Friday, November 14, 2008


In one’s reflective mind it is usually the large objects that define a foreign country – the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, the Bank of China Building, the Taj Mahal, Hilversum Town Hall and all the rest. But when abroad it is often the small objects, scenes, smells, food, drink and customs that make the country a foreign one. The following observations come in random order.

I have just been to Holland twice (October and November 2008) to think about it.

On the Eurostar train, through the Tunnel and into France and Belgium, I saw, in the middle of a ploughed field, a small patch of possibly a dozen or so orange pumpkins. I was in a foreign country all right.

In Brussels Midi Station, the escalator appeared not to be working. But on approach, off it went.

One hears nothing but complaint about public transport in England – though not having to use it in rush hours I approve of it. In foreign Holland, however, they have always had the reputation of running a reliable and wonderful public transport system – no longer. The actual trains worked well and were clean and comfortable. But to pay for a rail journey was often confusing, with either a long queue for buying a ticket or a time-consuming struggle with an automatic, touch-screen ticket machine. Having bought our tickets, confusion reigned. For a one-change journey from the countryside back to Amsterdam we were diverted, for an undisclosed reason, and had to change trains three times. For another journey we were directed to one platform and then, with the other hopeful passengers were told that the train would leave from another. This involved an arduous climb up stairs with our heavy luggage. The long-distance train then arrived at the platform to collect its passengers half an hour late, and finally stopped three stations short of its destination, with instructions for passengers to change platforms and continue aboard a local train – involving another climb up and down stairs with luggage.

Public transport does a lot from country to country. In Holland, where the tram and bus services continue to be excellent, a “strippen card” is needed for both busses and trams. This involves buying a strip of numbers, folding it at the needed number of tickets required for your journey, and then poking the strip into a machine on board, that stamps it with a “ping”. It is difficult for the stranger to know how many tickets to offer the machine. At tram stops this can be worked out (with difficulty) from a map. But it is easier to go to the train station and buy the required demarcated map. Locals know, but foreigners don’t. The validation is for one hour, presumably for more journeys within your ticket’s stamped compass. I understand that a pre-paid card, like the English Oyster Card, will be introduced in the near future.

International hotels give no indication of foreignness. They are “anywhere” places. The design of their rooms and bathrooms, though, can cause confusion for all. Plumbing is often the main problem to solve. Without the arm length of an orang-utan, to close the bath’s “plug” needed a climb into the bath. Then, with two large, chromed wall knobs for the control of water heat, bath water flow and shower, it came as no surprise to have an arm soaked from above.

The size of beer glasses and how much is in them determines the country you are in. The Germans may favour litres and half litres, we pints, the French hardly a half pint, and the Dutch, where one orders a “pilsje” (small beer), a few decent swigs beneath an inch or more of foam may come your way. A repeat order might contain more or less beer. An ordered pilsje sometimes comes as a vaasje (slightly more). Or one can order ½ pint or a pint (groot). All are served with a variable size head of foam. I find Holland to be a country of dehydration, which is an excuse, I suppose, to drink more beer.

I have noticed a distinct change in the drinking habits of the Dutch since I was there as a supernumerary on a Dutch coaster in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then the sailors had a taste for sweet liqueurs. And people drank jenever. Now I only saw one person drink jenever, most drinking beer or wine. And the wine drinkers chose mostly white wine. This is now much more in line with the rest of Europe, except that they also drink milk with their meals.

In France the bill for drinks is put on to your table, so you can leave when you feel like it, having left the money with the bill. In Holland you wait until ready to leave, try to catch the eye of the waiter or waitress, and then pay before leaving.

Which brings me to tipping. At last (I suppose with the advent of the EU and Euro), tipping on top of the bill is unnecessary – certainly in France, Belgium and The Netherlands. A little “rounding up” is an option, and one usually leaves any small copper coins that come with the change. For excellent and pleasant service one could add 10%, but no more. Many do add this in Holland. In England you have to scrutinise the bill to see if service has been added or not. When added, it is often on the high side and includes the full service percentage on the cost of the wine, which a waiter has only had to withdraw a cork or twist off the screw-top. This does seem greedy to me – especially as the wine has usually been overpriced in the first place. But in England it is sometimes the case that the tip is the main form of income for the often-underpaid foreign waiters or waitresses. It is difficult to know exactly where the tip ends up without engaging in that controversial conversation. The system is more professional on the continent where waiting can be seen as a vocation.

