Race Day

Sunday was a big day. It was the fourteenth edition of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Vestingloop. Yes that’s right. The fourteenth annual Fortress Walk of possibly the most unpronounceable of Dutch cities. (I mean when does anything actually beginwith an apostrophe?) Though I have to admit: there was no walking involved, or fortresses, but, you know, it was definitely in Den Bosch (the slightly more pronounceable shortened version of Eindhoven’s next door neighbour’s name). 

There were three options for what I can only describe as a charity run: 5 km, 10 km or 15 km. I chose to spectate. My boyfriend, on the other hand, opted for the 5 km (most importantly deciding to take part, unlike muggins here). But do not be fooled into thinking that this meant that I didn’t break a sweat. Oh no. I did indeed. And was certainly not in the appropriate attire to be doing so. For Gijs, who had to run 5 km with a group of about five thousand others, and whom I was there to support, did in fact beat me to the finish line, as my 2 km jaunt through the backstreets to get to the end became something of a farce.

Indeed, before we even got to the start line the day was a little chaotic. First minor catastrophe was our lack of safety pins, with which to pin Gijs’ race number (with tracking device) to his t-shirt. He asked if I had any in my make up bag. I’m not exactly sure what he thinks I do to my face every morning, but I had to explain that pricking myself or securing myself was definitely not part of the routine. He was a little disappointed. He then proceeded to look through our bucket of mixed-currency shrapnel – ever the optimist – in the hope that four hidden safety pins would suddenly reveal themselves. I am very proud of myself for resisting the urge to question his dead-end search, and proceeded to tell him of my achievement when he came to the conclusion that no, we absolutely did not have any safety pins at home, and that he was going to have to ask a colleague (with whom he was running) if he could pinch a few. He got a reply back in seconds reassuring him that his safety pin needs would be met at the gathering point of his office thirty minutes before the race, and his attachment anxiety was finally laid to rest.

Accompanying Gijs to his office to meet the gang was an exciting experience for me; I had never been to his office before and enjoyed seeing in person the place in which he spent many of his waking hours while I would sit at home and watch re-runs of Friends(I mean work on my latest novel). I was quite impressed. The desks were height adjustable, allowing the workers to sit or stand as they so wished. (In my case all of the height options would require standing, given my stunted appearance in the land of giants.) There was a communal lunch area, with long wooden tables and benches inviting conversation and community; and a small games area involving ping pong and foosball tables, where I could see myself hiding when all the stand-up working got too much. And the main entrance was like a designer furniture showroom! A high wooden bar with perfectly pert stools sat adjacent to a stylish distressed leather sofa and a spectacularly soft oval rug (I didn’t kneel at its feet to stroke it, but golly was I tempted to). Anyway, with the office tour complete we made our way back up to the meeting room where everyone running the race was gathered. Only they were no longer there; the room was entirely empty. We had spent so long admiring the soft furnishings that they had actually left without us…

We both checked our watches and we still had ten minutes to spare until start time – it was going to be ok. Making our way back to the lifts we heard distant calls of “Gijs! Gijs!” from somewhere within the shaft, and we were pleased that they hadn’t forgotten about us all together. Travelling down just one storey, to where Gijs thought his mates would be, we stepped out of the lift to respond to the bodiless voices. “Hello?” “Are you there?” Nothing. We were on our own. We got back into the lift and took it down to the basement, during which time Gijs got a call from a colleague but was cut off as soon as we dipped below the ground floor. The elevator pinged and we disembarked, and caught sight of his sportswear-adorned co-workers at the far end of the underground car park. We looked at each other and did a quick sprint to meet them, trying to act as unflustered and calm as possible, now with just five minutes to go before the whistle was due to be blown and with no start line in sight. Emerging into daylight and rounding the corner we were there, the street filled with Lycra-clad runners filtering into the fenced-off starting lane. This was it. It was showtime.

Taking Gijs’ phone – for documentation and safe-keeping – I made my way slightly further down the route to capture him crossing the start line. It seemed to take an age for him to appear, behind hoards and hoards of equally optimistic starters, but at last he passed and, even though I say it myself, I made a rather spiffing five-second video. My accomplishments beyond this point, however, were a little bit lacking. 

