I came to Utrecht from Munich because the weather in Germany was niet goed. Conversely, the weather in the Netherlands has been positively divine. For the first week it felt like the end of summer. Then it was Fall and it rained a day and then it felt like Indian Summer.
Fortunately, I have a dear friend living in Utrecht who agreed to put me up. Every day I would ask her: “Would you be sad if I left tomorrow?”
Every day she would tell me “Yes.”
But after a couple of weeks, I made plans to visit another dear friend in Bremen.
So I’m leaving Utrecht.
Here’s what I learned.
Art and Design (In het nederlands: “Kunst en Ontwerp”)
Ask anyone in Utrecht about important designers from Utrecht and Gerrit Rietveld will come up in short order.
Rietveld is Utrecht’s most famous designer. He was born here. He lived here most of his life. And he died here.
Rietveld was a principle contributor to the De Stijl (Dutch for The Style). De Stijl was an artistic movement among architects and artists from 1917 to 1931. It was principally characterized by an idea that I’m fascinated with: abstraction. In de stijl, color and form is reduced and abstracted to simple horizontal and vertical lines with primary colors.
You’ll probably recognize one of these Piet Mondrians:
The Rietveld-Schröderhuis, located near where I’ve been staying in Utrecht, is the architectural embodiment of De Stijl.
I visited the house multiple times but never got a good picture. It’s a shame because it’s interesting work (even if I, personally, am not a fan).
The Centraal Museum, across the street from where I’m sitting, first did an exhibition on Rietveld’s work in 1958.
From outside of Utrecht came a number of well known Dutch artists: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer (my personal favorite), and the aforementioned Mondrian.
More recently. I was struck by Alex ten Napel’s work hanging currently in Utrecht’s Foto Galerie. The collection, called Portraits of Hens and Roosters is a stunning set of prints. Each depicts a hen or rooster in a studio. Apparently Napel spent a year preparing for the shoot. Here’s one of my favorite’s from his website.
Wandering the quaint architectural splendor that is Utrecht is a joy.
Everything is constructed to a scale that coincides perfectly with a pleasurable human existence. Cobblestones, trees, and shops nestle intimately with glistening canals. The fractal quality is immensely satisfying.
There are stunning architectural elements everywhere. Gothic and neo-renaissance spaces bump against modernist work.
The Dom Toren
The most important landmark in the city is the Dom Toren:
I was lucky to be in Utrecht while the Centraal Museum ran it’s exhibition on the Dom. I learned about the history of the 700 year-old tower.
The tower was built from 1320-1382 and then renovated multiple times over the next several centuries. Initially the tower was commissioned because some clergymen wanted to display their power and wealth in competition with some other clergymen in what must have been the era’s biggest dick-measuring contest.
Here are some plaques from the Centraal Museum’s Dom Exhibit:
The Netherlands Film Festival
The Netherlands Film Festival is taking place right now so I went to see a movie called The Red Turtle. It was an animated film about a man stranded on a deserted island. He attempts many escapes but is thwarted by a magical red turtle. He manages to kill the magnificent creature but regrets it almost immediately. Eventually he is redeemed.
It was a touching and beautifully imagined film. There is no dialogue, and the themes are universal. The team that made it was Dutch, British, French, Belgian, and Japanese which is a remarkably modern collaboration.
Last night, a friend of mine who works in the arts scene took me to the Utrecht Post Office. It is a grand old building that no longer functions as a post office (there are no post offices in the Netherlands) but serves the community as an event space.
We watched a number of short film pitches. They were not as impressive as the building.
Life in Utrecht
Everybody rides bikes on narrow cobblestone roads that overlook canals. When you order a koffie, they serve it to you with a cookie or small sweet thing. If a place is cozy and pleasant and nice it is gezelligheid.
You get coffee in cafès. You smoke weed in a coffeeshop.
Did I mention they always give you a cookie with your cappuccino?
I’ve consumed a ton of terrible calories the last ten days.
Actually, I’ve been experiencing a renaissance of the carb. It all started last month when I made cinnamon rolls in Boston with my friend Katie.
The experience was practically spiritual. Ever since I’ve been eating carbs like diabetes didn’t run in my family.
Check out these sweet buns:
Ever since then, I’ve had carbs on my brain:
You can get a raw haring with onion and pickles for a euro. I wish they had these in the U.S. I wish they had more of them in the Netherlands!
Fish are a super healthy and delicious snack.
In Dutch, “g” is pronounced with a throaty and guttural drawl. There is a rolling “r” that native-english speakers might try with their tongue only to be laughed at because it comes from the top of the throat.
In all, I speak 100x more Dutch then I did before I arrive. My conversations are mostly limited to:
Hallo! Hoe gaat het? (Hello how’s it going?)
Is goed, dankjewel. (It’s good, thank you.)
Ik wil graag een cappuccino. (I’ll have one cappuccino please.)
Waar is de wc? (Where is the bathroom?)
I was told by a local to tip 10% on meals. I do more than that at my regular places because I want those people to really like me. Plus I occasionally sit in certain establishments for hours at a time. Getting work done and whatnot.
Cafe de Zaak
Cafe de Zaak is this awesome pub in downtown Utrecht where you can play boardgames, get a haircut, or enjoy a huge patio overlooking a downtown cobblestoned square with many locals. Bring your own food.
BlackBird Vintage Cafe
It’s the first day that feels like Fall. Sitting in the BlackBird cafe, I look out at the Oudgracht and watch voetgangers and cyclists going by. A younger tree is already going gold.
Last night I met an actress at a Belgian pub. She had golden hair and admitted to being frightened at everything as a child.
I’m having my nth cappucino this week. They are so good here. The cafe itself is brightly decorated and lit like a sepia photograph of a green room.
The table I’m sitting at is for sale. 150 euros. There’s a half pint of raw sugar in a jar in front of me and a menu that looks like this today:
This cafè means a lot to me. I spent more time at this establishment than any other single place while in the Netherlands.
When the Dutch say something is gezelligheid, I think of Blackbird Cafe.