It’s odd how writing can trigger certain memories, causing you to reform past opinions. Case in point: While working on today’s Correspondents’ Picks on Utrecht for Newsweek, I got a brief wave of nostalgia for that little country sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. SAY WHAT?? That’s right, you read correctly. I. Miss. Holland. Funny, when I was living there – those four loooong months that have been longer than any four months I can recall – I absolutely hated it. With a passion. This was no mild intolerance but an ardent loathing I generally only reserve for politics and Red Sox fans.
Lately I have been missing the carefree days of living in such a lazy society. And even though of the three European countries where I have lived – Scotland, Denmark, the Netherlands – I liked Holland the least, I’m beginning to realize it did have it’s good traits. The biking everywhere. The laid-back attitude. The lack of a McDonald’s and Starbucks every 0.1 miles (while I do worship my Starbucks, there were plenty of independent coffee shops to fill the void). The extreme proximity to a handful of other countries. The wooden shoes, cheese, windmills. The STROOPWAFELS, oh the stroopwafels. The Surinamese stand in Neude Square with its yummy roti kip (a delightful little chicken, potato and green bean concotion wrapped in potato bread). The Sinterklaas tradition – I mean who doesn’t enjoy waking up to chocolate joins and tiny trinkets hidden in their wooden shoes?
Perhaps living in the attic (cue: Cindarelly, Cindarelly) of a 72-year-old Surinamese bitch’s smelly home tainted my experience more than I should have let it. Maybe I should give Holland another chance (though, in theory, I did – back in September when, if you will recall, MY BLACKBERRY WAS STOLEN). Because, when I look back at some of my columns from then, there were good times…
As a former athlete, I’m always up for a physical challenge, especially if the challenge involves water (which is quite ironic considering I am terrified of sharks and still have nightmares about them, even after extensive therapy as a child). But these Dutch and their aerobic canal activities test my athleticism on a whole other level. One of the first days we were in Utrecht, the international student center planned a day of water biking. Not having any idea what this entailed, Megan and I obviously jumped at the chance of an organized social opportunity, as we often tend to do even before checking out what it is.
A few days later, we arrived at the Oudegracht canal in downtown Utrecht. There was an odd number of us – Megan, Christian, Nana, Katrina and me – so I paired off with Goep, one of the trip leaders and a native Dutchie himself. Our ride there went relatively smoothly (besides quite a few bumps from other, less-“experienced” kayakers), probably due to both of us having a bit of paddling experience – although mine usually involved half an hour of pathetic sea kayaking attempts in Destin before I usually just gave up to engage in a more productive beach ritual, sunbathing. After an hour, my arms were aching, but finally, we were one of the first (of about 50 kayaks) to arrive at our destination – a pub, naturally, as nothing in Europe is done without a visit to one.
I was a bit wet, as it is pretty difficult to kayak and not occasionally give oneself a light shower, but not too bad off (yet), and luckily so, as I was wearing capris and a tank top and it was getting quite cold outside. After we had been at the pub an hour or so, the leaders announced it was time to find a new partner who we didn’t know and kayak back. I was hoping we were done, as the aching and fatigue from the first trip were beginning to set in. But, we he had to get back somehow, so when a seemingly-harmless Austrian girl named Regina approached me and asked me to go with her, I thought, “Sure, why not, might be nice to make a new friend.” One of the biggest mistakes I have made since my arrival in Utrecht.
The girl was a total spaz with a paddle. We’re talking epileptic cat spazzy. Not a good combination in the slightest. I made my second mistake of the evening by letting her sit up front so I could steer from the back, and if she wasn’t hitting me in the head with her choppy, spastic strokes, she was giving me a nice shower of grimy canal water from her paddle. By that time, it was nearly 11 p.m. and getting really cold. Later, when we finally reached our destination, I was drenched to the bone, so much so that I had to go home to prevent sickness instead of enjoying the rest of the night out with the international students.
The poor girl had absolutely no concept of steering, so we more or less ricocheted from one side of the canal to the other in agressive pinball fashion. Pretty soon, we were the last kayak in the group, and rapidly putting distance between ourselves and the pack. It was dark, no signs of civilization were in sight and I was envisioning my last evening alive would be spent shivering in an abandoned canal with a convulsive Austrian – not really the way I preferred to go.
My favorite part of the ride was the time we reached a fork in the canal and she steered us the wrong way, despite my yelling for her to turn. We cruised right smack into a willow tree that grew over the water, where a flock of pigeons and bats angrily attacked us for our efforts at disturbing their slumber. Again, my life flashed before my eyes.
But I survived, to
o bad for Regina, as the story has quickly spread around Utrecht, and no one wants to be her canoe partner now. People like her shouldn’t even be allowed in a canoe in the first place. There should be some kind of permit required first. When I relayed my adventure to my friend/co-columnist John in Knoxville, he responded, “Weren’t the von Trapps Austrian? That’s really all I would have needed to know to steer clear of them.” Right, my mistake. From now on, my extensive pop culture knowledge will guide me in everything I do.
Oh yeah, and SVV hails from Holland (hence the Dutch last name “van Velsor,” meaning of the town Velsen). And for that I am most certainly thankful.