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.

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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. 

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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.

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A New Experience

Have you ever been in a room and thought, “what the %$?! am I doing here?” At a zumba class perhaps, or a dubious country hostel in the outback of Romania… While both of these scenarios I have indeed unluckily found myself in, the event in question here is the south Netherlands spectacle that is CARNAVAL. The block capitals are in sympathy to the manner in which the word is spoken inside my head. When I say spoken I mean screamed. And when I say inside my head I mean reverberating inside my skull for time immemorial from the lungs of every native of the North Brabant and Limburg provinces.

It’s a big thing here, the ol’ CARNAVAL. It’s bigger than a British Christmas. And as my mother’s daughter that is truly saying something. People takes days, sometimes weeks, off work to partake and indulge in it. It hasn’t even begun this year and I’ve already attended two absolutely absurd events, and missed many, many more. For this year not only am I residing within the country; my boyfriend’s younger brother has also been nominated / chosen / selected by God / Allah / the Dalai Lama to be one of the Prince’s helpers. Yes. A helper of the Prince. And that makes CARNAVAL a mere ten hundred times more intense. But also a lot more enjoyable. And also makes me – the strange foreigner – the talk of the town.

CARNAVAL, in short, is a three to five day festival (depending on how committed you are, and how far south you live; which for the in laws is very and very, respectively), involving the teeny tiny tots to the unsteady elderly dressing up in garish outfits while men in tights and long-feathered hats ‘get the party started’. The Prince is King of ‘getting the party started’. And the Prince’s two sidekicks, of whom I have a familial connection to one half, are his wingmen, if you will. But that is not all. Prior to the five pre-diarised days of pandemonium, one has the event to reveal and crown the Prince (and his sidekicks), and two weeks later the grand Prince’s Reception.

The first event – the crowing of the Prince – was thrust upon me quite unexpectedly. (As has the whole concept of CARNIVAL been.) I was, in fact, on a rare girls night out on the town, enjoying scrumptious sushi with a Roman (Federica, a girl from Italy’s capital, not a relic) and a Kiwi (Bhamita, a girl from New Zealand, not a luminous healthy snack). We were planning on continuing the evening at a nearby bar, where our partners would meet us following our girls-only dinner. As the last drop of Chardonnay was poured from the bottle my boyfriend walked into the restaurant. He’s come to join us early! I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For he had come to inform me that his brother had just informed him (at 20:30 on the night of the ‘crowning’) that he was, in fact, the Prince’s second hand man, and would we like to watch his big reveal. His parents, too, had been dutifully informed at the last minute, but for them the logistics were a little less challenging as they at least resided in the same town as the party. We were in a different city, 45 km away, not to mention the fact that I was otherwise engaged with some rather tasty tuna tataki.

As my boyfriend went back to our apartment to pack an overnight bag (due to the timing and distance we would need to stay at his parents’ house; there goes the lovely brunch I had just ordered and collected from Too Good To Go), we (the tempura trio) decided it really must be a big thing for him to come in like that, especially given that he had actually been out with a friend of his own, whom he had unceremoniously ditched to attend the great unveil (but the friend apparently totally understood, because, “he was from the south too”). So I needed to get a move on. It was now 9.20 pm and the train we needed to catch was at quarter to ten. I met my boyfriend outside our apartment, overnight bag with all my essential requests in tow, and we made a dash for the station.

On arriving into Horst Sevenum, a ten-minute drive from where the event was being held, we were collected not by one of Gijs’ parents – gosh, no, they were locked in the stock cupboard of the venue, not allowed to be seen by any party-goer’s eyes as that would immediately give away the game of their son’s involvement – but by someone Gijs went to primary school with, who had been sent to fetch us, along with a black cape for Gijs to wear when entering the venue via the back entrance, just in case anyone were to catch a glimpse of him too. There was no need for me to be camouflaged – no one knew who the hell I was, and as the night(s) progressed this fact became increasingly apparent.

