Brick Street Tetris

Drain RepairI’m fully aware that this may be one of the most boring blog posts ever unless you like posts about general street/drain management and construction. But since living here, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the brick streets and sidewalks here in the old city center.

For starters, they’re hell on heels, not only making it difficult to walk in high heels but also generally tearing up sturdy, sensible shoe heels. I used to walk all over Manhattan in thin high heels, but I just can’t do it here. The sidewalks are too uneven and the heels tend to get stuck in between the bricks.

Secondly, there’s a marked difference in riding a bike on a brick street and riding on a smooth surface. When you get onto a smooth bit, there’s a sudden sense of relief as you realize you’re no longer rattling about. Ahhhhhhhhhh.Drain RepairHowever, I do admit that the brick streets are more picturesque than the typical asphalt or concrete and when it comes time to make repairs, whether to drains (the box bit at the bottom of the picture) or to actually widen the sidewalk area, it’s surprisingly simple.

Today we got a front row view of a street drain being replaced. The parking spot next to the drain was blocked off with some cones and soon enough, a yellow JCB digger showed up, along with a few shovels and picks. Then men in high-viz orange clothing began simply digging up the surface bricks of the street and sidewalk and then used the digger to get out the deeper dirt. The bricks aren’t permanently grouted or stuck down, so they’re easy to take out and replace as needed.

Once the new drain shaft was installed, they simply filled the dirt back in, put the bricks back in place, and filled in the gaps around the bricks with the remaining dirt. There are no horrible asphalt fumes, no horrendously mismatched lumpy layers, and as soon as everything is in place, you can walk on it, bike on it, or drive on it. It also takes a relatively short amount of time from start to finish. This was essentially a morning job. Drain RepairOnce they were done, everything was back in place and only a bit of excess dirt remained.

So now that I’ve bored you with the dirty underbelly of Dutch brick roads, here’s a slightly prettier view of a patterned brick street in glorious sunshine.Brick Street in the Sun

The Easily Amused Expat

Franse Fries
It’s usually the fresh-off-the-boat expat who finds fascination with every little new thing, but even when you’ve been in your new country for years, little things — even things you’ve seen on a regular basis — can suddenly jump out at you and remind you that “we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto”.

I’ve been having one of those moments recently as I’ve been passing some of the local McDonalds restaurants. There’s one on the main street through town (the street that seems to change names ever three meters, but that’s another post) and one on the Oudegracht. The picture is of the one on the Oudegracht, but it was the one on the main street that first caught my eye recently.

Sure, we get the occasional market-specific dish, which is usually something to do with kip saté, but it’s not that kind of poster that stood out this time. This time, it was something as simple and normal and ubiquitous as the French fry. In Dutch, fries (or chips, for my British readers) are usually known as patat or friet (or patatjes or frietjes, because the Dutch love adding the diminutive to everything. It’s adorable.) The choice of word tends to be more regional, with patat seeming to be more northern and variations on friet are typically more southern. As an expat, I say both, because I don’t know where I live any more.

French fries is a fairly American term, resulting from American troops eating fries for the first time in Belgium but associating them with the French language they heard at the time. Or so the story goes. In fact, here in the Netherlands, I don’t really remember seeing the “French” addition to the name. I’m sure the occasional restaurant might use it, such as an American-style diner or something, but otherwise, the only place you’re more likely to see “Franse Frietjes” is at McDonalds.
Franse Fries
And that’s what is amusing me. The posters for “Franse Frietjes”. Perhaps it’s standing out since I don’t see the “Franse” addition often, or maybe it’s just amusing to see such an American term translated.

Or maybe it’s because subconsciously it reminds me of this scene in Better Off Dead:

This Is How We Park Our Bicycles

As you may know, the bicycle is one of the leading forms of transportation throughout the Netherlands. Work commutes, outings with friends, shopping, you name it, people use their bike to do it. Great for the environment and great for the closely packed cities that don’t have cars overwhelming the narrow streets. Yet at some point, people get off their bikes to go into the shops, offices, etc. That’s when things get challenging. What to do with all of those bikes?
Sure, there are plenty of old-fashioned bike racks that can hold a handful of bikes, and those are put to good use, often with multiple racks placed in a long row for busy neighborhood corners, especially corners close to bars and cafés. But even those fill up quickly and bikes are soon left chained up to anything remotely stable.

