James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Semester Abroad in Amsterdam and This Was Your Biggest Vice?

A Semester Abroad in Amsterdam and This Was Your Biggest Vice?

Ontbijtkoek In Amsterdam

Living in a converted shipping container in Amsterdam sounded cool, in theory. Before leaving for my semester abroad, I Google street-viewed the address, located beyond the outer rings of canals. The boxy white building stood in a row of identical boxes, colorful rectangular tabs in the windows the only attempt at decoration. Bikes were parked in rows on the untidy grass outside and the cracked pavement led to a dilapidated dock. Cute canal house this was not. But it had enough minimalist industrial chic to appeal to a broke law student who had never been to Europe.

My illusions about shipping container life were promptly dispelled. The apartment walls were thin as cardboard, the plumbing erratic, the furnishings Spartan at best. For most of the semester, the subpar living situation didn’t matter matter. I was out enjoying Amsterdam, discovering La Chouffe and frites with satay sauce, getting schooled on where not to park your bike.

But as the semester came to an end, the shipping container’s shortcomings were amplified. The Dutch winter was bleak, wet, and terrifyingly windy. The entire building seemed to shake when it stormed. From our rain-lashed windows we could see the masts of docked ships swaying as the gale-force winds threatened to rip off our flimsy roof. A family of brazen mice moved in for the winter, gnawing holes in the paper-thin walls, driving us crazy with their squeaking. To make matters worse, my roommate finished her courses early and flew home. I was forced to spend my final weeks alone in the apartment cramming for exams.

My comfort in those last days was ontbijtkoek. I first picked up a package of this Dutch gingerbread on a whim from the neighborhood Albert Heijn. Albert Heijn was like Dutch Safeway, though unlike a U.S. supermarket, it had only two or three brands for any given item. There wasn’t anything that special about it, but my roommate and I would go there when studying in the apartment became stifling, finding an odd comfort in browsing the limited selections and finding the occasional novelty to try.

The Albert Heijn store-brand ontbijtkoek came in a rectangular brick wrapped in red packaging. It was mass-produced stuff, neatly pre-sliced, edges forming right angles. But it tasted like Christmas, deeply spiced with perfect chewy edges. I took to eating a slice for breakfast each morning with a cup of coffee as I huddled over my textbooks, listening to the wind howling outside and the mice scuffling in the walls. Ontbijtkoek made me feel safe somehow, its familiar flavors of holiday spices and faint molasses warming me against the savage weather.

The Dutch concept of gezelligheid roughly describes something cozy or inviting, warm and convivial. I’m not sure if one can feel gezellig when you’re alone and I’m not sure if mass-produced cake can be considered gezellig. But my morning ontbijtkoek must have come pretty close.

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