A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
I love living abroad, but I’ve come to realise that no matter how much you embrace the local culture, there will always be things from home that you miss and that, regardless of how hard you look, the Netherlands just doesn’t seem to provide. Don’t despair though; while they will never quite live up to the real thing, there are plenty of “next best” alternatives available here that will see you through those occasional bouts of homesickness.
The late-night reduced Tesco shop
The 10pm dash to Tesco to empty the shelves of freshly reduced produce is practically a student institution in the United Kingdom.
On one glorious evening in 2011 I bought two fish pies, two packs of diced beef, two edamame and pea salads, two egg custard tarts, one chicken pie, onebox of sushi and a pack of mini scotch eggs all for just £1.97. I expect that every British student reading this will have had a similarly triumphant Tesco experience and if you haven’t, you’re not doing it right. Alas, the practice of massively reducing produce doesn’t appear to have caught on in Dutch supermarkets, but there are a couple of other ways to give yourself that same frisson of reduced-purchasing excitement. Firstly, get yourself an Albert Heijn Bonus Card. You can pick one up in store free of charge, and this entitles you to take advantage of the various deals they run in store for card-holders – all of which you can peruse in the weekly Bonus booklet. Another top tip is to get down to the market on Saturdays when at least one stall sells its browning fruit and veg at knock-off prices; you’ll more than likely have to cut a few mushy bits off, but for 50 cents even a pair of slightly squidgy aubergines is a pretty good buy.
If you are a real gin-head don’t be alarmed – gin is of course available in plentiful supply in the Netherlands. But it’s a little bit pricey for the good stuff and the budget stuff is really, really bad – much worse than supermarket own brand in the UK. I recently made the mistake of buying the cheapo brand and my hangover is still pursuing me 3 weeks later. Thankfully, the Dutch have their own domestic variant of gin known as jenever, which is also infused with juniper berries but based on malt wine instead of vodka (the amount of malt wine depends on whether you buy jonge or oude). There are loads of jenever brands on the Dutch market and they are quite reasonably priced, so for financially limited gin-lovers, this is probably the way to go.
Fish and Chips
There are some nights, usually Fridays, when I would give my right arm for decent portion of fish and chips, coated in lashings of salt and vinegar and swaddled in a paper blanket. While nothing can truly compare, if your fish and chip hankerings are really getting to you then a good way to stave them off is to buy some kibbeling; deep-fried chunks of battered white fish. If you can’t hold out until market day when there are several competing kibbeling sellers, there is usually a mobile vendor in front of Leiden Centraal train station who operates until the early evening. Alternatively, if you have the budget to go upmarket, there is a fantastic fish restaurant in Scheveningen harbour called Simonis which specialises in frying several varieties of fish to perfection. If the delicious fish (and quite acceptable accompanying chips) alone isn’t enough to soothe your cravings, then at least the kitsch decoration will take your mind off them for a while. From the rowing boats and pretend shark adorning the ceiling to the glass table tops filled with sand and shells, Simonis is a veritable goldmine of nautical tat.
It must be said that in the UK some dating shows have become compulsive viewing. I know that for my sister, one of the main difficulties of studying abroad would be the lack of access to such televisual genius as Take Me Out, Dating in the Dark and The Love Machine. It’s ok though, because (aside from the obvious point that the internet age means there’s no such thing as inaccessibility to TV anymore) the Netherlands has some corking dating shows. I’ve already sung the praises of the wonderful Boer Zoekt Vrouw, but the fun doesn’t end there. For those viewers ensnared by the theme of agricultural romance, a similar show is De Speld in de Hooiberg (The Needle in the Haystack) a sort of agrarian version of The Bachelor, where women compete for the affections of a handsome farmer. Alternatively, De Grote Vakantie Show is a remarkable game-show/dating mash-up where young singles take part in various competitions, including one which sees the boys gradually strip down to their mankinis. The winners are rewarded with both an all-expenses-paid holiday and their pick of the bunch from a bevy of beautiful singles of the opposite sex to take along as a holiday companion. Who needs Paddy McGuinness and his bottomless bag of catchphrases with TV like that on offer?
Of course, there are some things for which there is just no substitute. Principal among these is “a proper brew”. Unfortunately, the Dutch don’t seem to understand that for a real cup of tea you need to use a bitterly black tea leaf, steep the bag for a minimum of 5 minutes and serve in a large mug with a dash of milk and, if possible, a digestive biscuit. I would rather not drink tea at all than put up with the insipid engelse melange, which still tastes mostly of water even after 10 minutes of mashing and some violent prodding of the bag with a teaspoon.
Thankfully, in Leiden there’s no need to reduce oneself to the level of Dutch tea novice. Tuckerbox, an Australian and British speciality shop on the Botermarkt, sells several respectable tea brands including Typhoo, PG Tips, Tetley and most importantly, my tea of choice, Yorkshire Gold. The price may be inflated, and you may suffer pangs of embarrassment from abandoning your integrationist principles and frequenting an ex-pat stronghold, but the day an Englishman lets a bit of discomfort stand between him and a good cuppa is a sad day for the nation indeed.