Dear Holland: a love letter

If you’re reading this, then we are officially no longer residence of the Netherlands.

I started to write this post a few days ago, but something just didn’t feel right about it. Last week, we finished watching the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix, and it made me realize that we’re having our own version of ‘the last dance’ – our Last Dutch Dance! Naturally, I started wandering around the house muttering things to Meatball like “This is the last week of squeaky floors! 🙌” and “This is the last week you can sleep in a king-sized bed! 😣”. It made me realize what was missing from my original post was a little bit of heart. Yes, I can tell you all the standard reasons why the Netherlands is a great country to live in (work/life balance, universal healthcare, pragmatic attitudes) – if you’re interested in specifics I’d love to talk about it in detail one-on-one. Instead, I’d rather tell you all the personal reasons we loved living in Holland.


Our Apartment.

I first want to pay homage to our little apartment over the flower shop. Actually, for Dutch standards, it’s not so little, but when we first moved here in 2014 from a 2 bedroom + living + diving + sunroom apartment in Pittsburgh, it sure felt small. Despite all the apartment frustrations (squeaky floors, mice, bees, perpetually cold, terrible wifi) it’s been a great apartment. It came furnished, we can walk to the city center in ~5 min, we have some great views and a really cool landlord.

Over the years we’ve learned to deal with all the quirks: Meatball can catch mice, I can catch bees, Shane bought a space heater, and well – the wifi is still shit. Suddenly, the furnished apartment we found on the internet from across an ocean turned into a home.

View from the living room window.

Bikes!

Biking just outside Groningen city (May 2019).

Now, I realize that this one is quintessentially Dutch, but it’s true! Bikes. are. life. The average number of bikes per person in the Netherlands is 1.3 (and 1.4 in Groningen), and it makes sense. The majority of trips are made on the bike. To the grocery store, to the city center, to work, for leisure activities. And you can’t just have one bike. If you have space, then one should always consider keeping a guest bike, or a crappier bike to take to the city center where the risk of being stolen is higher.

Shane and I bought bikes the first week we arrived. Miraculously, Shane has managed to keep the same bike all 6 years. I may or may not be on bike #4 (2 stolen, 1 rusted apart). Regardless, I will never forget that first week re-learning how to be comfortable on a bike. Over the years, I would say we fit right in. We’ve mastered the art of biking with your hands in your pockets, transporting crates of beer (or a cat, or Christmas tree), staying up-right after a few too many drinks, and navigating the mayhem of a four-way-free-for-all-bike-intersection unscathed.

Biking isn’t always fun though. We’ve both had our run-ins – with cars, buses, scooters, and other people. One time the side mirror of a car caught Shane’s bike handle and just pulled him along… only slightly scary. We’ve also had our fair share of weather. We don’t have a car, so rain or shine, wind or heavy wind, if you need to get from A to B then it’s to the bike, Batman! Sometimes it would be nice to have a car, but the ease and accessibility of using the bike outweigh the occasional inconvenience. Plus, bike maintenance is much cheaper than car maintenance…

We sold our bikes just before we left Groningen. Shane spent €60 on his bike the first week, and sold it for €25, making his net bike cost per year (excluding maintenance) €5.80. Over the years, I spent €270 and had to give the damn thing away for free because no one would buy it, bringing my bike cost per year to €45. I personally think I won this contest, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.

The Market.

Our first Saturday market trip (June 2014).

This is not a secret. We love our market!

Het beste markt van Nederland 2016! 🥇 *humble brag*

It’s the best market in the Netherlands every year in my book! This will be, hands down, the number one thing we miss in Groningen. We have shopped at the market every Saturday from the moment we arrived. Why? It’s cheaper than the grocery store, there is more variety, you can find local produce (or at least national produce), and it has a great atmosphere. Plus, it’s just fun to have a ‘spice lady’, a ‘dried beans guy’, and a ‘THE veggie stand’.

Relatedly, another thing I am going to miss is making people happy with exact change. The Netherlands doesn’t use the one and two-cent euro coins. Instead, if you’re paying in cash, then your purchase will be rounded to the nearest 5 cents.

For instance, at the grocery store, you weigh your own fruit and print a sticker with the final price. If I wanted a single banana, then smart-me would find the banana that costs €0.17, because when I pay in cash I’ll only pay €0.15! But, if my banana is too heavy and comes out to be €0.18 cents, well then I’m overpaying for that banana (by a whole €0.02)! Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

At the market, vendors LOVE exact change and with the rounding system, it makes it easy! I would LIVE for those Saturday “ooh mooie!” (ooh, great!) moments. Unfortunately for me, making people happy with exact change has become a casualty of coronavirus.

Our last Saturday market trip (May 2020).

Food.

Clockwise from top-left: brokkelkaas, stroopwafels, Groninger droogeworst, and puur pinda rotjes.

If I’m being honest, Dutch food isn’t all that exciting. I’m stereotyping a little, but a typical day would be bread (with butter, jelly, or hagelslag) for breakfast, bread (with cheese or a savory spread) + a boiled egg for lunch, and some form of meat and potatoes (and maybe veggie) for dinner.

