TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
HOLLAND, A FINE PLACE.
The gentle chime of church bells, just beyond my window, awaken me sometime after dawn. It is Sunday morning in this, my city of Utrecht. I roll over and pull back the curtains, a faint summer sun pushing in. I open the window to let in morning air. Tilting the window open, I hear more bells – this time a bicycle – down on the street outside my building. I look down to see a father on his bicycle, reaching over to steady his young son who must have learned to ride very recently. He chirps words of encouragement to his boy and places his hand firmly on the kid’s shoulder as they press on down the street.
Dominique wakes up next to me, her eyes sleepy delicious. She awakes rested and smiling, always the deep sleeper. It’s one of her most endearing traits. Arching her back and stretching into this fine morning, she asks me, her voice soft, “hoe laat is het, liefje?”
We get up to brush our teeth and crawl back in bed to be with each other, in that very finest of ways, before easing into the day. Entwined in the afterglow, content and relaxed, I speak first. “It’s time for coffee”.
Luckily, there’s a great little coffee joint down on the corner. I throw on some jeans and my Red Sox cap and bound down four flights of stairs to the street. Pushing the heavy front door open, I head towards the coffee place and some much needed caffeine. Stepping inside, I pass two women sitting sipping cappuccinos. I walk to the counter where the amptly bearded Turkish proprietor coaxes the milk atop a freshly ground cappuccino into a large heart. I order two large caramel macchiatos, two small bottles of freshly squeezed orange juice and sit down to wait.
While I’m grabbing coffee, Dominique hops on her bike and shoots off to the bakery. Fresh bread. Maybe some croissants, or pain du chocolat. She insists that bread must be fresh. If bread is more than 24 hours old it is worthy only of toasting. If it’s older than that, it goes to the ducks in the park or, sadly, to the trash can. But if Dominique has her way, and when it comes to bread she most surely will, it’s not going into our mouths. According to sweet Dominique, life is just too short for day old bread. I love that about her.
Coffee and baked goodies in hand, we meet back at my place, my apartment instantly filling with the smell of freshly baked bread. The weather nice, we open the double doors to my little balcony overlooking the city and take our coffee, juice, and croissants outside to eat. Utrecht is slowly waking up. Up here on the fourth floor, we get to watch the city rise. A woman across the street has come out on her balcony to hang some laundry. A man directly across from us, his apartment also on the fourth floor of a separate building, is tidying the furniture on his own balcony. He hurriedly grabs seat cushions and deposits them in a weather proof storage box. The man is always tidying his balcony. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen him do. As you can imagine, his balcony is spotless, most surely an expression of his chronic OCD.
We sip our coffee and nibble on the bread. We don’t say much, mercifully comfortable in our silence. We let the sun warm us and enjoy the peace. The rest of the day will bring friends and festivities, but morning coffee and breakfast is a quiet moment and we take our time.
Dishes in the dishwasher, showered and shaved, we head outside for a morning walk. Heading a few blocks west from my place, we cross the canal into the city’s ancient center. We take the Predikherenkerkhof, a tony street flanked on both sides by handsome town houses. This warm day has brought the world to its feet and we are passed by families on bikes, old men walking their dogs, students in small groups and lovers strolling hand in hand. At Utrecht’s famous Neude Square, we find a table under a large oak tree and order one last espresso, stopping more for the prime spot than the coffee. It is a gorgeous spot, our table protected from the sun by the tree’s flowing branches, but we’ll stay only long enough to throw the coffee back and pay our bill. Walking away from the square, passing several cafes, a gourmet burger joint, and a Greek restaurant, the street narrows to the size of an alley – Vinkenburgstraat. This little street is unique though, as it is home to a bit of movie star fame. Utrecht is home to the Netherlands Film Festival, a cultural event held in September and October of every year. By hosting this prestigious festival, the city of Utrecht has forever linked itself to the Dutch film industry. On the charming Vinkenburgstraat, award winning actors mark their immortality by putting their hands into squares of cement on the street. Reminiscent of Hollywood’s walk of fame, the Vinkenburgstraat’s splash of movie history stops tourists and townies alike who bend down to read the names in cement. At the street’s end, we run into the city’s pearl, Oudegracht – The Old Canal.
