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Pickles and Onions on Herring – Oh my!

27 Jun

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Amsterdam for the first time.  My son, who is 19 talked me into making the trek from London to Holland so he could visit a friend.  His friend was a girl who had come to live in Mebane, NC (our hometown) as an exchange student.  Initially, the thought of being in Amsterdam with my teen-aged son and other young folks made me apprehensive to say the least.  When I was last in Europe in 1989, Amsterdam was known only for the hash and the red light district.  I’m writing this post to document the error of my prejudices about the city.  From now on, when I think of Amsterdam, I will think of water and houseboats and pickled herring, and bicycles.

The red light district is still there, don’t get me wrong.  And of course, we took a stroll through it just to say we had.  It was dirty and weird and not all like the part of the city we spent the majority of our time in.  But to have the impression that Amsterdam is the red light district is like thinking that South Carolina is Myrtle Beach. As a native of the Carolinas, I can tell you, there are vast and beautiful places that bear no resemblance to the touristy craziness of Myrtle, and so is the case in Amsterdam. We toured all around the city on rented bicycles and enjoyed gorgeous views of renovated buildings, quaint sidewalk cafes, flower markets, and of course, canals lined with houseboats.

My new, informed take on the Venice of the Netherlands is that it is the most quiet and polite city I have traveled in.  I did not hear a single car horn in the whole four days – only the ping of bicycle bells.  My biggest and favorite surprise was the amazing cycling culture.  Women in heels, men in suits, fathers toting up to three kids on a single bike, people with their pets in baskets, all chugging along the cobble stone streets and extensive network of bike lanes.  There were bikes in all shapes with a number of ingenious ways to carry things from here to there.  My favorite was the one with the integrated box on the front.  I saw this style of bike used to shuttle dogs, school aged children, lumber, furniture, and groceries.  It is the minivan of the Netherlands.

My second favorite surprise was how much I enjoyed the food.  I’m guessing fresh produce is good just about everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere in late June, but I had forgotten about Dutch apple pie.  Other staples like bread, cheese and beer were also delicious. Finally, the pickled herring.  Topped with chopped onions and pickles, it is a flavor explosion of a very pleasing combination.

Finally, while Holland is famous for tulips, in June it’s the Hollyhocks that steal the show.  They pushed up between the cracks of the sidewalk next to buildings where they were not purposefully planted.  Hydrangeas and trailing roses were also featured foliage providing a soft and delicate edge to the sharpness of all the brick and pavement.  All in all, I have to say, Amsterdam will be high on the list of places to re-visit.

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