The Dutch only eat “warm” at dinner, so when Miss Americana here showed up on day 1 of my new job asking for a microwave to re-heat my leftovers I was met with some confused looks. Another food faux-pas: mixing peanut butter and hagelslag (sprinkles) on the same piece of bread. This makes no sense to me, as hagelslag is typically chocolate flavored, and who doesn’t love peanut butter + chocolate combo?!

There are a few things we will miss though, like droogeworst (dried meats, spiced regionally), stroopwafels, zuurkoolschotel (sourkraut casserole), stamppot (potatoes + endive or kale mashed together), and Groninger mustard.

The two things I will miss the most? Gevulde spekulaas, which I’ve raved about before, and cheese. I am unabashedly a cheese snob now. Brokkelkaas anyone? 😋 Shane’s top choice? Droogeworst with cheese accompaniment.

Terrace Culture.

First sunny day [pre-coronavirus] (March 2020).

Of all the restrictions we’ve faced during the coronavirus lockdown, I think this is the one that hurts the Dutch the most. Especially since the weather has started to turn warmer. Terrace culture is no joke here – if the sun is out, then the terraces are packed. I like to lovingly refer to the Dutch as ‘anti-vampires’, a group in which I now include myself, because if the sun is out then people are in it. It’s also comparable to cats when they find that one sliver of sunlight…

Sun-kitty.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging. Over the years we have come to worship the sun like the Dutch. It’s almost like you’re brainwashed to think “Sun. Must sit. Terrace. Beer. Now!”. Don’t want to pay for beers at a restaurant? No worries, generally speaking, there are no ‘open-container laws’ here. We just pop some beers in a backpack and head out. One of our favorite spots was the Oosterhaven (East Port) just down the street from us.

The Oosterport (March 2020).

The Weather.

Beautiful Dutch day on top of the Forum in Groningen (December 2019).

If you don’t complain about the weather, are you even Dutch? I’m pretty sure NOT complaining is a reason to fail the integration exam… So, I would be remiss not to bring it up.

Long story short? It’s a love-hate relationship.

Love: The sunshine! When it’s beautiful outside, it’s really beautiful. Even if its cold, a sunny day changes everyone’s attitude. When it’s warm and sunny the city has a certain inspiring energy to it.

The Witte Molen on a sunny day (March 2020).

Hate: The lack of sunshine. Sometimes, it will go literally weeks without seeing the sun. This can be particularly uninspiring in the winter when it’s grey all day and dark at 16:30. And, in Groningen at least, there are always a few weeks of thick fog that add to the gloom.

Shane’s work building in fog (Nov 2015)

Love: How fast the light changes. Sunrise and sunset change so quickly that it’s noticeable from week to week which gives you hope during those dark winter months. We are currently coming into peak light season, where the sun will come up at ~05:00 and set at ~23:00.

Hate: Trying to sleep during peak light season. Blackout curtains required! 😆

~23:00 June 21, 2019.

Love: The weather is consistent. When in doubt plan for windy, cold and rainy. Plus side, I have a lot of jackets now!

Hate: The weather is consistent. I miss having true seasons. I don’t necessarily miss those stiflingly hot & humid North Carolina summers, but inevitably I reach a point in the spring (right about now actually) when I’m just sick and tired of being cold all the damn time. When it’s June and I still have to wear a jacket… 😑

We have had some heatwaves (last summer) and were lucky enough to see the canals freeze, so temperature swings do happen. Just don’t expect to wear shorts all summer, or see snow in the winter.

Frozen canals during the ‘Siberian Bear’ (March 2018)

Despite my love-hate relationship with the weather, I can say without a doubt that moving to the Netherlands was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We’ve had a lot of personal milestones over these past 6 years: we got married, traveled to 17 new countries, learned a new language (sort of), Shane got a PhD, and I’ve found 2 jobs. But I think, more importantly, moving to another country has completely changed our perspective on life. When the scripts are flipped and your the outsider, the immigrant, the person who doesn’t understand the language – it changes you. Personally, I think it’s made me bolder, more patient, more compassionate, and instilled a sense of personal responsibility to understand others’ cultures.

A bucket-list item – the pyramids! Cairo, Egypt (April 2017).

We’ve also grown as a couple. Moving across an ocean with another person can go one of two ways. Thankfully, for us, it’s only brought us closer together. We’ve both moved out of our comfort zone in one way or another, and had the benefit of the others’ support to get through it. And, thanks to that Dutch work/life balance, we’ve had the financial means to enjoy living in Europe and the time to establish life priorities as a couple. Quarantine ain’t got nothin’ on us!

So, to the Netherlands, and to Groningen in particular, we are forever grateful! And to all the people we’ve met along the way:

Dutch, Canadian, Chinese, Finnish, German, Indian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Luxembourgish, Mexican, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Syrian, Swiss, and Turkish

Thank you for welcoming us and making our expat life complete. 💛

And with that, we’re off to the next chapter – Germany!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Groningen Round-Up 4 (Quarantine Edition)

It’s been about six weeks since I last posted about our trip to Munich for Shane’s interview, and, despite being in ‘intelligent lockdown’, quite a bit has changed since then!

