Noord Holland Part III: Haarlem

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.

Jawaharlal Nehru

With the first day under my belt, I woke up to a headache, strange smells, and WHAT THE FUCK IS ON MY ARM?! I knew that Couchsurfing wasn't going to be glamorous, but one thing I will not tolerate is bug bites. I immediately grabbed my pocket mirror and inspect myself.  This is just great! Before I make any more assumptions, I inspect the bedding. I feel nasty, and I ran to the communal showers with my shower kit in tow at lightning speed. While in the shower, I thought of ways to get rid of the visible marks on my arm, which look like needle tracks.  FYI:  Pack a small first-aid kit.  I have one in my car about 5,541 miles west.

Upon my return, the sound of the espresso machine indicated new adventures brewing while Jay was on the phone mumbling in Dutch and getting ready to head out for the day.

“Where are you going today?”

Haarlem.  Thanks to Rick Steves, during a late-night PBS binge-watching session, I came across the Netherlands episode, which included Haarlem.  What stuck with me was eating pickled herring and how it would be foolish not to rent a bike for the day. Mental notes.  The way he described Haarlem was that it was where you went for more of a small-town feel, to get away from the bustle of Amsterdam, and where tourists rarely visit. That's all I needed. This was also exciting as I was going to take the train to another city.  Unlike Potsdam, this was planned.  I knew I wanted to go to Haarlem when I was getting my Netherlands itinerary together back in the States.  And I wanted to prove to my friends that pickled herring was tasty.

Amsterdam Centraal Station ALLEZ ELIZABETH
Amsterdam Centraal Station

Amsterdam Centraal Station

Centraal Station is like a city within a city.  People run frantically to train platforms, grab a broodje or food from the wall-o-mystery meats, or play the piano strategically placed in front of the ticket vending machines in the main square.  For 20 minutes, I didn't know what to do with myself. I just watched people going about their business, then I realized I better get going. I had forgotten what type of privileges this Amsterdam transit card had, so rather than risk being thrown into the can in the Netherlands; I went to the information booth.  Novel concept.

The man behind the counter directed me back to the ticket vending machines behind the grand piano.  As I make my way there, I am given a pack of Mentos by some young kid promoting the product. Thanks. Realizing that these are identical to the machines at Schiphol, my anxiety levels kick in, but before I have a full-blown attack, I tell myself that there's no way some bitch ass machine will win. I opt for the second class and make my way to the platforms. Walking through the station, I am lured by various food smells, each pulling me in a different direction. I end up at De Broodzaak, not quite a 7-11 or a Starbucks, although better than both combined. It's cafeteria-style with plenty of pre-packaged sandwiches, salads, fruit cups, juices, and coffee.  You can see the line cooks hard at work putting all of these things together, flying off the shelves as quickly as they are placed there.  I grabbed the most familiar sandwich, ham and cheese with hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes on a thin roll.  Making my way to the checkout counter, I'm stopped abruptly by the assortment of colorful juices in the cold case.  I ended up with a raspberry smoothie juice and a small latte.

“Sir, this doesn't look nothing like the picture.”

A woman angrily shoves her iced blended drink into the cashier's face, demanding an explanation, while the cashier ignores her and continues making espresso drinks. It appears that the cup was not full. From afar, I could see at least 2 oz of product missing.  When I picked up my latte, I came to the realization that this was not a fluke.

Dank u wel.

Amsterdam Centraal Station to Haarlem - The first platform. A woman doesn't take too kindly to being part of my photograph.
The first platform. A woman doesn't take too kindly to being part of my photograph.

The Wild World of Dutch Train Platforms

With my bags in tow, I arrive at the first platform. Let me explain. I didn't leave the depot until 1:30.  My first train left me, that is, I made the mistake (again) of only reading the final destination of the train and not the multiple stops in between; therefore, I had to wait for the next train which ended up being delayed by 15 minutes.  When it finally arrived, a nice Dutchman, tall as a California redwood, advised me to get on the train after explaining why I couldn't understand the Dutch rail system.

“Don't worry about it.  It isn't you, it's just how it is.”

We sat in the car for approximately 10 minutes, conversing.  He was on his way to The Hague for a doctor's appointment.  I will never know why he felt the need to tell me that.  He got comfortable quickly with me and would flash his smile like one of those greaseball salesmen at a used car lot; yet, I never got a bad vibe from the fellow. The Dutch love to smile, I've learned. Suddenly, inaudible Dutch was heard over the loudspeaker.  I squinted my eyes as hard as possible as if I could understand anything being said.

