Patriotism Ain’t What It Used To Be

A few weeks ago, I entered a contest through the I Am Expat website to win tickets for an evening of comedy here in Utrecht. It turns out that I won! That meant that on Friday evening, G and I headed over to Schiller Theater on Minrebroederstraat to have a few laughs. It’s a small theater, but with some beautiful decorative details, including the lovely chandelier and some interesting decorative moldings along the ceiling.

The performers were Greg Shapiro — known as the American Nederlander — and Ava Vidal, a British comedian doing a short tour here in the Netherlands. Greg Shapiro was the one who helped organize this tour for Vidal, so he did the first half of the show and Ava Vidal did the second half. Shapiro has lived here in the Netherlands since 1994, or as he put it, he came for a long weekend in 1994 and never left. A lot of his comedy is based around the politics, and cultural politics, of both the US and the Netherlands.

Close to the beginning of his show, Shapiro asked the audience if anyone was from the US. Myself and a few others quietly half-raised our hands. As I was sitting on the center aisle a few rows back from the stage (and it’s an intimate setting anyway), he seemed to notice my half-hearted acknowledgment and commented on the way things have changed over the years. As he pointed out, it used to be that if someone asked if there were any Americans in the audience, you’d hear loud cries of “U-S-A!” or hoots and hollers and cheering. Nowadays, he’s noticed that the American members of the audience did what I and the few others did: half-raise our hands, while sinking down into our seats.

I’m sure some of us — especially those who have made a point of staying overseas for an extended period of time — are maybe less likely to be the rowdy, chanting type of foreigner in the first place. But he was right in pointing out that over the past decade, our government has made it embarrassing and frustrating to be an American overseas sometimes. Things have gotten better since Obama got elected, but there are times when you dread having to explain once again that no, you didn’t vote for Bush, and no, not every American is a right-wing, evangelical, warmonger.

It’s not that we’re ashamed of being American; it’s just that we recognize that the US isn’t the end all and be all of the world. Shapiro isn’t hesitant to knock some of the Dutch practices either, particularly when it comes to the assimilation programs (inburgering). He tells the story of sitting in his class next to a Muslim woman as the teacher says that the headscarf is a sign of oppression. The woman explained that before moving to the Netherlands, she wasn’t free to wear the headscarf, so for her, being able to wear the headscarf was actually a symbol of freedom. But no, when it comes to inburgering, the headscarf is a sign of oppression. Period.

The show wasn’t all dark politics, though, despite the discussion of racism by Ava Vidal. In fact, the whole night was incredibly funny, while also thought-provoking. I was walking away from the show wiping away tears of laughter, not tears of misery. Greg Shapiro is going to be back in Utrecht in May to present his full How To Be Orange show and we definitely want to go see it. The show includes actual questions from the inburgering exam that he has the audience try to answer, including the Dutch members of the audience to see if they can pass their own exam. For instance, one of the questions asked where the Dutch go on holiday every year. A) They travel within the Netherlands. B) They hitch up the caravan and go to France or Spain, or C) they go overseas. If you’ve spent any time in the Netherlands, you’re probably going to guess B or C, but it turns out that the correct answer was A. Tell that to the people stuck in long lines of traffic made up of Dutch caravans in France every summer. Although I hear some of them are starting to head to Italy now.
Greg Shapiro

War Zone or Celebration?

Fireworks Display
It’s that time of year again. Today begins the official day when fireworks are legally for sale across the Netherlands. In theory, they’re to be saved until December 31/January 1, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. In reality, they’ve been going off sporadically for the past couple of weeks.

We were on Nachtegaalstraat this week and passed one of the bicycle shops, which seems to also serve as a licensed fireworks vendor. They had an impressive display in one of their front windows. Unlike the US, where fireworks are usually limited mainly to officially organized set events, here they are set off by your average Nederlander anywhere there’s space (or not) to set them off. And we’re not talking small firecrackers and the occasional Roman candle. We’re talking major starbursts and rockets and the kind of stuff I was only used to seeing at the official Fourth of July fireworks displays on the edge of town in the US. Here, I can see the same kind of display from my bedroom window.


