It took a while to make friends in Holland. The Dutch are not the most outgoing, and I wasn’t either at the tender age of 18. There were these two metalheads in my art class, Ruud (typical Dutch name), and Bart (character from The Simpsons). Their English sucked, and so did my Dutch, but we bonded by comparing band logos we’d drawn, and reciting random lines from metal songs in a deadpan voice. Like this…
RUUD: You will die. You will fry.
ME: You never learned, so now you’ll burn.
[RUUD and BART nod approvingly]
They also helped me with my Dutch. One of them would say a word, have me repeat it, and then they would both laugh. I would consult my dictionary to find they’d taught me something really useful, like butterfly hip or snake armpit. Our friendship stayed at about this level throughout the year.
About a month into the year, on the annual sunny day that they get in Holland, I was eating lunch outside in the courtyard. I was midway through my hagelslag butterham when I noticed this dude sort of eyeballing me and grinning like he’s either about to strike up a conversation or murder me with a hatchet.
[Screech!] Eating your whaaat?!
My hagelslag butterham. It’s a sandwich. More or less. OK, tangent time!
A Dutch sandwich is called a boterham. I just translated it literally. It’s literally just butter and ham or one other thing between two slices of white bread. It’s what every single Dutch kid gets in their lunch every single day. No hot lunch. No pizza Fridays. Just butterham. Socialism!
I would get six butterhams each day: two butter and ham, two butter and cheese, and two butter and hagelslag. Hagelslag is delicious chocolate sprinkles. My favorite! No matter what topping is inside though, it’s still called a butterham, just like we say sandwich even when there’s no sand in it.
By the way! The word hagelslag is also what Dutch people say when they need the Heimlich maneuver but there is no one around to administer it. Try it sometime.
Now back to our story.
Dude is eyeballing. Dude is grinning. Dude says, with an American accent better than mine, So hey, you into The Dead Kennedys? That was a punk band I was into. I had a DK button pinned to my jacket.
Yeah, I replied. With a mouthful of hagelslag it came out sounding totally Dutch. Dude kept grinning.
He definitely didn’t look punk. I’d been scouting the schoolyard for someone who might share my musical tastes (the basis of any meaningful teen friendship). I got snubbed by the one guy with a leather jacket and a skitch, and as far as I could tell the rest of the student body consisted of normals. Grinning man certainly fit that description: clean-cut, jockish—the type that would’ve been my natural enemy in my natural habitat back home. Maybe I was about to get a hatchet to the dome.
But I wasn’t in my natural habitat now (thank Wotan), so who knew what would happen next? And anyway, so what if he looked like a church-going rugby player. If he was into The Dead Kennedys, he and I had things to discuss.
So his appearance caught me off guard, but we were soon bonding over our mutual love of this band and that band, all the while stuffing our faces with butterhams, and that’s how I made my first friend, Marcel. Dutch dude with a French name.
Marcel had a record player, a possession that (to my surprise) was not as common in the Netherlands as it was back home in bumfuck. Instead of record players, the Dutch government furnished every home with a state-of-the-art television from Philips Electronics, which was based just up the line from us in the city of Eindhoven. So…they make it really hard to listen to your punk records, but freely provide banal TV for the masses. Real nice, socialism. I guess you work great when it comes to PACIFYING PEOPLE!
But whatever, Marcel had one, and we spent quite a bit of time annoying his parents with it.
One day Marcel came up to me at school and said in his usual dry way, Hey dude. Do you wanna go to a show? Sonic Youth is coming.
Show was what we weird kids called a musical performance by a band that normals have never heard of, held in a venue that is non-compliant with local health and fire codes. Shows definitely did not exist back in bumfuck, and going to one had been one of the predominant aspirations of my last three years of high school. Also: SONIC YOUTH!!!
So hell yeah. I wanted to go.
Everything is a blur from that point until I found myself at my first show, packed into a smoky room, staring in rapturous awe as Kim Gordon & company belted out Death Valley ‘69 ten feet away from me. It was one of the highlights of my year in Europe. Yes, I traveled 4000 miles to see an American band play a show.
Marcel was a good friend who was in a perpetual good mood. He was an excellent guy to listen to music and go to shows with. However, he was also Holland’s only non-drinker. That disappointed me a bit, as I was already a big fan of getting shitfaced, and Europe was a whole new world of beer to explore. Without Marcel’s help, I had to go it alone, or more often than not, add strangers to the mix when we went out. This was always awkward at first, but of course, got easier with each round.
A quick note on Dutch drinking! It is customary for members of a group of pub crawlers to take turns buying rounds for the whole group. This is known by roughly zero Dutch people as “going Dutch”. This term was created by English speakers in their instinctual contempt for the Dutch (and pretty much everyone else), to mean the exact opposite – every man and woman, boy and girl for themselves, the rest be damned. Actually going Dutch is a very civilized, egalitarian and socially stimulating experience.
