Bug Bytes: Stroopwafels, Witches and Love in Holland

by Kelly on December 17, 2010

Every Bug Bytes is special for it’s own reason.. but this Bug Bytes might just be my current favorite for three reasons: 1) it’s a hilarious tale of abroad living gone wrong and yet 2) how love was found unexpectedly– and 3) it features Kristin Luna, traveler, writer and blogger at Camels & Chocolate, who is an amazing writer and all-around awesome person. Here, Kristin details what it was like in Holland, and what (or if) she would do differently next time.


BB: You lived in Holland.  Cool! What part? What prompted you to move there?
The answer I tell people: “To pursue a degree of higher learning.”  The real answer: I was just six months out of college, had moved to NYC, taken a job at Newsweek and realized I wasn’t ready for a life as a grown-up just yet!
Also, I knew I wanted to further develop my career as a travel writer (I had started working for newspapers at the age of 14 and moved onto magazines once I got to college), and being based in another country is a great way to start doing that. So I enrolled in a one-year International Journalism and World Politics post-grad program and freelanced my way around the continent.

As for where I was located, I lived in the central part of the country, in a university town called Utrecht with about 300,000 residents, many of them students. It was your quintessential Dutch experience–lots of canals, lots of cobblestone ways, lots of charm.

BB: Sounds lovely! Where did you live (apartment, house, etc.) How did you find it?
Now that is a funny story!  My best friend Megan from college decided to do the program with me. The university set us up with housing, and to this day I wish we’d found our own like place like many of our classmates had done. We arrived in Utrecht, and our university rep picked us up at the train station and deposited us at our new “home.”

It turns out we were living in a shared attic room of the top floor of this 72-year-old Surinamese witch’s house.

The place was in a retirement community of sorts on the outskirts of town, a good distance from the city center, and in one of those complexes where every house is just like the next. It was pretty ugly.

Megan, Kristin’s Roomie, in their tiny room!

We had one small room with slanted ceilings that contained a double bed, a sink and a wardrobe. Our “kitchen” was a mini-fridge and a hot plate. We had a tiny living area we shared with our Swedish classmate who lived on the floor below us; it had a small TV, a cardboard table and chairs as a “dining room,” and a velvet couch that was almost too hard to sit upon. And the worst part? We were paying 350 euro–each.

The horrid woman, Miss Lucia was her name, had a nice spread on the bottom two floors, but we weren’t allowed to go there. There was one bathroom in the house that Megan and I shared with Miss Lucia and with Nana, the Swede. We were given a laminated list of rules that said, among other things, we couldn’t use the bathroom after 10pm, we must “dry the white edges of the tub” after bathing (there was no shower), we could use the laundry in the garage but just once a week (collectively) and we could have a visitor but he/she could only stay two nights at most (as if our friends were going to fly all that way for two nights). We got into regular spats with Miss Lucia over the Internet (the three of us students paid for in full, but which she kept the modem for herself and we didn’t get a signal all the way up in the attic). She watched our every move.

I now know what it feels like to be in prison.

 (Please note in this picture that our “room” was the tiny little window on the top floor!)

BB: Did you find it an affordable country to live in? What was the cost of your housing, or of a gallon of milk?
At the time (2005), the dollar was very poor and the euro strong. So exchange wise, it was expensive–something like 1.86 to 1. That said, I had just come from paying $800 to share a studio apartment in the West Village of NYC (and after, went back to Manhattan to pay $1200 in rent), and many of my classmates were paying 300 euro for their own places and some as low as 150 euro for a room in a shared flat, so while things like groceries and going out to eat were pricy, living costs were much lower than that of big cities in the United States.

BB: Okay, I want to know the story of how you met your husband!  (awww).
He sat behind me during the international student orientation on the first day of class (Sept. 2, 2005). We ignored each other. We wound up being in the same program. We continued to ignore each other–for all of two weeks, that is. Neither of us wanted to move to Holland to meet another American!

Then, we went with a group of about 80 students to Bergen Belsen (concentration camp where Anne Frank died), and he sat behind me on the bus. We somehow started rapping to Snoop Dogg and each realized the other wasn’t so bad. We spent the rest of the trip hanging out and getting to know one another.

But the next year was very complicated. We were both going back to separate coasts, so he didn’t want anything serious. We wound up living together–in a nine-square-meter room with slanted ceilings–during the second half of our program in Denmark. That wasn’t meant to happen, but my lodging fell through and he took me in. We spent that year in Europe getting to know each other very well due to our tight quarters and the fact that we were rarely apart: All of our classes were together, all of our friends were the same (there were only 19 people in our program, from eight different countries), and of course we shared a room. We also took several trips together–to Romania, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Portugal, around Denmark, and back to Holland and Germany. A lot of alone time in that sort of accelerated situation meant we really got to know each other.

