Upon arriving in the Netherlands, one of my immediate impressions of the in habitants of The Hague was that they were pretty fat. And I don’t mean that in a mid-2000s teenage ‘ph’ kind of way, but in a literal, everyone struck me as a bit tubby kind of way. Of course, all the starving students were off on holidays and all the scary fit Dutch people were off hiking, swimming to England, wrestling bears or whatever fit people do during the summer, so the city isn’t actually totally populated by beach ball lookalikes. But for the first two weeks it seemed that way. And that’s coming from an Australian.
I have often noticed during my travels that administrative cities often tend to be a bit heavier than other cities in geographical proximity. Too many desk jobs, too many fancy lunches wining and dining important people, too many drinks to celebrate success or commiserate failure (though I think the last one is pretty universal). But I was a little perplexed as to how this phenomenon seemed to coexist happily with the Dutch bike riding obsession.
Then I went to the supermarket.
The aisles of Albert Heijn are a nutritionist’s nightmare. I am yet to find an aisle that doesn’t contain biscuits, and I think there must be a law stating that food must be at least 20% sugar. Most juices are glucose and food dye. Bread is equal parts carbohydrate and preservatives, and lean meat is pretty much a myth. The most surprising part for me was that in the supermarkets, it’s impossible to buy small servings of junk food. No single serve packets of chips. Chocolate bars start at 100g, as opposed to 45g.
Now, this is conducive to two things: happiness and heart attacks.
In my head, the extra kilojoules consumption would be negated by all the bike riding. But the Netherlands is so flat that it only takes five pushes of the pedal and a good wind to make it the 60km from The Hague to Amsterdam.
N.B. The above example has been neither scientifically nor anecdotally proven.
So relatively soon after arriving, I went to an open day at a gym. Yes, a gym, because I’m one of those idiots who is willing to pay to do exercise that I can do outside for free. After testing out the facilities, the gym staff gave me a stroopwafel, which is two wafers of waffle sandwiched together by caramel syrup. They know how to make sure that you have to keep going to the gym, damn them.
Speaking of sandwiches, they’re pretty much the national food here. Sandwiches, or brootjes, are everywhere. They’re appropriate at every meal. It used to be that you bought food at uni to break up the monotony of bringing sandwiches for lunch. Here it’s the other way around, you bring food to uni to break up the monotony of sandwiches. Because sadly, the sandwiches are not particularly inspired. In fact, the filling combinations are generally pretty average. Yet I find myself mindlessly eating them all the same…
Nothing, however, surpasses the oddity that is the Dutch breakfast. I’ve only been personally involved once, and heard many tales from internationals as confused as I. When I was a child, an exciting party food was bread with sprinkles, known by the delightful name of fairy bread. This was only eaten at parties, and fairy bread mysteriously disappeared from my life around the age of eight. It probably disappeared because the Dutch came and stole all the sprinkles thereby creating a sprinkle shortage in the rest of the world.
That’s right, the Dutch have sprinkles on bread for breakfast. I’m not entirely sure whether I think this is brilliant or bizarre, but one thing’s clear, it’s certainly different. I feel very strange when I wake up in the morning and am struck by the thought that all around me, middle aged lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats are having fairy bread and milk for breakfast.
But I suppose it could be worse. They could be eating Vegemite.