“tijden geleden”

"Cappuccino in Tokio" by summer park
“Cappuccino in Tokio” by summer park

Literally it means times ago, but tijden geleden is something you would say when you reunite with someone — intentionally or not. You can say it to an old friend, an acquaintance, or even a familiar stranger. An equivalent in English would be: long time no see. And just like in English, tijden geleden suggests that you’re glad about the reunion.

“Long time no see.”

It’s my last month here in Utrecht. And just as things are starting to wrap up, I’ve been bumping into people I met only briefly throughout the year. People I’ve sat next to in lectures, people I’ve made small talk to in the elevator, and familiar strangers I meet whenever there’s a party.

The odd thing is that while we can recognize each other and remember the conversations we had, the name of the other person still escapes us.

But when they do remember your name, and you remember theirs, and when you both remember tidbits (superficial as they may be) about each other’s lives  — it’s a wonderful feeling to behold. Just to think — wow, a stranger actually cared enough to listen to me and remember who I am! (And you, too, get to play a role in helping another person feel that way).


On the last day of my lab work, I went to the Gutenberg café in the university library. The barista recognized me from about a month ago. I recognized the barista as well, because I embarrassed myself after trying to make small talk with her in broken Dutch.

Tijden geleden, she says. I didn’t know what that meant, so she had to repeat it a few times before she eventually explained it in English. We exchange pleasantries and chat about our weekend.

I ordered a big cappuccino, but she only charged me for a small one. For a second I wondered if it was a slip of the finger.

Nee, it couldn’t be.

a brother from another mother, according to some

I was cycling back from the gym when I saw bright disco lights coming out from The Basket, one of the cafes in De Uithof science campus. People usually only go there out of convenience, but this party looked quite fun from the outside.

The crowd outside was motioning towards me. They were all in suits and colorful gowns. Come inside! They said. But I’m all sweaty! I said.

Doesn’t matter. Come inside.

Sweet! A spontaneous party invitation. I’m confused and excited at the same time. But as I come closer, it becomes clear that everybody around me has baby faces, despite being as tall as I am. Turns out it’s a high school prom.

Technically we’re only a couple of years apart, but this isn’t the kind of party I’m trying to crash.


I want to leave, but they insist that I don’t go until I see somebody. The crowd gives way until there’s only one other person in front of me — the only other Asian-looking guy in the party.

Kijk! Jouw broer!

He took one look at me and turned away.  He looked annoyed and ashamed.

So was I. I just got duped by a bunch of rowdy Dutch teenagers.

an unexpected concert

It’s 11:15 PM on a Monday night and I can hear someone playing bagpipes outside my kitchen window. Cambridgelaan is a big apartment complex — the music could be coming from anywhere.

“Who’s playing?”

Every once in a while the bagpipe player would play off-key and stop to regain composure. I really wanted to know who tonight’s musician was, and it bugged me that I didn’t.

“No clue.”


The bagpipes stopped about fifteen minutes later, with people craning their necks and cheering from their windows.

don’t forget to call mom

It’s Mom’s birthday. Dad reminded me the day before so I wouldn’t forget to wish her well.


“How old is your mother turning?” asked Maja, my neighbor.

It struck me that I actually don’t know. (I gave Maja a response anyway). I’ve asked Mom about her age in the past, but she says it’s rude to ask such questions.

Should have asked Dad first.

bike theft as a rite of passage, or milestone

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Parking lot near Utrecht Centraal, the  train station. This is on a regular day.

Abandoned bikes take up valuable space in Utrecht. A few weeks ago the city government posted a notice — any bikes that appear unattended (i.e. broken, rusty, looking like crap) will be labelled with a sticker. If that sticker is not removed within fourteen days, the city will take the bike away.

Two weeks ago my bicycle went missing. I parked it in the same cage I’ve always parked it for the past nine months. Along the way, its gears started rusting apart and its brake cables became detached. Only packaging tape was holding it together. In other words, it was a deathtrap (but it was my deathtrap, dang it.)