First up… can you spot the difference?!

If you guessed bikes vs flowers well, you’re wrong. 🤷‍♀️

But you were close though – so good try! The temporary tourist center building has been taken down! The tourist center moved into The Forum, which is a massive and beautiful new building that’s home to not only the tourist center, but the library, study rooms, a kids center, a movie theater, and multiple places to have a drink and a snack. We are lucky to have checked it out back in December because it’s been closed since mid-March and won’t reopen until at least June.

View from the top of The Forum.

And no, you didn’t read that wrong – ‘intelligent lockdown’ is the official term for our status here in Holland.

What does that mean exactly? Well, pretty much the same as most other places. Bars, gyms, massage parlors and sex shops (lol) have been closed since mid-March. Restaurants are closed except for take-out. Weed shops were initially closed but were deemed essential (😉) and re-opened for take-away after 24 hours. Masks (at this point) are optional.

Stored-away chairs and tables in city center.

Essential stores are still open – including the market! *insert singing angels*

Like most things right now, people have a lot of opinions about what should and should not be open. The market was not excluded from this but, it’s open-air, bigger than a grocery store, and providing an essential service so it stayed. To keep people separated, they have expanded the width of the market to include the street, and stands must have a way to keep people 1.5m apart from one another. They have also implemented ‘market police’ so to speak, who walk around ensuring people follow the social distancing rules.

The ‘market police’ in yellow, and barriers to keep cars/bikes out and limit the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Our veggie stand with designated spots. Not pictured is the tape on the ground so you know how far back to wait in line.

Other than the gym, life hadn’t changed much for us up until Friday. My job wasn’t very WFH friendly, so 4 days a week I was hopping the bus to head to work (and properly disinfecting when I got there).

Ok – so maybe Shane felt the effects of the closed climbing gym more than I…

Why up until Friday?

Because I’m officially UNEMPLOYED BABBBYYY!!

I know. It seems like a really odd thing to be celebrating right now given that millions of people in America are unemployed and not by choice.

For us, my last day at work means that we are one step closer to our next chapter in life – Munich!

Quick update here. Long story short, we’ve been delayed for one month – our original plan was to move at the end of April. We should technically be there as I write this. Shane should start work on Monday but, the consulate is closed, so he’s unable to get a temporary visa which would allow him to start working. We can enter Germany with just our passports for up to 90 days, but this doesn’t give you the right to work. The new plan is to apply for a work visa with the German consulate if it opens after May 20th, when the Netherlands re-assesses the lockdown, or we will head to Germany at the end of the month (on our passports) so we can register with the city of Munich and apply for residency. This option also gives you the right to work. Option 2 may delay his start date one more month, but in a corona-world you do what you can!

As for the move to Ecuador, that is postponed. For how long is still uncertain, but currently Ecuador’s borders are closed so until they re-open we will be hanging out in Munich.

And until Munich, we will be enjoying our last month living in the Netherlands! It’s certainly not an ideal way to leave the country – we had hoped to make it to a few more museums, or take some weekend trips, but I guess that’s our fault for waiting 6 years to do those things.

In the meantime, we’ve been up to… well, probably what everyone else has been. Baking, Nintendo, people-watching from our windows, and walks. A lot of walks.

I’ll never not be excited by police on horses.
Bikes don’t interrupt sidewalk construction in this country!

Oh! And I almost forgot – we celebrated our last King’s Day on April 27th. Indoors. On a G-O-R-G-O-U-S day. Probably the best weather on King’s Day we’ve had. Well played, Netherlands. ✌️

To anyone reading this, stay healthy, stay sane, and remember…

It will get better again. 🧡

Tot ziens,

Whitney

The adventure continues!

Six years ago, we moved to the Netherlands so that I (Shane) could complete a PhD.

Last March, I completed said PhD. Since that time, I’ve searched for a postdoc position while working as a freelance science editor. Why such a long job search? Well, there are a couple of issues:

  1. My research interests are very specific.
  2. I need a long-term position; most postdocs are 1-2 years, which complicates Whitney’s ability to find a job.
  3. The location needs to have options for Whitney to work (i.e., biotech).

As you can imagine, these stipulations have severely limited my options and, to be perfectly honest, caused me to reconsider my academic ambitions. Nonetheless, we persevered (I say we because Whitney continually supported and encouraged me) and we finally have good news to share –

I got a postdoc position!

Image result for the cat's out of the bag gif
Get it? The cat’s out of the bag…

In her last post, Whitney covered our recent train trip to Munich. What she purposely omitted from this story was that the trip wasn’t all fun and games (don’t worry, she’ll have a ‘fun times in Munich’ post soon enough).

In truth, I had an interview at Ludwig Maximilian University. To keep a long story short, the interview went well and I accepted the position!

Got the offer while we were still in Munich.

Safe to say, I am very excited for this position. Not only does it meet all of the requirements I listed above (my specific research interests, longer-term, and a good location), but it also fulfills additional ‘wants’ of mine. I’ll try to keep this as short as possible as I explain:

During my PhD, I studied how adaptation to the local environment can influence patterns of speciation and biodiversity. More specifically, I studied how visual adaptation affects behavior.

