The Herb Trail Leads to Holland

January 11, 2008

The woman at the train ticket counter looked at me suspiciously as I asked for a ticket to Entschede, a small town just over the Dutch border on a Tuesday morning. “When will you be coming back?” she asked. “Oh, I only need about two hours.” As soon as I said it and saw her reaction—raised eyebrows and a look of scorn—I knew my story sounded shady. After all, it is well known that students from Osnabrueck often travel the 45 km to the Dutch border to buy marijuana and other assorted drugs. I tried to think of what I would say, had she asked me further questions.

“Why for only two hours?”
“I need to buy something?”
“What do you want to buy?
“Gerwürze.” Herbs.

She probably wouldn’t have believed me even if I’d told her the truth: that I was making a run for the border to track down a certain kind of fish spices known in Dutch as “Viskruiden.”

The task was given to me by my boyfriend’s parents. As soon as I explained that I would be spending my Fulbright year in Osnabrueck, near the border with the Netherlands, I saw their eyes light up. “Maybe you can help us find something.” My boyfriends’ father disappeared for a moment and came back with an old, used packet of spices, about two square inches big and decorated with a lobster and the word “Viskruiden.”

Then they told me the story. An aunt had discovered the special spice mix while teaching at a military school in Belgium, near Holland. Enthused, she started sending the spices back to Detroit. The family got hooked. They built up a big stash. But eventually the aunt retired. The supply ran out and only one packet remained.

Suddenly it seemed that the whole family was there, reminiscing.

“We’ve been looking for them everywhere, but never found them,” said his mom.
“The fish just doesn’t taste the same,” said my boyfriend.

“This is the last one we have,” said his father as he handed me the envelope. The expiration date read 2003. They all looked at me with hope as I examined the little packet and tucked it safely away. After two years of dating their oldest son, I was slowly being accepted and feeling more comfortable. They were starting to open up to me, and most importantly, to trust me. I knew could not come back empty-handed.

Fast forward several months. After living in Osnabrueck for two months, I had forgotten all about the spices. With moving to a new place, adjusting to a new city, meeting new friends, I just didn’t have time to think about fish. Even on my trip to The Hague and Amsterdam, I forgot to bring the packet with me. It wasn’t until I started thinking about coming home for Christmas that I remembered my special task.

“No problem, “ I thought. “I’ve still got time.” Plus, I knew I was going to visit family friends in Hamburg who own their own fish business and work in Germanys biggest fish market. “I’ll surely find it there.” I was wrong.
Fish Market in Hamburg
No one in the Hamburg fish market had ever heard of “Viskruiden.” I got blank stares as I showed the little packet to all of the distributors at the fish market. Günther and his wife Ilse, my grandmother’s cousin, became intrigued and determined to help me. We looked on the internet and went around to all his business partners in the market. We visited the gourmet international fish store as well as a specialty spice seller. Frustrated, Günther picked up the phone and called his dealer in Holland. We faxed over a copy of the label. No luck.

“You’re driving the whole fish market crazy!” exclaimed Ilse after someone came up to us and asked us if we had ever heard of “Viskruiden.”

Everyone was on the hunt. But to no avail. All I found were some German spice mixes that looked similar, but weren’t the same. I bought them just in case, but kept looking.

As Christmas and my return home approached, I felt more and more pressure to find the “viskruiden.” I was visualizing going home and handing over the poor German substitutes and saying, “Sorry. I couldn’t find them.” I remembered how they all looked at me when they handed me that envelope. I knew how disappointed they would be if I came home without them. There was only one thing left to do. Go to Holland.

The woman at the Deutsche Bahn ticket counter eventually did sell me a ticket, despite her suspicions. I laughed to myself as the train glided through the flat countryside and wondered if the kids drinking beer next to me were going to Entschede for a different kind of herbs.

I could tell that I was approaching the Dutch border. The names of the towns sounded funny to me, with long, drawn out vowels. I understood less and less of the conversations going on around me. I noticed a prevalence of Orange, the national color of Holland, both on signs, cars, as well as on people’s clothes. I watched a man enter the train wearing a bright orange scarf that made his face look orange too. Just from his clothes, the square-ish shape of his face, his conservative haircut and somewhat stern demeanor, he just looked Dutch. He was also about 6 foot 5 inches tall.

It is a known fact that the Dutch are the tallest people in the world. Ironic because the Netherlands is the lowest country in the world, and most of the land is below sea level. Maybe the Dutch have evolved into giants for survival, so that when the levees break and the country floods, people will still have their heads above water. I was visualizing this hilarious scenario when the train pulled into Entschede.

I got off the train and was immediately greeted with the smell of marijuana smoke from the legally controlled coffee shops. I walked towards the town center, which was made almost entirely of low, brown brick buildings and went straight to the Tourism Office. I asked not about museums or sightseeing, but where the supermarkets are. Getting used to speaking English again, I pulled out the spice packet and asked where I could find them. To my relief, the woman knew what “viskruiden” were, and pointed me to the fish spice store around the corner. “I’m sure they have it,” she said. Excited, I walked into the store.

“Sorry, don’t have that.” Said a friendly older man with an English accent, standing in front of a wall of spices. .” I couldn’t hide my disappointment. I let out a sigh and told him the whole story of the spices and my unsuccessful search. “These are my boyfriends’ parents,” I said. “I really don’t want to disappoint them.”

He looked harder at the packet and read out the ingredients, salt, onion powder, mustard, etc. “Well, I could mix it for you. But, why don’t you try the supermarket first?”

Discouraged, I lowered my head and shuffled along the brown brick sidewalk and was nearly run over by the stream of bicycles zooming past. “I am never going to find it,” I thought. “All this way for nothing.”

One last try, I went into the supermarket and was completely overwhelmed by jibberish. I couldn’t read the isle signs and had to ask for help. Carrying the spice packet, I approached a young man in the meat department, who, as I suspected, spoke perfect English. He led me over to the spice section.

It was like reaching mecca. A ten-foot-wide display of brightly colored bottles and bags, including several with the prized word, “Viskruiden.” There were viskruiden for backed fish, viskruiden for grilled fish, viskruiden for different kinds of fish. I saw the label that matched the old one in my hand.

“Oh1 Thank you! Thank you! Thank you so much!” I said, practically jumping up and down. “You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

He looked at me like I was absolutely nuts, said, “Um…you’re welcome,” and walked away as I started hoarding the different packets. The cashier gave me a similar look as I checked out. Completely pleased with myself, I walked out of the store with a bag full of viskruiden.

“This should last them a while,” I thought. But then I had doubts. I felt paranoid. “This has to last them years. I don’t know when I’ll come back here.” And I turned around and headed back for more. This time, I made sure to go through a different checkout line. The cashier looked at me just as the first one did. But I didn’t care. My herb run to Holland had been a success.

The spices made their way back to Germany and onto the plane heading towards the U.S. Of course, I had packed the special cargo in my carry on luggage. I tried my best to look calm and relaxed as I went through customs. I knew a box full of herb bags with Dutch writing all over them would look suspicious. I tried to act normal, even through the fact that I was worried about smuggling in fish spices seemed to suggest otherwise. I know, why would a customs agent care about fish spices? But I knew better. I’ve been stopped for carrying a spork before. Luckily, though, I made it through.

The spices arrived safely under the Christmas tree in Detroit. Both my boyfriend’s parents and the aunt who started it all were pleased with their gifts. Hopefully, this stash will last a few years. If not, I’ll have to make another run to the border.

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