxide. It cost about seven bucks.) I carefully saturated a few pieces around my face; when they touched my cheeks, my skin started itching. The instructions said to “relax in the sun or blow dry.” I’d be damned if I was going to spend any more time sweltering in July humidity for nothing; I locked the bathroom door and put the hairdryer on its highest heat. At first, it was disastrous: the strands turned an unfortunate shade of orange. Panicked, I consulted the label again; it said to put in more “until the desired shade was achieved.” Too late to turn back now!  I repeated the process, and it actually worked: I had my first blond highlights. I had a rash on my cheeks and a scorched scalp, but I had highlights. Looking back, I am amazed that my hair did not fall out of my head on the spot.

I used Sun-In, or something like it, every so often throughout high school to get the “sun-kissed” look promised on the packaging. I must have gotten pretty good at applying it, because in the photos from those years, my hair (miraculously) doesn’t look orange, and my skin and scalp appear to be unharmed. In college I started professionally highlighting it, which is of course what anyone should do if they want to change their hair color without looking like they lost a bet. Except for a brief stint in my mid-twenties when I was too broke to afford it, I’ve been highlighting it ever since.

“But your natural color is so pretty,” my mother would say. “Why don’t you just leave it be?”

“My natural color is boring!” I would reply. Since my hair wasn’t raven-dark, or otherwise remarkable in any way, I figured it might as well be blond. I clung to the fact that I was blond as a child as proof that I wasn’t totally faking it.

Once I moved to Amsterdam, the jig was up. Any illusions I harbored about my own “natural” blondness were shattered in the presence of so much actual natural blondness. In fact, being blond didn’t seem so special anymore. I dyed my hair brown and started to let my natural color grow in. I should add that I was also miserably pregnant, and I wanted a hair color that did not call to mind sunshine and happy days. I wanted it dark, to reflect my general first-trimester crankiness. Sure enough, though, I got tired of waiting for it to grow in, and after the baby was born I went back to highlighting it.

Regardless of what they look like and what color hair they have, one thing is clear: the Dutch don’t spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, or fussing over, either their individual appearance or that of their countrymen. One of the key things you have to understand about the Dutch character is that it is frowned upon to think you are better than somebody else, for any reason. Did you happen to be born looking like Doutzen Kroes (a Dutch Victoria’s Secret supermodel)? Well, don’t get on your high horse.

By contrast, in the U.S., and especially in New York (birthplace of the metrosexual man), people are quite preoccupied with appearances—both their own, and other people’s. And we tend to fawn over those who are considered aesthetically blessed. Often, upon meeting a beautiful or handsome person, the first thing mentioned to others about the encounter later will be the fact that the person was beautiful or handsome. That’s not true in Holland. People naturally notice other people who are good looking, but they generally don’t comment unless the person is a real stunner—which would practically make them a god or goddess to an American. Moreover, the Dutch don’t focus on the way someone looks—even if the person could conceivably grace the cover of a magazine, so what? If your average Dutch person ran into Doutzen on the street, they would treat her exactly the way they would anyone else. They might even go out of their way to ignore her, just to drive home the point that she is not special just because she happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.

At first I thought people here might be oblivious to each other’s good looks because they all seemed above average to me—an “if everyone’s beautiful, then nobody is” situation. That could play a part, but I think it’s more that the Dutch are simply too practical to be easily seduced by something as fleeting, and randomly apportioned, as the pleasing arrangement of someone’s features or the luster of their (golden) hair. I, however, am not at all immune, and spent the first few months here swiveling my head to stare at men, women and children everywhere I went. If the objects of my admiration had known my thoughts, they probably would have been flattered, but also slightly bemused. Maybe they would even have responded with a thought stream of their own: You do know that looks don’t ultimately matter, right?

Well, everyone “knows” that. But intellectually understanding an overarching truth is different from understanding your everyday experience. And in my experience, looks matter more to your average American—and WAY more to your average New Yorker—than to your average Dutch person. So it’s refreshing, if baffling, to live somewhere where nobody really cares whether you look like Gisele or the hunchback of Notre Dame. Get in line. Beauty or beast, you’ll have to wait, just like everyone else.

 

[i] I am oversimplifying these explanations a little—there are obviously many different shades of every color of hair, as well as many different shades of blue, green, hazel, and brown eyes, and that has to do with multiple alleles, the presence and absence of specific types of melanin, and certain gene combinations.