And in what country might you see a man with a long pole, mop head and hose pipe, cleaning the blank side of an ordinary brick-built house? Holland, of course – in the centre of Delft.

In Delft I wanted to take a canal boat trip, especially to see from where Vermeer painted his landscape of the city. But four passengers would be the minimum number acceptable before the voyage could begin. I returned twice on the appointed hour. Eventually I was taken – alone. But the businessman pilot of our shallow draught vessel, said that if tourists saw our boat in operation they might think of taking the trip. And true enough, on our return quite a few people were waiting to board.

The sights of Delft from its canals are of a perilously leaning church tower, and splendid houses, mainly from the 17th century vintage. Very Dutch, and so very foreign, the houses are beautifully proportioned, and exhibit the wealth derived from naval and commercial power related to East India trading. West India trading (slaves) is much less mentioned. We were not the only baddies. Many of the greater houses were also built by the brewers of beer, Delft once being the centre of that industry – until the canal water used became so foul that no one would drink the end product. Today no breweries exist.

Do not hope to take the canal trip in Delft after the university students’ graduation romps. Far too much junk is thrown into the canals to make navigation a safe exercise.

One canal boat does ply its trade of keeping the narrow canals clean. A plodding boat, with a solitary man aboard, is provided with a scoop and an enlarged butterfly net at the end of a long pole. The pilot’s autumn catch seemed to be of leaves only.

You would not imagine that staircases define a country. But they do in Holland. Space has always been at a premium, especially in the cities of the 17th century. Staircases then took up unnecessary room where money might be made. So they were constructed to be steep, confined, precipitous – and dangerous. Large objects were lifted up on pulleys attached to a strong beam projecting from the upper part of the gable. These gables are straight, stepped, bell/neck shaped or elaborate/flamboyant. They were designed originally to hide unsightly roofs.

Rain is treated differently abroad. In Holland, for instance, umbrellas are used, yet many people seem to rather ignore the precipitation. In England I don’t believe that I have ever seen a cyclist riding beneath an umbrella. But in Holland it is commonplace. Many of their bicycles have back-pedal brakes, operating only on the rear wheel. This braking method frees up both hands – one to hold the umbrella.

Which brings me to a small but cumulatively large, unique and astounding sight. It is the thousands upon thousands of bicycles, parked, day and night, outside railway stations. If mothers know their babies, owners their dogs, so the Dutch must know their bikes. To the outsider they look much alike – saddle, wheels, handlebars, frame, and nearly all black. Cyclists there can do no wrong. At any accident scene the cyclist is right. So they ride like maniacs, both ways on the cycle paths that edge every street, and sometimes not on their rightful tracks at all. It is hazardous for pedestrians to cross any street, or even alter direction. Every vehicle or person gives way to bicycle riders.

The herringbone brick-on-end, bronze-coloured pavements and sometimes roads in Holland are a delight – except when it rains. The attractive undulations then create puddles, before the water seeps down into the sand below. These lovely bricks, however, seem often to be being dug up and re-laid. French pavements have too much dog mess on them for safety or pleasure when viewing anything above pavement height. England is becoming better in that respect.

In passing through Belgium and Holland it is very noticeable that graffiti lives – and in a big way. This disfigurement of the townscape seems, mercifully, to have declined in England. It lives and thrives elsewhere.

A charm of Dutch cities is to hear the joyful chuckle of jackdaws. Just why they do so well in their cities and not in English ones is a puzzle.

Another puzzle concerns eating in the quite splendidly simple Fat Kee Chinese restaurant in The Hague. They offer a dish called chicken, pepper and salt. What arrives at your table is a huge pile of very crisply coated morsels containing pink chicken meat and bones. The puzzle is to deal with what is inside the coating. What is chicken meat? What shape are the bones? What is coating and what is bone? This offering seems to be the speciality of the house, and great fun. Many foreign dishes are poorly adapted by the Dutch to please their own taste. Kip, peper en zout, if Chinese in origin, is splendidly Dutch. At the Nam Kee Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam I tried the same, out of curiosity. It was pale, not nearly as good – but without bones.