Why is this important?

Well, if you think of our our day-to-day lives, we humans are greatly influenced by our visual perception of the world. Vision influences the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the mates we choose, and whether or not we step in front of that on-coming bus. Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that similar processes are important to other animals.

To this point in my research career, I have worked exclusively in fish model systems (threespine sticklebacks, zebrafish, African cichlids), as they are very amendable to studies of visual perception and behavior (fish have similar visual systems to humans). Obviously, it would make sense to continue within fish-based research for a postdoc position, as this plays to my expertise and comfort. However, postdocs are a time to expand and learn new techniques. Thus, we come to my new position at LMU.

I will continue to explore how the local environment influences visual perception and corresponding behaviors, but will expand to incorporate other sensory systems and aspects of neural anatomy. Excitedly, this project will not be fish-based, but focus on the Heliconius butterflies of Central and South America. Evolutionary biologists have studied these butterflies for nearly 150 years and, much like the African cichlids of my PhD, Heliconius represents a large radiation of multiple species that have adapted to differing environments. Thus, this project will challenge me to learn a new model system and to incorporate new variables into my research (e.g., chemosensory perception and the anatomy of the brain).

Image result for heliconius
image courtesy of: Wikipedia

The most exciting part of this project? It’s mostly field-based! Though I didn’t include this as a ‘requirement’ of a postdoc position, it was a strong desire. I’ve completed a fair amount of fieldwork over the past ten years (in British Columbia, Tanzania, and Corsica) and was hopeful I could continue to do. So, after a few months of organization in Munich, it’s off to Ecuador! Best of all, Whitney and Meatball will join!

That’s right, the whole clan is moving to Tena, Ecuador for 18-24 months!

At this point, details are still being worked out. For now, we know that I will start in early May and that we will need to find temporary housing in Munich. In ~July, we will move to Ecuador. Whitney has given her official notice at work and will finish up at the end of April. We’re not exactly sure what she will be doing in next ~2 years, but we’re hopeful she can find a remote position or, at the very least, work as a science editor as I have done for the past 6-7 months. Regardless, she’s not going to miss the opportunity to live in the rainforest for two years. After fieldwork, we will return to Munich for the remainder of the position (~2 more years), which should give Whitney ample employment opportunities (biotech is well-represented in Munich).

So, after a long period of relative quiet, the pace of life has picked up dramatically. Per tradition, we celebrated my new position with a trip to ‘t Pannekoekschip.

We’ve also started learning Spanish (we’re ignoring German language requirements for now) and will soon need to find apartments in Munich and Ecuador. As more details develop, life is sure to become even more hectic. Nonetheless, we’re excited. We’ve been anxiously awaiting our next move for a long time, so it’s fun to know that it’s finally happening!

Stay tuned for more updates. Up next, Whitney has plenty to say about her ‘independent woman day’ in Munich while I was interviewing.

Until next time,

Shane

Groningen to Munich: A Train Adventure

🎶 This is the story of a girl, who took a train around the whole world! 🎶

Ok, not quite, but that song popped in my head as I started to write this so you get what you get.

This IS the story, though, of a girl who reluctantly agreed to take a train from Groningen to Munich and had a grand ole time!

I mean come on. Look at that face!

When we first decided to take a city trip to Munich, my go-to reaction was to start looking for flight deals. Shane, on the other hand, took it as an opportunity to make a pitch for the train.

It’s “more CO2 friendly” and “doesn’t take that much more time” and “you can walk around” and “we’ve never done it before”.

Valid reasons *I supposeee*, but I wasn’t convinced. I needed an excel sheet. How does anyone plan anything without an excel sheet? Here are the facts:

  1. We would only save 2 hours on total travel time by flying.
  2. We would only save 60 euros total – 2 people, round trip – by flying.
  3. We’ve never done it.

What can I say, I’m easily convinced. Train it is!

ICE International, that’s us!

Remember when I said that we would only be spending 60 euros more, in total, compared to flying? What I didn’t mention is that we also booked ourselves a first class ticket, baby!

This also took a little convincing, because (in my opinion) the difference between first and second class on a Dutch train is not worth the upgrade. The seats are a little bit bigger and you have less hassle trying to find a seat during rush hour, but that never bothered me enough to warrant a first-class upgrade. But, since we would be spending the majority of our time on the German train (5.5 hours, to be more precise), I agreed to first class.

Two words: Worth it.

We took the German Inter-City Express (ICE) high-speed trains from Arnhem, the Netherlands to Munich with a switch in Mannheim (on the way there) and in Duisburg (on the way back). There are 6 variations of the ICE train, itself. We travelled on the ICE 3 and ICE 4.

One major perk of first-class on the ICE is that your seat reservation is included in the booking price. Unlike Dutch trains, your departure time and seat are specifically linked to your ticket. If you would like a guaranteed seat, then it must be booked ahead of time. Relatedly, if you miss your train you can’t just take the next connection*, as the seats have already been booked.

