woensdag 13 november 2013

The Netherlands by water

Water: it is the age-old frenemy of the Dutch. More than half of the country lies below sea-level, and the fight for survival has cost lives well into the twentieth century. But every summer and winter the Dutch will flock to beaches, lakes and canals for all sorts of water-related activity.

The Netherlands is is in its own language affectionately known as “kouwe kikkerlandje” - “dear cold frog country”. “Frogs” in this case refers not to the food, but to the fact that the whole country exists by virtue of canalizing water, not just in cities, but everywhere. Flying in, you know you’ve crossed over to the Netherlands when the land is divided into neat green, brown and yellow parcels by sparkling grid lines: the ditches which allow excess water to flow into rivers meandering into the sea, leaving green pastures for cows, slowly flowing liquid highways for trade and sprawling cities for humans.

This is where the Dutch go for recreation – not the pastures. The ditches and rivers and lakes.

Trade and defense
In the cities such as Amsterdam, Delft, Leiden, Utrecht en The Hague, the ditches are known as canals and young, reckless people sometimes swim in them. The canals were built for the triple purposes of transport (barges loaded with goodies could easily enter and leave towns), water management (both drinking and disposal water) and defense (dig a ditch around a city, pull up the bridge and an army has a hard time getting in).

The lovely view of the old city walls across the low-lying fields along the river a traveler gets when approaching the medieval city of ‘s Hertogenbosch (an hour and a half outside of Amsterdam) was also an old water defense trick. When, during the Spanish Wars, an army marched on the city, the citizens would dig holes in the dykes along the river, flooding the grasslands around the city, making it impossible to get anywhere near ‘s Hertogenbosch – or any other Dutch city. Historically inclined tourists might travel along the old “waterlinie” or “water line” as it’s called, and see how the walled cities in riverine areas turned themselves into “vesting Holland”: “Fortress Holland”.

The trade highway in the meantime stretched form the North sea all the way through Germany up to the Baltics. For a while during the seventeenth century, Dutch was the international language of choice for merchants along the Hanze route. The sleepy towns in eastern Holland (one to two hours outside of Amsterdam) still carry faint echoes of their former grandeur.

Sports and festivals
The canals also carry current grandeur: after the national soccer squad played the World Championship finals the parade was on water. The Dutch Gay Pride Parade also takes the form of a boating expedition, and even King Willem-Alexander went on a boat tour to celebrate his coronation, until he and his family decided to get off the boat to join dj Armin van Buuren and the symphony orchestra on their waterside stage.

This is what the locals do: on a balmy evening they grab food and drink, hop on a boat and tour the canals. On a hot day, they grab towels, bikini’s, swimmers and water bottles and head out to the nearest lake for a swim and lie on the grassy shore. On a windy day, the Dutch head out to the beach for a brisk walk and a “frisse neus”, a “fresh” or “chilly nose”, which they understand to be a good thing. In summer, the Friesian lakes (about two hours outside of Amsterdam via the Afsluitdijk) are filled with small sailing boats. In winter, all canals, ditches and shallow puddles are filled with ice skaters of different abilities.

And on the first of January, water is the theatre of choice for a display of sheer madness: hundreds of people take a dive into the sea wearing nothing but a pair of swimmers or a bikini with an orange beanie on top.

ps. I am cheating here, as I wrote this article for the Singapore American Newspaper.  But I figure, if you're Dutch reading this, then whatever I have to say is boring, and if you're non-Dutch this works as well as anything else. 

psII. Right, do's and don'ts for babies and toddlers then:
- do check on the weather and pack for all eventualities. Don't assume anything.
- don't bring formula milk, even the Chinese come and pay top dollar (yes, euro) in The Netherlands. But don't try to export it, there are quota's.
- go to a petting zoo, there's millions all over the country. Do also expect to get dirty there and be sniffled and spat at by the animals.
- don't think you can feed your child everywhere, there are Designated Places To Go Out With A Toddler, and they are McDonalds and any pancake restaurant. Do go to such a pancake restaurant, as pancakes are actually rather good. 
- do try and get your hands on a bakfiets and go for a spin (it's a good way to keep warm as well). 
- don't worry about traffic, if anybody hits you, it'll be on them. Those bakfietsen are built like tanks. 
- do travel light. Wherever you are in whatever city, walk two blocks and there will be a playground. On the way to the playground you will have walked past two Albert Heijns for emergency supplies. 
- don't worry about the sheer amount of water surrounding you. Remember, this is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. That wouldn't be the case if there were large amounts of small children drowning. Trust me, not even a toddler wants to get wet during a Dutch summer. 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

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