In the city center, it can be particularly challenging to find somewhere safe to lock up your bike. Finding and fitting your bike into a vaguely free spot in the racks can make Tetris look like a game for infants.

Obviously, the city is aware of the need for decent bicycle parking, so they continue to develop new parking options. On weekends, when even more people are coming into the city to shop and socialize, special mobile bicycle parking lots are created wherever there’s room for them. Neude, in particular, is a popular central spot for these pop-up parking lots.
Parking, Dutch Style
These free parking lots are set up by the city and provide a centralized parking spot where people can leave their bikes all day. With Utrecht’s city center being so small and walkable, Neude is a great spot to park and go.

Still, these bicycle parking lots are usually only on the weekend, so there’s still the need for additional, organized bicycle parking throughout the week. The latest instalment is also at Neude, but this time it’s indoor parking.
Fietsenstalling NeudeThe Neudeflat, the tall, rather unattractive building next to the old post office, has become the latest bicycle parking receptacle. The ground floor, which has been home to a variety of city information spots in recent years, has now been converted into a free indoor bicycle parking spot.
Fietsenstalling Neude
Considering the tangle of bicycles that usually develops in multiple spots around Neude, this seems like a decent use of space that might otherwise have sat empty. Easy to use, less chance of ending up with a soggy bottom on a rainy day, and hopefully a few less dings, dents, and broken bicycle bells when you return. After all, who wants to mess up a unique paint job like this!

Is It Legal? Dutch Cycling Raises Eyebrows in London

Every once in a while, I’m reminded that the cycling culture here really is different to many (most) countries. Things we take for granted raise eyebrows elsewhere.

Just last night, I was watching the Travel Channel and saw a short segment between programs, with a motorcyclist going on about his love of bicycling and how if he’s not on his motorcycle, he’s on a bike. As he rode around a picturesque village — in Lycra, wearing a helmet, and on a more race-style bicycle — it struck me how different things are here. No one thinks twice about cycling and it’s not just for pleasure or exercise; it’s a valid form of daily transportation. As for the mode of dress, Lycra, et al. are only worn by people who actually race or at least ride for sport, often with groups of friends. Here, people of all ages, in all types of clothing, ride for a variety of purposes.
Convey Motion
The differences were driven home yet again this morning when I saw an article about how a man in London was pulled over while taking his two girls to school in a bakfiets (see top photo). The police questioned the legality of the bicycle and the Daily Mail (admittedly, not a surprise that they’d not exactly get the story straight) referred to the bicycle as a “rickety wheelbarrow bike”, ignoring the fact that the bikes are sturdy, specifically designed, and cost more than €1000 easily. This is not a thrown-together mishmash of bike and garden tool.

The man, who has been taking his girls to school in the bakfiets for four years, was allowed to go on his way, but it does drive home the differences in how bicycles are viewed in other countries. The stop came about because of a crackdown on unsafe drivers and cyclists after six cyclists were killed in just two weeks in London. A bike that is taken for granted here and used by thousands of parents is viewed as something alien and dangerous in other countries.

There’s a push in many countries for better and safer cycling infrastructure, and not surprisingly, many of these proponents look to the Dutch cycling infrastructure as a good example. For those who say there’s too big a difference and it can’t be done, it is important to remember that the Dutch system didn’t really come about until the 1970s, after people started protesting the number of bicycle deaths. Pretty sure I’ve linked to it before, but it bears repeating: read this excellent post by Mark at the Bicycle Dutch blog about the development of the Dutch cycling infrastructure.

Systems can change and I think encouraging more cycling would be a change for the better for a variety of reasons. Certainly, cyclists need to ride responsibly, but given the proper infrastructure, they’re less likely to be put into difficult situations. More importantly, drivers of all vehicles need to be respectful of cyclists. Too many drivers treat cyclists as a nuisance and seem to forget that their heavy vehicle can kill or seriously injure. By encouraging the development of proper infrastructure, drivers will benefit as well as cyclists. The result is that neither should hopefully be quite so angry or combative.

No system is perfect, and I’ve heard complaints even here in the Netherlands from both drivers and cyclists, but the reality is that the system works well enough for it to be generally safe for cyclists everywhere, from small villages to the largest cities.
Bike Lane

Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town

Hij komt!
Hij komt!

