Category Archives: Netherlands

World War II’s last European Battlefield

It began at 1am on April 5, 1945. Armed only with sharpened shaving knives and their bare hands, Soviet Georgians exacted bloody revenge on their German captors. While the Georgians quickly and quietly dispatched tens of Germans, some of the Wehrmacht men got to their rifles. The gunfire alerted the German gun crews on the shore batteries … who then traversed their weapons so they could fire inland. What followed was a vicious guerrilla campaign that lasted for weeks after VE Day…

Over 60 years later, as you approach the island on the ferry boat from Den Helder, you cannot even see the concrete bunkers that formed this part of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” . Today, Texel is a charming holiday destination better known for surf fishing and lamb wool than its grim history as the only battleground between men of the Red and German Armies on the Western Front.

Remnants of a German bunker are in the foreground

The restored Texel Lighthouse - remnants of a German bunker are visible behind the grass in the foreground

Although Texel’s sleepy villages with winding brick lanes and perfectly flat pastures with grazing sheep are occasionally interrupted by more “touristy” towns like De Koog, the island is mainly a peaceful – if windy – place.  It’s one of the only parts of the Netherlands where you can experience a sense of remoteness, so I was shocked to learn a battle was fought here in World War II.

I learned about Texel’s World War II history by accident. The island’s small airport hosts an aviation museum that advertises a special exhibition on “the Georgian Uprising”. The weather in North Holland is not always reliable, so we soon found ourselves at the museum during a spell of Dutch Summer weather (damp, windy, etc.).

German bunker at Texel airport. Bullet holes are visible around the gun ports

German bunker at Texel airport. Bullet holes are visible around the gun ports

Thousands of Soviet Georgians serving in Stalin’s Red Army were captured by the Germans in 1941 during “Operation: Barbarossa”. Starved and brutalized in German prison camps, many were eventually shanghaied into the German Army’s new Ostlegion (“Eastern Legion “). 800 of these Georgians were sent to Texel, where they improved fortifications, drilled, and made contacts with the Dutch Underground – the Orde Dienst.

Having been informed they were being sent to Berlin in a last-ditch defense against the approaching Red Army, the Georgians hastily came up with a plan. When the signal was given they would quietly kill their German comrades with sharpened shaving knives and bayonets, seize the German weapons and – with the help of the local populace – take out the gun crews of the shore batteries. Once the island was secure, they would then radio England so the Allies could land on the island.

As Murphy’s Laws of Combat state: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Operation: Day of Birth was no exception…

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Filed under Germans, military history, Netherlands, Photography, Travel, World War II, Writing

My Secret Obession: World War II Bunkers

There was an article last Summer about how some kid discovered some bunkers in Denmark that are in pristine condition. So awesome.

I don’t know what it is with me and those concrete bunkers built during World War II. When I’m driving along the French or Dutch coast, or through the Eiffel in Belgium, and I see those telltale right angles breaking through the tranquil countryside, I pull my car over and start climbing over the damn things like a little kid.

A fading memory

A fading memory - one of the German emplacements on Omaha beach

What is it about these decaying, stained and otherwise hideous concrete structures that make me so crazy? They violate an otherwise peaceful landscape. Local kids use these things to tag up, shoot up, or drink up and I reckon most locals want to forget them. Yet all I can imagine is what it must have been liked over half a century previous when these things were built. I guess it’s the knowledge that as I stand there, I’m at Ground Zero of the showdown that determined the direction of World history.

It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants.

Last Summer I found an amazing set of bunkers and gun emplacements on an island of the Dutch coast. Although a foot note in a side theater of the main conflict, the island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel”) was the scene of a vicious battle which earned it a few dubious – and grim –

distinctions …

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Filed under Denmark, Europe, Germans, History, Military, military history, Netherlands, Travel, World War II, Writing

Rosenmontag and Super Tuesday

The post serves a couple of purposes:

1) To inform you that I partied like a Rockstar at Carnival in Cologne and Dusseldorf, which is why I haven’t been writing.

