2009 Archives


On ya bike!

I find it strangely ironic and amusing that the Dutch word for bike is pronounced the same way as the English word used to describe the body part  located at the end of your leg, the same body part you usually find inside shoes… feets! (fiets in Dutch). Cycling is the most popular form of transport in holland. Let me put that into perspective for you; there are more than 16 MILLION bikes in Holland that’s more than one for EVERY single person living in Holland. It’s not uncommon for people to have at least 2 bikes especially for those who commute, they’ll have one at home and one at the other end. Kids are practically born with a bike between their legs (it’s a good thing for Dutch women that I am exaggerating here). I see parents giving bike riding lessons to kids who have barely mastered the left foot, right foot art of walking, but pedals and a bell? Well that’s easy!                                                                                Everybody’s doing it, men in suits, hip fashionistas, mums with kids, the homeless, the police, even granny and grandpa. It’s just the done thing. This country is made for bikes, Holland is flatter than a pancake and despite the rain the temperature is pretty bike friendly for most of the year. The cities are built around bikes, bike paths EVERYWHERE, even bike traffic lights and bike street signs. Between the bikes and the public transport systems you really do not need a car in Holland and besides, parking spots here are about as easy to find as chickens teeth. But, biking here is not for the faint hearted, just like driving you have peak times when the amounts of bikes on the roads explodes. Stopping and starting in a crowd of 20+ bikes is more challenging than it sounds, then there’s the fact that the Dutch drive on the wrong side of the road (the right). Add to that all the other above ground action; busses, motorbikes, mopeds, cars and trams  and voila, a recipe for adventure and dare I say injury for tourists who aren’t used to the biking way of life.

I’ve been watching in wonder for the past couple of months at the sheer volume of bikes in Holland, it’s bizarre and something that truly has to be seen to be believed. And now after months of watching my time has come to embrace the proverbial cliché “on ya bike!”                                                          My friends lovingly restored an old Oma fiets (a Grandma bike) just for me! She’s purple, with a tooter and a basket with flowers (every little [and big] girls dream)… and most importantly spokey dokeys (remember those fluoro beads you had on your spokes back in 1987, that made a fantastically annoying tinkle tinkle sound?) She’s beautiful, I love her and I have named her Miep, a good old-fashioned Dutch name. As thrilled as I am with my new bike I am a little apprehensive about the actual riding part. This is going to be interesting…

No mean fiets! (sorry, that was a terrible cross language pun, but I couldn’t help myself)

Ok, so how many times have you heard the phrase “It’s like riding s bike” ie: you never forget how. Hmmm interesting, after extensive scientific testing I can say with great certainty that this is not so. Ok, so maybe I’m overexggerating a little here, but I think “it’s like riding a bike…” gave me a false sense of security. Had my brain completely erased the skills needed to ride a bike? No. However my pedal pushing prowess left a lot to be desired. Oh, just for the record I used to hoon around quite happily on my orange Malvern Star so this proves that I had the skills once upon a time but apparantly my brain filed them in a deep dusty corner probably next to my 8 times tables and pythagorath’s theorem (who am I kidding! My brain never filed Pythagorath’s theorem, I’m not even sure I can spell his name right…). Ok I digress, back on my bike! So after my inital training (laps around the lake path in the forest whist be overtaken by speedy toddlers.) I set off in my lonesome on my maiden voyage. My destination was the cafe I work at, which is probably not even a kilometre away from our front door… less than a thousand metres, easy peasy right?

I got off to a shaky start. It took me 4 goes just to get on the bike and when I was finally moving I narrowly missed a lamp post. At the first cross street a car beeped at me and the driver gave me an angry wave, I have no idea why but I think might have something to do with right of way and the fact that I was on the left side of the road..oops. I made it to the next large intersection, this was the first time I had to assemble at a traffic light with other riders. Stopping and getting off at the light went ok but getting back on was a little less successful. It took me 3 go’s  to get back on and I copped a few angry looks and an audible tut! (I’m sorry, I thought tutting went out of fashion with hoop skirts and bowler hats?)

Once I had safely navigated the crossing I was on the bike path and off the main road, everything was going fine until a man tried to overtake me. As he came up on my left hand side I panicked and I got the wobbles, I started swerving dangerously from side to side and before I knew it I was crashing to the ground and taking the man, his bike and Miep down with me…. pause for effect… ouch and oops.  Needless to say he was not impressed, but luckily not injured. The great thing about not speaking the language is that you can’t understand a word when someone is quite obviously swearing at you. I apologised profusely and the man seemed to soften when he realised I was a tourist. He said “you must practice” and huffily got back on his bike, and left me on the bike path feeling terribly guilty. I was a little rattled after this bingle so I pushed the bike the rest of the way to work (about 200m). I arrived late, red-faced, sweating and bruised.

