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Seeing the Netherlands

July 14th, 2020 Ravenna, Italy

Seeing the Netherlands

Before I even begin describing my experiences in the beautiful country known as the Netherlands, I’d like to point out right away that, despite having stayed in Amsterdam for three nights, none of the pictures in this article were taken in that city. Don’t get me wrong—I think the capital is an amazing place to visit and many people looking for thrills of various sorts will find plenty of opportunities to partake in whatever activity they desire, but I’d like to go a less conventional way. I don’t want to reduce this country to just one city. Let’s just say that I, myself, took full advantage of everything that Amsterdam had to offer, but if I may be real frank, the best and most fulfilling experiences didn’t actually happen there—they occurred in places like Utrecht, Delft, The Hague, and Den Bosch.

The reason why so many people are drawn to the capital and rarely visit other places in the country—which from an aesthetic point of view are just as, if not more impressive, than Amsterdam itself—is because a lot of tourists unknowingly (and perhaps even deliberately) misinterpret Dutch tolerance as a right to be reckless; this couldn’t be further from the truth. The real reason, in fact, why sex work and soft drugs like marijuana are legal in the country (the former exists only in some cities while the latter can be found almost everywhere) really has its roots in the Dutch belief that each and every human being should have the right to decide in a sensible way about the matters pertaining to their own health; this is a fundamental rule of Dutch society and it’s based on the idea that individuals have not only the right, but also the inherent ability to exercise their own reason and prudence for the purpose of making sound decisions that coincide with their existential tastes and preferences.

I can only speak from the perspective of my own people and thus I’ll say that the typical (in this case young) US traveler arrives in Amsterdam, spends three or four days doing all sorts of reckless things there, and then leaves with the belief that he or she has “seen” the Netherlands, so to say; to witness a country, however, is to experience, at the very least, another city that’s different in character, culture, or perhaps even size. As someone currently residing in Italy, I can tell you that life is far from similar if you compare places like Venice and Rome. To the question of which city (or cities) represent the so-called authentic Italian spirit, however, no one can say—and perhaps there’s really no answer to this question, but to stay in Rome for three days only to leave immediately after just to claim you’ve visited Bel Paese is kind of pathetic. You’ll neither find Italy just in Rome, Venice, Naples, or Palermo alone; perhaps, however, you may succeed through the combination of experiences that are gained by having visited two or more of those places—truly, you may begin approaching the feeling of what it means to be “Italian” by looking at the sculpture of nationality from different angles, not just glancing at it directly for a second and walking away.

The Netherlands are no different in this regard. Many people use Holland to describe the entire land, but actually the whole nation is divided into twelve provinces which together constitute the Netherlands—North and South Holland are just two of those aforementioned territories; having said that, getting around the entire country is incredibly easy. The trains are fast, efficient, and clean—I expected nothing less from the Dutch, and, of course, the level of trust on which the ticket system relies on restores your belief in the goodness of humanity. Let’s just say it’s not difficult to walk behind someone who’s scanned their pass and then walk to your train (where vouchers, at least in my experience, were never checked); even in stations like Utrecht, where no physical barriers are present, people nevertheless scanned their passes as they entered and exited. Accountability, honesty, and respect for the rules—this is perhaps why the country has been one of the most successful in dealing with the coronavirus and is today, once again, not just open, but also thriving. In Italy, on the other hand, discotheques and nightclubs either remain totally closed or have begun opening with very strict distancing rules; additionally, masks are still absolutely mandatory when going to the supermarket or any kind of indoor establishment, for that matter.

The Netherlands, for their part, have been so successful at dealing with the pandemic that Amsterdam has even decided to reopen its Red Light District (as of July 1st) during a worldwide pandemic—it was supposed to restart in September; almost comically, the only place where people still wear masks more or less regularly is on the train. Again, accountability, honesty, and respect for the rules—as a writer I’ve never really possessed any of those virtues in great quantities, but I’m starting to realize that art does exist in order, consistency, and caution—all traits which, nevertheless, go against the principles of “passion” that fuel creativity. Indeed, I must say there’s something incredibly admirable to be found in those qualities which the Dutch hold in such high regard; whatever opinion you may have about the people, you can’t accuse them of lacking imagination. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), around “17% of the entire land area has been reclaimed from the sea or lakes.” My point is that while the so-called “creative” Italians are letting Venice sink, the Dutch, since at least the 16th century, have been raising (quite literally, in fact) large portions of their country from under the water—that, in and of itself, is the greatest artistic achievement a country can claim for itself. The following image shows the difference in the amount of territorial expansion that was achieved with land reclamation techniques.