2) To provide a little evidence that much of the world really does seem to be following the US elections. Very closely.

The following photos were taken during the Rosenmontag (“Rose Monday”) parade through Koenigsallee in Duesseldorf (I apologize if they’re fuzzy of not framed properly but we were in a crowd and we were really really drunk):

Rosenmontagzug

 

Rosenmontagszug2

Not only is the primary process being followed closely around the world, but the above photos demonstrate that some Euro-pundits are far more astute than I thought. Keep in mind that these photos were taken 24 hours before Super Tuesday. Quite the augur when you think about how much money Obama raised shortly thereafter. (I believe it was $3 million in 48 hours.)

Funny thing is, a couple of German party animals from the Ruhrpot slapping together a grotesque parade float have a stronger grip on reality than most of the major European media outlets.

The German and British press seem to be unconditionally kissing Obama’s posterior. His encomium as the “black JFK” was a bit too much for me. As far as Hillary goes, the Dutch have been loving HRC for years. (Strong women with short hair go over well here.) My Dutch in-laws are trying to register a proxy vote for her via Yours Truly.

So you read and hear a lot about Obama and Hillary, but not too much about the Republicans. If you’re lucky, you read something on McCain. There is so little coverage of the Republicans it’s not even funny. (In all fairness, there was little coverage of any other Dem candidates besides HRC and BO anyway – even at the beginning of the campaign.)

A German friend of mine (who’s former GSG-9, actually) summed it up best; he “doesn’t care who wins, so long as it’s not a Republican”. There’s an excellent blog called David’s Medienkritik that comprehensively catalogs the German media’s choleric coverage of Bush, Republicans, and America the “Wild West” (full of gun-loving, conservative, fat people, etc.). It sheds a lot of light on where these opinions come from. I only wish someone did the same with the BBC World Service; every third item is about how Bush sucks because of Iraq. The other two items are that break up these items are usually i) the latest warnings about global warming, and ii) Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.

I must say, watching Dutch, German, and English television, I’ve been surprised by the extent of the coverage and – dare I say it – the general fascination with the presidential primary process, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. Listening to the anchors (and my wife), no one seems to believe that such powerful people have to kiss the ass of the “lowliest” farmer or pipe-fitter in such unrefined surroundings (churches, schools, people’s living rooms, etc).

I suppose that says something about European history/culture as well.

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Filed under Amsterdam, Carnival, Europe, Germans, Germany, Media, Netherlands, Obama, politics, Travel, Writing

Flying Bricks of Fury: My Encounter with Intolerant Amsterdam

To quote ‘The 40 Year-old Virgin‘, “I had a WEEKEND.”

I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading, as bricks and other bits of masonry only flew on Friday night, but damn, what a weekend.Friday night started off as a good night out. Some family and friends from various points abroad all converged on Amsterdam (where I currently reside) to get together. It was a great re-union/party, and it coincided nicely with the Amsterdam Dance Event, which meant there were tons of decent DJs to choose from.

Friday night a group of us went to dinner at Nomads. Nomads is the Middle Eastern cousin of the renowned Supper Club. Now, I hate the Supper Club: it’s pretentious, and people are unjustifiably way to into themselves. I say “ unjustifiably” because these forced attempts at exclusivity are a bit laughable, and I don’t think they pull it off well anymore. (Did they ever?) Nomads has the couches, the hookahs, the DJ, and an excellent list of very original cocktails. (My favorite was the “Dark and Stormy”, which involved Bacardi black, limes, and ginger beer.) The food was a bit of a divergence from traditional Arabic meze, but it was still very good. If you’re more than six people, you don’t get to choose the menu, but the three course presentation was excellent, and they had vegetarian options.

