Longer articles about living in the Netherlands, Dutch society, culture and travel plus third party content from our partners


Going Dutch: The past, present and future of inburgeren, part 2

Going Dutch: The past, present and future of inburgeren, part 2

The second in Brandon Hartley's three-part series on inburgering deals with the experiences of several people who have recently gone through the process and finds out that formal integration courses are not compulsory at all. Part 2: The Present Philip has a predicament. He and his wife Beverly are both from America and they’re currently facing the possibility of being fined if they don’t take the inburgering exams even though they’ve been living in Amsterdam since 1990. Philip received his first letter from the city in 2011 and he was shocked. A letter for his wife arrived shortly thereafter. Their situation isn’t unusual and others like them have also been contacted. Following an outcry fueled by a 2010 article in the Parool newspaper about how several high-profile residents were facing the exams, Amsterdam officials vowed to turn their attention to ‘new arrivals’ instead of long-timers. But Philip and Beverly’s problem suggests otherwise. After paying a €100 fee and then being threatened with a second €200 fine if he didn’t comply, Philip finally opted to challenge the requirement in July 2015. ‘The [council's] response was very politely written,’ Philip said. ‘It basically said they have followed the procedures they are required to by law and they don't know about anything else in my letter. I still had to pay the fine.’ It’s now 2016. Both Philip and Beverly have no plans to go through inburgering, despite the possibility of additional financial penalties.  ‘After living here for 25 years I've become used to these sorts of things, which come and go,’ Philip said. ‘I think it's more their problem than mine, makes the government look dumb and weak and will just go away eventually. I am certainly considering possibilities for a court challenge, but mostly I plan to ignore it.’ Legal challenges The courts are already involved. Last spring the European Court of Justice looked at two cases, brought by an American and a New Zealand national, who asked for an exemption on the grounds they have long-term residency permits. ‘Through having that status, which was granted on the basis of EU law, they came under the protection of EU law and its provisions about how long-term resident non-EU citizens have to be treated,’ their lawyer Jeremy Bierbach said. ‘This is why the Court of Justice of the European Union had something to say about it.’ In a ruling delivered last June, the court opted not to create the exemption but ordered Dutch officials to reconsider the costs of fines for long-term resident permit holders who neglect to take the exam. At the time of this writing, this has yet to happen. Confusion Who exactly is required to go through inburgering, as well as standards for exemptions and how they’re evaluated, remains a tangled web of confusion and misinformation. Roughly speaking, anyone planning to move to the Netherlands for a long period of time, unless they are from Europe or Turkey, have to get some sort of certificate. However, what they have to do and where they have to take the tests varies greatly. Periodic updates to the exam’s requirements has only further muddied the waters. Among the latest changes is the addition of an entirely new version of the test for immigrants from certain countries called the Basic Civic Integration Examination that must be completed prior to their arrival in the Netherlands. Knowledge of society Meanwhile, as of January 1 2015, more traditional recent transplants who opt for the Dutch as a Second Language state exam must also pass the highly controversial ‘Knowledge of Dutch Society’ section and a new sixth section. Dubbed ‘Orientation on the Dutch Labour Market’, it requires test takers to complete a series of assignments and mail them to moderators at Duo, the government agency that oversees the programme. According to the official government website for inburgering, if the moderators determine that these assignments have been ‘done properly’, they’ll be invited for a 40-minute ‘conversation’ at a test centre. If everything goes well during this chat, test takers will have successfully completed this portion of the process. American Ivy League school graduate Anne told DutchNews.nl: 'This required me to fill out job applications at Albert Heijn and Hema (to prove I know how to fill out an application), even though the work I do is at a highly-skilled level.' Formal classes Currently, over 100 educational centres in the Netherlands offer preparatory classes for inburgering. Since January 2013, the government has stopped paying for the courses and offered loans to potential students instead. Making matters worse, many people automatically assume that they *must* take the classes. ‘The legal requirement is simply to take and pass the centrally administered exam. How you prepare for it is up to you,’ Bierbach said. ‘People think they have to take the specific courses that are offered to them and then they start taking these horribly condescending classes. As one client of mine put it: "if you're a woman, they assume you'll be at home making babies; if you're a man, they assume you'll get a job as a cleaner".’ Depending on an individual’s language skills and educational background, preparing for the exams by taking classes can take anywhere from a few months to three or more years. The costs of tuition can range anywhere from €300 to upwards of €5,000 (while taking all six current portions of the exam runs to an additional €350). 'Since January 2013, new arrivals are responsible for their own integration,' says social affairs ministry spokesman Ivar Noordenbos. 'So they pay for their own course.' The website Blik op Werk, a quality control label for companies geared towards helping people find work, has a list of integration schools, including a break-down of courses suitable for people with higher levels of education, Noordenbos points out. Quality Nevertheless, the quality of these classes has been called into question by many of those who have taken them. Rita, who moved to the Netherlands from Jamaica in 2013, began preparing for the exams shortly after her arrival. She signed up for a 10-month course  in Utrecht. ‘In my group of about 15 students there were people who have been living here for years as well as newcomers, such as I,’ she said. ‘Every student was at a different level, with varying levels of competency.’ After passing all but the listening test, Rita decided not to continue. ‘I was not very impressed with the coordination and management, so I prepared at home with my husband's help,’ she said. ‘In June of 2015, I again sat for the listening test and passed.’ Relationships Roger, an American who lives in Weesp, signed up for a course to prepare for the exams in 2011. ‘I’ve lived here for a while and I’m married to a Dutch woman. I feel quite assimilated into the culture,’ Roger said. ‘The holidays, the way of life, all that good stuff. The course was really geared towards people from northern Africa. It was very focused on male and female relationships, stuff like "the man does not rule the household" for example.’ Despite being frustrated with the course’s emphasis on educating its students on cultural differences instead of devoting more attention to language and grammar lessons, Roger managed to get through each portion of the exam in 2013. Looking back, Rita stated that her experience with the exams wasn’t so bad. ‘I strongly believe that inburgering is a worthwhile programme,’ she said. ‘I don't think it is too much to ask that immigrants learn the language and about the culture of their new country.’ Roger’s opinion isn’t so sunny. ‘When I took the exams themselves I had three questions about light bulbs. Another question was "Hey, you’re a woman and you want to get a job. Your husband doesn’t want you to. What do you do?’’' he said. ‘Nothing on culture, nothing on Dutch holidays, nothing on food, nothing on the way of life of the average Dutch person... In my opinion, [it was] a total waste of time.’ Please note: The names of all interviewees have been changed Part 3 will include a visit a test centre and reveal what it’s like to take the exam. It will also look at the future of inburgering and what might be done to improve various aspects of the programme. Publication date: January 22.   More >


Housing corporation Rochdale boosts flat sharing by friends

Housing corporation Rochdale boosts flat sharing by friends

Think you can’t afford to share a place with friends in Amsterdam and its surrounding towns? Think again. Housing corporation Rochdale has set up a system to help youngsters rent a place without needing huge deposits and massive salaries. It has never been harder to find a roof over your head in and around Amsterdam, particularly if you are new to the country and not exactly earning a huge salary. That is why housing corporation Rochdale has worked out a way to enable a group of friends to share a property with a proper contract and without being ripped off. The Friends contract works like this. You get together with your mates – the contract can be signed by up to three people – and get in touch with Rochdale by email. Explain what you are looking for and Rochdale’s experts will do the rest. Be aware, the properties are unfurnished without kitchen equipment. What do you need? A European passport or a residency permit, a job and a guarantor - your parents if they live in the Netherlands. If you don’t have a guarantor, you will need to come up with a deposit of three months' rent. There is no age limit and the combined salaries of your group have to add up to three times the rent of the property – this means we know you can afford the rent. Most of our Friends properties cost around €1,000 a month so even if you are all earning the minimum wage, you’ll be eligible. You do, of course, also need a healthy dose of realism. You won’t end up paying €300 for a fancy pad in the city centre. But you could end up sharing a house with garden in the Tuinsteden outside the ring road or a large modern flat with open views over the countryside in Noord. And don’t forget the commuter towns of Zaandam and Purmerend, with great public transport links to the city centre (just 15 minutes by train). The houses here are also bigger and cheaper so you get more home for your money. How long will it take? It really depends on how picky you are and how long you are prepared to wait. Not every house is suitable to be shared. We won’t, for example, put a group of 20-somethings in a complex where almost everyone else is over the age of 60. But if you have a look at Rooftrack and look for the Rochdale homes, you get an idea of the kind of properties we have. Why are we doing this? Because Rochdale is a social housing provider and we are charged with helping those on low incomes find somewhere decent and affordable to live. That means everyone in Amsterdam, whether a city born native or a new arrival. We recognise that if you are young and new to the city, there is no way you will qualify for social housing. So our Friends contract allows you to share a more expensive vrijsector home and split the rent between you. This means, say, a €1,000 a month apartment with three bedrooms will cost you €330 a month each plus bills. ‘Our job as a housing corporation is to help all Amsterdammers find somewhere to live, and that includes new arrivals and young people,’ says Rochdale director Hester van Buren. ‘The Friends contract is all about making this possible.’ If you think renting a Friends home via Rochdale sounds like the thing for you, you can either fill in the website form (in English) or email info@rochdale.nl.  More >