I hate to admit it but I pushed Miep home…. Hopefully tomorrow will go better. “If at first you don’t succeed try, try again”… Back on ya bike!

Old lady=50 points!

Are you reading the title and cringing? You should be. This was bad. Miep was feeling a little flat (flat tyre) so I had to borrow Den’s bike. 2 issues with Denni’s bike; 1. It is way too big for me and 2. The pedals don’t always catch the chain when you pedal, meaning that sometimes you just pedal aimlessly waiting for the chain to catch. In science speak; you create no propulsion and no forward thrust (Is it just me and my juvenile mind, or is there is something pervy about the words propulsion and forward thrust?).

I was only going as far as the supermarket, about 500 metres or so and in the last few weeks my confidence and my riding ability had improved, so I figured I was up to the challenge. I stopped at the traffic lights at the big crossing, there were 3 other bikers lined up next to me. I was on the outside next to the pedestrians. The light went green, so on I got and pedal, pedal pedal… but nothing happened… and then I felt gravity taking over. I tried to lean to the left to correct myself but it was too late. As I fell I instinctively grabbed for something, anything. Unfortunately, what I grabbed happened to be the little old lady who had been standing next to me. Yup, you heard me right folks I officially took out an old lady (I think I took the phrase “grab a granny” a little too literally). Oh dear, I am now officially a danger to myself and to others. I helped the lady up, she seemed shaken. A fellow rider came over to help. The poor little old lady didn’t speak any Dutch or English. She was sitting on the ground adjusting her head scarf and yelling at me in what I think was Arabic, but I’m not sure (again, being yelled at in a foreign language has its perks). I noticed that her leg was bleeding through her dress, the man who had come over to help tried to inspect her leg but she swatted his hand away like you would a pesky mosquito. She was old, easily in her 80’s. I was mortified, I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t communicate with her to ask if she was ok, I wanted to ask her if she was planning on having a heart attack or a stroke. Should I call an ambulance? or an undertaker? Shit. Eventually she pulled a mobile phone out of her handbag and dialed awkwardly. She had a loud conversation with some unidentified person. When she hung up she gave me a steely look and said nothing. I wondered if someone was coming to get her.

A few minutes later (that felt like an eternity) 2 middle-aged women came bustling along. I didn’t understand a word of the conversation that followed between them and the old lady but I’m assuming that it went something like this: ” Mum, what happened?” ” I was just standing here minding my own business, on my way back from my weekly Bingo game, still bathing in the the glory of my victory when this heartless woman attacked me with her bike! And then, that man tried to look under my dress!”                                 Neither of the women spoke much more Dutch or English than the old lady herself. I tried to indicate as best I could with facial gestures how sorry I was, I would have done an interpretive dance if I thought it would help open the lines of communication but the 2 ladies swept (what I’m assuming was) their Mother up and away before I got the chance. I tried to get their phone number so I could call to check on my victim but my request got lost in translation, either that or they just ignored me. I returned home with more new bruises (mainly to my ego…and my elbow) and no groceries.

Kara! A car!

Umm… so I’m officially banned from riding my bike while listening to my Ipod. To be fair I have been reasonably accident free the last few weeks and I haven’t attacked any more unsuspecting old ladies. But I did get hit by a car. Ok ‘hit’ is a hard word, I would say ‘kissed’ or ‘came into contact with’ are more apt descriptions of the incident. It was simple really, and totally my fault. I was crossing a road. I looked one way, the direction I thought the traffic would be coming from, I saw nothing and continued on my merry way. Suddenly I caught a blur of blue metal in my peripheral vision and the next thing I knew I was lying on the road, again (I spend far too much time getting up close and personal with the Dutch asphalt). I think I fell off my bike more from shock than from the impact, he barely touched me. You should have seen the poor man’s face, he was ghostly white and his hands were shaking as he helped me and Miep off the road. I was immediately overcome by the giggles, I could not stop laughing. (My sides were aching, was this my hysterical laughter causing this or the fact that I just had just been hit by a car?) It must have been a nervous reaction to the shock. Between giggles I managed to assure the man that Miep and myself were both fine. The poor man got back into his car, still looking a little worse for wear. He sat behind the wheel for a minute or 2 before he composed himself enough to keep driving. He took one last look at me and made a gesture asking me if I was ok. I grinned and gave him a thumbs up.

