Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holiday Canal Skating

I was amazed to see it actually happen on Christmas Day.  We were still opening presents when people started ice skating up and down the canal.  We ventured out to see our neighbors cleaning the ice to create an oval track about 80 meters long.  A few minutes later found us skating, sliding and falling down with them.

Children were playing ice hockey on the canal street parallel to us, and there seems to still be an abandoned bicycle lying on the ice in need of rescue.  This was all especially amazing because it was on Christmas Day that everyone finally ventured out.

I had been pessimistic in earlier blog posts that it would actually happen, so I felt I had to say something now that is has.  It’s not terribly surprising in this unusual December that we are experiencing in North Holland and in the U.S. 

It was unsettling to someone not used to standing on canals when the ice made a cracking sound as we gathered together talking with neighbors.  We were told to disperse a bit for weight distribution and not to worry about this type of sound, but to beware if a high pitched "ping" in the ice is heard. 

There were a few people still skating on the next day, even with temperatures above zero and snow sliding off roofs. We've chosen to wait until it stays freezing or below for a couple of days before we venture back out.  It looks like my wife is optimistic because she recently came home with a sack full of ice skates.

The white Christmas, comeplete with ice skating, has made this a memorable first holiday season here. But even with this frigid winter sport fun, I’ll soon be looking at what’s going on at some nearby beaches.  Stay warm!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Driving Home a White Christmas

I began to think more about a white Christmas while sitting stranded in Amsterdam Central station under a snow storm last Friday for 3 hours waiting for a northbound train. The sea of people staring at blank information boards and rushing for a place on the few trains that were announced was like a scene from a Roland Emmerich disaster film, but no one really panicked and no commuters were swallowed up by giant sink holes appearing under their feet.

Screen grab from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
My kids and I have been updating the possibilities daily of the snow being here in Alkmaar on Christmas day, and right now it looks like we could get our wish. This would be my second snowy Christmas in memory; the first was in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1970s. And do we have Christmas spirit here in North Holland? Ja! It’s an unexpected presence on the radio in full force.

Sky Radio from Amsterdam is broadcasting 100% Christmas songs during this coldest December in Europe in 100 years. That’s making for some super-charged Yuletide with the most seasonal songs I’ve heard since I was a kid looking at my white front yard that time in South Jackson. Most songs are from contemporary artists from England and the U.S. ranging from the 1980’s up to the present, and the most popular are played about 5 or 6 times per day. The Sky online station starts even earlier with holiday songs from 1 October through 31 December.

Frans van Dun is the music director of the self-proclaimed ‘Christmas Station’ that has been spinning the holiday tune tradition during the month of December since the station began in 1988. “We started as a station that November, and Christmas songs were first thing we did because nobody was doing that in Holland at the time.” Sky Radio now has about 10 million people in its broadcast area, and estimates that easily more than 1 million people listen daily during the season. He said that the station begins receiving requests for holiday music starting in August.

So who are the broadcast heavy hitters this year? “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey is safely in the #1 spot, says Van Dun.

Other top holiday tunes on Dutch radio:
“Driving Home for Christmas” by Chris Rea
“Last Christmas” by Wham
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid
“Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams
“Lonely this Christmas” by Mud

My pick for the best song this year is by Chris Rea. "Driving Home for Christmas" has the lively piano hum-along melody with the raspy voice of Rea that takes you on down the road to a place where one can smell an old, wood heater and something good cooking in the kitchen. I imagine more Europeans will be driving home this year with all of the travel difficulties on railways and at airports.

The Elvis live recording of “Blue Christmas” is still a sure winner, complete with screaming girls to enhance the mood. Happy Xmas (War is Over) from John Lennon is a staple of the season that resists growing old. A surprisingly fun and quirky – and distinctly English - tune is “Stop the Calvary” from Jona Lewie. And “Jingle Bell Rock” - via the Hall and Oates version - is guaranteed to get someone to forget about work for a few minutes and reach for a cocktail. “Father Christmas” from Greg Lake, with its haunting melody and backing choir, rounds out my list of favorites. Of course Bing, Dean and Nat still hold their places in Christmas music fame, but I’m checking out the ‘newer’ classics here.

