Jenny Colgan: At the Sharp End

'To become truly Dutch, buy a rain cape, adopt a stoic expression and pedal off eating a cheese sandwich'


When we spent a year in the south of France we had no shortage of visitors. Now we're in the rural Netherlands, however, it's not quite like that. Despite the charming, picturesque medieval town square we live on and the acres of green countryside all around, the lure of a place where it rains 300 days a year, where it's still dark at 8.30 in the morning and where the chief cuisine is cheese that tastes of nothing doesn't amount to much. So, as the only Brits in Middelburg, Zeeland (this is technically Old Zealand, if you've ever wondered where the new one sprung from), we're just going to have to go native.

I'm always delighted when countries live up to their stereotypes, coming myself from a place where the men don't run about the heather in skirts with blue faces singing about lassies. So it's with great pleasure that I can announce that if, when you think of the Netherlands, a very tall blonde person on a bicycle in the rain in clogs on their way to take legal recreational drugs before glancing at some mind-bogglingly hard-core pornography and putting down their relatives comes to mind, you'd be largely correct. Well, the cycling in the rain part, at least.

The language looked to be a problem before we started reading it. Now we have a secret suspicion that they've been cheating all this time. After struggling to translate zeebars on a menu, we got a pitying look from the waiter: "I think the word in English is sea bass?"

And what about this teaser, from the baby's book about Kikker, the onomatopoeically excellent word for frog: "Kikker en goen oot wandelen." That's right, he's going out wandering. "Kikker en goen een zweemen." Zweemen, you say? "Onder water alls een vis." Ah, with a fish. Too easy.

They also have a very nice turn of phrase. For example, I asked our friend Jaab why you never hear a car horn in the street, and he looked at us as if we were een klap van de molen hebben, or crazy. This literally translates as "been hit by a windmill".

The answer, if you're interested, is because "surely it makes sense for everyone to obey the rules of the road - you get there faster". Goddamit! Why didn't the rest of the world think of that?

In fact, most visitors to Middelburg, and nearby Vlissingen, are actually from Germany. Kindly, nobody reminds us too often that the perfect English they're speaking is almost certainly their third language. Still, we're doing our best, dank je vell.

And again, in contrast to France, the cuisine isn't something the region is exactly famous for. Traditionally, as you find in most chilly, damp northern European countries, including my own, the diet is very heavy on the gut-lining: cheese, cream, meat, chips, sauerkraut, and beer. Whatever type of potatoes you order with your meal, you'll also get a plate of fried ones popped in as an added bonus. There's a lot of fish about, but the preferred local method is to deep-fry it in chunks and dip it in mayonnaise.

Personally, I like nice heavy suppers when you're coming in from yet another cold and rainy day. It's comfort food. But while surrounded by nations with a similar rainy-day diet - the UK, Germany and Belgium, all of whose citizens have managed to grow outstandingly fat ever since they stopped hand-ploughing stony fields for a living - the Dutch, however, remain tall and lithe. And it doesn't take long to see why: it's because of how they get about.

Bicycles have right of way on every public road. Every bypass and motorway has bike tracks built in, and everybody uses them. At 4.30pm (yes, that's when everyone finishes work here; lovely socialist country), there's bicycling rush-hour build-up. If we wanted to, we could cycle from here to Calais (then get our bikes nicked at Dover). It's brilliant.

All the bikes, including ours, are Dutch-built, and it doesn't look like they've changed the design since the 1890s. With hefty, high handlebars, at least one child seat and a basket, they weigh about 12 tons, have a stopping distance longer than a Rotterdam freighter and a turning circle that rarely fails to make you worried about falling into a nearby canal. But they're great. Completely unexportable because a gradient of more than 1 in 10,000 simply means you stop and fall off.

Dutch bikes nonetheless are the most comfortable form of slow transport, known to man. All you need to become truly Dutch is to buy a rain cape that covers the entire mechanism, adopt a stoic expression and pedal off while eating a large cheese sandwich.

They may be nice and slim, but Dutch people are technically giants. They're officially the tallest people on earth. Ladies' shoe sizes start at 38 and clomp on up to 45. Ceilings, train seats and cinemas are all built to take big folks. Life here is inordinately comfortable. The Netherlands is brill, as I said to my new friend Ster. (Praising someone's country is always a useful way to make new friends, I've found.)

"Yes," she said, "but you know income tax is 59 per cent?"

"Ah, op zo een fiets," I replied with my new Dutch phrase, meaning, "Ah, now I get it." Although the literal translation is "Ah, THAT'S the bike you're on."

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