The Dutch, Dutch coffee and Dutch borrel

Having looked at the marvels of Belgian food, let’s move to its neighbouring country and have a look at the Dutch.

The Dutch nation is situated in the Netherlands, which is a beautiful country, famous for its flatness, cosy farms, gorgeous mills, and obviously, the unprecedented amount of bikes. Bikes are everywhere, and it is a national transport. You are considered as really weird and not ‘gezellig’ if you don’t have one. It is almost a crime not to possess and ride a bike, as well as calling the Netherlands – Holland, a place, which doesn’t even exist. There is South Holland and North Holland, two provinces which are just a part of the Netherlands, but Dutch people are very tolerant, so they forgive you for this silly mistake of assuming they all come from ‘Holland’.

 Bikes are a true national trait, but so is coffee. The ritual around this divine drink isn’t replicated anywhere, not even close.

(Dutch bike)

Dutch people love coffee. Coffee is not just a drink, but an essential part of the day. Dutch people start their day with coffee, and drink it throughout the day. If you go to a canteen in the office, you won’t stumble upon tea (and if someone drinks tea, it means they come from England), you will be greeted with coffee. Coffee machine is always on, brewing.

Coffee is a Dutch institution. If you meet someone for a business meeting, or just among friends, it is usually around coffee. Even the famous Dutch expression ‘going Dutch’ was invented in relation to coffee. Dutch people don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of coffee, by sitting and thinking about who is going to pick up the bill. They know from the start that everyone pays for their own coffee, and just relax in the moment. Coffee should be enjoyed in peace, savoured in its taste, fully processed and not hurried up. They have a right to it though, as Dutch coffee is indeed a treat.

(enjoying the coffee)

Yes, Dutch people know how to make coffee. It is always made in a right way. It should never be a brown liquid, it should live up to its name. Coffee is strong, real coffee, never saved upon. While Dutch people don’t like discussing money and who earns how much, coffee is there no expense should be spared. It is probably the best-selling drink in the Netherlands. Everyone drinks it.

The first time I attended a family gathering in the Netherlands, at a birthday party of a relative of my family member, I was trying to process the awkward sequence of how food was served. It was so bizarre that back home, in Moscow, I couldn’t stop laughing about it with my friends. “Can you imagine,” I would say, “They start the party in a reverse order! They first serve coffee and cake, followed by normal food!” I was laughing about it for ages, until I moved to the Netherlands and learned the pleasure of coffee. Yes, everything starts with coffee, cake is just an accompaniment.

It is also only in the Netherlands that coffee is always served with something extra, such as a biscuit, a chocolate, or a waffle. If you know about it, you don’t even need to order a dessert. The dessert comes with coffee, included in the price. It is such a luxury, that no one can really accuse the Dutch of being not exuberant enough. Just look at how coffee is served, always and everywhere, and you will witness the ultimate exuberance. Here in the Netherlands I drink coffee, lots of it, strolling from one small cosy café to another (takeaways at this moment), ordering it after dinner, and during lunch. I savour it, I enjoy it, I study the different biscuits which come with it.

(coffee and a treat)

Coffee is not, of course, the only best thing about the Netherlands (though, extremely important!), it is also their bread and the national ‘gezelligheid’ called the ‘borrel’. Both words are difficult to translate, as is usually the case with true and unique cultural traditions, but I will try to explain.

Dutch people really love the word ‘gezellig’, and for a good reason, as it defines them as a nation. The term can be translated as ‘cosy’, but it implies so much more. ‘Gezellig’ is not just ‘cosy’, it is the whole essence of total relaxation, cosiness, and also of enjoying the moment. And ‘gezelligheid’ is the ultimate cosiness, achieved in the company of good friends, usually around coffee or a good Dutch ‘borrel’. ‘Borrel’ is an event. It is going out with friends and colleague to enjoy some nice drinks, and preferably around ‘borrel hapjes’. If you order a borrel on the Dutch menu, you will get the ultimate tapas. A selection of delicious snacks, that you can enjoy with a good glass of wine or beer, while having a good moment with your friends. It is a tradition, a perfect event to enjoy friendship, nice drinks, and great food, all in one go. It is indeed ‘gezellig’, it is indeed the absolute ‘gezelligheid’.

