“So, statistically, in the Land of the Free you have the least amount of free people. This is a super-simple argument; in Holland you can smoke weed whilst f___ing a hooker in front of a cop. How dare Holland not be called the Land of the Free!”
– Jim Jefferies on America and Freedom
I started writing this at about 7am on Thursday morning as we had just returned from quite a long trip, this time to Amsterdam and The Hague for Anna to attend a conference and then a trip to Budapest for her birthday and I’m surprisingly well-rested after the flight (more on that later). We have been to the Netherlands several times before, but only to Amsterdam and Utrecht while we were living in Germany two years ago, but this time would be a little different — Yes, we would be spending some time in Amsterdam, but who wouldn’t? It is such a fun city, but the bulk of the Dutch leg of our most recent trip would be in The Hague, the location of Vision 2017, the International Society for Low Vision Research and Rehabilitation (ISLRR) conference where Anna was giving a presentation, and also a place neither of us had been or knew a whole lot about.
The second part of our adventure would be a five-day holiday spent in Budapest, Hungary as a part of Anna’s birthday celebration. Again, a place that neither of us had been and our combined knowledge of the place consisted solely of goulash and salami, however, everyone we knew that had been there absolutely loved it and pretty much just told us to go.
I’ve also written about the ‘T’ Factor on several occasions, my anti-Midas touch, the incredible ability I have to steal defeat from the jaws of victory. Situations such as:
- The ‘T’ Factor part 1: Not really trying in my German classes in high school because I thought I’d never visit Germany… then later moving to Germany.
- The ‘T’ Factor part 2: Just a day where everything that could go wrong did.
- The ‘T’ Factor Part 3: Paying a New York scalper a ton of cash for what I thought would be the only opportunity to see one of my favourite musicians play just as the support act, only to get fake tickets and have to watch from over a fence.
- The ‘T’ Factor Part 4: I hate the cold and, fortunately, had never seen snow before we moved to the US. That all changed when we sat through New York’s second-worst blizzard on record.
This latest trip was the complete opposite, though. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket or something!
Saturday, June 24
We had dropped Kermit off at her dog-sitter on Friday afternoon and caught a midnight flight to Amsterdam, this time flying Premium Economy, which is similar to regular economy, but you get to board the plane first, have slightly more legroom and can carry a bit more baggage. That extra legroom allowed me to get a decent night sleep on the 13-hour flight, however, Amsterdam is six hours behind Singapore so by the time we got our luggage, went through immigration, took the train from the airport to the city and found our hotel, the Room Mate, it was still only about nine o’clock in the morning. We really wanted to dump our bags and have a shower, but it was too early to check into our room, although they had a massive suite available for a little extra cash. We were only going to stay in Amsterdam for one night so we decided to get decadent. Premium Economy and a hotel suite? I felt like Jay-Z!
We had slept well on the flight so it was now time to hit the streets. I won’t bore you with the details about Amsterdam because I did that the first time we went there so you can just read that piece instead if you want to get the lowdown. Also, I’m not a huge Jim Jefferies fan, but I used that quote of his because he nailed it when talking about freedom. Americans love to go on about freedom, especially around this time of year as we experienced first-hand when we spent the fourth of July in New York a couple of years ago, but it’s hard to be more free than a country that has had to close prisons due to the fact that they don’t have enough inmates. In fact, they’re even getting kind of creative in handling the situation:
Recorded crime has shrunk by about a quarter over the past nine years, according to the country’s national statistics office, and that is expected to translate into a surplus of 3,000 prison cells by 2021. The government has shuttered 19 of nearly 60 prisons over the past three years, and a government report leaked last year suggested that more cuts were coming.
The relative lack of prisoners has spurred the Dutch to be creative. At jails transformed into housing for asylum seekers, former cells for prisoners have been converted into apartments for families, albeit some with the original cell doors.
At De Koepel, a former prison in Haarlem, refugees played soccer on a large interior courtyard that doubled as a soccer field. Some of the converted jails also have gymnasiums, kitchen facilities and outdoor gardens.
That’s pretty free. Anyway, our hotel was a little bit out of the way, but essentially all of Saturday was spent walking around Amsterdam, checking out the shops and hanging out, but one of the best sites we encountered was the market in the town square, one which had a mix of secondhand goods and food, including great cheese and some spectacular oysters. A few scenes from the day:
My back was a bit sore from the flight so we pulled up a seat outside a bar on one of the canals later in the afternoon and had a couple of beers while we watched trashy hen’s nights and stag dos get started, as well as a woman that had had a ton of cosmetic surgery who was so baked she couldn’t even stand properly. We also stopped off to get some crêpes at one stage and only in a country with legal weed would the really stoned dude in front of us order one with Nutella and bacon.
Eventually the jet-lag kicked in, plus we had walked about 20km (12.5 miles) and the weather wasn’t that great so we went back to the Room Mate and had a really good dinner in the hotel restaurant before going up and making the most of our suite, despite the fact that it doesn’t get dark until about 10:30pm. Who cares, we could hit the town properly tomorrow.
