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How to Survive the Dutch Winter

By Dan Geddes

Darkness. Rain. Punishing winds. Gray skies. “Oh God, when will it end?” These are some of the words that come to mind when thinking of Dutch winters.

September, when the sun still occasionally shines in Holland, is a good moment to prepare yourself mentally, physically and spiritually for the coming Dutch winter, which I half-affectionately call “the dark time.”

Darkness will descend upon the land very quickly. One September morning you wake up around 7:00 a.m., and it's still light out and the birds are singing, but seemingly only a few mornings later you will notice it’s as dark as midnight. And the same happens in the evening: during your after-dinner walk you suddenly notice that you’re shrouded in darkness. Every day it seems like you lose a half hour of sunlight.

Some people embrace the winter. “Maybe we will get snow and ice this year!” they say hopefully, as if that’s a good thing. But not all are so enthusiastic. One Dutch woman told me the only sensible thing to do would be to “move all of Amsterdam, brick by brick, to the south of France.”

The short days and long dark nights lead many to despair. Don’t let this happen to you! Here are some tips for surviving the Dutch winter.

*   Book a trip to a sunny location for December, January or February. Do it now. Right now. Today. You need something to look forward to. There must be light at the end of the tunnel.

*   Find a cozy café to make your second home. Look for one with a wooden interior where they put candles on the table and string up Christmas lights to create a winter ambience. Try some seasonal autumn beers, Glühwein, or a hot chocolate with whipped cream.

*   Put up Christmas lights and light candles to re-create this same magical ambiance in the comfort of your own home.

*   Get into the spirit of the winter holidays, which cleverly serve to break up the long dark time with festivals and other distractions: Sint Maarten, Sinterklaas, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are some of the best known holidays. As Americans my family and I also celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving, so we have a holiday celebration, featuring truly excessive overeating, almost every week. Create your own holiday traditions!

*   However, if you have children, adopt some rules about holiday sugar intake. No child should eat more than 2,000 pepernoten per day, except of course on the day Sinterklaas arrives from Spain by ship and on 5 December. Upon these days, by sacred tradition, the 2,000 pepernoten limit per child is not enforced.

*   Oliebollen wagons will soon materialize on busy corners. Try to resist the siren call of the oliebollen (deep-fried sugary balls of white-flour dough, i.e., Dutch donuts). But if you must indulge, the apple beignet is the king of all the deep-fried winter-time sugar rushes. And while apple is indeed a fruit, remember that the apple beignet does not count as one of your recommended five daily fruits or vegetables.

*   Book some tickets for a show. Remember to book many weeks in advance for the most popular shows. This is a densely populated country! See http://www.amsterdamsuitburo.nl/extra/uitkrant for tickets.

*   Learn to appreciate traditional Dutch comfort food, such as stamppot, erwten soup, and boerenkool.

*   Winter, of course, is cold and flu season. Wash your hands frequently, especially when you find a bathroom that provides opulent amenities such as hot water and soap.

*   Despite all precautions, you may develop a condition known as “perma-cold,” whereby you have cold symptoms for four solid months and you may believe you are dying. No matter how miserable you become, most doctors will be philosophical about your suffering and prescribe only tea, sleep, and maybe, if they are feeling magnanimous, a few tablets of paracetemol  (if you are a weakling or a foreigner). Other people will suggest traditional remedies such as jenever or Jägermeister. Use such remedies with caution.

*   Find indoor shelter for your bicycle, even if you must put it in your bathtub. If you leave it outside the whole winter, your bike will quickly be reduced to a useless pile of rust.

*   If you cycle frequently, buy at least two sets of rain gear. If you have a talent for design, consider designing some shirts and pants using rain-resistant materials. Your new all-weather fashion-line is bound to sell well here in Holland.

*   Don’t even think of bicycling on the icy streets unless you are Dutch. If you are Dutch, consider petitioning the International Olympic Committee to introduce “Ice Cycling” as a new Olympic sport, preferably for various distances (100 m, 500 m, 1 km, 5 km) and bridges as obstacles. This will help inflate Holland’s medal count at the next Winter Olympics.

*   Consider taking a short walk at lunch time, as this may be your only chance to have the sun shine on your face during the dark time (on the small chance that the sun is shining). Vitamin D is very important to stave off thoughts of despair or emigration!

*   Further develop and refine your convictions about Dutch weather. Is it better when it’s freezing and icy because at least you can see some blue sky? Or do you actually prefer the perpetual gray weather? Is the weather predestined, or just a matter of chance? If predestined, is the weather God’s way of punishing the Dutch for past transgressions or imperial hubris? Libraries are filled with learned commentary on the philosophical implications of Dutch weather.

*   Start talking early and often about how much you are looking forward to spring. Keep telling yourself that “spring is coming soon” even when it’s December, January, or February.

The endless dark mornings may remind you of the classic movie Groundhog Day (1993), where the Bill Murray character keeps waking up on the same day (2 February), trapped, with no hope of escape, in a never-ending winter. Try to take inspiration from Murray’s character, Phil Connors, who eventually comes to the realization that no matter what situation you are in, you should strive for excellence in yourself (learn piano, French, or ice-sculpting) and compassion for others (perform small kindnesses), even if it seems like you have been cast into eternal darkness forever by some malevolent force. Take heart: it’s only for six months.

16 September 2012