Postcards from the Netherlands, part 2 of 3

Dutch train
Train at Nijmegen station

I visited the Netherlands in May for a week on business and returned again recently for three weeks. I took a lot of photos and made a few observations. This is what I found.

Point three, the infrastructure

It is an unfortunate shame that the Netherlands has yet to recover from the devastation of World War 2. Nearly everyone rides a bicycle, for one thing, which appear to all be war surplus courier bicycles. Since they are all the same unstylish, decrepit embarrassment, few people bother to lock them up because no one bothers to steal them. In fact, when old people die, their bicycles just sit in the racks with all the others, slowly rusting, their flat tires decaying over several years. Presumably, once a decade everyone brings their bicycles indoors and any left out are removed by a government recycling squad, the way the refrigerator at work is cleaned out every second Friday and those forgotten leftovers and mayonnaise packets are disposed of.

The reason why people can all get around on bicycles is because they ride them to a train station in order to get anywhere. The Dutch train system is clean and comfortable and designed to be as confusing as possible in case the Germans invade again. The unreadable train tables are few and far between. There is no indication on the trains which stations the train will stop at (a few have digital readouts). And trains are late or canceled with great efficiency and little notice.

Tickets can conveniently be purchased at kiosks that take only coins and Dutch debit cards. Fortunately, there are 1- and 2-euro coins but not banknotes. Unfortunately, because there are no banknote readers on ticket kiosks or vending machines, these coins are as scarce as homeless people in the Netherlands. For this reason, when a Dutch clerk asks you if you have 1 euro 10 to make your change come out to a nice, round 5-euro note, you must lie to her, stone-faced, and accept the €3.90 in change without a betraying smirk. You should, at all times, have at least 10 euros in coins on your person.

Nijmegen [NYE may gen]

When you purchase a ticket for the trains, you may choose between first class and second class. The only difference between them is that there is a large 1 on first class train cabins instead of a large 2, so in this case “first class” means “fewer people”. In first class, you will find only confused foreigners who have bought first class tickets by mistake and impaired Dutch teenagers who have sat in the wrong cabin and know that they will probably not be made to leave by the conductor. A conductor may or may not appear on any given train ride; the odds are about 5 to 2 against. Their nominal purpose is to check tickets. Their actual purpose is to tell foreigners they have gotten on the wrong train and to hassle natives who have tried to cheat the system by not buying a ticket, buying a ticket and not stamping it for that day, or sitting in a first class cabin because they expected not to encounter a conductor.

Another indication that the country could still use the Marshall Plan is that air conditioning is relatively rare, in spite of the fact that the climate is hot and humid in the summer time. The Dutch deal with this by declaring “It’s warm!” from time to time.

Similarly, there is a terrible ice shortage in the Netherlands. Getting a cold drink that is actually cold is about as easy as finding a Dutchman actually wearing wooden shoes: you suppose it happens but you are probably looking in the wrong places. Most drinks are stored in open coolers which brings them down to around 50F, just 10 degrees shy of drinkable and 15 degrees shy of “ice cold”. Drinks in restaurants are generally served at somewhere between 40F and room temperature out of child-sized bottles with a tiny glass containing two ice cubes. And remember, without air conditioning, “room temperature” in the Netherlands may be 79 degrees.

Point 4, the food

The selection of soft drinks, which are ridiculously expensive*, is the exact same thruout the country, apparently mandated by the government:

  • Water: flat or “with gas”
  • Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite
  • Fanta Orange and Black Currant
  • Ice tea: green or black with lemon or peach
  • Red Bull (for people who think a caffeine drink should taste like liquid Sweetarts)
  • Orangina (large retail outlets and fancy restaurants)

Black currant looks like grape on the can but tastes like the inside of your mouth is bleeding.

You’re free to ask for lemonade, which your Dutch restaurant server will respond to with a nod and a smile before returning 15 seconds later to ask you if Orangina is all right. If you get a soda, order 2 bottles to start. They’re small, and your server isn’t expecting a tip, so service is— I’ll say “leisurely” because there isn’t a good adjective in English for “they pretty much ignore you.” And when I say the server isn’t expecting a tip, I mean that it’s discreetly added to the bill automatically. And when I say “discreetly”, I mean it’s mandated by law.

* Generally €2 ($2.40) for a 10 ounce bottle or €2.50 ($4.50) for a 20 ounce bottle. No free refills in restaurants; they give you individual bottles.

There is a reason why there are no such things as Dutch restaurants in America. Dutch food consists mostly of cold meat sandwiches and deep fried things that shouldn’t be deep fried, like sausages, weird cheeses, and meat paste. The Dutch rely on immigrants from the Middle East, Argentina, and McDonald’s for proper food. The English (or American) breakfast is fairly common in tourist areas; it consists of eggs and toast with floppy, undercooked bacon. The “Dutch breakfast” is a deep-fried sausage and a slap in the face.

Watch for part 3 soon!

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