Isarajka

To Utrecht with Love

Once a year go someplace you´ve never been before, says the Dalai Lama in his 18 Rules for Living. Or, in an expanded version of it and for those of us who do that anyways: “Start the year with going someplace you’ve never been before´´.

And I did. I went to Utrecht. On 1st January.

Now, nothing too exotic. I live in Brussels in normal life. Not like I came from Japan or anything. And yet, it felt exotic enough. And it was high time as I had been pretty much everywhere else in the Netherlands. Drenthe and Groningen to the north, Enschede and Eindhoven to the east, Den Haag and Rotterdam to the west, and Zeeland to the south. Only the centre missing.

And here I was, ready to explore the place, the pulsating heart of the Netherlands, `´eine Stadt zum Verlieben`´ as someone´s multilingual travel guide had said, and melt in with its residents for a few days. I was overjoyed when my dear friend Berber whom I had intended to visit in her hometown in Friesland told me she´d actually be in Utrecht on 1st January and suggested I visit her there instead. So, after a 3-day New Year`s event with friends in a cosy cottage in Drenthe, I asked those friends to drop me off on their way back to Brussels, at de Uithof, the eastern outpost of the town, and Berber to pick me up there.

And here at de Uithof I took my first glimpse of Utrecht, or of its eastern outskirts. Massive buildings, all steel and glass and concrete, large park houses, loops of highways, the Konigin Wilhelmina Ziekenhuis, the science faculties of the university, “Nutricia Research Centre“.

And then we were speeding down these highways into the city, on a GPS, which, albeit only 7 or 8 years old, didn’t recognise half of the roads we were on. Utrecht, the largest building site in Europe right now. Utrecht, a city in growth, construction everywhere.

We finally arrived on the other side of it, far west of the town, in the lovely little neighbourhood of Oog Ten Al, where Berber and her husband and baby had been house-sitting the house of their friends who had gone off for the holidays. And I was couchsurfing their squat so-to-speak. And here we were, feeling oh-so-comfortable, eating pindakaas from the fridge, melk chocolate kransjes off the Christmas tree, loving the light of it, and treating the baby to the houses´s extensive baby facilities, being the home of thee small children and therefore fully equipped with colourful baby stools, wash basins and toys.

On a walk through the neighbourhood the next morning, I realised that all streets and houses were pretty much the same. Robert Schumanstraat, Beethovenstraat, Johann Sebastian Bachstraat. Small single-family detached homes and terraced houses, well-behaved children playing musical instruments, Christmas lights, wood, colours, crafts. Very bourgeois and warmly reassuring for the season.

We grabbed a bus to the central station. And then to the Domplaats. Yes. At last. Here I was. In the heart of the city. Berber´s husband disappeared into a coffeeshop; Berber and I did the tourist thing and visited the Dom, and the garden behind it, and het Academiegebouw, and came out by the Oudegracht, where my enchantment truly started. Really loved the ´´grachie´´. And couldn’t believe the shops by it. H&M, Zara and Mango along something as beautiful as the gracht? Almost sacrilege. Or maybe a supreme treat? Let´s say the latter. Shopping by the Oudegracht is so infinitely nicer than on Rue Neuve in Brussels.

But no shopping for us yet. We opted for an extensive ´´appelgebak and warme chocola met slagroom´´ New Year´s celebration session instead. At Winkel van Sinkel of course. The neo-classicist warehouse from 1839, in all its grandeur… ‘In de winkel van Sinkel Is alles te koop; Daar kan men krijgen: Mandjes met vijgen, Doosjes pommade, Flesjes orangeade, Hoeden en petten, en damescorsetten. Drop om te snoepen en pillen om te …’
… and we indulged in hours of catching up and gossip, and OMG, I really have a weakness for warm Dutch appelgebak. This New Year started well.