Completed in 1275, the Old Canal was, and in many ways still is, Utrecht’s commercial heartbeat. Boats from everywhere, carrying a variety of goods, would float into the city center and deposit the goods in the typical warehouses located at water level. For centuries, the Old Canal has done plenty of business, making the city quite prosperous for its day. In modern times, the Old Canal has been transformed into the city’s most vibrant retail area, with a large number of shops located up at street level. The vast majority of the original warehouses have been transformed into restaurants, cafes, and various businesses.
Today, strolling along the Old Canal, the weather dry and warm, the outdoor cafes and restaurants fill up quickly, a nice table in the sun a valuable commodity. Big, leafy trees line both sides of the canal adding vibrant splashes of green to the area. We take the stairs from the street down to the waterline, just to watch the boats drift by. Tourists in paddle boats struggle to propel forward while locals whizz by in engine powered vessels. The restaurants are so full by now that revellers eat and drink just inches from their chairs toppling over into the canal. It’s all very nice.
We stroll down the canal, eventually taking the stairs back up to the street. Walking along, flanked by the gabled 17th Century building on both sides of the canal, I feel little pulses of excitement rise within me. I am here, in Europe, walking this beautiful canal with this beautiful lady, and this place is my home! Sometimes my good fortune in this random life startles me, but I do my best to accept the ridiculous amount of luck I forever seem to have had.
Nearing the end of the Old Canal, we reach one of my favorite streets in the town, the Twijnstraat. After my divorce I lived a stone’s throw from here and I grew to love it dearly. What is its charm, this quaint street? First, the restaurants and cafes – which are plentiful. There’s a place called Fishes on the corner that sells fresh fish and seafood. There’s a Belgian bakery that sells bread and pastries and has a nice lunch menu as well. There’s a Vietnamese joint, a French bistro, a craft beer boutique, and a gourmet cheese shop. Just to make sure things don’t get too posh, a dive bar modeled on an “American roadhouse” and a late night shoarma shack take their place on the street, just to keep the hipsters honest.
When I lived here I had my favorite stops: Cafe Ledig Erf for the best outdoor seating and strongest Belgian beer, and Cafe de Poort for good bar food, no nonsense ambiance and a nice view of the water. But my all time favorite spot on the Twijnstraat goes to a pizza place called Da Portare Via. They do the big wooden oven pizzas and I swear on the grave of my Italian Grandfather, Papa Mangini, that Portare’s pizza are the best I have ever tasted. I may be a man prone to hyperbole but, in this case, it’s genuine. Da Portare Via’s pizza chefs, none of them Italian as far as I can tell, bake the thinnest, most melt-in-your-mouth, pizza crust this side of Napoli. They’ve since expanded their operation to an even better place on Utrecht’s Voorstraat. If you are ever in town, stop at Portare Via and grab a pizza and a nice bottle of Chianti. You will not be disappointed.
We make it to the end of the street, hand in hand, and stop for a glass of prosecco at De Poort. Grabbing a table near the water, we sip our wine and watch a group of seven cyclists who’ve just finished a morning ride. They slowly unstrap their feet from the intricate pedals and stretch gingerly before sitting down for a bite and a beverage. We soak up the sun and the bubbly vino, and smile quietly while we observe people jostling to get a table in the sun. You gotta have some hustle to get a good spot in this town and we’ve been lucky this time. We finish our wine, pay the man, and scurry off.
Crossing the square, we follow a shaded sidewalk that loops around and follows a different canal back towards the center. It’s a green oasis in the middle of town, a refuge for dog owners who come here in droves to walk their pets. Thankfully, the owners respect the city’s leash laws otherwise all hell would break loose as dogs would go bonkers trying to sniff out their next mate. But today it all procedes in the most civilized of fashion and we walk briskly, slightly buzzed from the wine, and re-join the Old Canal near Utrecht’s Grand Dame, the Dom Tower.
