Archive for February, 2012

From little Dutch boys plugging their fingers into dikes to lonely Dutchmen putting their fingers into dykes, the Dutch have always been asking for great deluges.  Literally wrested from the ocean itself, 25% of the Netherlands is under sea level, and a full 50% lies less than one meter above that.  In fact, Nederland means “Low Country,” a direct translation of an often deadly geographic quirk that is also serves as the basis for the country’s name in virtually every major Western European language.  A nation known by more names than Sean Combs, the Netherlands/Holland/the Low Countries know that a tulip by any other name will smell just as sweet.

Tulips became popular luxury items in the Netherlands in the early 17th century, a period in which the nation was blossoming into a Golden Age of commerce.  The tulip was considered unique in Europe when it was first imported from Turkey, its distinctive flower a robust saturation of color which in comparison made every other native species look like it had been plucked in Pleasantville.  It was planted in the gardens of the aristocracy, as the flower happened to be well-adapted to the climate of the Low Countries.  In the winter of 1636-37, in active defiance of all logic, the price of tulips skyrocketed.  Typical of this bull market were contracts with exchanges such as 40 tulip bulbs for 100,000 florins; a skilled laborer might earn 150 florins in an entire year.  Buyers purchased futures contracts, intending to re-sell the flowers at profit later, a massive Ponzi scheme that hung precariously upon the notion that a greater fool would ultimately pay the ever-increasing price.  It is worth noting that no actual flowers exchanged hands; these unenforceable contracts were to be fulfilled when the tulips bloomed in the coming spring.  The speculative bubble–the world’s first in a nation that has also provided the world with several other outlets to temporary insanity–eventually became unsustainable, collapsing upon itself by February 1637.

 

“Wagon of Fools” (1637).  The goddess Flora leads entranced Dutch weavers–who had abandoned their looms and invested heavily in the bulbs–to an impoverished burial at sea.  Note: everyone in this painting is also high.

 

Today, with one of the most liberal slate of laws in the entire world, major cities like Amsterdam attract millions of foreign tourists annually, their conservative shackles jangling in the streets long into the night.  While hard drugs are outlawed, softer drugs like wet mushrooms and marijuana are only technically illegal, the legislative loophole of a half-assed Dutch attempt to skirt around international treaties.  To wit: prostitution has been tolerated since the 1200s.  Gay marriage has been legal since 2001.  Euthanasia was legalized in the following year.  Currently, the most divisive and hotly debated social issue in the Dutch Parliament is legistlation that would grant the right to euthanize one’s gay prostitute spouse.  It is expected to pass by general consensus, the norm in Dutch politics.

 

You could probably goad a Dutchman into taking out a second mortage on his windmill to buy a few of these flowers.

 

Amsterdam’s red light district, the world’s crossroads of prostitution and soft drugs, has suffered from a rash of criminal activity that absolutely no one could have been able to predict, ever.  Patrons communicate with the hookers through their windows, the idea being to make the whole ordeal as awkward as a drive-thru fast food experience.

 

Local Name: Koninkrijk der Nederlanden (Kingdom of the Netherlands)

Language: Dutch, Frisian; English spoken by most

Capital: Amsterdam; the actual seat of government is at the Hague

Population: 16,731,712 (1180 are windmills, and the rest are thought to be hallucinations)

Area: 41,543 km2

Government: Constitutional monarchy; Queen Beatrix reigns and appoints a Prime Minister following elections 

Currency: Euro; symbol EUR; €1 = US$1.31 (Feb. 2012)

Economy: World’s 16th largest; transportation hub; international finance; international trade (port of Rotterdam is Europe’s largest); world’s 3rd biggest agricultural exporter

Notable International Enemies: Don Quixote; France briefly ruled the Netherlands during the Napoleonic wars; founding member of NATO and the EU

 

The upper red band was originally orange, favorite color of William of Orange (of the House of Orange; hair color decidedly gray).  The orange dye peeled rapidly and was difficult to resolve in hazy seafaring conditions.  The current flag was officially adopted by royal decree in 1937.