The tunes and general atmosphere were great, and the belly dancer didn’t hurt. The service was sometimes way too slow bringing the drinks to the table, and the masseuse was crap. There’s also a tarot card reader hanging about, although we ignored her. (I heard later she was also crap.) We all seemed to struggle drinking on the beds as well. (It can be forgiven, I suppose, since drinking in bed is something I didn’t plan to pick up until I was well into my 60s.) I think for every three drinks ordered, two were successfully consumed. We all knocked over at least one drink with an errant foot or ill-placed elbow, but the record was held by the masseuse – who knocked over a whole tray of cocktails, and the waiter – who took out the bottle of wine he’d just opened, plus the bottle we were still finishing. (The Dutch word for spaz is “Knoeier!“)

The masonry started flying when my sister and a friend went outside for some fresh air. Apparently, Nomads has a disco as well. The scene at the disco is way different from the lounge. This became clear very quickly, as the line to get into the disco was almost exclusively the under 21 crowd. A group of guys started harassing the two girls. Typical testosterone-fuelled bravado designed for a cheap laugh at some girl’s expense, right? What they didn’t count on was a face full of New York ‘ tude from a four foot eleven Korean-American, who isn’t one to back down from a confrontation, even when outnumbered five-to-one. That’s when the racial epithets started to fly (“kut chinees”, “chinees kutwijf”, etc.). My Dutch friend who was with her was too shocked to say anything. My sister backed off, and one of the punks actually kicked her in the ass with his boot.

They came back inside. My sister was pissed, and my Dutch friend was stunned, as she’d always bought into Amsterdam’s self-image as a City of Tolerance.

She’d just had a very rude awakening.

Sis told us what happened through gritted teeth. Once she told me she’d been hit, I began putting my shoes on. (You take off your shoes in a bed, right?) Her boyfriend and the other guys in our group did the same. We went outside and saw the huge line of people waiting to get into the disco.

“There he is!” My sister pointed with a black goth fingernail. “That’s the little sh*t who kicked me!”

And boy, was he a little sh*t alright. He was backed up by about five friends, which I figure is exactly why he’d felt the need to prove his “manliness” in the first place. All five of them had their best white sneakers, gold chains, and hooded puffy down jackets against the cold weather. Such stupid behavior from five aspiring gangstas was not surprising, but what did surprise me was that t the racial epithets came from five guys who were clearly Moroccan. Waitaminnit, I thought, aren’t these guys always the victims of discrimination around here?

The confrontation started, tempers flared, and then one of the punk’s friends rabbit punched me in the face. Before we knew it, the gang of five became a gang of 20, and I had three “Men of Middle Eastern Origin” climbing all over me. I decked two and quickly had a third in a headlock; I looked behind me, hoping to see my buddies backing me up. All I saw was my little sister – God bless her – delivering greetings from the Land of Beatings to the scrawny punk that kicked her.

My other friends were behind a wall of 16 other punks. We were cut off.

Ultimately, my friends waded in, and we actually beat them all back. I couldn’t believe it. They were all talk, and their mouths had clearly written checks their bodies couldn’t cash. Sounds like a win, right? WRONG.

The entire sidewalk was being rebuilt and there were stacks of bricks just laying about. In a desperate attempt to get the upper hand, three of the bastards grabbed bricks and waved them over at us, threatening to throw. One of them stood atop the pile a good five feet above us, waving the brick threateningly. At that point, a brick hit me in the back, and my situational awareness came back to me. I heard my buddy shouting “Get in! Get back in the door!” and saw the two bouncers (who’d done nothing to help my sister in the first place, and who’d not intervened at all when things escalated) were pulling down a metal shutter to seal themselves safely inside and me outside!

I grabbed my sister under my arm (still yelling and struggling to get at the scrawny punk who’d kicked her) and we little slid under the shutter Indiana Jones-style. More bricks smashed into the shutter with a terrific clang. The bouncer got in my face, and I got right back in his, shouting “ik ben een gast!” I wasn’t sure what was worse about this moment, the fact that this had even happened, or that it happened frequently enough that they obviously had some sort of drill worked out for what to do.