Built so many thousands of years ago, The Dom is our Eiffel Tower, our Space Needle, our Freedom Tower. Sticking way up into the sky, tourists flock from all around and townies like me still stop and stare when the light hits her from a certain angle. She is big and beautiful and is one of those special attractions that towers above everything in her wake, while also doubling in function as a landmark to get your bearings and sense of direction. All roads lead to the Dom and one quick glance in her direction will tell you where you are and which way to go next.
Pushing through the large crowds at the Dom this morning, we make our way along the canal, turning right back onto Vinkenburgstraat, passing Neude Square, and back to my apartment. Having walked just long enough to feel it in our legs, we arrive at my place just before my sons show up to join us in watching some soccer on TV.
My boys arrive right before kick off. They come bundling in, feisty and joyous, all elbows and knees, still finding their way from puberty to young adulthood. Soccer is something we have shared since they were little. They both play the game, at the highest level for their age group, and seem to be continuing the line of good Mangene athletes. Our favorite team is FC Utrecht, the local major league franchise. It’s a blessing and a curse loving this team because to love them is to let go of ever winning the biggest prize. It’s a simple matter of economics with a smaller market team like FC Utrecht. Without the requisite dollars and cents, buying the talent necessary to win the big one is next to impossible. But we love them all the same. FC Utrecht is historically a “club of the people” meaning the core of its fanbase is local born and working class. Tickets are entirely affordable so I don’t have to take out a second mortgage to take my boys to the stadium for a match. The atmosphere in the stadium during matches is old school European with songs being sung from kick-off to final whistle. We’ve been to plenty of matches in the driving wind and rain of deep winter but it’s worth the pain. It’s a labor of love.
On this fine day though, we’re staying home to watch on TV. Utrecht is playing against Rotterdam’s biggest club, Feyenoord, which is a particularly fun rival because Dominique is from that part of the country. She cheers loudly for Feyenoord, the boys cheer even louder for Utrecht, and I am stuck somewhere in the middle. I make fresh guacamole, Dominique whips up some tasty club sandwiches, we pour ourselves tall drinks and the game is on.
The match is stellar. Both teams are in the mood to play offensive soccer. Utrecht gets on the board first, the center forward slamming a header into the top right corner of the net. Feyenoord returns the favor just minutes later to tie the game at 1-1. Both teams add another, taking the match into halftime tied at 2-2. But the second half is all Utrecht. Our guys punish the Rotterdam defense with masterful through balls, adding two more goals to bring the total to 4-2. My boys hoop and holler, rubbing salt into Dominique’s wounds and cackling their way back outside. We have a great time watching the game and my beloved sons leave happy.
The match has ended and now we’re off to a music festival on the other side of town. We’ve both taken the day off from work tomorrow so it’s no-holds-barred tonight. We text a group of friends and arrange to meet at the festival grounds in a couple of hours. The music today will be mostly EDM, but there will be enough “real bands” to keep things from getting too one sided. With the weather good, it’ll be a zoo at the festival so we decide to leave promptly to get a jump on the crowds. We like to travel light, taking only a summer jacket as well as sunglasses, keys, and money.
Having arrived at the festival, the music is top notch, the dancing sweaty, and the company divine. At midnight, when city noise ordinances force the DJs to stop, we slowly make our way outside back to our bikes. There is talk of after-parties, many of which will go on until the sun comes up, but that’s not our vibe tonight. We are headed home, to my little place in the center of town. We say our goodbyes to friends old and new, jump on our bikes, and pedal back to town, the zzzzzz of dance music still booming in our ears.
Twenty minutes later, we’re home. We lock the bikes, climb the stairs, and there’s just time enough for one last nightcap before heading to bed. Dominique carefully pours two cognacs, no ice, and accompanies them with a tall glass of San Pellegrino water, just to fend off tomorrow’s hangover. Peering over my balcony, out into the vibrant city, its frenetic energy now really heating up, we drink our way towards some well deserved sleep. Today was one for the history books.