 

Famous For: Windmills; red light district; liberal drug policy; a bike ownership rate double that of automobiles; Dutch chocolate; canals; flat landscape; natives Rembrandt and Van Gogh

Not Famous For: Growing the tallest people in the world; the Dutch company Philips, which invented the audio tape, the video tape, the compact disc, and the CD-ROM; having the world’s happiest citizens; engineering the world’s first orange carrots and gin, which was sold as the medicine Jenever in the 16th century;  KLM airlines, the world’s longest-operating commercial airline since 1919; hosting the world’s first full-time stock exchange; discovering Australia and New Zealand; shrewdly trading the nutmeg of Suriname for the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, today known as New York City

Obligatory Tourist Detours: Amsterdam; red light district; a coffee shop; Haarlem; Anne Frank’s secret annex

What US$20 Can Get You: High. Then, about five minutes in the red light district.

Quick History Recap: A major colonial power in the early modern era, the Netherlands colonized much of the world hand-in-hand with rival Western European nations.  Trading approximately US$1000 for the island of Manhattan in 1626, the Dutch patted themselves on the back and thought themselves shrewd businessmen, but not even a decade later, these were the guys taking out loans to buy tulips.  New Amsterdam had been established partly to protect Dutch interests in the beaver trade.  This industry was not just limited to pelts, as another hot commodity was beaver castoreum, a secretion of anal glands that is used by North American beavers to mark territory and by clever Dutch businessmen as a medicine.  After on-and-off wars with England, the Dutch ceded New Amsterdam to the English in return for legal recognition of other Dutch territories that were rich in nutmeg; smart money says it’s because nutmeg can also lead to a hallucinogenic high.  Following a century or two of relative neutrality, the Netherlands has evolved into a highly developed economy and became founding members of both NATO and the EU in the 20th century, a record that’s not too bad for a people who once chugged beaver urine to cure headaches.

 

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I bought some mushrooms in Amsterdam, ate them, then while waiting for something to happen, ate some more.  After a while, when nothing had happened, I thought it was all a big dud.  That I had been had.  “Damn it all to hell,” I shrugged.  I had set aside the entire day to simply wander around the city anyway, so off I went into the back alleys of Amsterdam, gobbling the last of the mushrooms along the way.  I must have looked as ambivalent as the vendor selling Magic Beans in Ocarina of Time.

 

“Chomp chomp chomp… How about some magic beans?  They aren’t selling very well…”

Half an hour later, I walked into a local fast food restaurant and decided on a large banana milk shake, because if the choice was between banana and vanilla, what else would you buy?  When I checked my wallet to give the cashier my money, something very unusual happened: I suddenly had the sensation of being really,really drunk, but fully aware that I was aware that I felt really, really drunk.  “Huh, that’s weird as shit,” I thought to myself, handing the clerk two euros.  “This could be a terrible omen of my hubris.”

I stopped on one of Amsterdam’s many canals in order to fully enjoy my banana shake.  As I stood on the bridge spanning the canal, casually feeding the geese below, I realized that everything in the universe had been conspiring against me ever since I was born.  This was my first great realization, one that by itself would have been grounds for existential crisis in any normal situation, but it wasn’t until I came to terms that reality itself was slowly beginning to envelope me in an ephemeral chokehold that I had my second and most important realization: I was wading knee-deep in excrement.  I was aware of myself and my own thoughts to a remarkable degree, as though everyone else had been cast as bit extras in my life story and I was simply sifting through them as Kevin Spacey narrated my life; yet at the same time, I was also fully aware of just how weird shit was getting.  I learned that I had the innate ability to touch heat–I touched heat–and if I ever stayed motionless, I felt as though a deep-seated, carnal Darkness was jumping at the chance to consume me totally, so I had to keep moving, moving!  So, I moved.

