an American expat in the Netherlands shares daily experiences
I believe in living with integrity and in choosing a lifestyle that shows respect for our environment. Although continually attracted to the idea of imminent success with the publication of my debut novel Green, I am also greatly drawn to living simply and living well: loving my family and friends, and being aware and present for those moments in life--a spontaneous hug from my son, a smile to a stranger, moments of insight--that define real connection and success with peace, love and happiness.
As a kid, I looked upon my mom’s (or grandma’s) souvenir spoon collection with a sense of wonder. Their delicately carved handles crested by a coat of arms, country flag or image of a castle or other location created a sense of grandeur and spoke of travel to far-away places.
Sometimes, they were the only remnants of exotic journeys long ago. Other times, they were kitschy after thoughts picked up in a souvenir shop. On display behind the locked doors of a glass cabinet or stored in the blue-velvet-lined boxes in which they came, one thing was for certain: they were off limits for little girls.
This off-limits idea must have been lingering in some corner of my adult mind, because at a church bazar a few years ago, I stopped at the table displaying fifty to sixty collectible souvenir spoons and looked at them with what could almost be described as longing. The woman behind the table sensed a sale and told me I could have the whole lot for five euros. In an act of pathetic 40-years-too-late rebellion, I went for it.
As I headed home with my spoils like a rebel pirate, I knew my souvenir spoon collection would have a different fate than the off-limit spoons of my childhood. There would be no glass cabinets or velvet boxes. These spoons would be utilitarian, used to stir tea and cocktails, dole out sugar or laid out as dessert spoons.
As anyone reading my blog knows, I have a thing about single-use plastic. In fact, those little plastic spoons you get every time you go to the ice cream parlor drive me freaking crazy. No one seems to even think about recycling them and some visitors don’t even bother to put them in the trash can, but throw them on the ground like a cigarette butt.
Then it hit me. The souvenir spoon has a functional place in this contemporary world; it is the perfect way to eat your ice cream! So the next time we headed out the door to go get an ice cream, I stopped my family in their tracks and suggested they each pick out a silver spoon. They’re used to me and they got it instantly. We marched down the street, ordered our ice cream and pulled out our own spoons–all mementos of stranger’s journeys.
There’s a heat wave this summer and I foresee many an ice cream or sorbet in our collective futures. Wouldn’t it be something if each and every one of us dug out those little souvenir spoons and pimped-our-ice cream cups and cones? Bling your Cream? Accessorize your cone? Experience life from the tip of a silver spoon?
If you go for it, please send me a picture and I’ll post them here!
One thing that really bothers me–besides males who leave the toilet seat up and all things Trump– is an errant plastic bag. Not just bags, but all plastics gone wild: plastic grocery bags caught in a tree, smeary sandwich wrappers discarded on the sidewalk, bottles stuffed into bushes, plastic forks and straws cracked and muddy in the gutter.
Much to the embarrassment of my family, I pick up plastic I find on the ground because I don’t want it to end up in the ocean or in the stomach of a bird, whale or sea turtle.
I’ve been feeling a bit like a freak in my pursuit of herding in the stray plastics over the past few years, because 1) people look at me funny 2) besides the guys and girls in lime green vests who have to pick up the street litter, no one else seems to even see the plastic on the ground, and 3) It’s kind of gross picking up plastic, but I can’t seem to help myself.
But the good thing is, times, they are a changing. I’ve met others like me. They are organizing neighborhood walks with friends to pick up trash, they plan beach cleans ups. They use Apps to take pictures of each piece of trash and that goes into a major database, which shows all the trash that people around the nation or world picked up that day.
Even Theresa May, Prime Minister of England, joined the plastic crusade. I haven’t seen her chasing a plastic bag through a parking lot, though you can use your imagination with this particular photo. However, she’s making huge impacts on a national level, and announced back in April that her government would be effectively banning single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds (I think cotton buds means cotton swabs or Q-tips in American English). She’s no newcomer to the plastic revolution. Back in January 2018, she was already lining up a long term plan to eliminate all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. I want to give her a hug and three kisses, even though I’d probably get arrested and insult her at the same time. Brits aren’t all that in to hugging, and the three kiss thing is something I’ve picked up while living in The Netherlands. God help me.