There will be lots of children shouting that on Sunday when Sinterklaas makes his arrival. Sunday is the intocht, AKA Sinterklaas’ arrival by boat from Spain.
Sinterklaas Intocht
Despite the recent issues with the canal walls near the Weerdsluis, it seems everything has been stabilized and Sinterklaas will be able to disembark in his normal spot. If the rain holds off, I may go see some of the festivities. The kid in me gets a kick out of it. Plus, it seems like a good time to get the first oliebollen of the season.

If you want to see the festivities in person, here’s this year’s schedule:
12.00 The boat parade begins at LedigErf
12.30 Weerdsluis festivities begin
13.00 Boats arrive at Weerdsluis
14.00 Begin the procession to Janskerkhof
14.30 Festivities at Janskerkhof

Cops on Bikes

Bike Cop
One of the differences that I can’t help but notice while being back in the US is the lack of bicycles. I’ve seen seven since being back. One of those was the police officer in the photo. Of the seven cyclists I’ve seen here, five have been wearing at least a helmet and most have been wearing some sort of special clothing.

Police in the US, at least in North Carolina, are always on mountain bikes or speed bikes. Certainly not the oma/opa fiets you typically see police riding in the Netherlands. This is a typical look for Dutch police on bikes. In other words, not much different than everyone else, except for the uniform. But even then, they wear a normal uniform and rarely wear a helmet. I don’t even have any photos of Dutch police on bikes — although I do have pictures of police on horseback — because they’re a pretty normal sight.

Dutch bike police also don’t seem to have the same kind of “attitude” that American bike cops have, although I’d say Dutch police in general don’t have the same kind of attitude that American cops often have. Take that however you choose. ;) On the other hand, this photo was taken on an actual mountain, so fair play to the bicycle cop who can handle the climbs!

(Apologies for the poor quality of the photo. It was done with an old camera phone.)

A Day in the Park

Day in the Park 2013
Look! It’s a big school bus in its natural habitat! After seeing a couple of the big yellow buses in Utrecht, it’s almost entertaining to see them actually on the streets here in the US. They come in all sizes and colors here, although the yellow remains the most typical for actual daily school runs. White ones, such as the one seen here, are more commonly used for extra activities, such as transporting students and athletes to sporting events, or in this case, transporting the members of the Andrews High School marching band.
Andrews Marching Band
Here in the US, most schools have a marching band that performs at sporting events, as well as local parades and festivals. The Andrews marching band performs each year at the annual Day in the Park in Jamestown. They started off marching through some of the park, before finishing at the stage area where the band played a few songs and the dance squad performed.
Andrews Marching Band
Andrews Marching Band
Andrews Marching Band
Andrews Marching Band

The Day in the Park has been going on for years and is a mix of music, games, food, crafts, and stalls where people show off their skills, sell their wares, or simply spread the word about their organization. I’ve attended quite frequently over the years, in part because my father is a regular exhibitor.
Day in the Park 2013
This year, he could be found in the Folk Life display, where people exhibited basket weaving, yarn making, quilts, and, in my dad’s case, ships in a bottle. He’s been making them for years and attends the festival to tell people about the hobby and explain a bit about how it’s done.
Day in the Park 2013
Day in the Park 2013
Day in the Park 2013
Day in the Park 2013
If you’re ever in Jamestown around the 20th of September, give or take a day or so, do check out the Day in the Park. It’s a fun, friendly event in a beautiful setting (more of the actual park to come in another post). In all, you could say it’s gezellig.

An Ode to Southern Food

One of the things I miss living in the Netherlands is the lack of breakfast as I know it. For many places in Europe, the idea of breakfast is a roll/croissant with some jam or something simple like that. In the Netherlands, many families have a slice of bread with some butter and hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles). What you rarely find is a full breakfast with eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes, etc. pennys

To be honest, in my normal, day-to-day life in the US, I rarely had a full breakfast on a regular basis, but sometimes you just want the full meal. Since it’s hard to even find a restaurant in Utrecht that comes anywhere near serving breakfast, I’ve been looking forward to my trip back to the states to have a full-on southern breakfast. Today, I got my first chance (although to be honest, I’ve already had grits and bacon since being back). This morning we went to Penny’s, a family restaurant that’s been around for ages and where customers are regulars. I enjoyed my delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage patty, grits, and a biscuit. This was accompanied by a large glass of proper orange juice, not the thin, weak stuff.
I didn’t get the pancakes, but I’m sure a trip to IHoP (International House of Pancakes) is in my near future. Bring on the loganberry syrup!

