28.05.2014 - 01.06.2015 17 °C
Holland is actually the name of a region and former province in the Netherlands. I never knew that until I recently offended a guy simply by asking him directions. Usually I have to concentrate to offend effectively and wonder if I’m moving into a new phase of communication excellence. The Netherlands used to be a big marshy lagoon behind a row of sand dunes between England and Germany. Not content with this the regions inhabitants connected the dunes with dams they called dykes, pumped out the water and fertilized the old bog to become a huge market garden that exports 2/3’s of all it grows. It’s a great and innovative concept. Imagine if Fiji joined up all their islands with a dyke then pumped out the water and let their hard working Indian population buy the bit in the middle to grow sugarcane. They would be a country about the size of Great Britain. Scary thought – unlikely, given Fiji isn’t renowned for long lasting construction or willing to risk letting the Asians become powerful enough to change the county name to Chapati.
Before I continue, Flypaper, who has Dutch friends, acquaintances and relatives, has insisted I post a warning that they and others claiming Dutch sympathies, should skip the remainder of page 1 and all of page 2.
‘Netherlands’ literally means ‘Low lands’. Much of the country is below sea level- which is why they spread the word about sticking ones finger in the hole if you notice a dyke leaking. Interestingly, the Netherlanders are (on average) the tallest people in the world – handy when 50% of the country is less than a meter above sea level.
The country is protected from westerly tidal waves by Great Britain but if ever Iceland was to seriously erupt – and its been having a good go for some time, the tidal wave will aim straight for the dykes. Netherlands would become a German beach. Until that time this country is just the place to go for a bunch of flowers or a cheese sandwich.
Holland has been responsible for many inventions and initiatives over the year (eg. Gin, the pendulum clock and the CD ROM - to mention a few that cause a lot of trouble) but two caught my attention. The origination and natural environment of the speed-bump is the countryside of the Netherlands. This simple device demonstrates the natural cunning and commercial instinct of the Dutch. The speed-bump has spread worldwide like an infesting noxious weed, spawning an industry of undercar repair and introduced new expletives in numerous languages. The other ingenious invention was the glasshouse. Again, simple, but it provided the basis for a whole new fanaticism or religious persuasion known as vegetarianism. Glasshouses cover a significant area of Holland and undoubtedly it was a greenhouse owner who coined the phrase, “Those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones” I never saw even one stone being thrown during my whole week looking.
The world’s greatest collection of antique bicycles resides in this land of negative elevation. Since the day bicycles were invented it has become a family tradition to hand down ones bike to a favourite child or, failing a favourite, one with strong thighs and a stubborn disposition ... which is pretty much everyone in the country. The other siblings must purchase their own bike which in time become an heirloom of lesser distinction. They inevitably buy a new Omafiets (granny bike) to maintain the staunch image. To arrive at university on Great Grandpas heavy old Fongers guarantees respect, good, marks and body odour.
This countries transport industry is based on the bicycle. (There are about 15 mainstream bicycle manufactures in the Netherlands). There are paths and lanes everywhere - over 19,000kms of them. Occasionally a car is allowed to share a nearby road but must remain subservient to the bicycle. From a very young age the Dutch are taught that, on their bike they have the right of way and will be found blameless in the event of an accident. An early parent child discussion will go something like this, “Henk/Janneke If you clean your clogs, and eat up all your cheese salad, when I die you will get Grootvader’s bicycle. Then you can ride about making rude gestures’ to car drivers and ride across the road in front of them. If you survive the accident you can sue the car driver. If you don’t survive then mummy and I have a plan to produce a second child to get the bicycle”.
Another unique driving experience is stopping at a red light and being astonished when a boat crosses the road in front of you. The first time this happened to me I said to Flypaper, “Oi, there must be a ‘coffee shop’ around here wafting smoke about. I thought I saw a boat on the road”. Perhaps this is the reason the guvmint is changing the rules about coffee shops – they must now sell coffee. The locals giggle at this suggestion and take no notice. Interestingly they all claim a medical condition that requires the administration of mind altering substances – often while riding their bike. The Dutch cycling teams are formidable on the world athletic stage, but I fear they may soon have difficulties convincing the anti-doping commission that their advantage is from natural exposure to their environment.
In 2011 Netherlanders were ranked the happiest country in the world by the UN. That was before the ‘orthoritees’ started tinkering with the Coffee Shop Soft Drug Laws. As a result Denmark took over the top spot for happiness but they have now been knocked off their perch by Norway. I don’t get it. The people in these countries pay the highest tax’s in the world – how can they be happy? All I can think of is they all scoff Pickled Herrings at every opportunity. It seems logical therefore that if you are depressed about paying your tax – gobble a pickled herring. In my experience it certainly takes your mind of your other problems or at least until you stop retching.
We have especially enjoyed 3 good meals in the Netherlands. Two at the same restaurant on sequential evenings in Zansvoort and another at lunch in Edam (where we were supposed to be sampling cheese (of all things). The evening meals were at a superb fish restaurant on the beach – yes, right on the beach with no concern about the Icelandic tidal wave. Our hosts assured Flypaper that they rowed their own little boat out each day and caught Sea Bass. Being gullible she bought that and continually commented regarding its freshness. “It sure is fresh, I just saw it wink at me”, she said on one occasion. My approach was more scientific. I enquired which was their most popular and avoided that on the basis that it would have been bought in bulk and goodness knows who had previously handled it. I avoided the salted herring given I had not pre-lined my complete digestive tract with an impermeable membrane and avoided anything caught in the North Sea given it was certainly radioactive. I’m not partial to eels or anything that has an appearance of having being put through a wringer – I prefer 3 dimensional fish – with a length to depth ratio of less than 4 and the bones removed. That left me with a dish initially caught off the coast of Canada in 2012, instantly frozen on deck and quarantined for an appropriate time in Sweden where it was tested for mercury and considered to be superior quality to that used in fish fingers. When asked how I would like it cooked I said, “With chips”. Superb.
The lunch was an accident. While navigating the narrow canal roads of Edam old city, Flypaper remarked that she was ready for a coffee. Experience has taught me this is code for, “It’s a long time since we had a toilet stop”. By chance we were approaching a small building advertising Profiteroles. Given I am seldom allowed deserts because it may ruin my perfect physique; I saw the current emergency as an opportunity to indulge. When we entered we were met by a delightful young man who responded to my look of astonishment. The interior remained similar to its original décor 150 years ago. The original waffle machine remained (old and black from service) as did an amazing cast brass gas fired profiterole plate in the middle of the room. Taken by the ambiance and our chef/waiters insistence that we were alone in the world’s oldest and best profiterole restaurant, we ordered 2 large dishes from a mouth-watering selection. Our host allowed us to observe his operation of the hotplate. To Flypapers horror and my delight, we each received 32 golf-ball sized Profiteroles, topped with a 40g slab of butter, 3 large scoops of ice-cream, lashings of whipped cream and a large serving of the fruit of our choice (Morello Cherries for Flypaper and rum marinated raisins for myself). Our ever-helpful host placed the huge dishes in front of us and remarked, “I’ve called the hospital and they are expecting you soon. They have an excellent remedy for gluttony”.
The reason for our visit to the Netherlands was to play in the sand. More specifically the sand hills at Zandvoort on the coast just south of Amsterdam. Many years ago someone had the foresight to build a motor race circuit there and I had arranged to drive a car with 2 other mature gentlemen for 12 hours to see if we could take home something that will require our wives to polish each year. I think that its nice the ladies feel wanted. We succeeded and had a fine time doing it. With our trophies we were each presented with a large and lovely bunch of flowers. I would have preferred something more masculine like a cast iron spittoon – but this is Holland. We decided it would be nice to give the flowers to the 3 guys who owned the quaint and creatively decorated little hotel we were staying at. Having done so, our team leader casually mentioned that perhaps we should lock our doors that night. Flypaper thought he was worried someone would steal our trophies.
Zandvoort is a pretty little coastal town on a beach that stretches out of sight up and down the coast. Mostly one loses sight because of the air pollution but I’m told they sometimes have lovely clear days when thousands of people flock to their beach. In anticipation an Australian guy has set up a Surfing School. I suspect this idea came to him in a coffee shop because the biggest surf on a real rough day can be as high as 60cm (2ft). He also has a restaurant providing ‘Genuine Aussie food’ – whatever that is. I think his target market is people who cannot bicycle all the way to experience the real thing. Lots of others come here to fly their kites or stoically row back and forth on paddle boards. With all this activity, many enterprising people have established hotels, bars and restaurants to take advantage of the remaining 23.6 hours of the day. There are hundreds of ‘hospitality’ businesses – and little else. For example, just above the high tide line but still where sand gets in your shoes, there are about 28 large restaurants. Only the Dutch would, with great precision and logic, name them 1, 2. 3, 4 ………. 26, 27 and 28. Our favourite fish place was No 18 and the 12hr race event prize-giving was at No 21. This latter establishment is a large shed with a barbeque outside on the leeward side, some plastic chairs on the windy sea side, and inside, a bar serving rather insipid beer at one end and an overlarge area set aside for an extremely noisy band who failed to consider that the demographic of ‘endurance’ drivers is decidedly in favour of mature people. An age group who need to dance clutching someone tightly to stop both falling over. The race organisers do a splendid job of running their event but the ‘beach party’ at the conclusion certainly lowered the tone – by about 40 years. We love the sound of a roaring engine but the racket caused by a poorly played electric guitar trying to overcome a frenetic drummer in support of a shrieker who is rendering a completely different tune, is more than I can stand. Even the intriguing tattoos on the female squawker failed to encourage us to wait about after we had our dust collectors.
One evening I noticed a strange white vegetable on my plate. It was sort of like a small parsnip – but I can sense a parsnip in the room and knew my antennae weren’t twitching. I consulted Flypaper who said it resembled a bleached carrot. When it comes to bleaching, woman know these things so I was relatively content. Later in the evening I was moved to complement the chef who was duly summonsed. During my speech, in fact just after telling him he was, in my opinion, the worlds foremost expert in preparing French Fries (commonly known by us gourmets’ as ‘Chips’), I asked about the tasteless white vegetable that had cost him the perfect score. In his disappointment he confirmed it was a carrot and he would never serve them again. I, quite reasonably, asked him why, particularly as he was Dutch, he was unaware that the rest of the world had orange carrots. He then told me this amazing fact. Orange carrots were originally propagated in Netherlands during the 16th Century. They were especially bred in honour of the House of Orange who were the big wigs around the Netherlands at that time. Before that, all carrots were white, yellow, black, purple or red. I’m grateful he didn’t serve the black or purple varieties as he would have lost the chance to complete my education and allow me to share this with you.