Category Archives: Destinations

Learn: Go Dutch!

Flag of the Netherlands

Flag of the Netherlands

I enjoy tinkering with foreign languages.  When I was in high school, I started with two years of Spanish.  Having never studied a foreign tongue, I had the best introduction to Spanish language and culture that an impressionable student could experience in Señorita Burr’s classroom.  Walking into her living language environment was like stepping into a lively street celebration in a Latin American country.  Learning to Señorita Burr meant three things:  reinforcement through repetition; participating in culture days (Latin American customs, cooking, television, games, etc.); getting out there and just doing it; and conversing sin inglés.

My acquired knowledge and practice of Spanish in an English-free environment gave me the thirst and confidence to widen my language horizons.  I decided in 11th grade to switch to French since Spanish helped to form a basis for studying other Romance languages.  French was the only other foreign language my high school offered except for German, which didn’t fit into my schedule.  In addition, because of an arrangement with a high school in Wallonia, in the French-speaking region of Belgium, I was able to take my first trip abroad.

Since college, I’ve flirted with Italian and German in classroom and travel settings.  The latter left me bewildered although I enjoyed my visits to Germany and appreciated the gracious language tips I received in Munich.  To keep up with my French, I’ve purchased bootlegged copies of French in Action DVDs which are a great immersion tool and have dug up my dogeared copy of the accompanying textbook that was left behind in my parents’ attic when I moved out in my late 20s.

Having visited Belgium and the Netherlands twice each, I’ve been curious about the Dutch

Flag of Suriname

Flag of Suriname

language.  To my surprise, this West Germanic language is spoken around the world outside of the Netherlands and Belgium in areas such as Suriname, the Caribbean, small pockets in North America, and to a small extent, in Indonesia, to name a few.  Incidentally, Afrikaans, an independent yet closely related language to Dutch is spoken in South Africa and Namibia.  The language is said to be easy to learn for Dutch and English speakers and learning it can provide additional opportunities for travel and cultural expansion.

Not having the luxury of being able to immerse myself in Dutch by moving to another country, I’m going to have to settle temporarily for some basic self study until A) I can find a Meet-up group of Dutch learners and/or speakers, or B) I can travel next year.

So, where does one begin to learn the basics on the cheap without dropping a few hundred on Rosetta Stone or Berlitz?

Unfortunately, PBS doesn’t offer a Dutch in Action immersion course.  I’ve checked.

Last year, I purchased a Groupon for Livemocha and created an account.  I liked the social component because there’s an opportunity to interact with native speakers who will critique your work.  You can also get the basics by following lessons based on your language choice and even switch languages with your membership.  What I didn’t like was the amount of e-mail spam I received and the points/tokens system which was confusing and reminded me of some sort of “Weight Watchers for Language Enthusiasts” scheme.

Byki Express, a free, downloadable program, offered some great flashcards and vocabulary lists, but the interface seemed clunky, and while I like repetition for learning a language, I received too much reinforcement on my way to progressing to the next lesson.  Biki Deluxe offers more flexibility (e.g., mobile access) but at a cost of $69.  I’m not knocking the learning system, nor have I tried it.  I’d just like to find something cheaper that works well on my aging Smartphone.

Since I wanted to gain exposure using available resources without paying a lot, I did a search on what would be needed to master Dutch if someone wanted to move to the Netherlands.  Simple enough.  I happened upon Expatica which led me to Dutch Grammar.  It was there that I found basic courses in a clutter-free format to learn (with mp3 audio) basic pronunciation and grammar.  Dutch Grammar is a no-nonsense site that is rich in content.

My search continued.  I love YouTube, not only for movie and music clips, but also for educational reasons.

Taalhuis offers some great resources that go over Dutch-language basics by way of YouTube videos with a recap of vocabulary words at the end of each lesson.  The lists also cover the articles for nouns de and het that can only be learned through memorization.

Where does this all lead and how does it connect to immersion learning?  Our world is getting smaller and more personal due to the Internet, particularly, social media.  Not having the luxury of taking time off to live in a foreign country is a valid roadblock to immersion learning.  However, you can log onto Facebook, Twitter, Livemocha, or other interactive site and connect with others who can comment, correct, and add confidence to your language skills.   You can find or start a Meetup group in your area.

Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, know this:  you will learn a lot if you get out there, try, and humbly ask for help; apologize up front for not being fluent, but eager to communicate;  and ask how you can improve.  Have patience and diligence and the language will follow.

I’m taking these words to heart on my adventure into learning Dutch.

Dank-u en tot later. 

Weekender: Postcard from the Edge

Thomas Circle, Washington, DC - 1940

Thomas Circle, Washington, DC – 1940

I grew up in the Washington, DC area as did my parents and grandparents.

Looking for work as young adults, each of my paternal grandparents moved to Washington from central Virginia.  It was in Washington that they met, got married, and started a family.

After visiting in-laws in Richmond, my grandfather sent this postcard as a thank you for a pleasant visit.  The postcard portrays Thomas Circle along 14th Street in 1940.  It was taken on the edge of the now re-developed part of the 14th Street corridor along Thomas Circle.

The three-story building on the right is now a hotel, but the National City Christian Church on the left and Luther Place Memorial Church in the middle still stand.  The statue of General George H. Thomas, erected by the the Society of the Army of the Cumberland also stands and is encircled by snarling rush-hour traffic and office buildings.

Interested in learning more about the neighborhood’s history?  Check out the Logan Circle Heritage Trail.

Scheveningen – Come Again?

Scheveningen - September 2013

Scheveningen – September 2013

Scheveningen may be the one of the most difficult Dutch words to pronounce for English speakers.  However, this beachfront destination shouldn’t be missed when visiting The Hague.

Scheveningen is located on the North Sea.  Its roots date back to the 12th century and before it became a travel destination for beachgoers, its main industry was fishing.

In fact, the painter Henrik Mesdag captured life in Scheveningen in 1881 in his famous work,  Panorama Mesdag.

***

I arrived in The Hague after a speedy two-and a-half hour train ride from Paris via Thalys, a Belgian rail company that serves Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne.  I checked into my hotel and decided to take a much-needed walk to stretch and enjoy natural air.  Plus, the skies were clear and the air was crisp, which was a welcomed change from my gloomy stay in Paris.

I’ve been to the North Sea three times, twice to Ostend, Belgium, and now Scheveningen.  Like most coastal areas, the weather can be erratic.  In the U.S., especially in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where my family lives, I’ve experienced these swift weather changes during hurricane season.  In the few hours I was in Scheveningen, I experienced sun, heavy cloud cover, drizzle, and strong gusts of wind.

Take an umbrella.

Shops, restaurants, and markets pepper the winding streets and it’s obvious that they swell with people and bustle during high season from June to August.   I was able to enjoy an intimate street market where I found food vendors, artists, and a guy selling old vinyl records.  Score!

In late September, Scheveningen was hushed and drawing its season to a close.  In any weather, however, The Hague is walkable with comfortable terrain.  If you’re adventurous, it’s also bikeable.  Trams and buses stop nearby making it a must-see destination while in The Hague for business or pleasure, in high season or low.  You’ll want to visit during your stay and you’ll definitely want to learn how to pronounce it to try and fit in with the locals.

Don’t miss the Panorama Mesdag.  You can find it here:

Zeestraat 65
2518 AA  Den Haag

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Eat: The 100+ Year Old Sandwich

I’m neither a foodie nor a cook.  I enjoy exploring regional cuisine when I travel, but my tastes are fairly simple.  I like a lot of flavor, clean food, and a small price tag.

It has been said that the Netherlands consumes the most amount of bread in Europe.  I also know that during visits to Paris and Belgium, I’ve consumed more bread than when I’m at home.  Europe can be difficult for a gluten-free individual, but there are options.

The Dutch are known for their broodjes which are sandwiches.  You can also find broodjes in Flanders as I experienced on a trip to Antwerp, Belgium a few years ago.  Typical broodjes consist of meat, cheese, and toppings, like most sandwiches in the U.S.  Occasionally, as I experienced, a broodje can contain a light meat or cheese kroket or croquette, if you’re more familiar with the French variation.

On my trip to The Hague, I was lucky to experience a Dopmeijer broodje.  Dopmeijer’s is an out-of-the-way broodje shop that reminded me of a friendly neighborhood deli I’d find in Philadelphia or New York.  It is also an institution in The Hague.  It’s been operating for 104 years and in 2009, Dopmeijer’s celebrated with the publication of a book containing newspaper clippings and photos of the century-old shop.