(Dutch borrel)

And so, to summarize, if you ever go to the Netherlands, and you want to enjoy it as a Dutch, you need to borrow a bike, drink lots of coffee, order a ‘borrel’, and try their bread. It is thin, melting in the mouth, coming in different colours. The brown bread is not just brown bread, it’s darker brown, or lighter brown, with seeds, or plain, perfect accompaniment for any dish!

The Netherlands is ‘gezellig’.

(cheers!)

Being Mad is Liberating

Being mad is liberating. Well, at least with practice and determination, because, let’s face it, being mental (with a confirmed diagnosis) is not a high status on the scale of popularity in our society, defined as it is by the standards of normality.

My own sense of liberation came around two years ago when I was sitting on a bench in the park. A man literally materialised himself on the same bench a minute later, smoking a cigar in a leisured manner. I didn’t see him approaching and his whole appearance was slightly bizarre: mismatched glasses, dirty trousers and an expensive red tie.

It didn’t take me long to start thinking that it might be the Devil, a character I met in all of my psychoses. After an initial deliberation about whether I was experiencing a hallucination (unlikely since the man kept on sitting where he was even after I blinked several times in a row) or a delusion (an explanation more probable than the first), I dismissed these probabilities firmly from my head. I knew that I wasn’t psychotic, helped by the fact that I was on a low dose of quetiapine, and that while I had no proof that the man might be the Devil, he also could be, even if according to the psychiatrists, seeing the character and all other bizarre occurrences belong to the domain of insanity.

I walked away from the bench as fast as I could, because to be honest, I try to avoid the Devil in all his manifestations, but this experience got me thinking. What if the things that mad people see and hear are real? What if there is this tiny possibility that the truth indeed lies in madness and not in what is projected to us by the society as being normal?

I have to admit that simultaneously writing a Ph.D. thesis on how Facebook collects its data helped me in the matter of thinking about my own madness and the madness of others. You see, Facebook and all other Internet companies as well as grocery shops (via their loyalty cards) store everything that comes on their radar. They know all about your daily habits, your friends, what you like having for your breakfast and whether you are single or not. This is in line with what the majority of mad people believe – that we are constantly being watched. Tell this to a psychiatrist? He will answer that you are mental, despite the evidence to the contrary. We are being watched, every single moment of our day and night.

The presence of the Devil is obviously harder to prove and it is not something that I am planning to discuss with psychiatrists in any point of my remaining life. But in an unlikely event that it might happen, I already know their answer. The Devil will be put into the basket of hallucinations or delusions, despite the fact that almost all religions of the world admit his existence.

Here’s a question that has been bothering me for a while: Why is it that while there are considerably more people who are mental than there are psychiatrists, it is the mad who are called being stupid (but in a politically correct way)?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against psychiatrists as such. Most of them do try to help, and I met a couple among them who turned out to be brilliant and fun people. I do take their medication even if I learned from experience that unless I am ready to live like a zombie, I should administer my own dose and not the one they prescribe.

No, it is a lack of a dialogue with psychiatrists that annoys me the most. We know, of course, that psychiatry is an establishment, discussed in length and depth by those willing to sacrifice themselves to the cause. Michel Foucault was perhaps the most prominent scholar in the field and he pointed quite correctly to the fact that psychiatry simply fits into the trend of growing medicalization, where everything that falls outside normality should be treated immediately with some miraculous pills. And usually this is done with such an attitude of arrogance that even those who had no problem in the first place start believing that they are terminally ill.

I did have a problem when I was admitted to the hospital with an acute psychosis for the first time. I didn’t sleep for ten days brought about by the stress of life. I was working for two years as a financial analyst of banks, and as financial crises demonstrate quite clearly, working in finances can drive anyone mad.