“We have to get off.”

It took me a few seconds to process what he had just said.

“They are splitting the car into two, and they are going to different destinations.  Unless you are feeling adventurous today, we have to get off.”

Damn it! I was just getting acclimated to my seat. Leaving my perfectly made butt groove in the cushion, I grab my bags and get off the train.  He follows me and says, “Don't worry, I'll make sure you get on the right train.” What a sweetheart, I thought, and again, I don't think anything of it; he's just being nice. People can still be nice without expecting [insert squeaking noise here] in return, right? Another announcement is made over the loudspeaker, and he turns to me and laughs.

“We have to go to another platform now.”

He grabs me by the hand and begins to run while my feet become blurred behind me like Sonic the Hedgehog. What's the deal? I'm confident I can read signs and numbers, but he isn't convinced and feels the need to rescue a damsel who is not in distress. At the end of our marathon, we are not facing the first platform as another train steamrolls through without stopping. My sense of direction is thrown off; perhaps he could sense that I was beginning to worry. Small talk turns into banter about the Netherlands and how the Germans are crazy.  His words, not mine. I'm trying not to stare at him like some creeper, but I couldn't help but look at his apparel and shoes.  He was so well put together; he looked like he had just walked off a Ralph Lauren magazine spread.  You couldn't see one blemish on his leather shoes or not so much as to wrinkle on his shirt.  Don't get me wrong, I've already seen the Dutch this posh (except for Jay), but not many this up close.  I know it sounds weird, but in all seriousness, it was fresh of breath air and quite easy on the eyes.

He keeps talking, and I am trampling over my words, running out of things to say, when I see a train pulling into the station.

“This is it.”

We go through the same motions in a moment of déjà vu.  I'm looking for a place to sit, but he asks nicely to keep him company, so I choose a catty-corner seat to his.

“I promise I won't bite.”

As the cabin begins to fill up, the excitement written all over my face is a persuasive guise considering I'm also trying to control the anxiety that keeps trying to rain on my parade.  About 15 minutes go by, and the entire train car looks at each other.  We are not moving AT ALL. No announcements over the loudspeaker nor staff members instructing us to change trains. He waits another 5 minutes before becoming frustrated and needs to hop off the train to find a station agent. With disbelief, he looks at me and says, “Nobody can find the conductor.”

“What do you mean nobody can find the conductor?!”

Now I'm wondering if I'll ever make it to Haarlem.  He already succumbs to the fact that he'll have to reschedule the appointment, so he will enjoy a day in The Hague instead. Ten minutes pass, and a fast-talking Dutchman is heard over the loudspeaker.  I don't bother trying to figure it out; I have a translator until the end of the train ride. The train starts to move slowly, and he shakes his head.

“He was using the toilet.”

“For a half hour?! Well, at least he apologized.”

“That wasn't an apology.”

Forget it. I won't ask, although he assured me this was out of the ordinary.

It would have been a 25-minute train excursion from Centraal Station Amsterdam to Haarlem, instead, this trip was closer to an hour and a half with all of the Mickey Mouse shenanigans. All was forgiven when I began to see glimpses of windmills.

Haarlem Station Under construction.  I hope they leave this part of it alone.
Under construction.  I hope they leave this part of it alone.
Haarlem Perfect for a picnic. Perfect to sit and be still with your thoughts. Simply, perfect.
Perfect for a picnic. Perfect to sit and be still with your thoughts. Simply perfect.

Renting a Bike

Leaving the station, the first smell you will encounter is cigarette smoke. Frankly, this could be said about anywhere in the Netherlands. Still, the large square/bus depot was quaint, and the little that I could see from Haarlem Centraal led me to believe that I had either made a grave mistake or something was waiting to be discovered.  It was humid, so I decided to walk north towards the canal. Fifteen minutes into it, I turned around back to the train station and rented a bike.  There was no way I was going to cover Haarlem on foot. Not the way I wanted to, anyway.  The bike shop owner was not in the mood to answer questions and handed me a rental form and a pen.

“50€. Deposit. You pay for the day when you return the bike.”

