Monday, 1 December 2014

17 Must Have Items to Survive a Dutch Winter

Today marks the official start of winter. It's time to store autumn in your memory banks and get ready for the onslaught of colder, greyer, darker days. Some winters in the Netherlands are more, well, wintry than others. Last year was a rubbish winter. Surviving last winter was something everyone could do with their eyes closed. It was a shame because there is so much to love about this time of year in the Netherlands and this year, hopefully, the weather will let us see what the Dutch are really about when winter strikes.

If you want to get the most out of winter in the Netherlands you'll need these 17 items.

1. Ice Skates - as the temperatures drop the nation collectively blows the dust off their ice skates, sharpens their blades and heads to the nearest frozen puddle, pond, canal or lake to skate. It's an amazing sight for someone who did not grow up in this winter skating culture. It's not such an amazing sight for the locals to see those of us who did not grow up wearing ice skates every winter flailing around haphazardly on the ice......

For the Dutch skating is second nature and their love of ice skating is reflected in their many Winter olympic successes. How many gold medals did the British win in ice skating at the last Winter Olympics? I rest my case. That's why I stay on the sidelines and let the Dutch get on with it, but I encourage you to give it a go.

2. Eternal Hope - where there is ice in the Netherlands there is eternal hope. As the ice grows so do the hopes of a nation that this year will be the year that the Elfstedentocht takes place. Every year hopes are dashed, dreams are shattered as the ice melts. But it doesn't hurt to hope does it?

3. Sledge - if you don't have a sledge you are never going to be considered fully integrated, unless the reason why you don't have a sledge is because you are still cycling even when it snows and the pathways are covered in a thick layer of ice. Some do. I'm pretty sure they are a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but nonetheless you do still see cyclists skidding their way to work and school on two wheels on the ice. Otherwise, you need a sledge to take your children to school.

4. Winter Coat - I almost don't need to say it, but for those of you who come to the Netherlands from sunnier climes - you need a winter coat. A big thick one. See number 5.

5. Scarves and Gloves - it's a flat country, there's nothing to stop that cold, icy wind blowing over the land. There are no hills people - the wind tears over the land like a savage beast and nothing can stop it penetrating to your very core. Except a good pair of woollen mittens and a thick, homemade knitted scarf of course.

6. Umbrella - just like during the autumn months, it rains during winter too. The difference is that the rain is slightly colder as December zips by. A storm proof umbrella is probably a better recommendation for December actually, one of those funny shaped ones that promise never to blow inside out.

7. Potato Masher - winter means stamppot season. It means dinners come mashed. Stamppot is basically mashed potatoes with some kind of vegetable mashed through it, served with a bendy sausage and gravy, or jus as the Dutch more elegantly put it.

8. Hot Chocolate - if ever there was an excuse to drink lots of hot chocolate, Dutch winter is it. Going ice skating? Then treat yourself to a hot chocolate from a festive stall around the rink. Going walking? Stop in somewhere and have a hot chocolate to warm your cockles. Christmas market? Well. the day wouldn't be complete without a mug of hot chocolate. And by hot chocolate I actually mean Chocomel of course.

9. Nerves of Steel - as I touched upon earlier (see number 3) there are some that continue to get around on two wheels even then there is a smattering of ice covering the cycle lanes. In my humble, unimportant opinion, you'd have to be bonkers to cycle on ice, but if you really want a gold integration star then go ahead. Ga je gang.

10. A Sweet Tooth - during the first week of December in the Netherlands you need a sweet tooth and a hardy stomach, and good diving and evasion skills. The first week of December is the home straight to the climax of the whole Sinterklaas gedoe which has been going on for many long weeks. There are kruidnoten, pepernoten and speculaas biscuits everywhere. And I mean everywhere. And it's not unusual to have the small round kruidnoten thrown at you by an assortment of Zwarte Pieten. (Though I have noticed this year the throwing has been minimal - has that been outlawed too?)

11. An Ability to Take Things with a Pinch of Salt - and talking of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten..... When you experience your first Sinterklaas it can be a bit of a shock for an expat. Take it for what it is. If you have children, throw yourself as enthusiastically as you can in to the story that takes on a national perspective and go with the flow. You ain't gonna change it - leave that to the locals.

Shoes, shoes everywhere, but not a pair to wear

12. Spare Shoes - and still on the topic of Sinterklaas and the Dutch traditions around him, you'll need lots and lots of spare shoes. Children can leave a shoe out at the supermarket, at school, at their sports club and of course at home. The good Sint and his helpers will then fill the shoes with a small present and lots of sweets and biscuits (see number 10).

13. A Love of Pea Soup - eating pea soup in the winter is not just obligatory, it's the law. It should be the deepest green you can imagine, have slices of sausages floating in it and be accompanied by roggebrood (that's rye bread to you and me).

14. Patience - if you use the Dutch public transport system in winter you will need oodles of patience whilst trains grind to a halt because the wrong kind of snow lays on the tracks. Or the wrong kind of ice. Or just ice. Or snow. Of any type really. Just be patient. Or give up waiting for a train/tram/bus and head home to collect a bike/sldege/ice skates (see items 1, 3 and 9).

15. Transport to Germany - winter means crossing the border to visit the German Christmas markets. There are some in the Netherlands too, but if you want authentic then head to our neighbour who really knows how to 'do' Christmas markets.

16. A Supply of Gluhwein - Gluhwein tries its best to outdo it's hot chocolate colleague during the winter months and can suddenly be found everywhere as soon as December rolls in. It's a real belly warmer once the temperatures drop so worth indulging in a tipple whenever you are out and about.

(Although I would never condone an excessive consumption of the delicately spiced mulled mixture; as the Dutch say, "Geniet, maar drink met mate", which for the first few months of my Dutch adventure I translated in my head as, "Enjoy, but drink with friends" even though my Dutch partner kept reminding me it meant don't be a 'pisshead', quashing my belief that I had already, instantly,  passed my first initiation in to Dutch Society.)

17. Candles - it's not that the Netherlands has electric power issues during the winter, but if you were an alien visiting for the first time you could be forgiven for thinking this is in fact the case. The Dutch love candles during the winter - in fact the whole season is all about gezelligheid. And it's wonderful. So get those wicks burning and get cosy for the duration. See you in the spring!


  1. I love this list! And, as a Chicagoan, I can relate to a lot of it. Of course, I wish it was just as easy for us to head to Germany for the Christmas markets. But, I have to admit, I had to look up "sledge." I never heard that term before! ;)

  2. Very true. I still want to make a heated bike seat warmer of some kind. Frozen bicycle seats this time of year are no fun.

    1. I saw a sort of hand muff thing attached to someone's handlebars last week - it made me think of you - at least your hands would be warm even if your nether region was freezing......

  3. Aimee, it is indeed a little more difficult to head to the German markets for you.... but a trip would be worth it!

    Invader Stu - I do believe you have stumbled upon something there. There must be some kind of invention you can stick under a saddle cover which gets warmer the harder you peddle.......