We inconspicuously made it up to the waiting room and were greeted by a sea of adolescent males wearing silver trimmed capes and boat-shaped hats, drinking beer and complaining of bursting bladders (as they were not allowed out of the room either (one actually went on the roof to take a leak and got locked outside in the process)). I started taking photographs, naturally, and was reminded not to put them on social media before the announcement in ten minutes. I reassured the master of ceremonies that, in case he hadn’t noticed, no one knew who the hell I was and certainly wasn’t a friend of mine on Facebook! My English accent suitably reassured (and humoured) him (and them all).

When the announcement / reveal / crowning took place we still weren’t allowed in the main auditorium; we had to watch backstage from the gallery, and I felt as if I had won a VIP ticket to an intimate One Direction gig in which the band mates were in a school play and the crowd was everyone but 1D fans. There were no screaming girls here, just a lot of knee-slapping men in tights drinking pilsner and jigging to ear-jarring Dutch ‘music’. I realised there was a lot I needed to get used to.

Once the Prince and his best men had been announced we were allowed to join the masses, and take part in the knee-slapping, pilsner-drinking and joyous jigging. This went on until around 1.30 am, but this was by no means the end of the event. No. For as tradition goes, after this (and other) CARNAVAL events the entire crowd is offered an open invitation to the Prince’s home (or parents’ home in this case), for which no written directions are required because everybody here knows who everybody is and where everybody lives. (Except for me. He he he.) So we trundled on to the prince’s house, which, hats off to his parents, had been pet-cleared and plastic-flooring-fied in preparation for the masses.

The tradition is not only for an after party at the house of the Prince, but an after party involving fried egg sandwiches at the house of the Prince. We arrived at his home, walking straight through the front door without even knocking, to a domestic scene of bread-slicing, plate-arranging and egg-frying from all the Mums. It was quite a spectacle. The egg bap was actually very pleasant, while the infatuation of one Prince friend or relative to my English accent was a little overbearing but nonetheless complimentary. On his fifth utteration of, “heeeeeerlijk” (delightful, wonderful, lovely, delicious), my boyfriend and I decided it was time to make tracks.

The event if this weekend just gone, the Prince’s Reception, was similar in format although there was a lot more hand-shaking, present-giving (one must buy presents for the Prince and his helpers), and a lot of shoulder-saluting when anyone was adorned with another necklace. There were (many) speeches in a dialect I cannot understand, but I have to say that this was far preferable noise to the previous CARNAVAL ‘music’. I managed to escape Sunday’s shenanigans after just two hours, to go back to his parents’ to watch the Liverpool game and have a nap on the sofa, but was back in time for the (earlier than previous) egg session at, this time, the house of the parents of the other Prince’s helper. At 8 pm this equalled dinner so I had three egg baps a bottle of beer and said goodbye to any concept of nutrition.

The CARNAVAL proper is happening this coming weekend, which oh so unfortunately coincides with a friend’s wedding back in England – so I’m only going to have to miss it!!! I will be back in time for the final day, however, next Tuesday, one week today… On this day there is a play of a farmer’s wedding and one must dress how a farmer from eighty years ago would when attending a wedding. Nothing easy here. But with enough pilsner I can pretend I am back at the British wedding and sipping glorious prosecco. Prost!

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SoleCycle

Yesterday was Dutch Day. For me that is. Not a national phenomenon like the recent National Peanut Butter Day (January 24th, USA) or Tag des Deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) (January 11th, Germany). No. Thursday, for me, marks a day of Dutch language learning. It is as hard as it sounds.

The morning calls for an informal conversation class at the bibliotheek; a large gathering of all the misfit foreigners (myself included) who have somehow rounded up in Eindhoven, with no prior experience of the troublesome Dutch language, who chat, over a free cup of coffee and under the supervision of a native speaker, about just anything they can muster. Personal introductions always begin (which gets a little tiresome if one ends up with the same group every week), of which mine I now have engraved on my frontal lobe for use at any given moment. I am Rachel; I come from England; I am a writer. It can be elaborated on as necessary, but you get the idea. As you go round the circle you learn the forenames of all the others in the ‘Ik (I) spreek (speak) een (a) beetje (bit) nederlands (Dutch)’ clique, along with their country of origin, number of offspring and time spent in Eindhoven thus far. Sometimes the accent in which they vocalise the Dutch words is much more entertaining than their life story (often the case). But none the less, after the five to fifteen minutes of backstories the clan is ready to tackle the theme of the day’s class.

