Thursday, October 25, 2012

Perfectly normal people

“How I came to Holland? Well, just on a plane, I always say. There was not a real specific reason. But no, I did not come here as a fugitive from the Argentinean junta, as you suggest. Mind you, I was a student in those years, and the university was the most dangerous environment to be back then. But you know, we really, really did not know everything that happened.”


“I usually do not talk about those years. I keep it to myself. But I can tell you are genuinely interested, so I do not mind now. Actually, what we were confronted with were the riots on the street, outside the college buildings. Several times we walked out of the door and we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a riot, we had to cover our eyes and nose to protect us from tear gas, or we had to walk with our arms up in the air, at gunpoint, until we left the action and the riot police lost interest in us.”

“It was not until I flew back to Buenos Aires one day, after visiting Europe, and when Argentina was a democracy again. It must have been on an Iberia plane, because I was reading El Pais, and there was that item on the horrible things that happened under the junta regime. I did not know, I was dumbstruck, did this all happen in my country? Because, how could we know? It was not that the military put an ad in the newspaper, telling “we arrested so and so much persons yesterday, and we killed so and so many of them.” And people who were arrested, usually did not come back to inform other people. They simply never returned. It was so devastating when we finally heard about it.”

“And then you start to see the things you did not understand back then. I was good at making notes and excerpts of college classes, and one day a fellow student asked me if he could borrow my notes, because he had missed a class. Sure, no problem, I said. I'll put my phone number on it, so that you can call me when you are done with them. But he said, no, no, don’t write your phone number down on it, I'll find a way to contact you. I did not understand. Why was that such a big deal for him? Later I understood. He was most likely a member of a socialist group. If he would be arrested, they would find my number, and arrest me too. Not many people who were arrested lived to tell about it. And it was not that the military arrested their opponents like a surgical operation. They would pick up 100 people just to get the ten persons with socialist or marxist sympathies. And even finding anything remotely related to Karl Marx or whatever that appeared socialist, would be enough for you to be arrested and disappear.”

“I do not know why this junta virus spread over Latin America like it did. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, they all suffered from this bad karma. But we should not forget that next to these horrible regimes, there were completely normal people, living completely normal lives, as if there were two levels of reality side by side. You say that you can understand that people, living in the beautiful mountain areas, far away from the capital, hardly noticed anything about what was going on. But I lived in Buenos Aires, and I did not know either.”

“We never talked about it later in our family. But my mother told me not so long ago, how she was briefly held up by the police, because they suspected she belongend to the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. You know why? She was cold, and she had a scarf around her head to keep her ears warm. Just that.”
“I once asked my brother about those years, and he only told me how he had to run through tear gas to catch the bus to get home. I don’t know why this is. I don't talk about it with my children either. I will answer their questions when they will ask me, but I will not bring it up myself. And you know, it is not only this dark history we carry with us. Being from Jewish descent we also carry the burden of the Holocaust. All of my family in Europe was murdered by the Nazis. And you know what? We do not talk about that either.”


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lifestyle en verpreutsing

De jonge vrouw achterop de bus was slechts gehuld in een badhanddoek. Haar weliswaar appetijtelijke uiterlijk, maar niet al te enthousiaste blik was gericht op de tekst “lekker ontspannen in Sauna Warmond”. Dit werkt niet, zoveel is zeker. Daar is meer voor nodig. Want het gaat slecht met de saunabedrijven in ons land, en daar zijn ze toch ook deels zelf verantwoordelijk voor. Goede raad is duur, maar met deze foto rennen de mensen de sauna echt niet in.

Ik ken die sauna. Ik begrijp daarom dat er weinig anders te vinden was om achterop de bus te plakken. Het zwembad wellicht, maar daar is weinig sfeer te proeven. De boodschap is echter duidelijk. Saunabedrijven moeten vechten voor hun bestaan. Als ik om mij heen kijk, zie ik in een straal van 20 kilometer rond Katwijk diverse sauna's die de deur hebben gesloten. Een afgebrande sauna in Katwijk, twee verdwenen sauna's in Wassenaar, een failliete sauna op de boulevard van Scheveningen en vorig jaar nog een afgebrand bedrijf in Rijswijk. In de praktijk beperkt dat mijn mogelijkheden tot nog maar drie sauna's, en in één daarvan, in Leiden, wil je toch niet gezien worden.
Niet dat de kans groot is dat je wordt gezien, maar dat even daargelaten.


Natuurlijk, de economie werkt niet mee, en ik kan me voorstellen dat saunabezoek een post is waarop je noodgedwongen moet bezuinigen. Dat is echter maar een deel van het verhaal. Want ook de verpreutsing van de jeugd is een dilemma waarmee de saunabedrijven worstelen. Mijn neef ging op z'n 17e voor het eerst mee naar de sauna, maar nu op z'n 30ste, is hij meestal nog steeds een van de jongste aanwezigen. Terwijl tijdens mijn studietijd de sauna vol zat met leeftijdgenoten. Preutsheid is geen probleem waar de neef mee kampt, maar dankzij hem merk ik natuurlijk wel hoe de jongere generatie over de bezochte sauna's oordeelt. Als je je met handdoek, badjas en slippers meldt bij de entree van een sauna, heb je grote kans om daarachter te worden geconfronteerd met een decor dat op geen enkele manier aansluit bij de belevingswereld van jongere mensen. De moderne exploitant meent namelijk dat een sauna er absoluut uit hoort te zien als een Romeins of Grieks bordeel, waarin betonnen ionische zuilen, plastic planten en gipsen replica's van Michelangelo's David de goede smaak moeten onderstrepen. Of je treft een sauna die ten prooi is gevallen aan de vooral door vrouwen van middelbare leeftijd zo vurig beleden passie voor tuincentrum lifestyle interieurs. Lifestyle, een eufemisme voor creatieve leegheid, waarbij loungesets, paargewijs gegroepeerde accessoires en oversized windlichten een gemis aan originaliteit moeten verhullen. Is het gek dat de jongere bezoekers zich hier niet toe aangesproken voelen? Het is kommer en kwel met de sauna estethiek, en dan heb ik het niet over de lichamen die de strijd tegen de zwaartekracht hebben verloren.

