fun questions to ask couples

photo credit: Adam Foster | Codefor via photopin cc
photo credit: Adam Foster | Codefor via photopin cc

Marc and I were sitting on the benches at Café Jan Primus, near the University College Utrecht campus. It’s still a bit chilly at night to be sitting outside, but Torun, Marc’s dog, keeps farting.

“I’m telling you Wesley, it’s driving me nuts.”

Marc loves Torun regardless, but we sit outside anyway as a courtesy to the other patrons. Torun’s diet will have to change, but for now, the fresh air will do.

Dave and Merel came by to say hello. They had been drinking earlier — but oh, why not one more beer? Marc is here. And next to him is some kid who’s obviously not from around town.

We chat for a bit.


Marc went to the bathroom, so it was just Dave, Merel, and I for a moment.

Dave would tell me what it meant express gratitude, and what it means to find happiness and fulfillment in life. This was a familiar conversation, but the oxygen tank connected to his chair must have added extra weight to his words.

I told him I didn’t know what I was doing. He told me I had plenty of time, and that he didn’t know either, other than that he’s becoming more comfortable with himself. It wasn’t until he was thirty that he fully accepted his condition.

Even at the age of forty he still has self-doubt. That part never goes away. But for him, it’s not as suffocating as it once was.

I find that notion oddly comforting.


Some fun questions I like to ask couples in long-term relationships:

1) How did you two meet?
Perhaps there’s a story shared between the two. In Dave’s case, his guide dog became the first conversation topic between he and his future wife.

[On another note, being with a dog tends to make you more approachable as a man, at least to strangers — provided that the other person is not afraid of dogs.]

2) How has she influenced you?
I asked Dave how Merel influenced him. Merel was already attentive in the conversation, but I could already see her perk up.

Dave gives it some thought, then answers. Merel shared with Dave what it means to relax and enjoy life, instead of having to put on a serious face all the time because people expected him to.

I turn to Merel, and ask:

3) And how has he influenced you?
Merel gives it some thought, then answers. Dave shared with Merel what it means to be self-reliant and confident in your own abilities — instead of feeling helpless by circumstances you can’t control.


The things Dave and Merel mentioned were probably similar to what they say to each other in private.

But I’ve noticed that telling other people how much someone else means to you gives those special words even more weight.

The two were already in a good mood, but perhaps even better now.


Marc came back from the bathroom. I excused myself and went as well. I had been holding my pee this entire time, because keeping the conversation going was more important.


Or: “round-dizzy” in Danish.

It’s the special kind of dizziness you get from spinning around too much.

Sometimes I feel this while when running down the stairs from the top floor of the apartment building. Dutch staircases are famous for being narrow and steep to save money.

I wonder if the same feeling applies if I’m looking at M.C. Escher’s “Relativity”.

My neighbor Maja walks up and down fourteen flights of stairs each time she returns and leaves home. Not once has she taken the elevator the entire time she’s been living here in Cambridgelaan. Even in large groups, if people are taking the elevator, she will still be taking the stairs.

Is it out of principle? Habit? Health? Or just plain stubborn? Perhaps it’s a combination of them all.

My neighbor Brian and I are doing the same: taking the stairs up and down. The lift has a habit of breaking down with people inside of them anyway.

The Ethics Committee

The ethics committee at Utrecht University governs what can and can’t be done in scientific experiments, especially in psychology and social neuroscience. Experiments with any threat of inflicting psychological or physical harm on a participant are forbidden. (e.g. MilgramStanford Prison Experiment)

A shame really, because those experiments are often the most cited, and revealing.

[In other words, the glory days of psychology are long gone.]

Freud meant no harm.

Having an ethics committee sounds good (and morally sound) in principle, but now it just leads to a whole bunch of bureaucracy and paperwork. Graduate students and professors complain about how it takes years just to get approval for some experiments.


“Do we have to worry about the ethics committee?” asked Marissa. We are in a study group together and we need to come up with a project proposal within two weeks.

“Not here.” said the professor. “They’re quite good.”

Woensdag is schaatsdag (or: kissing the ice goodbye)

Jaap says I skate like a prostitute — with my legs wide open. To say that I look like Bambi on ice would be more politically correct, but Jaap’s way of phrasing things is more entertaining. Some people say he’s a lompe boer, or a farmer who behaves or says things in a crude way.  (It’s a term of endearment).

And while I never really did manage to close up my legs, I’ve improved to the point where I’m no longer stumbling after after every stride. I’m no longer the foreigner on the team who can’t skate. Now I’m just the foreigner.


The ice rinks are closing as the weather becomes warmer.

But before you can leave the ice rink, there are two things you must do (or at least this is what the Utrecht team does):

  1. Skate in the opposite direction.

Traditionally, you skate counter-clockwise around the track. You go straight, and turn left around the corner, and that’s really about all you do. Not once did I have to make a conscious effort did I have to turn right.

So imagine what it’s like to turn right for the first time in months. I couldn’t do it, and neither could most of the team. People would hold hands and lean on each other as support.

2. Jog one lap barefoot around the ice track.

Or two, if you’re feeling particularly daring. The ice is cold to the point that it sticks to your bare feet, so there are no worries about slipping and falling on your bum.