I covered a lot of ground trying to stave off the Darkness.  I was absolutely lost in every sense of the word everywhere I went, and apparitions of colors began to interweave through the air like a symphony of Crayola.  Whenever I stopped to double-check my travel map, the colors had blended together a bit more.  After the second or third glance, I couldn’t distinguish the yellow streets from the blue canals.  At one point, I noticed that the cobblestone road was breathing–was it going to try to eat me, too?  I didn’t want to take any chances, so I hugged the walls.  And worse, because I needed to stand still each time I paused to consult my map, the Darkness was given free will to consume another healthy portion of my soul.  I could still feel my own heat, even though I was certain the banana milkshake must have cooled me down.  I zipped up my heavy coat, wrapped the hood around my head, and continued walking.

 

It looked just like this.

It was around that time that every noise began to be the best joke I had ever heard.  Weaving through the streets of Amsterdam with my heavy coat and hefty hood, nothing could stop me from giggling.  Everything was hilarious, but Dutch especially so; the language made me burst into laughter whenever I heard it, which, being in a Dutch-speaking nation, happened quite frequently.  I almost began to feel paranoid with my running internal monologue, thinking that around each new corner, there could be a surprise Dutch attack that would catch me off-guard.  The only defense I could muster was to cover my mouth with my hand like a giggling geisha.

Like this, I walked the streets of Amsterdam.  I still don’t know how I ended up back in my hostel–the map was perfectly useless to my eyes, but I guess the street signs helped a bit.  The world had become a veritable Crayola masterpiece when I walked up to my room and was greeted by a Japanese girl who had definitely been absent when I left earlier in the morning.  Starving for Japanese attention, I dove into a conversation.  I learned that she is from Nagoya, a major city bordering the rice fields where I once lived.  She doesn’t speak English.  She’s a college student studying architecture touring alone on basically the exact same trip as I am, and at twenty years old, her parents are proud of her, by the way; thanks for asking.  She seemed like a sweet, innocent girl, and reminded me a little too much of some of my old students.  But in the middle of our conversation, I looked around our room and realized that no one else was there.   And then I remembered that there had definitely been a Turkish guy in her bed when I first went out to explore the city in the morning, whose honest-to-God advice to me as I walked out the door had been “don’t eat too many mushrooms today!”  And that’s when it hit me: I suddenly convinced myself that I couldn’t be sure if she was real or not.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever paused to wonder if the person you’ve been enthusiatically speaking with for the past twenty minutes is, in fact, real, but this had the effect of making me feel extremely awkward.

While I was quietly distancing myself from our conversation by noisily shuffling through my backpack and wondering how to gather clues as to her (non)existence, the girl’s cell phone rang.  She answered on the first ring, and from her tone, I quickly gathered that it was her boyfriend.  I decided to play along and err on the side of her being a genuine person.  I sumimasen-excused myself into the ensuite bathroom, immediately drank a liter of water to recuperate, and overheard the worst of their conversation:  “Why do you want to break up?  Is there someone else?  What are you talking about?”  I splashed water on my face, and decided to drink even more, but the Japanese girl wouldn’t go away:  “What did I do to you?  Why are you saying this?  I’ll be in Japan again next month!”

I felt horrible to be able to overhear and understand, but I had already convinced myself that I wasn’t sure she existed beyond my own projected reality.  So I just kept drinking water, pausing every few gulps to peer through the door to check if she had disappeared (she hadn’t), then turned back to the sink, then peeked out again (still there), then drank a large amount of water, before I finally gave up and slipped out to the downstairs common room.  I heard her crying in the hallway as I climbed down.

I decided the best way to cross-check my reality was to anchor it directly upon someone else’s.  Approaching the clerk at the front desk, I asked if a Japanese girl had checked in to my room (mentioning that she had been a muscular Turkish man the first time we spoke) and he informed me that they had shuffled rooms.  This assured me that she was 100% genuine, admittedly overlooking the possibility that the secretary was also somehow a projection of my mind, which seemed increasingly unlikely.  The effect was wearing off.  I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper at the counter before walking away.

Turning to climb up the stairs to my room, I could hear her crying before I opened our door.  Her phone was lying beside her.  I apologized for overhearing her conversation–very Japanese of me–then I scribbled a message on a piece of paper:  “Dear Ms. Name-I-Don’t-Know, Are you OK?  Do you want to go drink a lot?”  She read it and laughed.  Then we started talking again, and I confessed that I thought she might have been an illusion.  She laughed some more, and I could see she was starting to feel better.  Her boyfriend hadn’t broken up with her after all, and her name is Mami, by the way; thanks for asking.  It was nighttime.  She wanted to go eat and see Amsterdam.  I wanted to drink.  So we went out and got drunk and ate French fries together by a church.

