Category Archives: Utrecht/NL

'Going Dutch' by Russell Shorto

Interesting article ‘Going Dutch’ by author Russell Shorto on his stay in the Netherlands, comparing some aspects of Dutch culture and economics to what he’s used to in the U.S.  He was initially disturbed by a certain number…

For the first few months I was haunted by a number: 52. It reverberated in my head; I felt myself a prisoner trying to escape its bars. For it represents the rate at which the income I earn, as a writer and as the director of an institute, is to be taxed. To be plain: more than half of my modest haul, I learned on arrival, was to be swallowed by the Dutch welfare state.

But as he stays longer and gets a better sense of how things compare, it starts to sting a little less…

While the top income-tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, the numbers are a bit misleading. “People coming from the U.S. to the Netherlands focus on that difference, and on that 52 percent,” said Constanze Woelfle, an American accountant based in the Netherlands whose clients are mostly American expats. “But consider that the Dutch rate includes social security, which in the U.S. is an additional 6.2 percent. Then in the U.S. you have state and local taxes, and much higher real estate taxes. If you were to add all those up, you would get close to the 52 percent.”

And he finds some clear advantages to the Dutch system.

In the United States, for a family of four, I paid about $1,400 a month for a policy that didn’t include dental care and was so filled with co-pays, deductibles and exceptions that I routinely found myself replaying in my mind the Monty Python skit in which the man complains about his insurance claim and the agent says, “In your policy it states quite clearly that no claim you make will be paid.” A similar Dutch policy, by contrast, cost 300 euros a month (about $390), with no co-pays, and included dental coverage; about 90 percent of the cost of my daughter’s braces was covered.

Shorto covers much more ground than simply taxes and health insurance… well worth a read to get a sense of some of the unique aspects of the Dutch system – it’s not a simple matter of direct government control.  And some things really are just culturally different; examining other cultures can help you see what’s special about your own.

Saying Goodbye…

Fog on the Dom

I’ve had a great stay in Utrecht since September last year. But it’s come time to get back to the U.S., so this will be a last look at my surroundings here. Lately we’ve had some foggy mornings and rainy days…

November Window in Utrecht

In one of my first posts here, I had a picture of a plaque that’s above the front door of the building, and here it is again:

Schurman plaque - Utrecht

It says that Anna Maria van Schurman lived at this spot; a Wikipedia entry can be found for her. Last week, these flowers appeared at our front doorstep, celebrating the 401st birthday of Maria van Schurman. The past lives on here.

Schurman flowers at 401

Bureaucratics in Rotterdam

Bureaucratics - Jan Banning

Saw a very good photography exhibit in Rotterdam this past weekend, at the Kunsthal. The show’s titled “Bureaucratics” and it features square shots of various civil servants at their desks in offices around the world – I remember shots from Bolivia, China, Texas, India, several African countries, Russia, and more. The photos are by Jan Banning, who in fact lives here in Utrecht. There’s a taste above, and you can see more on his web site (click on Photo Series / Bureaucratics to see lots of them). The shots from India are remarkable for the stacks and stacks of paperwork all around, whereas the African offices are nearly empty.

Utrecht landmark

Rietveld Schröder House

This weekend I finally made it to an architectural landmark in Utrecht, the Rietveld Schröder House, built in 1924 on what was then the outskirts of town.  Quite obviously a very modern and striking departure from the buildings of the time, it was commissioned by a woman named Truus Schröder, whose husband had died leaving her with three children.  The architect was Gerrit Rietveld, who got his start designing furniture.  Rietveld’s design was inspired by the art movement De Stijl, most well known nowadays from the paintings of Piet Mondriaan (example below from 1921).

Mondriaan - Tableau - 1921

Remarkably Schröder lived in the house the rest of her life, until 1985, at which time the house was given to the Centraal Museum of Utrecht.  She had changed very little in the interior, so the house today is virtually as it was over 80 years ago, with furniture designed by Rietveld and many interior design features by Schröder.  She wanted an open living space upstairs, and this was achieved with a set of sliding walls that could be pulled out to divide the space or pushed back to open it up.  The innovative use of windows and steel beam structural components made for a light-filled interior quite different from most Dutch housing of the time.

Neue Leipziger Schule – Art in Amstelveen

Martin Kobe

Last weekend I happened upon a new museum show at the CoBrA Museum in Amstelveen, a suburb just to the south of Amsterdam.  It’s a group show entitled “Neue Leipziger Schule” featuring the new generation of painters from Leipzig in the former east German, the most famous name at the moment being Neo Rauch.  I wrote earlier about Matthias Weischer, another painter represented in the show.

