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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

235 Years Young

Boot camp photos from 1988.

Happy birthday to the United States Marine Corps!  Today marks the 235th birthday, and it's celebrated with cake, formal events and probably some fist fights worldwide by active and former marines. 

Born in 1775 at Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the elite branch of young men trained as killers like these can be a spearhead of battlefield missions or a headache to civilians in their path during peacetime. 

I’ve actually met some of the best and worst people of my life while serving.  There are many devoted, real-life heroes who put themselves in danger to protect others, and there are a number of  trouble makers as well.  So today the good and the not-so-good guys are drinking an extra beer and reflecting, while comrades in Afghanistan are still dodging sniper fire and shrapnel. 

A few famous people who once wore the uniform were: Drew Carey, actor; Senator John Glenn,  Gene Hackman, actor; Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo); Harvey Keitel, actor; Robert Ludlum, author; Steve McQueen, actor;  Lee Harvey Oswald, famous one shot marksman…, Bum Phillips, NFL coach;  Pat Robertson, evangelist – really?; Shaggy, musician;  Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the N.Y. Times;  Lee Trevino, PGA golfer; and Ted Williams, baseball hall of famer.

Blog author in 1988 at Parris Island.

Go ahead and raise a glass to honor those who have served as 'Leathernecks,' 'Devil Dogs' or 'Jar Heads.'  Western Europeans over here are generally a peaceful lot, but do seem to have respect for the USMC when the subject comes up.  Then there are surely some  in the world who don't celebrate the occasion.  

I  recall a conversation in a Paris pub with a wiry, English-born member of the French Foreign Legion.  He said that U.S. Marines were cry babies and that he had seen them throw down their rifles and head back to camp when the situation was tough.  He was soon after repeatedly cautioned by pub staff for pushing women around.  I wonder what a marine had done to this guy to make him feel the need to bark out his desired dominance? I was surprised that he didn't start urinating on the bar stools.  I'll let the reader judge credibility from someone like that. 

Oh by the way, I tried to contact Harvey Keitel and Shaggy by telephone to get comment for this blog entry. I would like to know if they still celebrate the occasion.  I’ll be sure to post an update if they return my calls.  Ooh Rah!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

‎'Walking on the Moon'

I have only scratched the surface of the  Schoorl Dunes National Park, but so far there is plenty to see  and the size of the dunes is surprising.  Said to be the largest in the country, the dunes were a change of scenery because we were  not accustomed to seeing elevation higher than raised bridge crossings over canals.

The Schoorl Dunes National Park is the widest and most varied nature reserve along the coast of The Netherlands: beautiful footpaths and cycle paths which wind between dunes and polder landscape and beach access (Schoorl aan Zee) where no cars are allowed.”

The landscape looks like something between moon craters, the surface of another planet or the greener parts of a desert region.  The highest visible dune resembles the mountain that Richard Dreyfuss was obsessed with in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”   The view of the North Sea coast and surrounding dunes and fun falling back down make this hill worth the climb.

Wind constantly whips over, around and through the sand craters and hills that were formed from this wind almost constantly blowing sand in all directions.   The older dunes were formed before the birth of Christ and the newer ones took shape in the 12th century.  Vegetation has stabilized the formations into the playground it is today.

What does this sign mean?
 Bike  trails run parallel in many places to the North Sea beach.  Hikers and bikers can wind through the dune hills and low spots of scrub or take a break on the beach.    Some dunes are fenced off, so be sure to take a translation guide to be able to read posted signs.

The neighboring wooded areas are worth the trek as well and appear to have grown up over the dunes. Much of the forest floor is a sandy soil mixture and there are a number of bonsai-style trees to see as well as exotic mushrooms.  There are also plenty of sandy slopes to roll down.
A rope leads down the slope.

Another view nearby at North Sea shore.

The sandy forest floor.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Dutch and the California Pot Vote

Matti, left, and a customer at Anytime.
It is still morning as California is starting to vote  on Proposition 19 for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.  The Netherlands, with its familiar drug-tolerant environment is an interesting point from which to view this potentially historic legislation.  I like to see how the U.S. is viewed by others, especially when controversial policies are similar.  While the Netherlands is often thought of  as a country where drugs are legal, the reality is more cloudy, with uncertainty about current and future policies.

A Field Poll released last Sunday reported a slip in recent support for passage of the California bill.  49% opposed the proposition compared to 42% in favor.  This is an exact reversal of percentages from September.    Keep in mind that this is California and anything can happen.

Here is a quick look at what the California bill would allow if it passes: “The measure… would make it legal for anyone 21 or older to possess, share or transport up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to 25 square feet per residence or parcel. Cities and counties would be authorized to regulate and tax commercial marijuana production and sales.” <>   I’ve seen where a $50 tax per ounce could generate $1.4  billion per year in revenue.  That’s more than I would have guessed.

Things are actually quite different on marijuana policy in the Netherlands than the situation would be in California.  The Dutch use the term, gedogen, meaning that while a substance may not be legal in actual law,  police sometimes will not enforce laws against use as long as it is not disturbing to social well being in general.   News reports over the past couple of years  on Dutch government efforts to maintain it’s pragmatic approach to soft drug policy suggest that the Dutch are scratching their own heads on tolerant policies similar the proposed California measure.