How to be a good citizen: the past, present and future of ‘inburgeren’

How to be a good citizen: the past, present and future of ‘inburgeren’

The controversial integration exam has filled the hearts of many immigrants with dread since it came into effect in 2007. With its changing requirements, strange exemptions and even stranger test questions, even government officials across the Netherlands have a hard time keeping track of its various components. In this three part series, Brandon Hartley takes a look at the history of inburgering, shares the experiences of several immigrants who have grappled with the exam’s requirements and presents their suggestions for revising the programme to improve the process for exam takers and administrators alike. Part 1: The Past On the evening of the May 6 2002, Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn stepped out of a radio station in Hilversum after completing an interview and was shot dead by activist Volkert van der Graaf. The murder sent shockwaves across the entire country. Fortuyn, who was in the middle of an election campaign, had earned a controversial reputation for his outspoken views, especially on the topic of Islam. Two years later, Dutch filmmaker and popular television personality Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim while cycling to his office in Amsterdam. The ripple effects of these murders is hard to completely calculate but the wave of xenophobia they ignited among certain segments of the electorate propelled populist sentiment. There was a lot of soul-searching about the way some immigrant groups kept to themselves, about Islam, and, most of all, about upholding Dutch values and society. Immigration minister Rita Verdonk was quick to capitalise on the mood and brought in a new integration exam for immigrants. Inburgeren was born. Problems From the beginning of 2007, most immigrants to the Netherlands had to take tests that covered understanding, reading and speaking Dutch abilities as well as a fourth very controversial component intended to judge whether or not they knew enough about Dutch culture and customs. Dubbed kennis Nederlandse samenleving (knowledge of Dutch society), the course and subsequent exam received a significant amount of criticism. Native Dutch people flunked the test on national television. Others questioned its relevance. One of the most often cited questions that was subjected to scrutiny was ‘what do you do with fat after making French fries?’ Few were able to correctly identify what the exam writers thought was the correct answer. Instead of containing conventional questions about the Dutch monarchy or the Netherlands’ system of government, this portion of the exam contained strange questions regarding everything from housing rights for single mothers to ‘what to do if you see two men kissing?’ Within a few years, many began calling for inburgeren to be overhauled or done away with entirely, especially since it was far more complex and demanding than similar integration exams in other European countries. The requirements were also considered confusing. It was difficult to keep track of exactly which immigrants needed to take the test and which didn’t. Exemptions were made for EU residents, the spouses of Dutch natives, Turks and people who came to the Netherlands on highly skilled migrants schemes, among others. Short-sighted Local politicians and government workers, tasked with enforcing the exams and organising preparatory classes for immigrants in their municipalities, became increasingly vocal with their objections. In an opinion piece written for NRC in October of 2008, former Utrecht alderman Cees van Eijk outlined a list of grievances against the exams that included their short-sighted requirements and inability to properly test everyone from illiterate immigrants to highly-educated expats. The peculiar double standard about who needed to take the exams only further contributed to frustrations among bureaucrats and immigrants alike across the country. In the years that followed, the national government pulled funding for preparatory classes, placing a further financial burden on those required to take the exam. Today, immigrants can borrow the money to pay for the courses and tests. It is considered to be the responsibility of a good immigrant to integrate off their own bat. And Rita Verdonk, the politician primarily responsible for creating inburgeren? She retired from politics in 2011. One American’s experience Pamela, whose name has been changed, moved to the Netherlands from America to be with her Dutch boyfriend in 2005. Her experiences with inburgering offer a good look into the state of the exams during this period. In early 2007, after moving to Almere, she was contacted by the council and told to come to city hall to discuss going through the new programme. ‘I got a letter, while on a three week holiday, saying that if I didn’t show up for an inburgering intake, I’d have to pay a very large penalty,’ she said. ‘The appointment was the day I got back to my house. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy.’ At this meeting, Pamela was told she would have to take classes several times a week at a location an hour away from her workplace. She was on a one-year contract with her employer and working full time. ‘The lady helping me informed me that my boss couldn’t stop me since it was a legal obligation,’ Pamela recalled. ’I informed her that if I did this, my employer was guaranteed not to extend my contract and it was NOT worth it.’ Failure Concentrated on her career, Pamela managed to put off studying for the exams for several years until one day she was sent a letter demanding she come to the council to discuss her failure to inburger. ‘My husband called them to tell them I was in the US on business,’ she says. ’Their exact words were "she works?" This is actually the reaction I got from everyone in the process.’ Pamela finally got through the exam in early 2014 and later became a Dutch citizen. In addition to the time and effort it took to prepare for and go through inburgering, Pamela says that the entire process, including textbooks, classes, test fees and other expenses, wound up costing her around €8,000. ‘I think the final slap in the face was my Dutch naturalisation,’ she said ‘Not only was the booklet about the ceremony in English, Turkish and Arabic (thus proving that inburgering isn’t about actually having to learn Dutch), but the "gift" Almere gave me was an international cook book.’ Part two in this series will take a look at the present state of the exam and feature additional stories from three other immigrants. It is scheduled to appear on DutchNews on January 15. Part three will follow on January 22. If you would like to share your own experiences of the integration course, please use the comment section below, or email editor@dutchnews.nl  More >


How to be well insured in the Netherlands: in English

How to be well insured in the Netherlands: in English

New arrivals to the Netherlands are often surprised by the number of different insurance policies people have. But for the Dutch, having proper insurance for all eventualities is the sensible thing to do. Why the Dutch find insurance essential Being insured in the Netherlands is seen as common sense. We want to be well insured against a wide variety of situations. Suppose a faulty washing machine floods our apartment (or that of our downstairs neighbours). What if we accidently spill coffee over a tablet, either our own or somebody else’s? What if our child scratches the neighbours’ car? Maybe our home gets burgled or we hit someone with our car or bicycle. The Dutch know accidents do happen and we want to avoid unpleasant surprises. Our advice to new arrivals is: 'Do it like the Dutch'. Then you can rest easy, because we are one of the best insured nations in the world. Eight types of insurance in the Netherlands The average Dutch person has eight different insurance policies. That sounds a lot, but insurance is relatively cheap in the Netherlands and is compulsory in some instances. For example, everybody must have health insurance. And homeowners must have buildings insurance and car owners need car insurance. In addition, liability insurance and home contents insurance are considered essential and are not expensive. Good liability insurance, for example, costs only a few euros a month. And full home contents insurance is around €10 a month. Peace of mind 'We are very well insured and that gives us peace of mind,' say Dutch couple Karin and Michel de Vries. 'Our boys are always playing football and have been known to break someone’s window. Fortunately, we have good liability insurance. And of course we also have home contents insurance. If there’s a burglary, fire, storm or water damage, for example, then we’re covered. Our car is only a year old and so is insured all-risk. So whatever damage may be done, we won’t have any hassle.' 'Every summer we take the kids to France for three weeks and in the winter we go skiing in Austria. Our multi-trip travel insurance is ideal for this and it also covers our weekends away. Oh yes, we also have legal expenses insurance in case we get into a dispute with our employers or neighbours, and naturally we also have health insurance, but everyone must have that.' Indication of the costs for this family of four                                                              Monthly premium (€) Home contents insurance                              15.00 Legal expenses insurance                              17.50 Liability insurance                                             5.00 Multi-trip travel insurance                                15.00 All-risk car insurance                                       65.00 Total                                                           €117.50* * excl. mandatory health insurance So for a small sum you can insure yourself against what are sometimes sky-high costs. What insurance do you need? Take a look at abnamro.nl/well-insured, where you can also easily take out policies yourself. We hope you have an enjoyable and untroubled time in the Netherlands. And if you have any questions, our experts will gladly give you tailor-made advice, based on your personal situation. In English, of course. More information? Please visit abnamro.nl/well-insured to find out how to be well insured in the Netherlands. Or call 0900 – 8170 (you pay your usual call charges set by your telephone provider) or +31 10 – 241 1723 from outside the Netherlands. // // //   More >


Locating your bike, feeding the cat: Dutch start-up boosts the Internet of Things

Locating your bike, feeding the cat: Dutch start-up boosts the Internet of Things