Sometimes you feel a bit nostalgic when something you felt was kind of ‘your niche’ is infiltrated by others. This is so not one of those things! I’m no longer the lone crazy lady chasing a plastic bag. The more the merrier! In fact, please join me. Maybe you’ll inspire others to follow suit.
On that note, I saw this hilarious Plastic Invasion video today that takes on the plastic insanity with humor and a realistic call to action in preparation for World Oceans Day on June 8th, 2018. Considering I’m already getting my hands dirty picking up wayward plastic, this is a natural step for me. What about doing this together? Doing what, exactly? Check out the video and let me know what you think. Seriously. You have a twitter account. You’re social media aware if you’re reading this post. Let’s do this together! If you’re game, please let me know in the comments section.
I’ll leave you with three cool links that all provide various ways of getting a grip on our worldwide plastic problem.
Disclaimer: No single-use plastics were used in the creation of this post. However, this post was typed on a computer keyboard made of plastic, connected to a plastic mouse and a monitor, largely made of plastic. Holy Hell!
I grew up in Solvang, California, a quaint Danish-themed town founded in 1911 by two Danish ministers and a Danish professor. Solvang, which means Sunny Field in Danish, is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley, a rural area full of equestrian ranches, farms, vineyards, old barns, Christian churches and long and winding roads.
People were either Christians and Catholics or ‘folks who didn’t go to church’ and the majority voted Republican. I never saw a person in a headscarf or turban the entire time I lived in the valley.
Although the majority of us lived in the surrounding countryside, downtown Solvang was a tourist town. This gave residents a chance to encounter tourists from all over the world, but they were just passing through. So you might say the closest we got to embracing diversity was selling the tourists Danish pastries, souvenirs and bottles of wine.
Walking down the covered outdoor halls in high school, it was not uncommon to see one of my cowboy classmates practicing his lasso technique in between classes. (What was his name? Junior? That sweet guy who died in a car accident our sophomore year?)
There were boys with muscles earned on the football or water polo team and other boys layered with muscles from work on their family farms.
Just before I started high school, a movie theater came to the neighbouring town a few miles away. After all these years, the town of Solvang still doesn’t have it’s own movie theatre, though it does boast an outdoor theater for theatrical performances and we celebrate Danish Days each September.
The human landscape of my school was a vast sea of milky white Caucasians (a number of which had Danish ancestry); perhaps 15 percent of students from Mexico, Central or South America, a handful of classmates with varying percentages of Chumash Indian in their blood and only three students in the entire school with gorgeously dark equatorial skin.
One year I went to high school prom with my friend Ali, who happened to be one of the three aforementioned students (in this case from Ethiopia). He picked me up in a sleek car he had borrowed from his father (Mercedes? Jaguar?) and took me to a fancy restaurant. I was so nervous in my silly black and white prom dress. My requisite high heels felt like torture to a young woman who preferred tennis shoes any given day of the week. I walked gingerly in my heels like a delicate, breakable thing, the tomboy in me appalled by the pain in my feet and the low dipping neckline of my prom dress.
Ali was just a friend, yet there it was. We were going to prom together. And surely that suggested that we were at least open to the idea of being more than friends? I think we were both contemplating this unspoken suggestion as we sat like elegant grown ups at one of the best restaurants in the valley, the white table cloths, china plates and stylish silverware a fitting presentation for the three course meal on its way.
As we ate our first course, Ali glanced over at me, his eyes darting nervously downward to that low cut v in my neckline and back up again. I could feel the heat in my cheeks. Why was he looking there? He was such a proper young man and yet his eyes were, what, checking me out?
“Um. You’ve got, um . . .” he motioned with his elegant fingers toward that v exposing my cleavage. My eyes followed to where he was pointing and I discovered a damp spinach leaf plastered to my chest.
