The licorice tea box says you’re not supposed to drink it every day.

Our temporary one-month apartment in Amsterdam is furnished with enough things to get by, and enough things to make the things it’s not furnished with really stand out.

The apartment comes with three cutting boards, but no paring knife.

The apartment comes with floor cleaner, counter cleaner, toilet cleaner, dish detergent, laundry detergent, but no hand soap.

The apartment comes with dishes, but instead of mugs it has tiny little teacups the size (but not shape) of golf balls.

If a higher power designed dishes instead of animals and planets, all teacups would be the exact size of the tiny ones in our temporary apartment. That way I wouldn’t drink half a gallon of licorice tea before going to sleep, and then wake up twice in the night. But licorice tea is delicious, so I just refill the golf-ball sized teacups many times, or line up a few cups of licorice tea and drink little tea shots, like someone at a crazy college party with the queen.

There’s also a small saucepan with a lid, and also a large lid for a large pot, but no large pot. The large lid to the nonexistent large pot keeps me up at night, when licorice tea doesn’t. There must have once been a pot. And that lid knows what happened, but it will never tell.

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Birds on a railing, this has nothing to do with temporary apartments.

 

You’re one in fourteen.

Everyone says that all the Dutch people in Amsterdam speak English. You won’t find anyone who will only speak Dutch to you, they say. It’s a port city, it’s a city of merchants, it’s an international city, it’s the Mensa headquarters, whatever reason: it’s just not going to happen.

And everyone says that we won’t find any ice cream here in the winter. Not until summer, or at least late April, they say. The diets here are reasonable, we think about the season, now is the time for hot chocolate, soup, and whatever else: it’s just not going to happen.

No Dutch-speakers, no ice cream, it’s not possible, they all said.

Well you were all wrong. It’s pouring and miserable and I’m in the most international city on earth and today I found an ice cream vendor that speaks no English. It’s the little things that make me happy at this point. The little things, and proving other people wrong.

This man wasn’t even old! It was a non-English-speaking young man!

I haven’t had an at-gunpoint opportunity to practice any Dutch until today, at the magic ice cream shop. Not that it was a gunpoint scenario. It’s just that usually when people get to the hard questions, or any questions, they switch to English.

In my moment of panic I couldn’t remember how to say that I don’t speak Dutch, and could only recall how to tell him that “my Dutch is not so hot.”

“My Dutch is not so hot.” I told him in very slow Dutch, saying what really did not need to be said.

Standing in the ice cream shop, looking back and forth between the rain outside and the ice cream selling man, I thought about whoever’s job it is to store new Dutch words I learn on notecards, file them in my brain, and then retrieve them at the moment they become useful. “Not so hot!” I imagined her scribbling on a piece of posterboard. “Let’s keep this one handy. Right at the front, with the lyrics to every Magnetic Fields song and the words to the LDS sacrament prayers in German!!!” As I silently begged her to remind me how to say something else, anything else, she left to take a smoke break and tossed the burning match on whatever other Dutch vocabulary I had.

“I am American. I am an American woman.” I told the very patient man. “Now. HERE. Now, …Netherlands?”

Being in this ice cream place made me feel like a kid again: not because they had stroopwafel flavored ice cream and peanut-M&M milkshakes, but because the non-English-speaking man asked me how long I’ve lived here. I wanted to tell him that I’ve been in Amsterdam 3 weeks, but I only know how to say the word for “days,” and the biggest number I know is 14, so I had to improvise a bit and say I’ve been here 14 days.

It’s been a long time since the biggest number I knew was that small. If I had to tell you how long it’s been, and I had to tell you in Dutch, I would tell you it’s been 14 years.

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Learning to speak Dutch isn’t karate, but if it were, it seems like the white belt would be learning to maneuver a conversation at a supermarket. And I would probably have a lot of bruises.

I thought supermarket transactions were a good starting point because, unless something strange is happening, people only say a few different things at a grocery store. They want you to give them money. Or they want you to use cash. Or they want to know if you need a bag. It’s easy enough.