Maar bovenal kampen de hedendaagse sauna's met een identiteitsprobleem. Voor mij en mijn metgezellen moet een sauna gewoon dat bieden, waar het bij een sauna om draait – de afwisseling van warm en koud in goed verzorgde faciliteiten. Helaas denken veel exploitanten daar anders over. De omzet schijnt vooral uit de horeca gehaald te moeten worden, en elke investering daar gaat natuurlijk ten koste van de sauna zelf. Dat gaat dan hand in hand met een focus op wellness excessen, in het streven de Volkskrant Magazine en Viva lezeressen aan zich te binden. Maar shiatsu massages, warme stenen, chocolade pakkingen en esoterische schoonheidsbehandelingen zijn niet alleen aan mij niet besteed. Daar zullen steeds minder mensen voor willen betalen en heeft ook allemaal niets met sauna te maken. Zo bijt de op lifestyle en wellness beluste sauna-exploitant zichzelf in de staart. Eigen schuld, dikke bult, maar ja, het gevolg is wel dat het aanbod nog verder zal verschralen.

Back to basic. Net zoals in de film Steam of Life (Miesten Vuoro).

Back to basic, is mijn devies. En dat mag ook best luxueus zijn, hoe tegenstrijdig dat ook klinkt. Onze oosterburen zijn daar meesters in. De vele 'Therme' die je daar aantreft hebben niets te maken met de deerniswekkende etablissementen die we hier in Nederland kennen. Daar komt bij, dat de horeca-afdeling daar bijna altijd open en bloot grenst aan het sauna- of zwembadgedeelte, en dat zorgt voor een prettige en levendige sfeer. Met als grote verrassing het ontspannen prijskaartje. Vaak goedkoper dan de gemiddelde Nederlandse sauna, en toen ik zag dat ik voor de onvolprezen Kristall Therme Heisser Brocken in Altenau slechts 10 euro hoefde te betalen, keek ik toch wel even met andere ogen naar de 27,50 die de sauna van de dame achterop de bus wil hebben. Gelukkig is daar altijd nog de compacte, maar goed verzorgde sauna in een Noordwijks hotel. Dus genoten de neef en ik afgelopen zaterdag na een prima sauna van een excellente megaburger aan de rand van het mooie zwembad. Naar verluidt zou zelfs Edwin van der Sar zich hier vertonen, en staat dat niet bijna gelijk aan koninklijke goedkeuring?

De fraaie zwembad en sauna-afdeling van Hotel Oranje. Foto: Hotel Oranje.

Niettemin blijf ik dromen van een dagje, nee, maak dat een weekendje Duits genieten. De Carolus Thermen in Aken, het Friedrichsbad in Baden Baden, het adembenemend mooie Bäderhaus in Bad Kreuznach, de Bali Therme in Bad Oeynhausen. Of de Kristall Therme Heisser Brocken in Altenau, met superschnitzel en halve liter Weizen bier en uitzicht op bubbelbaden en zwembad. Dat is sauna. Wie gaat er mee?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

No bathing suit

Vacation is not a destination. It is not a time frame, nor an obsession. It is not planned. It is a state of mind. I realized that again in a pool in Altenau, Harz. It felt good there, both physically and mentally. Nothing beats an open air pool with a view on hills or mountains. And this one had a few surprises up its sleeve, if it had one of course. More then two weeks later, I still feel its soothing effects. Salt and sulphate, it turns out to be the answer to arthritic inconveniences. So I tell myself.

One of the outside 'sole' pools of Altenau's Kristall Therme.

I did not pack a bathing suit,” wrote a fellow Katwijk blogger, when she was keeping record of her adventures in Norway. Quite a shocking confession to my ears, because I never travel without my swim shorts. Now, I do not blame her, since she was experiencing an early autumn in the Norwegian July month. When I go on a trip, I always need one. A companion on many of my trips, has a problem of storing this in his mindset. There is a department store in Osnabrück, who keeps a special collection of bathing suits in the death of winter especially for him. He simply always forgets them, and meanwhile must have created an impressive collection of black lookalike swim trunks. This trip to the Harz mountain area was no exception. A visit to a swimwear shop already had to be made on the first day. 30 euros invested in Adidas, but not a wise investment as it turned out.

Bali Therme, Bad Oeyhnhausen.

Wellness is an essential part of my short stays abroad. The first day only took us to Bad Oeynhausen, maybe 300 kilometers away, but it made for a relaxing start of the trip. On close walking distance of the large and largely unoccupied hotel at the town's Kurpark, the Bali Therme was luring us for some saunastic relaxation. New and impressive, but a tad artificial. Because, let's face it, central Germany is not Bali, and that was what it tried you to believe you were. No, the real surprise were the Kristall Therme 'Heiser Brocken' in the Harz town Altenau. This little tourist town has seen better days. It suffered from the unification between West and East Germany, and many vacationers took the oppertunity to take a look in the former east German Harz towns – that were cheaper to stay too. It left Altenau, and other west Harz towns, with closed hotels and restaurants. But a great spa with pools and saunas should reverse things, somebody must have thought. And the Kristall Therme 'Heiser Brocken' indeed attracts many visitors.

