Time Travel: Achter de Dom

1900 postal workers achter de dom utrecht post office(photo via Het Utrechts Archief)

This photo dates back to 1900 and shows a group of postal workers on the street behind the cathedral called Achter de Dom (achter means behind and de Dom refers to the cathedral). To the right of them is the entrance to the pandhof, the enclosed garden area next to cathedral. To the left was the post office.

Achter de Dom is one of my favorite streets, because it’s filled with historic buildings and just looks so picturesque and charming. Coming to the street from the opposite direction — from the Nieuwegracht — it’s particularly stunning as you see the apse of the cathedral towering over the street. No matter the angle from which you look at it, it’s a winner.
Achter de DomI couldn’t remember the exact angle of the original photo, so when I made this version on Sunday, I didn’t get it quite right, but close enough. Not much has changed, obviously. The men in the photo would have been standing roughly where the woman in the white top on the right is.
Achter de Dom
This is the same photo, but from a wider angle, so you can see the cathedral and its buttresses around the apse on the right. The large greyish building on the center left of the photo is the former post office. It was still in use for another 24 years after the 1900 photo was taken. Then, it was replaced by the massive and stunning building at Neude. Sadly, the post office at Neude closed in 2011 and its final use remains in limbo. In fact, it was the very last post office in the Netherlands. Everything now is privatized. Strange to think that the mail service has changed more than this street in the past 115 years, though mail delivery by bike is still a thing. Of course.

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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:

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.)

European Cliché

SPRING op de Stadhuisbrug
The Spring Performing Arts Festival is taking place this week, with events of all sorts happening throughout the city. Some are big productions, while others are relatively simple installations that can be seen in passing.

On the Stadhuisbrug, there is a large silver box that is opened in the afternoons around 3 p.m. This particular piece is titled, “Ceci n’est pas …“, a reference to the Magritte painting, The Treachery of Images. This “Pandora’s Box” has a different theme each day. As the metal shutters are rolled up each day, they reveal a new person or people in various positions and settings. Each is making a statement — or at least trying to make people think — about some topic, be it gender, race, history, etc.

Thanks to Twitter, I saw that today the silver box contains a naked woman. (Nothing much really shows in the photo, for what it’s worth.) I have no idea what the theme is today, although the possibilities are numerous, I suppose. Still, from an American perspective, it’s such a “European” thing to have a naked woman as part of an art installation seated outside the City Hall building in the heart of the city. It’s become a bit of a cliché. Although these days, I suppose you might see a few in New York City, where it turns out it’s not illegal to go topless, whether you’re a man or a woman.

(Re)Election Day

Dawn of a New Day
Today is officially election day in the US. Like many expats — and even many people living in the US — I took advantage of early voting, which in my case is more specifically absentee voting. As long as I remain a US citizen, I can continue to vote in US elections. Technically, I vote on the North Carolina ballot, since that was my last place of residence.

I may not live there any more, and I may have no plans to go back, but I have family and friends there who can be directly impacted by who the president is. It also impacts other countries, including the EU, and since I live in the EU, it’s all still relevant.

Pushing It

I was able to email a PDF of my ballot (fax and regular mail were also options), and I still have a copy of my ballot. I was very careful as I filled in the circles, joking that I didn’t want any “hanging chad” issues interfering with my vote! It was nice to physically fill something in, but I do miss going to my local polling place and casting my vote. I always got a bit of a thrill from it all.

Brave Hond [Day 62/365]
Fortunately, I will get my chance to physically cast my vote the next time there are municipal elections here in Utrecht. By then, I’ll have been here long enough to qualify to vote. I can’t vote in national elections here unless I become a Dutch citizen, but they kindly do allow legal residents who have been here a certain amount of time to vote in local elections. It makes sense that we get to have a say on local issues that affect us. No longer will I be like that little doggy, relegated to waiting for someone else to finish voting.

If you feel like voting — or voting some more — you can always vote for me by leaving a comment on this page about my blog. I promise to be a benevolent top-blog ruler if I win! Massive thanks to those of you who have already commented. I am truly touched by the comments you’ve left.

Tropic of Netherlands

Zomer in Utrecht
Summer temperatures here in the Netherlands tend to be quite a bit cooler than what I grew up with in Florida, North Carolina and Louisiana. There, high 80s Fahrenheit/30s Celcius was normal, if not actually on the low side during the long summer months. However, despite how common it was, I never handled those temperatures well at all. Headaches, sickness, heat stroke and sunburn were all part of my normal life every summer, to the point that nowadays I have an almost pathological fear of warm temperatures without easy access to air conditioning.