Eventually we ended up at de Potdeksel, a café-restaurant that’s been around for 40 years I was told, and open to old and young and posh and less so – and, surprise, owned by Berber´s relatives. To my great delight, we were offered a yummy Indonesian dinner, made by Berber´s auntie´s husband´s mother (and the welcome was so warm that I almost felt like family by then), and topped with extra saté-sauce just for me – yes, I´m a peanutbutter and saté-sauce junkie. Loved the traditional vibe of the place, and the sitting at a table with the owners. Really grateful and happy.

And – here comes the best part – Berber´s aunt eventually told us that just at a minute´s walk from the café, the Stadschouwburg was opening its doors to Utrecht´s new mayor Jan van Zanen tonight, yes, now, to welcome him as the new mayor of the town, and to host his Nieuwjaarstoespraak. And ´´tonight´s show is for the public whereas Monday is by invitation only so you should go tonight´´.

Drinks with the mayor

And off I went.
Needn’t be told twice.
Drinks with the mayor for a welcome – not to be refused.

Just to find that by the entrance everyone was dressed in high heels and cocktail dresses, and that the doorman asked me for my invitation.
Turns out auntie had mixed it up. Tonight was by invitation only, Monday for the wider public.
Right.
Ok.
Been there, done that before.
´´My friends have my invitation and they´re already inside“.
Pokerface. Lucky I was kind of dressed the part.
And…
Bingo, I was waved in.
A seat among Utrecht´s crème de la crème.
A beautiful concert hall, a beautiful concert itself.
A real New Year´s treat.

And then the mayor himself.
Bit of background info I had gathered at de Potdeksel: Mr van Zanen had been in the Utrecht city council (?) until 2005, then mayor of Amstelveen, and leader of Dutch Liberal Party VVD.
Pretty cool profile (or, well, “ambitious”),
Pretty cool company for my first full day in town (and one doesn’t have to agree with the VVD party line for that),
And pretty cool introduction to the town as such (by the mayor himself).

I walked into this event barely knowing how to find Utrecht on the map, and came out knowing that…
…Utrecht now counts 328 000 inhabitants,
…that it´s a ´´stad in de groei´´,
…´´dat het goed gaat me de stad´´,
…´´dat er wel groeipein is´´, especially with regard to de verkeersonderbrekingen rond het central station, ´´maar dat het een stad is die groeit en groeit maar die toch onverkenbaar zichzelf blijft´´.

Challenges the new mayor wants to address include, among others, education, the homeless, the construction of the Leidsche Rijnse Centrum, social housing, the tramline to de Uithof, and safety.

Van Zanen speaks well, and is clearly a man of the people.
´´U zult me overall tegenkomen in de komende maanden´´, he announced, and I will be looking for ´´de ziel van de stad´´. In true Dutch liberal fashion, he openly addressed ´´de jongeren, ouderen, homos, heteros, studenten, ondernemers, professionals and vrijwilligers´´ and said he wants to support both the prostitutes and those opposing them, and basically be there for everybody and his dog. He personally greeted 94-year old Mrs “Lieke“ and thanked her for “de roomboterkoek” she gave him last time he saw her, and made a special mention of “Thijs”, a young student whom he thought was in the audience as well.

He topped it all off when he stroke up the keynotes for the popular local song “Als ik boven op de Dom kom“… and an amused and enthusiastic audience joined in with “Kijk ik even naar benee“, “dan zie ik het ouwe Grachie, ’t Vreeburg en wijk C, Ja, dan springt m’n hartsjie open, ik ben trots, wat dach-ie wat, d’r is geen mooier plekkie, as Uterech me stad, as Uterech me stad“.
Utrechters really love their ´´stadsie´´ and I found that sweet and touching. It reminded me of Sarajevo, a town I have lived in for many years. Same size, same level of photogeneity albeit in a very different way, and that same love their inhabitants have for it.