Now, I should try to explain this name, but I'm afraid that this will be a rather futile attempt. 'Kristall' means 'crystal', and the crystal theme repeats itself inside the accommodation with fake large crystal objects placed in its various heath, steam and water features. Somehow crystal should have positive and healing results, and it is so much believed in, that there are numerous Kristall Therme throughout Germany and Austria. Crystal healing is big business.
Explaining the 'Heisser Brocken' name is even a bigger challenge. The Brocken is the highest mountain in the Harz region, and 'heisser' (hot) may just refer to the temperature of everything the Therme has to offer. But who knows, it might also refer to the wild and frightening annual pagan ceremonies, celebrated during Walpurgisnacht on the summit of the Brocken mountain. Yes, this is witch region. All souvenir stands, and every other commercial establishment come to think of it, will remind you of that by offering various witch dolls ranging from € 2,99 – € 99.
The Kristall Therme offer, apart from various saunas, two outside pools with pleasant warm water containing 1.5 and 3% salt, or 'sole' as the Harz people call it here. There is also a 37ºC / 98.6ºF degree pool treating you with sulphate and a 12% salt level. Swimming is out of the question in that one, it is impossible keeping your legs in the swimming position, since you are constantly pushed upward. Besides, it is too small to swim. The 'sardine pool' would be an appropriate name.

The largest of the two salt water pools of the Altenau Kristall Therme.

I am a sucker for mountain swimming pools. There are few things as relaxing as enjoying an open air pool that treats you with a view on mountains or green hills. I remember a pool in Vianden, Luxemburg in the 1980s, and I still can picture the view on a castle on the other side of the river valley. The Kristall Therme in Schwangau, Bavaria, should be mentioned too, simply because of the stunning view on the Alps, and the Neuschwanstein castle, illuminated in the warm evening summer. So, my hopes for the visit to the Kristall Therme in Altenau were high. Walking up the front desk to pay our admission, a sign attracted my attention. As if its announcement was the most usual thing ever, it simply said: “This is an easy going establishment. We invite our guests to enjoy the pools with or without bathing suits, just as they prefer.” So there I was, staring at that sign with my bathing suit holding against me in a plastic bag, trying to comprehend the consequences of that sign. “Does that mean that behind those doors people are just, well, ...?”
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude, and certainly not after visiting saunas for over 30 years. But a public pool? Leaving the locker rooms, there was nothing that indicated that the visitor had to make a choice of either going to the sauna area, or to the pools – as is usual in most of these Therme. However, it was obvious that no visitor regarded this as a dilemma. Three out of four bathers just dashed in the water like Prince Harry in Las Vegas. Friends, 20 something girls, fathers and sons, couples and even Islamic looking guys, they all simply enjoyed the pools au naturelle. Not in the least bothered by, or bothering younger children in their shorts or bikinis and vacationing families who, probably just as surprised as we were, decided to stay on the safe side of modesty.

Strange and uncomfortable, you might ask? No, quite the opposite. Nobody peeked at others, nobody took offense. Just as it should be. And we adjusted. When in Rome, do as the Romans. So, for someone it was 30 Adidas euros down the drain. But the pools? They were great. Floating and soaking, swimming and just enjoying the view on the mountains, food was good, so was the Weizen beer, and the saunas were excellent. But I did not realize the best thing only until I was back home again. I don't know how they do with crystals, salt, sole and sulphate, but those two visits to the Altenau Therme have kept me free of any arthritic discomforts even during the most humid of days for two weeks now. What does this mean? It means that I am officially a person who needs to go on a 'Kür', as the Germans do. Another way of nature telling me, that my young and restless days are over.

More:
Lifestyle en verpreutsing
Horror sauna
Steam of Life
Naked investment in life

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cool with Clooney and Jones

We, men of middle and above middle age, need not fear to become old fashioned and outdated. There is hope. Provided we keep calm and cool. Yes, cool. I'm convinced it is possible, since I saw two great examples of guys who do not brush their age away, but handle it with dignity. Granted, it takes self-knowledge to admit that the days of seeming eternal youth are over, but when you are passed that stadium, it is just a matter of mirroring yourself to the men I'll tell you about. If that will ever be possible of course.


Tom Jones - once sex symbol, now a dignified grandfarther.

Madonna, Prince, and the late Michael Jackson. Superstars everybody knows, and I have something in common with them. Age. When you think of it, it is a bit strange that those once omnipresent names are still known today. I can't say still around, since the King of Pop is no longer with us, and  the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is... yes, where is he actually? Those two men are not the examples I will present you, because Mr. Jackson can hardly be regarded as someone who accepted his progressing age of course. And Prince? The last time I saw him on TV he looked – and sounded – grotesque. Still a cartoon of an oversexed and undersized star who surrounds himself with long-legged women. That leaves me with Madonna here, but hey, let's face – if there is one species on this globe who frantically tries to deny age, it is women. Face-lift, botox, you name it, the strategies to stay visually young are extensive, decorated with the accessories from Gaultier and LaCroix. But enough about this trio.