All of this is to say that the Netherlands is hitting tropical temperatures this weekend, expected to go over 30C all weekend. It hasn’t gone over 30C since 1994, to help put things in perspective. Of course, considering these kinds of temperatures are rare, it might not come as a surprise that air conditioning is pretty rare here. That’s not to say that I’m fine with stores not having AC. When you have to walk or bike everywhere, you get warm, and then you can’t even go inside a store to cool off while running errands. I know lots of Europeans don’t seem to like AC, but if my love of AC brands me as an American, that’s fine by me.

The whole country is making lots of plans to cope with the weather, supposedly laying on more trains and transport to get people to the beaches, as well as more police to handle the increased traffic. Here in Utrecht, I noticed an announcement that said that the outdoor terraces that many cafés and restaurants have will be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m. this weekend. Usually they have to close around midnight or 1 a.m. The extra hour is to give people as much time outdoors as possible, where it may be cooler.

Of course, that means our neighborhood is going to be louder for longer, and since we have to rely on one open window to keep things cool — while living down the street from three cafés — it’s bound to be a bit noisy tonight. In theory, I wouldn’t mind, except for the fact that I’ve been awake since 2 a.m. this morning. Ah! Insomnia! I’m just hoping that tiredness will trump heat and noise tonight and allow me to have a good night’s sleep.

Of course, if you’re not like me and don’t mind the heat — and if you’re in Utrecht — head to Park Lepelenburg (pictured above) Sunday afternoon for a mini music festival. I think there will also be music at the Griftpark that day. Just remember to wear sunscreen!

I Have the Prettiest Screens

Sparkle
One of those small differences between the Netherlands and the US — or at least the parts of the US I lived in — is the lack of window screens. Maybe it’s a result of growing up in the South, where there are some seriously scary bugs and other creatures, but I like screens. I want some sort of protection against flies, spiders and other creepy crawlies. However, I also want to be able to open my windows and get some fresh air into the house.

Downstairs, we only have two transom windows in the kitchen, but when I open them, we inevitably get flies who drive me mental with their buzzing. We probably could have purchased some screen material and tacked it up, but since we rarely head out to the big-box hardware stores, we’ve never investigated our options.

I like to come up with easy, MacGyverish solutions, though, so today, while walking through the lapjesmarkt (fabric market), I spotted a stall with a pretty mesh-like fabric in a colour that goes quite well with our kitchen. Best of all, the fabric was only €1 per meter, so I quickly bought a meter of the fabric, sequined flowers and all! Who said window screens have to be boring old wire mesh?

A year or so ago, I had made use of a similar scrap of material for one of the windows, but I didn’t have enough for both windows. Now I’ve got enough fabric for both windows, and it’s even the right colour. How many typical window screens have sequined flowers on them? I’m pretty sure I have the prettiest screens in the city. Even if they are held up by thumbtacks.
Prettiest Screens

Of course, I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with the leftover fabric. After veiling myself with it, I could resist torturinghaving a quick bit of fun with Pippo and Lola. Luna wisely kept out of sight.
Taking the Veil

Lola Wrapped Up

Water Works

As I’ve said before, it’s often the little things that can stand out the most when you visit or move to another country. Sometimes, those little things — like public bathroom options — become not so little when nature calls. In the US, there’s usually some sort of bathroom facility available for free somewhere close by. Of course, availability doesn’t necessarily match desirability. Still, in an emergency, there’s usually an option. Here, however, things are a bit more complicated. Well, if you’re a woman. Men, as always have things so much easier!

Waterworks

In this photo, the little building behind the fountain is, in fact, a public toilet. However, like many public toilets in the Netherlands, you have to pay to use it. To be honest, I have no idea how much toilets usually cost, as I’ve yet to use one. Luck and restaurants/bars with bathrooms for customers have resulted in my lack of knowledge. It’s not really surprising that there are so few public facilities, since most buildings, at least in the older city centers, are old and small and weren’t built with public bladders in mind. Still, even in large places such as train stations, you can expect to pay to use the facilities.

Toilet

As I mentioned, though, men often have it easier. Around the city, you’ll see more public urinals like the round, black structure above, and they, unlike the toilets, are free. They’re almost like works of art, in a Duchamp kind of way, I suppose. I still can’t help but feel that it’s a gender imbalance that there is a free version for men and not women, but I suppose men are more likely to go anywhere anyway, so might as well stop them from using random buildings or the canals, whenever possible.

Since public toilets are in short supply and it’s not always easy to find one when you need it, there’s a new app out — of course there is! — to help you find the nearest one. Designed by three students at the University of Amsterdam, HogeNood (Really Need To Go) will use your current location to help you out in a hurry. The app is still in beta form and only available for Android users at the moment, but I suspect an iPhone version will be available in the future. The students won the Apps4nl national prize for best smart phone app recently, so I’m sure the interest in the program will continue.