YEAH BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T DRINK, IS IT?! I hear some of you whining. YOU MEAN I HAVE TO CLEAN OUT MY BANK ACCOUNT SO MY COWORKERS CAN GET TANKED ON FUZZY NAVELS AND FANCY BEER? NOT FAIR! NOT FAIR! WAAA!!!
Calm down, the Dutch have two ingenious ways of leveling everything out. One: everyone drinks (except Marcel). Two: all the drinks come in different sizes so they’ll all cost the same, with a shot of jenever (Dutch gin) as a baseline. So each beer comes in a dinky 5-oz glass, while Marcel gets a 2-liter bottle of orange pop with every round. It’s a perfect system. Go socialism!
One of Marcel’s unexpected and admirable qualities was that he didn’t seem to mind hanging out with drunk people like me, being forced to listen to their blather hour after hour, and then have to haul home the huge crate of unopened bottles of pop afterwards. By the end of a year hanging out with me I bet his cellar was full up on orange pop. I bet he’s still drinking it. When the apocalypse comes, Marcel will be all set. You’re welcome, Marcel.
I usually drank Grolsch when we went out, because in the south that’s the beer you drink. Only a filthy Amsterdammer would be caught having a Heineken. See, it may only be the size of your thumbnail, but the Netherlands has the same north-south bullshit that other places do.
For some reason, though, the Schaekens were a Heineken family, and there was always a case of it under the stairs. Irene would crack one for me each evening during TV time as long as my homework was done. I’d help myself to a second one when Pin-Up Club was on. That was a well-produced and educational softcore porn program that aired once a month at 11 pm on public TV. There were so many things I loved about this country.
One evening the Schaeken residence got a visit from the parish priest, whom we called Buddha, because he was fat. (The Netherlands: kinda Catholic down south, kinda Protestant up north, kinda don’t give a fuck everywhere.) He was a good friend and came bearing a gift, a mysterious earthenware vessel, a bottle with no label. He uncorked it and poured out a few small glasses.
What is it? I probably asked. This is monk beer, Buddha told me. It was a rich and layered concoction, rife with fleeting nuances, aromas that turned into flavors and then back again as it moved from your lips to your throat. It wasn’t as much a drink as it was an experience, and calling it beer was like calling a Maserati a snow-shoe. That was my introduction to Trappist ale, and you can probably guess what happened after that.
Unfortunately you had to go to a Trappist monastery to get real Trappist ale, but fortunately I discovered you could get something very similar in the cellar pubs we frequented in Weert or Eindhoven. It was called Duvel, which means “devil”, and it was my go-to tipple on many a night out.
Swerving home on my bicycle after one of those Duvel-soaked nights out, I got a powerful craving for a sandwich. Croquettes or fries with mayonnaise – the standard post-drinking chow in Holland – were just great, but tonight I needed a sandwich. Not a butterham. It was midwinter, and I was sick and tired of goddamn butterhams. I needed a real American sandwich: grilled ham, and cheese, with mustard, and mayo. Lettuce and tomatoes would be nice too if I could dig them up. I put my head down and pedaled faster.
Warm and dry back at casa de Schaeken, all of my dreams came true. I hoped I hadn’t woken anyone with my after-hours culinary clanging and banging; I’d never done anything like this before, never even touched the fridge or a frying pan. But then again, I didn’t care. I was fully sated, and wiping the grease from my cheeks, I realized I had soothed a deeper malady that until then I didn’t even know I had: homesickness. I lingered a while in reverie, cleaned up my mess, and went to bed.
The next day my host mom, Irene took me aside. She was not at all pleased with my midnight pantry raid, and she let me know all about it. She and Theo both worked very hard to provide for the family, she informed me. They were happy to have me in their home, but the exchange agency did not pay them one skinny guilder to host me. Every slice of cheese was accounted for. I must never do this again. And so on.
Her reaction was totally unexpected. Here was jolly, jocular Irene bitching me out. I didn’t even know she could get mad. And Theo, who by all indications was barely aware of me – apparently I was in the doghouse with him, too. It was scary.
But I didn’t get it. I mean, they were better off than my family back home. Nice brick house, cool antique furniture, everything neat and tidy. No record player of course, but the TV was way better than my family’s back in Alaska. My family was dirt poor, but I could eat half a block of cheese if I wanted and not hear about it from my mom (much). We just wouldn’t have cheese for a while. But here Irene was, making it sound like we were one sandwich away from the poorhouse because of me. I apologized, but mostly I was confused and indignant. What was the big deal?
I was young and dumb, and didn’t understand the economics of it until years later. The Schaekens were comfortable and lacked nothing because they were organized and planned ahead. There was just enough, but no surplus. They’d wanted an exchange student, so they got me; I was figured into the equation. I never thought of myself as another mouth to feed, and I know that’s not how they thought of me, but essentially that’s what it came down to with the sandwich incident. My drunk, hungry, homesick ass had stretched the family budget and I caught hell for it.
So, was it worth it? Oh, yeah. Dutch cheese, are you serious? But I never did it again. It was strictly butterhams from then on.