*if you miss your connection, you should find a DB service point in the station and ask for help to re-book.

It is possible, though, to take the train without booking a seat and sit anywhere you want. Each seat is numbered and has a status: if the seat lists only the route then it has not been reserved, if the seat says “ggf. freigeben” then you should “release if necessary”, aka you can sit there until you’re asked to leave.

Considering a seat reservation (in second class) is only 5 – 10 euros per person, it seems worth it to me to reserve a seat. Especially if you’re traveling a group or during busy months.

Shortly after we left, the seat changed status.

The other benefit of first-class? Isn’t it obvious?

Look at that leg-room! There is also plenty of storage for small and large suitcases above the seats, and a luggage rack at each end of the ‘carriage’.

Look at those happy first-class campers!

Apart from the leg-room, another benefit of taking the train instead of flying is the opportunity to get up and move around. Once place you can move around to is the ‘board carriage’ aka: the restaurant car!

For a train, they have a pretty extensive menu. Of course, the usual drinks – coffee, beer, wine, sodas. For food, a variety of sandwiches, soups, fries, and some snack foods like chips, and all for a very reasonable price considering you’re on a train. For example, a 0.5 L of beer was only €3.20 and curry worst with fries was €6.90. Compared to airport prices, this felt like a steal!

Took a walk for a coffee.

Another first-class benefit: in-seat service.

Of course, you can always walk to the restaurant car and you can certainly bring on your own food and drink (as we did), but if you feel inspired, lazy, or a just little bit baller, you can stop a service attendant on their regular walk-throughs and order from them directly.

Plus, at your seat you’ll be classy AF sipping your drank in a real glass instead of a paper or plastic one.

TIP: You need cash to order from your seat. The restaurant car accepts cards and cash.

Regardless, if you are seated in first class then you’ll also get a little freebie snack. We got a bar of chocolate and some mint chocolate bites.

Before we knew we could order from our seat…

Do you know what else was VERY impressive? The SPEED of these trains! Dutch trains don’t tell you how fast they are going, plus they go through a lot of towns so I’m not sure they are designed to go at high speeds. These trains though… 293 km/hour = 182 mph! 🤯

Approximately 8 hours later, well-fed, stretched, and rested, we arrived at Munich Hauptbahnhof (central station)!

Take home message:

  1. Taking the train was worth the little bit extra. While slightly more expensive and a little longer travel time, the time passed quickly and it was nice to be able to walk around.
  2. First class was worth the upgrade. The reserved seats, the extra legroom, and the (literal) first-class service! It made the journey much more enjoyable. I did walk through second-class and it was also nice, but as you can imagine less space overall. In addition you get free newspapers (if you’re a German reader), unlimited free wi-fi which was actually decent, and charging capability at your seat.
  3. Book seats ahead of time. If you’re opting for second-class, it’s worth the few euros to secure a seat, especially in peak season. Second-class also has free-wifi, but it’s limited.
  4. Pack those snacks! No train ride is complete with out snacks. You can bring whatever you like on to the train, the only restriction is no personal food in the restaurant car. Forgot snacks? Then there are plenty of options on-board.
Inside Munich central station.

Soon to come – more about our few days in Munich!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Happy New Year from Holland!

Ah – the New Year. The practice of leaving the old behind and ushering in an era of new beginnings. When you say it like this, it sounds calm and peaceful, right?

Not if you’re in the Netherlands.

Ok – so maybe my video isn’t that dramatic but it surely felt dramatic!

Notice that constant low rumbling in the background? That’s the sound of non-stop fireworks being set off in gardens, in the middle of the street, in parks, and in trashcans all over the city.

And do you notice that (despite the fog) you can’t actually SEE any pretty firework lights? That’s because it’s not about what you see, it’s about blowin’ sh*t up.

Let’s back up a little.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day in the Netherlands, aptly called ‘Oud & Nieuw’ (Old & New), is the one day of the year where fireworks are legal.

Correction: the one 8 hour period of time where fireworks are legal.

From 6pm – 2am all bets are off. You know that horror movie ‘The Purge’, where for 24 hours crime is legal? This is how that feels – minus the burglary and murder.

I started to type ‘vandalism and bodily harm’ in that list, but I couldn’t in good faith. This year a man and child were killed in a firework-related fire, and they are still counting injuries and tallying damage costs.

In 2018, citizens of the Netherlands spent 70 MILLION euros in total on fireworks. And to reiterate, that can be used LEGALLY for 8 hours.

They can be purchased at shops like the one below, which we can only assume make enough money in the month leading up to Oud & Nieuw that it can afford to be closed the other 11 months of the year. In addition to shops like these, you can buy fireworks in the home improvement stores or online. Granted, some types of fireworks are still illegal to purchase, but no worries. If you want the big boys you can just pop on over to Germany and bring back what you want.

“Always the lowest price!”

Like I said before, technically it’s only legal to set off fireworks during the designated time, but let’s be real, this doesn’t stop people from starting earlier. Each day after Christmas the booms increase, culminating in the ‘main show’ which starts at midnight and rings (booms?) in the new year.