My new friend and gracious tour guide Paul took me to Dopmeijer to experience a little bit of local food history.  There, we met John, one of the owners.  Ravenous, John introduced me to a variety of broodjes as well as a homemade goulash that was stomach-warming and spicy—perfect for cool and overcast September day.

My favorite broodje was the bal, which reminded me of a small meatball sandwich mixed with several spices, perhaps garlic and cinnamon.  The closest taste I could compare it to was a meatball I bought from Whole Foods that contained Moroccan spices.

I was still a little hungry, so I ordered a meat kroket broodje.  It was also rich with flavor and surprisingly light.  I’m not a huge fan of mayonnaise, so John made my broodjes with brown mustard and pepper.  You can have your broodje with either condiment and both are popular.

My friend Paul asked if I wanted to try something new.  Since I’m always up for an adventure, I agreed.

I then sampled a cow’s udder broodje.  Now, I’ll preface my reaction with the fact that I’m pretty funny about food textures.  For example, as much as I wanted to try the tartare broodje, I politely declined since I don’t care for the consistency of raw meat.  In hindsight, and for adventure’s sake, I should have gone for it.  Lesson learned.

The cow’s udder broodje was an experience.  On one hand, it tasted surprisingly good when mixed with mustard and pepper.  On the other, it had a chewy consistency as well as coloring similar to deli-sliced turkey.  My reaction was a 50/50 mix, but by then, I had had two bal broodjes plus the goulash and was becoming full.

The service and hominess at Dopmeijer is welcoming and efficient.  The shop is unpretnetious and you can eat cheap if you’re watching your money.

Dopmeijer is an institution in The Hague and I was glad I was introduced.

If you are in The Hague and want to try something new that comes with a long-standing history, stop by Dopmeijer.  You can easily access it by the Van Musschenbroekstraat tram stop or within a few blocks from the Holland Spoor station.  Also, be sure to ask John if you can purchase a book of clippings for nine Euros celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dopmeijer’s.

Dopmeijer
Rijswijkseweg 151
2516 HB Den Haag
Web site:  www.dopmeijer.net

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Hotel Petit in The Hague

Hotel Petit - Den Haag Courtesy of Hotel Petit's Web site at: hotelpetit.nl

Hotel Petit – Den Haag
Courtesy of Hotel Petit’s Web site at: hotelpetit.nl

My trip last month to The Hague was a result of a mishmash of several different possibilities location-wise.  Europe is like that.  You can get anywhere by train from your landing and/or stationing points, which makes it difficult to choose where to go and what to see.  I’m not one for grand excursions lasting weeks, so time and careful planning were of the essence.

I started in Paris as my landing and departure point.  At the last minute, I decided to go northeast to The Hague in the Netherlands.

I had only visited the Netherlands once.  I was in Amsterdam, we called the country Holland, and the currency used was the gilder.  A day trip to Amsterdam was my minor segue into Dutch culture.  I was 17.

For my second visit, I settled on The Hague, a city located in the southwest part of the Netherlands.  It offered salty air from the North Sea; reasonable pricing on hotels, restaurants, and shopping; and pristine streets.

Pinning a dart on an Orbitz hotel location and only having days to rearrange my itinerary, I decided on the Hotel Petit in The Hague.  It looked good from the reviews and I like it when hotel managers respond to Tripadvisor rants and raves.  The hotel could also accommodate my last-minute change of plans.

I couldn’t have made a better choice.

According to their Web site, the hotel is comprised of two mansions built in 1895.  I like old things and collect old photos, postcards, and vinyl records.  At home, I live in a pre-war building.  I’m used to character, quirks, and a lot of historical charm.

Emma, the manager, as well as all of the employees at the Hotel Petit couldn’t have been more welcoming.  I received personalized B&B service at a Best Western chain hotel.

My room was on the third floor and had a single bed; a few creature comforts such as a TV, refrigerator, and snacks; a large bathroom; and strong Wi-Fi service that was included in the stay.  I was checked in quickly and promptly given an orientation to The Hague.

