The other day, before setting off on a family trip, I asked a colleague with a professional history in the region what were the redeeming qualities of the Netherlands. Belgium, which sits equally uncomfortably at the nexus of regional powers not always on good terms, has waffles, beer and Islamists so rabid they make the murderous child molesters of an earlier generation seem like a minor scourge. What does the Netherlands have? My colleague didn't know either.
I got my first idea upon disembarking at Schiphol. Like any good airport, it has a train station in the basement. Any part of the country is only a short ride away. We were on our way to Den Haag. Similar to what I had seen in Nice a few weeks earlier, the ticket machines in Schiphol only accepted cards and coins. We paid by card and were served a pair of tickets each with a €1 surcharge imprinted on it.
Was this for using the machine? Maybe it was for paying by card. Somewhere I had read something like this. The next morning, I bought our tickets to Leiden at the ticket counter. Another pair of €1 surcharges was the result. It turned out not to be a particular overcharge but a fee to pay for the ticket itself, as if what you were buying wasn't the right to travel from A to B but a little piece of paper.
The reason behind this is that Dutch Railways is pushing its customers to use a rechargeable electronic card much like the Oyster card in London. However, in contrast to the Oyster, whose initial cost is refundable upon return of the card, the Dutch smart card costs €7.50, money gone for good. As a visitor for four days only, I felt swindled.
An expatriate I spoke to felt swindled as well. Her rechargeable card requires a minimum balance of €20 to pass through a ticket gate at the station, even though her daily journeys between Den Haag and Leiden cost only a fraction of that. How will she recover her money when she leaves the country if she's not allowed to run the balance down?
Perhaps the swindle is the defining characteristic of the Netherlands. No one- or two-cent coins are in circulation but goods are still priced ending in 99¢. This is not something imposed by the government. Retailers have elected not to use the small denominations, which remain legal tender. For the stores' convenience, the customer has to pay. When you buy a t-shirt at the local chain or a jar of green goo for the baby, your bill includes a cheerful afronding, a cent you're obliged to hand over to the store so it can do better business.
In Switzerland, where 1-cent coins were removed from circulation in 2007, prices tend to end in 10¢. If your bill is indivisible by 5, at the local discounter that can't do without 99¢ prices, for example, the amount to pay is always rounded down to the nearest 5¢. In the Netherlands, in contrast, you get swindled.
At the end of our day in Leiden – nice place by the way though the homicidal cyclists are a steep price to pay for a nearly car-free city, how they shoot, projectile-like, through streets and bike lanes, on sidewalks and footpaths, and alongside canals, with utter disregard for traffic and pedestrians, imbued by a powerful sense of entitlement that causes their faces to contort in anger when they have to slow down, and you can count yourself lucky that you weren't hit and hurt – at the end of that day we sat down in a bar and a had a drink.
Bistomath is notoriously difficult, complex enough to drive a starship, but in this case, it was easy. We were three; each of us had had a drink. The third drinker, by the way, wasn't the baby. It was Flucha's sister, the expatriate mentioned above. When the bill came, it was four items long. This was quickly corrected and the amount reduced by a quarter.
When I paid for dinner later that night, I checked that bill as well, just to be sure. The chocolate milk could have been there by accident. I went back inside the restaurant the claim the difference. It should have been €2.95. I got my money with a friendly smile but without an apology. When I counted it, already out of the door again, it added up to €1.95.
If there was one good thing about the Netherlands – and I haven't even talked about Hotel Patten yet where I had to ask for a vacuum cleaner because none had been used in the room for several weeks or the Chinatown restaurant, its menu entirely in pictures that bore no relationship whatsoever to the plates on the tables around us, where we waited for dumplings until we got bored and left – it's that you can order a bottle of Trappist beer at pretty much any restaurant or bar. I know it's Belgian, but that's as good as it gets.