The city must have mistaken it for an abandoned bike.

So I went to the impound in the city center. It’s not there. The supervisor told me to check out the impound in Kanaalweg, close to the university campus.

But it’s not there either.

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Back in August last year, when I first got the bike. The brakes are still intact at this point.


Losing a bicycle is heartbreaking as a student, even if objectively speaking, your bicycle is a steaming pile of junk. In the Netherlands, everything you do, everywhere you go is by bike. You do your groceries on your bike, you go to town with your friends on your bike — you can even peel oranges and make sandwiches while on your bike.

At first I was angry.

Then I was sad.

Now I’m just shrugging my shoulders. Some international students are on their third or fourth bike for the school year. At least mine lasted for nine months.


So what are my options?

  1. Buy a brand new bicycle, starting at 200+ euros.
  2. Buy another used bicycle. During the start of the school year these can start at around 60 euros, but we’re in the middle of the last semester, so stores have raised their prices.
  3. Go to a corner along Voorstraat or the train station, wait around a bit, and buy a bike from a junkie for about 10-15 euros.
  4. Don’t buy another bicycle, and rely on public transport for the rest of the year. (More expensive and more restrictive than all the other options — and pretty lame in the Netherlands).

Many students at the beginning of the year will go for option #2 — buying a used bike from the store.

This changes when their bicycle gets stolen. Option #3 becomes more and more enticing, especially when people are living on a student budget. The thing is though, nearly every student who has lived in Utrecht for an extended period of time has had their bicycle stolen.

So at that rate, almost everybody will eventually go to option #3. It’s a vicious cycle.

My neighbor’s bicycle got stolen as well, around the same time as mine. Time to make another “visit” to town, he said.

“Don’t tell me that! You can do it, but don’t tell me!”

My other neighbor was not nearly as enthused. She keeps three different locks on her bicycle that her grandmother gave her.


Sometimes I wonder if I’ll see my bike out on the street again. It’s definitely out there somewhere.

If I do see my bike, would I be angry? Would I be amused? Both, I think.

You could say this is part of the typical “Dutch experience.” Utrecht is a quiet town in terms of crime, especially by American standards. If bike theft is the biggest thing I need to worry about, then so be it.

Bevrijdingsdag, or Liberation Day

Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day) is the day after Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. The Dutch celebrate Bevrijdingsdag like the Americans celebrate the 4th of July (but with fewer fireworks — the Dutch are not allowed to blow them up until New Year’s Eve).

You can find picnics and barbecues all over the parks in town. The larger parks often have music festivals, complete with what you would expect at your typical outdoor festival — portable standing urinals (no equivalent for the ladies, which leads to resentment), fried foods and expensive beer. The Park Transwijk in Utrecht holds one such festival. Over 38,000 people were there when I went.

In Park Transwijk, near the district of Kanaleneiland in Utrecht.

It’s also one of the rare moments you’ll see Dutch flags flying from people’s homes. As proud as the Dutch people are, they only show their national pride a few times a year — and only during public holidays like this.

(Or just as important: during football matches.)

Remembrance Day

The Dam Square in Amsterdam, right in front of the Royal Palace. The empty passageway in the middle is where the King and Queen walk to lay the ceremonial wreath.

Every 4th of May, there is a national moment of silence in the Netherlands from 8 PM to 8:02 PM. For two minutes, the entire country comes to a standstill. No trains, trams, or buses are left running, television and radio stations end their programming, and everybody stops where they are.

I was with my neighbor Maja in the Dam Square in Amsterdam during those two minutes. To be in a crowd of 20,000 people in the busiest city of the Netherlands, and hear not even a single whisper — that was special. Nobody was told what to do. Everybody already knew.

Only the birds were still moving.

Queen Maxima in front. King Willem-Alexander by her side.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima walked out of the Royal Palace, and towards the pillar. People craned their necks and stood on the tips of their toes just to get a peek.