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:

Christmas Blog Hop

Twijnstraat Kerstmarkt
Thanks to Twitter, I stumbled across a blog hop hosted by Blog In France, a fellow expat blog. What better date than 12-12-12 to have a Christmas/expat-themed blog hop! Best of all, it’s a great way to read about other traditions in other countries and how they get incorporated into an expat’s new life. I figured I’d share a bit about one of the Christmas traditions here in Utrecht (the Netherlands) that helps get me into the holiday spirit.

The kerstmarkt (Christmas market) may be more well known in Germany, but they pop up in cities and countries in this general part of the world. Utrecht’s is hardly the largest or oldest, but it takes place on Twijnstraat, a lovely historic street in the old city center, which also happens to be the oldest shopping street in Utrecht. Hidden behind the rows of shops on the right is the Oudegracht, one of the multi-level canals unique to Utrecht. Part of our tradition is to get a cup of gluhwein (mulled wine) from the market and wander down to the wharf level to enjoy the scenery.
Twijnstraat a/d Werf

Get Your Glühwein!

Twijnstraat and some of the side streets are filled with stalls selling food, drink, decorations, yarn, antiques, and more. Many of the kramen (stalls) feature organic products from the area. In fact, a monthly organic market combines with the kerstmarkt during the Christmas season.

Last year, the market extended down one of the side streets to Nicolaaskerkhof, the square next to Nicolaikerk (Nicholas Church). There were more stalls on hand, as well as a crepe stall and some special treats for the children, including a charming merry-go-round powered by bicycle (of course) and special sleigh rides with Santa and a couple of his reindeer!
Santa's Reindeer

Saint Nick

Not surprisingly, there was also a nativity scene with lots of animals to accompany Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The low-key donkey was a placid contrast to some of the llamas and goats that helped make up the menagerie.
Away in a Manger

Lunch at the Manger
This year, we’ll be visiting the kerstmarkt again, although it will also be held at Janskerkhof this year, in addition to the Twijnstraat location. Either way, we’ll be heading to Nicolaikerk on Saturday to listen to the Christmas and Advent Concert in the church, which I’m sure will help generate a bit more holiday spirit.
Nikolaaskerk

Please hop on over to the other blogs taking part in today’s blog hope. Many of them are giving away special prizes, as well as sharing their expat life.

Blog in France Bloghop

A Flamingo in Utrecht
Expat Christmas
Box53b
Word By Word
Vive Trianon
Fifty Shades of Greg
Books Are Cool
Perpignan Post
Jive Turkish
Very Bored in Catalunya
Life on La Lune
Scribbler in Seville
Blog in France Christmas
Les Fragnes Christmas
ReadEng. Didi's Press
Steve Bichard .com
Edit My Book
Zombie Christmas
Christmas in Cordoba
The best Christmas blog ever
The Christmas Surprise.
Sci-fi Writer Jeno Marz
The best Christmas quilting blog ever
Painting in Tuscany
The Business of Life…
Funny tweets
we've got a new house but no stuff and it's Christmas
Paris Cheapskate
What about your saucepans?
When I Wasn't Home for Christmas or Celebrating
ShockWaves Launch Party
The French Village Diaries
Melanged Magic
Heads Above Water: Staying Afloat in France
Piccavey.com – An English Girl in Granada
Bordeaux Bumpkin
French immersion
Callaloo Soup
Grigory Ryzhakov
Piglet in Portugal
Beyond MÃnana
Chronicles of M Blog

Patriotism Ain’t What It Used To Be

Glam
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

The Haves and Have Nots

It’s time for the Xpat Blog Hop again, and this one kind of amused me, so I thought I’d see what I could come up with. The prompt is: list 5 things your country doesn’t have and you wish they did, and 5 things they do have and you wish they didn’t.

Things The Netherlands Doesn’t Have:

  1. Air conditioning. It’s not really been necessary in our house this summer, but it still gets warm enough and humid enough that when you have to walk everywhere, you can get a bit warm and sweaty. Sadly, most shops and restaurants don’t have AC, so you can’t even get any relief when you arrive at your destination.
  2. Biscuitville. Admittedly, most places in the US don’t even have Biscuitville, but there’s nothing better for a hangover or just an easy Southern breakfast.
  3. Mega grocery stores. I miss the variety of products available, including the convenience of buying makeup, contact lens solution, sewing basics, and more in one store.
  4. Sunday shopping and 24-hour shopping. Occasionally, I miss the convenience of life in the US.
  5. Antihistamines. When you’ve got a cold, sometimes you want the kind of drugs that will dry out every inch of your body. Sure, you feel kind of parched when taking them sometimes, but at least you have a chance of breathing through your nose. Nose sprays are decent, but there are times when you want more. Or at least something that will knock you out during the worst of the misery.

Things the Netherlands Does Have (But You Don’t Want)

  1. The wettest summer since 1906. I like the rain, but this year has been insane. It’s raining right now.
  2. Geert Wilders
  3. Drop, aka licorice. It’s pretty popular here — supposedly the highest per capita consumption of licorice in the world — but it’s just not for me.
  4. Tax offices that legally can only speak to you in Dutch.
  5. I really can’t think of anything at the moment. I had to stretch for that last one.

I like Amy‘s idea of listing five things I’m glad the Netherlands does have, so here goes:

  1. Outdoor cafés and terraces. If it’s remotely possible, even just a table or two, most restaurants, bars and cafés will have outdoor seating.
  2. Always getting a cookie or chocolate with your coffee.
  3. Pataat met (aka french fries with mayo)
  4. Cultural Sundays here in Utrecht
  5. Dutch light (and a hint of a rainbow)

Dutch Light and a Rainbow

Independence Day

Last Remains
Happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans, no matter where you’re living today! I may not be the most patriotic of people — I’ve grown up with mixed loyalties, and those have just gotten mixed up further over the years as more countries have their influence on me — but I do think the US has had some good ideas and managed to put a few of them into practice, even, so today I raise a glass to all of those people who have worked to make the country a better place. Just remember that all of those freedoms and liberties that you’re so proud of should be extended to every American, not just the ones you like. 😉

We’re celebrating this evening with ribs that we found at the organic butcher. They had precooked and premarinated ones, but I managed to ask (in Dutch) for some plain, uncooked ones. They turned out to be incredibly cheap (goed koop), so now I wish we’d bought more! I made some potato salad to go along with the ribs and we’ve got a dry rub about to go on them, and I used the last of my molasses to make some BBQ sauce. Molasses is one of those “exotic” foods here that I can buy in the expat food shop, for the price of an arm and a leg. Thank goodness the bottle I bought lasted for almost three years. It makes the cost a little more bearable! The Dutch do their fireworks on New Year’s Eve, so things will be quiet here. If you’re setting off your own fireworks, enjoy and be careful!

Happy Independence Day!