Brian & Ann's European Experience

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Saturday – December 4, 2004

Ann booked us a weekend getaway in Maastricht and I am writing this from the bed of the Crown Plaza hotel, which Ann acquired for us at a discount that warms her little Belgian heart.

Maastricht is one of the oldest towns in the Netherlands and has a long history as a strategically important location. Maastricht is on this strange peninsula of the Netherlands which juts out from its bottom right corner into what should be, by all rights, Belgium. This peninsula is surrounded on the south and the west by Belgium, and by Germany on the east. There’s a distinct difference in the way Dutch is spoken here, much softer and without much of the throat-scraping and spittle-inducing consonants. In other words, much more Belgian.

The town has a more Belgian feel to it as well. It’s an old town with small cobblestone streets and quaintly off-kilter house fronts. It also has a preponderance of stores, which might have had something to do with Ann’s desire to come here. Today is the day before Sinterklaas comes to all the good little Dutch (and Belgian) boys and girls, and the costumed Sinterklaas men and their army of Zwarte Pete’s are making the most of it roaming around, giving the children last minute admonishments to be good.

In the Netherlands and Belgium on December 5th, all the good boys and girls are rewarded by the Sint (Dutch for ‘Saint’) with prodigious amounts of gifts which are, for some reason, left in their shoes. There is an entire history to Sinterklaas; he comes from Spain every winter on a steamboat, in a procession which is broadcast on national TV, riding on his white horse, with his army of black slaves in attendance.

Sinterklaas is helped by a number of black servants who all share the same name (Black Pete), and apparently are there to provide the stick (literally) to the Sint’s carrot of shoefuls of gifts. The Black Petes all carry around burlap sacks and wooden switches, which are to beat unruly children and convey them back to Spain respectively. Seriously, the premise of Zwarte Pete’s existence is that he has a mandate from Sinterklaas to kidnap unruly kids and bring them back to Spain, presumably to live out the rest of their existence getting traded for cigarettes in whatever barracks the Zwarte Pete’s live in. It is not an uncommon sight for an especially young child to scream in terror when Zwarte Pete reaches out to them.

Strange country.

Ann and I walked around the city center for a while stopping in and out of stores. Ann forced me to pass up fried dough and candy stores, but eventually I got her to cave in and got a chocolate waffle which I must say had the tastiest, richest chocolate sauce I have ever had.

We then walked around the Maastricht Winterland, a kind of holiday themed fair which is just an excuse to sell all kinds of foods, toys, and expensive rides to kids. Naturally, I loved it. I convinced Ann to ride the ferris wheel, after a glass of gluhewine (warm German wine) to get her courage up. Ann is afraid of heights and I have to give her credit for sticking it out.

On our way back to the hotel we mistakenly wandered into the section of town where you need to be a millionaire to enter any of the shops. Ann checked out the price of a coat, dropped it like it was on fire, and walked out of the store. “520 Euros for that coat. I don’t think so.” It was on this same street that we found this cute little antique map store and decided to stroll through it, which must have been just what the elderly gent in the fine suit wanted… two tourists in jeans trolling through his antique books and maps.

I have to say, the place was amazing. Ann spoke with the owner for a bit and learned that the store didn’t even deal with anything that was made after 1750. There were original maps of Dutch towns like Amsterdam and Maastricht that showed the original city walls and fortifications, the gates and canals, all painstakingly drawn by hand. There were even framed original Mercatur maps on display (only 8,500 Euros! A steal!). Now, I didn’t even know who Mercatur was, but my extremely well educated wife did and made sure that at least one of us looked impressed by something other than the price tags.

It’s just so European, walking into a store that sells things that are four hundred years old. I really felt like I was touching history. It was a nice feeling… until the alarms went off.

Ann picked a very cozy ‘eetcafe’ for dinner which confirmed for us, yet again, that the average quality of meals you get in Europe is far and away much better than in the States. Smoked salmon, venison steak with cranberry demi-glace, and chocolate mousse. Yum.

Sunday – December 5, 2004

Our main goal on getting out of bed on Sunday was to get to the breakfast buffet so we could stuff ourselves. Which we accomplished.

Then we met our friend Blanca and two of her friends from Spain who had come for the day. Unfortunately, all the sunshine and shopping had been used up on Saturday and all that was left on Sunday was closed shops and grey clouds. It really just goes to show you how boring Europe is on Sundays. The only thing open were the churches. (see related picture).

We hit the Winterland one more time to use our coupon for free ice skating. Ann and I spent half an hour trying to avoid collisions with the maniacal Dutch children who were playing tag. Ice skating is fun. But wearing rental skates with pieces of metal sticking into your ankles isn’t. I don’t think we used the whole half hour.

We decided to take a one-hour boat tour to get out of the cold. Let me give you a brief description: The boat leaves. The boat goes down the river about ten minutes. Look, there! A cement factory. And above it: some ruins! On your right: a lock that leads to some canal that goes to some place. The boat turns around. Look! The ruins on top of the cement factory…again. Amazing. Ten more minutes. And we’re back.

A word to the wise: stay away from the one-hour boat tour.

The last memorable thing we did in Maastricht is buy cheese. Not just any cheese. Stinky cheese. And not just ANY stink cheese, but the stinkiest of the stinky, ripest possible, tear inducing, more potent than a public toilet… stinky cheese. The stink was so pungent that even though the cheese was wrapped in paper, and then hermetically sealed in a plastic bag, you could smell it from across the room.

And then, we got on the train home.

Two and a half hours of basking in the stink of our cheese, which, since it was OUR cheese, we were naturally quite proud of. Kind of like smelling your own fart continuously for two and a half hours.

It was revenge really. You give me crappy one-hour boat tour… I give you two and a half hours of unbearable stink.

That’ll teach ‘em.

I’m thinking about exporting some back to the NJ Transit headquarters actually. It’s pretty cheap. I could buy one stinky slice for each floor. Every week.

Nah, it’d probably never make it through customs. Shame really.


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