A Weekend with Thijs and Barbara

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

On Friday, we travelled to Utrecht, just 25 minutes east of Amsterdam to visit with our friends, Thijs (pronounced "Tice") and Barbara, a young couple we met in Thailand on the hill tribe trek in Chiang Mai in January.

Barbara met us at the train when we arrived and gave us both the traditional Dutch greeting reserved for friends - three kisses on the cheeks. Thijs was working, though we happened to see him cycling madly to a meeting that he was late for. He nearly fell off his bike when he saw us and tried to stop. It was hilarious; I will always have a picture of that in my head when I think of our visit with them! (One of the first things they both asked us was where Sponge Bob was as he accompanied us on our trip to SE Asia/the South Pacific. I had to tell them that he had finished his tour, though, acutally, we unintentionally left him behind.)

Utrecht is a university city of about 300,000. Thijs and Barbara, originally from other areas of the Netherlands, have lived there for about six years. Barbara works for the Netherlands government in public housing; Thijs is a real estate advisor for Ernst and Young. Barbara's educational background is international relations and political science and Thijs' is in business administration. They both speak excellent English and Barbara has studied French in France - she told me her French is probably better than her English! They can also understand most dialects of German, since it is similar to Dutch.

Housing in the Netherlands is very expensive. Barbara's guidebook indicates that there are, on average, 368 people per square metre, making housing a prime concern in a country that is only 200 km from east to west and 300 km from north to south and has a population of half that of Canada. Thijs and Barbara live in a very small rowhouse, about 14 ft wide and 55 ft long on the main floor (similar to the size of a small mobile home); the upstairs is smaller. A narrows garden runs long the side and back of the house. There are no basements. Their house is a study in the art of living in a very small space - furniture placement, utility of furnishings (flexibility) and minimizing clutter are very important. It makes me want to go home and get rid of everything I donīt use or need!

Thijs and Barbara would like to have children one day, but a larger house would be unaffordable for them in Utrecht. The house they have cost about 230,000 Euro (about 400,000 CDN) and needed major renovations! They told us that, with shortages of affordable housing, churches and hospitals are even being converted into apartments and houses are being built on islands to create additional living space.

Although houses are small, many people have pets, usually a cat or small dog. Thijs and Barbara have a cat they call "Hippie" and Martin delighted in teasing her. Martin loves to tease pets and kids - and Hippie just loves Martin.

We heard English being spoken quite often; everyone we met spoke English quite well, including Barbara's friend, Marietta, and Thijs' brother, Garrit. Garrit spent two years in England and, as a result, has an English accent. It has been no problem asking for directions/information in English. The Dutch even use some English phrases, such as "Let's go". Songs in English seem to be on every radio station.

Because everything is close at hand in the Netherlands, people don't tend to travel long distances. An hour is a long trip by car. Thijs and Barbara cycle every day to work. (With such busy traffic, it's often faster to travel by bike than by car.) Thijs does have a leased car (a Puegot) that he uses for work when he has to travel outside the city; Barbara usually travels longer distances by train. Although public transport here is excellent and gasoline very expensive (about 1.30 Euros per litre - over $2 CDN), people still drive and have not resorted much to carpooling.

Thijs and Barbara love to travel and have travelled to South America, Thailand and the Azores. They have also travelled widely in Europe and within the Netherlands. While we were visiting, they took us to see the beautiful houses along the Vecht Canal, the 17th century windmills with thatched roofs at Zaanse Schons (12 of the original 1,000 windmills are still operational), the tourist towns of Monnickendam and Volendam, and The Hague (Den Haag), the third largest city in the Netherlands and the centre of government. (Upon arriving in Volendam, I remembered that I had been there in 1981 with an organized tour that I took - we had our photo taken in traditional Dutch costume. I even spotted a Contiki bus while we were there - Contiki was the same tour company we travelled with 24 years ago!)

Thijs and Barbara also introduced us to some traditional Dutch foods, such as "battenbollen" (deepfried meatballs), "stroopwafel" or syrup waffles (a kind of thin chewy cookie with a waffle texture), "lekkerbek" and "keppeling" (delicious fresh water whitefish), and "stamppot" (potatoes mashed with other vegetables). The Dutch are also renowned for eating horse meat, but that isn't common anymore.

The Dutch are very respectful of the ocean, especially since they have spent their lives keeping the sea at bay. (Thijs and Barbara told us that the water is gradually winning the battle.) Since Cyclone Katrina hit New Orleans, they have been checking their dykes to ensure they could withstand a similar disaster. There are parts of the Netherlands that are more than 6 m below sea level.

I find it very interesting that no one here closes their curtains/blinds in the evening. You can walk by a house, look in and see exactly what the people who live there are doing, whether eating, reading or playing cards. It is only when people go to bed that they cover the windows. Perhaps they are very house-proud and welcome others seeing the insides of their homes or maybe it is the custom to show they have nothing to hide. I am not sure.

Barbara and Thijs, like most Dutch are very health conscious. They eat healthy and as well as riding their bikes to work, Barbara plays tennis and field hockey on a regular basis and Thijs windsurfs and mountain bikes. Neither smoke - they told us that fewer people are smoking and smoking is now restricted in some public places. (Thijs and Barbara were quick to tell us that Amsterdam was not like the rest of the Netherlands in this regard, as well as in many others.)

It was wonderful to spend some time with our Dutch friends and experience Dutch hospitality. It was a great way to start our trip!
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