Sunday, June 25
Sunday followed a similar pattern to Saturday, just strolling around the city, but first, we’d need something to eat. I don’t usually eat breakfast, that’s just more valuable time that I can spend sleeping, but we woke up early due to jet-lag so why not? Anna found a great breakfast place that did a heap of different bloody marys, as well traditional Dutch waffles, so we checked out of our hotel and then that would be the plan.
I got the bloody kimchi and Anna had the bloody bacon to go with our waffles and then it was time to look around town again.
We spent most of our time walking around different areas of the city, doing a lot more shopping and stopping off at bars such as Gollem Biercafe for the occasional beer or four. One major problem with old Dutch buildings is that they tend to have extremely steep staircases with narrow steps, essentially just ladders, rendering them almost impossible for someone my size to use, and the Gollem was no different, requiring me to bend and twist like an accordion to go down the steps and through the tiny doorway to use the bathroom. I always thought the Dutch were supposed to be one of the world’s tallest nationalities. Anyway, we enjoyed checking out all of the quirky stores and secondhand shops, but we couldn’t do it all day, my back was aching again and we had to go back to the hotel to collect our luggage and then take the 30-minute train ride to The Hague.
The Hague is another place that we knew very little about, besides the fact that it was centre for the Dutch government and one of the host cities for the United Nations. Fortunately, wikipedia is here to shed a little extra light on the topic, as per usual:
The Hague is a city on the western coast of the Netherlands, and the capital of the province of South Holland.
With a population of 520,704 inhabitants (as of 1 April 2016) and more than one million inhabitants including the suburbs, it is the third-largest city of the Netherlands, after Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
The Hague is the seat of the Dutch government, parliament, the Supreme Court, and the Council of State, but the city is not the capital of the Netherlands, which constitutionally is Amsterdam. Most foreign embassies in the Netherlands and 150 international organisations are located in the city, including the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, which makes The Hague one of the major cities hosting the United Nations along with New York, Geneva, Vienna, Rome, and Nairobi. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands plans to live at Huis ten Bosch and works at Noordeinde Palace in The Hague, together with Queen Máxima.
We also never realised that The Hague would be home to some of the greatest seafood we would ever encounter in our lives, as we would soon find out. We arrived at the B-Aparthotel, checked into our room, and then looked for somewhere to go for dinner, stumbling upon a place called Het Gouden Kalf in Scheveningen Harbour. We just didn’t know at the time that it would be one of the best decisions we would make.
We made the 30-minute walk down to the harbour, passing a giant van that strongly resembled the one driven by Rocksteady and Bebop in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles en route. Anna initially felt like a lamb rack for dinner, but I told her that clams were “the sheep of the sea,” due in part to the little furry bit at the opening. It all made perfect sense in my mind at the time. When we arrived at Het Gouden Kalf we were each treated to a seven-course set menu meal that could have the main dish upgraded to Dutch lobster for an extra €7.50 (approx. AU$11.20), a decision we obviously made. Here are a few sites along the way, plus what we ate. Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what each dish was, but I’ll try my best:
When the waitress asks you if you want freshly shaved truffle on your lobster, you get that shit shaved! The food was spectacular, but we were certain we had been undercharged, however, it turned out that great food is really affordable in The Hague. We’d need to walk off this meal, so we hoofed it back to our hotel and collapsed in front of the TV for the night.
Monday, June 26
It was our first full day exploring The Hague and this is a cool city, unfortunately we just started in a bit of a dodgy neighbourhood. We love markets so we made our way down to the main one in The Hague and it wasn’t pretty, however, yet again the food there was great. There wasn’t a whole lot to see so we got some smoked fish and some herring sandwiches among other things and then found our way to the nicer part of this very artsy city, our hands reeking of fish.
I love art, but I hate going to galleries and exhibitions in Singapore because they are full of screaming children running around, touching and climbing priceless works while adults push in front of you, also feeling the need to make physical contact with everything in front of them. This isn’t the case in Europe and one of the most famous sites in The Hague is the Mauritshuis:
The Mauritshuis is an art museum in The Hague in the Netherlands. The museum houses the Royal Cabinet of Paintings which consists of 841 objects, mostly Dutch Golden Age paintings. The collections contains works by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, Paulus Potter, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Hans Holbein the Younger, and others. Originally, the 17th century building was the residence of count John Maurice of Nassau. It is now the property of the government of the Netherlands and is listed in the top 100 Dutch heritage sites.
The gallery is best known for housing Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a piece which I could never see what the big deal was about, but there are also plenty of other works by Dutch masters that I like there, particularly those by Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens was a Flemish artist whose works were strongly influenced by Caravaggio, another one of my favourites.
The Mauritshuis was definitely worth the visit so I took pictures of several of the pieces I particularly liked, as well as the obligatory Girl with a Pearl Earring shot, however, I was unable to find the details for all of them. As usual, these photos don’t do the paintings true justice, but I’m sure you could find clearer images of them online if you wish to see them better:
After the Mauritshuis we grabbed dinner and then went to a bar for a shisha and a few quiet drinks, but we couldn’t have a big night — Not only was Anna giving her talk at the conference the following day, it was also going to be her birthday.