The thought pattern after a prolonged insomnia does perhaps belong to the realm of insanity, but among the chaos I was demonstrating to the medical staff who admitted me to the hospital near the city of Amsterdam, there were glimpses of what was really happening with me (besides boring explanations which can be found in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

“I am Buddha,” I told to my doctor and this is exactly how I was feeling at that time. I was feeling light, happy, full of life. Banks under my analysis could go and fuck themselves and I, Ekaterina from Russia, was ready to enter into a higher vintage point.

The doctor didn’t share my wishes towards happiness. He didn’t even smile (or laugh, which would be even more appropriate) and instead of congratulating me on the fact that I finally started to see the truth, that I was on some road of enlightenment and should abandon my job in finances once and for all, he declared with a solemnly serious face,

“I think you are mad.”

In retrospect, the only mad thing I did was share my thoughts with the doctors. Was I Buddha really? No, I wasn’t, even if it is entirely possible that I was one in my past life. No, my state of Buddhahood was pointing towards the general dilemma experienced by our society. I wanted to be out of the system based on accumulation, statuses and endless consumption. I wanted to be free.

But this is the problem with most psychiatrists, in my opinion. They don’t have a broad vision of life. Their focus is on details, on something that treats manifestations and not the underlying cause. They simply don’t understand the madness, because in order to understand it, one has to be mad himself. How can you treat something when you don’t see or hear the same thing?

As Nietzsche once said, “Why does man not see things? He is himself standing in the way. He conceals things.” Funnily enough, he described in this way the state of psychiatry today. Psychiatry conceals things.

But because of the weight that the whole establishment carries on its shoulders, we are obliged to obey and if we don’t, we are forced to. My path towards enlightenment was cut short after that doctor put me on a killing dose of risperidone and suggested that I might suffer from schizophrenia. The only thing I could think of after the treatment was how nice it would be to die.

More diagnoses followed later, more hospitalisations (it is normal that one stops a medication that can potentially kill) and more tears. It was only enormous determination on my part, as well as simple curiosity, that finally helped me to get away from those psychiatrists. I haven’t seen them now for five years, I said goodbye to their claws even if the diagnosis of bipolar hangs firmly above my head.

But I don’t mind, because this diagnosis gives me the opportunity to speak. It shows that I’ve been there, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the sad faces of patients who are told day after day that they are mad.

But what is madness exactly? Psychiatry describes it as a loss of touch with reality, as foolish behaviour, as insanity. It is amazing that we take their definitions seriously, considering that those who do see things, outnumber the ones who don’t.

Michel Foucault describes it as a discourse. Somewhere by someone it was decided that those who are more powerful should mistreat those who are weak, and while we see the rise of fight on behalf of other groups who have been discriminated against in the past, this rise towards freedom and equality from the mad is a slow process. This, I believe, is because of stigma, because they are afraid to speak, and because society is scared of anything that points to the fact that there might be another reality.

After that walk in the park, I admitted to myself for the first time that what I see is real. I see angels and fairies, I believe in the afterlife, I talk with animals and I know all about my past lives. And yes, I did meet the Devil. His numerous appearances helped me to realise that madness can also be a battle for one’s soul. I am a firm Christian as a result.

Am I being mad? Probably. But this is what I like in my life. If, on that day I was admitted to the hospital for the first time, someone asked me whether I would like to become normal again and forget about everything that happened to me, I would say a definite no. Because I remember how I was, sitting in a boring job day after day and believing that life was about my next salary, a useless trip to the gym and which diet to follow.

No, life is not about that, I’ve realized. Life is about discovery and madness, and seeing it this way is a sure way to get it right. I am finally free.

(This article was first published on Mad in America in 2015, but I asked to remove it, due to stigma.)

Here is the link to the original article.

The Russian Patient. Chapter One

According to the Chinese, everything in this universe evolves within yin and yang energy. Yin represents the feminine, water and passive. Yang is the male, fire and active. Both have to be in harmony, which exists to maintain balance in our universe and within each of us.