At the end of last year, Dutch start-up The Things Network raised €295,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to launch an open, free and decentralised internet of things network. Esther O'Toole finds out more. Imagine a house in which the plants alert you when they need watering or your cat is automatically fed. Then take it wider, across your neighbourhood and your city. The Internet of Things is a network of physical objects, or things, which have been equipped with software, sensors and network connectivity. This enables them to collect and exchange data and improve the way they work, bringing greater efficiency and economic benefits. Philips The idea behind the Internet of Things (IoT) first came about in the 1990s when the board of Dutch electronics giant Philips, together with American innovators, coined the term ‘Ambient Intelligence’. Ambient Intelligence refers to electronic environments equipped with devices that are sensitive to the presence of people, can sense change and relay information to a base -  independent of human control. The theory went that the instruments themselves, working in chorus, would support a more convenient, efficient, life-enhancing world for humans; and become reality between 2010 and 2020. Last year Wieke Giezeman, a serial start-up entrepreneur, launched The Things Network. The aim: to set up an IoT communication network throughout Amsterdam. He laid out his plans for citywide coverage, set up by and for users, with LoRa Wan (Long Wave Radio) gateway boxes which the company would produce themselves at low cost. Much to his astonishment it was fully crowdfunded and operational within six weeks. ‘We did it because we can. We believe in an open and free internet,’ Giezeman said. ‘The hardware is cheap enough. With this anyone can set themselves up. You don’t even need coding skills.’ Vision of the Future LoRa Wan is the same kind of tech that telecoms giants such as KPN and Vodafone are hoping to exploit in order to profit from the need for a reliable IoT network. 'If we leave this task up to big telcos, a subscription model will be enforced and we will exclude 99% of the cool use cases,' says Giezeman. 'Instead, let's make it a publicly owned and free network so businesses and use cases will flourish on top of it.' ‘In future everything will be connected. A lot of data will be collected to make our lives better. It will allow service providers, of all sorts, to make their services cheaper and better for us, the consumers.’ Since the launch the idea has rapidly gone global. Over 20 cities (from Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Almere to Sao Paulo and Montevideo) are now taking part, 2,000 people are actively seeking to help, and 200 are specifically looking to set up their own local network. In November, The Things Network launched a second Kickstarter campaign to try and support global roll out.The main aim is to have a network in every major city by the end of 2016. From then on it will need to grow via local communities. They succeeded in raising €295,000, more  than €100,000 over their target. So, how does it work? IoT devices don’t need the constant internet access of your laptop. However, they do need consistent coverage, to be reliable in varied environments, safe from hacking and have long battery life in order to transfer data as and when they need to. ‘LoRa Wan has a range of up to 10 kilometres, low bandwidth and the battery use is very low. This is perfect for machine-to-machine communication,’ Giezeman explains. By producing their own hardware, he and his team have worked hard to make options for different budgets: starting with The Things Gateway, a €200 version, with a range of five kilometres, allowing citizen users to contribute to the network from their own home. Users have been quick to start using the network, designing tools that can link to it. As an Amsterdam-born idea it’s not surprising that these uses include intelligent sensors that alert you if your boat begins to take on rain water past a safe level for staying afloat. Or a device that locates your bike among the hoards of others parked outside the city's main railway station. Practical uses The city's port authority and successful sharing startup Peerby have also joined the enthusiastic user crowd. Outside cities, IoT trackers are already being used to monitor rhinos in the wild. In the home, uses could include remote thermostat, cctv or baby monitor control. Some of these are essentially familiar and perhaps don’t seem like such a breakthrough change from apps. However, Giezeman and IoT innovators like him are anticipating the next stage of development being where the IoT will really take flight. ‘When I talk to people outside tech, in operations for instance, within ten minutes almost everyone can think of new uses. You just need to think of how far digital tech has come in the last thirty years and try and project forward.’  More >



Meet leading Dutch authors at a special literary event

Meet leading Dutch authors at a special literary event

Bookworms who want to find out more about Dutch literature should not miss a get together with several leading local writers at the American Book Center on January 9, writes Ana McGinley. Esther Gerritsen and Renate Dorrestein are among the best-selling authors who will be reading at the special event to celebrate the first birthday of publishing house World Editions, which focuses on bringing Dutch and other literature to a wider audience. After all, if your ability to read Dutch books in the local language seems to support the notion that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks or taal, translations are the obvious choice.  But not every Dutch book worthy of a wider audience gets picked up. It's a problem that Eric Visser, who founded the successful De Geus publishing house in 1983, is only too well aware of. Only 4% of the books published in Britain and the US, he points out, are translated from other languages. So why are so few Dutch books translated into English? The usual practice for an English-language publishing house is to acquire a foreign language book, commission the translation, and promote the translated book as per an English-language book. The first hurdle for a Dutch author wanting to publish outside the Netherlands is having a publisher read their work. As Visser explains: 'Most foreign publishers can’t read Dutch.'  Hence most non-English books are disregarded without even having their covers opened. Visser launched World Editions, an independent publishing house with the mission to bring international literature to a global reading audience, a year ago this month. To date, the company has published 21 titles from six languages and more are on their way. Awards This February the company will publish translations of Jaap Robben’s debut bestseller 'You Have to Me to Love (Dutch title: Birk) which was also awarded the Dutch Bookseller’s Award in 2014, and the highly anticipated translations of The Qur’an and The Messenger by the Persian-Dutch writer and columnist, Kader Abdolah. To date, the most successful books from World Editions have been A Summer with Kim Novak by Swedish crime author Håkan Nesser, and the Dutch bestseller Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp. As an internationally orientated country, the Netherlands builds bridges between cultures, says Visser.  'Dutch writers write about the world. They travel a lot and write from an international perspective mixed with some aspects of our own Dutch and Flemish history, our colonial past and the two world wars.' Register for the event  More >


Eight things about Avercamp’s winter wonderland

Eight things about Avercamp’s winter wonderland

Now that winter is drawing in, here's a look at one of the typical and incredibly detailed wintry landscapes by Hendrick Avercamp. Visit the Rijksmuseum website if you want a closer look at what the people in this painting are up to. Who was Hendrick Avercamp? Hendrick Avercamp (Amsterdam 1585 – Kampen 1634) was one of the Netherland’s most prolific winter landscape painters. Winter landscape with skaters, painted around 1608, is a typical Avercamp with lots going on. Avercamp was a deaf mute but that doesn’t seem to have stood in his way. His mother encouraged his artistic abilities and he trained as a landscape painter in Amsterdam. Is this real? The chilly tableau depicted here is not an artist’s fiction: Europe experienced a little ice age between 1450 and 1850 and the final quarter of the 16th century proved particularly cold. Avercamp loved to go ice skating with his parents and no doubt that is when he witnessed many of the small incidents he later painted. Perspectives Avercamp did not paint in the open air. He very wisely preferred to work in front of a nice fire from sketches he’d made from memory. Often he would combine different scenes. This is said to account for the different perspectives apparent in the painting: the house in the middle and the trees in the foreground are at eye level but the brewery is seen from above. Ice fun and games Then as now frozen lakes and rivers signal the beginning of ijspret, or fun and games on the ice. The ice is a great leveller, not only because people tend to fall flat on their face – as illustrated in the centre of the painting - but because this was the sort of fun everybody could enjoy. That’s as far as it went, however: look at the beggar being studiously ignored by the group of richly attired burghers just underneath the hapless skater. Beer Not everybody could afford to loiter on the ice: some of them had jobs to do. There’s the brewery on the left where someone is hauling up water through a hole in the ice to make beer. From the sign we can infer it’s probably called De Halve Maan, or the Crescent Moon. There was a brewery called Die Maene in Bruges in the 17th century and Dutch winter landscape painters were heavily influenced by their Flemish counterparts. Other people going about their business are the eel catcher with his hook - also handy for fishing out those who fall through the ice - and the reed cutter, both in the right-hand corner of the painting. Ice hockey? Left of centre some gentlemen are engaged in a 17th century variety of ice hockey known as ‘kolf’ while old and young are skating or sledging. The tie-on skates people are wearing don’t differ greatly in design from those the Dutch wore not too long ago. Boy meets girl It seems as if the general jollity of larking about on the ice also allowed for a bit of hanky panky. On the right a beau is getting fresh with his fair companion and what on earth is going on in that hayloft on the left? Avercamp also paints people relieving themselves, including someone sticking out what must be a very cold bare bottom. He’s in that upturned old boat on the left. Signature The graffiti on the door to the left, a manikin and a boat, mirrors the artist’s signature to the right, on a shed. It’s as if an urchin drew a picture of the painter and had just time to write Haenricus Av before being chased off. Previous paintings in this series Girl with a pearl earring The Goldfinch The feast of St Nicholas  More >


