(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Sept. 5, 1999.)
As a molder of public opinion, I regularly go on fact-finding missions to foreign countries located outside of the United States. I then report my findings to you in the sincere hope that I can improve international understanding by deducting the entire cost of my mission, including beer, on my income taxes.
Today I present Part One of my two-part report on this year's mission, which took me to the Netherlands, which some people call ''Holland,'' or, if they are very lost, ''Czechoslovakia.'' At one time, large areas of the Netherlands were actually covered by the sea, but over the centuries the hard-working Dutch have turned these areas into dry land. How did they do this? By stealing chunks of other countries. Groups of Dutch persons, posing as tourists, would travel abroad and return with large suitcases filled with dirt, which they would use to form Netherlands (literally, ``dirt piles''). By the time the rest of the world realized what was happening, the nation of Luxembourg, which at one time was larger than Germany, had shrunk to the size of a volleyball court, which it remains to this day.
No, I'm kidding. The Dutch actually drained the water off the Netherlands by building a very clever network of canals and dikes, which today are held firmly in place by roughly 23 million cows. A key element of this network is the famous windmills, which, by utilizing the wind to turn giant sails, attract tourists, who in turn buy the cheese produced by the cows, thus completing the ecological cycle.
The Netherlands is beautiful, and the Dutch are a friendly, funny, low-key people who are not opposed to beer. As a bonus, everybody in the Netherlands, including dogs, speaks English more fluently than, for example, Dan Quayle.
This is a good thing, because the Dutch language has some kind of design problem, such that when Dutch people pronounce the letter ''g,'' which appears three or four times in the average Dutch word, they sound as though they are hawking up a loogie the size of a cocker spaniel. Also, many Dutch words are too long to be safely pronounced by amateurs. For example, if you tried to say the Dutch word for ''youth hostel warden,'' which is ''jeugdherbergbeheerder,'' you'd run out of oxygen somewhere around the 15th syllable and fall into a canal.
USEFUL FACT FOR TRAVELERS: The Dutch term for ''skee ball'' is ``skee ball.''
The Dutch unit of currency is the ''guilder,'' which you obtain by going to one of the many money-changing places found all over Europe, surrounded by Americans who have given valuable American money to the person in the booth and now are looking with alarm at colorful, odd-sized pieces of paper that for all they know are cereal coupons that the person in the booth has given them as a prank.
Once you change your money, it's time to see the country. The best way to see any foreign country is to get on a bus filled with other tourists and be driven to a castle, cathedral or other Famous Historic Thing, which you'll recognize by the fact that it's surrounded by a rumbling herd of tour buses. Then you get out of your bus, take a photo of yourself standing in front of the Famous Historic Thing, buy souvenirs, consume snacks and use the scary foreign toilets. Also, if you have time, you should read the plaque explaining that the Historic Thing was constructed in 1158 and went through many historic events before burning to the ground in 1953, to be replaced by the Authentic Reconstruction that you are looking at now.
In the Netherlands, I joined a tour group going to see the famous cheese market in Alkmaar, a picturesque city where the Dutch market cheese in a historic and photogenic way. It was a beautiful day, and my group was joined in Alkmaar by basically every other tour group on the Eurasian continent. We had to fight our way through the crowd, trading elbow jabs with enemy tours, but we finally reached the front, where we were rewarded with a fine view of ... a bunch of cheese. We reacted as though this were the Grand Canyon. ''There's the cheese!'' we shouted as we snapped dozens of blurred photographs. I can't really explain why this was so exciting. It's a tour-group thing.
We also visited a cheesemaker, where a woman in an authentic Dutch costume that nobody in the Netherlands actually wears explained how to make cheese. Because of the crowd, I missed a lot of the explanation, but in case you want to make cheese at home, I distinctly heard her say that you start with 300 liters of warm milk.
This concludes Part One of my report on the Netherlands. Next week, in Part Two, I'll describe the beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam, where I suffered a knee injury as a direct result of legalized prostitution. In closing, I'll leave you with this:
TIP FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS: If, while visiting the Netherlands, you take a side trip to Paris, you should refer to it in your report as follows, ''I took a side trip to Paris,'' so you can deduct it on your income taxes.