The Dutch spend a lot of money on it all, too. It’s estimated that this year’s sales will be around €65 million. In a country with a population of 16 million. Sadly, the population does go down in numbers every year as a result of fireworks-related accidents. They’re trying to cut down on the number of illegal fireworks sold and there’s certainly a lot of reminders to be careful, but in the heat of the moment, things go a bit crazy. With all of the smoke from the fireworks, it truly does look like footage from a war zone.

I love watching fireworks, but sadly, our dog does not. As a result, some of my enjoyment of them is lessened, because it’s hard to enjoy them when your 70-pound dog is quivering and panting in fear. We try to distract him, but sadly there’s nowhere to go in the house where he won’t hear them. No mercy is right, unfortunately.

No Mercy


Spare a thought for Pippo this December 31. He’s not a fan of this holiday and a scarf over his ears doesn’t help dampen the noise. Trust me, we tried.
Poor Pathetic Puppy

Café Culture

One of the great things about Utrecht is the range of cultural events going on around town. It’s not just standard events at the stadsschouwburg (city theater); it’s the monthly cultural Sunday events throughout town and the event that happened this weekend, the Café Theater Festival. From Friday through Sunday, at 20 cafés around town, short, half-hour plays were performed each night.

We were at the Potdeksel on Friday, of course, and got to see Falstaff maakt een Odyssee, a humorous telling of the story of Odysseus. It was in Dutch, but I got the gist of a lot of it. It was also a humorous retelling as they made the most of a few simple props and odds and ends in the bar itself. There were only two cast members and they worked their way through the bar to play the different parts. The Sirens were represented amusingly by a bit of pop music from the bar’s stereo system. Scylla was a group of flexible tubes located at one end of the bar, while Charybdis was a burst of steam from the coffee machine, located at the other end of the bar, with the one cast member running back and forth to represent each one, sometimes running fast and furious!

It was well done, at least from what I could understand, and I guess others agreed, since the play won the Publieksprijs (public prize). This annual festival is one of those smaller events that makes the city so great.

Night of the Dirty Song

Romance — of one sort or another — was in the air Saturday night at the Potdeksel, as the fifth Nacht Van Het Vieze Lied (Night of the Dirty Song) was held. The café was decorated with sexy lace curtains, red lights, and feathery hearts. Bow-chicka-wow-wow! It only got hotter and steamier from there! We went last year, although it seems I never got around to blogging about it as we were expecting company soon afterward. Oops. Oh well, at least I won’t be repeating myself this time!

The event always takes place right before the beginning of Lent, and is what I like to think of as our neighborhood’s version of Carnival. (Carnival here in the Netherlands is a whole other post, which I may get around to later today. Or not.) Anyway, the event is a night of well, dirty songs. Anyone can sign up in advance to compete, and they generally take an existing song and change the lyrics about a bit to make it fit the theme of the evening. It’s not a night for the faint-hearted and prim and proper! Penii, dildos, masturbation, oh my!

Each act performs a song — special costumes are not unheard of — and is then given a critique by the judges, Sjarrel and Sjaan. At the end of all the performances, boxes are set out for each act and the audience can put in money for their favorite(s). A winner is then chosen. (The money goes to a charity.)

Last year’s winners had a great song — a variation of Ramses Shaffy’s Zing, vecht, huil, bid, lach, werk en bewonder — and I still find myself singing their version. The original translates basically to Sing, Fight, Cry, Pray, Laugh, Work and Admire. The Vieze Lied version was a bit different. Their title changed to Lik, Zuig, Trek, Neuk, Glij, Kom en Bewonder. Let’s just say that the first two translate to Lick and Suck and I’ll let your imagination go from there, particularly as there’s not a straight translation for some of the others.

This year, we stayed for the performances but were tired and went home before the winners were announced (plus, this way we could more easily watch Sven Kramer win gold in one of the mens speedskating competitions!). That said, I suspect that it was the Double Ds, who won with their trio of naughty songs, not to mention their sharp gold lamé suits. It looked like they had the most money in their box as we were leaving. (We voted for Vader Abraham’s (NSFW) brilliant take on the concept of swaffelen, although the song has been stuck in my head ever since!)

The evening is one of those events that even if you don’t understand a lot of Dutch, you still have a good time. With a bit of studying before the event, as we had last year with the help of a friend, it’s amazing just how much you can understand!

My set of photos from the past two years can be found here.