Tuesday, June 27
Anna had been preparing for her talk at the Vision 2017 conference for quite some time and today was the day, it was just a shame it had to land on her birthday. Fortunately for her it went exceptionally well, so well in fact that she was nominated for the New Generation Investigator award. This nomination, however, proved a little troublesome — If Anna was a finalist, she would be presented with the award on Thursday morning at roughly the same time we were supposed to be making our way to the airport for our flight to Budapest. Only time would tell.
But we had no time to worry about Thursday, it was Anna’s birthday and we had some celebrating to do. Anna came back to our hotel room straight after her talk and we headed into town to party.
We walked into town, past the Peace Palace, and took a seat at ‘t Goude Hooft to grab a coffee to get our day started. We got our waiter to take a photo of us and I posted it on Facebook with a birthday message, tagging the cafe in the post. An employee must have seen it and brought out a small bowl of ice-cream with a sparkler in it for Anna’s birthday, which we both thought was pretty cool.
The next thing Anna wanted to do was check out the M.C. Escher museum. Escher is another artist that I have always loved and Anna became a bit of a fan of his work after we went to an exhibition of his in Singapore. As I mentioned earlier, galleries and exhibitions in Singapore are painful so it would be great to see his work in his hometown. A little bit of background information on Escher for those who don’t now him:
Maurits Cornelis Escher (17 June 1898 – 27 March 1972), or commonly M. C. Escher, was a Dutch graphic artist who made mathematically inspiredwoodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints.
His work features mathematical objects and operations including impossible objects, explorations of infinity, reflection, symmetry, perspective, truncated and stellated polyhedra, hyperbolic geometry, and tessellations. Although Escher believed he had no mathematical ability, he interacted with the mathematicians George Pólya, Roger Penrose, Harold Coxeter and crystallographer Friedrich Haag, and conducted his own research into tessellation.
Escher’s art became well known among scientists and mathematicians, and in popular culture, especially after it was featured by Martin Gardner in his April 1966 Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. Apart from being used in a variety of technical papers, his work has appeared on the covers of many books and albums.
I’ve got several books of M.C. Escher’s work so I didn’t particularly feel the need to take a whole lot of photos, but here are some of the ones I did get of other parts of the museum:
We continued to walk around after the Escher museum, just a whole lot more shopping, but the shops in The Hague don’t stay open particularly late, usually closing between 5-6:00pm, so we went home and relaxed for a bit, then it was time for dinner.
While Anna was at her conference in the morning I had been checking out restaurants and found Catch by Simonis, another fantastic looking seafood restaurant in Scheveningen Harbour. Catch is huge restaurant, seating approximately 500 people and is famous for its seafood platters so I suggested that to her. When we arrived we were told we could wait for an outside seat or immediately take one indoors. We took the indoor seat and asked to be moved outside when a place became available, but the waiter essentially ignored us for about half an hour until we told him not to worry about, then we waited quite a while longer for our drinks.
When the time came to order food, we asked for a seafood platter for two and a risotto, only to be warned by the waiter that the platter would be more than enough. He wasn’t kidding!
The food was unbelievable, extremely fresh and there was so much of it. In the end it was up to me to finish it up due to the sheer quantity of it all. It would’ve been a perfect night, but the poor service stuck in Anna’s craw a bit.
Yet again, we had to walk this one off so we sauntered home, past Planet Jump, an old disused church that has now been filled with trampolines, and back to our hotel to settle in with a few more drinks.
Wednesday, June 28
It was our last full day in The Hague and Anna was spending all of it at the conference while I just wandered around the city, checking out all of the places that I hadn’t had a chance to yet.
After Anna had finished we went down to the seaside for dinner. One thing we noticed as soon as we arrived in The Hague on Sunday night is that there are seagulls everywhere and they are absolutely enormous! These had to be the biggest seagulls we had ever seen anywhere in the world, so much so that Anna soon dubbed me the ‘Hague Seagull’. We tried to take photos of them, but seriously, pictures just don’t capture the sheer size of these birds.
We found a place to eat where you get to grill an unlimited amount of fresh prawns quite cheaply so we settled in for the night and stuffed ourselves with crustaceans while taking in the scenery on a cold summer’s night.
The Dutch leg of our journey was fantastic and was constantly flecked with little luxuries and extravagances. So far we had:
- Flown Premium Economy class. Sure, it ain’t First Class or Business Class, but it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than regular Economy class.
- Stayed in an enormous hotel suite.
- Eaten lobster with freshly shaved truffle.
- On a separate occasion eaten a seafood platter that may have subsequently rendered some forms of shellfish as endangered species.
But what does the rest of the trip hold? Will Anna win her award? Will Budapest live up to all the hype? And will the high living continue?
Stay tuned for part two of Traveling in Opulence – The Reverse ‘T’ Factor to find out!