Overall, I don’t miss too many foods from the US, since I was trying to avoid a lot of processed food long before moving. However, there are certain things that are just tasty, fun, or convenient. I make a lot of my own spice blends these days, but sometimes I just want to grab a shaker of Tony’s Creole seasoning or some Old Bay seasoning. Old Bay is great with seafood — as is Tony’s — but truly, when it comes to Tony’s, it goes great with just about everything!

I was introduced to Tony’s when I went to Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. You could usually find a shaker of Tony’s on most of the tables in the restaurants on campus. It was while I was living in New Orleans that I was also introduced to Abita beer. I first tried Abita Amber at Tipitina’s and really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, when I graduated, I found it hard to find either Tony’s or Abita outside of Louisiana. Eventually, it started showing up and now it’s much easier to find, thank goodness. As a result, on one of my first trips to a grocery store since being back here, I stocked up on some favorites (and bought some Burt’s Bees Hand Salve, while I was at it).
Southern Cooking and an Extra
A Southern Tradition
And finally, in this ode to southern food of sorts, you know you’re in a southern kitchen when you see Duke’s mayonnaise in the fridge. Best of all, my photo of Duke’s mayo showed up on Facebook during the time I was looking for a video that mentions the mayo and a friend posted a link to the very same video. So nowadays, when southern women see a mention of Duke’s, a lot of us seem to think of this video (around the 1:51 mark).

Another American Bus in Utrecht

Greyhound Bus
Walking through the Domplein today, I was startled to get past the construction work taking place and suddenly see this old bus. You usually don’t see vehicles of any type — other than bicycles — parked there. You definitely don’t see vintage American buses!

As I rounded the vehicle, I got an even bigger surprise:
Greyhound Bus
It’s an actual Greyhound Bus! An American icon!

From the official Greyhound website:

Founded in 1914, Greyhound Lines, Inc. is the largest provider of intercity bus transportation, serving more than 3,800 destinations with 13,000 daily departures across North America. It has become an American icon, providing safe, enjoyable and affordable travel to nearly 25 million passengers each year. The Greyhound running dog is one of the most-recognized brands in the world.

Much like the American school bus(es) I’ve seen here in town, this one is also more of a specialty vehicle for hire. As it turns out, it was being used as transportation for a wedding party. I saw the bride and groom approaching just after taking these shots. I was so focused on the stylish back view of the bus that I forgot to get a shot of the front. Fortunately, it turns out another friend saw the bus as well, likely just a few minutes before me. She said that the destination listing on the front was for Detroit.

I headed on my way but was passed by the bus a few minutes later. The bus was slightly noisy and perhaps an unusual sound for that street, because quite a few people suddenly popped out their front doors to see what the strange noise/vehicle was. It definitely turned quite a few heads today!
Greyhound Bus

American Influence in Utrecht

Bolwerk Shore
In honor of the Fourth of July — America’s Independence Day — I thought I’d post a couple of photos of things with a touch of the US in them that I’ve seen recently around town. Some have made me laugh, while others have stood out simply for being here.

The first is the photo above. You may not be surprised to find out that this building belongs to one of the university student associations. The large Bavaria banner and flag isn’t referring to the German state. It’s the name of a common beer brand. Although the beer banners, bird statue in the window, and bicycles out front make it look like many a student domicile, the sign saying Bolwerk Shore made me laugh. The cringe-inducing show Jersey Shore has made it to Europe, and the students seem to have created their own version, although hopefully just as a joke for the end-of-year party they had had the night before. (Bolwerk refers to the street name, for what it’s worth.)

Not a typical sight ...
On the same street, but different day, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of this yellow school bus. In the US, I wouldn’t have looked at it twice. It was a common enough sight throughout the school year and I’ve ridden my share of them as well. Yet here in the Netherlands, they stand out the way a double-decker bus would stand out in the US. They just don’t exist here. Students use regular buses to get to and from school, if they use the bus at all.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve seen one here in Utrecht, but that one was being used as a children’s mobile book store. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same bus, though. After all, it’s been two years since I saw the bus the first time.

Happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans, wherever they are in the world, and to everyone else, Happy Thursday!