 

Dutch is most similar language to English spoken in the world today.  And it’s not all that difficult to pick up, since listening to a conversation in Dutch is like watching a news program anchored by a babbling baby: you feel like you should be able to understand what it’s saying, and it’s definitely enthusiastic about whatever it’s telling you about, but the words are just not quite there.  Not often described as the “Jan Brady” between German Marcia and English Cindy, the list of English words originating from Dutch is exceptionally long.  Words like “cruise.”  “Waffle.”  “Filibuster.”  “Santa Claus.”  All you really need to do to speak passing Dutch is to first fill your mouth with marbles and then just proceed in either English or German, whichever you know the least.  On a more practical level, since most people in the Netherlands do speak English (by stuffing marbles in their mouths and speaking German), there is very little reason at all to learn Dutch during a brief visit.  But fuck that.  Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in the Netherlands, the seventh country on my trip around the world.

 

1. Hello/ Hi.     “Hallo/Hoi.”     [HAH-loh/hoy]

Look at that, they’re like cousins!

2. Yes/No.     “Ja/Nee.”     [yah/nay]

The Dutch “ja” sometimes resembles the English “yeah,” if ever so slightly.

3. Do you speak English?     “Spreekt u Engels?”     [spraked oo ANG-uhls?]

The answer is very likely to be “ja.”

4. Where is…?     “Waar is…?”     [waar is…?]

How cute, it’s trying to be just like English!

5. How much?     “Hoeveel kost dit?”     [HOO-vale cost dit?]

Example: “Hoeveel kost marihuana?”

6. Delcious!     “Heerlijk!”     [HARE-lake]

Note: Not used after sex with a red light prostitute.

7. Thank you.     “Dank u wel.”     [dahnk-oo-vel]

You’ve just been helped and/or fed. Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized. If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, give one to your new friend.

 

Notable customs:

  • Double Dutch is a popular children’s jumprope game.  Wasn’t that game fun as shit?  That was a fun game.
  • The phrase “going Dutch” refers to splitting a restaurant bill evenly among all diners in a party.  While a common practice in several Northern European countries, in the Middle East, paying for your own meal can sometimes be considered as an offensive rejection of your host’s hospitality.

 

The Flying Dutchman was a mythical seafaring vessel that was said to appear to doomed sailors.  It also appeared in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” captained by Bill Nighy.

 

Honorable mentions:

How much does one tulip cost?     “Hoeveel kost een tulp?”     [HOO-vale cost uhn tulp?]

I want to talk to a lawyer.     “Ik wil een advocaat spreken.”     [ick wil uhn AHD-voh-kaat SPRAY-kun]

Sorry.     “Sorry.”     [SOH-ree]

 

“If only all of Rome had just one neck.”

 

“Order my army to attack and destroy that papyrus!”

 

“Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.”

 

Back when I first arrived in Japan three-and-a-half years ago, I was deeply in lust.  The cashier at my local McDonald’s (the one just past the rice fields) caught my eye and I wrote a power ballad on a series of napkins, lamenting the unattainable.  Although I later learned that she may have been, in fact, a teenager, that didn’t alter the fundamental dynamics of our relationship.  I associated McPork sandwiches with pleasure and those who handled my McPork sandwiches with all the trappings of a common streetwalker.  Pleasure was provided at a cost–120 yen for two buns–and I could scarcely hide the euphoria of interaction from my young students, who brought our relationship to a climax by confronting both of us at the counter: “Joshu, is she your type?”

“O damnation, children; it is not for you to bring into the light that which survives only when nurtured in the darkest recesses of our subconscious.”  Ours was the bread mold of love.