THAT’S SO ESL: The Language of Love, and the Love of Language
My husband speaks excellent English. He can even read and edit legal briefs—and write articles!—in a language that is not his native tongue, which I consider a close-to-miraculous feat.
There are moments, however, when he will mix a metaphor, or phrase something in a way that I never would. I love these charming mix-ups because they invariably teach me something either about my own language, or about Dutch, that I never knew before. We call these “ESL” moments. If he comes home from work, tired, and mutters something incomprehensible, I’ll say, “What? That was totally ESL.”
I first said it when he made a joke about something. When I smiled but didn’t laugh, he repeated the joke.
“I heard you,” I said.
“Why didn’t you laugh?”
“Well… the word choice was a little ESL.”
“What’s ESL?”
“English as a Second Language. It’s a test foreigners have to take that assesses basic English proficiency.”
Even though he was more amused than offended, I could see him racing for a suitable retort.
“Screw you,” he announced. “How’s THAT for ESL?”
I laughed. “Excellent! Not ESL at all.”
Then I kissed him, to make up for being such a linguistic snob.
One of my favorite ESL moments happened very early on in our relationship, and is at this point a sort of legend among friends and loved ones. I had called him “babycakes” in a playful way, and the next day he apparently wanted to use this new word with me. 
“My sweet…” he paused. I could see the mental wheels whirring. “Cakebabies?” he finished, tentatively.
I laughed out loud. “Babycakes!” I replied. “But ‘cakebabies’ is a million times better. From now on, we’re saying that.” 
Another phrase we now use, that my husband coined himself, is “forget/forgot about Dre.” This comes from the Dr.Dre/Eminem song, with the chorus (sung by Eminem): “Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say/But nothin’ comes out when they move their lips/Just a buncha gibberish/And muthafuckas act like they forgot about Dre.”
I think I first heard it when I asked him if he had dome some mundane errand, like picking up the dry cleaning. His eyes widened. “Oh sh*t! I totally forgot about Dre!” he cried. What made it even better was his everyday inflection—he said it as though that’s the way everyone talks about forgetting the dry cleaning.
“Did you just say you ‘forgot about Dre’?” (My husband has an incredible knowledge of pop music and lyrics. I think his brain is part Velcro.)
“Yeah,” he repeated glumly. “I totally forgot about Dre. I will get it tomorrow, though!”
“No worries, sweetheart,” I said, frantically searching for the little notebook that I write things down in.
Here are a few of my other favorite ESL moments:
“I don’t think the kettle has an annoying flute.”
(Trans: “I don’t think the kettle’s whistle is annoying.”)
“I’m giving you a cookie of your own dough.”
(Trans: “I’m giving you a taste of your own medicine”—the cookie phrase is how the Dutch say this)
“It was a tight cord.”
(Trans: “It was a close call”—again, the way he said it is a direct translation from Dutch)
Me (to husband): “Your hair is sticking straight up!” Him: “Yeah, it’s static electrical.”
“You can’t give a Dutch boy crap about wanting to buy speedskates. Just like I can’t give you crap if you want to eat a hotdog.”
(Trans: “You can’t fault me for liking things that are typically Dutch, just as I can’t fault you for liking things that are typically American.” N.B.: The number of times I have asked to eat a hotdog is precisely zero.)
The speedskate/hotdog example isn’t really ESL. Sort of like “forget about Dre,” I’m not quite sure how to categorize that one, which basically sums up how I feel about my husband in general. When my sister asked me about him when we first started dating, I replied, “I’m not sure how to describe him. He is unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”
Now, whenever he says something that makes me laugh especially hard, he asks hopefully, “Is that one going in the notebook??”

THAT’S SO ESL: The Language of Love, and the Love of Language

My husband speaks excellent English. He can even read and edit legal briefs—and write articles!—in a language that is not his native tongue, which I consider a close-to-miraculous feat.

There are moments, however, when he will mix a metaphor, or phrase something in a way that I never would. I love these charming mix-ups because they invariably teach me something either about my own language, or about Dutch, that I never knew before. We call these “ESL” moments. If he comes home from work, tired, and mutters something incomprehensible, I’ll say, “What? That was totally ESL.”

I first said it when he made a joke about something. When I smiled but didn’t laugh, he repeated the joke.