“There should be a law against nude old people,” I confessed during the most recent sauna visit with cousin Pieter, complaining about the age of half of the maybe ten visitors there that morning. “And how will you deal with that then?” the almost 30 year old asked me. “In a few years of course,” he added. There it was. No supportive comment, that would separate me from the elderly, like I would have heard just a few years ago. But what to do? I will certainly not make a mockery of myself like so many older Dutch men do, by dressing up in shorts with legs under the knee, like their sons do, in a desperate attempt to be one of the boys. Or wearing a cap the wrong side, hoping that people will hold them for a 20 year old. And certainly no sagging jeans – believe me, I've seen 45+ guys walking around in that. What are they thinking?



 Tom Jones performs at the Diamond Jubilee concert, June 2012.

 I have to thank Queen Elizabeth for my hope for the future. This 86 year old, who expresses a style completely of her own herself, had to endure a rock concert in her garden as part of the diamond jubilee celebrations. The parade of singers of today and yesteryear was quite enjoyable, I have to admit. But one person was the star. There he came walking up the stage, with a great presence and charisma, looking good, grey haired and bearded, and still with a magnificent voice. At 72 years, Tom Jones ruled the stage and the audience. A grandfather, who just 20 years ago still sang about being a sex bomb, shaking his hips like Elvis in his prime years. A man who had more ladies undergarments thrown at him then any other singer you can think of. What we saw now was a quiet, but sovereign looking artist, dressed in a great stylish suit. For me, this man was the highlight of the evening. And he showed how an aging artist should perform. Sir Cliff Richard made a fool of himself acting like he was still 30, his voice still fine, I admit, but the old face under the dyed hair and the spastic movements were nothing more than a pathetic display. And let's not talk about Sir Paul McCartney. Charisma for sure, but oh, when did his voice leave him?

George Clooney and his Riva Aquarama on Lake Come - a Vogue photo.

It would take it a bit too far to regard Mr. Jones as a role model, but I applaud people who wear their age with style and dignity. As it happened, I realized that there is someone else who does this with great superiority too. Someone who actually could still present himself being younger than he is, and nobody would take offense.
Just last week I was looking for a nice photo of a Riva Aquarama to pin on my Pinterest page. A Riva is the ultimate motor boat, and the classic wooden Aquarama is the one to have. If you are so lucky to own an Aquarama, preferably to go boating on Lake Como, you do not have to prove or pretend anything anymore. As doesn't George Clooney. A brilliant actor and a fine director, who's only problem is his questionable taste in coffee, being the face of Nespresso commercials here in Europe. But Mr. Clooney owns an Aquarama, and my search came up with a recent photo of Mr. Clooney posing in his boat. Surprisingly, George Clooney does not try to look young at all, actually his grey hair makes him look older than his 51 year should portray. But what does George Clooney care? For many women he is still the ultimate sex symbol, and he owns a Riva on Lake Como on top of that.

What does this mean for me? Well, nothing much probably. In any case, I will not try to look younger than I am. And tonight I will order a nice classic Nautica polo from freshpolos.com, the first clothing item I will ever have ordered on the internet. That's my style. Maybe people will think I have the Riva to go with it?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I'm a millionaire!

Since the beginning of this month I'm a millionaire. No, I did not cash in on my Facebook stock – besides the network did not go public at that moment yet. And no, I did not win the lottery. I can only thank many people around the globe. Early this month my Flickr photostream welcomed the 1,000,000th visitor since I joined in 2007. I know many of my contacts have far more visits, but it makes me feel rich.

Swoopy woody 1972 Ford Gran Torino Squire

A 1972 Ford Gran Torino Squire, seen in Etowah, Tennessee.
The overall #1 photo with 13,636 views since July 28, 2008.

A million visits in five years time from people either viewing my photos directly, or by visiting my photostream. It is a number I can only dream about for my blog, because visits here are somewhat pathetic with 500 per month at the most. And most of these visits come because they are pointed this way by Google. The “Murder” blog attracts the most visits so far, often because people are looking for Michelle Dockery, Jason Hughes or Lawrence Fox – naked if possible, according to the key words, so my stats tell me. They'll be disappointed then. The Horror Sauna blog is slowly climbing to the highest ranks too, and I wondered why that could be. Turns out there is Finnish horror movie called 'Sauna', and a photo of my blog can be found between photos of that movie in Google images. But enough of that, it is Flickr I am talking about here.

I can not recall exactly how I discovered Flickr. I think I was looking for a photo on Google Images, and found a photo that directed me to the Flickr site. I was hooked right away. Soon I found Flickr groups, and with that I found people with the same interests. Many have become good friends, and those friendships cut across social standards, ages and continents. Teachers, a pastor, a painter, musicians. Teenagers and retirees. People from several European countries, Japan, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, the USA and Canada. Flickr proved to be a great social medium for me. An exiting photographic ride with like minded people all over the world. It brought me spirited discussions, warm felt wishes when something happened, a toast at Christmas from Wawa, Ontario, a book on 1930s automobile coach builders all the way from Malibu, a visitor from the English Midlands, a museum visit with a contact from Germany, a custom made Christmas card from an illustrator from Minnesota, a model car and a car Cars toy for cousin Pieter's son Pieter. Joy, but also sadness when a good contact suddenly passed away.

Archive: Snoqualmie Falls

Snoqualmie Falls. At #61 with 1,898 views since August 4, 2011, my best viewed nature photo.

My interest in all things around cars led me to set up the Flickr Car Memories and Guesses group, that is now growing to 1,000 members. It is not only about photos, but has the added bonus of an interesting discussion board. Needless to say that many of my photos on Flickr are centered around an automotive theme. And that is reflected in the top 10 most views photos in my stream. My collection of Opel calender plate scans is popular too – four of them show in the top 10 list, and when looking for them on the internet, I not only find them on Tumblr, but they shine on many blogs as well. But mind you, it is by far not only cars, I have uploaded quite a few photos with different subjects - photos of family and vacation, or interesting places in my country.

