Running in the Amelisweerd

photo from: ed mather

I ran around the Amelisweerd every day except Sunday while I was studying in Utrecht. It’s not everyday that an entire forest is in my backyard. I ran around it so much that I thought I may as well take it a step further and train for a marathon.

The Amelisweerd and the neighboring Rijnsweerd are nice escapes if you’d like a bit of quiet time to think and relax. Lots of trails and benches to wander around and rest. (Some students go here to eat magic mushrooms and start seeing interesting things they’ve never seen before — but that one’s up to you).

Good things happen once you visit a place regularly. Familiarity breeds warmth, and you’ll know the nooks and crannies and all the best spots to visit and take a moment to relax. Plus you’ll get to see how the seasons change the landscape, and that’s a wonderful show by itself.

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Some time in September 2013. Kromme Rijn to the left. Running and walking trails on the right.
“De Kromme Rijn bij Amelisweerd” by ed mather. I lived in the Netherlands during its warmest winter, so I never got the chance to see this much snow. But this is what it would look like!

the usual suspects:
You’ll generally see other runners, old couples strolling around, and people rowing their boat along the river or walking their dogs. This is as close as you can get to nature in Utrecht. Sometimes I’d bump into Marc and Torun on their regular walk.

The cows and sheep will also keep you company, although the cows tend to hide a bit during the winter time. You can even see remnants of the old defense systems that the Dutch installed to protect the land against flooding.

I got caught in a hailstorm once here. One moment I’m going for a cheeky run in the rain, and the next I’m getting pelted by chunks of ice falling from the sky (the trees in the forest can only give so much cover). The weather forecast didn’t say anything about this.

I started running twice as fast, as did the woman in front of me. Good to know that bad weather makes the feet lighter and the senses sharper, and that there was someone else in the same situation. We exchanged knowing smiles and went off on our separate directions.

We never met again. But I’m sure if we did the hailstorm would have been our first topic of conversation. (“wat een hondeweer!”) Is it still fashionable, talking about the weather? Of course!

“Sambal bij?” (or: walking around a foreign place with an asian face)

Utrecht is a vibrant student city, with international students from all around the world. But some students look a bit more foreign than others.

In regular day-to-day to life it doesn’t have too much of an impact. You’ll get questions like where are you from? (California) and what is your name? (Wesley) and follow-up questions like where are you really from? (California) and what is your real name? (Wesley). I’ll get asked if I’ve watched this film or that film, or if I’ll translate their name into Chinese. And then the conversation moves on. (And if it doesn’t, I can just walk away). It’s cool, whatever.

But if I’m at an FC Utrecht football match or at a Dutch student bar and caught alone (or without a white friend — which in this case, has similar consequences to being alone), I can expect to hear a few more things, regardless of whetherI choose to stand my ground or walk away.

Dutch comedian Ome Henk made a song a while back called “Sambal bij?” (“[would you like] hot sauce with that?”). I resented its existence because that’s the chant I would hear once a group of rowdy teens had their beer and wanted some entertainment from the obvious foreigner in front of them. They would scrunch their faces and start bobbing their heads.

It wasn’t even the chant itself that bothered me. It was the anticipation of it. 

(the mind has a way of making things out to be worse than they actually are)

I didn’t get beat up, nor did I have to worry about getting beaten up — but I did find myself wishing that I had a magic button that would turn me white and blonde just so nobody would bother me while I was eating french fries late at night.

Someone from the skating team said I walk like a chinaman. There was no malice in his voice. “How does a chinaman walk?” I asked. He slouched and kept his nose towards the ground. I drew a reminder to stand up straight and posted it up on my doorway. It’s about time I fixed my posture anyway.

After a while it got to my head. Am I really just a walking egg roll to everyone around me?

Of course not. There are many, many kind, open-minded people in Utrecht and the rest of the Netherlands. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of them, and am even luckier to call some of them life-long friends. I haven’t even mentioned the kind strangers I’ll never be able to return the favor to.

The annoying people I meet make up only 1% of my daily interactions. Perhaps even less than that.

But I do have to remind myself regularly of this, lest I become bitter and start making the same generalizations about myself and about other people.

One day I forgot. I went up to Khaled in the OLA Happiness Station (one of those places that sells soft-serve ice cream) in Utrecht Centraal and went on a rant about my perceived woes.

Khaled is of Moroccan descent, but he’s lived in the Netherlands his entire life. He’d repeat the names of my favorite toppings in Dutch so I would know how to pronounce them the next time I came around. Patient guy, too, because he listened to me finish complaining before saying:

“At least you’re not Moroccan. People no longer make jokes at me.”

Khaled had a point. I wasn’t targeted by influential radical politicians like he was, nor am I met with the same suspicion from the general public. Put Khaled and I in the same police line-up and the average person will be more likely to point to him than to me.

I got my ice cream with four toppings and said no more about it.

