Double Dutch: Q&A with a Pair of Flying Dutchmen

Much more on this trip coming soon – for now, enjoy a few fun facts about Amsterdam with this Q&A. On our last night, Nora and I met two local pilots who enthusiastically answered many questions we had come up with during our time in their beloved hometown.

Scene of the Q&A: Café 't Smalle
Scene of the Q&A: Café ‘t Smalle

Q: What typical Dutch food do you recommend?
A1: Pancakes!
A2: Oh, and this place over here on the corner has the best apple pie in all of Amsterdam. [Pointing to a café called Winkel]

Q: Dutch is spoken in many areas of Belgium, too. Is the culture there more Dutch like in the Netherlands or more similar to the French-speaking Belgian culture?
A2: They only share a common language with people from Holland. The Dutch-speaking people in Belgium are Flemish, which is similar to Dutch culture but not the same.

Q: Sorry, do you only call it Holland then? Not the Netherlands?
A1: Yes. Our country is Holland.

Q: So about the Red Light District… What services exactly can people buy?
A1: There are different levels. At the first level, you can put coins in a machine to see a peep show. At the second level, you can watch a live sex show. At the third level, you can watch a banana show – that’s like a sex show, but just women with bananas. And at the fourth level you can, well, you know… have sex with a prostitute. [disclaimer: I have no idea how accurate this is.]

Q: We only saw women of the night. Are there male prostitutes too?
A1: Ah, not really.
A2: Hey ladies, you found them!

Q: Haha. Isn’t it uncomfortable being there with other guys?
A1: Yes, it’s weird.
A2: No, it’s not a problem.

Q: In addition to legalized prostitution, the Netherlands – sorry – Holland has a lot of liberal drug policies. How do you feel about that?
A1: The laws are too lenient. I think too many things are allowed.

Red Light District at night
Red Light District at night
One of many canals - an Amsterdam highlight according to these locals
One of many canals – an Amsterdam highlight according to these locals

(I only regret that I somehow forgot to ask them my most pressing question:
Q: Why are the stairs in Dutch houses so steep?!?! Wouldn’t it be safer to go up a ladder?!

I doubt any explanation of this would satisfy me. We had to climb four flights of these treacherous steps to get to our hotel room. And when I say “climb” I mean more like sneak on tiptoe, because they were not only steep but unbelievably narrow.)

Hard to tell here, but these steps are as close to perpendicular as stairs can be
Hard to tell here, but these steps are close to perpendicular
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Much More than Just Waffles

One of many Belgian chocolate/candy shops
One of many Belgian chocolate/candy shops

Most countries have invisible borders. A sign, sure. And sometimes a river or mountain range or some other physical boundary. Crossing into Belgium from Germany, however, seems to involve passing through a thick white curtain of fog. Last weekend this was, of course, no exception.

Once through the fog, being in Belgium is like walking through a dream. Rich delicious chocolates, world-famous beers, fresh mussels, Belgian waffles, and the birthplace of “French” fries. It seems to me that Belgians must be the happiest people in the world.

It’s been a busy month, but I can’t let it go by without sharing at least a few highlights of two fascinating cities that James and I visited with our friend Justin while he was here on vacation:

Possibly the most interesting experience in this country is traveling an hour northwest from Bruxelles (aka Brussels) to Brugge (aka Bruges) and learning that the common language has changed from French to Dutch.

Tin Tin mural. Belgium is the birthplace of Tin Tin and the Smurfs, among other cartoons
Tin Tin. Belgium is the home of Tin Tin, the Smurfs, and other cartoon characters

Brussels

In short: Capital city of both Belgium and the European Union

2014 Flower Carpet
2014 Flower Carpet

Most impressive sight: The Flower Carpet consists of over 1,800 square meters of begonias in the main square (Grand Place) displayed every two years. It’s an absolutely incredible site, particularly when viewed from above. We opted for a view from the Brussels City Museum balcony so we could learn more about the city’s history along the way.

Manneken-Pis
Manneken-Pis
A few of the many costumes on display
A few of many costumes on display

Also don’t miss: Manneken-Pis. Actually, I guess you could skip this tiny but absurdly famous attraction which is exactly what it sounds like: a bronze statue of a brash boy peeing in a fountain. But do make sure to see the exhibit on the top floor of the Brussels City Museum dedicated to this little imp. He has an extensive international wardrobe that you can see modeled on replicas – everything from Elvis and cosmonauts to samurais and sombreros. We saw the little guy on a rainy day so he wasn’t dressed, but usually he dons a custom-made costume to show off for visitors.