Do I like to be a millionair? You bet. And I love to share my photos with you. So, if this stimulates you to visit my photo stream, be my guest. Adding comments is easy when you sign up for a free Flickr account. Hope to see you there!

PS: I do have a second photostream entirely dedicated to car photos, car porn if you like – this word will trigger some visits, mark my words. I use this stream as a kind of repository, with no regards to quality: www.flickr.com/photos/martinvanduijn-wheelz/









Swoopy woody 1972 Ford Gran Torino Squire
Volkswagen T1 (1964) and T2 camper (1979)
St. Gotthard Pass, mid 1960s
Mod squad with 1973 Toyota Corolla
1970 Opel Commodore GS Coupé
1.
1972 Ford Gran Torino Squire
13,639 views

2.
Volkswagen campers
8,504 views

3.
St. Gotthard Pass
7,417 views

4.
Mod Squad
6,431 views

5.
1970 Opel Commodore GS Coupé
6,190 views









1970 Opel Commodore
1968 Opel Commodore Coupé
1965 Opel Kadett
1953 VW Beetle
1963 Lincoln Continental









6.
1970 Opel Commodore
5,766 views

7.
1968 Opel Commodore Coupé
5,122 views

8
1965 Opel Kadett
4,430 views

9.
1953 Volkswagen Beetle
4,232 views

10.
1963 Lincoln Continental
4,173 views









Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip

Many hate it, I love it. That just 'drive along' feeling, and let the countryside and the scenery surprise you. I love road trips – provided the traffic doesn't get to your nerves of course. No definite destination, no stress to be somewhere at some moment. It is an attitude that unfortunately is lost on many of my fellow countrymen. Their trips are well planned and organized. They know what to expect, and to avoid anything that might interfere with their plans and expectations, they pack their household and travel with that ultimate statement of travel security: the caravan.
 
A road trip is not not about the destination, but about the experience. It is about flexibility, to take a different direction than what might be expected. To point the car into a road that makes no sense. And doing so, finding charming small towns that won't make it into travel books, meet friendly people that are just as surprised seeing a foreign tourist as you are to find that lovely small place at the end of what was just a backroad on the map.

Shut off that air conditioning, open your window, feel the gentle breeze through your hair and let the backroads and the countryside guide you. It brought me to Canada a few years ago, while I was actually aiming for a museum in Indiana. It gave me a visual impression that I will never forget. The endless rolling hills of Quebec's Gaspé region and New Brunswick, at 4.30 AM, soft toned in a blue haze, deserted at that time of day and seen from two lane backroads, was an experience that was impossible to capture on camera, because any image would not do justice to the tranquility of the moment. It found me nice quiet cabins to spend the night, with rocking chairs on the porch in North Carolina, on the beach of Lake Michigan, and in a forest where bears were walking around at night checking out the garbage bins. It also brought me to the Bavarian Forest in Germany, that I have to admit, did not like. But in the end, that was not a problem – we simply moved on.

I have visited the United States and Canada quite a few times. No wonder, that there is a question I have often been asked. “Where do we need to go when we go to North America?” Well, a 'western highlight tour' or whatever highlight trip you can think of, is not the thing for me. I'm sure you'll see the nicest places, but the point is, no matter how much you limit or broaden your range, you'll find nice places and spots just about everywhere – you just have to keep your eyes open, and open yourself to it. And leave that travel guide at home, because one should not be ruled by the dictatorship of Beadeker or Lonely Planet. Or the trip suggestion by some travel agency. Relax. No point in driving hundred of miles each day in order to arrive at a highlight at night, and leave the following morning to hurry to the next one.


“What kind of RV did you rent?' That is the second question. Now, this has to to do with one undeniable and often ridiculed part of Dutch culture, as defining as cheese and tulips: the caravan trailer. What goes for Europe, goes for North America. That is the only way the Dutch venturing overseas think they can survive a vacation. It is the only option that comes to their mind. Because that is how they spend their vacations in Europe. I remember when, years ago, traffic came to a halt on a Montana freeway because a vehicle on fire was blocking the road. While I was standing on the shoulder I saw a woman. I instantly knew she was Dutch. She wore an odd skirt-like jeans short so characteristic for middle aged Dutch women at the time, but even more so, she was standing next to an RV. And I was right.

The Dutch RV caravan is a trailer box on wheels, packed with Dutch groceries, a satellite dish to watch Dutch channels, laptops, x-boxes, and a library of books. In order to enjoy it to the fullest, you make reservations for campsites six months in advance, not to mention the ferryboats in case the trip will take you across water. Setting off loaded with bicycles, and preferably with a number of friends and family members in their own car and caravan combos, just to keep boredom away in case the satellite dish is not functioning. It is a parade that clogs up motorways, especially when they decide to overtake another caravan pulling family car. The Dutch and their "Wohnmobilen" are shamefully notorious with our German neigbours when they terrorize the flow of traffic on the Autobahnen. They are not on vacation, they are on a mission. Setting out to colonize a small part of a foreign campsite, their caravan as their fortress, the satellite dish as the flag. There must be a fear somewhere deep down in their subconscious minds. Fear for the unexpected, fear of not knowing how to adjust your routine to a hotel, a bed and breakfast or even a holiday home. Some take it to the extreme. I actually know people who spend a few days in Paris with their kids in their caravan. To each his own, but I prefer to remember Paris by the sounds of the street early in the morning, and walking out of the hotel almost right at the foot of the stairs of the Sacré-Cœur, and a stones throw from Montmartre.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you have a family, it is often the only affordable way to spend your vacation. But there are numerous couples and families that don't opt for a caravan because of financial reasons. It is a way of life. And they call it Freedom. Freedom having to make reservations in advance, having to drag a trailer at 90 kmh max, sleep in cramped beds in a small muggy compartment, going to the bathroom at night through damp grass, and hoping to get some sleep because the next day a travel guide dictated program is waiting. Freedom because they fear the unexpected. Freedom experienced like an escaped prisoner with a chain and a stone ball around his ankle. “I like adventure, but I don't like surprises,” someone once said to me. And that explains it all.