Yesterday we talked about where we lived: the centre or the outskirts; a house or an apartment. You soon learn with the Dutch that no question is a question too far. On multiple occasions during these sorts of shindigs have I divulged the extract street in which I live, the precise location along this street – in response to direct questions, mainly from the native overseer – for which my answers have always, thankfully, drawn a blank from my fellow students. Age is very much a ‘go’ area too, no matter one’s gender or frailty, along with price paid for said apartment or indeed every piece of furniture one has within it. This would actually be the prime place for a stalker or household thief to conduct his research…

We wrapped up the session with a game (eek!), involving laminated red cards with the most impossible Dutch questions that one was meant to read, decipher and, most challengingly, answer. One turned out to be: “Who do you laugh at the most?” – not who do you laugh with the most; who do you laugh AT. I was tempted to say my mother, for instance when she has a ‘Bailey’s moment’ (too much Irish cream) and falls over in slow motion, or mistakes her hairdresser’s dog for a soft cushion, but I refrained (partly to spare her dignity; mainly because I don’t yet know the Dutch for ‘tipsy’ or ‘Cockapoo’). So I settled on my favourite comedian, Russell Brand, who’s name was clearly as famous in the Netherlands as mine, and who I tried to describe be saying ‘comedian’ in a soft German accent. I have just looked in my dictionary and the correct term, in fact, is ‘blijspelspeler’… (When broken down this translates to ‘happy-performance-player’. I think I like this better than ‘comedian’.) Correction: My Dutch boyfriend just read this and said he had never heard of a blijspelspeler before. The correct term, in fact, is actually ‘cabaretier’.

The second and final unexpected (in general) and unfathomable (in Dutch, without the help of the supervisor, Anneke) questions was: “What television programme could you see yourself being in?” Well. We all drew a blank. And then I remembered Strictly. Oh, how I would love to do Strictly. (With Gorka or Aljaž, ideally.) So I let out an “Ooo!”, along with a hand raise, and proclaimed, in my very broken Dutch, that I could in fact see myself appearing in the BBC behemoth that is Strictly Come Dancing, tan and sequins and vajazzle included. I have never before received such quizzical looks.

After a spot of lunch at home (the direct location of which I will not be sharing any more frivolously than I have done already), and a much needed catch up with my favourite Great Auntie Liz (we shared stories of our respective colds and the like), I headed off to Dutch class número dos (or perhaps more appropriately nummer twee (doesn’t quite have the same ring to is, does it?)). A weekly, structured Dutch language course taught at the local Red Cross (Rode Kruis). And this is when my Dutchness really took a turn for the authentic. I was to cycle there.

But I first had to attach my new bell to my very old bike. There was a bell already in place on Lioness (I had assigned her a name, just as I have done with my cars in the past (silent weep)) but it was broken and ineffective, so I set to work on fastening the functioning one onto the handlebars. This must have been amusing for any passers-by. I had no screwdriver and so could not remove the old bell, which I did think was strangely positioned on the left-hand side. Hmm. Maybe the Dutch had a predominant left hand. (My partner, after all, does own a pair of plastic primary-school-type left-handed scissors.) But also curious was the upside down logo of the new bell, once positioned on the right handlebar. The fastening itself, done with nimble fingers, was a little comical due to the dropping of screws, etc., but nonetheless was a good job for a novice in a badly-lit alleyway. I had a quick scan of the other bikes parked there. They all had their bells on the left hand side. I realised the ding-ding dongle was indeed made to be dung in the other direction – from the left hand – which would solve the capsized logo issue and settle in better with the millions of other two-wheeled transporters around the city. Oh well. At least I had a working bing-a-ling in case of emergencies.