“Oh.” I excused myself and went to the restroom to remove the offensive leaf, wipe the olive oil and balsamic dressing from my skin and try to do something about the deep flush of embarrassment coloring my cheeks.
When we arrived at the dance, I ran into a friend (let’s call her Laura for the sake of storytelling) who had clearly gotten her hands on some wine coolers (it was the late 80s folks), as I could smell the sweet alcohol on her breath.
“Is that your date?” Laura asked, nodding toward Ali.
“Yes,” I responded, confused by the strange tone of her voice.
“He’s black. ” Laura squeezed her otherwise pretty face into a mask of ugliness.
I recognize racism in action just as much as the next person, but I honestly didn’t get it. If anything, I was a bit jealous of all that pigment that protected Ali’s skin from the hot valley weather while my fair skin required copious amounts of sunscreen. And now I felt somehow judged because . . . he’s black. Yes. And?
That’s pretty much where the conversation with Laura ended. Although I’d hung out at her house a number of times, we’d drifted apart in high school and this one little act was like an invisible nail in the invisible coffin of our friendship.
I don’t think Laura was representative of the majority of people in my school, but her sentiments weren’t exactly new either. I’d heard a few derogatory comments from my classmates over the years about people of color and homosexuals, but in general, racist sentiments where usually the sort of stupid B.S. you’d hear from older generations, not people my own age. After all, we grew up post-segregation, post civil rights, post sixties. And despite the negative stereotypes culture pressed upon us through media, our idols included Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and a long list of beautifully-tinted others. The way I reasoned, my home town was an isolated little community in the countryside, but still– everyone had heard of Martin Luther King and his dream.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little encounter at a school dance in my youth was a defining moment for me. I might not have had the words to express it back then, but I craved something bigger, broader, more exciting and challenging. I didn’t want to live in a monochrome world. I craved culture and diversity and friends who wouldn’t screw up their face if my prom date was black, wouldn’t blink if two guys were dancing to my right and two girls making out on my left. This didn’t come to me like some sort of manifesto of how I wanted to live my life, but it was one of many moments that have brought me to where I am now.
My views might have been affected by the fact that my oldest brother was dating a woman who was half African American, half German who would end up being his wife one day and eventually become his ex-wife. In the meantime, they would have two children whose beautiful skin tones I would also envy, and his children would grow into adulthood and bring about another generation of children with superior skin tones.
My other brother, an artist who spent some time playing in a punk band and traveled to Europe years before I even knew what a passport looked like, also played a big role in showing me what diversity looked like.
Diversity followed me wherever I went. Or maybe I sought it out, from a year at the University of Hawaii where I experienced what it was like to be a minority; playing in a reggae band during my university years and eventually marrying a man from another culture–albeit Caucasian like me– and eventually moving abroad.
Perhaps I was destined to live in The Hague, the international city of Peace & Justice. I am neither a majority or a minority, I am simply one nationality among many, all taking the same trams, going to the theaters, planning a weekend trip to the beach. My son’s Dutch elementary school has more than 40 nationalities. I’m pretty good at spelling, but am seriously challenged when I try to spell the names of his friends and schoolmates: Abdounoor (spelling?) Rashinella (sp?), Gonjhairo, Basit . . . you get the picture.
My hometown has a population of 5,245. The Hague is a wee bit bigger. I particularly like the category of ‘other’ with a population of 129,242, which makes up close to 25% of The Hague’s population. Come to think of it, as an American, I am the ‘other.’
My home town breaks down a bit differently:
I still love Solvang, and the Santa Ynez Valley in which it is nestled and wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. I am grateful to have maintained contact over the years with friends from this precious time in my life and I still consider this beautiful valley my home. But I am also thankful that my son is growing up bilingual in such a culturally diverse world.
Do you still live in your home town? Or have you traveled far from your place of origin? What has it done to change you? If you’ve lived away for a number of years, would you be able to move ‘home’ and assimilate, or do you think it would cramp your style?
(Strange. I wrote this post on April 29th and it published as March, 2017! What’s going on WordPress? Or is this an operator error?)