Festive family fun: things to do in the Christmas holidays

Festive family fun: things to do in the Christmas holidays

The school winter holidays are starting and with them a fantastic array of festive fun kicks off up and down the country. Esther O’Toole looks at some of this year’s highlights. Ice Sculpture Festival – Zwolle The world’s best ice sculptors, representing 16 countries, are descending on Zwolle and 500,000 kilos of ice and snow to build a magical playground for visitors. Enjoy the towering masterpieces and light show before retiring to the café for hot chocolate, apple pie and live music. website World’s Biggest Swan Lake – RAI, Amsterdam Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet comes to Amsterdam this year, with a flock of not 16 but 48 dancers in the corps. This enormous production from renowned British director Derek Deane and the National Ballet of Shanghai played to great acclaim earlier in the year before starting out on tour. A guaranteed spectacular! Tickets start at €39. website Mini & Maxi – Rotterdam Something to entertain the littlest to the biggest: Mini & Maxi are a prize winning Dutch clowning duo who combine music, acrobatics and mime in a unique interactive variety show. They’re legends in the Netherlands and are well known for training many of today’s best Dutch variety talents. For the first time in ten years they are going back on tour themselves and the press are unanimous in saying they’ve still got it! Well, worth a look. December 25 - 27, then on tour, website Open Air Street-Theatre Festival – Oud Kampen If you’re looking for something unusual for this time of year, you could head to Oud Kampen for the annual open air theatre festival, Kerst in Oud Kampen. The beautiful old city centre is decorated to perfection and small events enliven the atmosphere from street artists, music, dance, and acrobatics to a traditional funfair. You can even cram in a little last minute Christmas shopping. Events are free and take place between 4pm – 9pm. December 19 and 20, website A Celtic Christmas Concert – Muiderslot, Muiden Something a little different? Magic comes to the Castle at Muiden on the 23rd of December where musical trio Merain will be performing a special programme of traditional Christmas pieces from the British Isles. Settle in at the Knight’s Hall and let the candlelight, bodhrán, celtic harp and song whisk you away to Arthurian Christmasses of olde. Refreshments available in the Taverne. December 23, website Tomte 4+ - Hasselt, Maastricht, Alkmaar, Tilburg, Leeuwarden, Amsterdam & Tiel An unusual musical theatre event from Utrecht’s Het Filial theatre makers and musicians from Insomnia, Tomte sees live music and puppetry teamed up with digital projection. Taking the audience on a wintery walk through a fantastical land the show is inspired by Tomte Tummetot from legendary Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren (best known for Pippi Longstocking). The production aims to provide an engaging and exciting introduction to modern classical music and innovative theatre practice. Additional performances at other locations throughout January, see full agenda for details. website Charles Dickens Festival – Deventer Is there anything as synonymous with Christmas as Scrooge? In Deventer they don’t think so. In the weekend before Christmas a large part of the town is magically transformed into a Dickensian winter wonderland, full of little ragged orphans, top hatted carol singers and famous characters from Dickens’ best loved books. Lots of lovely Victorian things to see, do and eat! December 19 and 20, website Christmas Circuses Christmas circuses are a particular tradition in the Netherlands. If you’re after one that effortlessly combines the best of tradition and the most exciting new ideas, then head to Carre in Amsterdam. This year's 100 performers include the world’s fastest juggler, Korean acrobats and a flying trapeze. If you’re at the other end of the country and don’t want to travel, then you can try one of the other seasonal circuses in Utrecht, Rotterdam (at the Ahoy) and Maastricht. Enschede is also hosting an international circus festival. Amsterdam Utrecht  Rotterdam  Maastricht Enschede Christmas Gala – Arnhem & Apeldoorn The innovative company Introdans this year brings you four shows in one at its annual Christmas Gala. International, diverse and stirring this company is building a strong international reputation for working with both up and coming as well as master choreographers. Pieces this year include the moving and melancholy Kleine Requiem to the music of Góreki and Swingle Sisters from Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, who is known for his wonderful way of bringing humour to dance. December 26-29, website Tango Train – Amsterdam If you’d like to do some fancy footwork yourself then have a look at Tango Train. After a great launch last year, Tango Train is once again organising Milonga (Argentinian Tango) events at locations throughout Amsterdam in the last week of the year. Dance, take a workshop or see a tango themed movie or exhibition. There are options for young and old, novice and advanced, and at various times of day. Food options also available, check with the specific location. December 25 - January 3, website For more Christmas shows, check out our What's On section.  More >


WOZ, KK, VVE – the language of buying a house in the Netherlands

Mortgage interest rates are at a record low in the Netherlands so it could be the perfect time to buy a home of your own. Here’s a list of 10 key terms which every prospective home owner should understand before they start hunting for their dream dwelling. 1 KK The letters KK in housing adverts stand for kosten koper. This means that all the costs involved in buying a house – of transferring ownership in the land registry, of the drawing up of the contract by a notary and the 2% property transfer tax – are to be paid by the buyer. This adds around 6% to the price of a house, some of which is tax deductible. 2 Overdrachtsbelasting Overdrachtsbelasting or property transfer tax, amounts to 2% of the price of your new home. The cost is included in the KK. 3 Notaris The notaris – notary – is a lawyer specialised in family and private law, who draws up the preliminary sales contract for the property and the mortgage deeds (as well as wills, prenuptial agreements and that sort of thing). The notary’s bill for a property of around €250,000 will be around €1,000. 4 WOZ Every year thousands of home owners submit a formal protest about the official valuation of their property under the Wet Waardering Onroerende Zaken (property valuation law).The WOZ is used to calculate how much local property tax (OZB) has to be paid and is based on the highest price someone would be prepared to offer for the property. 5 Eigenwoningforfait The eigenwoningforfait is an extra tax on home owners and is based on the property’s official local authority valuation (WOZ). In 2015, home owners paid 0.75% of the WOZ value of their homes in extra tax, as long as the property was under €1.050.000. For properties worth over a million, it gets a bit more complicated. The tax was introduced years ago as an income equaliser because home owners were considered to be better off than tenants who pay rent. The actual effect of the eigenwoningforfait is to all but wipe out any benefits from the Netherlands' very generous mortgage tax relief system. 6 NHG The Nationale Hypotheekgarantie or national mortgage guarantee was introduced in 1995 to encourage home ownership and currently covers premises valued up to €245.000. The guarantee means that if people default on a NHG mortgage, a special home ownership fund (WEW) will pay off the debt. Almost 50% of homes bought under the guarantee limit are financed by NHG. The NHG limit will be cut to €225,000 in July 2016. 7 NVM The Nederlandse Vereniging van Makelaars is the biggest Dutch estate agents' association, claiming over 4,000 affiliated brokers. It operates the Funda.nl property search website and provides endless statistics on the state of the property market. Members of the NVM have to have proper qualifications. Every year it throws out members who refused to take compulsory refresher training courses. 8 Verkoopmakelaar and aankoopmakelaar The verkoopmakelaar is the real estate agent representing the people selling the property who will do his or her best to maximise the price. The aankoopmakelaar is the one acting on the buyer’s behalf. Before you start, you need to make an agreement with your estate agent about what they will do for you and how much it will cost. The fee is known as the ‘courtage’. 9 Erfpacht or eigen grond. If you see eigen grond in the advert for your dream home, it means you will actually own the land the property is built on. If not, you will be liable for erfpacht, or ground rent, which you will pay to the owner of the land. In many cases this will be the local council, but it could also be a private person or company. Erfpacht, particularly when a private landowner is involved, can be a complicating factor in getting a mortgage. 10 VVE If you buy a property in an apartment block, under Dutch law you will have to become a member of the VVE or Vereniging van Eigenaren. The VVE (owners’ association) ensures the property is well maintained and insured and deals with communal expenses. You have to pay a monthly fee to the VVE – usually around €50-€100, so make sure your estate agent checks out the organisation’s finances before hand. If the VVE has no cash reserves but the property is in dire need of maintenance, you could find yourself with a hefty additional bill. For more on buying a house in the Netherlands, in a language you can understand, contact Expat Mortgages.  More >