Having bought my oma fiets (granny bike) a good six months ago, and with a number of practice journeys met personal assistant (under the watchful eye of my able-cycler-boyfriend), I felt this was the day in which I would complete my first solo ride. We had done pretty much the same journey at the weekend, on search for a less-expensive fish monger than that located in the city centre, but however were met with a dodgy looking dealer serving unlabelled raw seafood produce from the bare hands of a twelve year old boy (but that is another story). But I knew the way, and the difficult junction(s). The first of these I had in fact had a near death experience at a few weeks ago (involving stopping in the middle of the road due to a car which I had not seen; having to walk my bike (while mounted) in reverse to the pavement where my boyfriend waited, in hysterics; and then having an awkward and embarrassing ‘no you go’ to and from with the driver of the car who wanted nothing more than to extend this excruciating experience for me by prompting me to go again and cross the ruddy street. I was too flustered to manage it so we had a stand-off for around forty-five seconds before he finally understood that I was very much an amateur and proceeded on his journey.) This was the junction I was most anxious about. But when I got to it yesterday – all alone and vulnerable – it was a dream. No traffic and no stopping required whatsoever! My lord this cycling lark was a breeze.

The afternoon class was fun as normal; an amusing group consisting of English, French, Taiwanese and South Korean origin, along with the Dutch master, of course, reading Dutch from a workbook in a rainbow of accents, and ending, most cheerfully, with a light-hearted game of hangman. (The fact that the teacher didn’t quite understand the rules just made it better.) Then it was time to fiets back home again.

Mishap number one happened very early on. I needed to turn left at the end of the street, which, like a right-turn in the UK, involves crossing a lane of traffic. I realised I had never before undertaken a turn of this type; from minor road onto more major road (but not a major road by any stretch of the imagination (don’t worry Mum)). I figured it sensible to position my bike towards the middle of the minor road, to allow for other bikes and vehicles to turn right, if needed, while I waited for the traffic from both ways to subside. Turns out this was the right thing to do. I was mightily chuffed. The car in front of me, wishing also to turn left, pulled out and it was my turn on the front line. The problem was, I hadn’t quite got my stopping routine to the fluid art I wished it to be. You see my bike’s brakes are engaged through peddling backwards; not from using brakes on the handlebars. I actually rather enjoy this situation, but the only thing is is that when I need to go again, after stopping, I require my peddles to be in a certain position. My right peddle, for example, needs to be at between five and fifty degrees (on a sideways view) for me to have enough oomph in the first push to actually get going. Due to the short distance I travelled from behind the stationary car at the junction to myself being at the junction, my feet had got in a tizz and were nowhere near the desired situation. So as a reflex I jumped off the bike. (I don’t know where this reaction has come from but it can put one in a spot of hot water.) So I was now in the middle of the road, at the line of a junction, standing next to my bike. It was all a little disconcerting. Another feature of the back-peddle brakes is that to change the position of the peddles one has to lift the rear wheel off the ground and manually, with a foot, peddle the nearest peddle forwards until they sit at the desired orientation. Doing this at a junction was both humiliating and a little dangerous, but to be able to get moving it was somewhat of a necessity.

Another cyclist glided past me while this was happening, giving me an even stranger look than I had received that morning from my fellow Dutch novices at the library on explaining my Strictly Come Dancing dreams. But at least the overtaker wasn’t one of my afternoon class colleagues. That would have been mortifying. I eventually got my pedals to where they needed to be and got on my way. Ah. Bliss.

The second and final hiccup came a little later, at about the four-fifths mark of the journey. There is a very strange road layout that requires bicyclists to cross their side of traffic and move to another cycle lane on the other side. We had talked about this junction at the weekend, during and after manoeuvring it, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. Look over your left shoulder to check for any cars; go if there’s none; judge the speed if there is one; and make a decision on if you stay or if you go. Usually cars are very forgiving of cyclists here (bikes really rule the way), but as a novice I prefer to be overly cautious. Which, I think, causes confusion to the drivers. The car approaching my left shoulder was white (think of that what you will) and seemed to be quite close, in my opinion. I wasn’t sure what it was doing so I slowed and hung back. It wasn’t sure what I was doing so it slowed and hung back. I didn’t have a bloody clue what to do. It beeped at me and I was mortified for the second (or third) time that day. I didn’t actually know if the beep meant “get out of the way and go back to where you came from” or “for goodness sake: GO!”, so I continued to slow and hang back. This, it seemed, was my new accident-aversion technique. (It certainly didn’t prevent deadly embarrassment but it did keep me safe of any cuts or bruises.) The white car overtook and I crossed the line of traffic behind it. I then had to wait at the traffic lights in parallel with the car, simultaneously cursing the driver in my head and doing everything to avoid eye contact for fear of some kind of indecent hand gesture. Finally the lights turned green and I was on the home straight. I peddled up to the shopping street and dismounted, successfully. I locked up little Lioness, clambered back up to the flat and poured myself a very large glass of congratulatory and consolatory red wine. Phew.