I thought the whole thing was quite comical really, Miep and I both walked away unscathed and I got a great story to tell. Denni was less impressed, when I told him what had happened his expression bore a startling resemblance to that of the man who had hit me. Denni wanted to know how I didn’t hear the car coming, at which point I sheepishly told him that I was plugged into my Ipod and that I’d looked the wrong way. Maybe this was my carmic (bad puns never get old!) payback for taking out the man on the bike and the little old lady. My victims have been avenged!

Smooth Criminal

Holland likes to keep everything regulated and that means that there are lots of inspectors, inspecting things.  If you take the saying ‘the long arm of the law’ literally then the Dutch police force is like an octopus. The Dutch police are everywhere, the ‘politie’ drive round in cars, vans, on horses, on foot, on bikes and on Segues “weird things that look like lecterns on wheels, perfect for when you need to give a speech on the go)… its very hard to take someone seriously as an authority figure buzzing around on one of those things, I keep waiting for one of them to chase me down the street while lecturing me simultaneously, now that’s multitasking.  I have now had an unprecedented amount of run-ins with the Dutch law enforcement… although I am proud to say that I remain “boete vrij!” penalty free! It’s amazing what you can achieve with blonde hair and an Aussie accent. The first time I got pulled over I was on my bike, lost, in the dark and on the wrong (left) side of the road… oops!  Suddenly there were 2 police officers in front of me, one of them said something in Dutch that sounded like a reprimand. I smiled and explained that I didn’t speak Dutch. The officer then replied in broken English that I was on the wrong side of the road and was I aware that legally I had to have a light on while riding after dark. I feigned shock (The truth was I did know this but had completely forgotten to turn it on) and said “oh! I wasn’t aware of that officer, er… I’ve forgotten how the light works…can you show me how it works?”  The officer obliged.

Then asked me where I was from, we then had a 10 minute conversation about Australian wildlife and his relatives in “Pert”. Eventually the conversation went back to the matter at hand and he explained that he could give me 2 fines, one for being on the wrong side of the road and a second for not having my light on, but that he would let it go this time (Dankjewel officer [smile]) . He even gave me directions and sent me on my way wishing me luck in Holland… the odd thing was that 3 days later I was in the same area (on the “right” side of the road this time) and saw a group of four “politie” and heard one yell, “Hey Aussie, stay on right side of the street ja!” Nice to see I’m making the right connections so early on!

Since then I have managed to use the same tactic to talk my way out of a fine for riding in a pedestrian only area, riding through a red light, and not having my light on… twice, once the officer even fixed my light while telling me all about his daughter who is currently studying in Brisbane… The same tactic also works with the train conductors too, it seems that playing the ignorant tourist will get you out of just about anything here. … the question is how long can I stay “boete vrij?”

Dirty Dutch

Learning swear words in a foreign language, it’s fun isn’t it? … Don’t lie, you know just as well as I do that the first thing you always want to know in another language is how to tell someone ‘where to go’ before you learn how to ask, well… where to go…

Swear words have always fascinated me, how for example does a four letter word that sounds a lot like duck (a feathery creature that often features as one of the first words in a toddlers burgeoning vocabulary) manage to become one of the most frequently used, abused, adored and abhorred words in the English language?

I think I have finally worked out why learning to say “get ducked” in French, Chinese or Swahili is so appealing. It’s got nothing to do with the word itself so much as the social connotations and emotional weight that they carry that makes them both forbidden and linguistically delicious at the same time. A foreign swear word is nothing more than an odd combination of consonants and vowels, without any of the aforementioned emotion or social weight behind it… it’s fat free swearing. It’s so much easier to call someone a “pitsuchichi” (it’s Japanese… Google said it was so) even if you know what the English equivalent is.

In Dutch they swear with  diseases, (they also have your equivalents of the English foul four letter favourites. By the way, did anyone else ever notice that most swearwords in English only have 4 letters? See, I told you swearwords were fascinating) where was I? oh yes, diseases. The most offensive swear word you can spit at someone in Holland is ‘kanker’ the Dutch equivalent of the ‘C’ bomb. Kanker actually means cancer, you don’t have to look too far into our society to work out what about it is offensive, that one speaks for itself. But then they also throw around Typhoid, Cholera, Tuberculosis and Pleuritis (all more or less dead diseases… also interesting).