But, we had no plans to stay together once we moved back to our respective U.S. cities. I took him to the train station that final day he was in Denmark and never thought I’d see him again.

And I didn’t–for seven long months, though we talked, texted and e-mailed nearly daily. Then I went to Hawaii as his date to his cousin’s wedding, and he realized he did want to be with me after all. (Men. They always come around…eventually.) From there, the rest was history, as they say. We dated long distance for another year as my magazine career flourished, then when I had enough experience and contacts to go out on my own as a freelancer, I moved out to San Francisco, three years ago now. We’ve been living together ever since, got engaged in May 2009 and were married in May of this year. It was an exhausting process!

A much more drawn out version of the story can be read here [link: http://camelsandchocolate.com/2009/09/four/] and here [link: http://camelsandchocolate.com/2009/05/the-story-of-you-and-me/]!

BB: AWW!! SO CUTE! So.. what was your favorite thing to snack on in Holland? Favorite local food?
Stroopwafels. OH MY GAWD, Stroopwafels. I honestly don’t know how I didn’t return 15 pounds heavier! They’re a crisp waffle cookie congealed with a delicious caramel filling–aka “Heaven in a sandwich.” My roommate and I bought them in bulk at the store, but the best I tried was at the weekend market in downtown Utrecht–jumbo and hot off the griddle!

Dutch food isn’t the best–it’s mostly fried and I’m not a fan of fried food, despite my Southern upbringing–but I am a big fan of the pancake houses. And that’s one thing Holland does right: the pancake–both sweet and savory. Additionally, there’s a heavy Surinamese influence there and I became infatuated with roti wraps I would buy almost daily from a stand in the central town square.

BB: Did you ever make it over to Amsterdam? I’ve always been dying to check it out. What was your take on it?
Oh, of course! But not as much as you’d expect actually. I’d been to Amsterdam for spring break my junior year, so I’d tackled all the major attractions then. I think I probably only went into Amsterdam four or five times during my stay in Utrecht (blasphemous as it’s just a half hour train ride). I love that city; it’s one of my favorite European capitals. It’s so international and so pretty, for lack of a more fitting adjective. Two touristy things I’ve done over and over again include the Anne Frank house and the Heineken tour (which is interactive with so many fun things to do!). And one of the ultimate tourist ventures is the open-air museum Zaans Schans [link: http://camelsandchocolate.com/2010/02/photo-friday-zaanse-schans-netherlands/]–complete ] with windmills and a cheese production–which Scott and I did during our last weeks there. I’m not a huge art connoisseur, but there are dozens of museums in the city that appeal to art lovers. And, of course, many Americans go there for the coffee shops. That’s not really my thing (no, really!), but it is something every traveler must experience once!


BB: Did you travel throughout the rest of the country? What area do you wish you’d have spent more time in?
I did travel a good deal around the rest of the country–to the Hague for Milosevic’s trial, Rotterdam to learn about the immigrant issue, Zeist to visit friends, to Eindhoven to visit friends of friends, Groningen for parties. And, of course, I spent a lot of time in other parts of Benelux and Germany for conferences and “field trips” that had to do with my program. It’s just so easy and efficient to get around Holland, Belgium and Germany by train–I miss that most about living in Europe.

I feel like I saw most of Holland, but then I’ll see amazing castles or expanses of countryside on other people’s blogs and wonder, “where was that? How did I miss it?” The nice thing about Holland is that it’s small size-wise. That said, there really is a lot to see!

BB:  If a friend were heading to Holland, what would you tell them to see and do? Is there anything you’d ask them to bring back for you?
Stroopwafels! Can you tell I’m obsessed?

I’d say spend a few days in Amsterdam, taking in the sights, museums and big attractions, then venture to Utrecht, which was one of the more charming towns I saw anywhere there. If time allows, travel north to Groningen, stopping at some of the smaller towns along the way. There are other university towns such as Leiden that are meant to be really nice.

One thing I’d advise, though, is don’t waste your time in Den Haag (the Hague) or Rotterdam–I didn’t find either of them even slightly appealing.

Something I’ve never managed to do, thanks to the time of year I lived there (fall and winter) and when subsequent visits have occurred, is catch the famed Dutch tulips in full bloom. This usually happens around April. So if anyone were to be traveling through Holland around that time, I’d say definitely check out Keukenhof Gardens [LINK: http://www.keukenhof.nl/] near Lisse.