But my good fortune of being so gloriously entertained didn’t end here.
The keynote address and concert were followed by a lush reception. Champagne flowing, deliciousbitterballen being passed around, and I was eventually joined by my dear old friend Peter whom I hadn’t seen for a while, but originally met almost 20 years ago. As a real Utrechter, born and bred, or almost, he fully rose to the occasion and I couldn’t have asked for a better companion. Champagne flutes in hand, we lingered in various strategic corners of the venue and spent the next two hours ´´watching people and being watched´´. He knew everyone, and those he didn’t know he knew of, or he guessed who they could be. It was hilarious. Mainly civil servants, some civil society. Those renovating the Dome chapel for instance. Only a few ondernemers, or maybe those were the ones he didn’t know. A national TV presenter. I felt I had dropped in from Mars, and fallen, well, into an interesting place.

And last, but not least, the Carnevalvereniging´s crowd. Elderly gentlemen, well-fed, dressed up in embroidered medieval costumes, all red and white, the city´s colours, with funny hats and long feathers sticking out of them and brushing me across the face when I attempted to take pictures of them and shoving my champagne flute past them to take them from another angle. And they talked with funny accents. Utrechters to the bone. And their wives. Like I said, good entertainment.
And drinks with the mayor on my first day in town – not so bad.

At one point, I suggested a selfie (the word of 2013 it seems, even Obama knows what that is) with v.Z. in the background. Peter was shocked. Don’t even think about it. Social suicide. Doe normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg. LOL. I gave in. Glad I have advisors like him; I guess he just saved my (social) life.

Peter and I eventually ventured home and home I called his place where him and his companion gracefully welcomed me for the night. After a brisk and delightful walk through the night and along the entire Oudegracht until its very end, we eventually arrived at his modest and yet lovely abode, on the far eastern end of the town. ´´This is where the rich people live´´, Peter informed me, not suggesting he was one of them, but clearly setting the place apart from “places like Zuilen and the other the neighbourhoods west of the national railway line´´, which cuts the city in two, and ´´where the poor people live“. In other words: Had I grown up in Utrecht, my parents would have told me not to go to Zuilen as that’s where the bad guys linger behind street corners with candy bars trying to get you. Bit like in Brussels with venturing across the canal. West of it live the Moroccans, east of it is the city centre and further east the rich people´s dwellings. Grossly simplified. And which is why I routinely venture across that canal into my beloved Moroccan quarters. And as for Utrecht, well, I had a funny feeling that before I knew it I´d be looking well beyond the Watervogelbuurt en de Wittevrouwenwijk and those other posh parts to, well, explore the Utrecht Wild West.

At home, some more pindakaas straight from the jar, Calve, met stukjes noot of course, makes all the difference, my main source of nutrition those days, must be my magnesium deficit. Some poking into Peter´s many books, and a night full of sweet dreams, happy to have been welcomed so warmly, first by Berber, then by her relatives, then by the mayor himself, and eventually, by Peter, the Utrechter – that is by Utrecht itself.

Morning glory

The next morning I walked up the Oudegracht in the opposite direction, back into town – I couldn’t get enough of it. This time I paid close attention. And it was gorgeous. The water, a mossy green, its shiny surface, the trees mirrored in it, the sparkle, the lights, the colourful bikes by its sides. Turns out Utrecht´s one of the world´s most photographed cities, and, well, I am not surprised.

That day I explored the shopping area, and made stops at pretty much every shop in town starting with “Sisters – Vintage en Meer´´, a lucky dip second hand shop on the Oudegracht and run by the beautiful Leila, or at least that’s what I decided could have been her name.

And ending with Hoog Catherijne shopping centre, on the other end near the central station. ´´Catherijne´´ and ´´Catharina´´ everywhere – and again, I was reminded of my home town with its lovely place St. Catherine, and once more felt very much at home. It was a happy day, and I thanked the Dalai Lama for his good advice and felt in tune with the universe….