McDonald’s Girl, although your smile eventually faded as more stable and long-term relationships truly impacted more than my colon alone, one of whom is at the very heart of my trip around the world, I want to thank you for briefly making me feel like a schoolboy. I’ve thought about you and the fascinating 1:1 correspondence between food and romance.  I fear you would not recognize me anymore.  I’m much more confident.  I also hate your former employer.  And I don’t even really eat beef so much now.  But thanks to you, I once was lovin’ it.

 

Like this, except with more lotion.

 

To all the unrequited lovers out there, supersize your hearts and hear my sad story:

 

Ode to the McDonald’s Girl

Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

The way

You tilt your head

Your eyes light up

You stare at me

–And giggle!–

When I try to order every night, stammering

“Uhh, yes, good evening…I…umm…hmm…well…I want…”

But you

Just cut me off now,

Already knowing my order full well.

I pay you, briefly touching

And out from the fryer come

Two hot McPork sandwiches

My favorite.

Oh, you know me too well!

Just not Biblically,

But, oh,

How I would love to see you smile.

 

 

Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

I have been

So patient

Waiting in line for you

Behind all these other suitors.

How I

Would love for you to say,

“Welcome. Can I take your order?”

But until then

I wait,

Thinking

When will you let me

Have you to go?

Super-size our love?

Get free refills?

I want to do

Everything.

I’m lovin’ it.

 

 

Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

Why do you even ask?

You know

The only combo I want is

Me

And

You

And maybe

Your sister

Space permitting.

But please,

Hold the pickles.

Especially mine.

 

 

Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

Your food, it is

So bad

Yet it tastes

So good.

I wonder–

Is it cooked

With love?

Or is it

Something else–

Hydrogenated bean oil,

Perhaps?

But now there is no time,

Not to think

Not to muse

Not to ogle

Because my sandwiches

Are done,

Already.

Wow,

That’s the fastest

That’s ever happened,

I swear.

 

 

Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

I have to know:

Am I your only regular customer?

I sit at the booth and

I think about

The things I would do to you

If I knew your name

If I knew you consented

If I knew you were legal

But

Until I know your language,

I will never know you,

Biblically

Or otherwise.

 

 

                                                             

 

The international lightning rod of negative stereotypes, the French would smugly like to remind the world that they are not exclusively homosexual cowards.  France’s history of kicking and/or getting ass may well begin 30,000 years ago, when the newly nationalized Frenchmen, Homo sapiens, either engaged in a genocidal rampage or simply outsexed the resident Neanderthal population, eventually leading to the complete eradication of Homo neanderthalensis.  Whether it was bloodlust or regularlust is a moot point; both possibilities remain distinctly French.  Advancing to 15,000 years B.C.E., a shamanistic tribe in Lascaux (southwestern France) spearheaded the French artistic tradition with a series of cave paintings chronicling all the megafauna they were killing.  These warrior-shamans appear to have crawled into the darkest, most inacessible corners of the caves, where their minds likely dipped into the reverie of a sensory-deprived trance state.

 

 

How a battle between megafauna and a Frenchman in trance might have looked.

 

Within a few thousand years, all of the Meganimals were extinct.  Like the Neanderthals who fell before them, these beasts could have been either hunted or inbred into an increasingly sexually deviant French gene pool.  No one knows for sure, but the hypothesis that modern France descended from an erotic ménage à trois between Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and giant cave bears is oddly compelling.  And speaking of modern France, in 1915, Rudyard Kipling wrote that “their business is war, and they do their business.”  Today they boast the third-largest military budget in the entire world, and that’s not even including the 300 nuclear missiles reserved for after they get around to cloning some wooly mammoths.  Since 367 B.C.E., France has dabbled in 169 major wars and battles.  They outright won 110, were left to wallow in existential self-pity 49 times, and fought to a bitter stalemate on 10 occasions.  On the other hand, throughout his entire boxing career, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali only managed a win-by-KO percentage of 60.66%.  France was so testosterone-fueled that it overran England in 1066, and the English came so close to the fate of the cave bears that everybody there spoke French for 300 years.  Just because everyone eventually forgot about that, one of their diminutive generals later decided to conquer Europe, and for good measure, they established colonies on all seven continents.  Overcompensating much?  In summary, France is like that insecure jock at the frat party who, when called gay, responds “fuck you, bro!” and is later seen dragging his girlfriend out by the arm, demanding to have sex immediately. 