So, when I'm asked what kind or RV I rent, I simply answer that the perfect way to enjoy your North American vacation is to rent an all wheel drive vehicle, and look for cabins, bed and breakfasts or small family owned motels. And take it easy and relax. Because that camper will not take you up narrow mountain dirt roads like Washington's Heart Pass, Glacier Park's Going to the Sun Road or the Mount Washington Road in New Hampshire. Many times it won't let you park on Main Street of Small Town USA. It confines you to often crowded campsites. But when I say so, I get blank looks. They simply will not take my word for it.


Friday, March 30, 2012

The dictatorship of the ignorant and mediocre

A Facebook contact recently showed a link to a Youtube video of a speech by Sir Ken Robinson. It was a fascinating view on the state of the US educational system, that might very well be valid to many other countries – in any case, to The Netherlands. Essentially, Sir Kenneth says that the educational system is failing because its structure is still the same as when it was drawn up in the 19th century. And now it is out of touch with the way young people are open to absorb information and knowledge in our media dominated society. I will not go into a discussion about our educational system, because that is not the scope of this blog. But this video was eye opening in some other aspects too.


Very early in my study Political Sciences at the Leiden University, a lecturer asked my class to write an essay on the origins of the Northern Ireland conflict. As might be expected, we all wrote that the catholic population being a minority feels suppressed by the protestant population and the British authorities. Wrong, our lecturer said. The roots of the Ulster conflict are not religion based, but have economic roots, so he claimed. The Roman Catholic population was poor, while the protestants had better jobs and higher incomes. If this would have been the other way round, it might have been very likely that we would not have seen a conflict at all in Northern Ireland. So, what does this tell us? Our teacher wanted us to learn to think about issues from a different angle. To be investigative and to learn to draw our own conclusions. Frankly, it took years before I understood what he was trying to do here.

These are visions that do not follow established patterns, not go by the book, but that are the result of original thinking. Looking at a situation from new angles, that most of us would not be able to do. Out of the box thinking, and drawing up conclusions based on one's own creative intelligence, instead of pointing to what others have said and written before. That is the essence of academic thinking. That kind of problem assessment is what we need in our societies. Too long have we lived in a world where decisions at both on the political and the administrative level are made on sub par intelligent level.

This is very apparent when you look at the political and administrative processes on the local community level. Decision makers and politicians are not capable of original thoughts, but mimic the conventions they know, rely on what they hear from others, or what they can easily adopt from media sources. That is because their education in The Netherlands is at often at so called higher professional level (HBO) here, an eduction system that focusses on practices and theory, and that is one step below the academic world. In itself that would not be wrong, although we miss the academic way of assessing situations. Addditional problem here is that the quality of HBO education has gradually slipped to middle professional education (MBO). And that failing level of insight and intelligence is spreading to all levels in our society. The reason is obvious. When you are a brilliant student or an excellent professional, you do not settle for a position at an average local community. Your ambitions are higher. And rightly so.


On short notice there is little we can do with the quality of civil servants and with managers in subsidized organisations. But we can have a fresh look at our political representatives. Now, what I am going to propose here takes courage and it requires to look at our political system in the western world from a different angle. Like our educational system, most western political systems developed in the 19th and early 20th century. During those years the level democratic participation expanded from a selected group of nobility and 'well to do' citizens to all men and women above a certain age. We decided to choose our representatives, because for practical reasons we could not all directly participate in the democratic process, like in the old Greek democratic society. Parliament, senate, house of commons, whatever you call it, were too far away, and we were with too many to start with. So, we trusted by vote those people we valued most. These representatives were often university educated, brilliant and dedicated politicians who's entire lives were focused to serve their voters and their societies. The same can be said for civil servants. But now, 100 years later, we still rely on that system. No matter that our democracies are not evolving or expanding anymore. The perspectives and challenges are gone. The system has slowed down to a stop. Many citizens do not believe in it anymore, or simply just don't care. The ambitions of the people we were used to trust and rely on are now only a shade of the qualities of the men and woman we trusted for decades. And society suffered. Decisions are made and executed on a mediocre level.

The political systems have gone bankrupt, and it is very apparent here in The Netherlands, where equal representation in parliament and too many political parties fail to provide a working majority that can form a government. And too many politicians see their position in parliament as a step in their career, and move away as soon as something nice comes along. But it is not unique to my country. Take a look at the USA, and there too we witness a system falling apart. Huge amounts of money are wasted every four years to get people elected, only half of those who are allowed to vote will make the trip to the polling station, and in the end, half of the population does not accept the outcome of the elections. Something needs to be done.