“I heard you,” I said.

“Why didn’t you laugh?”

“Well… the word choice was a little ESL.”

“What’s ESL?”

“English as a Second Language. It’s a test foreigners have to take that assesses basic English proficiency.”

Even though he was more amused than offended, I could see him racing for a suitable retort.

“Screw you,” he announced. “How’s THAT for ESL?”

I laughed. “Excellent! Not ESL at all.”

Then I kissed him, to make up for being such a linguistic snob.

One of my favorite ESL moments happened very early on in our relationship, and is at this point a sort of legend among friends and loved ones. I had called him “babycakes” in a playful way, and the next day he apparently wanted to use this new word with me. 

“My sweet…” he paused. I could see the mental wheels whirring. “Cakebabies?” he finished, tentatively.

I laughed out loud. “Babycakes!” I replied. “But ‘cakebabies’ is a million times better. From now on, we’re saying that.” 

Another phrase we now use, that my husband coined himself, is “forget/forgot about Dre.” This comes from the Dr.Dre/Eminem song, with the chorus (sung by Eminem): “Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say/But nothin’ comes out when they move their lips/Just a buncha gibberish/And muthafuckas act like they forgot about Dre.”

I think I first heard it when I asked him if he had dome some mundane errand, like picking up the dry cleaning. His eyes widened. “Oh sh*t! I totally forgot about Dre!” he cried. What made it even better was his everyday inflection—he said it as though that’s the way everyone talks about forgetting the dry cleaning.

“Did you just say you ‘forgot about Dre’?” (My husband has an incredible knowledge of pop music and lyrics. I think his brain is part Velcro.)

“Yeah,” he repeated glumly. “I totally forgot about Dre. I will get it tomorrow, though!”

“No worries, sweetheart,” I said, frantically searching for the little notebook that I write things down in.

Here are a few of my other favorite ESL moments:

“I don’t think the kettle has an annoying flute.”

(Trans: “I don’t think the kettle’s whistle is annoying.”)

“I’m giving you a cookie of your own dough.”

(Trans: “I’m giving you a taste of your own medicine”—the cookie phrase is how the Dutch say this)

“It was a tight cord.”

(Trans: “It was a close call”—again, the way he said it is a direct translation from Dutch)

Me (to husband): “Your hair is sticking straight up!” Him: “Yeah, it’s static electrical.”

“You can’t give a Dutch boy crap about wanting to buy speedskates. Just like I can’t give you crap if you want to eat a hotdog.”

(Trans: “You can’t fault me for liking things that are typically Dutch, just as I can’t fault you for liking things that are typically American.” N.B.: The number of times I have asked to eat a hotdog is precisely zero.)

The speedskate/hotdog example isn’t really ESL. Sort of like “forget about Dre,” I’m not quite sure how to categorize that one, which basically sums up how I feel about my husband in general. When my sister asked me about him when we first started dating, I replied, “I’m not sure how to describe him. He is unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”

Now, whenever he says something that makes me laugh especially hard, he asks hopefully, “Is that one going in the notebook??”