My body had to undergo a major shock at the age of twenty-seven to recognize that my yin and yang balance was severely distorted. True, at my birth I received the perfect fire and water combination. I was born in a female body in July in Moscow in the Chinese year of dragon. My zodiac sign is cancer and my year of birth is the dragon. The cancer is water and the dragon is fire. However, as one Russian politician once put it: ‘we tried our best, but you know the rest’. The hospital where I was born did not have any hot water on that lucky day, and my small body was washed with cold water. This first event in my life is reflected in the picture taken immediately after the cold water procedure. Everyone looks happy and cheerful, except me. The creature in the photo has a blue face and looks like it is going to die. Which almost happened, as according to my mum, I developed a terrible flu and was lucky to live. What’s lucky is a big question, since I am not that sure that my life has been particularly lucky.

            In any case, after the cold water and the flu, the yang element took over, and I developed the strange idea that life is about survival. One has to put in enormous efforts in order to be alive, feel happy, and receive love.

            By the age of twenty-seven I was convinced that I had everything one was supposed to achieve with this kind of thinking. I had a nice job by society’s standards, was exercising my body like mad in a very good gym and was dating all kinds of weirdoes, which as far as I could see, was the case of almost all of my friends. And I strongly believed that I had put in enormous efforts in order to have the life that I had.

            Then, what was wrong with me, you might ask?

            One sure thing was that I had terrible problems with my mind. It was unable to shut it up. Although I seriously doubt that my power animal was a little mouse, I have the impression that my mind was constantly busy with analysing and scrutinising. Once I tried a trick, I made an attempt to get rid of my thoughts. I was even able to watch them at some point, like dark heavy clouds around my head.

            ‘Ekaterina, you are not worthy!’

            ‘Ekaterina, you are stupid.’

            ‘Ekaterina, you are a failure.’

            ‘Ekaterina, you are a total failure.’

            ‘Ekaterina, you are bad.’

            ‘Please, god, take away my mind.’

            ‘There is no god!’

            ‘I need a cigarette.’

            ‘You are mad!’

            ‘Please, god, help me.’

            ‘According to Nietzsche, god is dead.’

            ‘Nietzsche was mad.’

            ‘So, are you.’

            ‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.’

            You see, I did have a problem.

            Another black spot in my biography is my name. My name, Netchitailova, is the size of a skyscraper in New York city and caused me only trouble while subscribing to libraries or opening a bank account. Netchitailova is unpronounceable in other languages other than Russian and means unreadable. This in itself is quite a pity, since my biggest passion in life is reading. Though it is not as bad as some other names in the Russian language. Imagine if you have the name Netchactlivaya, which means unhappy, and try to convince strangers or your friends that you might be in a cheerful mood.

            The third thing, which is for sure, is that officially I am indeed mad. A certificate from psychiatrists that I’ve been psychotic (and more than once) is definite proof of my madness.

            What is psychosis, you might ask? The usual scientific definition explains this phenomenon as a state of mind which is characterised by a loss of contact with reality, accompanied by delusions and hallucinations (including hearing voices). Well, it probably does not say much to you as, according to this definition, the majority of the world population is in constant psychosis. Someone is suffering from a delusion of being on a mission from god to liberate the world from terrorists, another believes in extra-terrestrials and I know a woman who makes millions of dollars by claiming that she can communicate with dead people.

            A real psychosis is when your madness is confirmed by a certified psychiatrist.

            I have, for instance, a friend who believed all his life that in his previous incarnation he was Napoleon. Nothing is wrong with this belief (which might be true as a matter of fact), but be careful to whom you reveal your deepest secret. My friend started to talk about his Napoleonic ambitions at his work. Well, he ended up in the hospital. 

            As for me, I freaked out on a rather ordinary day in November while sitting behind my desk at my job in Amsterdam. It was pouring with rain – but that’s a usual thing in that city. Starting from October till April in general, almost everyone in the Netherlands is battling with the feelings of depression due to strong wind, constant rain, and grey sky.