Not that I’m blaming my tools, but the tracking app that was meant to provide me with real-time updates on his progress was singularly useless. According to the app for a further twenty-five minutes he was wachten om te start, which I knew for a fact was untrue. So as soon as he had passed me at the start I made my way in the opposite direction, along with another supportive and unsporty girlfriend, to the finish line to cheer him on when he needed it most. I was very glad that she knew the way we needed to go, meaning my only worries were not dropping his very expensive new phone, and periodically refreshing the app to check if it had caught up with him.

Approaching the city centre we met the running route again. But we needed to cross it, which was a little like playing chicken run with angry motorists (not that I have ever done that, but I imagine that it’s similar in experience). There must be nothing worse than missing beating your PB because of a dawdling bystander stepping on your shoelaces. So I was ever cautious to cross at a sensible place during a wide enough gap between competitors. Successfully dodging the onslaught we took a breath at the other side. At which point a group of his colleagues darted past us; Gijs, however, not in tow. I then had to weigh up the options: would Gijs be quicker than them, and thus have already passed this spot; or would he be behind, and therefore worth us sticking around for a couple of minutes to give him some vocal support… It was a tough one to call. The first group did look quite sporty and fit, so I erred on the side of caution and stayed put to send him some loving whoops and cheers. Another group from the office passed a few minutes later, but Gijs, again, was nowhere to be seen. Now I had another decision to make: was Gijs even fasterthan the first half of the team, or even slowerthan the tail end? This seemed to me a question much deeper than just probability, and I settled – for the longevity of our relationship as much as the logistics of the race – on him having already passed us and now steaming his way into the third kilometre. 

So we began walking again, taking a shortcut across the huge market square – sidestepping market stalls, pigeons and tourists – in the direction of the finish. For anyone who hasn’t been to Den Bosch, it is a lovely, charming little city with winding, narrow streets, quaint independent shops, and it’s very own pastry: the Bossche bol, a 5-inch spherical profiterole coated entirely in chocolate fondant icing. None ideal for navigating from A to B under strict time restraints and with one hand busy holding someone else’s mobile phone. As we entered a labyrinth of passages just off the main square I checked the app once more, just in case. It was now miraculously working, and Gijs was (miraculously) almost at the finish line…oh sh*t! Not knowing exactly where we were on the map, I needed a quick moment to acclimatise myself and judge if we were anywhere near the end. We were, but Gijs was nearer. And so my race began. Clutching his iPhone XS as protectively as I did my undersupported bosom, I started a trot-to-canter-speed beeline to the Parade, where all of the other – better prepared – supporters were waiting with banners and signs for their loved ones to cross the finish line. I was also wearing a backpack, filled with jogging bottoms, a spare t-shirt, a towel, deodorant, water, etc., for my beau, which was bobbing along behind me, almost as buoyantly as those at the front. I must have been quite a spectacle, especially given that I was not a formal participant in the big event.

With less than 50 m to the finish his phone vibrated in my hand: Gijs has finished! it enthusiastically informed me. I, on the other hand, had not. The last stretch became a bit of a blur as I elbowed my way through the thickening crowds to greet my hero and try to pretend that I had in fact seen his magnificent accomplishment. 

The set up was a little confusing and it took me a couple of minutes just to work out where on earth I would find him, but I did eventually spot him on the other side of the railings, sports drink in hand, face red and moist, breath still recovering. He gestured for us both to walk around the side of the area, to where we could be reunited and him adorned with praise and superlatives. 

His first words to me were, “Never again.” Thank God! That was far more physical exertion than I’d bargained for on a sacred Sunday morning. We celebrated with a beer – my word did I need it.

Learn more about the author

Yogis and Vegans

As someone aspiring to be both a yogi and a vegan, a full-day yoga and vegan festival sounded like the perfect Sunday activity to reignite my lapsed and not-quite-fully-committed-to holier-than-thou lifestyle. For, before Sunday just gone, I had not taken part in a yoga class, or solitary practice, for at least seven months; and my near-daily chocolate habit is regrettably not confined to milk-free dark varieties. So I was definitely in need of a gentle boost and some yogic and plant-based inspiration. 

The Yogific (yes, Yogific) Yoga and Vegan Festival was just the ticket. Off I tootled on my bicycle on sunny Sunday morning, yoga mat slung slapdashedly over my shoulder, legs peddling at double speed to make it in time for the 11 o’clock session: Fundamentals of Ashtanga Yoga for All. (It was the ‘for all’ of the title which piqued my interest most; I, like you, hadn’t the foggiest what Ashtanga was, but knowing that I wouldn’t be completely out of my yoga-less depth was reassurance enough to give it a go.) The bike ride itself turned out to be a warm up for my core, having to balance (precarious as ever on my bicycle) with the added imbalance of a right shoulder bearing the weight of my Dopper (my Dutch friends will know) and the cumbersome length of my rolled up mat, which proceeded to jab me in the thigh on each and every peddle. I spent the entire journey trying to readjust my baggage while staying upright on my bike, as well as avoiding any bleary-eyed pedestrians who lingered on the bike path just a moment too long. It was quite the journey. I arrived red-faced, on edge and thoroughly ready for some Ashtangic healing.

I realise in hindsight that the ticket collection situation was another preparatory exercise to get your body (and mind, to an extent) feeling flexible and fluid. While at the time, for me at least, it felt awkward, unnecessary and a little bit painful (I suppose the perfect introduction to a day-long yoga session). The three or four ticket attendants were sitting inside the building, the Klokgebouw (Clock Building) to be precise, each with a top hung window separating them from the outside world, which opened approximately five centimetres at the bottom, to give a kind of boob-height crevice through which to conduct their ticketing business. One either had to stand up straight and shout at the volunteer through the glass, or bend down to align mouth with opening to ensure audibility of a more socially acceptable conversational volume. I opted for a combination of the two, which, after my slightly stressful commute there, presented itself as a confused mime artist with passive aggressive tendencies. Anyhow I got the ticket and gained access to the event.

Ashtanga Yoga appeared to me quite similar to how I perceive and know ‘yoga’ as a pursuit to be, with the main difference being the conscious attention paid towards two specific muscle positionings: the Mūla Bandha and the Uḍḍiyāna. Just hearing the sounds of these words made me feel more yogific. Accompanied by hand movements gesticulating an upturned jellyfish contracting followed by the stylised removal of a cloche from said jellyfish, our instructor explained these muscles to us laymen as the pelvic floor and two centimetres below the belly button. Right. That I can understand. Trying to hold them both in while breathing and performing various poses and Sun Salutations, however, was another challenge entirely. I persevered, though, and felt good for it, and definitely forgot the woes of the outside world, which I guess is one of the main objectives. 

Next on the agenda was a series of talks, spanning meditation, mental health and meeting your nutrient goals while following a vegan diet. Each talk and speaker was very different and very good, and each displayed a distinctive yogi / vegan / hippie accent to their appearance. We had the dreadlocks. We had the patterned harem pants. We even had the FiveFinger / ‘minimalist’ / ‘barefoot’ running shoes (you know, those reptile-like ‘shoes’ that separate the toes and look to induce four inescapable toe-wedgies in each foot of the victim (I mean wearer)). We had it all. 

The talk room itself was almost as off-putting as the choice of footwear. It certainly wasn’t made for talks, and clearly had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate them. Bearing in mind that the yoga sessions had a capacity of two hundred, the talk room had an advertised capacity of thirty-five, but in reality could seat ten comfortably, with the rest having to find a section of floor space on which to perch in the lotus position, with (perhaps) an unfortunately closer look at the individual toes of the speaker. Fear not, though, I always managed to bag myself a chair or slice of sofa – anything to not be at eye level with the twinkle toes of Spiderman.

An overpoweringly large silver table also featured in the room, slightly off centre in its haphazard placement, with no purpose or function other than to get in the way of the already limited floor space and provide a strange focal point that the speakers were forced to work with. My favourite speaker verbally acknowledged the barmy layout, much to the relief of the audience who had – for five plus hours – been questioning the choice of furniture individually, and felt a great sense of togetherness when this confusion was out in the open and shared collectively. Ah. There’s nothing like feeling part of a community.