 

This is not French culture.

This is not a pipe.

 

Local Name: Republique francaise (French Republic)

Language: French

Capital: Paris

Population: 62,814,223 (when viewed up close, they’re actually made out of small dots)

Area: 551,500 km2

Government: Constitutional republic; President elected for a 5-year-term; President appoints a Prime Minister

Currency: Euro; symbol EUR; €1 = US$1.31 (Feb. 2012)

Economy: World’s 5th largest; post-industrial; services; nuclear power; tourism; aircraft; wine; finances

Notable International Enemies: THEY TAKE NO QUARTER

 

The Tricouleur flag.  Blue and Red were long colors of Paris, with White added after the Napoleonic Revolution.

 

Famous For: The Eiffel Tower; the Tour de France; Notre Dame; food; wine; berets; croissants; the Lourve; mimes

Not Famous For: Owning the planet repeatedly; being the most popular tourist destination in the world; having more sex than any other nationality per year; nicotine is named after native Jean Nicot, who introduced tobacco to France in 1559

Obligatory Tourist Detours: Paris; the Eiffel Tower; Versailles; Notre Dame; the Lourve; the Catacombs

What US$20 Can Get You: A fantastic meal served with wine or, alternatively, ~five royales with cheese

Quick History Recap: The Louis dynasty.  Descartes.  Voltaire.  The Seven Years War.  The French Revolution.  Napoleon.  Impressionism.  Existentialism.  The World Wars.  These should all sound familiar, because your exposure to French history is probably second only to that of your own country.  That’s the extent of France’s overwhelming influence in global affairs, fueled by their hybrid Neanderthal/cave bear genome. 

 

 

The stereotype that the French cannot speak English is only as true as the anglophones’ inability to speak passable French.  Offended for a millennium by butchered accents and the bewildering pronunciation of silent letters [protip: every letter in the French alphabet is silent], it’s no surprise that the most common lingua franca of France and England for the past 1000 years has been war.  France is the first country on my trip around the world with a relatively low proportion of English-speakers, and from this point on, I’ll be needing to rely on the local lingo to communicate effectively.   Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in France, the fifth country on my trip around the world.

 

1. Hello/Hi.     “Bonjour/Salut.”     [bon-zhoor/sa-lew.]

Be sure to greet a sales clerk upon entering a store (see Notable Customs).

2. Yes/No.     “Oui/Non.”     [wee/non.]

The subject of countless jokes during my more younger and more vulnerable years, an enthusiastic “oui oui” is still good for a laugh.

3. Do you speak English?     “Parlez-vous anglais?”     [par-ley-voo ong-gley?]

Try it.  Don’t be ashamed.  At least begin the conversation with this softball to lessen the blow on the Frenchman’s ears.

4. Where is…?     “Où est…?”     [oo es…?]

Ever-useful for directing oneself on the streets.

5. How much?    “C’est combien?”     [sey com-byun?]

Ask for the prices of food before ordering food, if possible.

6. Delcious!    Délicieux!”     [day-lee-shee-uh!]

If you’re eating French food, you might be pulling this one out a lot.

7. Thank you.    “Merci.”     [mair-see.]

You’ve just been helped and/or fed. Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized. If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, offer one to your new friend.

 

Notable customs:

  • When entering a store in France, it’s customary to greet the owner or attendant.  Many stores are considered a private space, so think of it as entering into someone’s home–a casual “Bonjour” to the sales clerk will likely score you a Good Citizenship Award, redeemable for one free Sizzling Entree at all participating Applebee’s restaurants. 

 

You are a paragon of compassion and stand as a beacon of humanity.  Enjoy your skillet fajitas.

 

Honorable mentions:

Where can I find gay nightclubs?      “Où son les boîtes gaies?”     [oo son ley bwat gey?]

Could you prepare a meal without cheese?     “Pouvez-vous préparer un repas sans fromage?”     [poo-vey-voo prey-pa-rey un re-pa son froh-mahzh?]