I wonder if this could ever take off in English? Imagine, you’ve just missed your train “Shingles!” lets try another one; your boyfriend dumps you “Flu you!”, you burn your toast “Aaah Bubonic Plague!”, someone cuts you off in traffic “Meningacocle head!” Hmmm… somehow I don’t see it “catching on” (get it? catching on, contagious???… sorry couldn’t help myself) and besides, Wil Shakespear tried with ” a (chicken)pox on both your houses” and that seems to have been about as contagious as a paper cut. Although, English speakers have been “washing our mouths out with soap” for centuries… so maybe the Dutch are just foul mouthed.

On that note I’m off to brush my teeth… Dandruff and Herpes! …I’m out of toothpaste. Flu!

Koninginnedag… lets get orange!

Australia, when it comes to traditions and public holidays Australia is not exactly what you would call creative. A BBQ in the sun washed down with litres of warm beer followed by a drunken dip in the ocean and possibly a match of beach cricket, funnily enough this sounds like a fairly adequate description of most Australian Public Holidays, including Christmas.  But not in Holland, no, no, no every holiday has a different set of social traditions and I LOVE it.

Koninginnedag, the Dutch national day when everyone abandons their sense of fashion and style and coats themselves in a hefty layer of orange. Orange wigs, makeup, glasses, shirts, pants, skirts, shoes, socks (lots of orange socks) even orange underwear(preferably worn Superman style.)

Then you head out into the streets, where the normally grey sidewalks have been taken over by a sea of coulourful blankets, umbrellas, boxes and anything else that can masquerade as a makeshift stall and sells their trash, unwanted treasure, homemade food, everything literally from homemade cakes and lemonade (almost all Orange… of course) to clothes, car parts, furniture, music and even pets! (ok that was one family I saw advertising their kittens for sale for 30 Euros’ probably not representative of the general items for sale on Koninginnedag.) Anyway, the morning is spent perusing the sidewalk for a good bargain, a Blondie record for 50 euro cents for example! …one way or another I’m gonna find ya… oh sorry, sidetracked.

There’s music in the streets, games and competitions and the atmosphere is fantastic. Then it’s off to one of the hundreds of pubs, bars, or street festivals in your Dutch city of choice for multiple beers (conveniently beer is a shade of orange and luckily unlike the Irish there is no need for E additives to make the beer patriotic… green beer?!) Then there is lots of cheesy music, drunken singing and fried Dutch food.  FEEST! …that’s Dutch for party.

Koninginnedag… yes, a word that has 4 n’s in it! But what is it?

Quite literally it’s Queens day. It’s the equivalent of the English/ Aussie Queens Birthday celebrations. The Dutch queen is Beatrice, she’ s a foxy older broad with fantastic hair who quite frankly, makes Lizzy look like a daggy old nanna. Koninginnedag takes place on the 30th of April but this wasn’t always the case. Traditionally the day on which Koninginnedag was celebrated changed to co-incide with the birthday of the new Queen. After queen Juliana kicked the bucket and her daughter Bea took over, Bea decided  not to have the celebrations on her birthday but to leave it on the 30th of April out of respect for her mother, also Bea’s birthday is at the end of January, not exactly weather conducive to partying outside. Quite obviously Bea is a smart woman who appreciates that finding an outfit that is both warm and orange is quite a challenge. Good stuff Bea.  

See… look how cool Bea is! I never thought of myself as a monarchist but i’m wiling to re-consider my political leanings in the name of good hair. I wonder if  “the Bea” would suit me, I wonder what kind of hairspray she uses?

A brief history of Orange… Kara style.

For those of you who are wondering, as I was why the Dutch national colour is Orange, let me enlighten you; ok so, William of Orange an English chap originally, was a busy king who ruled England, Scotland, Ireland and Holland around the rocking 1600’s. Put quite simply he was the sperm donor that started the Dutch royal family, (Wikipedia I hope you have not mis-informed me here.) And with a (lets face it here, rather dull) red white and blue flag, like so many other countries the Dutch decided they needed something to set them apart from the rest of the red white and blues, perhaps an extra flash of colour? So they drew inspiration from the monarch’s colourful surname (Willem van Oranje/ of Orange) and Orange pride was born.

Orange love with a side of cheese

Celebrating the queens birthday, standing in a sea of orange, drinking beer and listening to a band playing cheesy Dutch classics (it’s deliciously ironic that cheesy music is the national soundtrack in a country where cheese is so much more than just a sandwich topping). Everyone was singing along passionately, I’d never heard any of it before so I opened and closed my mouth in time to the music in a vague attempt to sing along. The music was classic cheesy 80’s you know what I mean, in Australia it would have been Ke-san, and Land Down Under. In America it would probably have been Springsteen and Bon-jovi, am I painting a picture for you here?