Ko’nki-klapy: Dutch words which have been adopted abroad

Ko’nki-klapy: Dutch words which have been adopted abroad

No fewer than 17,560 Dutch words have been incorporated into 138 languages around the globe, according to researchers at the Meertens Institute. The report is the result of an eight-year research project. Russian, for example, has lots of Dutch nautical words, while Japanese goes for scientific terms. Trade and immigration played their part, and so does the Netherlands' colonial past: Indonesian is replete with Dutch words. Here’s one word for every letter in the alphabet. Advokaat(je), the eggy alcoholic calorie bomb beloved of aunties at parties is advocaat in English and adwokat in Polish. Beteuterd means something like crestfallen. Both the Danes and the Norwegians liked it and turned it into betuttet which sounds even more crestfallen than the original. Catechisatie, or religious education. According to the Meertens Institute the Dutch and Flemish weren’t as fervent in their attempts to convert the inhabitants of their colonies to Christianity as the Spanish and the Portuguese but they gave it a good shot. The local languages in Suriname, the Dutch Antilles and Indonesia all have the word, along with a number of other religious terms. In Indonesian it became Katégisasi. The word bijbel, or bible, also made its way into Senegalese (bayibala-ya); the Dutch printed a bible in this language in 1740. Doezelen, or being half awake, became the charming dusi mendusi in Indonesian. Edammer, as the whole world knows, is a Dutch cheese. Among many other variants, it is évtam in Greek, Eidamsky syr in Czech, jubnat Idam in Arabic and in Denmark ejdammerost has also come to mean a round head. Fluks, a sadly underused word meaning 'quickly', made it to Norway unaltered while the Swedes turned it into the catchy hux flux. In Portuguese Creole it became flenx. Gesnap, a Flemish word for idle talk was picked up by Spanish soldiers during the Eighty Years’ war (1568 – 1648) and became gaznápiro meaning silly goose. Handelaar (trader), a Dutch word par excellence, became handelar in Indonesian and handler in American English (as in panhandler). Inpolderen, an eminently exportable Dutch practice meaning to create land from the sea or a lake, became impadurinä in Rumanian. Ja goed means affirmative, ok. In Indonesia this became yahut and took on the additional meaning of fantastic. Klapschaats, a recent Dutch innovation to make speed skates even speedier, has been widely adopted and is klapskate in English, pattino clap in Italian and ko’nki-klapy in Russian. Larie, or nonsense, became the much more interesting larifari in German. French dialect dropped an e but added meaning: lari is noisy revelry and confusion. Mekkie is one of fifty surviving Dutch words introduced to the Indian Munsee-Delaware language, spoken in the North American Delaware region in the 17th century (where it is still spoken today by some older people). Onamatopoeiacally, the Dutch settlers called a sheep a mek or mekkie and that is how it survived in Munsee-Delaware. Netjes, a much used word meaning orderly, became néces in Indonesian where it gained the much jollier meaning of 'dolled up' as in ready for a night on the town. Ontbijtkoek, the sticky ginger cake, unsurprisingly some may say, didn’t do very well language-wise. The Indonesians presumably encountered it during colonial times and it lives on in their language as umbaykuk. Pannenkoek, or pancake, did much better and there are variations of the word in many languages. It is the only Dutch word to appear in the Western-Abnaki language spoken (by a very few) in Canada. It also still survives in other Indian languages as the still very pancakey pan’kuk. Q words, which the Dutch adopted from other languages, were all taken over by the Indonesian languages. Questionair became kwéstionér, for example. Rollator, a walking aid for the elderly developed in the Netherlands, has made the transition to English, French and German without a hitch, except, one imagines, for changes in stress. Schorriemorrie is a derogatory term meaning a 'bunch of ne’er do wells'. In Russian dialect it lives on as surimúry but there it means affairs of the heart and secret arrangements. Trambel, or the bell on a tram became trémbél in Petjoh, a creole language spoken in Indonesia. It means a woman who talks incessantly! Uilenspiegel is a hero of Flemish folklore and lives on in French as espiègle which denotes harmless fun. Vlaams, meaning from Flanders, became Flämsch in German where it took on the meaning of gruff and coarse. In Rumanian it became felendreş, meaning fine cloth which the weavers of Flanders were famous for. Winst means advantage or profit and in Norwegian the meaning of vinst is just that. But it’s an interesting process that turns the word – in Indonesian (Bahasa Prokem) – into wins meaning ‘an attractive teenage girl who consorts with older men for money’, as the Meertens Institute puts it. X see Q Y see Q and X Zopie is an old word meaning alcoholic drink. The Dutch still use it in Koek en Zopie, or the food and drink served when the Netherlands puts its skates on. It also figures in Warau, a language spoken by the Indians of the Orinoco Delta and formerly spoken in Gyuana and Suriname. According to the Meertens Institute zoopje was used by the Dutch to oil the trading wheels.  More >


10 Dutch songs everyone should be able to sing along to

10 Dutch songs everyone should be able to sing along to

Blood, sweat and tears, 15 million people, flowery curtains and nights like you only see in films... the Dutch have a huge catalogue of singalong songs. Here's a selection of classics to help you breeze through your inburgeringsexam and earn the awed respect of your Dutch friends. 1 Lang zal ze leven No birthday party is complete without this song and it is one that you must try to master, especially if you have children. It’s very simple. Lang zal ze leven, lang zal ze leven Lang zal ze leven in de gloria, in de gloria, in de gloria Hieperdepiep hoera! (x3) (Translation, Long may he/she live, in glory) That’s it! Tiresome additions such as Zij leve hoog/Honderd jaren leven are not compulsory and can be ignored. 2 Wilhelmus This is the Dutch national anthem and if you are going to sing along, do what the national football team and everybody else does and only sing the first two lines: Wilhelmus van Nassaue Ben ik van Duitsen bloed Mumble, mumble, la la la etc. Duitsen meant Dutch, not German, in the 16th and 17th century in case you’re wondering. 3 Bloed, zweet en tranen One of the last songs (2002) recorded by the late, great André Hazes. It is also one of his best. Like most of his songs it has the odd grammatical wobble but who cares. Here’s the chorus. Lighters at the ready! Met bloed zweet en tranen Zei ik rot hier nu maar op Met bloed zweet en tranen Zei ik vrienden dag vrienden De koek is op. (With blood, sweat and tears, I said sod off out of here. With blood, sweat and tears, I said well friends, it’s goodbye friends, there’s no more pickings left for you). 4 Dinge-dong The list wouldn’t be complete without a Eurovision song and this one actually won for the Netherlands in 1975... in English. But the band, Teach In, also recorded it in Dutch. Here’s a snippet featuring long-term memory loss and daft dinge-dongs and bim-bam-boms. Is ‘t lang geleden? Is ‘t lang geleden? Dat mijn hart je riep met z’n ding-dinge-dong? Is ‘t lang geleden? Is ‘t lang geleden? In de zomer zon ging het bim-bam-bom The lyrics are no better in Dutch than they were in English: Is it long ago? Is it long ago? That my heart called you with its dinge-dinge-dong. Is it long ago? Is it long ago? In the summer sun it went bim-bam-bom. 5 Bloemetjesgordijn More daftness, of the Carnaval kind. Every year a carnavalskraker hits the charts. This one is a classic from 1972. Weet je wat ik wel zou willen zijn? Een bloemetjesgordijn, een bloemetjesgordijn. Van het plafond tot op het raamkozijn: Een bloemetjesgordijn, een bloemetjesgordijn En alle dagen hangen lekker in het zonnelicht Met bloemen op m'n hele lijf en ook op m'n gezicht. (Do you know what I would like to be? A flowery curtain, a flowery curtain. From the ceiling to the window sill. A flowery curtain, a flowery curtain. Hanging in the sunshine all day long. With flowers all over my body and my face.) What can we say? 6 Zing, vecht, huil, bid, lach, werk en bewonder Sing, fight, cry, pray, laugh, work and admire. This a good one for practising your verbs. The song, from 1971, is sung by Ramses Shaffy who had many wonderful hits in Dutch. The refrain is the title so all you have to do is get the verbs in the right order and you’re away. 7 Het is een nacht The chorus of this one is usually sung completely by the audience, giving singer Guus Meeuwis a well-deserved break. It was his first single and became a big hit in 1995 (and drove lots of people crazy). Here’s the chorus so you can join in: Het is een nacht Die je normaal alleen in films ziet Het is een nacht die wordt bezongen in het mooiste lied Het is een nacht waarvan ik dacht dat ik hem nooit beleven zou Maar vannacht beleef ik hem met jou (oh) Translation: It’s a night you only see in films. A night that people sing about. It’s a night I didn’t think I’d ever have. But tonight it’s you and me (oh). Note that films in the third line is pronounced fillems. 8 Een muis in een molen in oud Amsterdam Chances are you know this one in English. This is the original version sung by entertainer Rudi Carrell in 1965. Ik zag een muis. Waar? Daar op de trap. Waar op de trap? Nou daar! Een kleine muis op klompjes Nee, ‘t is geen grap, ‘t ging van klipklappiedieklap op de trap Oh ja. 9 15 miljoen mensen A song originally made to persuade all those wonderfully anarchic Dutch people to use the Postbank (which has since merged with ING bank), it became so popular it went to number 1 in 1996. There are, of course, now nearly 17 million people in the Netherlands, but the sentiment (and it is full of sentiment) holds true. Note: the new ING adverts have dropped the anarchy and replaced it with full-blooded orange nationalism. 15 miljoen mensen Op dat hele kleine stukje aarde Die schrijf je niet de wetten voor Die laat je in hun waarde 15 miljoen mensen Op een hele kleine stukje aarde Die moeten niet 't keurslijf in Die laat je in hun waarde So arms in the air and start singing: 15 million people, on a tiny patch of land. You don’t tell them what to do. You respect them for what they are. 15 million people, on a tiny patch of land. You don’t try to put them in a straitjacket. You respect them for what they are. 10 Aan de Amsterdamse grachten This 1949 declaration of love to the murky but undoubtedly very beautiful canals of Amsterdam sung by comedian Wim Zonneveld is another Dutch favourite, and singing it while standing on a bridge (in the capital of course, not just any old bridge) will gain you the admiration of many. Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten heb ik heel m'n hart voor altijd verpand Amsterdam vult mijn gedachten als de mooiste stad in ons land Al die Amsterdamse mensen al die lichtjes 's avonds laat op 't plein niemand kan zich beter wensen dan een Amsterdammer te zijn To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my heart forever Amsterdam fills my thoughts As the most beautiful city in our country All those Amsterdam people All those lights late at night on the square No one could wish for more Than to be an Amsterdammer  More >


Dutch healthcare: is it worth switching to a new health insurer?

Dutch healthcare: is it worth switching to a new health insurer?