Our only injuries were back pain (not from the brick, but from trying not to fall down with three of the bastards crawling all over me), some bloody knuckles, and a black-and-blue toe on another friend from another brick that had been fired at us. We sat there laughing about it, but it was a real Assault on Precinct 13 moment – and I mean the original (“Cholo? Nobody said nothing about the Cholo!”), not the remake. Like the children of immigrants burning the banlieues of Paris, the teenage boys here run wild. It’s not as bad as Paris of course, but it now seems to be getting there.

As I write this, cars are probably being burned again for the third or fourth night in a row in Amsterdam West. They started burning cars after some nut named Bilal B. went into a police station and began stabbing a female police officer. Her colleague naturally shot the guy – dead. This was the spark for the latest “outrage”.We’d jumped into the confrontation rather casually – especially the guys that don’t live in Amsterdam. This is Holland: there’s no guns, very few knives, and street brawls seem limited only to football matches. But then I recalled the cars burning only a few blocks from us in Amsterdam West.

As I sat there in Nomads, I realized that a bunch of bored guys in their teens/early 20s aren’t just going to go away and call it a night. For them, this could mean SHOWTIME. It suddenly seemed very feasible to me that there might be 50 bored guys out there now, building up their outrage and their courage, and gather bricks.

I turned to the other guys. “We could have a problem here.”

No one believed me, of course. And in the end – it wasn’t a problem. The kids had actually scattered or backed off. Most of them – I suspect – put more value on getting into the club than getting into a fight again. We got into our taxis without seeing them again. I suppose there must have been a better way to handle the situation. It’s just that Amsterdam cops seem pretty useless, get no respect, have no mandate to enforce laws vigorously (as in New York), and are literally never ever around when you need them. I only feel bad because I just know that the jerk-offs have no realization of just how rotten and dangerous their behavior was, and are probably wearing any bruises we gave them as badges of honor. I’m also sure their version of the fight is being told and re-told in a completely different way, with the number of adversaries they faced doubling and tripling with each re-telling of their “victory”.

Nomads was good, and the fight is already (thankfully) a hilarious story. Saturday night was legendary. We’d rented a canal boat for a couple of hours for an evening tour of the canals of Amsterdam. The boat was tastefully appointed in dark, polished teak, with brass fittings, and the hull design was a classic Dutch canal boat. The friendly captain doubled as a tour guide. To top it off, we had buffet rijsttafel from an excellent local restaurant called Kantijl & de Tijger, and an open bar to keep the 30 of us happy. From there, we walked about 200 yards to the Odeon. I’d never been there before. It used to be just a club (and apparently a very exclusive one at that), but now it’s a multi-level restaurant/bar/club. It was fantastic. The crowd was a mix of trendy 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and ranged from “Happy Drunk” to “E’d Out of Their Mind”. We were all the way in top in balcony seating. Where we danced, jabbered, and laughed until 5 am. Hangovers and the Amsterdam City Marathon put the kibosh on a big brunch in the city center, so everyone who’d reserved evening flights home crashed in my living room, ate take out, and listlessly watched ‘The 40 Year-Old Virgin’. I don’t think we had anything left to prove at that point.

Like I said, we had a WEEEKEND.

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Filed under Amsterdam, Bilal B., Europe, immigration, islam, Moroccans, Netherlands, Police, Travel, violence

Death Cab for Turkey

I just came back from a brief business trip to Istanbul, Turkey. And, brother, you can keep your roller coasters and any other adrenaline rides since they just don’t compare to a trip around Istanbul in a Turkish taxi. A ride in an Istanbul death cab is far more exciting, because death or maiming is only an arm’s length away…

How can I describe it? Your rectum puckers up every 30 seconds because your just about to die; your short of breath because the only thing between you and the groaning wheel of that 30 year-old bus a foot away from you is a dinky aluminum door made in South Korea. You only pray that your driver looks up long enough from texting his girlfriend (or boyfriend?) to apply the brakes. In accordance with the fundamental principles of physics, Istanbul drivers fill up any and every available space on the road, and get as close together as possible. Hence, two-lane roads become three; three-lane roads become four, and four-lane mergers become seven, like so:

image030.jpg image032.jpg

Views from the terrace of the Mövenpick Hotel. In right hand photo, note how drivers are jumping the median to somehow “get ahead”