I felt disillusioned for a while. When I applied to study here, I had built the idea in my head that the Netherlands would be some sort of utopia where everybody was accepted and celebrated. It’s sad (and comforting?) to know that prejudice isn’t something you can run away from — prejudice is ingrained in human nature. And the more I accept it in myself, the more I can accept it in other people.

It took me months to realize these questions and jokes were not always intended to offend — perhaps they were a failed attempt to connect, or even an invitation to start making jabs of your own.

Depending on the culture, you can get more respect by taking it all in and absorbing it — pretending that it doesn’t even phase you. In the Netherlands (at least among the university-age students), you’d have to stand your ground publicly.

I feel embarrassed that I gave so much weight to this, especially when I know there are so many great people out there.

Why did it bother me so much, those stupid jokes? Perhaps I felt frustrated (and even a bit lonely) after being treated differently because of things that are outside of my control. I wanted so desperately to belong, and to “integrate”.

I could always retreat into the international student bubble, but what good would that be for personal growth? I chose to study abroad in a country I knew I would be an outsider in for a reason. Better to push on through and learn something from it.


  • There is no perfect society where everybody is holding hands around the campfire. That’s a relief, because now you don’t have to keep on running away from your problems. You’d only be swapping it for a different set of problems anyway (and they’re often the same problem wearing a different shirt).
  • I also gained massive respect for immigrants from any nation, and especially from my family. It’s not easy setting up base when you are constantly reminded that you are an outsider. They did this decades ago, before openly talking about race was even a thing.
  • It also made me appreciate the genuinely good people in my life. Just to be given the chance to meet them and let them change how I see the world. I can’t be friends with everyone, and that’s okay.

(I hope that wasn’t too sappy)

“go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated”

This quote is on the back of beer coasters from Café Kalff, one of the gay-friendly bars in Utrecht. Below the quote are a few lines where you can scribble down your name and phone number (should you meet a special someone).

One of my neighbors brought the coaster back home after a night out. She’s straight, but she said they gave her such a good time, and that they even let her sign the “international gay wall”. The details are a bit fuzzy after that.

I’ve never been inside the café, but I like the quote.

saturday morning herring (or: hollandse nieuwe haring)

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August 2013, raw herring and I meet for the first time.

Tucked away in the far right corner of Utrecht’s city center market is my favorite fish stand. (It smells just like any other fish stand). I’d go there on Saturdays, and sometimes even on Wednesday when they had those special “4 for 5 euro” specials for herring.

It’s sold year-round, but summer is the best season for the hollandse nieuwe haring — the freshest and tastiest catch. Haring is as Dutch as bicycles and long waxed hairstyles for the men. It’s so popular that the fish stand hires a dude that does nothing but clean and filet the herring for sale.

Diced onions are offered as part of the package, and I like to sprinkle them over the raw herring. The onion bits tend to fall all over the floor if you eat the herring with your bare hands.

You can also have it in sandwich form if you’d like. It’s the broodje haring — still just the filet, but now inside a bun! There will usually be a bit of mayonnaise or garlic sauce underneath.

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broodje haring met uitjes


What started as a crush soon turned into an obsession. When the fish stands close I’d go to the grocery store (usually Albert Heijn or Jumbo), where the herring is slightly more expensive and of slightly lesser quality. But herring is herring, and I was more than satisfied.

I made sure not to eat it every day because then it would cease to be a treat, but I did think about it quite often. Can’t get this in California, I told myself, to justify my regular visits to the fish stand.

Unintended consequences:
The only downside to raw herring I can think of is that it has a reputation like garlic. Eat one, and you’ll smell it on yourself for hours. Sometimes I’d get self-conscious if I talk to people after eating herring — as though the other person would discover my smelly secret and then shun me away.

In other words, you won’t be kissing too many people after eating one.

(unless of course, you find someone who loves raw herring just as much as you do)

lekker ijs en goede prijs (or: IJssalon Vorst, Utrecht)

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Vorst handmade ice cream – with organic milk and lots of fruit, according to the sign. (you can taste it, too)

Utrecht is a good city for ice cream; lots of people have their favorite place to go to. Mine was IJssalon Vorst, in-between Wilhelminapark and the University College Utrecht. On a nice day I would stop by for a scoop — two or three if I was with good company — and then go for a stroll around the park.

The scoop would be long gone before I even walked half a lap.


The sign outside doesn’t lie. Their sorbets have heel veel fruit, and they put all sorts of spices into the ice cream. You’ll find combinations like orange & clover, coffee & ginger — ingredients you’d never think about mixing together, but they create all sorts of tingly sensations. And at one euro per scoop, it’s one of the best deals in town.

The flavors change every week.

Photo from UUT’s “Ijs-Tijd” review of IJssalon Vorst. That’s the owner behind the counter. The store looks much the same as when I went there.

I was a regular customer for a while, but I only had a chat with the owner during my last day in Utrecht. Jan is his name.