DUTCH ON ICE
The Dutch are crazy about skating—and I really do mean crazy. I’m not talking about figure skating, with its pretty spins and leaps; no, they seem to be fairly ambivalent about figure skating. But speedskating—skating on special skates with extra long blades—is hugely popular in Holland.
According to my crackerjack research on Wikipedia, “the roots of speed skating date back over a millennium to Scandinavia, Northern Europe, and the Netherlands, where the natives added bones to their shoes and used them to travel on frozen rivers, canals and lakes.” (“Hey kids! Grab some ribs from last night’s mastodon roast!”) 
Well, the intervening centuries only seem to have strengthened the Dutch affinity for the sport. I live on a canal in Amsterdam, and when the canals froze in early February of 2012, people from ages 2 to 92 came out and skated on them all day, every day. Little kids, or older amateurs, held onto folding chairs that they pushed in front of them for balance. The more senior skaters, especially men, do not mess around, and you are expected to get out of their way. They skate leaning forward, with long, measured strokes, hands clasped over their lower backs—the way the professionals do. These guys must enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also take it very seriously.
At some point in the 1700s, the Dutch started skating between eleven cities in Friesland*, a northeast region of the Netherlands. These eleven cities form sort of a giant loop, and are all connected by waterways. (Well, the whole country is connected by waterways, really). In 1909, this race officially became known as the Eleven City Tour, or “Elfstedentocht.” In order for the race to happen, however, all of the waterways have to freeze, meaning the temperature has to stay at or below freezing for a week or two. But it doesn’t get this cold every winter; far from it—the last 11 City Tour took place in 1997, and the tour has only taken place 15 times since its inception in 1909. 
The total distance of the tour is around 200 kilometers, so it isn’t the sort of thing where you can just strap on your bones and be on your merry way. There’s a lottery, and some spaces are reserved for pro skaters. Only 200 people can take part in the actual speed skating part, and you can bet that those 200 train the whole winter for it, just in case there’s a cold snap long enough to freeze all that water. The other 16,000 contestants are “leisure” skaters (though, in my opinion, skating the equivalent of 124.27 miles exceeds any sane definition of “leisure.”)
When the tour does take place, the whole country goes nuts. People flock to Leeuwarden, the Frisian city where the tour starts and ends, for a giant street party the night before the race. The day of the race, fans (who have traveled to Friesland from all over Holland) stand all along the route to cheer on the skaters, like the French do during the Tour de France. This year, Frisian hotels were fully booked, expecting between 1.5 and 2 million visitors, since the tour seemed likely to happen—but alas, the ice didn’t get quite thick enough.
Since the 11 City Tour happens so infrequently, and since the Dutch love skating so much, as soon as the temperature gets near zero, you start to see signs of “elfstedenkoorts” (“11 city fever”—yes, this is an actual term). Newscasters start to speculate about whether or not the tour will happen this year, show footage of past tours, interview famous skaters, and give daily updates of the ice thickness at each demarcated distance along the course. The course is divided into 22 “rayons” (sections of ice measuring about 10 km each), and the ice in each section must reach a thickness of 15 cm, or about 6 inches. This is very important, because obviously nobody wants any enthusiastic skater to break through the ice and fall into freezing cold water. This brings us to the most curious phenomenon of the whole thing: the “rayonhoofd.”
The “rayonhoofd” (meaning “region head”) is the person responsible for measuring the thickness of his “rayon” of ice every day. Each rayonhoofd must also ensure that there are safe places for fans to stand, for skaters to walk between stretches of ice (not all are directly connected), and generally oversee the safety of both skaters and the public. It is considered an enormous honor to be chosen as a rayonhoofd. Which, to be honest, I don’t (and probably never will) fully understand. I mean, they have important duties, to be sure—but I still don’t see why they are accorded roughly the same respect as Supreme Court Justices as soon as the temperature drops. I asked my husband, and he says it’s because they are the ones who “decide” whether or not the 11 City Tour will happen.
“But they don’t really decide,” I said to my husband. “The ice decides. It’s not like they control the temperature.” I asked him to compare the rayonhoofden to something in another culture, to help me understand their importance, but he couldn’t.
“OK,” I said. “Is it like being knighted, or something?” (I thought I was overreaching, but it turned out I wasn’t.) 
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s kind of like that.”
“Um, wow,” I said. “That is a huge deal. That strikes me as wildly out of proportion with what they actually do, though.”
During the elfstedenkoorts, I had dinner with some American friends who were staying here for about six months. They moved here right in the middle of it all, and they, like me, couldn’t really understand the rayonhoofd reverence. We had to use our imaginations to help us justify it.
“I picture him with a big cape,” said Katie. “A sweeping, formidable cape.” 
“Yeah, and a long beard, with icicles,” I added.
 “And a long, pointy hat,” said Katie’s husband.
My husband, who arrived at dinner in the middle of our discussion, was completely unfazed by our description of rayonhoofd-as-Gandalf. He seemed to agree with it entirely.
“Do they do anything besides measure the ice?” Katie asked him.
“Well yeah—they have other responsibilities. They’re also in charge of ice transplants.”
We all looked at each other. “Ice what?”
“Ice transplants,” my husband said—and even he was laughing. “It’s when the ice isn’t thick enough in some areas, so they bring over ice from other areas to make it thick enough.”
“Ohhh-kaaaay,” I said, laughing, still unclear about the exact methodology, and amazed at both the weirdness of the term, and at the total obsession it indicated: if it doesn’t freeze by itself, we will make it freeze! I pictured our guy in a cape, now holding a shovel.
My husband and I did our own little skating tour with a group of friends, on a shatteringly sunny, freezing cold Saturday in early February. I thought it would be just us out in nature, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It wasn’t “just us” at all—we drove up north of Amsterdam, where we parked the car in a field already filling up with lots of other cars. Apparently, every picturesque sequence of brooks and streams in the whole country has been scouted out by the Dutch and organized into a “tour,” and when it’s cold enough, everybody goes out on the weekend to skate.
We paid for tickets, and as we skated by each new village, we got stamps on our tickets from bundled-up people sitting in makeshift wooden huts next to the ice. (If you finish the tour, you can show your ticket with all your stamps, and they give you a little medal! I am not kidding.) Every so often along the way, we stopped to refuel—people had set up stations selling soup, beer, hot chocolate and sausages all along the course, to keep the skaters’ blood sugar and spirits high (and, of course, to turn a profit). Sometimes these stations were officially organized, but some people with houses along the route just came out and set up stands in their backyards next to the ice.
As I skated through sunlit, frozen fields, I pictured the mythical rayonhoofd. Invisible to human eyes, he stands guard over the land. With a measuring stick in one hand and a shovel in the other, he floats above us, watching with wise, grey eyes, stroking his beard, waiting for the ice to freeze ever deeper, waiting for the moment when he will spread his arms wide, swirl his formidable cape, and re-emerge, triumphant, in a blinding flash of silver.
*Frisians are known for being tough, independent, and very proud of, well, being Frisian. Unlike other provinces of the Netherlands, Friesland even has its own language—Frisian—that is spoken by nearly all Frisians as either a first or a second language, along with standard Dutch. Fun tidbit: Frisian is the living language that is most similar to English.