When the traffic light turns green, Turkish drivers are leaning on the horn in 0.5 seconds (a respectable 0.25 seconds faster than New Jersey drivers). When competing for a gap, Turkish death cabbies only occasionally look (and even signal) when changing lanes. The loser won’t blink and hit the brakes until the very last instant, even touching the gas just to see if the cabby is serious. More than once I sat in the back of a taxi, contemplating my mortality as I stared at the scarred fender of a fume-belching semi a foot away from my window…

I don’t know how many auto fatalities there are in Istanbul, but I saw two accidents in three days. I saw a taxi wedged in between a flatbed and a passenger car after the flatbed hit the brakes and the taxi driver didn’t. Maybe he was texting his girlfriend (too bad, because his engine was crushed under the flatbed). The other accident was self-inflicted – some schmuck blew his tire trying to parallel park on a very narrow two way street. The lanes were divided by a low concrete barrier that he forgot about. There was a tremendous BANG! And when everyone realized what happened, they all started calling out what I presumed was the Turkish equivalent of “Asssss-hole. Asssss-hole…” Sucks to be him, because the street (in a neighborhood called Bebek) is on the waterfront, lined with cafés and restaurants. You just know he was desperate to look cool.

I managed to see Topkapi the morning before heading to the airport. Pretty amazing.

Orta Kapi

Above: “Bab-üs Selam” the Gate of Salutation at Topkapi, the “Abode of Bliss”

After three hours, I still only saw probably half of it.

image049.jpg

above: matchlock fortress guns in the sultan’s armory. These weapons spanned three centuries and were mostly flintlocks and the above large bore matchlocks although there was one intricately engraved bolt-action rifle.

It’s hard to imagine that generations upon generations of sultans lived, caroused, indulged, and died here. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by the smells and sounds of a council in the Hall of the Divan, or during the ceremonial payment of the Janissaries. Well, this proved impossible to envisage, since the grounds were flooded with hordes of Japanese and Spanish tourists. Oh well, as loud as they were, at least they were too sawed-off to obstruct my view of anything.

I tried to visit Hagia Sophia as well, but the line was too long (Spaniards and Japanese again, plus Germans and Americans from cruise ships). I did take one snap of the outside though (yeah, I’m loving my new camera / phone).

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All in all, a great place, and I would go back to see everything I missed. Oh, I also ate my weight in kebab. It should come as no surprise that there are about 15 kinds of kebab, including the skewered shish kebab we all know, döner (of course), and then things like adana kebab. I ate them all in one sitting to the shock and mortification of my genteel colleagues. (The Turks loved me though. And apart from a nasty pickled turnip juice they made me drink, I loved them too.)

Also interesting to note that Istanbul is full of women. HOT women. Hot women with long hair, sunglasses, and wearing belly shirts, tight denim, and do-me boots. (Sorry, no photos.) A lot of them apparently natural blondes, too. It’s strange, since in Germany and certainly Amsterdam, you see a lot of “Turkish” Turks – head covering, long coats covering huge fat stores for the Winter, big bushy moustaches (men and women), conservative religious views, plans to blow up Ramstein AFB , etc. – yet in Istanbul, they try so damned hard to be Western. Go figure. Of course, when you leave the (secular, rational, educated, economically and culturally buzzing) big cities in Turkey, you apparently only see the same conservative, religious, tradition-bound, rural types (kind of like George W. Bush’s America). I guess they’re the ones you see in Europe, since there’s little work in the mountains of Anatolia.