If they are illegal, how can people start so early? Two words.

No enforcement.

Until you’re blowing up trashcans and bus stops (yes, that really happens) then the police will leave you alone.

Between 2 trashcans is a logical place to set off fireworks, right?

One thing that IS highly enforced are the ‘Vuurwerk-vrije’ (firework free) zones. For example, we live directly across from the main hospital where, for obvious reasons, they don’t want firework chaos. There was a constant patrol of people making sure these zones truly stayed ‘firework free’.

I made Meatball her own firework free zone.

This year, to add an additional level of danger and mystique, the temperature dropped quickly and a thick fog set it. You really had to pay attention to where you were walking!

Fireworks over city center in the fog.

Because we live in the city center, we only witnessed smaller displays. As you might imagine, the further away from the city center you get the larger the show and the bigger the fire.

Yes, this brings me to my next Oud & Nieuw tradition. Bonfires.

The photo above was from our first Dutch Oud & Nieuw in 2014, but you get the picture. Bonfires in the street.

Bikes. Christmas trees. Furniture. Whatever-your-heart-desires.

Burn it.

My dad asked the reasonable question “So does the fire-department work all night then?”. Short answer: no. They just let it burn.

We did discover a leftover bonfire the next day though, on what I liked to call our “survey the damage” walk around the neighborhood.

Notice the street sign in the pile…

And, unrelated to fireworks but also an Oud & Nieuw tradition, olliebollen!

Had to have our friend, Kaitlin, try them!

I would describe olliebollen (literally translated to ‘oil balls’) as a giant deep-fried donut hole, traditionally made with or without raisins and dunked in powdered sugar. They are available starting mid-November, but the bulk of the olliebollen are eaten on New Year’s Eve.

As evidenced by the line that wouldn’t stop growing…

So, my DOs & DONTs for Oud & Nieuw?

DO: Get to the olliebollen stand early! I suggest the ones with raisins.

DON’T: Wear a nice coat out. Firework-induced burn holes are a thing.

DO: Come prepared! Arm yourself with sparklers & firecrackers. You never know when you might need them.

DON’T: Be indoors at midnight! Embrace the chaos!

and finally…

DON’T: Expect to sleep that night. In America, the main party is the lead up to midnight, and here all the parties start at the earliest 10pm and most at midnight. Bars & parties not your thing? No worries, the fireworks last well past their 2am cutoff. They will be sure to interrupt your sleep. 😉

Happy New Year from us to you!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Merry Sinterklaas!

I don’t think that’s a thing people say, but ya know what? I like it so I’m going with it.

The arrival of Sinterklaas kicks off the season in mid-November.

It’s December 5th which means it’s pakjesavond (present evening) and if you were a good little one throughout out the year, maybe Sinterklaas replaced that carrot in your shoe with some treats! Tonight is the big gift-giving evening of the Dutch holiday season!

This could very well be our last holiday season in the Netherlands since Shane’s next position is still up in the air, and I’ve used this time to fully embrace the spirit of Sinterklaas. And by embrace, I mean eat myself sick on Sinterklaas-specific holiday treats.

So, in honor of the evening I thought I would do a quick round-up of those holiday goodies you will only find during Sint-season!

Pepernoten! Pepernoten! Pepernoten! Pepernoten!

THE thing. Without pepernoten there is no Sinterklaas!

I’ve literally seen them sold in a 5 kg (10 lbs) bag…

There are two types: pepernoten & kruidnoten.

Both are small cookies, but pepernoten is the more traditional version with an anise flavor. Kruidnoten are a more like a spiced cookie. Since I’m not a fan of anise, I tend to prefer the kruidnoten – as does my mother who made a special request for “those delicious little cookies” the last time Shane came home. Lucky for her, the grocery stores have started to push the seasons, and pepernoten have been available since October!

The kruidnoten section in our local grocery store.

The flavor possibilities are endless. There are entire seasonal shops which sell only pepernoten, kruidnoten, and flavored kruidnoten aka: the cookie covered in some form of flavored chocolate.

Carmel sea salt, coffee, raspberry, dark chocolate, lemon… not that I’ve tried any.

Chocolate Letters

Another important gift of the season, and another one that comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors – although the most popular flavors are milk, dark, and white chocolate.

Tradition dictates that you’ll receive the letter which corresponds to the first letter of your first name. But, if you’re name starts with an unpopular letter (sorry Quincy or Zelda) then you’ll be hard pressed to find them. If this is the case, the standard “S” – for Sinterklaas – is appropriate.

Chocolate letter… with pepernoten!

Marzipan

Particularly in the form of a pig.

Conveniently displayed next to the “super kruidnoten”.

Yes, that pig is made of marzipan. Yes, it will get chopped up and sold as smaller pieces.

If a chunk-o-pig ain’t your thang, no worries. Small pigs are also available.

The marzipan pig (made of milk, sugar, and almonds with a consistency of soft fondant) is a New Year’s German tradition to wish good luck (Glücksschwein!), and also a holiday gift tradition in Scandinavia. Given the relative location of the Netherlands, it’s not surprising it carried over.