Truly, enough philosophizing, however—any philosopher knows it’s easy to fall in love with a country when you’ve first visited it and it likewise doesn’t take much effort to get sick of a place when you’ve spent almost a year living there; that’s why, in the interest of Dutch prudence and caution, I won’t give a hasty response as to where I’d ultimately prefer to settle down. All I can state with relative confidence is that having traveled more or less extensively throughout Europe at this point, I know that I still love Italy and everything it has to offer.

Let’s at last move away from abstract discussions now and focus on what actually matters—experiencing the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam. My relationship with the country really goes back to when I was a nine or ten year old kid, living in Germany; the precise details elude me but my parents found an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of young kids and this establishment was in the business of organizing yearly summer trips to the island of Ameland, where I ended up going for two summers. Despite the fact that more than twenty years have passed, I still remember some of the rules, duties, and activities: Whatever primitive technologies we did possess at home (Game Boys and other gadgets from the nineties), these were strictly forbidden; every kid had to help in the kitchen at least twice during their month-long stay; a special disco-styled dance (the lighting equipment was pretty awesome) was organized in your honor if you were lucky enough to be born in the right month of summer; that was the case for me as I was born on July 26th; furthermore, those who had birthdays also received presents which weren’t cheap, let’s just say. I remember getting a high-quality soccer ball on one occasion and I was able to play with it for many years. Other things I remember are swimming in the cold North Sea and repeatedly being warned about the tides by the camp counselors; all these things are distant memories, however, and despite the impression I’m giving here of being able to throw around details left and right, there isn’t really much I can recall from those times, except that I never felt happier at any point in my life; perhaps this is why the Netherlands hold such a special place in my imagination.

Maybe it’s not so much the Netherlands I missed and more so the easiness and effortlessness of my childhood, but when I set foot on Dutch soil again, I realized it was both. The hustle and bustle of the capital helped me drown this bittersweet nostalgia for some time, but when I left Amsterdam and arrived in The Hague, the thought—for some odd reason or other—that life is incredibly difficult for all of us came to me. Even for those who’re wealthy and have every privilege imaginable (I have neither of those things), the certainty that there can never be another childhood, that greed, hunger, and crime do constitute a part of our world (perhaps even making up an unchangeable aspect of it) is a realization that no amount of money or status can change; as I marveled at the International Court of Justice, I thought about all of those things. The impressive nature of the building did give me some reassurance that perhaps it is possible to rid the world of its problems with human institutions, but then I remembered everything that my professors had said about the ineffectiveness of the UN, its inability to stop genocides, and all the other plethora of problems that continue to exist. For a moment, however, I felt at peace standing next to this structure; in the attempt to rediscover my youth, I just imagined that it was a magical fortress which protected the world from every misfortune and inside it no bad thing could happen either. Maybe my expression in this photo shows that.

After spending some time in the city center of The Hague, I walked to the beach and discovered one of the liveliest scenes that a coastline can offer: a modern pier next to which people were bungee jumping from a crane, a tall Ferris wheel, and varied dining opportunities along along with dynamic gaming scenes all around. This shot I took from the pier really gives you an idea of how big everything is; the entire shoreline offers various entertainment opportunities for adults and kids alike.

The next city I visited was Delft. A classic university town in the most pleasant sense, it’s home to the Delft University of Technology, which is one of the best universities in the Netherlands; likewise, according to recent data, it’s one of the top fifteen engineering and technology schools in the world.

Due to the contributions of Dutch Golden Age scientists such as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Martinus Beijerinck, Delft is often considered the birthplace of microbiology.

Architecturally, the city is quite stunning. Here’s the picture of the main square and not far from it there once stood the home of the great painter Johannes Vermeer, whose painting The Girl with the Pearl Earring has become one of the centerpieces in the art world. Walking among the canals and enjoying the seclusion and silence of this city proved to be a very memorable experience and one I’d like to have again.

Trees line the waterfront and when their leaves fall, they create a type of moss that really adds to the character of Delft. One of most stunning views I captured was this one.

The following day I decided to visit Utrecht, which Lonely Planet calls an unsung gem of the Netherlands, and when I saw it for myself, I realized why. The city with its canals, dining scene, and architectural offerings feels both medieval and modern at the same time. Surely, you’ll find crowds and many people out and about; however, where Amsterdam is noisy and stressful, Utrecht is calm and relaxed. I simply couldn’t resist asking someone to take a picture here. The entire city pretty much looks like this and there are endless opportunities to enjoy a coffee or meal right on the waterfront.