I took advantage of riding for approximately 6 hours straight. Once I got rid of the “haven't ridden a bike since I was a teenager” jitters, my Pegasus took me places. After leaving the station, I headed back toward the park. I followed a group that didn't have a set destination either at one point ending up near a freeway entrance where it was either trespassing onto someone's property or pedaling. I rode next to horses, running children and mopeds through marshlands and parks and nearly getting hit by cars and other cyclists; I covered an area that would have been impossible by foot. The more intimate details of this portion of the trip are mine to keep. I can say that it felt euphoric being in a place where people were living, not just breathing. Sitting on a bench overlooking sidewalks lined with antique shops and people-watching while enjoying a sandwich, letting the sun and air just hit your face wasn't seen as abnormal. Like anything else in nature, I learned to slow down and exist. I think I found my future house.

My legs started to give out, and I knew it was time to head back.  This saddened me because one day, correction 8 hours were not enough.  Two days would not have been either. Haarlem is best explored over a week. In my case, I fell in love with Haarlem almost immediately, and I was looking for Te koop signs already.

Haarlem The shop owner insisted on taking my picture.  Die kos het lekker gesmaak.
The shop owner insisted on taking my picture.  Die kos het lekker gesmaak.

Get the pickled herring!

I did not want to leave.  I did not want this feeling to end.  I had a hard time returning the bike to the shop, much so that I kept turning around and exploring some more. By the third time, I worked up an appetite and found the little pickled herring stand I traveled across the world for. The entire menu was in Dutch I had no chance of eating unless I started to point and rub my stomach. When it became apparent that I couldn't speak Dutch, one of the owners took my order in perfect English. He was surprised to hear that I came to Haarlem just for pickled herring.  I asked him if he was a local.  He mentioned that he was born in Hoorn, a place on my itinerary, which he shot down.

“That place is horrible! I should know, I was born there.  You should go to Zaanse Schans instead.  Here let me write it down.”

His female counterpart grabs a cold can of Coke for me. The plating is simple. Herring is diced into squares and served on a paper plate with onions looking patriotic as it donned a Dutch flag. Diced herring is Amsterdam style, and eating it whole like a penguin is Haarlem style. The shopkeeper, eager to catch my reaction, asks to take my photo. As usual, my eyelids have a hard time staying open. By the 10th time, we have a great couple of shots. I'm starving, but I make sure to enjoy each bite. In theory, I should have been scraping my tongue; however, the flavors were mild, and the herring tasted clean. Probably one of the best street foods I've had yet.

I thank them for their time, food, and conversation, notifying them that they will be with my husband the next time they see me. Rather than hop on and return the bike, I decide to sit on yet another bench being grateful for the dining experience. The houseboat residents a few feet away greet me with smiling faces and a “Hallo,” which only adds to my indecisiveness. My time is coming to an end, but I refuse to leave.

HAARLEM - Bike, the Spaarne, and Windmill De Adriaan.  Can this picture be more Dutch?!
Bike, the Spaarne, and Windmill De Adriaan.  Can this picture be more Dutch?!

So Charming and Hard to Leave Behind

Determined to give it one last hurrah, I get back on the bike and pedal west, following the Spaarne. I see the rest of the town light up and become more city-like with each block. Restaurants and bistros were bringing out tables and chairs for their dinner service; therefore, I had to adjust my route.  Realizing that I was risking immobilization for days, I gave up going further and took the last hour to sit and enjoy the waterfront.  A couple emerged from one of the houseboats, flashed a smile, and continued their business.  They were an older couple too, but their energy felt youthful.  She donned a caftan and happily skipped to the deck, where dinner and lots of champagne await. To avoid disturbing the ambiance, I moved a few benches over and watched the day sun wither away, completely in awe of my time and space in Haarlem.

Haarlem Centrum along the Spaarne River.
Haarlem Centrum along the Spaarne River.

On my way back to the train station, I'm taking mental notes and convincing myself that Haarlem would be the place I'd call home should I ever purchase a home in the Netherlands. Like Potsdam to Berlin, it was close enough to the city where I could go for a night out of town, and safely retreat to a quiet oasis. I almost forget that this bike is just a rental, and I don't have a lock, so I should take it back to the shop. The same surly bike shop man, now chipper, greets me and hands me my deposit.  I ask him if he also sells bikes.


Short. Sweet. To the point. Tired of trying to appease this fellow, I smile and leave his shop while I'm on my phone trying to figure out how to get a Dutch bike back to the States and how to cure these bites on my arm. Perhaps, it's time to throw in the towel and find an Airbnb rental.

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