The service and hospitality at the Hotel Petit goes far beyond a hello, nod, or a Hopje (coffee-flavored hard candy) laid on the pillow.  Becoming oriented to a new town is difficult, especially if you don’t know the language.  Yes, everyone in The Hague seems to speak English as it’s the center of politics (local and international) for the Netherlands, but learning a few phrases in Dutch can prove to be helpful when attempting to blend in and meet people.

I immediately asked about local transportation to the beach and city center.  The Hotel Petit is not located in the city center, but is close to everything whether traveling by foot, tram, bus, or cab.

I was issued an OV Chip Card for bus and tram service for five Euros along with instructions on how to reload it and where.  Many grocery stores allow you to “top up” your OV Chip Card and you can also add money at the kiosk at Centraal Station.  I was also sold a map for an additional five Euros and given explicit directions to where I wanted to go, eliminating the need for my iPhone other than for Instagramming my way around town.

My stay of four nights was peaceful and comfortable.  The Hotel Petit is located in the heart of the embassies, which made me feel at home like I was in Washington.  From a customer service standpoint, I had my tourist-related questions answered.  I was pointed to the 24 bus to get to city center; given directions to get to Scheveningen, the well-known beach resort for The Hague; and taught how to navigate the tram system, located four blocks away.  (The Line 3 to Loosduinen will get you close to the Hotel Petit according to Google maps, but the 24 bus will get you closer.  I learned this quickly.)

I only ate breakfast once at the hotel.  It was simple, fresh, and ample.  A few posters on Tripadvisor called it expensive, but at 10 Euros (including a rich-tasting coffee) I found it to be more than reasonable.

For the value, I found the Hotel Petit to be safe, clean, and quirky in its old-world-yet-fashionable way.

One morning, I left the hotel late and got a glimpse of a room that faced the rear of the hotel.  Not only did it have a larger bed, it also had a sofa and small terrace with double doors.  I was told by hotel staff that the rooms in the back were more peaceful than the rooms in the front where I was staying because they overlooked a small garden and not the street.

Happy with my stay, I told Emma that I’d be booking a room in the rear of the hotel on my return visit.

Note:  Concerned about the hike to the third floor while staying in a historic building?  There is elevator service at the Hotel Petit if you need assistance.  While I took the stairs every day to my third-floor room, it was nice to know that elevator service was available for hauling luggage.

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Drink: Jenever Is Not Jennifer

Bittenhof, The Hague, NL

Bittenhof, The Hague, NL

You may find yourself in The Hague on a rainy night in September.

However, you’re on vacation so it really doesn’t matter, does it?  Don’t let weather dictate what you want to do or see.  The Dutch still find a way to maneuver in a downpour, even on bikes, so blend and carry an umbrella.

You may be in need of a warming beverage.  Coffee is always an option and the Dutch are proud that they make a strong brew.  The coffee I had each morning at breakfast was intense and satisfying.

I also like a good, strong drink.  Enter Jenever.

Jenever is a Juniper-flavored style of Dutch gin.  I am on board with this because it sounds fancy even though I travel on a modest budget, and because I’ve developed an appreciation for gin.  Jenever also tastes like Ketel One vodka which is a bonus if you enjoy and can afford to go top shelf.

The key is determining what you want to enjoy:  the oude (old, yet aromatic and mellow) or jonge (clear, yet not forceful in taste.  I tasted both and have a preference for the oude.  

I experienced Jenever at the Hotel Des Indes.  It was served according to tradition:  chilled in a small curvy glass and filled to the top so you can see the meniscus.  You can chase it with Grolsch beer, according to custom.  However, it’s not necessary to do so.

Take in the rich history of the Hotel Des Indes with its period design and swank bar and restaurant.

Later, stroll by the Bittenhof, which is across a small park from the hotel.  Still raining?  Taking in the stately building will warm you as much as Jenever.

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Upcoming: The Netherlands

I love Belgium and the Netherlands if it isn’t already obvious.

The next few posts will focus on my recent trip to the Netherlands, particularly The Hague (Den Haag).  The terrain may be flat and a little unexciting, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. What the city lacks in landscape is made up for by its hospitable inhabitants and endless opportunities to experience Dutch life.

Do you think Amsterdam is all the Netherlands has to offer?  Head southwest; won’t be disappointed.

Special thanks to Paul H., a native of Den Haag for the tips, tours, and general integration into Dutch culture.