This brings me back to my original dilemma of these hot chicks in Istanbul – the same dilemma I experienced on my many adventures in Eastern Europe. These gorgeous gals are walking on the same streets as these 250 lb, waddling Turkish gorgons in head coverings. Are the gorgons now gorgons because life in the mountains was so hard for them, or are the Turkish babes by some cruel twist of fategenetically pre-disposed to one day have the shite beaten out of them by the ugly stick? If you married a gorgeous Turkish woman, will you some day suddenly wake up next to a bearded gorgon in a babushka? Oh well, guess I’ll never know …

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Filed under Asia, Cuisine, Europe, Germany, immigration, islam, Istanbul, Mediterranean, Netherlands, New Jersey, sultan, taxi, Travel, Turkey, Uncategorized, women

I Have Become What I Despise – The Misanthrope Does a Package Tour, Part I

I must start by confessing that I already did a package tour once before (strictly for investigative purposes – okay, I had a Germanic girlfriend then who knew nothing else … and I was a broke student), which makes it that much worse that I voluntarily did a package tour again.

It was as bad as I imagined: planeloads of self-centered families with screaming children travelling three hours by plane to a foreign country only to remain within 200 yards of the buffet table and the swimming pool.  A European package tour for most families means being transported like cattle, waiting in one line after another to finally arrive at a hotel which is nothing short of self-imposed apartheid.  The typical package tour hotel is usually miles away from the rest of the country – normally behind high walls and barbed wire (not the case in Malta, of course); the infrastructure of said hotel will already detiorating rapidly, even though it was only constructed four years ago.  Most European families do it because it’s self-contained with buffet lunches, shows for the kids, and a crappy strip of beach (if you’re lucky).  Sounds great, yes?  Of course not, but it’s cheeep, and the weather is better than whatever Northern European hell-hole they’re coming from anyway.

So why did I do it a second time?  Sheer laziness.  Even though I don’t have kids, the weather has indeed been lousy, work has particularly sucked, and I only wanted to lie on a beach and recharge.  Without thinking too hard about it, my girlfriend and I booked four days in Malta.   I’m ashamed to say I went against nearly every travelling principal I stand for when I undertook this four-day weekend:

1.) I didn’t have a clue where the hotel was in relation to anything else on the island. (Who cares? They were transporting me there and back to the airport, which means I don’t have to think/worry about it!)

2.) I knew f*ck-all about Maltese history apart from what vaguely remembered about their role in World War II – the entire island received a medal for valor from the King of England due to the prolonged bombing the island suffered at the hands of the Axis. (Who cares? I was just going for some beach time to relax…)

3.) I knew f*ck-all about the Maltese people apart from three people I’ve met – one who is technically Maltese, but actually grew up in London. (He only uses the “I come from Malta” line when picking up women.) The other two Maltese I know are his cousin and his cousin’s wife. Based on meeting them twice, I guessed the Maltese were pretty much second-hand Sicilians. (Who cares? I won’t be leaving the hotel, right?)

4.) I knew zilch about what to see in Malta. I didn’t even buy a guide book beforehand! (So what? There’s a tour guide at every package tour hotel – usually a girl between 20 -24 years of age – who can explain everything I need to know.)

I kept telling myself “don’t worry, you’re just going there for some sun and relaxation, that’s it. You’ll probably never even leave the hotel.”

Boy, was I wrong.

First of all – the hotel was really in the middle of nowhere (and I knew in my gut this would be the case).  We arrived in the middle of the night, so my only clue that we were in the middle of nowhere was that it took 45 minutes to get there from the airport.  Malta is in most places bare rock.  It was only the next morning when I looked out the window and saw only craggy rock punctuated by skinny scrub brush, and decrepit, sunbleached stone walls that I realized we truly were in BFE.

Second – the hotel sucked.  I mean really sucked.  This was supposed to be a four star Barceló chain beauty.  Either the star rating system is slipping, or “four stars” in the Med nowadays means “giant cockroaches and ant infestations”, “powdered eggs in the breakfast buffet”, and “week-old wharf scrapings for dinner”.  Oh, and did I mention the hotel was overrun with middle-age Germans and Dutchies?  The repercussions of this might not be apparant to you now, but they will be soon.