I argue that our political system has evolved into a virtual democracy, that is in fact nothing more than the dictatorship of the ignorant and mediocre. Shouldn't it be better to trust our administrative and political processes to highly intelligent and capable people who are appointed to do so instead of getting a mandate by election? After all, in our information based society we have access to different media and possibilities that guarantee our basic political rights. And I'm sure we can come up with all kinds of new tools we can use to control these appointed technocrats. Just think of how inspiring it can be when we, the citizens, could use the internet as a tool to express our demands to the technocrat representatives. It may look like an ongoing referendum, but it can combine a modern way of political participation with the quality and intelligence we desperately need. The events in Northern Africa have shown us the power of new media. So, do we have the courage to try something new here? But I fear that it will never happen. Because in order to achieve this, to make huge and fundamental steps that will affect our society, lives and the way we look at established systems, we need the cooperation of all who are in power now. And I know where that will end. They lack the will to sacrifice their own positions, and will not understand that it would be in the best interest of all to give up their old fashioned structures. And we, we will just stay where we are.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I dreamed an Opel world

Where do you get these photos from? A question that is asked me quite a few times. Subject: the meanwhile famous 1960s Opel calender photos. Easily the most popular of my photos on Flickr, often re-blogged, and they keep gathering interest. And the collection keeps growing. Time to tell a bit more about this not so common hobby.

1970 Opel Rekord Coupé

My father was most of his professional life employed as the bookkeeper of an automobile dealership, that during the 1950s and 1960s sold Opels and Chevrolets. Towards the end of the year my father used to bring various calenders home that arrived at his office from banks, insurance companies, and of course, Opel. When my Dad found a real nice calender, he would put it under the Christmas tree for me. The Opel calenders were among the best, two plates per month plus a large cover photo, so 25 full colour photos for me to enjoy. The 1965 Opel calender was the first one he managed to secure, and I still remember how in love I was with all the great photos, depicting Opels in several countries. I had to wait until Christmas 1967 for the next Opel calender, and the 1970 edition was the last one my father took home, because by then the Opel years were history for the car business that employed him. Opel went out, Toyota moved in. It was not a bad move for sales, but it was for calenders. I don't know if Toyota calendars were either scarce or snapped away by others. I think I only ever had one, and it was a pathetic substitute for the lavish Opel calenders, since they only showed nice touristy images of Japan, with a tiny Toyota photo on the bottom end of the pages. So, what was so special about these Opel calenders, you might ask? Were it the cars? Maybe. But I grew up with Opels and they were often the subject of conversation, so the cars of the German company from Rüsselsheim were the ones to have in my young eyes.

1969 Opel Diplomat

Opel was big in those years, but still played second fiddle to Volkswagen in the sales charts in the 1960s in my country. That only changed in 1969, when the aging Volkswagen Beetle could not longer withstand the massive success of the Kadett B-model – and Opel would lead the charts here for at least 25 years. The Kadett was everything an Opel always was: roomy, a cavernous boot, reliable, and a decent price tag. Everything a family was looking for. The ultimate John Doe car, except the bigger and more expensive Kapitän, Admiral and V8 Diplomat of course, that catered for the executive market. But the Kadetts and Rekord were the money makers, and being the sensible choice was both Opel’s unique selling points and image problem alike. Opels were not special, and their handling left a lot to be desired for. An image problem the marketing people addressed by adding coupes to the program. The 1962 Rekord P2 was the first Opel to offer this flashy body style, basicly a low roof, no rear head room and higher price tag. Oh, and a lot of brightwork, optional whitewalls and a cigarette lighter of course. But ultimately, that was not enough. Because times were changing.

1968 Opel Commodore Coupé

When GM introduced the Corvair Monza, it spawned the Mustang at its rival in Dearborn. And the Mustang led to the Camaro and Firebird at Chevrolet and Pontiac. And then the entire automotive industry had to tap into that fountain of eternal youth visualized by images of speed and power. The result was tsunami of pony and muscle cars from almost any manufacturer. In Europe this led to the birth of the Capri at Ford, and Opel answer was the Manta, and it's best looking automobile of all times, the GT sportscar that follwoed the lines of its bigger cousin, the Corvette. But before the GT and the Manta were ready for the showroom and the road, Opel had to rely on cosmetic measures. GT packages, striping, extra lights on the front bumpers – red, yellow and orange coupes promising speed and sportscar handling, while maybe only adding a few horses to the power and a few kilometers to the top speed. And if you were not into the faux pony and muscle cars wannabees, elegant coupes, even pillarless hardtops for the Rekord and Commodore, were yours to choose from. All this was of course proudly shown in full colour calender plates. Two per month, nonetheless. And a young boy dreamed when he looked at the photos. And not only because of the cars triggered his imagination, but the exotic photo locations could not be overlooked either. Think about it: places as far as Paris, Switzerland and Greece. These were the Wirschaftswunder years. People bought cars, and discovered Europe! And there I was, dreaming to be there too in my Opel Commodore GS Coupé.

1969 US-spec Opel Kadett

Reality was a bit more down to earth for our family. We were always lucky to have a car, usually with an Opel badge, save for two front wheel drive Ford Taunus'. The cars were not brandnew, sometimes it was a six year old Kapitäns, sometimes a one year old Kadett. But whatever car we had, we traveled in summer to our own exotic destination, being it the Dutch province of Limburg, or the mluntains in Switzerland. I lived in an Opel country, and I dreamed an Opel world. Who can blame a young boy, at an age and at times that everything looked so promising? So, it will not come as a surprise to you, that I always kept these plates, as a physical proof of my Opel coloured imagination of times gone by. The calenders were no flip overs, but of the tear off kind, so they could not survive in original comdition. But all the plates were kept in big sturdy cardbox envelop, and later moved to large albums whit plastic envelop pages to protect them. That's how the 1965, 1968 and 1979 calenders plates were preserved over decades. Some years ago, when I added my photos to Flickr, I decided to scan the calender plates. And it felt good that so many people liked them. I also added a collection of digital vintage Opel publicity photos, but there's nothing like the calender plates you have at home. That's why I, thanks to the internet, started collecting Opel calenders. 1963, 1964 and 1967 are meanwhile added to the collection, and I'm scanning the photos of these treasures now. Maybe, just maybe, one day I'll have all the 1960-1970 calenders. Not sure if I will be that lucky. But as I write this, a 1960 calender is on its way to my mailbox. I just can't wait.