Banketstaaf

Loosely translated to an ‘almond log’, it’s a buttery, almond-paste filled little piece of holiday heaven with origins in the Netherlands.

A word to the wise: share it. I mean, or don’t, but be prepared to go into a sugar-almond-million-calories induced coma afterwords. #worthit

My Sinterklaas paketje from work – a chocolate letter & banketstaaf.

Speculaas

Speculaas is a shortbread cookie with a spiced flavor similar to that of pumpkin pie spice in America. Actually, if you’re in America and lucky enough to live by a Trader Joe’s then you might know these cookies – called Speculoos, which is the Belgian spelling. You can usually find some sort of speculaas cookie year round, but this time of year the cookie itself changes to a more festive pattern.

Speculaas – smeckulaas. BOOOORRRINGGG.

Ditch that plain cookie, and go for the filled one!

Gevulde Speculaas

My crème de la crème. Re-named to ‘crack-ulaas’ for its sheer power of deliciousness.

Take two, large planks of soft speculaas spiced cake and add some almond paste (same as in the banketstaaf) in the middle and BOOM.

FILLED SPECULAAS. You’re welcome.

I’m genuinely sorry for anyone who isn’t able to try it. So, if you happen to run into some, buy it!


And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite song of the season:

Sinterklaas (wie kent hem niet) by Het Goede Doel

I recommend the entire video, but if you’re in a hurry start at ~1:30.

Gah, the 80’s were great!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

5 Reasons to Love Groningen, the Netherlands

I can’t quite believe what I’m writing, but this weekend marks our 5th Dutch-iversary!

The whole reason we sold all our stuff, packed up the cat, and moved across an ocean was for Shane to start a Ph.D. program at Rijksuniverseteit Groningen (aka: the University of Groningen). I’m beyond thrilled / proud / insert other overly excited adjective to say that on March 29th, 2019 this goal was realized, and Shane officially became Dr. Wright!

Dr. Wright with his paranymphs and examination committee.

In honor of the newly-minted Doctor and our 5 year Dutch-iversary, I thought I’d give you 5 reasons why Shane loves Groningen, the largest city in the north of the Netherlands.

One : Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

The University of Groningen.

I think this one is self-explanatory: it gave him his degree!

His lab mates gave his this beauty of a graduation cap though…

And, I should be clear. They didn’t just give him a degree. After 4 years of research, submission of a 200 page book, and a 45 min question/answer session from an 8 person committee in front of the public they declared him a doctor!

The defense – the final piece to earning that Ph.D.!

Aside from this, the university can really be considered the heart of the city. It was founded in 1614 and is the main employer (between the university itself & associated hospital) of Groningen.

Can we just side-step for a second back to the founding year?

1614.

Maybe this is nothing for some of you out there, but as an American, to think that this university is more than 100 years older than our COUNTRY will never cease to amaze me. And, they’ve had some notable alumni and faculty over the years. For instance, Aletta Jacobs – the first female physician in the Netherlands, founder of the first birth control clinic, and advocate for women’s suffrage. More recently, Ben Feringa, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016.

Mom, Shane and me in front of the Academy Building.

The Academy building, pictured above, is one of the older university buildings and the location of Shane’s Ph.D. defense. This building is in stark contrast to the modern building where Shane worked; the varied architecture is another reason why he (and I) like the university so much.

The “green building” on the university’s Zernike Campus was Shane’s day to day work spot.

Two: Biking

Bikes are everywhere! This isn’t new – we’ve talked about this before – but it certainly is one thing that we’ve both grown to love the most about living here. Especially because the city has been built to be more bike and pedestrian friendly than car friendly.

Bikes in the Grote Markt of Groningen city center.

Shane’s gotten pretty good at biking over the years – I guess that happens when you have to bike 15 min one way to get to work. In the winter, he can bike just about all the way to work with his hands in his pockets & has learned to carry a variety of things on the back of his bike: crates of beer, luggage, the cat…

Three: The Market

Ahh, our beloved market.

Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday “the market” takes over the Vismarkt (Fish market) in Groningen. Food wise, you can find just about anything you need here and considerably cheaper than the grocery stores. Meat, fish, fruit & vegetables, cheese, nuts, baked goods… I could keep going.

My number one recommendation for anyone moving to or visiting Groningen is to go to the market. You will not be disappointed.

Four: Konbu Street Food & Martinus Brewery

We don’t eat out very much, but if we do our go-to place is Konbu Street Food.

It’s a Southeast Asian restaurant (which we discovered BEFORE our trip to Southeast Asia! ha) located on the Oosterstraat in city center. In my opinion, one thing Groningen lacks are moderately priced restaurants with quality food, but Konbu fits this description perfectly. The main dishes include varieties of pho, ramen, and bun, but don’t skimp on the appetizers. You have to order ‘Something’ (a cheeky name for the spring rolls) & the kimchi pancakes!

Top it all off with a Lucky Buddha (rice) beer & Shane is one happy camper!

Another Shane favorite is Martinus Brewery.

Tucked away on a side street towards the outskirts of city center, this Groningen based brewery is only a 10 min walk from our house and is quite ‘gezellig’ (I’ll let you look that one up…).