There’s only one part that so complicated that no matter how many times I visit the grocery store and no matter how many wortels I buy, I still haven’t learned it. Every single time I’ve almost made it through a perfectly-executed (ok, almost adequately-executed) Dutch conversation, they say something so confusing and unfamiliar that I have to ask them to say it in English, and they do:

“Would you like a receipt?”

Memorizing the Dutch word for receipt seemed like the simplest solution to the problem that is the complicated string of words you hear after you hand someone money. But I swear the word receipt changes every time.

They say that eskimos have 100 words for snow, but what they don’t mention that is that the Dutch have 100 words for receipt.

A slip of white paper printed with proof of a monetary transaction is an object so beautiful and multifaceted that it requires an entire section of a vocabulary to describe it. To you it’s just proof that you bought a juice and two blocks of cheese, but to a mathematician it’s poetry, and in a Dutch grocery store it’s the key to the whole universe. How could one word ever do that justice?

One word at a time.

Brooke, to her Dutch coworker by the coffee machine: Hey, morning!

Dutch coworker: Goedemorgen.

Brooke, to herself silently: Oh no. Goedemorgen.

Brooke, to herself quietly on the way to her desk: Goedemorgen. Goedemorgen.

Brooke, out loud to herself the rest of the day. Goede. Morgen. Goe. De. Mor. Gen.

Brooke, over and over at her desk the next afternoon: Goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen.

Brooke, to the same Dutch coworker by the coffee machine: Goede morgen!!

Dutch coworker: Goedemiddag.

Brooke, to herself silently: Oh no. Goedemiddag.

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Here’s a building with a picture of a castle on it.

I’ll be right back I have to excuse myself

At the risk of being too graphic, toilets here really keep you guessing.

It doesn’t matter what I’ve done, the toilet does the same thing: the water goes up and up and up and up and doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to go down.

I panic and and quietly say no no no why are you doing this and the toilet’s like “You know I don’t have to explain myself.” and the water keeps rising. And I beg and it doesn’t listen and I think maybe it will go down like it did all the other times and the toilet is like “No, not this time. This time the water will never go down.”

Then the water always goes down, it’s always fine. I wash my hands, and I try to regain composure but my blood pressure is probably off the charts by now. And I know it’s only going to be a few hours before I have to do the whole thing again.

50 ways to injure your lover

You know when you go to  a museum, and you’re not watching what you’re doing and you accidentally trip a child who falls on a glass sculpture and destroys it? Me neither, but that’s the sort of thing liability insurance covers.

You know when you toss your friend a beach ball but it’s actually a bowling ball and it hits them in the knees and breaks their legs? If I had a euro for every time I’d done that, plus two more euros, I’d have enough to pay for liability insurance. It’s not very expensive, and supposedly 90% of Dutch people have it. My guess is 90% of Dutch people can’t be wrong, and if everyone around me is concerned about spilling syrup on a stranger’s cell phone just as they are sending an important message, I’ll pay 2 euro a month to be ready in case it happens.

But the agent at our bank won’t take yes for an answer and insisted on explaining more benefits of the insurance before I could sign up.