DUTCH ON ICE

The Dutch are crazy about skating—and I really do mean crazy. I’m not talking about figure skating, with its pretty spins and leaps; no, they seem to be fairly ambivalent about figure skating. But speedskating—skating on special skates with extra long blades—is hugely popular in Holland.

According to my crackerjack research on Wikipedia, “the roots of speed skating date back over a millennium to Scandinavia, Northern Europe, and the Netherlands, where the natives added bones to their shoes and used them to travel on frozen rivers, canals and lakes.” (“Hey kids! Grab some ribs from last night’s mastodon roast!”) 

Well, the intervening centuries only seem to have strengthened the Dutch affinity for the sport. I live on a canal in Amsterdam, and when the canals froze in early February of 2012, people from ages 2 to 92 came out and skated on them all day, every day. Little kids, or older amateurs, held onto folding chairs that they pushed in front of them for balance. The more senior skaters, especially men, do not mess around, and you are expected to get out of their way. They skate leaning forward, with long, measured strokes, hands clasped over their lower backs—the way the professionals do. These guys must enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also take it very seriously.

At some point in the 1700s, the Dutch started skating between eleven cities in Friesland*, a northeast region of the Netherlands. These eleven cities form sort of a giant loop, and are all connected by waterways. (Well, the whole country is connected by waterways, really). In 1909, this race officially became known as the Eleven City Tour, or “Elfstedentocht.” In order for the race to happen, however, all of the waterways have to freeze, meaning the temperature has to stay at or below freezing for a week or two. But it doesn’t get this cold every winter; far from it—the last 11 City Tour took place in 1997, and the tour has only taken place 15 times since its inception in 1909. 

The total distance of the tour is around 200 kilometers, so it isn’t the sort of thing where you can just strap on your bones and be on your merry way. There’s a lottery, and some spaces are reserved for pro skaters. Only 200 people can take part in the actual speed skating part, and you can bet that those 200 train the whole winter for it, just in case there’s a cold snap long enough to freeze all that water. The other 16,000 contestants are “leisure” skaters (though, in my opinion, skating the equivalent of 124.27 miles exceeds any sane definition of “leisure.”)

When the tour does take place, the whole country goes nuts. People flock to Leeuwarden, the Frisian city where the tour starts and ends, for a giant street party the night before the race. The day of the race, fans (who have traveled to Friesland from all over Holland) stand all along the route to cheer on the skaters, like the French do during the Tour de France. This year, Frisian hotels were fully booked, expecting between 1.5 and 2 million visitors, since the tour seemed likely to happen—but alas, the ice didn’t get quite thick enough.