So there I was cheerily sipping my beer in time to the Dutch Bon-jovi when the band played a song, just as cheesy as the rest but the text was so profound it gripped me. Cheesy music is always fantastic at the right moment, there’s nothing quite like a good heart felt sing along complete with closed eyes and clenched fists to put me in a party mood. The way I see it cheesy music is the grated cheese of the music world it’s a topping, an accompaniment, It’s creamy and delicious but too much too quickly leaves you feeling nauseous.  So, that said it’s not very often that the aforementioned cheesy music moves you, gets under your skin and leaves you with goose bumps.

Dutifully celebrating the Dutch Queen’s birthday, clad head to toe in orange and drinking beer whilst listening to a band doing covers of “classic Dutch cheese” they played a song, and even in Dutch the chorus totally got me; Ik wil je. Blijf bij me. Hou van me. Ga nooit meer weg.  Allow me to translate; I want you. Stay with me. Love me. Never leave me.   …Pause for effect…. Do you feel it? Does it get to you like it got to me?  It’s so simple, no grand gestures. No elaborate prose. Just four simple statements that for me sum up everything I want in love but am perhaps (once bitten twice shy) too scared to go looking for.

I want you. Stay with me. Love me. Never leave me. It’s so raw and honest, so unabashed. Forget flowers, diamonds and death do us parts, look me in the eye and say that to me and I think I would melt… like cheese. Can’t you just picture it? It’s late, you’re sitting at home alone and lonely on a rainy night drinking wine and torturing yourself with sad music wondering how many more frogs you will have to kiss before you find a prince, and then the door bell goes, who could that be you wonder? You head to the door and leaving the security lactch on you open the door just enough to see who’s on the other side… And there he is, dripping wet, like a soggy stray on your doorstep. Without saying anything you let him in, you look at each other awkwardly. You open your mouth to ask him what he is doing there and he stops you and says “ Don’t say anything, just listen” Then he takes your face in his big wet hands and stares deeply into your eyes with a serious almost tortured expression on his face and then he says… “I want you. Stay with me. Love me. Never leave me.”… As far as I’m concerned that, is love… With a side of  (Dutch) cheese.

Summer’s final curtain call

It’s the 3rd of October  and over the last few days the weather has put on a performance giving us a taste of the season to come; rain and blustery winds tortured umbrellas and dishevelled carefully styled locks. Then today the curtain of grey clouds parted and summer made a cameo appearance and graced Rotterdam with a late encore. It was a scintillating performance, and left us all begging for more.

We decided to make the most of the weather this morning and went for brunch at a cafe on the edge of the forest overlooking the lake, a picturesque spot. It’s one of my favourite places in Rotterdam to ponder and people watch (a delicious combination), but we weren’t the only ones who decided to take in a late dose of UV rays and vitamin D.

One thing I love about Holland is that the minute the sun comes out everyone downs tools and goes out into the sunshine and does nothing! Just lounging lazily in a park or a beer garden, a bike ride, anything, as long as you are outside. Sometimes I get the feeling that there is actually a law preventing people from doing anything overly constructive while the sun is shining. This is a law that I am more than happy to abide by.

You’d think the Dutch were cold-blooded reptiles they way they behave when the sun comes out. All laying flat like lizards, limbs stretched out for maximum sun exposure soaking up the rays like solar panels. The sun strips holland bare,modesty and fashion are quickly forgotten. Hair, fat, boxer briefs, bra’s, it’s all on show for everyone to see. In the forest today you could have been easily excused for thinking it was a national holiday with the amount of people out and about getting one last run out of this seasons summer wardrobe before the Jackets, scarves and gloves become the daily necessities… How delicious it was to lay in the park, wriggling my bare toes in the fresh grass and as I dozed lazily in the warmth of the Sunday afternoon sun, I relished it.

The trees are beginning their seasonal wardrobe change, spatters of yellow and orange break through the rich summer green. And, as I wandered through the city late this afternoon the sun dropped behind the backdrop of highrise buildings and a chill krept into the air, the breeze whipped through my t-shirt and my sandle clad toes tingled with cold. Despite my sun kissed cheeks something tells me that winter is creeping around backstage and that Jack frost is hanging in the wings eargerly awaiting his cue…

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