ETA: Great minds think alike, or “See! I’m not the only expat that puts this much thought and effort into writing about toilets”: Amy also wrote a piece about the app and adds the information that the toilets usually cost about €.50. So now we know! She also has an interesting piece about the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

Peanut Butter Truffles

Sweetness
If there’s one thing that unites all immigrants/expats, it’s the occasional craving for a food item you just can’t get in your new home country. One of the challenges is trying to recreate a beloved recipe when you know you can’t get all the exact ingredients. You start to get creative, determining different substitutes to get you closest to the general idea.

I recently came across this recipe for peanut butter truffles and immediately bookmarked it. I don’t have a strong sweet tooth and I’m not much of a baker, but these aren’t too sweet and they don’t require any baking! Perfect! Now that the little Easter chocolate eggs have all been finished, I’ve been wanting a little something to fill my brief sweet cravings.

Unfortunately, as I looked at the recipe, I couldn’t help but notice it called for graham crackers. We don’t really have graham crackers here. It’s not the first time I’ve come up against this ingredient. I wanted to make a graham cracker pie crust for a southern-food-themed dinner party I hosted, so I had to find another type of cookie to substitute, since I didn’t want to make a regular pastry crust. I used a vanilla cookie of some sort, but it’s going to take some fine-tuning of the recipe to have it work perfectly. This time, to make these peanut butter truffles, I used simple digestive biscuits. Of course, the recipe calls for 18 sheets of graham crackers, which meant I had no idea how much of the digestive biscuits I was going to need. Fortunately, a friend in the US came through for me and gave me the weight in grams of 9 sheets of graham crackers. Which reminds me … I really should write that down somewhere so I don’t forget!

In the end, with only a few alterations, I was able to make these delicious little treats. If you like peanut butter, definitely give them a try. For those of you in the US — or anywhere that has graham crackers — just use the original recipe in the link above. If you’re living somewhere without graham crackers, you can try my variation. I also made only about a quarter of the recipe, since I’m only cooking for two people and don’t need that much temptation. I ended up with a baker’s dozen of the truffles. Apologies in advance for the mix of metric and imperial measurements. That’s just how I roll these days! Fortunately, it’s a forgiving recipe, so you don’t have to be too exact.

75 grams digestive biscuits, ground in the food processor
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
a smidge of ground nutmeg
1 tbsp (approximately) honey
1/2 cup peanut butter
1-2 tbsp melted butter (I’m not sure how necessary this really is)
1/3 to 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
100 grams dark or milk chocolate

I added the cinnamon, nutmeg and honey to add more of the graham cracker flavor, at least, as I remember them. You can add more or less of the spices to suit your tastes. I’m still not sure how necessary the butter really is. I might skip it next time and see how it goes. It seems like the peanut butter would be enough of a binder as it is, and my addition of honey seems like it could replace the butter. As for the chocolate, I just used a 100 gram bar of dark chocolate that I melted up. It seemed to be just enough chocolate for the amount that I made. After taking the peanut butter balls out of the freezer, I simply tossed three or four at a time into the pot with the melted chocolate and rolled them around. That seemed to be the easiest and cleanest way of getting them coated.

If you make them, eet smakelijk!

Ijs Ice Baby

Ijs Ice Baby
Today, I had a sudden craving for a smoothie from The Juice Shop, a small North Carolina chain that sells nothing but smoothies. I first tried one right around the time they opened, because they started off in downtown Greensboro, not far from the Greensboro News & Record, where I was working at the time. I think to get all of us hooked on the things, they brought in samples to different departments. The plan worked. I was never a huge smoothie fan, but I loved The Juice Shop’s version. They’re so simple and such great flavors! The Arctic Orange is probably my favorite, but they’re all lekker!

So, knowing that I can’t get one any time soon, I figured I’d try to make my own. That meant that while I was at the grocery store today, I’d have to pick up some ingredients. Along with the bananas, I also picked up a frozen fruit blend (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc.). I had hoped to get just strawberries, but they didn’t have them on their own. I could have just bought fresh, but I figured I might as well go with the frozen ones, since I wanted the smoothie to be slightly frozen anyway. I also couldn’t find orange sherbet, so now I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out. Oh well, it will be healthier without the sherbet anyway!

While I was looking at the frozen section, I noticed a package of ice cubes. Not a bag of ice, as my American readers will be familiar with; this was a fairly small, rectangular package of ice cubes, neatly squared off and packaged. You see, ice just isn’t much of a thing in Europe. You’ve got to ask for it. Fortunately, it’s not really been an issue for me, since I rarely order anything while I’m out that would require ice. Luckily, if necessary, we do also have a little ice cube tray, which I’ll probably finally use this summer when I make some Pimm’s Cups.

So, if you’re planning on moving to/visiting Europe and you really like your ice, be prepared. You’ll have to ask for it when you’re out and about; they won’t give you much; and you’re probably better off bringing the larger size of ice trays if you’re moving. It’s just one of those little differences.