… and I made a pilgrimage to both of Utrecht´s Ecco shoeshops. Ecco = quality shoes and they have my size. I have issues finding shoes in Belgium and have to travel to Germany or the Netherlands to get lucky. And lucky I did get in Utrecht; I bought two pairs. And I got my hair cut. At Club Kappers, ´´just walk in, zonder afspraak´´, on Donkerstraat half way between those two Ecco shops. And loved the service, and the speed, and the pricing. I paid 23 euros for a service that I would have paid for at least 35 or up to 54 in Brussels – depending on the hairdresser. And Lizzy from De Bilt was really good. Determined, straight-to-the-point, communicating well, she made me smile at the end when she informed me that while she did have a customer from Amsterdam, she hadn’t had a customer from Brussels before. Making it sound like she expects me to return.

And so did the lady from the Ecco shop (“new collection coming soon“). And the guy baking verse stroopwafels in Hoog Catherijne (´´next time with even more stroop“). And those guys trying to get me to sign up for “AD“ daily newspaper (´´what, you don’t live in Utrecht? It doesn’t matter, we are everywhere´´ – and we´ll come and get you if you don’t come to us), and Reinhoud from Amnesty who spent eight good minutes rehearsing his “we-don’t-agree-with-the-pipelines-in-the-arctic-policy´´ spiel before I could get a line in and inform him that I didn’t have a bank account in the NL. That is, I confess, I could have gotten my line in earlier, but I guess I didn’t want to. Must be that I was smitten by his charm – think a lanky guy in his late 20ies, with a somewhat reckless-meets-earnest vibe telling you that it´s his NY´s resolution to get as many people to sign up than ever before and basically to save the world. And hey, I was on holiday so I could listen to whomever I wanted. Not to forget Martin, the German homeless person, or shall I say nomad/global gypsy/traveller, singing his ´´Albert Heijn song´´ to whoever wanted to hear it (“next time you see me somewhere, I`ll sing for you for free“).

And I concluded that these Dutch people (and those living among them) are either really good at marketing themselves, or they´re really welcoming and genuine.

Martin was a character. Late thirties, tall, nice-looking, and out of a job. From Dresden and on German benefits, he developed a creative way of making the most of his situation, and certainly lives by the maxime of the Dalai Lama explored at the beginning of this text. With some Dutch wrapped up in a bit of a Cherman accent, he sleeps in hostels and spends his days walking about town, that is different towns, singing his songs, reciting his poems and giving ´´30 second psychotherapy´´. In short, he´s entertaining passersby, and thereby making an average of 40 euros a day (´´minimum contribution is 10 cent´´). This pays for a night in the hostel (19 euros) and leaves him with an extra 21 for food and other expenses. Martin took me for a Dutch person I think, and I didn’t blow my cover, and he went to great lengths to entertain me with ´´Albert Heijn, jij bent een kapitalitisch swijn, maar d´as toch wel fijn, het kon erger zijn, zo als met Saddam Hussein“. Or something like that. I think I just made half of this up; just remembered a few buzz words – and well, that it rhymed. And it was benign though. Not like he hates Albert Heijn or anything. Forty euros a day. Seems like the Dutch are loving it. Just like myself. And probably even Albert Heijn in his grave, and his grandson, are having a laugh, too. May Utrecht´s patron Saint Maarten watch over you, Martin.

And then there was Berthold Gunster, of course. Or his fame and aura. Not that I met him in person. Although I suppose I could have. Hey, I should have just knocked on his office door, maybe. Yes, but if he´d have thought that’s weird? Yes, and he would have offered me a cup of coffee. “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary”.

For those who don’t know him, Berthold Gunster is my guru, hero, personal shrink, inspiration. And his “Yes, but – what if it all works out?“ a must-read for all my friends. So, whilst I vaguely knew that he was based in Utrecht, I´d never have expected to simply pass his shop/office/home by chance on the Oudegracht, with his books and main credo advertised in the window, and inspiring my rest of the day.

´´Yes, but – what if it all works out?“ You will have worried for no reason.