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I’m Still Alive (Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, Staying Alive, Staying Alive)

Sincerest apologies for the lack of highly amusing blog posts during the past few months (I hope you have survived without the bi-weekly update, and if you haven’t… my thoughts go out to your family and friends). The thing is… I’ve only gone and bloody emigrated! Yep, I just couldn’t deal with Boris any more. Or Brexit. Or Bangers & Mash. (Linda McCartney, obviously.) (OK so I can’t remember the last time I ate bangers and mash, and would never buy a fake sausage, but, you know, it might be the newest reincarnation of the Johnson and Davis post-cabinet two-piece boyband (both have exceedingly mash-like hair, but I think David would have to take the sausage half due to Boris’ slightly yellow tinge up above).) Am I rambling?

Back to me. (Yay.) I returned home to Blighty in November last year, after my six-month bonanza getting lost in much of wonderful Europe. (The accounts of which, which stopped rather abruptly mid-Porto com Darling Daddy, will recommence – you’ll be thrilled to hear – and will take you step-by-step (bite-by-bite) through the last stages of my trip.) The grand homecoming was great. Aside from the lovely welcome from Mummy Moo Moo at St. Pancras’ exquisite Champagne Bar (the longest in Europe, did you know), I thoroughly enjoyed the proceeding home comforts: the use of non-microfibre towels after showers within which I did not, for hygiene reasons, need to wear flip flops; the comforting feel of the fridge door handle which was never covered in an unidentified suspect stickiness; the ability to dress and undress in peace, and in a space larger than the average toilet cubicle. Oh it was bliss. And then there was Christmas. (I love Christmas.) And then there was the first Valentine’s Day I spent with my new, exotic, European, name-impossible-to-pronounce boyfriend (he came to England and we indulged in some PROPER (greasy) fish and chips). And then there was my birthday (more presents – yay!). And then I thought, “humpf”. “Now that I’m a fully-fledged nomad,” (thought text), “I may as well move to another land, where I cannot speak the language and don’t even own the right currency.” So I did!

For the past couple of months I have been settling in to life in the Netherlands, and settling in to life with an unpronounceably-named roomie. (Both have been testing in their own ways, but I can now officially say that I own a bike (and can ride it with semi-confidence) and can correctly pronounce my boyfriend’s name (at least that’s what he tells me, with semi-confidence). So all in all things are going rather swimmingly!

The language is by far the most difficult obstacle, especially given that I am British and, you know, Brits don’t really do second languages. But I am giving it my best shot. I Het is heel moeilijk. I’m starting to realise that it’s all about the facial expressions pulled while speaking to achieve the correct sounds. It’s the exaggeration of the lips which helps our ‘potato-stuffed’ mouths pronounce these moeilijk words (apparently speaking with an English accent is like speaking with a potato in your throat), and the occasional widening of the eyes for words like watermelooooooon. I am slowly learning to loosen my face muscles in a bid to try to recreate these frankly ridiculous sounds, and in the meantime, while I’m still in the beginner stage, at least people will be captivated by the faces I am pulling even if they can’t understand a word I am saying. (Maybe that’s why everyone finds me so witty?)

Anyway, best get back to the mirror and practice loosening my lips… this language isn’t going to learn itself. But I will leave you with a new Dutch word to add to your one-word repertoire (moeilijk = difficult (if you hadn’t already twigged)). Alsjeblieft = please / you’re welcome, with the ‘j’ pronounced as a ‘y’. (And if you want to say it in a Chinese accent, just for fun, pronounce it ‘asha-bleed’ – I was for a good number of weeks.)