I grew up in Solvang, a small Danish-themed tourist town in California, and like many Americans, there was a soundtrack to my childhood.
It started out with a hodgepodge of what my older brothers and parents listened to: The Beatles and The Velvet Underground (artist-musician brother), Blue Oyster Cult and Rush (football star party-animal brother), Andy Williams, Sinatra and Beethoven (definitely the parental units). That was accompanied by the soundtrack of greater society: what you hear in the mall, on the radio, at your friend’s houses. Initially, I mistook my family’s tastes for my own, gravitating the most toward artist-brother’s selections. I knew the lyrics to many Beatles songs by heart, and with each new album he purchased–the Red album, the Blue album, the White album, Abbey Road–my song repertoire expanded.
By the time I was in junior high school, I started my very own collection of tapes. I would save up my allowance, beefed up by the occasional pilfering of shiny quarter wishes from the bottom of the town fountains and head to Santa Barbara to expand my music collection. I believed my tastes to be in the ilk of Van Halen and Guns ‘n Roses, but when it came to parting with my quarters and actually purchasing albums, artist-brother’s British tastes had infiltrated my own selections. Although I had quite a few Billy Joel, Huey Lewis & The News and Bruce Springsteen albums, The Police, Dire Straits and Duran Duran were in the mix.
I knew that American bands were known abroad, but I somehow imagined this was mainly the case in England and other English-speaking countries. My first trip to Europe in the late 1990s seemed to confirm my assumption; I spent three weeks in Italy, where I only heard Italian music on the radio and in the shops and restaurants.
Without any other European experience, my expectation was that The Netherlands would be a land filled with Dutch music and that the soundtrack of my life up until I moved abroad would be a nostalgic compilation left on the other side of the Atlantic.
Oh. So. Wrong. Maybe Americans and Brits are no longer “everywhere” but our music sure is. It’s on Dutch radio, in the gym, in the restaurants, in the clubs. I should have been clued in when I started dating a Dutch guy who knew most of the music I listened to. Now that Dutch guy is my Dutch husband.
We have a running joke about music in public spaces: When we walk into a pub or restaurant, we affect the median age of customers on the premises and the music on the radio adjusts accordingly to our musically formative years i.e. high school and university years.
In other words, I can hear Guns & Roses, Bruce Springsteen, The Police and just about anything else from my youth by just walking into an establishment. Or maybe we just had some kick-ass music during our youth that has stood the test of time.
According to a large number of articles over the past five years, you are no longer what you eat; you are what you post! Does this small representation of the thousands of songs I was exposed to in my youth now become a shortlist of how I am represented? Am I simply a summation of a few lines of text? No Husker Du or Black Flag, The Carpenters or Carole King, no Antara & Delilah, Ben Howard or Jim Bianco?
I am an American shaped by American and British music. But to think that this music was somehow an exclusively American or British experience is just not the case. While we were Rock’n in the Free World (Neil Young or Bon Jovi cover style), so were high school and university students in The Netherlands and presumably countless numbers of others throughout the world.
What most likely remains rather exclusive is the local music, the indie bands that are amazing, but never make it to a national or global level. But this is no reason to keep it to yourself. Support these bands; honor their contribution to the rather niche soundtrack of your life and spread the joy of their music.
I have experienced a strange duality of interests over the past few days. In The Netherlands, we experienced a freak snow storm that resulted in code red warnings, early closures of businesses and horrendous travel conditions that basically shut the country down for two days. Despite all of the hassle, it was stunningly beautiful and surprisingly quiet for those few days the snow lasted.
It’s quite common for people to turn inward and be less social when in cold climates, especially in the middle of winter. Snow changes that dynamic. There is an almost contagious giddiness and excitement that spreads through the population.
Adults give way to their inner child, children go berserk and even stoic figures known for their curmudgeonly behavior lighten up a bit. With less traffic and workers advised to stay home, people of all ages were out in their snow clothing, pulling children in sleds, engaging in snowball warfare and building snowmen.