Since the 11 City Tour happens so infrequently, and since the Dutch love skating so much, as soon as the temperature gets near zero, you start to see signs of “elfstedenkoorts” (“11 city fever”—yes, this is an actual term). Newscasters start to speculate about whether or not the tour will happen this year, show footage of past tours, interview famous skaters, and give daily updates of the ice thickness at each demarcated distance along the course. The course is divided into 22 “rayons” (sections of ice measuring about 10 km each), and the ice in each section must reach a thickness of 15 cm, or about 6 inches. This is very important, because obviously nobody wants any enthusiastic skater to break through the ice and fall into freezing cold water. This brings us to the most curious phenomenon of the whole thing: the “rayonhoofd.”

The “rayonhoofd” (meaning “region head”) is the person responsible for measuring the thickness of his “rayon” of ice every day. Each rayonhoofd must also ensure that there are safe places for fans to stand, for skaters to walk between stretches of ice (not all are directly connected), and generally oversee the safety of both skaters and the public. It is considered an enormous honor to be chosen as a rayonhoofd. Which, to be honest, I don’t (and probably never will) fully understand. I mean, they have important duties, to be sure—but I still don’t see why they are accorded roughly the same respect as Supreme Court Justices as soon as the temperature drops. I asked my husband, and he says it’s because they are the ones who “decide” whether or not the 11 City Tour will happen.

“But they don’t really decide,” I said to my husband. “The ice decides. It’s not like they control the temperature.” I asked him to compare the rayonhoofden to something in another culture, to help me understand their importance, but he couldn’t.

“OK,” I said. “Is it like being knighted, or something?” (I thought I was overreaching, but it turned out I wasn’t.) 

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s kind of like that.”

“Um, wow,” I said. “That is a huge deal. That strikes me as wildly out of proportion with what they actually do, though.”

During the elfstedenkoorts, I had dinner with some American friends who were staying here for about six months. They moved here right in the middle of it all, and they, like me, couldn’t really understand the rayonhoofd reverence. We had to use our imaginations to help us justify it.

“I picture him with a big cape,” said Katie. “A sweeping, formidable cape.” 

“Yeah, and a long beard, with icicles,” I added.

 “And a long, pointy hat,” said Katie’s husband.

My husband, who arrived at dinner in the middle of our discussion, was completely unfazed by our description of rayonhoofd-as-Gandalf. He seemed to agree with it entirely.

“Do they do anything besides measure the ice?” Katie asked him.

“Well yeah—they have other responsibilities. They’re also in charge of ice transplants.”

We all looked at each other. “Ice what?”

“Ice transplants,” my husband said—and even he was laughing. “It’s when the ice isn’t thick enough in some areas, so they bring over ice from other areas to make it thick enough.”

“Ohhh-kaaaay,” I said, laughing, still unclear about the exact methodology, and amazed at both the weirdness of the term, and at the total obsession it indicated: if it doesn’t freeze by itself, we will make it freeze! I pictured our guy in a cape, now holding a shovel.

My husband and I did our own little skating tour with a group of friends, on a shatteringly sunny, freezing cold Saturday in early February. I thought it would be just us out in nature, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It wasn’t “just us” at all—we drove up north of Amsterdam, where we parked the car in a field already filling up with lots of other cars. Apparently, every picturesque sequence of brooks and streams in the whole country has been scouted out by the Dutch and organized into a “tour,” and when it’s cold enough, everybody goes out on the weekend to skate.

We paid for tickets, and as we skated by each new village, we got stamps on our tickets from bundled-up people sitting in makeshift wooden huts next to the ice. (If you finish the tour, you can show your ticket with all your stamps, and they give you a little medal! I am not kidding.) Every so often along the way, we stopped to refuel—people had set up stations selling soup, beer, hot chocolate and sausages all along the course, to keep the skaters’ blood sugar and spirits high (and, of course, to turn a profit). Sometimes these stations were officially organized, but some people with houses along the route just came out and set up stands in their backyards next to the ice.

As I skated through sunlit, frozen fields, I pictured the mythical rayonhoofd. Invisible to human eyes, he stands guard over the land. With a measuring stick in one hand and a shovel in the other, he floats above us, watching with wise, grey eyes, stroking his beard, waiting for the ice to freeze ever deeper, waiting for the moment when he will spread his arms wide, swirl his formidable cape, and re-emerge, triumphant, in a blinding flash of silver.

