More than just tulips and windmills: Musings from my time in the Netherlands

Sunny Sichi/Staff

It’s not often that a person born and raised in California finds a second home in a place where the average temperature isn’t 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The Netherlands is a place known half for its terrible weather, a quarter for its windmills and another quarter for its marijuana. In a way, it’s the least perfect and the most perfect place for a Californian, depending on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. I chose the latter, and I couldn’t be happier that I did. 

Six months ago, I found myself in a cold country surrounded by some of the warmest people and stroopwafels I’ve ever encountered in my life. Humans search for happiness and their utopia all of their lives with no success, but I have been fortunate enough to find it in just 21 years. Biking to class through an old city center, boating down canals with a cider and my close friends, relaxing at a former church-turned-bar for a borrel (drinks with friends) and taking advantage of the well-organized public transportation system are just a few items on my list of things I love about this place. The saying goes, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” You won’t find a more innovative or proud country anywhere, and I want to share my love for it with all of you. 

While I wrote quite a few travel pieces over the past few months, the Netherlands beats all the other places as my favorite country. As some of you may know, the Dutch government is actually attempting to scale back the number of tourists who flood into their country each year, so read this as less of a travel piece and more of an ode to my favorite place in the world. I’ll only hold myself partly responsible if you book a flight to Amsterdam after reading this! 

Before going, I was under the impression that Americans weren’t that different from the Dutch. After all, they all speak perfect English, right? I was pleasantly surprised to find myself among people completely different from me — although at first, my ears rang with what I thought was the strangest language I’d ever heard. My Dutch culture professor drew circle charts and told us that Americans are extremely friendly on the outside, with a tiny core in the middle that is very private. The Dutch, however, have a thin layer of reservedness that could be perceived as cold on the outside, with huge, kind hearts underneath. It’s hard not to appreciate how organized everything is — from the city planning to the rules of bike traffic to how every bus and train is on time. They’re proud of their beers, their cheese, their beautiful cities and their extremely green outlook on life. The people are a big part of the reason I quickly made this place my home. 

I can’t write an article about the Netherlands without talking about Amsterdam. And while I love Amsterdam and visited it many times, it certainly isn’t the locals’ favorite place, nor is it mine. Of course, I would boast of the incredible museums in its Museumkwartier, the scenic Jordaan neighborhood, the beauty of Vondelpark and the restaurants and cafés of De Pijp; these were my favorite parts of the city. If you happen to find yourself planning a trip to the Netherlands, don’t just stick to Amsterdam. There are many other beautiful cities to appreciate. 

I studied in Utrecht at Utrecht University, which is only 30 minutes by train from Amsterdam. Superficially, one could describe Utrecht as a smaller Amsterdam, with fewer tourists and prettier canals. And while both are true, there’s much more to this city. Under the shadow of Dom Tower, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, Utrecht is a place with a rich history and a quaint city center. It has fascinating architecture, from 19th-century work to the Rietveld Schröder House to the newly built modern architecture of De Uithof, where many students live and study. It’s a place where you can take it slow by picnicking in Wilhelminapark, getting coffee and cake at De Ontdekking, watching the sheep in De Uithof or taking a boat down the canals. It’s also a place you can go fast, clubbing at TivoliVredenburg, celebrating the King’s Night festivities or attending an FC Utrecht game. It’s easy to run into your friends around town, and there’s a large and extremely friendly international community. I could probably talk about this fantastic place for eternity, but there are other parts of the Netherlands that also deserve appreciation. 

I enjoyed The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, Giethoorn and three other cities during my stay. The Hague is a center of politics and justice for Europe and the world. You can witness a trial at the International Criminal Court and see the parliament and other government buildings. Leiden, while smaller and less significant globally, holds its own with its lovely buildings, canals and museums. While this might sound like every Dutch city ever, the charm never really wears off. Leiden also has poetry on the walls of its buildings, which creates a beautiful atmosphere. Each city has a slightly different feeling and look that is a joy to explore. Haarlem is similar, but it’s closer to Amsterdam and has much to offer, such as the amazing iced tea and lemon orange cake at Bij Babette and the Corrie ten Boom House, which is where the ten Boom family hid many Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. More uniquely, the village of Giethoorn, otherwise known as “the Venice of the Netherlands” (not to be confused with “the Venice of the North,” which is Amsterdam) is remarkable. The streets are canals, and you can take a whisper boat around to see the charming, old-fashioned village. Last but certainly not least, the island of Ameland, part of the West Frisian islands in the north, is a hidden gem. Many of the Dutch aren’t even aware of its existence, but I spent a weekend there and was amazed by the beaches, natural beauty and mud-walking. Mud-walking is only possible during certain times of the year and day, when the tides wash back, allowing one to walk on the seafloor from one island to the next. This experience was well worth sinking into the mud and getting soaked. 

Many people only know the Netherlands as a land of tall, blond people wearing clogs and braids, living in windmills and smoking weed all day. But with this perspective, you can’t truly appreciate the people and country for who they really are and what it really is, respectively. The country has many natural and man-made beauties to behold, despite being so small. People from the north and south have different accents and traditions, and parts of the country have been drained out and built up. There’s a lot more to offer than just cows and cheese! 

Going to the Netherlands during the spring semester was a blessing because I got to see both snow and sun. I like to think that the Netherlands knew it would be too miraculous if it were sunny all the time, which is why there are rain and clouds for most of the year. There was nothing more gorgeous than to see the sun shine on old brick buildings, lighting up the rose vines growing up the walls. The people certainly appreciate it, and you would see people soaking up the sun by sticking their legs out of the windows of their flat-fronted apartments or dangling their legs off the edges of canals.

Before I get too sentimental, I want to emphasize one more time just how incredible this place truly is. It’s a self-made country not without its flaws, but it is nearly perfect in my eyes. The memories I made here will be cherished forever, and I hope that everyone finds a place like this for themselves. So thank you to everyone I met in this wonderful country. The Netherlands may not love most obnoxious Americans like me, but I somehow felt extremely loved by this place — and I certainly loved it back. So, as the Dutch would say, tot ziens for now!

Contact Sunny Sichi at [email protected].