My Opel calender photos set here
My Opel publicity photos set here


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The perversion of democracy

Watching the Republican candidates for the American 2012 presidential elections is not something to boost your mood. I can't say much about mr. Romney, although his 13% tax and Swiss bank account do not do much to give him any credit. But with Santorum, the catholic Taliban, Gingrich with his debatable ethics and gynecologist Paul who thinks you can run the country like you did it in 1900, you might wonder if you are looking at political satire, or a watching political cartoon that came to life.


The people of a small village in Massachusetts could see the humerous sides of
the Democratic vs. Republican debate,as seen on this 1999 photo. I wonder if they still do now?

So, what’s it to you, you might ask. Well, more than you think, I fear. The United States regards itself as the leader of the western world, and indeed it is. Not by ethics or moral, but by sheer power and the size of its economy. So, whoever is a president, his actions affect all of us. Am I exaggerating here? Not really. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the US could have stepped in to bail it out. But the Bush administration decided it was best for all of us to let the markets deal with it, because a true conservative believes in the forces of free enterprise without government interference. And how right he was of course. The global economy nosedived because of that, but we all know we would be far worse off if this bank would have been nationalized, apparently. Just like Obama's horrible decision to help General Motors and Chrysler. Saving jobs, disposable income and hence spending power of over 500,000 families and keeping away all those people from welfare was a mistake of an unheard magnitude. Well, at least in Republican eyes.

Republicans firmly believe in simple solutions. So simple, that the entire complex macro economic world is reduced to a vending machine where you can pick the solutions of your choice. What global economy? Environmental issues? Foreign relations? Cut tax, create jobs. Ignore environment, create jobs. The ultimate simplification of politics. Which is easy and convenient, because you only have to shout some one liners and you can attract voters who do not question anything. Because they vote for their wallet. Short term individual advantages prevail over the collective well being of a nation. The perversion of capitalism.

Let's start with the basic Republican universal claim that less tax means more jobs. Maybe for businesses, but less income tax resulting in more jobs? Who says so? You can safely assume that extra disposable income will for a great deal be spent on consumer goods produced in Asia – maybe it could create some more jobs with the railroads and at Wal-mart, but that's about it. Or it may be put in a savings account or investment fund. Those don't create jobs either.
The western world is not competing with less tax in production countries. We are competing with a Third World level of income, lifestyle and social standards. Sure, if you want your American workers to earn $100 per month, work 14 hours per day and if possible have 14 year olds to do so, by all means – go ahead and lower yourself to a Third World level of wealth.

There are still too much Eastern European style living conditions for many. A primitive home in rural Georgia.
Not Washington's responsibility, according the conservatives.

The rants against Washington, because government is too big and consumes too much of tax money, overlook something. The money does not simply disappear, it is also used for wages, that translate into the purchase of consumer goods, cars, homes. But more important, it translates into services that are purchased by the government, like road construction, ICT consultancy, teachers... People who earn money and in turn, spend it too. And it denies the fact that when things get rough economically, you are happy that there is a level of autonomous spending that keeps the economy going. Because the businesses politicians so fondly speak off, are the first ones to keep their money in their pockets when difficult times are ahead. Not much help from that corner then.

What is always odd to me, is that people who are on a crusade for 'lower taxes' and less government interference, do not look at countries where higher taxes are proven to have been beneficial for the welfare of all, like the Scandinavian countries, Danmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. No, instead they look the other way, for a direction that is proven... well, actually, nowhere. Sure, it has been tried. Chili and Argentina welcomed Milton Friedman's thinking in the 1980s. And it resulted in a bankrupt Argentina. At least the social disruptance following that economic adventure forced almost all right wing regimes to pack their bags. And we could also look at Russia in the 1990s – on second thought, better not.

But what annoys me too, is that many of these conservative people who are so opposed to 'Washington' and any tax, call themselves Christians. Now, the odd thing is that Christianity is all about solidarity and compassion with the less privileged, and absolutely not with one's own self interest and prosperity. Something that somehow is mysteriously overlooked by right wing America, who goes to Sunday services, but calls a president who comes with a program to provide everyone with health care a 'socialist' or even a 'marxist'. Obviously, when you say that, you don't know what socialism or marxism is. But when religion is only about conservative ethical standards to you, it is not difficult to ignore your social responsibilities.

It is so sad to witness that democracy in the USA means that half of the population hates the person who won the presidential election. These people turn the election process into a travesty of democracy. The country that regards itself as the leader of the free world, God's own country and the best country to you can live in, has lost its moral and ethical rights towards these claims. I remember a sign if front of an old impoverished farmhouse is Washington, telling the world that “God bless America”. Was a this a testimony, or a prayer?

Small town America, as I love to see it.

I love America. I visited it maybe 18 times. So, I hope that sanity and intelligence will win over short term self interest. After all, we can assume that 50% of the population does not believe in the convictions and dogmas I painted above. I'm fairly convinced that, given the qualities of the current Republican candidates, Obama should have no problem winning the election in November. And he must, because even George Bush looks like a liberal compared to Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul.