Is the Netherlands perfect? I’m beginning to suspect so. This country is so great because it is exactly what people like Rush Limbaugh hate about Europe: no open-container laws, bicycles everywhere, aggressive recycling campaigns, nudity on beaches, small cars and other socialist ideas about the saving the environment, things not sold in bulk, “fruit beers,” gay people holding hands in public, coffee sold in tiny espresso cups instead of by the Big Gulp. In other words, a utopia.
In what is a huge moment of personal realization, the Dutch are, in my mind, equal to the Irish for their friendliness and hospitality. Anyone who has ever made the mistake of mentioning Ireland around me and woken up three days later in the middle of my continuing lecture will know that there is no higher compliment in my book than a comparison to the Irish. And the Dutch definitely speak better English. It’s a sad but completely true statement to say that most Dutch people speak English more eloquently and with more nuance and complexity than most Americans with a college degree. Certainly more than the people who send us Christmas letters every year. (Please keep sending your letters; you are the architects of my holiday merriment).
I met two Dutchmen on my last night in Germany who led with “Well, my English is only okay” and proceeded to have an in-depth conversation about the economy, the American election (you can’t talk about anything else in Europe right now), and Brexit (wtf). All that without so much as stuttering and grasping a word at any point. I believe the term for that is “fluent.”
When Dutch is your first language, your hand is forced a bit more to learn another. Something like French or German (which is similar enough to Dutch for them to make it work sometimes) is a bit more ubiquitous in Europe and around the world. I felt a similar sympathy for the Slovenes, who can’t drive more than 45 minutes from anywhere in their small country without needing to know another language. I found English proficiency more common in the Netherlands than in Switzerland, which is hard to top in Europe for linguistic knowledge (their neighbors, the Belgians, are their only rivals for being insanely good with languages). I had a conversation with a Dutch bartender who used the word “dissociative.” When was the last time anyone reading this used the word “dissociative” in writing, let alone in conversation?
To be clear, I don’t think the Dutch are awesome because they speak English. It’s one of the many symptoms of their awesomeness, in addition to an indication of their education system. A culture that so values being multilingual is one that’s interested in openness and tolerance. There’s a reason Americans and the French don’t speak many languages; we think very highly of ourselves and are frequently not very interested in foreigners or going to foreign places. Also, laziness. It says a lot about a place to me when two of its citizens can easily converse with one another in something other than their native tongue. It’s not necessarily about speaking English, though this is the global language common denominator. It’s about having a more international consciousness.
Haarlem and environs
Würzburg—Haarlem, 352 Miles
I’ve previously been to Amsterdam and while I enjoyed it, I can’t say it made a very strong impression. If you’re coming to the Netherlands for the first time, you’ll want to go there, as you should. But Haarlem is so superior in every way it’s hard to know where to begin.
Mostly by pure luck, I’ve stumbled on the odd “hidden gem” at various points on this trip and like anyone who happens onto something good through blind luck, I always get an ego about how brilliant I am and am eager to share with everyone what a travel savant I am for finding whatever place. Haarlem is the first such place that I almost don’t want to talk about it so I can selfishly keep it to myself.
Haarlem is 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam. In the U.S. this would barely qualify as a suburb, but because the Netherlands is so tiny, this is another city entirely, and even though it’s more accurately a town, it lacks in nothing but the crowds and a touristy red light district. Haarlem has a reputation for being a good place to shop and that is not an exaggeration. The number of boutiques per capita here has to be about one. Because it is so small, Haarlem does not waste space. Every storefront is something cute, be it a hotel or a store or a restaurant, but still with concessions to everyday life: laundromats that manage the impossible feat of not being hideous, a movie theater, grocery stores.
It’s difficult not to eat well here because everything is good and there’s none of the nonsense. No tourist traps and there’s really not much in the way of authentic Dutch food to worry about. Here, Dutch cuisine is just some other dish that they’ve put some kind of Dutch cheese on. For example, ravioli with shaved Gouda on top, which is excellent. There are Irish pubs, brewpubs in old converted churches, cocktail bars, hippie beer bars, and best of all, nothing sleazy. The dozens of non-chain, non-pretentious coffee shops open before 9 a.m., the holy grail of the Continent.
Any kind of real sightseeing can be done in a day. The boat tour of the city is nice. There’s a windmill and a decent science museum, but I don’t know how you could get bored here. Like in Ireland, it’s impossible to sit anywhere for more than 10 minutes without someone approaching you, so you’re never wanting for something to do. People in Haarlem are basically just walking information points. I was taking a picture of a building when a guy stopped to point out an interesting detail on the street—the brick pictographs on the sidewalks outside the stores that used to denote what business was there (i.e. a pair of scissors outside the erstwhile barbershop that’s now a Wolford). Another woman saw me looking at a map, got off her bike, and asked if I was enjoying my time in Haarlem. Haarlem is so wonderfully, blissfully not touristy ,so perhaps they just haven’t become jaded yet, but who are these people? It genuinely takes some adjusting to, and it’s not like the rest of world is full of jerks. I was hardly the only tourist in Haarlem, but every other tourist there is either Dutch or seemed, like me, to be stunned by their good luck at finding such a place.
The name is not familiar by chance. Harlem in Manhattan was originally a Dutch village in the 17th century, as part of what was then New Amsterdam. Almost everyone has heard the story about Manhattan being purchased from the Native Americans for something like $20 and the Dutch were the ones who benefited initially from that deal. “Greenwich” is also originally from Dutch, the word groenwijck meaning “green area.”
Another naming clarification: Holland vs. the Netherlands, a distinction I never understood. The Netherlands is the official name today and technically a kingdom with a royal family, something you may not know if you don’t frequently find yourself deep in the internet trenches of royals gossip, and Holland is technically just the western region in the Netherlands, where you’ll find Haarlem, Amsterdam, The Hague, most of the coastline, etc. So while the two names are used interchangeably, there are some Dutch from outside the Holland region that find this lack of distinction insulting, but it’s hardly a common hang-up.
Anyway, in the Netherlands, you have big cities and small cities, and the county is so small that by the time they have all that, they’ve pretty much run it of space. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, The Hague—your big cities, and anyone going to the Netherlands for the first time will want to go to Amsterdam, for good reason.
Among your smaller cities and towns—Delft, Haarlem, Marken, and Gouda are some of the more popular—Haarlem is without question the best, but it’s worth exploring the others. For reasons incomprehensible to me, both Delft and Gouda are way more crowded than Haarlem and while still not bad, you do see the odd tour group, which I never saw once in Haarlem.
Delft is known for its pottery and Vermeer. The Dutch East India Company had their headquarters in Delft for a while, so pottery from China and elsewhere in Asia came through here first and an entire Dutch pottery industry grew up around the practice of imitating Chinese porcelain designs. Vermeer lived almost his whole life in Delft, where he was something of a local celebrity, but almost entirely unknown outside Delft during his life. Now there’s a copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring on nearly every surface in town and the requisite cute cafes, old churches, and canals.
Gouda is, of course, all about the cheese, which I can pretty much guarantee every single one of us has been pronouncing incorrectly. Because only a twit would walk around saying “how-DUH” in the America, but that is in fact how it’s pronounced, with a throaty “h” like in Hebrew. Other pronunciations to ruin for you: Van Gogh should sound like “Van Hoff.” Gouda has crossed the line into tourist village territory, but it does have a lovely old town hall and of course ridiculously good cheese. My lunch that day was a wedge of truffle Gouda that I ate straight, like it was a sandwich.
Kinderdijk is the only place I went that would sort of qualify as tourist trap. This is the place for windmills. Windmills were historically an important part of the water containment system the Dutch devised to deal with the low-lying areas in the country (i.e. basically the whole country). The energy from the windmills was used to pump water out of marshy areas into nearby reservoirs, and Kinderdijk is in one such polder, which is essentially a flood plain. Some are still used today, but most of it is done now with more sophisticated pumping stations. People actually still live in some of the windmills, but it’s basically just a park for tourists to explore and it’s large enough that it never even begins to feel crowded.
A windmill is a windmill; it’s not about to change your life with its awe-inspiring beauty or anything. If you come to the Netherlands and don’t see a proper windmill, it’s really okay, but Kinderdijk is a lovely place to spend an afternoon and you can rent a bike if you’re really wanting to go full Dutch. The technology behind it is also pretty cool and sadly much more sophisticated than the levee systems most of the world is using today.
When you think of the Netherlands, surely the first thing you think of is the amazing beaches.
That’s what I thought too when a group of locals one night insisted that I go to Bloemendaal the next day. The North Sea is no one’s idea of a great beach destination, but as with everything else, the Dutch can do no wrong. Of course you won’t find a Caribbean white sand beach and the water is absolutely freezing, but Bloemendaal is wonderful and a great beach for hanging out on. It’s huge and easily accessible from Haarlem, a 20-minute bike ride if you’re slow on the dead-flat path. I was there on a Tuesday and it was great, but the writing was on the wall. It was only sparsely populated, but the beachfront bars and restaurants had literally hundreds of tables and lounge chairs, so I can only imagine summer weekends there. Full of Dutch people, it’s probably the best time in all of Europe.
I think as Americans, it’s basically impossible for us to imagine what it’s like to be from a country like the Netherlands. It’s such a wonderful, awesome, friendly place and just perpetually ignored and overshadowed. Obviously most countries are in this category. The Irish, bless them, have a massive chip on their shoulder about it, but the Dutch seem to relish it. They know they have an incredible country and it’s the rest of the world’s loss for constantly overlooking it. They’re never going to be the biggest economy in Europe or a booming financial center. They’re never going to lead the Olympic medal count or probably be the world’s leader in much of anything.
They couldn’t even manage to qualify for Euro 2016. It’s hard to put this is into relevant American sports terms if you’re not familiar with soccer but the Dutch, who are normally a very formidable team, screwed up royally and didn’t even make it into the big European soccer tournament right now. So we’ve found their one national flaw right now.
They do kick all our asses when it comes to smart levee design though and they’ll probably be the only ones left afloat when the ice caps melt. They’ve also figured out bike lanes.
I hate bikes in cities. Yes they’re energy efficient, save money and the environment, free up traffic, whatever, but they drive me crazy because they cannot peacefully coexist with cars or people. Pedestrians and cars have worked out a symbiotic relationship, but throw cyclists in and either they’re mowing down pedestrians or causing traffic jams. The Dutch are notorious for their obsession with bikes and they have finally figured out a system. Bike lanes have their own traffic signals, their own roundabouts, their own streets. It actually works and I am not a believer in urban bike programs. Also no one wears a helmet, which I find humorous. I was on the lookout the whole time I was there for the one guy with a helmet who surely everyone at the office mocked mercilessly for it. Literally not a single one, not even a kid or some dweeby guy. Even if other Dutch drivers and cyclists are cognizant enough to prevent accidents, there has to be the odd foreigner who’s caused a situation or two.
I don’t know what else to say. The Netherlands is awesome and should be on any European itinerary ever. I don’t care where you’re going. If you’re going to Greece, it’s worth the side trip. If you’re going to Iceland, it’s worth the side trip. If you’re going to China, it’s probably worth the side trip. But don’t take my word for it. There’s a large Irish expat population in Haarlem who also think it’s great. Is there a better conclusion to my argument?
From the Netherlands, it was to its closest neighbor in almost every respect: Belgium. Let’s just say it wasn’t the Netherlands.
Update: Okay, so I found one other flaw. Apparently some thinly veiled racist Dutch leader now wants a “Nexit” vote in the Netherlands after Britain opted out last week. Obviously, this does not change my opinion about the Netherlands at all; I’m sure most Dutch people feel about this guy the way most of us feel about Trump. But, you know, we’ve now identified a lunatic in paradise.