The six-week window for changing health insurers is now open. The average rise in premiums for a full year is around €50 but the difference between the most expensive and the cheapest health insurance policies is more than €300. So is it worthwhile checking your current policy? Health insurance companies have all now revealed their new policies and premiums for 2016. In September, the government said it expected the cost of a basic health insurance package to increase by more than €7 a month. Yet, according to research by ZorgWijzer.nl and the national health authority, the actual increase is closer to €4. That might not seem a lot when you consider the hassle of changing, but you could save hundreds of euros by making a switch. You can check whether your current policy offers best value for money and still suits your needs using the English comparison tool developed by ZorgWijzer.nl. In the Netherlands, people are free to choose the health insurance policy that best suits them, although the government is still in charge of determining basic standards. Each year around one million people take advantage of the change-over window in November and December and move to a new insurer. Changes to health insurance in 2016 A number of things will change regarding the basic health insurance policy in 2016. For starters, the yearly statutory excess (own-risk payment) will increase from €375 to €385. In addition, some treatment by specialist sports injury doctors will be included in the basic health package and parents will no longer have to contribute towards hearing aids for their children. Other changes involve slightly higher patient contributions for hair prostheses, orthopedic shoes, medical transportation and maternity care. Besides the basic health insurance, consumers may choose one or more supplementary packages. These cover expenses that are not included in the basic healthcare package, such as dental care, physiotherapy and alternative therapies. Premiums vary significantly, depending on the chosen cover, and it is crucial to make sure you really know what you are getting for your money. Finding a suitable health insurance policy can be a time-consuming process. ZorgWijzer.nl offers several guides and a useful English tool to help you find a suitable and affordable health insurance policy for 2016.  More >


Ten things you need to know to celebrate Sinterklaas

Ten things you need to know to celebrate Sinterklaas

On December 5, the shops will shut early and some 60% of Dutch households will settle down to celebrate Sinterklaas. Here's a list of all you need to know to get it right. 1 Who is Sinterklaas? The man in the mitre is impersonating Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop who lived in Myra, in what is now Turkey. From the 11th century onwards, news of his miracles spread around Western Europe and he became the patron saint of practically every section of society, including children. This goes back to the saint’s facility in piecing back together three young people chopped up by an innkeeper and put in a vat of brine. The story of how Saint Nicholas comes at night to deliver presents is based on his generosity to three prostitutes who were tossed sacks of gold for a dowry through the window under cover of night. Of course he immediately became patron saint of prostitutes too. 2 When did the Dutch start celebrating? The feast of St Nicholas has been celebrated for at least 700 years in the Netherlands and, as a Catholic celebration, went underground when it was banned during the Reformation. Many of today's traditions - such as Zwarte Piet and the steam boat, came from a book written by teacher Jan Schenkman in 1850 and the real commercialisation of Sinterklaas began in the 1930s. Up until the 1940s, children would find a present in their shoe on December 6, which is officially St Nicholas' saints day in the Catholic church calendar. However, the partying has gradually shifted to the night before, or December 5, which is also known as pakjesavond or parcels evening. 3 The arrival of Sinterklaas The Meertens Institute says the first intocht van Sinterklaas, or the arrival of Sinterklaas, took place in Zwolle in 1873 when ‘a couple of well-to do farmers had a local prankster dress up as Sinterklaas distributing sweets to poor children'. Since 1952 the arrival of Sinterklaas has been a televised event which sees the Sint and his Zwarte Pieten land in style from their steam boat from Spain (although Sinterklaas has been known to arrive by train, plane and even a hot air balloon). A different place to set foot on dry land is judiciously chosen every year. Sinterklaas always arrives on a Saturday at least three weeks before December 5 so you have lots of time to spend money on presents. 4 Drawing lots Once Sinterklaas is actually in the country, the fun can begin. Sinterklaasavond, the night of December 5th, is usually celebrated with family and/or friends. Lots bearing the names of the participants are drawn some time beforehand and – another very Dutch tradition – an agreement is made about how much will be spent on the presents. According to a recent consumer poll the Dutch spend between €10 and €50 euros on a present while expenses for the whole evening don’t exceed an average of €100. 5 Shoes In the days leading up to the 5th of December, children put their shoes in front of the fire (or the radiator) in the hope that Sinterklaas will fill it with a small present or a chocolate goody. Some children think they can get around the Sint by leaving a carrot for the bishop's horse, accompanied by a wish list. In the olden days a disobedient child would find a potato in his/her shoe but these days this is deemed too traumatic. 6 Songs Sinterklaasliedjes, or Sinterklaas songs, are sung when the children put their shoe in front of the fireplace and at the beginning of the 5th of December festivities. Most of the songs date from the 19th and early 20th century and, like the character of Zwarte Piet, some have been adapted to the changing times: in the traditional welcoming song ‘Sinterklaasje, kom maar binnen met je knecht’ (Sinterklaas please come in with your servant) the word ‘servant’ has been replaced by ‘Piet’. Here are some examples of popular Sinterklaas songs recorded in the late 1960s. 7 The visit At some point, every Dutch child comes face-to-face with Sinterklaas, whether it be at school or their hockey club or even a home visit. Yes, there are lots of specialist agencies around who will supply you with a Sint and Piet, or even a video message from the great man. Sinterklaas carries with him ‘het grote boek’: a big book with the name of every man, woman and child in it which tells him if they are deserving of a present or not. If Sint visits your home, he will read out all about you from the book (slipped to him in advance by mum or dad) and hand over your gifts. Sinterklaas used to be much more moralistic than he is now, and stories of him threatening to put naughty children in a sack and take them to Spain are very much grandparents' era. 8 Poems Sinterklaas is a feast primarily for children but make no mistake: it’s also an annual grudge fest for grown-ups. People all over the Netherlands are rolling up their sleeves and licking their pencils to have a go at their siblings and friends via another great Sinterklaas tradition: the poem. The poem, which should rhyme and is read out loud by the recipient, is often used as way to score points and take public revenge on your fellow party-goers. As a parent, it is a great way to remind your offspring of the importance of cleaning their teeth or being nice to their siblings. However, be aware that you may get a poem pointing out that your Dutch accent is crap or you drink too much. 9 Surprises Another Sinterklaas tradition is the so-called surprise - or extremely elaborately wrapped up and disguised present. This will plunge households into a frenzy of creativity and closed doors. Some people become extremely competitive and will go to tiresome lengths: for instance by putting your car keys in a block of ice which then has to be defrosted using a hairdryer after which a clue to the present has to be looked for in the car. Others, particularly small boys, like to bury their gift in as much gunk as possible. But most people make nice surprises, such as a cardboard computer for a gamer (but not, alas, with a computer inside, see number 4). 10 Food Food is an important part of Sinterklaas and the giving of speculaas (spiced biscuits, often in the form of the saint) dates back centuries. The sale of Sinterklaas goodies seems to start earlier every year, and if you have not got your chocolate letters in yet, you will find you are left with a choice of S or P (for Sint and Piet). Pepernoten (mini ginger biscuits), taai taai (chewy aniseed biscuits) and schuimpjes, comprised of sugar and artificial colourings, will keep children jittery for weeks. Together, pepernoten and schuimpjes form ‘strooigoed’ or stuff that is thrown into the room by Sint or Piet (usually by an invisible hand belonging to an obliging neighbour), a tradition that again harks back to the saint throwing his money at prostitutes (in his capacity as patron saint of course). The tipple for a Sinterklaas feast is bisschopswijn, or mulled wine. Bonus point:  Sinterklaas versus Christmas Although there’s a shift towards present-giving at Christmas, some 60% of Dutch households still celebrate Sinterklaas, especially ones with small children. International families may well end up celebrating both, urged on by children who are quick to see the advantages of getting two lots of presents within the space of one month.  More >


The story of Dutch spy Mata Hari becomes a ballet

The story of Dutch spy Mata Hari becomes a ballet

She has been the subject of countless books, stage productions and films, but now the life of the Dutch spy and dancer Mata Hari is to be told in the most appropriate way of all – as a ballet. The Dutch National Ballet is producing a large-scale ballet about her, with choreography by artistic director Ted Brandsen, a libretto by Janine Brogt and music by Tarik O’Regan, one of today’s leading British composers. Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle to a well-to-do Frisian family in 1876. Following an unhappy marriage, she went to seek adventure in Paris where, as the exotic and mysterious Mata Hari, she became one of the most famous dancers of her day. She travelled throughout Europe and had highly-placed lovers everywhere, which made her an ideal spy during World War I. Indeed, she was suspected of being a double agent. She was arrested by the French in February 1917, tried as a spy for the Germans, and executed by firing squad that October at the age of 41. An eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales says she was not bound and refused a blindfold. After the volley of shots rang out, Wales reported, she slowly fell to her knees, her head up and gazing directly at those who had taken her life. She then fell backwards with her legs doubled up beneath her. According to Wales, an officer walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead. Metamorphoses Ted Brandsen says he wants to focus mainly on Mata Hari’s ability to keep reinventing herself. ‘She underwent many metamorphoses, like a Lady Gaga or Madonna of a hundred years ago,’ he says. ‘I am also moved by her survival instinct and her will to make something of her life no matter what.’ For Janine Brogt, Mata Hari was larger than life. ‘Everything she did was theatrical and of an intensified reality, ‘she says. ‘She was as changeable as the weather and had dozens of different faces.’ Inspiration Over the decades, the Dutch spy has been an endless source of inspiration for the arts. Films, of course, with actresses ranging from Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich to Jeanne Moreau and Sylvia Kristel playing her. But also stage versions, a television series and a Broadway musical in the 1960s. She has also been immortalised by painters such as Isaac Israels (1916) and John Singer Sargent (1906). Earlier this year it was announced that Broadway choreographer and director Jeff Calhoun has joined forces with a team of musical talent to take on Mata Hari’s story in a new original musical which will have its world premiere in Korea. The National Ballet production has its world premiere in Amsterdam on February 6 2016 with further performances until February 26.  More >