At some point in the afternoon, I walked into a mobile phone shop and asked the Indian shopkeeper whether I could use his phone to make a local phone call. The kind of thing a Dutch guy would have maybe declined but a Pakistani would let me do I figured. And he did. I was going to contact R&S, a Syrian gay couple that had sought asylum and received it in the Netherlands just a few months ago, and that I had met a few months earlier in Lebanon.

So. I called my friends, and guess what, they live in Zuilen.

Wild West

So, now, how to get there. Directions on the phone. Take a left, take a right, walk down Amsterdamse Steenweg, take a bus there, get to Julianapark; it sounded complicated. And the Pakistani looked more and more concerned and not only charged me nothing for a 10-minute phone call, but also offered to give me 2 euros for the busride. He must have taken me for an Albanian. Immigrant solidarity, welcome to Zuilen. Eventually, what my Syrian friends and I decided was that one of them would, Dutch style – integration going well – pick me up on his bike by the gracht in the very town centre, and ride me down to Zuilen. And that’s what happened. S showed up, and we embarked on a most adventurous sitting-on-the-back-of-someone´s-bike ride through what felt half of the city of Utrecht, past Turkish-owned kebab shops, and nail-parlours, and a huge sex shop and other venues which could all have been in Anderlecht or Kreuzberg or east London. Maybe a little less exciting, but hey, the same idea.

R&S live in a neat little one bedroom apartment on the ground floor of an apartment building. The flat meticulously well kept. “Please take off your shoes, here are your slippers, please put on these other slippers when using the bathroom“. This felt almost better kept than my parents´ place, and that’s a big statement. R&S fed me a delicious Syrian bean ragout, with a wonderful rice dish, a spinach dish, and a salad with mint and fresh persil, all served with lemon and olive oil. I was delighted with that unexpected homemade Syrian dinner, and all that without me having given any notice; they cook like that every night. Fresh veg from the market, a lot of love – and dinner´s ready. Very interesting for me to see how this couple that had basically been flown in from Mars – that is from their squallid Beiruti refugee existence – was finding its way in Holland. Both R&S are still very young, early til mid twenties and yet, here they were, building themselves a network, learning Dutch, improving their English, furnishing their flat, riding their bikes. ´´When we arrived, we were given 1500 euros to furnish and decorate our flat and buy everything else we needed for a start“. And they bought a washing machine, and bedding, and shelfboards from ´´Chama´´. Chama also known as Hema. Try saying Hema it with an Arabic accent.

Btw, I hear Hema is also known as `´´El-Hema´´ and is now selling ´´Tomphoemoes´´ (a quintessentially Dutch pastry filled with hummus), Roller Burka-Blinds (sunshades with a spy hole)´´, headscarves and ´´products for the Islamic sugar feast“ – says a Dutch blogger lauding how ´´the super-Dutch store has been evolving with society.“ Eh… not sure the average Muslim person in Holland would need those Burka-Blinds, LOL, but hey, could be a party gag for a lanky blonde, I suppose.

R&S´s network? Mainly gay people it seems. Cocktail is the magic word here – ´´a Dutch buddy project for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) newcomers´´, which R&S contacted even before coming here, and which invited them to their events as soon as they got here. ´´Cocktail focuses on LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, but migrants, expats and foreign students may also join. Cocktail wants to break the isolation of LGBT newcomers and introduce them into the Dutch society in a safe way“, it says on their website.

Wow. Always impressed by what these Dutch come up with.

Other than that and some contacts with the Vluchtelingenwerk, there didn’t seem to be much else yet. Not counting the Turkish neighbour who´s been pushing R around the other day and almost off his bike, for – well – being gay. ´´They have special police to protect the gay in Holland´´, says R and S giggles, as if it were just too good to be true. Bit like saying: ´´I won the lottery, and LOL, just won the ´´X-Factor/My country looks for talent´´ contest as well. What are the odds this could ever happen.´´

Their medium or long term plans? Volunteer, and go to university. ´´They like volunteering in this country; it´s part of their culture´´, R reports. And uni – yeah, S wants to do philosophy, and R is not sure yet. Maybe he could start by volunteering for one of the NGOs working in Utrecht – there are a few; R knows civil society from Syria and Lebanon inside out and could probably help in some way.