Dutch Football’s Lucky Charm

This time last year in the Dutch Eredivisie calendar (‘the highest echelon of professional football in the Netherlands’*) I was in Rotterdam, on day six of a six month sortie around much of Europe’s captivating lands. When I woke up that morning, one lifetime of a year ago, I was blissfully unaware of the chaos that was about to descend on the Netherlands’ second largest city. I was also blissfully unaware that I was to have a pivotal part in the success that would cause the ferocious football-mania. I know this now because yesterday I caused the exact same dogged delirium in the country’s fifth largest city, Eindhoven.

Pure coincidence? I think not. Granted, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord Rotterdam may be two of the ‘Big Three’ of Dutch football, but, really, who actually takes notice of these league tables anyway? I’m confident that it was my presence, rather than any so-called tactical tenacity or innate voetbal talent, that secured both teams their glorifying wins. Don’t you agree?

Firstly, last year, Feyenoord had gone eighteen years without winning the Dutch league. So of course they were not the favourites to beat Amsterdam’s Ajax. They needed a helping hand. And I gave them two! Along with my new international mates from the hostel, I headed to a chock-a-block pub on the corner of the main street and joined the local crowds in fist pumping, beer swigging and general patriotic merriment (which did include, to my utter embarrassment, slurring some Dutch-sounding noises to the tune of the home team’s anthem).

This time round I went, along with my new international boyfriend, to the chock-a-block ‘bar street’ (which he has been sure to shield me from thus far, but wanted to take me to for the ‘full experience’ of the footy final) to join the local crowds in fist pumping, beer swigging and general patriotic merriment (which did include, to his utter elation, slurring some Dutch-sounding noises to the tune of the home team’s anthem). Unable to actually enter a bar premises due to sheer volume of people (clearly Eindhoven fans are more committed than those from the ‘Dam), we took up a spot on the street, where we were to be surrounded by the tallest and drunkest of Dutch hooligans with a penchant for standing on my feet, dripping beer on my head, and shoving me here, there and every which way possible. I’m not sure if this was the ‘full experience’ anticipated by my personal city guide, but it sure was an experience I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Both times the ratio of beer being flung out of plastic cups, cans and bottles to that which remained within its vestibule was rather dampening. The first goal in Feyenoord’s winning match was scored in under five minutes; for PSV Eindhoven it was at the twenty-third minute. I did appreciate the extra twenty minutes of dry hair and clothes in this year’s final, before the celebratory Bavaria rainstorm. This time I was slightly more mentally prepared for the hoppy onslaught, and even managed to blag said boyfriend’s jacket to save mine from the ever-lasting sticky coating (savvy, hey). But no matter one’s level of preparedness, when one is suddenly thrust upon with gallons of lager, one automatically experiences a shock to the system. But once this initial shock has subsided a little, one must immediately start jumping, fist pumping and celebrating with the rest of the crowd.

The festivities post-match in both cities were (and still are here in Eindhoven) extremely over the top. Shops shut, bars stay open, and people actually take the following day off work. Seriously – most of the city’s inhabitants had already booked it off in preparation for celebration or commiseration. And celebration it was, both times, to be. As the evening unfolds the bars get EVEN BUSIER. The floors get even sticker. The songs get even more Dutch (😱). As you can imagine, it is all a rather inebriated spectacle. One of the few times I can confidently feel less embarrassed about my own nation’s drinking problems, I was quickly brought back into line by one of the group who responded to my (polite) refusal of yet another glass of beer with: “are you even British?”. Seemingly no matter the positive effect I have on their football, I am not any closer to improving the Dutch opinion of Brits as brash, uncultured, binge-drinking messes (I must do better in the future).

With the music still blaring (twenty-four hours post-victory) and the final festivities still to come, I can only bask in my own lucky charmedness. (I certainly can’t face basking in any more beer.) For next year’s tournament there’s still all to play for… if any Dutch team would like to hire me for my fortune services I come at a very competitive rate and can make up convincing sounds for the words to any Dutch anthem after just one-and-a-half beers. Let the bidding war commence.