I visited the Alkmaar Police headquarters yesterday to see if an officer would speak about Dutch drug policy and the California vote coming up.   “There’s the typical Dutch approach that it’s ok  to possess in small amounts and be sold in coffeeshops, but the coffeeshops must get it from somewhere and that’s where the law stops,” said a public communications officer who declined to give his name.  He said that marijuana is forbidden to grow because of ‘heavy criminals’ involved in the production, saying that “some common people are being forced to grow marijuana in their homes’’ under pressure from the “heavy criminals who are pulling the strings.” 

When asked what he thought about the California proposition, he followed the pragmatic Dutch approach that I’ve read about, “It’s a personal decision for those who live there.”  If it becomes legal in California, he said, “people who use drugs won’t come into contact with heavier drugs.”  He continued on the positive aspect, “It would be more in the open and it would be a good thing for people to talk about it.”   He warned just after that the market can easily fall into the hands of criminals and that California should be aware of that if the legislation passes.

It seems to me that California has already addressed the growing issue in the proposition and would avoid at least that part of policy headaches.   I asked Julian, 30, an employee at the Wauw coffeeshop in Amsterdam what he thought about Proposition 19 and he said he supported the passage and, “ It depends on people’s patience for legalization to work.  There will be a peak in usage and abuse at first, but that will stabilize.  If the public’s patience can get through that period, it would work out.” By the way,  the Wauw shop is carry-out only and does not serve coffee. 

Matti, 30, a Dutch employee of the Anytime coffeeshop in Alkmaar gave an enthusiastic  endorsement of the California proposal, “Why not?  It’s the state of marijuana already and if it goes through, maybe I’ll go to America one day!”

What about people in the street who don’t work in law enforcement or coffeeshops?   What do they think about the proposal in California?  I stopped several people in a shopping district of Alkmaar to ask.

Bas, 31, a very tall Dutch citizen said he thought it should be legal because “it’s normal here, and makes less aggressive behavior.”

Evelien, 40, a Dutch mother with her toddler child said, “It’s a good idea to make it legal.  When you see it controlled, there’s no problem.”

Petra, 43,  visiting from Germany was quick to point out that drugs are illegal in Germany. “I don’t think it should be legal there, because it won’t help anyone.”

John, 80, had the Dutch pragmatic approach, “I don’t know.  It’s a personal choice.  For some people it’s very good, but for others, you know they could take too much.”

Judith, 37,  was wearing a track suit and thought for a minute on my question.  “It’s a difficult question.  For medication it should be legal, but otherwise should be forbidden because it’s not good for health and can become addicted.”

Ryan,  30, a Dutch corner flower salesman said, “it’s definitely a good idea for America.”  He said that Dutch law takes the “let it go” approach and seems “like in the middle or something.”

Sophie, 28, a musical production artist, said, “I think it’s a good idea.  For younger people its better because they are the biggest group of users and should be in a better legal environment.”   She said about Dutch laws, “I think it’s changing here, but wrong.”

The Anytime in Alkmaar
Yes, things are changing here in the Netherlands, but it’s certainly unclear if a permanent policy change if forming, or if the balance between government and marijuana business is a traditionally fragile and cyclical state.  While coffeeshop staff were happy to speak about California, a measured caution was evident when asked about local governing of their operations.  Proposals to make coffeeshops “Dutch only” and the possibility of non-renewal of licensees are some concerns on the forefront.

It was interesting to meet the owner of the Anytime coffeeshop.   Ricardo,   perhaps in his early fifties originally from Suriname, explained that a campaign by Randolph Hearst in the 1950s was responsible for the global criminalization of marijuana by the United States in the first place.  He said that, “the life of a coffeeshop is up and down and depends on things,” as he gestured in a wave-like motion.    It appears that a sometimes uneasy but functional coexistence between government and his business has been going on for some time.  Even though most of the customers of the Anytime are Dutch, Ricardo did not like the “Dutch-only” government proposal.  “It’s a beginning that could lead to more,” he said.  When asked about growing and the supply of the coffeeshop he said simply, “I’m not allowed to grow it myself.”

Julian, center, with tourists who would be affected by  policy changes.
Julian from the Wauw shop said that new regulations in Amsterdam are often put into place and there’s always fear of license non-renewal based on non-compliance.  An English couple visiting Amsterdam were customers inside the Wauw as I asked Julian what he thought about the “Dutch only” proposal.   He said - speaking during a brisk business of customers -that “Dutch entrepreneurship would send business out to the streets, with people selling things with dangerous additives” to visitors like the couple present.  He declined to answer when I asked about growing and how coffeeshops bought their stock.

While polls suggest that California will continue as it has before proposition 19 came into existence, it  will be interesting to see the aftermath of either outcome.  It does seem that California is approaching the issue more head on than its Dutch counterparts.  The government policies are seeking the same balance even though they are born from slightly different philosophies.  California would be like an American Marijuana Disneyland.  But there are cautious tones here when police and coffeeshop staff speak about each other in efforts to maintain their own balance.