As this was a vegan festival, I had high hopes for the lunch offering. These dreams were quickly dashed on realising that there were a total of two food stalls, between them serving vegan ‘chicken’ for an unbelievable three euros (I can never understand why anyone who choses not to eat dead animal is tempted by fake dead animal…but that’s just me) and vegan poke bowl for an eye watering €9.50 (my dish of choice oftentimes, but on this occasion marred by the presence of broad beans (?), unseasoned non-sushi rice (??) and dubious tasting grated carrot). I went for the poke bowl and was unsurprisingly underwhelmed, and now near penniless. Satisfied I was not. And what better way to compensate then a large piece of vegan (naturally) baklava? Nothing, as it happens, as that put me right back into my Zen-like headspace. Om.

My final session of the day was Yin Yoga for Stress Relief and Ultimate Relaxation. Turns out I clearly needed it. We were in Seal Pose (yes), which involves lying face down on your mat, hands underneath shoulders, then straightening your arms and hollowing your back to look up at the sky. I thought I was doing quite well until the instructor tiptoed up behind me to push my shoulders down, pull my head up, and say to me, very deliberately, “Relax!” Approximately two feet of space opened up between my ears and shoulders after her intervention; it is conceivable that I was holding some tension there. 

On my cycle home I did feel calmer, freer and a little more mindful. I got back in time to watch the second half of the Premier League final, only to discover that our sports channel was solely showing the Man City match, cutting to Liverpool (whoop whoop) only when something exciting was about to happen. This made for some less-than-relaxing viewing of a less-than-ideal result. But I was Zen now. So I just watched those City goals drift into the net; observed their presence, without judgement; and let them pass, as if into thin air. 

Learn more about the author

Why the Dutch are Different

A couple of days ago I began reading Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates (a Christmas present from my father – thank you very muchly). Now, I’m only on page twenty-five at this point, but I can already confirm that it is a ruddy good read. And not just because it confirms my growing suspicion that the Dutch are, in fact, those of a very different breed. Having lived in their country for just shy of eleven months I have come to understand – or at least recognise – a number of Dutch ways, if you will, and for the past year have been trying to acclimatise myself to these new phenomena, one (clog-footed) step at a time. Some of them I am adopting quite happily; others perpetually make me wince. But through reading this book I am at least gaining a better understanding of some of the reasons behind the differing behaviours I am witness to this side of the North Sea.

I am also, in a matter of just twenty-five pages, becoming acquainted with more of the Netherlands’ history than my Dutch-born and -bred partner. Last night in bed, for instance, we did not whisper sweet nothings into each other ears, nor did we enter into any kind of dirty talk (I am British, after all, and the thought alone sends a subtle injection of embarrassment through each and every vein). No. I sent my boyfriend off to sleep with a lullaby of the history and significance of the Dutch windmill; the dairy industry’s supposed impact on the height of its citizens; and how ‘the need to coordinate the construction and maintenance of flood defences’ has shaped the country’s current political landscape. It’s no wonder we both had a terrible night’s sleep.

But before I delve too deeply into Ben Coates’ – I’m sure highly considered and witty – conclusions of how the Dutch are different, I want to make some of my own. Mostly so that I can congratulate myself on those, if any, that we have both observed, but also in a bid to unveil, slightly, the realities of moving to another country, no matter how similar on the surface, and trying to become fully integrated into day-to-day life and all that is deemed ‘normal’.

First on the list of differences has got to be the language. Of course the vast majority of Dutch people, especially those living in the city, speak near-fluent English, with a better grasp of grammar than I’m sure a large proportion of the British population. (This is not a jibe at the Brits; merely praise of the Dutch and their excellent adoption of our funny old language.) Coates describes Dutch as ‘a language that sounded to an outsider like a drunk man gargling soup.’ He is pretty much spot on. Although I have to say, during my time in the country so far, I have become more used to, and even affectionate towards, the sounds that appear in Dutch dialogue, and am improving, albeit very slowly, my ability to pronounce some of them.