The funniest Christmas song I can think of, except maybe for “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," would have to be Adam Sandler’s
“Hanukkah Song.”
Put on your yalmulka, here comes hanukkah
Its so much fun-akkah to celebrate hanukkah,
Hanukkah is the festival of lights,
Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.

And my pick for most annoying Christmas song of all time is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with its painfully repetitive list of material-based efforts to win affection.

How about that white Christmas? Do they happen often here in North Holland? “I’m in my 50s and I can only remember 7 or 8 white Christmases,” said van Dun at Sky Radio. Well turn on the stereos, light a fire and look outside for the snow men as we head for the home stretch. Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fire in Alkmaar

I’ve written that Alkmaar is often a calm city, but there was real excitement today.  A large fire at a manufacturing facility across the North Holland Canal was the first thing visible when opening curtains at 07h15. 

It was still burning as of 13h00, shortly after fire fighters began another push to extinguish the flames. No one had been injured as of that time.

Public warning sirens sounded in East Alkmaar causing concerns about the smoke cloud from burning rubber and plastics, but a police spokesman at the scene said that because of the intense heat, there was no danger to people from the smoke. “It burns clean,” he said. 

Helicopters were circling overhead using thermal imaging to monitor spread and hot points.  Police said that it could be put out by mid-afternoon, but would need to be kept wet and monitored for hours after.   The smoke cloud had recently dissipated at the time of this posting at 15h00.

RTV North Holland reported that the fire at the Derco building was let go into a controlled burn for hours to consume materials at the highest possible temperature to lower the risk of toxic fumes. The facility manufactures conveyor belts, and the cause of the fire was a machine malfunction. Several elderly residents were evacuated and some schools advised children to stay at home. 

Local news organizations were present at the police barrier near the fire.  Nearby residents watched out their windows, and students gathered outside on bicycles.  "I saw part of the factory explode from my bedroom window this morning," said Camille, 10, of Alkmaar. Folks around here will probably be talking about this event for a while.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Early Arctic Howl

This past week has brought arctic winds, slippery conditions and impressive sites around town and the neighboring countryside.  Here in Alkmaar, it can feel like a long way away from things like airport closures and other major weather problems. People seem to be able to get inside and warm.  

Dreaming of ice skating on frozen canals was a large thought on the local population’s mind as this cold front made its arrival.  It was evident to most that it was too early in the season to have thick ice, but it was still more fun to ponder this possibility than to worry about an icy flight out of London or Berlin.

And of course,  bicycles were still trudging ahead through the snow and ice on the roads.  Many cyclists were still dressed in light jackets and even riding without gloves. 
It was difficult to tell from people's faces here that they were riding in arctic wind chill temperatures.  They trudged on through looking the same as if it were a sunny June afternoon.  Maybe some have grown up with North Sea weather riding bikes, and they simply don’t know anything different.  Riding a bicycle on ice for the first time was thrilling for me and the pedestrian lady that I almost ran into, twice.  

Ducks in North Holland appeared unsure of what to do with the canals freezing over.  They were noisy and would congregate on the edges of the ice, and move about more restlessly than usual.  USA Today reported "freezing ducks in lakes" in Poland, and the Belfast Telegraph wrote that ducks had to be rescued from frozen lakes there. One question I have is, “How does one rescue a duck from a frozen lake?”

Bicycle traction, skating and well being of ducks were the larger concerns around Alkmaar, but a variety of problems - including about 40 deaths - came with the weather around Europe.  The roof of a building  housing low-level radioactive waste at the Flamanville nuclear power station in France partially collapsed under the weight of snow on Friday, causing minor concerns.(AFP)

In Switzerland, Geneva's University Hospital cancelled non-urgent operations last week to cope with a massive flow of broken bones caused by people slipping and falling in icy conditions. (AFP)  And in Poland, Police were carrying out street patrols in hopes of getting drunks and homeless people into shelters since they make up the bulk of those who freeze to death each year.  (Belfast Telegraph)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Real Dutch Women

Photo by Carin Verbruggen
They are tall, beautiful, confident, often blonde and absolutely everywhere. Coming to a North Holland town can put one shockingly face-to-face with some of the most interesting women on the planet.  They are also comfortable with themselves and can be brutally honest.    I could just do a photo essay, but what are these beautiful creatures really like? I set out for a closer look at Dutch women through the eyes of a photographer, a fashion model and women in local neighborhoods to see if common threads emerged.