In France one may enjoy several courses, none too large or filling. At Simonis in Scheveningen (a seaside suburb of The Hague), set in a warehouse among others right next to a dune and the sea, you will enter, queue past the menu and food on offer (I ordered plaice), pay, receive a number, sit down and wait for that number to come up on a large screen. What came for me was a huge plate of chips and one excellent large fried plaice, on top of yet another. The Dutch have hearty appetites.

During my two quick stays in Holland I was looking for small items that differentiate one country from another. So it was really not my intention to remark on the largest thing visible – the sky. The sky and clouds in Holland – seen near to and never too far from the North Sea coast – have a distinctive look and colour to them, that is, when it is not raining. The windy sea air is crystal clear, often dotted with one shape or other of scudding cumulus clouds and, in the evening, with lovely sky colours in the background – very much as seen and depicted by the Dutch masters of old.

French restaurants do not get going until at least seven o’clock in the evening, with people often turning up to eat much later. All customers will have had an aperitif around six o’clock, when the bars are full. It seems that there is a national pattern to it. For office people it appears to be much the same in Holland.

In England, if invited for drinks, the start time is usually 6 to 6.30, leaving the guests to eat out or at home by 7.30 to 8 o’clock – which is about the time invitations are made for dinner. The English drinks party is an ideal way to meet, exchange information and views, and then leave. This can all be done with the minimum of trouble to the hosts by simply producing a few “bites” and plenty of white and red wine. But not everyone knows the “rules” about leaving.

The Dutch seem to close up shop early, and eat early. A party at a friend’s place might start at 5 o’clock in the afternoon with coffee and cake, going on to wine and food. Guests stay a long time, with plenty to say. To bid farewell takes an age, with handshakes for men and three kisses for women, with each parting in need of the politeness of a small conversation. The English might even leave quietly and unnoticed, without giving offence (filet à l' Anglaise).

The foreignness of a country is also determined by what one brings home from it. From France we take home mostly wine (usually from other countries than France), cheese, paper tissues, smoked chicken and lavatory paper.

From Holland we return with toothpaste (9 tubes from Hema for the same price as one glass of excellent de Koninck beer), my winter socks (Hema, Ski), young white goats’ cheese, cut from a wheel, and Hema’s famous smoked sausage (rookworst). I’m pro Hema.

In England and France I have never thought of meat and vegetables tasting other than they should. But in Holland there seems to be an underlying blandness in the flavour of food. Coatings and sauces offer flavour, but beneath them there is lack of taste. Is this, I wonder, because being a small country and also a highly productive one in vegetables, dairy products and meat, many of their products are forced – often out of their natural season (tomatoes for one). In my mind I see greenhouses, North Sea gas heat and hydroponics in use. But perhaps I am alone with those thoughts. Margreet says that products lack salt because too much is considered bad for the health.

I needed to buy butter in Holland, a country famed for its dairy produce. It seems that after the war when the nation needed as much foreign currency as possible, they exported most of their butter, providing substitutes for it, like margarine. The habit has continued. On the “butter” shelves in a supermarket were so many of these “spreads”, many flavoured, that I was lucky to have chosen the real thing from the many lookalikes on offer.

Approach to ice-cream is another item that defines foreignness. In France it can be good, and varied, in Belgium, splendid. But in Holland, restaurants rarely provide any flavour other than vanilla, sometimes with a smidgen of chocolate sauce when ordered as a dame blanche – and this from a specialist dairy country.

The English eat quite a lot of bread, usually in the form of sandwiches. The French eat sticks of bread, freshly baked, and throughout the day. The Dutch eat an enormous amount of bread, mainly for breakfast and especially for lunch, when dishes are often mostly bread (often in large hunks) with some tasty bits added. I counted 18 types of bread in one bakery shop.

The Dutch eat cheese for breakfast, the French and English don’t.

In the roof girders of The Hague’s art deco railway station, Holland Spoor, two pairs of crows croaked and flew menacingly to maintain their territorial rights.

In Holland those in charge of public conveniences demand 50 cents for entry.

In the autumn countryside, large fields of leeks decorate the ground with the blue of their leaves – far more impressive than the colour from fields of brassicas.

Despite the attentions of plough and harrow, some maize stalks were refusing to be buried beneath the autumn-tilled black soil.

In Holland and Belgium important and expensive houses are actually built right next to railway lines, by choice, when one might have expected them to be positioned farther away.

These staccato impressions of foreignness are from only two short stays in Holland.