I’d been to Holland before. I’d done Amsterdam, with its red-light district, it’s creeping houses that looked as if they were squeezed together and tilting over the edge about to tumble over, and its Rembrandtplein and endless supply of English. I’d done Rotterdam, with its maze full of thousands of bikes, its modern and strange architecture that makes your head tilt to the side and your eyes narrows, and its Markthal that filled me so full of new tastes I spent the night with my head bent over a toilet. I’d done Utrecht, with its malls and shopping, it’s canals and restaurants. I’d even done the Hague, with its beachy flair and governmental atmosphere.
Most travelers have done that. But what makes my experience worth sharing is the small town in south Holland, (zuid Holland,) with its quaint town filled with the same people that have spent their entire lives together, with perfectly squared off plots of flat green farmland, sprinkled with goats and cows and sheep, flat as far as the eye can see and divided by intricate canals, with the smell of manure and the sound of the middle-aged men’s wooden clogs (klompen) on the worn floor of the one bar (kroeg) in town: The Golden Lion, and if not carefully pronounced, the golden dick.
Meerkerk, directly translated is Lake Church, holds a special place in my heart. While the city girl in me may not always get along with its small-town quirks, the New York farm girl in me feels herself wanting to sink her naked toes in the mud and get comfortable. I spent 2 months in this town 2 years ago and was able to return again for a short reunion of 5 days. As my time was limited, I didn’t get the chance to do all the touristy things along with enjoying my short but sweet time there. So, in an attempt to give you a true taste of Dutch culture outside of the ever-English-speaking Amsterdam, I want to tell you about this sweet town that has captured my heart, Meerkerk.
If you don’t know what klompen are, they are traditional wooden clogs from the Netherlands. While you may think they are outdated representations of long-ago Dutch culture, I’m here to tell you how wrong you are. The Netherlands, admittedly a small country, is made up of a few larger cities and tons of flat land and small towns. It’s in those small towns that you’ll find klompen in everyday use. They are clunky, heavy and cost a good bit of money. From what I’ve seen, its usually the middle-aged men and older that sport klompen regularly.
Pils, Bier, Beer
What’s one of the Dutch’s favorite things? You named it, beer. And what’s one of their favorite past times? Spot on, drinking beer in the kroeg (bar.) Meerkerk has one bar called Bar Eetcafé De Gouden Leeuw (The Golden Lion,) which is the local watering hole for the entire town and is usually never empty. It doesn’t matter which time of day you wander in, there will likely be someone on the terrace drinking beer, their klompen-housed feet crossed, a cigarette with a sagging butt in their hand and a mouth that’ll talk as long as you’re listening.
I was sitting out on the terrace and watching the men of the town, of all ages, sit and drink and smoke and talk. I had a humorous cartoon pop into my head of the same men, in the same chairs, talking about the same things and slowly aging. Their skin beginning to sag, their hair going gray or falling out; younger men replacing the seats of the now old men that used to occupy those same seats but now take on the role of elders. This is a town where nothing changes and there is a sweet simplicity in that, it’s something that makes you want to find your own chair and settle in. What’s better? The bar sits on the main circle of town, meaning that whatever comes through town is in full-view of the bar. So, don’t be surprised if you see tractors pull through town, random motorcycle groups or old WWII vehicles. Just sit back, take a sip of your beer and enjoy the show.
Food – Here’s the run down
Stroopwafel: The Dutch have got some good eats. While I’m not a big fan, I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t tell you to try Stroopwafel during your visit (pronounced s/t/r/ əʊ/p.) Stroopwafel, two thin waffles with a thick caramel goo in the middle, are better made fresh but can be found in any bakery or grocery store.
Carpaccio: Carpaccio is a traditionally Italian dish; I’ve never been to Italy. What I can say is that this thinly sliced raw beef topped with arugula, pine nuts, parmesan and pesto aioli is unparalleled in the Netherlands compared to the other places I’ve eaten it. While it may sound gross, I urge you to try it.
Bitterballen: Perhaps my most favorite, are bitterballen. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the fact that the Dutch named a traditional bar food something that sounds like bitter balls. Bitterballen are a meat-based, fried snack that remind me a bit of a croquette. The Dutch, the magical beings that they are, eat them fresh out of the fryer in one bite. However, I have nerves on the inside of my mouth, so I usually end up eating them like this:
Herring: A famous Dutch treat, if that’s what you want to call it, is herring. I had this one time 2 years ago when I was feeling particularly gutsy, and by that I mean it was the time I threw up for hours after visiting the Rotterdam Markthal. The fish is served raw, hopefully properly de-boned, and with diced onions. You grab it by it’s tail, dip it into the onions, hang it over your open mouth from above and take a big bite. It isn’t bad, but due to mine not being de-boned properly I couldn’t quite talk myself into a second bite.
Last but not least, let’s talk Dutch culture. If you thought German’s were direct, you’ve got a run for your money with the Dutch. I’ve now lived in Germany for 6 months and they are passive schmetterlinges compared to the Dutch. Sometimes, I think the Dutch people make a point to be borderline maliciously direct just to throw you off and see how you react. These people don’t play. They will straight up ask you things that will make you uncomfortable and they will absolutely not sugar coat a thing. This takes some getting used to, but deep down its important to remember it’s a cultural difference and it’s not better or worse than any other culture, just different.
In a town like Meerkerk, you’ll get extreme directness along with a lifetime supply of friends and family. When you live in the same town for your entire life, and trust me the people from Meerkerk don’t want to leave, you get extremely close to the people around you. While the town is peacefully and serenely quiet, it never lacks someone to wave to or stop to talk with. Or if you’re like me, you’ll be graciously welcomed back with arms wide open despite how much time has gone by. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. With it’s peaceful streets, it’s close-knit residents, and it’s gorgeous landscape, I have no doubt this town and everyone in it will steal your heart like it stole mine.
If you ever get the chance to go to the Netherlands, you should absolutely visit the major cities. That includes Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. Notable smaller cities that I enjoy are Breda and Gorinchem. But, if you want a true peak at authentic Dutch culture, I implore you to rent a car and just drive. Drive over the bridges, let your eyes sink into the far-off horizon of green farms and blue skies, and stop when you feel like you’ve gotten far enough away from the cities. Let’s be honest, it’s a small country. It won’t take long. Go into a small town. If it happens to be Meerkerk, now you know what you’ll find.
For a look at my adventures in the Netherlands two years ago, visit cosholland.wordpress.com.