From left: Carin Verbruggen, Inge de Bruijn and Candy Dulfer
Carin Verbruggen is a renowned Dutch fashion and lingerie photographer who has worked with women from around the world - and the musician Usher - but enjoys working with Dutch women because she says they are “easy going and confident,” and that this sets them apart from others.  “Dutch girls are open to anything because they have seen more and are honest, ” she said by telephone.

Carin said about Dutch girls, “You can have a lot of fun with them, and they are not like babies in front of the camera.”  For American girls, on the other hand, she said, “I have to clear the entire studio when they change their clothes, but Dutch girls can change in a café or car because they are not spoiled and are more honest about themselves.” 

Sonja, 38, left and below, has lived and worked internationally as a fashion model. She exhibited Dutch modesty as she was hesitant to acknowledge that she has appeared on the covers of magazines like Elle, Vogue and Grazia. Sonja said that much of the confidence and comfort seen in Dutch women comes from the nature of the culture itself.  “Dutch stay in their comfort zone, like to be normal with less fantasy and are happy with what they have.”  

Sonja, who does not know Carin, pointed out that Dutch women wear less makeup and are more natural than others internationally.

“There’s no bullshit with Dutch women,” and that they are “not carried away by the superficial.”  Conversations among Dutch models, Sonja said, “are not usually about material things, but life and relationships.”  Sonja’s demeanor supported what I’d been hearing as she seemed very much at ease and humorous, maintained piercing eye contact and  became passionate on some topics during the interview in a café in Bergen, North Holland.


Doutzen Kroes and Lara Stone are the glittering hood ornaments of the Dutch fashion hot rod at the moment.  Carin and Sonja agree that Kroes and Stone carry themselves well and are prime examples of homegrown beauty (even though Stone is reported to have an English father).   The average height of a Dutch woman is around 180cm, or 5' 10", and  Dutch women were compared several times to the Swedes, but there is a different bone structure that supports slightly stronger faces. 

Photo by Carin Verbruggen
Sonja said that many women here cast their already modest concerns about beauty aside and focus on living health-conscious lifestyles as they grow older.  “They could be more glamorous to feel better about themselves,” she said.   As they tend to cut their hair shorter than in other cultures and have declining concern for fashionable clothes, Dutch women can appear more masculine than their counterparts. Carin said because of the clothes, “Sometimes you can’t tell who’s the man or the woman.”    A positive, unanimous agreement was that the women here remain more natural, take care of their health and don’t have cosmetic surgery as often. 

I’ve noticed that Dutch women can be quick to make themselves known or to put someone in their place.   Carin said, “Maybe Dutch women are aggressive, but when looking at Southern European countries like Italy and Spain, women are more openly aggressive.”  At Amsterdam Central Station,  Helen, 33, said that Dutch women “can dominate the men even in what they wear and who their friends are.”  Marlaan, 21, below in photo, agreed, “Women here are in charge in most cases, and are known for speaking what they think, even too much sometimes.”     Above, photo of sisters Narelle and Silvana.

Sonja said, “We are fighting to be equal with men, but sometimes we over-rule the man and things go out of balance.”  Sonja went on to say that Dutch men are not intimidated by Dutch women, but other nationalities are.  

Regina, 20,  was more forward on the issue when she said, “It’s definitely true that we are bossy and want to take control of men. It feels nice to have control.”  However, Silvana, 24, disagreed when she said, “Women who say they are in charge are just the ones who want it.”   I realize that this subject is far from unique to Dutch culutre, but the perception of the woman in charge seems more prevalent than in many other places.  And even with this power debate in mind, most Dutch women I've met have been approachable, friendly and easy to talk to. 


Our visiting friends have been amazed at the nearly comical high ratio of blondes in this area, because Swedish women have traditionally held the blonde reputation.  Many Holland-bound tourists only visit Amsterdam, where the population is more a mix of Dutch, tourists and immigrants.   However, a  Dutch friend who lives in small North Holland village said that their children’s school class photos consisted of “twelve blonde boys and twelve blonde girls.” 