Third – the Maltese still have their own currency!  Can you believe it?  How can a nation of 400,000 people have their own currency and how can it have any reasonable degree of stability when it’s not backed by oil?  What’s up with that?  I assumed that when they joined the EU, that the currency thing came with it, but I was wrong – this won’t happen until 2008.  In the meantime, they are content to continue using their own ya-ya beans, which they call a “pound”, but is actually written as “LM” (go figure). These “pounds” look just like you’d expect the money for a nation of 400,000 people to look like: pretty colors with all sorts of gibberish written on them and coins featuring fish and sailboats and the like (usually more prevalent with worthless Eastern Europen currencies, but I digress). Here’s the catch: A Maltese Pound is worth more than a dollar or a euro – a lot more.

Finally – Malta is actually a beautiful place, with an unique civilization pre-dating the Great Pyramids of Egypt by 1,000 years.  None of which I was aware of before I got there.

What a tool I was.

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Filed under Cuisine, Europe, Germany, Italy, Malta, Mediterranean, Netherlands, Package Tours, Travel, World War II

Why Italian Food in Europe (Outside of Italy) Really Sucks

Italian food, when served anywhere outside of Italy (and sometimes even in Italy) generally sucks. And here’s why.

As a native of New York City, I’m particular about my Italian food – not that I could tell the difference between “Northern” and “Southern” Italian cuisine as a kid – but because the Italian food I grew up with was delicious and filling, and can’t really be matched outside of New York.

Oh, and New York pizza dough is the best in the world. Period. (Hint: It’s the water.)

Despite the title of this post, Italian food in America also admittedly sucks the moment you’re away from an Italian neighborhood. Nobody really knows what Italian food is, so most people are happy being served dough soaked with Ragu or ketchup (so as long as there’s garlic sticks!). My first time eating pizza in the American South was a shock: square slices of dough with ketchup and Polly-O string cheese on it.

So why does Italian food in Europe (outside of Italy) generally suck? It’s Europe, right?

European Italian food is just bad. In fact, European pizza anywhere outside of Italy is only marginally better than the squares of dough mentioned above. It’s generally sucks for the same reason they serve square dough in Missouri and call it “pizza”. I guess there’s an added disappointment since we tend to put European cuisine because it’s Europe.

The Average Joe across the European continent gets his pizza from a family-owned take-out place. (And not from an Italian family either.) Usually the “Italian” menu will be alongside the ethnic food of the respective take-out owners (Chinese, Indonesian, Turkish, or whatever). In general, their “Italian food” is only good if you’re drunk, hung over, or starving. The Italian menu at any of these places normally goes as follows:

Pizza Margherita – a plain, 10-14″ diameter, thin crust pie

Pizza Salami – with salty, thin slices of salami

Pizza Quattro Formaggi – with four styles of really salty cheese

Pizza Funghi (or al Funghi) – with bits of mushrooms

Pizza Hawaii – bits of really salty ham and chunks of canned pineapple

Pizza Diavolo (or possibly Pizza Peperoni) – with bits of pepper that are supposed to be spicy (but never are)

Pizza Vegetarisch/Végétarienne/etc. – self-explanatory (name changes depending on which country the take-out place is located)

Generally, the further West you go (into France) the more oily these pizzas get, and the further East you go (Czech, Slovakia, etc.), the more likely you’ll encounter peas, corn, and carrot cubes on the soggy slice of Scheisse the indifferent staff tosses at you.

To give you an idea about how bad the crust can be, when I lived in Munich, Germany, all these take-out joints had giant sacks of “just add water” pizza dough mix, all delivered by the same delivery truck. With the exception of two (possibly three) restaurants, every single place in Munich used this same instant foot powder.

So having dared eat Italian food four times in Europe in the past 14 months, I can say two of them were consistent with my above description: a late night drunken pizza run in Clapham Junction just south of London and an ill-advised stop for Pizza “mit allem” near Düsseldorf, Germany. But, the other two were really very good – and both of them were in The Netherlands.

Now, most Italian food in the Netherlands normally fits right in with the above menu selection. (What’s worse, the “Chinese” food in the Netherlands is more awful – usually bland bami noodles with Ketchup or possibly rice with sweet soy sauce – if you’re lucky).