 

Bruges

In short: Quaint city of canals and UNESCO World Heritage site (the entire city center)

Brugge city overview
Bruges city overview
One of many canals
One of many canals
Swans on a canal at night
Swans on a canal at night

Most impressive sight: The city itself. With its small town feel, narrow stone-paved streets, sprawling town squares, and historic churches, Bruges is an enchanting city to explore. The canals that wind their way around and through the center of town, and the small bridges that cross them, are well worth seeing both by day and at night.

Near the market areas of town, you can see older women with white caps hand-crafting lace. This traditional art involves a complicated system of threads attached to many thin wooden knobs that the women cross over one another in a specific pattern.

Madonna of Bruges
Madonna of Bruges

Also don’t miss: Madonna of Bruges, a sculpture by Michelangelo in the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk). Haphazardly converted in part to a museum, the church boasts this masterpiece as the highlight of its art collection.

Tip: On a tour of the De Halve Maan brewery, a wry tour guide advised visitors to limit themselves to one Belgian beer per day due to their high alcohol contents. “I know what you’re thinking: ‘What does this old lady know about what I can handle?’ But trust me.”

TGIF Chr: “Tickets Out, This is a Raid!”

…is what I imagine on those rare occasions when the ticket-checkers come through the bus or train, with their official equipment tucked almost unnoticeably at their waists. I’ve been taking local public transportation almost every weekday (and many weekends) since I moved to Germany about nine months ago. It’s convenient, usually not too crowded, and generally clean and comfortable. In that time, I’ve had to prove that I’ve paid less than ten times. Twice happened to be this Wednesday, coincidentally just after I bought my first monthly pass.

Typical bus stop
A typical bus stop

In Germany, many rules rely on personal responsibility. You don’t show your ticket or pass to the bus driver (as I did the first time I rode), you’re just trusted to have paid when you get on. The penalty for schwarzfahren (riding without paying)? A €40 fine if you get caught by the plain-clothes ticket checkers or a train conductor. A friendly-looking ad on the buses has a checklist for such riders, reminding them to sweat, cry, make excuses …and finally pay their €40. I must say, I’ve never seen anyone have to do this yet.

You can buy your necessary-but-rarely-checked ticket from the bus driver, an automated machine located at train stations and some bus stations, a ticket counter at a major train station (many small stations don’t have these), or online at home or on your phone at rmv.de (for the Rhein-Main area).

It ends up being a pretty good deal. Single ride tickets for adults cost €2.60 and can be used for up to two hours from purchase time on any form of local transportation: buses, regional trains, subways, and/or streetcars. So if you have to transfer from a bus to a train to a subway within that time, it’s all included on the same ticket. And here you can even bring your dog, your bike, or your Kinderwagen (baby carriage/stroller) along for the ride as well.

Ride and save year-round
Ride and save year-round

Of course, there are many ways to save a little more money, depending on your travel plans. For example, you can buy a collection of five tickets at any time for only €10.40. Then when you’re ready to ride, you just time-stamp one at a small yellow machine on the bus or at the train station. If you’re going to be riding several times throughout the day, it might be worth it to get a day pass for €6.30. Even better, if you have three to five people traveling in a group all day, it’s worth getting a group day pass for only €9.50.

If you generally commute weekdays, as I’m doing this month for work, you can save with a weekly, monthly, or yearly pass. With these, you can even have another person ride with you on evenings and weekends at no extra charge!

Naturally the rates for each type of ticket and pass are higher when you’re traveling from one regional zone to another (i.e. Mainz to Frankfurt). And many discounts apply for children, seniors, interns, etc.

While I was taking German classes at the Volkshochschule (VHS = state-sponsored adult education center), my course receipt doubled as a public transit pass before and after class. This made getting there essentially free and easy. As the cute little bus on the receipt says, “Hin- and Rückfahrt ohne Stress, mit KombiTicket der vhs”: “To and fro without stress, with combo-ticket from VHS.”

VHS ticket - thanks friendly bus!
VHS ticket – thanks friendly bus!

Okay, so the rare “ticket raids” aren’t as dramatic as I imagine them to be. But as I sit back cozily reading on my ride through Rhein country and fields, secure in knowing that my ticket is safely stowed in my wallet, sometimes listening to annoying teenagers on summer break or some nutty lady chattering to herself, I wonder why this system works so well and what would happen during an actual “bust.”