Even though I’ve been living in The Netherlands for seven years now, I’m still a Californian at heart and I stay in touch with events going on in my home town. Just like in The Netherlands, people on the Central Coast of California have also been advised to stay inside and work at home, but for drastically different reasons.
While I have been throwing snowballs at neighbors and taking up way too many megabytes on my iPhone on snow videos, a massive fire known as The Thomas Fire has been burning through the central coast region of California.
I’ve been in contact with my brother, getting updates on his experiences and watching the news as the fire grew from 50,000 acres to 230,000 acres and is still going strong.
Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem and can actually help replenish nutrients in the soil. Yet that renewal comes at a deadly cost. Many animals have died, homes have burned and although the human death toll has remained very low, the Thomas fire is full of devastation for many.
Thick ash covers the streets, the air is dark, hazy and it’s hazardous to breathe in the particulates floating through the air. According to some, it feels like living in a war zone or some strange apocalyptic world. I wish I could send some of our rain from the Netherlands to California to help put out these fires, but nature seems to know what she’s doing, as do the legions of fire fighters keeping the fires away from the majority of homes.
I’m praying to the weather gods in tandem: for more snow ball material to fall from the skies in The Netherlands and for rain to pour down on my California homeland.
When we visited Barcelona three weeks ago, my excitement was threefold: 1) I was there to celebrate my brother- and -sister-in-laws 25th wedding anniversary; 2) I was about to revisit La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a magical place I have kept alive in my memory since my first visit 13 years ago and 3) I was finally going on vacation.
I remembered Barcelona as a beautiful, thriving, architecturally stimulating city of friendly people. I remembered La Sagrada Familia as a sacred space in the middle of the city that brought me such as sense of calm and well-being that I had no doubt that God was present within its walls.
Would Barcelona and La Sagrada Familia live up to my memories? Or had I blown that first visit completely out of proportion?
We arrived at night and were whisked off to the family apartment, where we stayed up late enjoying the company of half of my husband’s immediate family. It wasn’t until the next morning that we ventured out into the city. After a lovely morning exploring a local flea market, followed by a too-short visit to a national museum, we headed to La Sagrada Familia in time for our afternoon reservation.
Sometimes expectations and built up anticipation are the perfect recipe for disappointment. But the funny thing about La Sagrada Familia is that it will never be exactly as someone remembers it, since it has been undergoing construction since 1862 with estimates of completion in 2026. Although several architects have worked on it throughout the years, it is Antonio Gaudi’s organic design that defines the building we now see. He took over the project in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926.
As we waited outside in line, I looked to the exterior, awe firmly intact. But when we finally made it inside, tears filled my eyes. Despite the crowds, the heat, clicks of cameras and cell phones all around me, its sacredness had not diminished. If anything, it had expanded.
In my second novel The Things We Said in Venice, travel vlogger Alexi visits La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona–one of many stops on her international trip. Here is a passage from my novel about this sacred place designed by Antonio Gaudi.
As she edges inside, the hushed murmurs of the crowd convey awe and wonder that mimics her own. The building is spacious, filled with light. Off-white columns rise skyward like trees. Flower-shaped stained-glass windows bathe the walls in gold, green and orange. The vaulted nave soars forty-five meters high. She has seen this sacred church in books, read about it online, but nothing could have prepared her for this moment.
~ Chapter 3, The Things We Said in Venice
Although Alexi is a fictional character in my novel, we nonetheless have a few things in common. We both like visiting churches when we travel, and we always light a candle for someone when we’re there.
My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were married in La Sagrada Familia, and thus part of the festivities was to attend a Catholic mass in the lower chapel of the church with friends and family on Sunday. The priest, who said he would mention them during the service, actually seemed to shape his sermon around love and commitment and called them out time and time again during the mass. To accommodate the visitors from The Netherlands (the majority of the groom’s family), they asked my husband to do a reading from the Bible in Dutch.
This lower chapel is at the basement level, thus visitors on the ground floor can peer over the balcony at the church-goers and observe the religious as a curiosity, or perhaps experience a moment of connection with faith.
