For the first 5 weeks of our stay in the Netherlands, my wife Janet, daughter Elyse and I lived in a 4th floor studio apartment in the city of Groningen. The total area of the apartment was approximately 14 ft x 33 ft (or I should say 4.2m x 9.9 m!) . Here’s a view of the outside of our apartment. Local people have said that our building originally served as one of the many warehouses that dot this city from when, centuries ago, Groningen was a main commercial center.
The past five weeks has been an experience of family togetherness on a daily and nearly hourly basis – and one which actually stretched back to the month previous when we traveled together to visit family and friends across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, D.C. and Virginia. These past couple months have reminded me (as if I needed a reminder) that my wife and daughter are two pretty fantastic people. As we’ve shared much of every day over the past five weeks in our 462 square feet (or 41.2 square meters!) , I’ve had a renewed appreciation for their humor, grace and patience!
All that said, I want to dispel the notion that our apartment was overly small. One of our coping mechanisms with our floor plan was to view it in a spatially optimistic way. So in case you missed this in the first photograph of this post, the pictures below provide a fuller reality of the space that we have inhabited! Here’s our apartment looking to the south with its array of amenities.
And here’s our space looking from the other direction, to the north.
And as the old TV ad campaign said, “But wait, there’s more!” Here’s the view on the landing outside our door.
Surely by this point, your trained eye has already picked up the multiple uses in this seemingly limited space. To point out a few . . .
Counting this BONUS 16 square feet enlarged our total space to 478 square feet! But wait, there’s more!!
One pesky limitation of our apartment was that it’s wifi service was rather weak. This was due to the fact that the router was located on the ground floor of our building. This meant that if you took your laptop or cell phone all the way down to the 1st floor entryway, you had a GREAT connection. Or, you could sit on the 2nd floor landing and have a STRONG connection. Or, you could settle for the 3rd floor landing (as Janet is doing in the above pic) and have a perfectly adequate connection. All this means that we could effectively add the 180 square feet of the entire staircase to our studio apartment floor plan, boosting out space to a jaw dropping 658 square feet!
But wait, there’s more!
All the residents of Groningen adopt the city squares and cafes as an extension of their own living rooms. Take the Grote Markt, for instance. Several outdoor cafes are sprinkled around this majestic square that measures (by my rough estimation) 75,000 square feet. Now add this to our already enhanced floor plan and that yields us a total living area of 75,658 square feet (22,500 square meters)! It’s all about perspective.
I thought I’d share a few other notes about our apartment living. There is no trash pickup on our street. (Garbage trucks do service some neighborhoods with the typical mechanical arm reaching out, grabbing the can, and emptying it in the truck.) In our case, we take our garbage bag(s) out of our building, cross another street, and deposit it as you’ll see in the clip below.
Mail delivery seems to be relatively light as the Dutch do so much electronically. There are few actual stand alone post offices (I have yet to see one) — most are located in grocery stores or other retail outlets. In our apartment building, the mail deliverer pushes letters through a slot and residents then lay the mail out on the steps. As you go around the city, you see stickers pasted on mail slots indicating JA or NEE (yes or no) as to whether or not you wish to receive junk mail or other solicitations. When I first saw the stickers, I thought they were political signs urging people to vote one way or another on some upcoming ballot measure!
You can see that junk mail is no more popular on this side of the Atlantic!
Thinking about our own lodgings leads me to consider the Dutch homes that we’ve encountered over the past five weeks. As we go around Groningen and the surrounding towns and countryside, we tend to see homes that are more modest in size than what one often sees in the States (although there are grand homes as well).
Aside from their size, a few features have stood out to me about Dutch homes. First, there is THE window. Many Dutch homes have a large picture window on the front of their homes that frequently opens up a view straight through the home and into the back yard. (You can’t help but look!) An acquaintance this week suggested at least one reason for this common architectural element. He reminded me (actually, I was surprised!) that New York City is on the same latitude as the southern European capitol of Rome. So the Netherlands and the rest of northern Europe are on the same latitude as Canada. This means that come winter time, the shortest day of the year in December will yield just 7 hours of daylight. So it may be that the Dutch place a premium on sunlight – and so strive to have windows with the greatest possible aperture.
Along with these big windows, however, the Dutch treasure their privacy. So one often sees wide bands of frosted glass across these large front windows. It’s a way on one hand of letting in the light, but at the same time also shielding the residents from (ahem) the prying eyes of those walking or cycling by.
