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Going Dutch: Meet the Locals by Rick Steves

When you travel in the Netherlands, go Dutch: Get to know the locals. Hans and Marjet de Kiefte run what I consider the ideal B&B in Haarlem, just outside of Amsterdam. Hans, having quit his desk job, enjoys getting to know his guests. Bouncy Marjet, with wispy strawberry-blond hair and a knack for assembling a Salvation-Army chic wardrobe for under $20, is the sentimental half of this team.

With each visit, my friends show me a new slice of Holland. And with each visit, I renew my belief that the more you know about Europe, the more you'll uncover that's worth exploring.

While Hans and I work up a sweat solving the world's problems over a brisk and windy walk along the oceanfront, Marjet lags behind, collecting shells with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. Just when I'm about to tuck Marjet into my kitten-lover file, she sits me down, sticks an animal rights flier in my pocket, and challenges me to delete all mention of bullfighting from my Spain guidebook.

In their living room, we grab well-worn chairs in a room crowded with books, funky near-antiques, and an upright piano littered with tattered music. After several years of housing American travelers, Hans and Marjet have gained an insight into the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans. Hans says, "Americans talk and make friends quickly. Europeans, even with no language differences, keep their private formal island at our breakfast table."

Even a casual traveler notices the differences. On their coffee table is a handbook the Dutch government produces to teach prostitutes about safe sex. Thumbing through it, I mention to Hans that it's both artistic and explicit. "Victoria without the Secret," he says. I ask, "Isn't this shocking to a lot of people?" He replies, "Only to the English and the Americans. Remember, this is Holland. Last night we had a local TV documentary on body piercing in full graphic detail. Last week there was a special on the Kama Sutra. To us, these were simply two more big deal. Perhaps these would have been big hits on American TV."

"Maybe so, since the most-visited file on my Web site is a goofy little article comparing Amsterdam's two sex museums," I say, realizing that I'm finding the handbook more interesting than Hans.

I ask him, "What do you like best about Holland?"

Hans said, "Skating the canals from town to town through farm country on a crisp February day. Imagine it: a cold wind at your back and the warm sun on your face. If the ice is smooth, you get into a nice rhythm. I hold my hands behind my back and it is only me and our big, big sky. For me, this is better than skiing in the Alps. The world is still. It's quiet. The fields stretch for miles. A church steeple marks the next town. Crossing under a bridge, you're in the town center. The pub seems to say, 'Come and warm up.' Rubber mats lead from the canal to its door. Inside there's a big fire and the windows are steamy. Lawyers, doctors, the farmers and students all hang out together in the warmth. Cross-country skating, we are all equal--all just simple Dutch boys."

To stay at Hans and Marjet's B&B, call (from the States: 011-31-23-532-2980) or write (Haus de Kiefte, Coornhertstraat 3, 2013 EV Haarlem, Netherlands). You'll pay about $60 for a double room. A two-night minimum stay is required (and worth it).

 For more of Rick's recommendations for Haarlem, see his guidebook "Rick Steves' France, Belgium & the Netherlands,"

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