Something that intrigued me about Barcelona when I visited so long ago was the idea that two languages were spoken in this city: Spanish and Catalonian. I didn’t fully get the history of this difference at the time, but seeing signs throughout the city in two languages had made an impression on me back in 2004.
When we visited last month, we saw the Catalonian flag flying from balconies and saw signs with the flag throughout the city with the word “Si” printed above it. While sipping cava at the anniversary party at a beautiful restaurant, I asked my Catalonian table mate Marta J. about the Catalonian flag hanging from so many balconies and what the “si” was all about. She explained the long standing and ever-growing tensions between the Catalonians and the Spanish government. A large section of the Catalonian population wants independence, but the Spanish government is adamantly opposed to secession. The flag was a reminder to vote “Si” or “No” during the upcoming referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, even though the judicial branch of the government had deemed the referendum illegal / was not giving credence to Catalonia’s right to voice its will.
I thought of the beginnings of my own country of origin, how bloody hard our ancestors fought for freedom from the crown and how that freedom formed The United States. I felt sorry for the Catalonians, trapped within a larger country that did not honor their independence and apparently didn’t value their contribution to society. It’s not like they could sail across the world and discover a new land and set up there. They were already home.
The tension between Catalonia and the Spanish government is nothing new, and somehow, in my short visit years ago, I picked up on that tension. In fact, it playfully made a cameo in my 2017 novel. In this passage, travel vlogger Alexi is filming a vlog post for her followers, and imparts a bit of cultural knowledge, while providing insight into her own character with Catalonia as metaphor.
“This city is beautiful, the people friendly, but there is a strange duality here. The signs are both in Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is a unique language quite similar to Spanish that is only spoken in four provinces known as the Catalonia region of Spain. The history of Catalonia and the reason for a separate language within Spain is a bit complicated, but just Google it and you can get the scoop.
“So I’m like Barcelona. I have two languages within me; two cultures coming together. I’m not talking about actual languages, but rather a duality of personalities. Although friendly and comfortable in one-on-one situations, I’m actually quite shy in my day-to-day life. I work in counseling, and my clients value me. But now I’m on a one-year sabbatical, discovering another me — my freedom, my individuality, the Catalonia within me.”
~ Alexi during a vlog post in The Things We Said in Venice
Our five-day trip to Barcelona ended the first week of September, but Barcelona was definitely in my thoughts as October 1st approached. This is the day Catalonians would attempt to vote for their independence from Spain.
I, like many people throughout the world, was shocked to witness the violence in Barcelona captured on the news and social media. Just a few weeks earlier I had only witnessed sunshine, peacefulness and beauty. The police brutality and denial of the right for Catalonians to hold a referendum recalls harsher chapters in Spain’s history. Is this the face the Spanish government wants to show the world?
To add a little background, consider these words from the website Armstrong Economics: In the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence.
A bit more research reveals that in 2006, this statute of autonomy was challenged by Spain’s high court of justice, and there have been growing protests throughout Catalonia ever since.
Will the international community come to Catalonia’s defense? Unless there are rich natural resources to usurp or threats of mass genocide, it seems the international community is rather reluctant to get involved in civil debates–though civil hardly seems like the proper term here.
Just as I was about to publish my post, a friend who had just had a romantic weekend getaway in Barcelona, sent me pictures from her trip. Based on the smiling faces, the gorgeous Mediterranean sea, the lovely touristic shots, life in Barcelona continues despite the protests on both sides.
One of the last shots she sent me seemed to be the perfect way to end this post.
If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.
As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.
“I don’t have my bag!”
His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.
“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.
“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.
We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.
If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.
But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.
Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.
Leeuwarden or Bust!
As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.
We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.
I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.
Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.
I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left. The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.
We walked the four hundred meters and arrived at Blokhuispoort, our final destination.
We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!
The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.
We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.
It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?
“We’ll take it!”
The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.
We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.
Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.
What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.
I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.
The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.
If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.
Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.
The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.
Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.
Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?
In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.
In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.
So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.