 I became curious if there was a social status attached to being a blonde, or is it just normal?

Annet, a 37 year-old brunette, left in photo with Greetje and Helen, was in Amsterdam with her gray-blonde mother and blonde sister.   She said that she dyed her hair brown to look more intelligent.  Her mother, Greetje, 65, grinned when she heard Annet’s comment and said about herself and other daughter, “We are intelligent blondes.”  Marlaan said that some tension exists between hair colors in high school, but people have more important things to worry about as they get older, and Sonja remarked that there is competition between blonde and non-blonde models.  But most women I asked said that the typical blonde jokes and humorous perceptions of silliness exist here, but there is not actually a social gap or competition between the hair colors. 

Photo by Carin Verbruggen
Maybe some readers are asking themselves, “Do these Dutch girls like to party?”  I’ve discovered a marked open-mindedness, but also an avoidance of excess with Dutch women.  Carin said, “Dutch girls are not conservative at all”  and that they were more world conscious after seeing sex, drugs and homosexuality treated as normal in their home culture.  She went on to add that Dutch girls “Wouldn’t listen to conservative voices anyway if preached.” 

Breeja, left in photo, is a tall blonde who likes to party and describes herself as "not your typical Dutch girl."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tattooed in a Church

Imagine being inside the largest medieval church in a Dutch city and walking up on a skin artist tattooing an image of Michael Jackson on a young lady’s leg.  It’s not a dream.  The Alkmaar Tattoo Convention was held this past weekend at the Grote Kerk Alkmaar (Large Church) in the city center. 

Built between 1476 – 1540 in the city center, the grand building stopped housing religious services in the mid 1990s after a decline in membership and lack of funding.  The Grote Kerk Web site now advertises the church as a “center for arts culture and social activities."

I spoke with Rob, a co-organizer of the tattoo convention, and he said that this is the fourth year of a ten-year agreement for it to be held in the old church.  He said that the 120 tattoo artists from countries like Belgium, New Zealand, Ireland, and the USA “found it magical to perform their work inside the church above grave stones on the floor dating back to the 14th century.”

Nearly 2,000 visitors came to the event this year. It seemed strange at first to see busy booths inside a church with people getting dragons and lovers’ names etched onto their skin.  “It was special to have the event there because tattoos are forbidden in the Bible and Koran,” said Rob.  He added that, “Not every church is open for this kind of convention.”  I suppose the latter is the most true statement I have heard today.

Tattoos are riding a wave of popularity and increased social normalcy in the Netherlands.  Rob attributes this to professional athletes and celebrities having tattoos visible to the public eye.  He said that tattoos started making their way more into the Dutch culture in the 1940s from sailors in port cities like Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Den Haag.

Anyone still struggling with the idea of a church tattoo fest can find some solace in the fact that the convention gave free space to charitable fund raising.  Rob said that Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) and KiKa, a fund-raising organization for children’s cancer research, were present. 

The Grote Kerk Alkmaar

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scenes from the North

Sometimes it does not matter if you are in a hurry.

Our friend on the way to school.

Kooltuin street in Alkmaar reminds me of Venice.

Yes, there is honky tonk parking in North Holland.

Verdronkenoord street in Alkmaar.

Arriving at Texel Beach.

Our neighbors' houses at Texel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sex Devices and the Foreigner

Cultural missteps are usually learning experiences and no big deal.  I was not expecting a foreigner or even Borat-type moment when I entered a small drugstore today.

Personal choice dominates here and people are not easily shocked by preferences that aren’t exactly mainstream.  Of course this applies to sex, which the Dutch nearly unanimously say is natural and not a big deal because it’s in the open. And the Dutch are happy to point a finger west saying that Americans are too prudish on the subject. 

So here I am earlier today in line at a small village drugstore to buy some Nicorette gum.  (Kids, don’t start smoking and stop reading here)  A lady in her late 40s with a post-office jacket is paying at the counter ahead of me.

I can't help but notice the condom display front and center at the cash register while I’m waiting.  There is one package different from the others, and I become curious what it is.  I take it discreetly and discover that it is a vibrating ring to be placed on the man’s component during sexual intercourse.  The advertising on the package says that it was for both partners' pleasure!