*Source: the highly reputable and trustworthy Wikipedia.

From Frikandel to Frankfurter

My last stop in the land of the Dutch was Utrecht. A university city, it was full of students and much less touristic than Amsterdam. However this meant that the hostel bar was full of local students working on their laptops which is not the ideal environment to meet fellow solo travellers. I checked in to my room and was surprised and disappointed to be the first to have arrived. On the upside, though, this enabled me to swap my allocated top bunk to a roomy bottom bunk (every cloud) and make my bed in peace. After a tasty tuna nicoise in the bar (see previous post) I headed back to my room to see if anyone had arrived. I was in luck! As the flush went on the toilet I wondered what delightful new travelling buddy I was about to meet. Out walked Matt from South Africa*, an early twenties, eagerly friendly, uber talkative type. I introduced myself and shook his hand (straight away) and then swiftly regretted my eagerness (hygiene wise…).

We went for a wander in the city and I tried my first Belgian waffle (lol – even my geographical knowledge sees through that). Smothered in Nutella, it was a calorie-laden matrix of unadulterated indulgence. Yum. Post-sugar high I soon came to realise that Matt from South Africa was a philosophical, “spiritual” (his words) individual who required such a depth of meaning to each and every sentence to be conversed that, frankly, to me, was a little tiresome. My talk about the latest shenanigans in towie really wasn’t going to cut it. So I humoured him. After a few hours (long hours) we were back at the hostel, and eager (desperate) I was to see if any newbies had landed in room 501. No luck.

We headed down to the bar to claim our 50% off your first drink voucher, and I couldn’t be happier to see a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. It wasn’t the best but…it contained alcohol. After dinner we went back to the room – high hopes again, again to no avail. We had discussed going to a wine bar with live jazz but, at this point, a date with Netflix, my headphones and the second series of Fargo seemed much more appealing. As I settled down on my bunk, trading vino in Utrecht for violence in Minnesota, I did not hear the door to room 501 open. My eyes flickered from the screen and fell upon a slightly portly, big-bearded, friendly looking sixty-something man, followed by his wheely suitcase, come trundling into the dorm. Hallelujah! I mean, he wasn’t a perfectly sculpted Greek Adonis with a rose between his teeth by any stretch of the imagination (no matter how many Sauvy Bs you had consumed) but he was ANOTHER PERSON TO SAVE ME FROM THE SOUTH AFRICAN! He turned out to be Ludo, a Belgian professor living in Bruges who was in Utrecht for a conference, and reminded me of a cross between Santa and the curly-haired male doctor from Holby City (I don’t even watch it so don’t know where that came from) who I have just Googled – Elliot Hope. Ahh. Now I could sleep easy.

The following day I had another mooch around the city, going to the cathedral (average) and the Miffy Museum (when the ticket lady warned me it was for children she really wasn’t lying). Touristy to-do list ticked off, delicious traditional frites and EXQUISITE mayonnaise (in nifty cardboard cone with balcony for sauce – genius) were for dinner. Despite the fact that I’m ‘not a huge chips fan’ these organic hand-cut fries from Frietwinkel (😉) were, in my opinion, the highlight of my stay.

Next morning I was off to Cologne – my first time in Germany. As I entered the city I immediately sensed a difference in feel. People seemed less friendly, the city somehow more gritty, and as I walked to my hostel I clutched my phone just a little bit tighter. The city itself was interesting once explored; the nicer, quirkier and more authentic side of town was the opposite end to my hostel, which was situated in the midst of the more touristic, run-of-the-mill neighbourhood.

I had a chilled few days in the Colognial sun, but would say that my experience in the fourth largest German city was not much to write home about (oh the irony)… I am now en route to Leipzig, ‘The New Berlin’, which I have high hopes for. Due to arrive in an hour or so, so, for now, Auf Wiedersehen, pet.< i>*Name and identity has not been changed in any way – praying he doesn’t stumble across this blog.< a href=”https://insearchofhappydotcodotuk.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/img_4317.jpg”&gt;<<<<<<<

Finding Netherland 

Prelude
I just want to point out that I had written one third to one half of this blog post already, and then deleted it by mistake. Gah. Therefore I would urge you to be even more appreciative than normal of the below, as I am so bloody frustrated that I have to write it out again. Thanks v much.