Dutch motor on in driverless car trials

Dutch motor on in driverless car trials

The Netherlands is flat and has a lot of straight, overcrowded roads, so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the government has made experimenting with driverless vehicles a central part of its infrastructure policy. Google may plan to eliminate the need for drivers within five years and Tesla has a three year deadline but the Dutch want to play a leading role as well. By Esther O'Toole Two years ago, Amsterdam’s A10 ring road was the setting for a test of self-driving cars, developed by the TNO research institute and scientists from Delft University. The aim of the Dutch Automated Vehicle Initiative (Davi), which also involves the transport ministry, is to develop a user-friendly system which can be built into new and existing cars. Last year, the TNO research institute started working with DAF, Rotterdam’s port authority and the transport industry lobby group TLN to develop self-driving lorries. Then this January, ministers approved the large-scale testing of self-driving cars and trucks on public roads in the Netherlands, arguing the technology could cut jams, improve road safety and reduce pollution. The cabinet wants the Netherlands to take a ‘leading role’ in the development of self-driving cars and systems to allow vehicles to communicate with each other. Moving fast Since then the transport ministry has been busy looking at the ethical ramifications of automation, registration, liability questions relating to insurance and revisions to the 1968 Treaty of Vienna which governs EU traffic laws. There is a sense that everything is moving very fast and ‘more tests are planned, though there are no concrete dates yet’, transport ministry spokeswoman Marianne Wuite told DutchNews.nl. Delft University professor Riender Happee, who is closely involved with the Davi project, said funding so far is going towards tests on the quality of radar and cameras, human-machine interaction on the road, and work on online platforms for the detection of damage to sensors and bad weather. 'Very rapid steps are being made towards safe integration, at low speeds, with all kinds of traffic,' he told DutchNews.nl. 'In the future, every self-driving car will itself know exactly which roads it is allowed to drive on and at what speed.' Eyes on the road Despite the government's enthusiasm, public scepticism and anxiety around automated vehicles does remains high. When Tesla was given the green light to roll out its autopilot software in the US this October, road safety experts in the Netherlands were quick to test it out for themselves. The Dutch vehicle licensing authority (RDW) concluded the upgrade - more improved ‘driver assistance’ capability than ‘autopilot’ - should be allowed on roads here, meaning the 2,000 Dutch Tesla S owners will be able to use it immediately. ‘We have different rules here than in the US and over 60 different safety points that vehicles have to meet,' said spokesman Hans van Geen Huizen.  'Many of these cruise control and automated parking functionalities are already in other brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz as well as the earlier version of the Tesla. 'What is new is that the Tesla can now indicate when you should change lanes or overtake and no other car has that functionality. It is a steering support system not an ‘autopilot’ and you definitely still need to keep your hands on the wheel.’ The Driver Experience Over at Dutch motoring organisation ANWB, they’re watching developments with a keen eye. ‘We are satisfied with the ambitions and the role the Dutch government and Dutch companies are playing within this field. When compared to other European countries, and especially considering our relative size, we’re punching above our weight,’ said spokesman Markus van Tol. In Gelderland, trials using a French autonomous vehicle known as the EZ10 to run passenger services on public roads are poised to begin in January. The Wepods project is a joint venture between the province, Delft University, the TNO research institute and others. Unlike previous tests in Finland, Switzerland and France or similar driverless buses like the Rotterdam Rivium Shuttlebus, the vehicles will be operating on public roads for the very first time, carrying up to six people between Ede and Wageningen. Top speed The Wepods have no steering wheel or brake pedal, a top speed of 25km and can be hailed with a mobile app. Though there will always be someone in charge of the emergency stop mechanism, the idea is to explore the possibilities for passenger vehicles with no driver at all. ‘The Wepods are a whole new ball game for us,' said RDW spokesman Arjen van Vliet. 'We need to take interaction with other road users into account. We’re consulting with a traffic psychologist on that. There’s a very rigorous exemption process for such projects. It’s an interesting time.’ Delft University's Happee says the Davi programme is linking together many national and international partners. 'There are many differing opinions as to when fully autonomous vehicles will become commercially available, but the technology is close,' he said.  More >


10 of the tallest things in the Netherlands

10 of the tallest things in the Netherlands

Coming to the Netherlands can make the average person feel vertically challenged. Yet, the Netherlands is not a country of soaring skyscrapers and mountain peaks.  Our list shows the good old Dutch trait of moderation is also apparent in architecture and nature. Tallest structure This award goes to Gerbrandy Tower in IJsselstein, thanks to the aerial mast mounted on its tower.  Built in 1961 and originally measured at 382.5 metres, the Gerbrandy Tower knocked the Eiffel Tower from top spot on the list of Europe’s tallest structures, holding the title for 12 years. Even with two height reductions in 1987 and 2007, it remains the tallest Dutch structure (366.8 metres) and continues to be used for transmission of television and radio services. Covered with lights in December, it also becomes the tallest Dutch Christmas tree. Tallest tree A Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in the grounds of the royal family’s Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn. In 2010, Leo Goudzwaard and Jeroen Philippona measured the tree at 49.75 metres, but this seems somewhat insignificant when compared to its American cousin located in Washington State and measuring 99.76 metres. Highest bridge Designed by Ben van Berkel, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam with its 139-metre high asymmetrical pylon is the highest bridge in the Netherlands. Highest mountain (well, hill) The award goes to Vaalserberg (322.7 metres) in Limburg. Vaalserberg is also the meeting point between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Highest sand dune The dunes around Schoorl in Noord Holland are the highest along the Dutch coast, with the tallest coming in at about 54 metres – give or take a few grains. This makes the village one of the safest places to live if you are worried about rising sea levels. Highest building Built in 2010, the Maastoren in Rotterdam is the country’s highest building at 165 metres.  Taking the stairs to the top or 45th floor is a guaranteed workout. The top five tallest buildings in the country are all in Rotterdam. Highest church tower In a country full of churches, this award goes to the Dom tower (112.3m) in Utrecht.  Built between 1321 and 1382, the church tower has amazing views and fourteen ringing bells. The rest of the church collapsed in the 17th century. Tallest windmill The appropriately named Ambtenaar (civil servant) turbine in Wieringermeer, Noord-Holland, stands 135 metres tall, or 198 metres when the blades are taken into account. It even has its own webcam. Tallest chimney Located in the Rotterdam industrial area, the two Shell Pernis chimneys built between 1968 and 1974, are 213 metres high. Tallest Person The Dutch are often said to be the tallest people in the world and Robert Zwaan is considered by the Guinness Book of Records to be is the tallest Dutchman ever at 2.23 metres. He is still more than 50 cms shorter than world record holder, Robert Wadlow from Illinois, who died in 1940. This list was first published on website Netherlands by Numbers  More >


Eight things about Jan Steen’s The Feast of St Nicholaas

Eight things about Jan Steen’s The Feast of St Nicholaas

Sinterklaas and his associates are back in town and in many Dutch homes children are singing Sinterklaas songs, eating pepernoten and hoping for a good haul of pressies on December 5. Many of the Sinterklaas rituals are very old. Here’s a painting by 17th century painter Jan Steen (1626-1679) which he produced around 1665 and which illustrates this perfectly (with not a Zwarte Piet in sight). 1 Who brought the presents? We are not quite sure when most children stop believing that Sinterklaas actually rides around on his horse over the rooftops on a dark and stormy December night dispensing presents through the chimney. But once the older children are ‘in the know’ the tradition is that they perpetuate the myth for their younger siblings. To the right of the painting you can see a boy carrying his baby sister while his awed little brother is standing by. He is pointing to where the presents came from. 2 A shoe by the fireplace In the days leading up to Sinterklaas, children put their shoes in front of the fireplace at night (or lacking that, a radiator) in the hope of finding something nice to eat in the morning, such as a sugar mouse or a handful of pepernoten. In Steen’s time it was no different. In the painting a laughing girl is holding up a shoe but clearly something has gone terribly wrong for the owner, who is crying his eyes out. 3 Have you been a good girl or boy? Sinterklaas is very moralistic in origin. ‘Wie zoet is krijgt lekkers, wie stout is de roe’ goes the song. If you are good you get sweets, if not a good thrashing’, a roe being a bunch of birch twigs tied together for that purpose. The crying boy (actually Steen’s son Thadeus) has been naughty and has found a roe in his shoe and he doesn’t like it. His grandmother, on the right, beckons him. Perhaps Sinterklaas has left something for him after all, hidden behind the curtain. The little girl (Steen’s daughter Catharina) has obviously been very good: she is carrying her doll and a bucketful of gifts very contentedly and she’s not about to share no matter how playfully her mother asks her. And is that a bulging apron full of sweets? 4 Is that a golf club? The little boy (Steen’s son Cornelis) in the centre of the painting is looking straight at us as he points to the shoe. He is probably there to highlight the importance of being good and the consequences of being bad. As so often with Steen, his depiction is so jolly and good-humoured you feel you don’t have to take too much notice. The stick the boy is holding is a ‘kolfstok’, or golf club: the ball is at the mother’s feet. 5 Special food A Sinterklaas celebration is not complete without the food associated with it. There’s plenty of it in this painting: a basket with a big piece of speculaas, or gingerbread, sticking out of it, nuts and fruit and a delicious-looking bread thingy which we can’t identify. Other, present day Sinterklaas foods include marzipan (in all shapes and sizes), pepernoten (ginger nuts), taai taai (an extremely chewy confection which people with iffy teeth should refrain from tackling) and chocolate letters. 6 Two times St Nicholaas Steen liked Sinterklaas so much he painted it twice. It is thought the version you’re looking at was made for a Catholic client and the little girl’s doll is a saint. In the other version (in the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht) she is carrying a big speculaas-like goody (which again she is unwilling to share) which may mean it was made for Protestants. 7 Mess Things are always a bit of a shambles in Jan Steen's paintings and this one is no different. Look at that discarded shoe in the foreground and the food strewn all over the floor. Of course, this is done on purpose and every little item has a meaning. In spite of this, his messy paintings have made their way into the language as ‘Een huishouden van Jan Steen’ means a messy, jolly household with lots of noisy kids. 8 No St Nicholas In Steen’s day Sinterklaas was never a person who entered the house, nor did he come accompanied by a Zwarte Piet. All he did to make his presence known was to throw his presents down the chimney when the children were in bed. The painting is of the morning after the Sint’s visit. According to the Meertens Institute, the depiction of Sinterklaas joining the festivities doesn’t happen until halfway into the 18th century.  More >