BB: Did you have any difficulties getting your visa?
Since I was there studying and only for half a year, I just needed a resident permit (and I probably could have gotten away with not getting one at all). It wasn’t difficult, just very time consuming. In America, we’re used to everything being done in an efficient manner, but over there, they don’t think twice about taking up the better part of your afternoon just to get a piece of paper added to your passport!

BB: What was your favorite way to spend a lazy Sunday in your town?
I don’t think there were any! Megan and I traveled–whether around Holland or to “nearby” cities like Prague or, much farther away, to Morocco on our fall break–nearly every spare moment during our time there. Growing up in America, where everything is so spread out and it takes so long just to get to the next state over, we found being able to hop country borders in just a few short hours–whether by plane or train or bus–very appealing.

And the weekends we were there, we’d stay out at our favorite local pub, Cafe Belgie along the Oudegracht (Utrecht’s main canal), until sun up, so we were usually recovering all the next day! But I did love taking my bike, Mr. Brightside, out for a spin when we weren’t traveling or hungover. And there’s a lot of bustle going on around the Oudegracht during the day–whether at the market, the many outdoor cafes that flank the canal or the cute, little local shops–so you’re never lacking for things to do. On some warm afternoons after class, we’d rent paddleboats or kayaks and enjoy the canal from a different perspective.

on the Dutch coast


Thanks so much Kristin! It sounds so awesome! I know what you want for Christmas— Stroopwafels! Someone help this girl out, STAT!

To find out more about Kristin, stop by her blog, Camels & Chocolate, or follow her on Twitter @LunaticatLarge.

And make sure to check out next week’s country: Turkey!

Bug Bytes is a weekly feature in which travelers tell us about the places they’ve lived and what makes those places awesome. Interested in taking part in Bug Bytes? Lived someplace cool and want to tell us about it? Email Kelly at travelbugjuice@gmail.com

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Natalie December 18, 2010 at 5:00 am

Stroopwafels. I want to try some. They sound scrummy. Re the old landlady, why the least said about her the better. LOl

Jim December 18, 2010 at 5:44 am

Thanks Kelly, wonderful story.
I’ll get back here to read that Working in New Zealand story too.

Mimi - Sleepless In KL December 18, 2010 at 9:43 am

What a relief to find out I’m not the only non-Dutch in the planet who’s crazy about stroopwafels! Lovely post 🙂

Kelly December 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm

You are not alone! haha. Thanks for stoppin in Mimi!

Ayngelina December 18, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Kristin is also one of my favourite travel writers but I had no idea about her time in Holland, what a great story.

Camels & Chocolate December 18, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Thanks for featuring me, Kelly! This was a great way to jog my memory about my time in Holland: A lot of this stuff I didn’t even remember until you gave me prompts!

Russell Burck December 20, 2010 at 4:45 am

Don’t know about stroopwafels. From my time in Germany my own parallel for stroopwafels are Balsenkeks, which I sometimes find in the US in stores that specialize in German foods. They were my fav German wafers and filled cookies. Cool that fresh stroopwafels were the best.
If and when I get to the Netherlands, I’ll scope out those stroopwafels. Sound great.
Kelly, another terrific interview. Great questions and I love your “AWWs.”
Really fun and thoughtful interview, Kristin. Many thanks. I had forgotten that we didn’t need visas for our time in Germany. We just needed an Aufenthalterlaubnis (permission to stay there for a specified time).

Steve December 20, 2010 at 4:39 pm

What a great story. Now I have to try Stroopwafels. How can I not want to try them with all that enthusiasm for them?

Emily December 22, 2010 at 9:32 pm

OMG, I want to try these stroopwafels. What a cute story about how you and hubby met–never knew that was the full story. I wish I had done some sort of study abroad or post grad experience like that in Europe. It’s so easy to hop from city to city and country to country…I can’t believe I missed out!

monique December 22, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I’ve lived in the Netherlands for 12 years and have only recently become a stroopwafel convert. Had a warm, fresh one the other day and as Kristin said “OH MY GAWD”!!

I can’t believe a single American woman didn’t snag a Dutchman, but an American! Very sweet story.

Keukenhof is a must for anyone visiting in the spring (http://www.examiner.com/netherlands-travel-and-lifestyle-in-national/spring-break-holland-keukenhof) also see the windmills at Kinderdijk (http://www.examiner.com/netherlands-travel-and-lifestyle-in-national/spring-break-holland-kinderdijk) .

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