Dokkum, Friesland – Paisan on Board

I was up in Friesland for a weekend last Summer with my girlfriend and some friends taking part in some ridiculous Frisian past-time called waddenlopen. Now, Friesland is a very independent place, and the Frisians are the butt of a lot of jokes in the Netherlands (almost as much as the Belgians) – perhaps rightfully so. The first time I saw a bunch of Frisian farmers in the wild, I thought they were the cast of a gay porn movie: they all wore skin-tight jeans, blow dried mullets, and the worst porno balconies you’ve ever seen.

But that’s “masculine” in Friesland, apparently.

A further indication of Frisian wackiness is waddenlopen, a sport which involves hiking knee-deep through the muck of North Sea tidal flats. This is supposed to be fun. While it was interesting at times, cutting your feet up on broken mussel shells does not fit my traditional definition of “fun”. (We were promised that we would see seals, and I might have seen one, although it simply might have been a huge whale turd.)

The villages in Friesland are very charming, and Dokkum was among the most charming. When looking for a place to eat, we found a small Italian place in the village center. I didn’t want to go in at first, but it was the only place with unreserved seats on a Saturday night.

The menu was actually pretty promising, and more telling, they didn’t bat an eye when we ordered pizzas and pasta as appetizers, and meat and fish as main courses. A buddy in our group was half-Italian, and we nodded to each other in agreement as we tried the pizzas (not too salty, and decent crust), the pasta (nice red sauce, clearly home-made, and the veal (simply delicious). He declared outright “this is the best Italian meal I’ve had in the Netherlands, no in Europe outside of Italy”.

“Not that it’s up against any stiff competition,” I quipped.

“Seriously,” he replied. “I bet there’s a paisan working back there. I’d guarantee it.”

Sure enough, we looked past the bar to the kitchen just as the doors swung open. For a fraction of a second, we saw the portly, dusky fellow with a bushy black mustache so huge you could hide in it. When the 5’11” blonde waitress came back, we asked her if the chef was Italian. She nodded happily, yes, her dad was Italian.

Her dad?

Yes, she nodded again happily. Her Mom, the hostess came out. She was easily 6’2″, with that even, brown sunbed tan and subsequent dried-out skin typical of many middle-aged Dutch women. Her hostess attire was capped off with pink lip gloss and the perennial bottle-blond locks piled up on top of her giant noggin.

After we finished dinner, her hubby the chef came out to receive our kudos – he was a full foot-and-a-half shorter than his ball-and-chain. The story was one I’d heard a gazillion times before:

Northern European girl goes to Mediterranean with family on vacation, and has Summer romance with smooth talking, sawed-off local boy. The story usually ends when the girl suffers heart break after her Summer crush chooses for his local sweetheart with the ample hips and a mustache of her own. This guy chose otherwise, and hit the lottery by banishing himself to the backwater of Friesland to run a real Italian restaurant.

And they lived happily every after.

Amsterdam – Get Your Black On

The place was called Mappa. Mappa is right across the street (alley, whatever) from the Nes Theater where last week we went to see Lewis Black.

Now, I did not have high expectations of this place. It was definitely “trendy”: any man over 35 was shaved bald and wore funky eyeglasses, or had long hair (thick with gel) and had girlfriend half his age.

And there were loads of people dressed in black. Loads of them.

We took my girlfriend’s parents there. Her folks were all set to order a pizza, so imagine their surprise when there was not one pizza on the menu. They were so disoriented, I almost felt bad for them. Forced to expand their horizons, they took the chef’s special, which included decent cuts of beef cooked rare and juicy, served with grilled white asparagus and roasted potatoes garnished with fried garlic and other herbs. My girlfriend had outstanding veggie lasagna, and I had pasta shells stuffed with scampi and garlic.

In a word: awesome. I’ll never be able to beat that in Amsterdam unless I order a pizza al funghi speziali at a coffee shop.

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