You may need to look carefully to see the “privacy band” of frosted glass across the window above. On any given day, you’ll see many variations on the style and patterns of the frosted glass.
I mentioned back yards. Many Dutch homes favor their back yards as places of refuge. So it’s common to see (as you accidentally glance into someone’s home) that french doors spill out into beautiful gardens. They remind me a bit like how homes in cities in Mexico or in Africa present a wall to the street, hiding interior courtyards that are totally hidden from sight.
Pat Ninneman commented after Post No 4 about those famous gables that have hooks hanging from them. Indeed, given the precipitous pitch and tight turns of staircases, these hanging hooks have been used for some 500 years to haul large items up to the upper floors through the windows. The fact that they remain in use today was particularly evident on this street in Amsterdam.
That same day, we saw some workmen hauling building materials using this winch.
Janet, Elyse and I were recently walking around Groningen when we encountered the modern approach of Dutch furniture moving companies. They rig up a conveyor belt of sorts that holds a metal cart into which the movers load furniture, boxes, appliances and other items. Then with a push of a button, the items glide up the belt and are unloaded into the home.
We are constantly intrigued by Dutch architecture and how it is applied to homes. There’s the traditional ‘stepped’ and ‘scalloped’ façades that you see in many city buildings as well as on individual homes.
In the Groningen region (Groningen is both a city and a province) one often sees homes that sport beautifully thatched roofs. They seem to me more akin to works of sculpture than mere roofing!
And then there are many striking modern homes as the Dutch have enthusiastically embraced modern architecture.
What perhaps intrigues me most is seeing how the Dutch combine the modern with the traditional — often in buildings side-by-side. Sometimes one sees these different styles dynamically incorporated in the same home!
Cycling into the country yielded another point of fascination — BARNS! In most of the farmsteads that we have seen, it appears as though — in a Dutch variation on American suburbia! — many farmhouses have attached barns! Many of these barns now appear to have been converted into extensions of the residences. But originally, it appears that the Dutch valued the convenience of being able to walk directly from the kitchen into the milking stalls.
Last of all, you cannot speak about Dutch living quarters without mentioning houseboats! Every Dutch city with canals features a wide variety of houseboats lining the waterways. These floating homes have utility hookups, and sometimes even their own little patch of yard along the canal, complete with a swing set, storage shed or other regular backyard features. Some of the houseboats are converted barges while others appear to be specifically designed as houseboats. Of these, many are rectangular in shape. Others, however, are looking to make more of a stylish splash!
I’m going to spend some time hanging out along the canals to see if I can strike up a conversation with one of the owners and hopefully get an on-board tour! If I succeed, I’ll dedicate a future post to living on the water!
But whether your dwelling is on terra firma or afloat, the description of a home often comes back to space. Square footage. Just how much room do we need? That is one of the questions that we’re exploring in this year of adventure.
While our studio apartment served us well (for the most part!) in our opening five weeks, I am glad to tell you that I’m completing this post from an actual dining room table in our new home that we moved into five days ago! Yes, we said goodbye to our 4 story walk up!
Unfortunately there was no hook on our gable or conveyor belt to lower our luggage to the street below. But, carrying them down was considerably easier given that (a) gravity was with us this time and (b) the temperature was 30 degrees cooler than when we moved in five weeks ago!
But then the biggest help came from our new Dutch friends, Pieter and Mirjam, because we had a problem. We had to be out of our apartment by 11:00 a.m., but couldn’t get into our new place until 2:00 p.m. What were we going to do with 8 suitcases, 5 storage boxes, a printer and our precious fan?! We were imagining some scenarios with multiple taxis, camping out in a cafe during our waiting time, and then hiring more taxis to get to the house. But then Pieter (below in pic) and Mirjam volunteered (with their car!) to (a) move all our stuff to their house, (b) served us a delicious luncheon (have you ever made a sandwich with sliced goat cheese??) and then (c) moved our stuff over to our new place once we had the keys. Talk about hospitality! Thank you Pieter and Mirjam!
As for our new place, it’s located on the east side of Groningen on a street called Petrus Campersingel. It takes us 5 minutes to get to the center of the city by bike. Janet and I estimate that our new residence has about 1,500 square feet, spread across three floors, although in a somewhat curious way! I’m sure I’ll speak more of it in posts to come.
For now, I’ll just note that like many Dutch homes, we have our large front window on the ground floor . . .
. . . as well as a lovely garden and deck in the back.
This will be our base for the next 11 months. Now it’s time to settle in, and make a home.