10 of the oldest Dutch things

10 of the oldest Dutch things

Being built on a swamp, where wood was the building material of the day, not much remains of the prehistoric Netherlands. Even the Romans avoided much of the country because of the risk of wet feet. But here is a list of 10 old Dutch things. 1  Oldest signs of life The oldest signs of human life in the swampy lowlands were left by a humanoid called Homo heidelbergensis who decided the perfect place to roam was what is now the middle bit of the Netherlands. There they left flints and tools that may be 300,000 years old but could possibly be double that number. The tools, sharpened stones, were probably used to scrape hides. 2 Oldest burial The oldest burial place found so far is in Hardinxveld-Giessendam, where the complete skeleton of a woman was discovered. Trijntje, so dubbed because she was found during building work on the Betuwe train (trein) line, is thought to be between 7,000 and 7,500 years old. She was 158 cm tall, and between 40 and 60 at the time of her death. How she died could not be ascertained. 3 Oldest road The oldest roads which can be identified were part of the Roman Limes, the border defences which marked the edges of the Roman empire which roughly ran from Katwijk and then followed the Rhine. The roads were not thought to have been paved, but packed with gravel and clay. 4 Oldest town The oldest town in the Netherlands as far as official town privileges are concerned is Stavoren (1058) in Friesland but Nijmegen is probably the oldest town of some importance today. In 1980 a roman victory column dating from 17 AD was stumbled upon, celebrating the emperor Tiberius’ successful campaigns in the Lower Rhine. Nijmegen was known as Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum  in Roman times. 5 Oldest house The oldest Dutch house still standing is in Deventer. It has a bit of wall dating from 900. The rest of the house was built in 1130, including its city gate (which is the oldest city gate in the Netherlands.) 6 Oldest written Dutch Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic anda thu, wat unbidan nu? It means, or was thought to mean ‘All the birds are making their nest except you and I, what are we waiting for?’ and it has long been considered the oldest example of the Dutch language. The text was found on a manuscript copied in Winchester Abbey and is thought to be a little doodle to try out a new pen by a monk in his native West Flemish. In 2012 Belgian professor Luc de Grauwe made a very convincing case for the sentence to be in Old English. According to the professor this translates into the much less romantic and frankly incomprehensible: ‘All the birds have now built their nests except you and I, now what do you expect?’ The official oldest Dutch bit is Maltho thi afrio lito, or ‘I tell you I release you’ which dates from 510 and was the standard phrase to free a serf. 7 Oldest reclaimed land Reclaiming land has been a Dutch pursuit since the 14th century but the first polder of any significance is the Beemster (1607 – 1612). It even made the World Heritage list. Brilliant engineer Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater (literally empty (of) water) used 47 windmills to drain an area of almost 73 m2 km. The Beemster was turned into extremely fertile agricultural land and generated much wealth for the canny investors of the time. 8 Oldest church The oldest church in the Netherlands still functioning as a church is the Oude Kerk in Oosterbeek (Gelderland) which is pre-Romanesque and dates from the 10th century. In 1944 the church was the backdrop to heavy fighting between the Germans and the Allies during Operation Market Garden. It remains a place of pilgrimage for many veterans today. 9 Oldest university Leiden University is the oldest university in the Netherlands. It was founded on February 7, 1575. Apparently William of Orange offered the city a choice: an exemption of tax for ten years or a university. It would have been interesting to know how close the vote actually was. Apart from such 19th century Dutch luminaries as statesman Johan Thorbecke, father of the Dutch constitution, an impressive 13 Nobel prize winners worked at the university. Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Niels Bohr also visited. 10 Oldest company The oldest Dutch company still in business is Hotel De Draak in Bergen op Zoom. It was listed as an inn as early as 1406 and is a hotel still. It has had its share of mishaps, most recently a devastating fire in 2013, but it has since reopened. One of the most remarkable people to (dis)grace the guest list must be the Spanish Duke of Alba who stayed the night in 1567, a year before the start of the 80 Years War’, or the Dutch revolt against Spain. This list was first published on website Netherlands by Numbers   More >


Signed, sealed, undelivered: 300-year-old letters reveal secret lives

Signed, sealed, undelivered: 300-year-old letters reveal secret lives

In 1926, a chest containing 2,600 letters dating from between 1689 and 1706 was bequeathed to the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague. As many as 600 remained unopened. Now an international team of researchers is busily reading what is in them, writes Hanneke Sanou. Reading other people’s letters is usually frowned upon and researcher David van der Linden, one of the project leaders, has admitted reading the letters has made him feel something of a ‘voyeur’ at times. The letters contain gossip and scandal but also tell of political turmoil and heartbreak. ‘Many of the letters were written by Huguenots, persecuted French Protestants who fled to the Netherlands and so became separated from their families. They were writing to say how much they missed each other. But there are also love letters refused by the intended recipients, and an order list from a book seller. I happened to know the titles that were on them, they were pornographic books,’ Van der Linden says. Undelivered and unclaimed, these so-called dead letters were kept in a linen-lined leather chest waterproofed with sealskin where they remained, perfectly preserved, for the next three hundred years. The prudent owner of the chest was Frenchman Simon de Brienne. In 1676 De Brienne became postmaster of The Hague and assumed responsibility for the postal traffic to and from France, the southern Netherlands and Spain. Postmasters were highly regarded and well-remunerated in those days. Their task was to keep records and hire postilians to transport the letters. De Brienne, a self-styled lord used to moving in royal circles, was chamberlain and confidant to stadtholder Willem van Nasssau, Prince of Orange. Contrary to normal practice De Brienne didn’t destroy the letters that were refused (the postmaster would write ‘Wil niet hebben’ or ‘unwanted’ on the back of the letter) or otherwise undeliverable. Instead he put them in his ‘piggy bank’, as he called it. Postage and delivery charges were paid by the recipient and De Brienne expected to profit from them at a later date. Not all letters that came back went unread, however. People went to some lengths to get out from under the charges. The most important message in the letter would be written on the outside by the sender so the recipient could read it at a glance and then refuse to take receipt – and pay. The contents of the letters are opening a window on what were turbulent times in Europe and senders and recipients, aware of the safety implications of exchanging confidential letters, employed an ingenious security method known as letter locking. By dint of some 17th century origami the letter effectively became its own envelope. Any tampering with the intricate folding of the letter would show immediately. The folding was also highly personalised and functioned as something of a signature. The collection includes letters from aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors, musicians, barely literate peasants and highly educated people with beautiful handwriting, and are written in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin, the Guardian reported. In order to preserve and study the letter locking method, the 600 unopened letters will be perused using a powerful CT scanner. ‘Old letters are usually flattened and filed but that means the folds will fade over time and then we can no longer tell how it was folded. We still want to know what’s in them so we’ve turned to the same method used to decipher the Dead Sea scrolls,' says Van der Linden. 'But because of the many twists and turns the scanner has to make, the letters present a more complex challenge, and a more expensive one,’ Van der Linden says. The team have their work cut out: paper, postal marks, matching enclosures, seals and hands will also be scrutinised. Once all the letters have been digitised, transcribed and edited they will be published on the museum’s website. Already on show in the museum are De Brienne’s administrative documents, including the bills of the postilions who carried the letters. The project, titled Signed, Sealed & Undelivered, is a partnership between researchers from five leading universities — Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Universities of Leiden, Groningen and Oxford — and the Museum voor Communicatie.  More >