This past week I spent three days in the Netherlands on a class trip. Our department gets together for a big end-of-year field trip every spring, to the beautiful medieval city of Leiden, hitting Den Haag (The Hague) and Antwerp along the way. We saw two terrific museums, one of the most glorious libraries in the world, Rubens’ house, and a street-performing pianist. I tried eight brands of beer. And I also discovered that, if any country’s personality is suited to mine, it’s the Netherlands’.
Holland is a relaxed, comfortable place. But it is not relaxed and comfortable out of complacency or apathy, or laziness. Holland is the kind of country which has seriously thought about its own philosophy and come to the conclusion that being tolerant, easy-going, and remarkably comfortable in its own skin is just the best way to live.
We remarked to each other on the first night that everyone, everyone, seemed to be confident in themselves. Our waitresses were cheery, our tablemates at restaurants were accommodating and curious, random strangers were generous with directions, and everyone seemed to carry themselves with an air of content. A museum clerk told us that, since they were closing soon, she was afraid we’d be wasting our ticket money. She didn’t want us to go away; she wanted to save us a bother. I know the Dutch can’t possibly all be like that, but the moody, hostile ones did a good job hiding from us. Even the drunks were friendly.
So I guess it’s good karma they got allotted such a gorgeous country. Actually, they created a lot of it, by fighting back the ocean, so it’s not so much karma as hard work. But all our visits were to lovely places.
Den Haag was our base. It’s a city filled with diplomats, politicians, and attorneys, and the restaurants charge like they know they’re going on an expense account. The crowds simply evaporate after work hours, as they do in the center of any political capital, but if you know where to look, life springs up like water from a natural well. A chain of little squares lined with cafes, a couple of tiny, little-used side streets (on one of which a street mime greeted us with the enthusiasm of someone who is clearly miming on the wrong street), the cute little trams wending through the streets, a park and pond on the north side of Parliament.
Doesn't this look lovely?
Calling Den Haag the dullest city we visited is not really to insult Den Haag. It’s just not meant to be a thrilling place; it’s all about the business of national and international politics. And the citizenry can still let their hair down in excellent style, at places like the Grote Markt, a tiny square lined with bars, covered with tables and benches, and bedecked in Christmas lights.
Wednesday midnight view of the Grote Markt from inside the Black Knight bar
Leiden is, by contrast, stunning. Actually, that’s not quite the word; the word is “huggable.” I’m sure it’s abnormal to want to hug an entire city, but Leiden is just so cute, cheery, and instantly welcoming that no other reaction would be appropriate. The centuries-old architecture has been perfectly preserved, since only a handful of areas were damaged in the wars, and the center of the old city is lined with canals. Along the canals run little streets filled with bicycling locals and cafes, except on one canal where the cafe tables are on barges permanently moored to land. Naturally, we found one such and I took my hot chocolate on a boat.
We ate at the place on the far right. Also: told you this place was huggable
In Leiden, our class was visiting two historic sights: a science history museum, the Boerhaave, and a research library, the Bibliotheca Thysiana. The latter is the library of a 1600s scholar, Johannes Thysius, preserved as closely to the original collection as possible (some 1700s students pinched a few volumes) and in the original room, with the original decor. Thysius collected jaw-dropping books: the first Bible printed in Dutch, an illustrated Bible with glorious hand-done color illustrations on nearly every page, and a gigantic book that a retired fencing instructor wrote to impress (it was dedicated “To all the Emperors, Kings, Princes, and Dukes in the World”) with amazing illustrations showing all the steps of fencing moves taking place in various ridiculous settings: ancient Egyptian tombs, French palaces, mountain-tops, fancy gardens. As early book scholars, we all geeked out.
The science history museum had a lot of good stuff too, including the only surviving thermometers actually built by Mr. Fahrenheit, and a replica of the lecture-halls where Renaissance doctors conducted human anatomy lessons:
The table at the bottom is where the fun happened. Students watched standing in the rings. If they knocked over the random animal skeletons, they got an F.
On the way back, at the end of the trip, we stopped for a half-day just over the border in Belgium, at Antwerp, which after the sleepier towns of Den Haag and Leiden felt like a cosmopolitan center. It is–parts feel a bit like west London but without the glamour or price tags–but it’s also centered on a wonderfully preserved center and it teems with cheery life. On the day we visited, the government had decided to simply make all museums in the entire city free, so we visited the home of painter Peter Paul Rubens and the Museum Plantin-Moretus, a collection of old printing presses and tools in a period mansion.
Between paintings of fat people, Rubens kept a lovely garden.
Naturally, I wanted to complete the Holy Trinity of Belgian cuisine: waffles, chocolate, and beer. But, despite the abundance of little waffle stands, I didn’t accomplish that goal (insert grumbling about group members wanting to hurry). Nevertheless, on the square seated before Antwerp’s surprising (and very tall) cathedral, we found a chocolate shop run by a lovely woman who offered trays of samples, mocked the Belgian corporate chocolatiers, and sold me some boxes which I’m very proud not to have finished already.
We also found The Eleventh Commandment, a bar bedecked with religious paraphernalia in every cranny and on every shelf:
We played "Name That Saint." I scored zero points.
And the best thing about The Eleventh Commandment (aside from the fact that its subtitle–yes, it has a subtitle–is “Thou Shalt Enjoy”)? They serve only beers brewed in monasteries.
See, the Dutch/Flemish have life figured out. They have exactly the right attitude. Always keep a sense of humor. Treat nothing with reverence but everything with respect–yeah, the bar is meant to be amusing, but monks still do make the best booze. Take life seriously, but be casual about it. Stop every once in a while to read in the park, or have a coffee on a barge in the canal. Have the clock towers play Bach at the top of the hour. Walk or bike everywhere–the cities have almost no cars anywhere. Take enjoyment seriously. Be so tolerant of sexualities and drugs that they aren’t even tempted into flamboyant backlash. Preserve history with care but live in the 21st century. Take it easy, not because it’s easy but because it’s right.
I have to love a country (we’re lumping Flanders and Holland together here) where mimes try to earn money on little side streets. I have to love a country where bars opposite cathedrals have saintly decor and heavenly brews. I have to love a country where train cars are double-deckers. I have to love a country where all the bicycles look like they were made in 1950. And I have to love a country that has street-performing pianists. I can’t help it. These are cities that know how to live.