With a nice terrace, cozy tasting room, and tasty quadruples (Shane’s favorite) it’s a fun place to go when we want some special beer.

Five: Climbing

Last but certainly not least! If I’m being honest, it should probably be moved to first…

We’ve discovered climbing! I think it’s safe to say it’s his favorite activity now.

This may come as a surprise considering the size of the city (only ~200,000 people) but Groningen has three climbing gyms.

The first is part of the university’s gym (ACLO); I wasn’t allowed to use this since I wasn’t associated with the univeristy, but regardless it’s there.

The 2nd is Bjoeks, located in the Kardingen sport complex about a 20 min bike outside of city center. This is where we got our climbing certifications! This gym is mostly route climbing with some (advanced level) indoor and outdoor bouldering options. I think what Bjoeks is most famous for is Excalibur – the 37m high (with 11m overhang!) climbing tower!

It’s so tall, you can’t see the top (indoor climbing hall to the right of the tower – for scale)!

At one point, Excalibur was the tallest climbing wall in Europe. This may still hold true, though I’m not entirely sure. To climb the front – with the overhang – you should be an advanced climber & lead-climb certified. Needless to say, we haven’t climbed this yet! In the summer months you can top-rope climb the back (easier) side of the wall so hopefully we can check this off our Groningen bucket list in 2019.

And, just a heads up for anyone who dares… there’s a 1000 euro prize waiting for anyone who climbs the 9a route on the overhang side set by Jorg Verhoeven back in 2017. I haven’t yet heard of anyone accomplishing it…

The third (and our current gym) is GroPo Bouldering Gym, newly opened in 2016.

Bouldering is a completely different style of climbing as compared to Bjoeks; the main difference being no ropes or belayer required. The ‘problems’ are shorter and only tall enough to be a safe jumping/falling distance.

This is nice for us right now, since you don’t need a partner to go. Shane will be heading to Corsica for field work (potential new research project!) during the month of June. I’ll be here getting really good at bouldering…

It’s safe to say that Shane has all the indoor climbing options he could want!

It’s uncertain the amount of time we have left in Groningen – the next step for Shane is to find a postdoctoral position in a lab where he can start developing his own research ideas to eventually run his own academic lab. But, that’s for future Shane and future Whitney to deal with. For now, we will just enjoy this city while we have it!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Keukenhof & Koningsdag

We are just rockin’ and rollin’ on our Netherlands bucket list this year!

A few weeks ago, we finally made it to the renowned Keukenhof gardens! We were lucky to have some family visiting the Netherlands, so we met up in Amsterdam and headed about 30 min south to Lisse, where the gardens are located.

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Good side – it was the first warm weekend of the year! 

Bad side – it was the first warm weekend of the year. 

While we did get to wear short sleeves, most of the tulips weren’t in bloom yet because the weather here has been quite cold this spring. It was only a few weeks ago that the canals froze over, so we were kind of anticipating this.

We were able to see some ‘early bloomers’. We learned on this trip that there are early, middle and late blooming tulips. The Keukenhof keeps their gardens blooming through the entire season by strategically planting the bulbs, like the example below. In this way, about the time the early bloomers are dying, the middle ones are blooming, and so on.

Although the fields were mostly green, the greenhouse in the center of the park was in full bloom! There were literally hundreds of types of tulips in here. I had no idea so many existed.

Now that’s a tall tulip!

Next up, something just as colorful…

Koningsdag 2018!

And this year was particularly special because the King came to Groningen! I was BEYOND excited. In case you didn’t know, we don’t have kings and queens in America (something about a Revolutionary War? *joke*). So when I heard there was a chance to see King Willem Alexander and the royal family up close and personal I knew we were going. PLUS – I love a good parade.

Quick recap – Koningsdag, or King’s Day, celebrates the birthday of the King. I would say it’s the Dutch version of the 4th of July: everyone is super patriotic and there is a lot of beer consumed.

Also fun fact – King’s day is celebrated on April 27th, which is indeed the King’s birthday, but this was not always the case. His mother, (former) Queen Beatrix was born on January 31st, but that’s a terrible day to have an outdoor party in Holland. To remedy this, she kept the birthday of her mother, (former) Queen Juliana who was born on April 30th. So, considering the eldest daughter of King Willem was born in December, it will be interesting to see if she adopts the birthday of her father.

Maybe you don’t at all find that interesting. I’ll move on to pictures now.

Bright and early Koningsdag morning Shane and I headed to the parade route to get a good spot! Thanks to Shane, we ended up with a spot on the fence. And, I would say it worked out well for us.

Unfortunately, we were ONE person off from shaking hands with him. Just my luck. We were able to shake hands with all the princesses though, so pretty much that means the future queen and I are besties now.

The rest of the day was reserved for the Vrijemarkt (aka – free market, one giant yard sale) and free music in the city center.

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Kensington in the Vismarkt

Keukenhof Gardens – CHECK!

(basically) Meet the King – CHECK!

Let’s see what else we can do this year…

Tot ziens,

Whitney