I don’t know his greatest hopes and fears, the company he keeps, or the thoughts he thinks on the slow days.  (How funny that you can see a person regularly and still not know these sorts of things). All I know is that Jan lives and breathes ice cream, and that he likes to get other people excited about all of its possibilities. He’s very good at that.

I was snooping around the Facebook page and saw that he was recently rated the #1 ice cream maker in Utrecht. Gee whiz, some may think. Less than a year in the business and he’s already top banana in town.

But that’s not exactly the case. He’s been honing his ice cream skills for years. He said something about making ice cream in Paris, and some other places before this. Ice cream is his profession, and he takes great pride in it. He’s unafraid to experiment, to improve his craft. To combine old flavors and make something new, nearly every week.

(an approach like that will take you far in life, ice cream or not)

Jiro Ono, master sushi chef, says he has grand visions of sushi when he sleeps. I wonder if Jan has the same.

The ice cream business is tough. Despite being near Wilhelminapark where all sorts of people and families stroll around, a lot of the business comes from the university students studying down the street at Prins Hendriklaan. What to do then, when all those students pack up and leave for their hometowns or go on vacation for the summer?

“We’ll just have to see what happens.”

the dutch & their open window policy

Walk around a typical Dutch neighborhood and you’ll notice that the curtains are open all the time. As a nosy student passing by I would always take a cheeky peek — the kind that yearns to understand and learn, but still avoids any sort of eye contact.

The homeowners near the university college campus in Utrecht have impeccable taste in interior design. Decorations and books neatly arranged, dinner table perfectly centered with the chandelier and candles. Sometimes you’ll see a lively dinner party (gezellig!). But more often than not you’ll just see someone reading the paper or watching television. Those mundane activities people do when they’re alone or at their most comfortable — all of that is on public display.

(but even then it would be rude to stare)

living with tall people, or kiddie bicycles in the netherlands

The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. As an outsider, you get used to it quickly. It’s something you’ll only notice when you:

a) first arrive in the country

b) visit or return to another, shorter country


c) when you see an otherwise grown international student ride a children’s bicycle, because the regular adult ones designed for the Dutch are too big for them.

It’s a funny sight for the locals.

I stand at about 6 feet with shoes, or 183 cm rounded up. Above average in California, but average height in the Netherlands. I’ve never faced too many issues with regular day-to-day life in either place. I can ride a grown-up bicycle. I can reach behind the counter, and I can reach that tea-cup in the dark corners of the cupboard. I can lie on a mattress without having to scrunch into the fetal position. It’s all good.


Iris is tall in that she has to bend down if she wants to hug most people. Even in the Netherlands she says she’ll notice people inching towards her not to say hello, but to compare their own height to hers (usually by standing side to side and expressing amusement at how their forehead only reaches her shoulders, and then casually walking away without a word), and that back in school people would go up and ask if she was a lighthouse. That must be annoying, I said.

“Eh, you just have to get used to it.”

drie kusjes, or three small kisses

photo from RTLNieuws
photo from: RTL Nieuws

What an exciting concept, greeting good friends and relatives with kisses on the cheek! I loved every second of it while living in the Netherlands. Three times when you say hello, three times when you say goodbye. Left cheek or right cheek, it doesn’t matter which side you start with first, so long as you alternate between the cheeks.

American prudishness led me to believe that kissing of any kind was for lovers and parents towards their children. In California I usually just go for the bear hug. But regular kisses on the cheek are second-nature to most European cultures as a greeting. (Maybe not the Germans, but they learn quickly). I like it this way.

Soon I’d be doing this as often as I could. When Elske was working behind the bar, I’d prop myself up on the counter just for an extra few on the cheeks.


photo from: ANP

Everybody has their own style.

Some people make these loud mwah noises.

Some people follow it up with a hug.

Some people leave it at just that.

You never really know. Sometimes there’s that awkward limbo period while transitioning in-between the cheeks where you try to avoid bumping each others’ noses and lips, so instead each of you jolt your neck backward like a turtle.

Uh, how many kisses again?
When it comes to small talk at a party among international students, the conversation often revolves around differences between everybody’s home culture. This kissing thing is no different. I never know how many times to kiss! you’ll often hear.

With the Dutch it’s almost always three, but the other nations can be more ambiguous. The Spanish go for two, the French go for two to four depending on the region, and so on. So one person will pull away thinking it’s done while the other is left hanging.

And what if the other person doesn’t want any part of this?

(Rule of thumb: if you have to ask, then you probably shouldn’t).

Marc and André, my Friday afternoon drinking partners, said that this three kisses thing was new, and that this never showed up in their generation. Silly kids, they said. André started making the kind of duck faces you’d see on Instagram selfies to make his point clear. Marc said he may as well be a kid.


I tried giving Mom three kisses when I saw her at the airport after a year abroad, but that just led to a lot of fumbling. Silly me, I’m in a different culture now.