How do you sum up a city? How do you convey the sense of an entire place, made up of so many people and buildings and cultures? How do you explain how this places makes you feel without veering into cliché territory?
Photos won’t do it justice. Words only capture opinion. If we could bottle the smells of the city, that might showcase the worst bits. Audio recordings would accentuate the loud and obnoxious, and video can show a lot but without a great camera, it’ll miss the lighting, the shadows, the colors.
For now, I must settle for words and pictures, and hope that I can convey some of the beauty, some of the attitude, some of the pace of a place you might never have even heard of until recently: the Hague.
We really like den Haag. It’s the kind of city we could see ourselves living in one day. Not too big, not too loud, very safe and clean, and with the conveniences of a big city without the crazy, chaotic feeling some cities give off. It’s exactly the right pace for us, and a great place to spend four weeks.
The Hague, much like the rest of the Europe, has a long, rich history much older than any modern American cities. Originating in the early 1200s as a hunting lodge for Count Floris IV of Holland, it later expanded into a palace for his son and finally into the residence for the counts and the main administrative center for the region. The official name, ‘s-Gravenhage, derives from its original purpose: “des Graven hage” means literally “the Count’s woods” or “the Count’s hedge.” And it became a city in the 17th century.
Some key facts about what is now where the King lives and works and also the home of 150 international organizations (such as the International Criminal Court and Europol):
- 3rd largest city in the Netherlands with over 500,000 inhabitants
- it’s known as the International City of Peace and Justice
- it’s a beach town with 11 km of coast
- it’s the capital of South Holland (while Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands)
This city is very mooi. Gorgeous old architecture. Charming cobblestone streets. Clean, white sands. Neat and ordered roads where trams, cars, bikes and pedestrians all get along without crashing. An ordered chaos of sorts. One of the joys of living in a city is having the freedom to walk nearly anywhere, and we’ve been greatly enjoying our ability to walk around, taking in the delights of the city that way.
The public transit system is awesome. Once we bought a tram card and figured out how to fill it (having a European bank account would make things so much simpler), getting around has been a breeze. You can use the tram cards on any of the trams around town, any intercity trains in the country, and any trams in other Dutch cities. And it runs 24 hours. So when we went to Amsterdam, there was no real planning or scheduling and no need to buy a ticket for a night in the big city. We got on our local tram, took it to den Haag Centraal, and took a train (with toilets & free wifi!) to Amsterdam. Easy peasy.
No shortage of good pizza (and in general Italian restaurants). At home in Nashville, we don’t have a great local pizza place. But within a 4 minute walk of the house in the Hague, we have two. This might be accounted for by the prevalence of Italian restaurants not only in this city but also in Europe. We’ve seen more Italian places in the last month than in our entire lives. Europeans are obsessed with Italian food! But if that means we can have good, reliable pizza around the corner, that’s okay with us 🙂
Den Haag seems beautifully multicultural. We could be wrong, but from an outsider’s perspective, the city seems diverse, with a large Asian influence, a fairly prominent Muslim population, a lot of other European ethnicities represented. Indonesia, the largest former Dutch colony, has scattered some of its culture around with restaurants, shops and statues. We’ve seen an abundance of Italian restaurants, Thai massage parlors, and Turkish bakeries where you can also get a gyro or kabob.
There is not much of a language barrier. We do not speak Dutch. I speak enough French to have a conversation in a bar and order food; enough German to say the weather is nice and I don’t speak German; and enough Spanish to get the gist of an entire article in the Southwest Airlines magazine. But neither of us speak Dutch. And thankfully it’s not a problem. Most people we’ve encountered are fluent in English or close to. When it comes to getting around, reading street signs and using public transit, we butcher the names of roads since we don’t know Dutch phonetics and the tram announces everything in both languages. Menus are often in English (or multiple languages, so even with bad translations, we can figure it out), and for those that aren’t, we have used Google Translate enough to be able to recognize important words: Kip (chicken), spek (bacon), vlees (meat), brood (bread). We’re beginning to recognize plurals of words (uien = onions, wijnen = wines, stukken = pieces), and variations on other words (kippendij, kipfilet, kippenvleugels), and suffixes (such as -jes or -ische. If it’s written out, we can usually figure out the gist of what’s being conveyed, but when it’s spoken? Not a chance. But thankfully, it’s not a problem 🙂
So far we’ve loving it. Of course, having friendly faces in town doesn’t hurt and made settling in even easier for us. My dad’s friends, Kevin and Mel (and their adorable furbabies), are ex-pats who’ve been living in this city for over 15 years so they’ve been an invaluable source of information and encouragement – and let us crash at their place our first couple nights in town. And our lovely home swap partners introduced us to their grown children, who are near our age and have been very helpful as well.
While it’s not the same as home, we haven’t experienced any crippling culture shock. Den Haag is a western city in an EU country. They work a mostly 9-5 Monday-Friday schedule. They speak English. Their internet is super fast. They eat dinner at 6 pm. It’s not like we’re totally out of our element here. But there are differences, and experiencing them in their fullest is part of the point of this trip. The temptation of a bakery on every block. The convenience of train travel. The inconvenience of having to pay cash so often. The lack of tipping. The local snacks. The lack of privacy that city life affords. How close the rest of Europe is. The laid back attitude about things that are taboo at home (cursing, drinking in public, smoking weed, nudity, prostitution); here’s its all you do you and I love that. If people judge you, at least they’re quiet about it. We still haven’t braved the bikes (everyone else is a pro, and neither of us have ridden in years!), opting to walk or tram everywhere but we will experience riding a bike in Holland before we leave!
We do have questions, of course. Why does our credit card work at some establishments and not others? Why won’t our debit cards work at all? Why do they like ice cream so much? Why is it so hard to find a can of spider spray? Why are the mattresses split in two? Why are restaurants opposed to giving someone a LARGE glass of water? And what in god’s name is the purpose of the poop shelf in the toilet? (Actually, I learned the answer to that.)
Speaking of toilets, why is it common in Europe to make people PAY TO PEE? Makes me feel like we’re living in some pre-apocalyptic Urinetown!
Anyway. I digress. 🙂
The Hague. Den Haag. ‘s-Gravenhage. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lovely city and absolutely perfect for our first big home exchange and has quickly become one of my favorite European cities!
Have you been to the Hague? What was your favorite part? What about other Dutch cities? What is your favorite European city? What cities are on your travel bucket lists? Tweet us @ashleyschwartau or @justinbonnema