There are many sounds in the Dutch language that we simply don’t utilise in English, which makes learning them all the more difficult, especially as an adult. I have come to realise that it is in the manipulation of the shape and formation of your lips and tongue that produces these otherworldly noises, and I can tell you: re-training your mouth is harder than lifting any set of weights in the gym. But before I feel too down in the dumps about it I must take a moment to think about the Taiwanese guy in my Dutch class, whose native tongue is so far from the position needed to make an ‘r’ sound, let alone a rolling one, that really I don’t have much to complain about.

Aside from the problematic sounds, the Dutch also have a wonderfully troublesome habit of joining words together to create seemingly endless terms consisting of far too many double letters and far too little opportunity for breath. Meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornis, for example, translates to dissociative identity disorder, formerly known asmultiple personality disorder. Split up it is much easier to understand: meervoudige(multiple); persoonlijkheids(personality); stoornis(disorder). But joined together, as one frightfully long single word, it is overwhelming and confusing and enough to make even the most promising of language students run for the hills (if they had any in this country, that is). If only the Dutch suffered from multiple word disorder instead… But perhaps it is intentional, thought up by a secret journalistic society, and meant for people just like me who often have to stick to word counts and have far too much to say. “Just bung them all together and the word count is effectively doubled!” A brilliant feat of Dutch engineering.

Now I’m afraid the time has come for me to get onto the kissing situation. On the cheek, of course – they may be different but they’re not animals. It’s three here. Right cheek to right cheek; left to left; and back once more to right against right, just in case your presence had not yet been registered. The main problem is: I’m not much of a cheek-kisser on the best of days. I’m more of a hug kinda girl. So the already uncomfortable closeness of one skin-on-skin interaction is tripled here, and compounded by the fact that I’m never one hundred per cent sure that the three kisses are going to materialise, so I hover, awkwardly, between the first and second and second and third respectively, creating an even more excruciating situation trying to avoid any unintentional lip-on-lip action.

I’m not sure that it’s the closeness, per se, of the kiss on the cheek that I find so unbearable; I think it is the sound that I find more off-putting. Hugging, after all, if very physical and very intimate; but kissing on the cheek has the unavoidable lip-smacking sound effect, which – especially with elderly male relatives – I find thoroughly nauseating. I tend to make an audible ‘mwah’ sound as my cheek touches theirs, which in itself sounds absurd but it at least masks the stomach-churning gentle ‘kissing’ sound.

On birthdays this ordeal is amplified, with a concurrent handshake added into the mix. It’s almost like rubbing your tummy and tapping your head – you have to really focus and get into the rhythm to complete the act successfully. If you were to get out of flow you would end up holding hands and smooching your father-in-law in the middle of the living room, so concentration really is key. But if all goes to plan at least the extra brainpower required distracts you from the gesture itself, which is a welcome relief.

Last but not least, the Dutch and their behaviours surrounding tea drinking are somewhat of an idiosyncrasy. Firstly, they take their tea – their English Breakfast Tea – without milk. Well. That is just sacrilegious. I mean… I have no words. It is, in my humble opinion, unacceptable in all circumstances, and I am slowly trying to change their ways but have had little to no success as of yet. (I will persevere.)

Their ritual of serving tea is also very different to that back home. On asking for a cup of tea here one is presented with a clear glass mug (no personalised or comic ceramics in this country), filled solely with hot water. One is then presented with a chest (!) of teas, with all manner of flavours to choose from, from the comfort of the sofa. One is also presented with a little dish (that might be used for olive stones, for instance) in which you are to place your used teabag once your cup is brewed to your liking. For most Dutch people the brewing period takes approximately 2.5 seconds – a couple of dunks of the teabag and they are good to go on their slightly seasoned hot water.

While English Breakfast Tea served black is against my lifestyle and life values, the little pot in which to deposit the used bag is a habit I’m more than happy to adopt. I aim for the recommended two to three minutes brewing time for my EBT, and the accompanying saucer allows me to take my brew to wherever I so wish, granting me the ability to continue with my work, or Friendsmarathon, uninterrupted, knowing that a simple lift of the string (the teabags all have strings here) will transform my cuppa from work in progress to gloriously rich hug-in-a-mug. And then it is like I’m transported home, to times gone by, when a Yorkshire Tea and Rich Tea biscuit were all one could possibly ever need. Bliss. Or should I say, gezellig.

Learn more about the author