Before I leave the Netherlands and the first half of our trip behind, I thought I’d share some observations about life here in Holland with you all. It’s really very similar to other places in Europe, and the subtle differences seem to make us feel more ‘at home’ than less. This makes sense when you remember that the Pilgrims actually came from here (Leiden, to be exact) before heading to the new world, and that New York City is modeled after Amsterdam (remember ‘New Amsterdam?’) and it follows suit that our Harlem in NYC is modeled after the Haarlem in which we stayed. The Dutch are kind, pragmatic and happy to speak in English to visitors without hesitation. (English truly is the ‘universal language’ here, and the Dutch will respond “of course!” when questioned if they speak it.)
Something I do appreciate when traveling is a good old European breakfast. Many countries here simply offer a croissant and espresso in the morning (I’m looking at you, Italy and France), but the Netherlands embraces the breakfast I saw in Germany when Andrew and I started traveling 10 (!!!) years ago: cold cuts and cheeses, tomatoes, fruit and hearty breads. These people know how important protein in the morning is! (It stands to reason–the Dutch are among the world’s tallest and healthiest populations.) I can’t tell you how much the breakfast issue has come into play on our trips overseas; I feel like I’m constantly in search of a protein option in France! This is also one of the reasons Andrew and I have started staying in apartments on our trips instead of hotels if we’re staying for multiple nights. Thankfully, our hotel in Haarlem offered a FANTASTIC breakfast with all the goodies, including an assortment of breads, meats, cheeses, an ‘American breakfast’ with bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs (the best I’ve ever had), fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurts, granola and muesli, as well as juices and an insane coffee machine that basically creates a ‘Starbucks-in-our-hotel.’ We were in heaven every morning.
Meal times are different here, at least for dinner. Europeans tend to eat later, and the Netherlands seems to be somewhere in between the US (5-6 pm) and France, Italy and Spain, which ascribe to a dinner hour between 8 – 10 pm (at least in the big cities). We don’t even head out until about 7 pm, and even that’s a bit early. Usually we’re grabbing a drink at a café after 6 pm, then hunting down just the right place for our evening meal afterward.
The Dutch are also known for bicycling EVERYWHERE, and Haarlem is no different. There are distinct bike lanes alongside the roads, parking garages for bikes (equipped with ‘troughs’ on each side of the stairs for riders to wheel their bikes up and down, see photo below) and large wooden buckets that attach to the front for small children or things to ride in. I even saw a toddler and an infant in a car seat tucked away in a the basket riding around town! No one wears helmets and I’m sure accidents are few and far-between.
You’ve probably heard that pot is legal in the Netherlands. Yup, it is. And while marijuana is indeed legal, it’s not (or doesn’t seem to be) a problem. (Click here for more info on the drug policy in the Netherlands.) Before visiting, I think I had visions of hippies living on canal boats in Amsterdam, basically, that because pot was legal, the city would be somehow different. In reality, Amsterdam is just like any other old European city, if not more beautiful.
The only evidence of marijuana I saw, or smelled, was wafting from the doors of ‘coffeeshops,’ not to be confused with cafes, that actually sell COFFEE. It’s legal all over the Netherlands, not just in Amsterdam, so there were some pot ‘dispensaries’ in Haarlem, too. Coffeeshops are highly regulated, and it’s illegal to have large quantities of pot on hand at any given time. Users can’t grow, sell or smoke pot at home; they must partake inside one of these coffeeshops.
When we talked to some of Andrew’s co-workers at dinner one night, I asked what the general consensus was on drug use. While none of the Dutch engineers seemed particularly ‘pro-drug,’ they did take a very laid-back approach to the issue. They all seemed to think it was fine that pot was legal and that they’d never thought of it as a problem. In fact, they remarked instead about the drug problems in the US, where pot is illegal (except in some states). This attitude is exactly how our guidebook described it, which aligns with the often pragmatic approach the Dutch take to issues like this.
Lastly, in addition to pot, prostitution is legal, too. Ever heard of the Red Light District?
The photo above is rather tame, as I was careful not to take pictures too close to the action. And what I mean by action is that of all the tourists, not the prostitutes!
Andrew and I followed a Red Light District ‘walk’ in our guidebook one evening well before the area gets creepy at 1 am. We were a bit nervous going into it, but the further along we went, the more and more crowded it became. To be honest, it felt a little like Disneyland! Yes, there are red-lit windows in which women stand in the equivalent of a bathing suit, most of them paying almost no attention to the crowds walking by and instead playing on their phones. It felt more like a theme park as we shuffled along with the crowds and less like like a place someone could approach a hooker. There are streets upon streets in the area that glow red each evening, filled with tourists. Anyone visiting Amsterdam should do it once, and once is enough.