Martin Kobe

When I was in Leipzig this summer I went out to visit the art center that’s been created at the former textile factory complex, and found the gallery that represents Rauch and Weischer, discovering another painter that I quite liked, David Schnell.  This show at the CoBrA features a couple more painters who have stylistic similarities to Schnell, and I’d like to see more of their work.  The first is Martin Kobe – the images above are examples of his work – and the second is Ulf Puder, example below.

Ulf Puder painting

These 3D worlds of partial architectures seem influenced by scenes created in computer games, and I find them to be very interesting to ponder.  No, I don’t make any claim to understand them…  assuming there’s something to understand above and beyond the visual interest inherent in these paintings.

Bikes, Bikes, Bikes!

Enough financial news for the moment – back to some local coverage!

Bikes in Utrecht

Yes, always lots of bicycles around in Utrecht!

Bike Lane

Above you see a line up at an intersection. Below, a great customized Pink Panther bike, with room for two in the front compartment!

Pink Panther bike

And here’s a more serene view of the outer canal…

Green Canal in Utrecht

Wind Power!

Curt at Kinderdijk


Yesterday I rode out to Kinderdijk near Rotterdam, a spot where about 20 old windmills still stand. They were built in 1738-1740, and were built so families could live in them. They were used to move water. As you can see, the wind power idea hasn’t changed a whole lot in nearly 3oo years.

Windmills at Kinderdijk

And while on the topic of wind energy, I noted this in Sunday’s column from Tom Friedman (who I don’t always agree with, but I think he’s right on about energy these days), where he writes on Denmark’s success with wind energy.

“Today, one-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark.” [Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister of climate and energy, quoted] In the last 10 years, Denmark’s exports of energy efficiency products have tripled. Energy technology exports rose 8 percent in 2007 to more than $10.5 billion in 2006, compared with a 2 percent rise in 2007 for Danish exports as a whole.

“It is one of our fastest-growing export areas,” said Hedegaard. It is one reason that unemployment in Denmark today is 1.6 percent. In 1973, said Hedegaard, “we got 99 percent of our energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.”

Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.

Why should you care?

“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months,” said Engel, “and not one out of the U.S.”

A bit of history of Utrecht

Utrecht Dom 1674

Above is (my photo of) a painting of what the Utrecht Dom presumably looked like in 1674, just prior to the big storm that knocked down a good portion of it. The Dom was built on a bit of high ground that was earlier marked out by the Romans in around year 50. Here is a graphic map of the area around the Dom with markers of buildings and walls that existed at various times.

Utrecht Dom Map

The outside border with the rounded corners marks the Roman settlement, called Castellum Trajectum. I live near the upper right corner of the map. The Dom tower is marked by the two rectangles over toward the left side. The portion in the middle marks the area that was destroyed in 1674. Next is a representation I found today of the Dom built out of sand!

Utrecht Dom Tower in sand

Utrecht Dom in sand

This view is from the north-west, of the back side of the Dom. The portion on the right side of the photo is where the damage occurred. And here’s what some of this looks like today:

Utrecht Dom today

The border visible in the street at the bottom marks the boundary of the old Roman settlement (this is a view from the north), and by next year they will be putting that marker in place all around the Dom area. Here are a couple more then and now shots; first a photo from about 100 years ago along the old canal, with the Dom tower.

Utrecht Oudegracht (old)

And a shot today from a bit closer to the tower.

Utrecht Oudegracht (today)

Update: a couple days ago I finally climbed the tower – it’s about 96 meters high, which translates into some 460 steps. You can go all the way to the top – the level right at the top of the photo above! It’s quite a view over the whole area. I also learned a bit more of the history of the tower – it was actually built over 60 years from 1320 to 1380, after the rear part of the church was built. It was only a couple hundred years later that the rest of the church was finished.

Along the canal

Here’s a shot from this past weekend, out on a bike ride with some co-workers, we stopped in at a fancy restaurant right on the canal, between Maarssen and Breukelen.  Unfortunately this photo captured about the only 10 minutes of sun for the day!  The rest of the ride was a little wet, but we did find a good place selling fresh cherries.

Along the canal



Orange is the color of the day! That’s because Holland has gotten off to a great start in the Euro 2008 soccer tournament, with victories over Italy (3-0) and France (4-1). I’m not much of a fan really, but it’s great fun to see how the country has come alive and the national color is out all over. Read all the latest news on the Euro 2008 site.

Update: Well, it’s all over now.  Last night Germany lost to Spain, 1-0.  A kind of surprising result after all the higher-scoring matches.  I watched the Dutch lose to Russia in the Old Town Square in Prague, then saw the Russians lose to Spain a few nights later.