We didn’t know about vibrating sex rings when I was growing up in Mississippi, and this device is on display for all paying customers to see. I approach the counter as the lady in front of me appears to exit the store.  A man in his 80s has taken his place unseen in line behind me.  I present the packaged device to the lady in her 60s working the cash register and I ask of curiosity in a low voice, “how much does this cost?”

Most people in the Netherlands speak very good English.  The lady working there does not understand a word I am saying, but by this time she has the device in her hand and is calling over my shoulder to the lady who was previously in front of me to translate.  The cashier says something in Dutch like, “Hey, the American wants to know how much the vibrating sex thing is!”   The post office lady then reappeares from nowhere to help translate with a grin on her face.

I begin to feel embarrassed when I notice the elderly man behind me in line laughing and saying that I need to learn how to ask that question in Dutch.  Here I am standing in the middle of these three Dutch people inquiring about the price of a sex ring and everyone is enjoying my situation.  I think to myself that I’ve really stepped in it now, so I should laugh at the moment as well.

After a minute we all determine that it is priced at 9 euros.  Well I don’t consider my self a cheap…..whatever……but I also don’t have enough cash on me to buy that and the gum.  By the way, Visa is not widely accepted in the Netherlands.  I politely thank everyone present and make my exit after replacing the device back on the display.

If devices like that are displayed prominently and sold in drugstores, what’s sold in sex shops?  I wonder if the elderly man behind me in line bought the device.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sinterklaas Arrives

iPhone photo by Maylis Luna
Here we are in a new country with three young children and the holiday season approaching.  Christmas in the Netherlands is slightly different from France and the USA, so we have been trying to get in step with festivities so that the children can experience the Dutch Christmas, while still preserving elements of Franco-American celebrations.  Some versions of Dutch Christmas traditions differ, but here is what we are piecing together about the holiday.

There’s no mistaking that the season kicked off yesterday with the arrival of Sinterklaas in Alkmaar and other cities around the Netherlands.  This bearded man wearing a bishop's robe is turning out to be Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas, Père Noël and Santa Claus all rolled into one.  I’ve wondered if we were going to end up with a house full of bearded men in red suits eating, drinking and laughing, while we try to sort out who actually does what.


Sinterklass and his black-faced helpers known as Zwarte Pieten, or Black Peters, made their grand arrival by boat in Alkmaar via the North Holland Canal.  Tradition says that Sinterklaas is arriving from Spain, and that Black Peter helper(s)  encourage children to be good by giving out candy, as well as leaving coal in children’s shoes by the chimney if they have been bad.  Their blackened faces and curly hair wigs have startled racial sensitivities of some visitors and sparked some debate among the Dutch.

People lined the canals and followed by boat to see the big man arrive.  Our kids were lucky enough to be invited on a boat by a jolly neighbor with a white beard named…really…Klaas.  They joined a flotilla on the canal into the city center, docking at the cheese market area to see Santa appear on a podium and then begin his procession on a white horse.  Several city streets were impassable as people crowded to get a look at Sinterklaas.

After the season’s kick-off in November with Sinterklaas’s  arrival, children can begin to leave shoes or stockings near the chimney for small presents to be left during the night.  Snacks for Santa and his horse named Amerigo (not reindeer) are left out as well.  Last night Sinterklaas left his first surprises for our kids, along with a note warning one to behave better or else they would get dirt next time.

Sinterklaas with Black Peters
December 5th is then the big day in the Netherlands for presents.  The doorbell will ring and a sack with presents will be there when answered.  This is in celebration of St. Nicholas Day which is on the 6th.

Christmas Eve on the 24th will bring a few more smaller presents for the children like fruit, books and chocolates.  Then Christmas Day is a quieter occasion often with family meals and religious observation.

The children also had a good warm up last Thursday before Sinterklaas’s arrival.  They took to the rainy streets with lanterns to sing for their St. Maarten’s Day candy.  I opened the door to about ten different groups singing the traditional “Eleven November” song.   Our kids finished with three XXL bags of some good candy.  I’ll be glad when it’s all gone.