Back in September when I was planning what I wanted to do during the year, I wanted to speed skate because:

  1. It’s typical Dutch. It’s the one and only sport the Dutch go nuts for during the Olympics, and the one sport they dominate. And if studying abroad is all about experiencing different cultures, why not give the national sport a shot?
  2. It’s novel, it’s cool, and it’s something I wouldn’t be able to do back home in California. I wanted to try something new, and the thought of zipping around the ice at high speeds appealed to me.
  3. And okay, maybe I wanted to see what it was like to wear those skin-tight body suits. Jaap let me borrow his for a week and I felt like the top banana. 
De Vechtsebanen, where I would skate during the winter.


Woensdag is schaatsdag.

Every Wednesday at 9:30 PM, I would bike forty minutes to De Vechtsebanen for skating practice. We would skate until midnight and then go for a cup of tea, some warm Chocomel with whipped cream, or some beers to make it a brisk trip back home. I often wouldn’t be back home until 2 or 3 AM, although that’s also due to my habit of stopping by the student bar to say hello to the regulars —  a hello that often lasted for at least an hour.

I did that every week for six months. Speed skating (and the usual routine associated with it) was something I looked forward to on a regular basis, so it feels odd to have that gone now.

I’ll be back on the ice soon enough.

the first signs of spring in Utrecht (or: my first day of wearing shorts)

Pictured above: Julianapark, right along Amsterdamsestraatweg in Utrecht. Good picnic weather.

Spring is coming early this year. The Australians studying here (and me as well) are disappointed that the snow never came, but the locals are thrilled. 

The weather peaked at 18° Celsius (64.4° Fahrenheit), and each day for the past three days has seen a new temperature record being broken. For San Diego standards, this is a bit chilly, or at least breezy. But here in Utrecht, people are going nuts.

The parks are filled with people having picnics on the open lawns. Rollerskating is becoming more popular now that the sun is out.

Even my favorite pink ice cream truck is back in town. It disappeared some time in October, but now it’s back and parked in the same place it was before. It’s parked on the bridge leading to the Domplein and on the corner of the Coffeeshop Andersom, where mostly older men and giddy international students go.

The ice cream truck still has the same flavors. Rum raisin, strawberry, and their special “Dom Ijsplein” yogurt flavor are my personal favorites. And I think I recognize one of the guys from last year.

One thing has changed though. They raised the price for a single scoop! It’s only a quarter more, but the pseudo-Dutchman inside of me is already raising his eyebrows.


Some things I’m excited for this spring:

  1. The return of outdoor seating in cafes, or just lounging about on the balconies. When the weather was warmer, Neude square in the city center would be filled with tables, chairs, and people eating and drinking. Late into the night, even.
  2. This winter may have been relatively warm, but it was still cold enough to keep people inside. The good spring weather should get people to crawl out of their cozy caves.
  3. Looking forward to seeing leaves on the trees again. I have also yet to see the tulip fields, which is funny, because I used to imagine that they would be everywhere you look in the Netherlands (they’re not).


I found myself going through homework at a faster pace, just so I could lounge about in the sun more. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m being more efficient, or if it’s because I’m being distracted. Either way, there’s a time to study, and there’s a time to go outside.

And now is the time to go outside.

(Combining the two doesn’t seem to work well for me.)

plateaus in learning a new language (or: month seven of learning Dutch)


“You haven’t been practicing your Dutch lately, have you?”

One quality I love about Dutch culture is the notion that honest (even unsolicited) feedback is a sign of respect. It’s a sign that the other person genuinely wants to see you grow and succeed. Feedback is not seen as a passive-aggressive attempt to put you down and make you feel inferior.

Kevin from downstairs in the student bar was right. I haven’t been putting in as much heart into learning the language as I once did when I first arrived in the country. I can still conduct daily business and simple small talk, but I haven’t made any meaningful progress in the last couple months. I hit a plateau in learning Dutch, and I haven’t been able to climb out.

I watch the Jeugdjournaal (kid’s news) on a regular basis, but passively watching a television show, while great for language exposure, doesn’t do much for language retention — at least not for the short time period I’m here in the Netherlands. I copy unfamiliar words out of a Peanuts calendar, but all the words in the world wouldn’t matter if I’m not using them in daily speech.

“You know a lot of words, but now it’s time to make sentences out of them.”

Perhaps the issue is not that:

a) Dutch is too difficult a language


b) I suck at learning languages

but rather that I’ve approached language learning the wrong way. I’m still getting regular exposure to the language, which is good. But what I did in the first few months isn’t working any more.

So, when progress becomes more difficult to come by, I need to remind myself why I wanted to learn the language in the first place:

1) To immerse myself in a new culture.
2) To connect with people who identify with that culture (even if it’s not “necessary”, seeing as though most Dutch can speak English wonderfully)
3) To learn how to learn a language. Think of what I can do if I apply what I learn this year to other languages, or any other personal goal in the future.

“I’ll see you in about two weeks to see if you’ve progressed.”

[having other people hold you accountable, explicitly or not, can be useful in learning a new language, or in any other personal goal]

This conversation happened some time last week late at night. I remember coming out of the bar highly motivated, but that alone won’t get me out of a learning plateau.