In terms of its history, Utrecht was actually the cultural center in the Dutch Golden Age before it was surpassed by Amsterdam. It was the location where the famous Peace of Utrecht was signed: Since he died childless in 1700, Charles II of Spain, in his last will, had named Philip of Anjou (grandson of Louis XIV) as his successor. The other great European powers, however, weren’t prepared to tolerate the possible merger of such powers like Spain and France. What the treaties, therefore, accomplished is that it allowed Philip to assume the Spanish crown by permanently giving up his right to the French throne. The treaties were, thus, an essential component of maintaining the balance of power in Europe. Since the eighth century, Utrecht has also served as the religious center of the Netherlands and the Dutch Roman Catholic leader, called the Metropolitan Archbishop of Utrecht, has his seat in the city. It’s the location of Utrecht University, the largest institution of higher learning in the Netherlands. The famous Dom Tower, completed in 1382, was, unfortunately, undergoing major renovations and couldn’t be seen.

The next location I visited is officially called ‘s-Hertogenbosch (no, neither the apostrophe nor the hyphen are typos). Furthermore, despite the fact that the aforementioned name is the very one you’ll see above the entrance to the train station, most locals simply refer to their city as Den Bosch; it’s quite picturesque and quaint. Although there were plenty of people in the main square, I still consider the city a well-kept secret in the Netherlands. One of its claims to fame is being the place where Hieronymus Bosch lived and died, along with the fact that the oldest brick building (pictured below) in the Netherlands is located in the main square.

St. John’s Cathedral, the burial site of Hieronymus Bosch, looks as impressive from the outside as it does when gazing at the interior. In vain, I tried taking a good picture of both, but none of them did the cathedral any justice. Instead, here’s the plaque on the ground which commemorates the burial of the famous artist, whose depictions of hell are so vivid and intriguing that I consider them to be what the Divine Comedy would’ve looked like had Dante chosen to become a painter.

For the time he lived (the 15th and 16th centuries), Bosch’s paintings really are some of the most original and idiosyncratic that ever existed. So many people praise the vision of Salvador Dali’s composition without ever having heard of the man who really had one of the most fantastic imaginations any painter can have. This particular image is a closeup of The Harrowing of Hell.

It’s only fitting, then, that the great citizen of this city which bears a name just as eccentric as his own (Hieronymus) should pay tribute to the artist with a statue right in the main square. The less strange thing, of course, is that few tourists really look at it and perhaps not many even know who he is; instead they sit around the master, enjoying whatever tasty beverage or snack they’ve just purchased—ah, the beauty of travel and relaxation.

The main square is rather busy, not just with restaurants but also with food trucks serving traditional Dutch-style seafood. To escape that scene for a bit, I stumbled upon this incredible place by pure chance. Sit and think about whatever comes to mind—it’s both a blessing and curse to be free.

I finished my trip in Eindhoven, which in all honesty, I wouldn’t have taken the time to visit had my departing flight not been from there. Aside from the fact that it’s very modern and clean, along with the beautiful St. Catherine’s Church in the center, I really have only two things to discuss in terms of this city—the classic example of Dutch organization and also my scenic walk to the airport. The former is highlighted in the picture below.

As you can see, the sidewalk is divided into two halves, each side serving to accommodate one flow of traffic; this is just one measure enacted by the Dutch government in the wake of the coronavirus—to make movement more efficient and to decrease congestion, which leads directly into my next point: The pride with which the people maintain not just their infrastructure but also their natural world can easily be seen here. Although the country is one of the flattest in the world, the amount of amazing nature is never in short supply. On every train ride out of Amsterdam, I saw some of the most pristine and well-kept landscapes. The decision not to take the bus which I’d already paid for and instead walk to the airport, thus, seemed only natural, as discovering the Dutch countryside was one of the things few I didn’t do.

I would like to end this article with a quote I saw painted on the side of a building in Den Bosch. I did a quick translation on my phone and the literal one is as follows: The feeling that you are just a bit bigger today than you were yesterday; it probably means that each and every day offers us an opportunity to grow and if we seize it, we realize our potential—that would be the most standard interpretation.

Since we’re in Den Bosch, however, I take it to mean something else; for me it’s that bittersweet nostalgia I described earlier—the realization that you’re no longer a child in the country you once experienced the greatest happiness in and have now returned to as an adult who, at that exact moment, is longing for those very days you’ll never have back. You’re now a little bigger than you were over twenty years ago and the past is even less likely to come back the more you try to convince an empty house that it needs a lamp at night. So go. Live. Whatever has happened has already happened. The people who really want you in their lives won’t keep trying to run away.


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