***

I had high hopes for The Netherlands after a disappointing, lack lustre, boring, [insert derogatory adjective of your choice] twenty hours or so in Antwerp. (Twenty hours that I will never get back.) To my delight I arrived at my hostel in Rotterdam – King Kong – to find it was, like, totally the coolest place ever. The walls were decorated with signs made of lights and teddy bear apes and the staff were of the Urban Outfitters / The Breakfast Club variety: I-can-pull-off-even-the-most-ridiculous-of-outfits-because-of-my-vibe. Their over-enlarged personal sense of coolness didn’t fool me, however, but, you know, I just went with it.

Too early to check in and with Belgian beer withdrawal symptoms intensifying by the second (it had been over an hour since crossing the border), I took a seat in the hostel’s quirky and mismatched cushion adorned bar (continuing the UO theme nicely) and ordered my new favourite tipple. Ahh. Now? Lunch. After a quick perusal of the menu I HAD to go for the falafel and houmous on toast (totally up my street). It was everything I thought it would be and more, and will be one I recreate back in the UK (you can thank me later).

In my post-houmous happy place I checked in to my room to find ropes and monkey bars hanging from the ceiling; new elements to the playground of bunk bed ladders I am becoming ever more accustomed to. (I only now – well, the first time I wrote this post in actual fact – have realised the reason behind these objects (if you’re as slow as me, clue: hostel name). I can’t believe I didn’t catch on sooner. Haha.) Also in my room I met the super cool (and super tall) Trine from Norway. Four years younger than me and about four feet taller, I spent the following two days trotting along about a yard behind her, out of breath trying to keep up with the effortless strides,  wondering what an hilariously ridiculous duo we must look. (Now I have an understanding of how my mum must feel when walking with me when I’m in a hurry…sorry Moo.) Despite the disparity in leg length we were mature enough to put our differences to one side (isn’t that what travelling’s all about?) and set out to plan our first night in Rotterdam. Having left the UK a good five days before the EuroVision song contest final, I thought (naively) that I would escape the lengthy and painful experience that is watching it on the TV. Wrong. Turns out Trine is a super fan… So I spent my first night in The Netherlands in a gay bar watching the EuroVision song contest surrounded by Trine’s fellow Dutch super fans. It was actually quite a good laugh.

The following day in Rotterdam marked the final of a national football tournament in which the local team – Feyenoord – were playing for gold, a feat that they had not achieved for 17 years. We watched the game in a little Dutch pub that was full to the brim of die-hard football fans (plus the little and large blonde duo), and managed to get a spot right by one of the screens. Feyenoord scored their first of three goals within the first minute, causing the entire pub to go absolutely mental and what felt like an entire pint of beer to be poured straight over my head… They went on to win 3-1 and it was fun to experience such sporting patriotism in another country (albeit a little bit sticky).

After a thorough hair wash the following morning I headed to the second ‘Dam (this time of Amster). Again, this city did not disappoint! It was chilled, interesting and beautiful (if you ignore the omnipresent scent of weed) and is the city I have felt safest in thus far. (I think everyone is too high to care about pick-pocketing or being leery.) My time spent in the capital was an equal mix of culture and…cocks. The high brow Van Gough Museum was balanced with the raise of an eyebrow Sex Museum, and the picturesque canalside walks were cheapened by attending my first (and last) peep show. Without getting too graphic, picture an out-of-shape bold man dunking his undercooked supermarket own brand frikandel into an out-of-date and overcooked steak pie that is lacking some gravy… Given I was in the capital of sex it was truly the least sexy thing ever. If you weren’t turned off already a stroll around the red light distict past window upon window of desperate looking ladies really does the trick. But, it was an appropriate way to end my last night in the city!

I have now touched down in Utrecht – unknown to me before being recommended by fellow travellers – for my last couple of nights in Holland before moving east to Germany. The hostel seems cool so far, and I can recommend the tuna nicoise (although it is nothing on the houmous and falafel on toast).