*Frisians are known for being tough, independent, and very proud of, well, being Frisian. Unlike other provinces of the Netherlands, Friesland even has its own language—Frisian—that is spoken by nearly all Frisians as either a first or a second language, along with standard Dutch. Fun tidbit: Frisian is the living language that is most similar to English.

Ah, filet americain. How to describe this quintessentially UN-american spread? It’s basically puréed raw beef mixed with egg yolk and spices—like steak tartare, but more finely ground, and available to eat whenever you like. There are 3 different kinds of it available at Albert Heijn (one of the Netherlands’ good supermarket chains). The one above is “Peper” (with extra black pepper, mmm).Filet americain is, to put it mildly, delicious. And oddly addictive—my husband came home the other day to find me cramming yet another piece of toast slathered with it into my mouth. He looked at me for a long moment, then at the empty plastic container on the counter top. “I’m glad you like filet americain so much, but it’s not really the healthiest thing you can eat. I mean, it’s basically just red meat.  So, um, maybe you shouldn’t have it every day?”
Sometimes I had it more than once a day. “But it’s THO GUD,” I said, through chipmunk cheeks.
 He shrugged and turned on an Ajax* game.
I shrugged and continued happily chewing.
Now that the novelty has worn off a little, I have cooled it with the filet americain consumption. Plus, Sinterklaas is upon us this weekend, and I have a whole host of other confections to discover. Stay tuned…

 *Ajax (pronounced Ay-ax) is Amsterdam’s big club soccer team; Amsterdammers are VERY big fans. It’s basically pointless to try to have a conversation with my husband if a game is on, unless Ajax is either winning or losing by a significant margin—otherwise, he is simply too riveted to process any other information. Sometimes he will even slide off the couch and sort of kneel on the floor in front of the television, like a six-year-old watching cartoons. 

Ah, filet americain. How to describe this quintessentially UN-american spread? It’s basically puréed raw beef mixed with egg yolk and spices—like steak tartare, but more finely ground, and available to eat whenever you like. There are 3 different kinds of it available at Albert Heijn (one of the Netherlands’ good supermarket chains). The one above is “Peper” (with extra black pepper, mmm).

Filet americain is, to put it mildly, delicious. And oddly addictive—my husband came home the other day to find me cramming yet another piece of toast slathered with it into my mouth. He looked at me for a long moment, then at the empty plastic container on the counter top. “I’m glad you like filet americain so much, but it’s not really the healthiest thing you can eat. I mean, it’s basically just red meat.  So, um, maybe you shouldn’t have it every day?”

Sometimes I had it more than once a day.

“But it’s THO GUD,” I said, through chipmunk cheeks.

 He shrugged and turned on an Ajax* game.

I shrugged and continued happily chewing.

Now that the novelty has worn off a little, I have cooled it with the filet americain consumption. Plus, Sinterklaas is upon us this weekend, and I have a whole host of other confections to discover. Stay tuned…

 *Ajax (pronounced Ay-ax) is Amsterdam’s big club soccer team; Amsterdammers are VERY big fans. It’s basically pointless to try to have a conversation with my husband if a game is on, unless Ajax is either winning or losing by a significant margin—otherwise, he is simply too riveted to process any other information. Sometimes he will even slide off the couch and sort of kneel on the floor in front of the television, like a six-year-old watching cartoons. 

The bikes that tourists rent here are either red or yellow. My husband bought me a second-hand red one—it’s sturdy and easy to use; a good first bike for someone that hasn’t ridden regularly in a while (the brand is Batavus, for those of you who know/care). After about a month here I was sick of looking like a tourist, so I painted it pink. Here it is outside our apartment building.
Her name is Venus, because 1) the goddess of love is cool, and 2) my bike is powerful yet stylish, like Venus Williams. :)

The bikes that tourists rent here are either red or yellow. My husband bought me a second-hand red one—it’s sturdy and easy to use; a good first bike for someone that hasn’t ridden regularly in a while (the brand is Batavus, for those of you who know/care). After about a month here I was sick of looking like a tourist, so I painted it pink. Here it is outside our apartment building.

Her name is Venus, because 1) the goddess of love is cool, and 2) my bike is powerful yet stylish, like Venus Williams. :)