“Say you’re on a bike, and it’s a bit rainy, and you collide with another cyclist and really, really injure them.”
“Say you are drinking some quite hot water and you spill it on a stranger or friend and the water burns their face and their arms because it’s too hot.”
“SAY, you adopt a dog or a cat and maybe it is biting a child. Because here the liability insurance also applies.”
“Or say you start a small accidental fire the dining area of a restaurant or bar because you are too close to the candles.”
There is no potential situation so far-fetched or bizarre that it will not be covered by liability insurance. Why just say it covers accident, injury, or damage when you can describe a problem so detailed it sounds like it was written by a personal injury lawyer using Mad Libs to craft the script of Home Alone 4?
The website for liability insurance picks up where my agent left off. Boaz and I will now be safe in the beyond-extremely-unlikely event of “damage caused by a leaking washing machine (if it is your own)” “you knock down an antique vase or tablet” and a vague allusion to the possibility that I might “hurt someone while working around the house.” It seems obvious they got this list from a poster that described things that surprisingly are more common than shark attacks.
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My coworker explained to me that Dutch people love to be insured, just in case. “We’re insurance fanatics.” she said. I like the idea of insurance fanatics, of all the things to be fanatical about, and I like the idea of a nation-wide agreement to all be insurance fanatics.
There are lots of things individuals love to be fanatical about and here’s where I’ll list some. Knitting, skiing, antiques, the beach, and maybe sports unfortunately. But if 90% of the country is going to be into something, it might as well be insurance.
What are 90% of Americans fanatic about? I’ve been too busy using antique platters for target practice to think much about it, but it might be bulk shopping, which is its own kind of insurance.

Orange and olive salad

My best friend in middle school hated salads.

Most people have a food they hate. But, a salad can look and taste a million different ways: fruit salad, caesar salad, potato salad, tuna salad, taco salad, pasta salad, bean salad, cole slaw, plain lettuce with dressing, niçoise, she hated them all.

“I wish I could do salads,” she’d say, the way people say they wish they could pull off a center part. “They seem so healthy and easy and fresh. But, I hate them.”

I never bothered her about it. In 7th grade I was just happy to have a best friend, salad-hating or otherwise. I wasn’t her best friend, she had a best friend named Becky who went to a different school and was supposedly amazing. “UGH I wish you could meet Becky,” my best friend would say. “She does the best voices and is crazy about pink jewelry.” I wished Becky would get hit by a bus, not one that would kill her, just one that would hit her hard enough to require her family moving to Switzerland for physical therapy.

This week at work there was a leftover salad that was just orange slices and black olives. Like something a very busy parent would make their kids for Halloween, if their kids didn’t have taste buds.

A typical Dutch salad, I said to myself.

Everything I see here becomes one of the most important and common things about Amsterdam, and this salad was no exception. Here are the most famous things in Holland: windmills, clogs, cheese, the huge bedside lamps in our temporary apartment, a woman named Kelli who does reception at my office, and a sad-looking salad with oranges and back olives.

It’s not the smartest way of thinking but everyone does it: the second-most popular thing to say when you find out I’m from Minnesota (the most popular thing being to repeat MinnesoOoota back to me in an accent) is to tell me about a layover in the Minneapolis airport.

“I wanted to buy some mixed nuts, and all they had was chips and crackers. No nuts. I could never live in Minnesota because I love nuts.”

Minnesota has nuts, I’m sure of it. Twenty minutes in the Delta concourse might feel like a lifetime but it’s not long enough to be knowledgable about the cuisine of the entire state. But when you’re sitting in an airport looking at a wall of not-nuts or sitting in a breakroom looking at the weirdest salad you’ve ever seen, it’s hard to be sure.

On my first day in Amsterdam a little old man was walking down my street with a little white dog on a leash, when teenager biked between them. The leash got caught in the wheel and the bike fell over, and both men started laughing hysterically. They were on the ground trying to get the leash unstuck, and introducing themselves. The dog started licking both of their faces.

I hoped this was a classic Dutch thing that would happen every single day, I hoped Holland was a country where people several generations apart were constantly tripping each other in complicated ways and then giggling about it in the middle of the street while cute dogs danced around tangled in bicycles. But it hasn’t happened again yet, so it might have just been random.

Maybe it’s possible to have a sense of what’s random and what’s important but so far I’m just as bad as the people looking for nuts at MSP.

It was hard to say if the salad was an every day thing or something I’d never see again, so I ate some of it just in case. It tasted exactly how you’d expect orange slices and black olives to taste. I guess I hate salads.

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I looked up the salad to find this photo and maybe it’s Italian. It didn’t really look like this.

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