Dinner was followed by a 7 kilometer walk through cold, wind and rain. Zuilen at its best, past Julianapark, back into town. R&S wanted to save those famous 2 euros and hence opted for walking. So we walked. And walked. To the town centre where we said goodbye. And well, I got to Peter´s place eventually, after those 7 plus an extra 3 km, from the town centre down Oudegracht back to the rich people´s quarters – and voila, I´ve certainly explored both sides of the equation now and rarely done that much walking before.

Night-time magic

By the way, a walk through night time Utrecht is really worth the pain. To speak with Jerry G., a Dutch columnist (who writes for that AD daily newspaper I was almost signed up to): ´´Als ik op een stille maanverlichte winternacht over het Domplein loop, hoor ik de stemmen van romeinse legionairs, middeleuwse kooplieden, beelderstormers en Franse soldaten.“ And I could feel it, too. Utrecht´s rich medieval past is still alive among us in the present. What is time anyways. And just like the mayor a few days earlier, Jerry G. evoked the town´s ´´onveranderlijke ziel´´. Indeed, Utrecht´s got something, something beautiful and mysterious that will hopefully remain intact forever.

Some extra mystery has been added by the Trajectum Lumen project. As the Trajectum Lumen website put it: ´´It’s an age-old tale, tried and true. Even the Romans knew that Utrecht was unique. And so, around 50 A.D., they made their camp at the present location of Domplein. (…) Trajectum Lumen pays homage to the rich history of Utrecht, with an eye-catching light art trail, which is free for all to enjoy 365 nights a year.´´ And: “Trajectum Lumen is an exploration after dark, which follows artistically lit locations throughout Utrecht’s historical city centre. When night falls, Trajectum Lumen (…) illuminates this city’s past and present in spectacular fashion.´´

Now, I haven’t been in Utrecht long enough to see of there´s a Trajectum Lumen debate going on over whether the project is a supreme waste of money, or a supreme work of art. Bit like the Zwarte Piet debate. The Dutch do have strong opinions and like to express them. Or who knows, maybe they all agree on this one. I found it very beautiful, and original and not even invasive. Think the dim light installations under the water, at the bottom of the mossy, shiny Oudegracht. Barely to be noticed unless you go looking for them. Fairy lights in an enchanted pond, with no tourists to be seen anywhere. Or at least not on een stille maanverlichte winternacht after eleven pm.

Peter eventually cycled towards me as he already saw me lost at the bottom of some gracht, following the call of those fairies maybe, and what followed was another late-night chat about God and the world, life and death, and life again, 2013 and 2014, and so much more – including random bits about…
…the wonders of Dutch customer service….
(never ask for anything assuming they will give it to you. If you say: Could you please…? they will sayDat kan niet. If however you say: I know it´s probably impossible, but would there be a way for you to…, they´ll make it happen)
…the joys of living in de Leidsche Rijn, the ´´new city´´ that´s being built from scratch at the western border of the town…
(lots of children, stationwagons, parents gone all day, back home with two laptops at their kitchen table at night),
… the subcultures of Rabo versus SNS bank employees…
(corporate versus geeky, slick suits versus thick glasses, and yet they all hang out in the same bar).

And, hey, I almost felt if I stayed here for another 3 days, I could write my own lifestyle blog about the place, LOL. And that probably with the blessing of the Dalai Lama, St Maarten, the new mayor and Berthold Gunster.

Well, I hope I´ll be back.
CU and ´k zie je in Utrecht…
In 2030, if not before.

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In the meantime, a Happy 2014 to Everyone!

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