            I wasn’t battling with depression though, but rather with euphoria. I had this feeling that something magical was awaiting me in the near future. That the life I knew now would be transformed into something much more interesting and fulfilling.      I suppose that practically everyone reaches this point in life nowadays, at least in Western society. The point when life appears to be worthless and one starts asking oneself serious questions about fate, the purpose of life, and one’s own role in society. I wouldn’t assume that so many people reach this moment in life, if the amount of self-help books in the stores didn’t testify otherwise. Nowadays it’s the biggest selling market in the book world.

            I reached this point rather early in life, at the age of twenty-seven. Maybe because I was Russian – and Russians are well known for exporting crazy and suicidal elements to the rest of the world, or maybe because I worked in finances. Bankers are the first to react despairingly in crises – as the amount of suicides demonstrates at each and every financial crisis.

            I wasn’t a banker, but I was a financial analyst of banks. In between lunches at banks, where I could at least indulge in my love of food (when I was allowing myself the pleasure of eating), I was battling with overwhelming boredom. Analysing figures and reading annual reports of banks for five days a week for two years straight can drive anyone mad.

            But since quite a lot of financial analysts of banks don’t go crazy, I guess that in my case there was something else besides simple boredom. Now, looking back with some perspective, I suppose that it wasn’t just the job – it was the whole routine of organizing your life when you have to sit the whole day in an office.

            Just think, for a second, about what exactly I mean. If you happen to work in an office as well – you might quite easily visualize the picture.

            Your day starts with the terrible beep of an alarm. Not only are they really unpleasant, they also intervene, in a nasty way, into the natural functioning of your body. You would love to continue seeing that last dream (something like enjoying a holiday in the Bahamas) for five minutes more, but eventually you end up dragging yourself out of your warm and cosy bed to attend to your responsibilities.

            Then you grab, from the fridge, whatever is available for your breakfast (assuming you are well organized and do have something in your fridge), take a quick shower and run towards the underground station as you realise that you might be late. As usual.

            In the underground station (or… on a bus), once having managed to battle through a crowd to get onto the train, you have to endure standing close to irritated and sleep-deprived fellow passengers, who are more than happy to invade your personal space as you do theirs. And in case you go by car to work, I bet you spend some quality time in a traffic jam.

            By the time you rush into the office, it’s rare that you are in a cheerful mood.

And it’s just the beginning of your day. You still have to face eight long hours (at least) in the office.

            From these eight hours, as a general rule, you need to pretend that you are working for a minimum four hours (to keep up appearances and stay in good graces with your boss). You do have to act as if you are doing something useful, in between coffee breaks, chatting with colleagues, checking private mails or your Facebook account (if it’s not yet banned at your workplace).

            You survive till lunch (the best part of the working day by all standards), but then the worst part of the day lasts for eternity. Our bodies are programmed in such a way that the most natural thing to do after your lunch is to have a good nap.

            But no, in your case you have to drag yourself back behind your desk and struggle with a terrible desire to sleep for the best part of the afternoon. You try to focus on your job (with difficulty), while at the same time constantly checking the clock to see how much time is left till you are free to go home.

            Still… at this point, you try to think of doing something positive about your life once out of the office. Instead of watching the next episode of Eastenders or sabotaging your brain with something like Big Brother, you envision yourself doing something more productive and useful, like joining a course in creative writing, starting to study a language or simply reading an intellectual book.

            Unfortunately, this positive thinking usually stays in the realm of a fantasy vision, since as soon as you are out of the office, you can’t wait to end up on your cosy sofa watching endless TV until it’s time for bed.

            And the next day it starts all over again, and the day after, and the day after, until it’s weekend – the only time we seem to really enjoy ourselves nowadays. 

            On that particular November morning, when I was trying to do some estimates for banks, I got, for the first time, a glimpse that life could be something else entirely.

            Doctors blame it on the chemical imbalance in the brain, David Icke says that we are invaded by reptiles, and some call it enlightenment.

            Whatever the name of the phenomenon, on that day I took my first ride into a magical world, which is hidden from us behind job responsibilities, money worries and the burden of everyday routine tasks.

            Who knew that this adventure would land me right in the nearest psychiatric hospital?