Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A privileged man


When I looked at young man sitting next to me, I suddenly realized how special the situation was. The absence of boundaries, not feeling reserved whatsoever, being part of a cosmos that includes two different generations, may be a recognizable feeling for those who are parents. But when that entire spectrum of feelings and experiences that accompany that thing called parenthood is not yours, a relationship like this is all the most significant to me.

Years ago I found myself in a somewhat awkward situation. Objectively it may not have been so odd, but I did feel a bit uncomfortable. While visiting the spa in Noordwijk with the teenage son of my cousin - who we shall call my nephew here - and taking a shower, I noticed a man and a woman walking in. I instantly recognized the guy as someone who used to work at that same spa, and who left for a trip around the world a year before. Both took position right across us. There was no way to quietly slip away, and this was one talkative guy. And you don't tell about a world trip in one minute. Call me old fashioned, but he and his girlfriend were standing in full frontal view right before us. I felt uncomfortable. Physical inconvenience added to my mental uneasyness. The showers were hot and damp, and the story rolled on and on. Too cowardish to end the conversation myself, I projected my discomfort on my nephew. “You must be melting by now, is it time to leave?” I looked at him. He was leaning against the wall, relaxed, the warm water rushing down his body. “I'm fine,” he said. “I'm listening to the stories.” It was the first and last time that I tried to use him for my own advantage.

People who have children are part of their offspring's lives. Well, at least, that's how it is supposed to be. Maybe even without noticing it, they have their feelers in the world of younger generations. That is a valuable privilege. It is all too easy to focus yourself on the mindsets of the people your own age when there is no younger generation in your life. There's a genuine danger here. You might get stuck in those 'it was better back when we were young' thoughts and a new grumpy old man is born. For sure, things are not always better now, but younger people are not doing it the wrong way by default. Why is it, that we tend to think that they always need our advice and that they are never able to sculpt their lives without our guiding hands? 

Photo taken during a New England, Maine and Quebec trip many years ago.
We stayed in this motel at Lac Mégantic, Quebec.

But let's not get too philosophical here. It could squeeze all joy out of life. Fact is however, that a 24 year age difference seems to evaporate when we get together. Were we, some 15 years ago, both just the persons and role models we were both looking for? Whatever it was, it did not only bring friendship, but for me it also opened the door to the world of younger generations. Maybe my only chance to be part of what otherwise would most likely be unknown to me? I enjoy their dynamics, but also see their challenges, like the problems that are confronting young parents. There are people who simply turn away the moment the responsibilities of friendship include a genuine effort to listen to what young people have to deal with. I can't do that. It's all in the game. Friendship is non-committal.

Last Saturday was our monthly sauna visit. It has been that way for thirteen years. Of course, these are not the only occasions we see each other, but it is the perfect way to sit down and listen to the latest updates on kids and school, work and recession, the weekend away with the in-laws. There were serious moments, and there was laughter, because after all, men will always be boys. There were coffee, beer and smoked salmon baguettes. Just the two of us for a few hours. It could have been so different. Suppose we never grabbed that opportunity to get to know each other?
It was a precious day. I am a privileged man.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hop in, dismiss, oh, what a relief it is

The moon river pace, like from the song. No obligations, no plans, no schedules or timetables, no travel guides. Tired, I was so tired, because of work and all the social responsibilities that cross the path of your life. Are you familiar with the feeling of being too tired to go away on a vacation? That you need a couple of days of emptiness before you can embark on your annual tour?


The tiredness culminated in canceling my initial travel plan. A trip that I would have laughed at years ago, felt like crossing the Himalayas now. So, initial plans were not only postponed, but put away with the garbage altogether. A new plan was drawn up, that, to be honest, could hardly be called a plan. But I loved it.

To avoid driving for too many hours on that frenzy called German Autobahn, the trip was divided into three stages. Must be sign of getting older, I'm sure. Years ago, I did not mind the hectic pace on the Autobahn. But pace implies progress, and in recent years Autobahn progress has become a contradictio in terminis. Anyway, a pleasant two and half hour drive brought us to Bad Bentheim, that lovely small town just across the border. Staying in the comfortable Kurhaus Hotel, and no real plans here, as 37 degrees Celsius weather did not invite to do anything that required any effort. Getting rid of that compulsory feeling that you do need to set goals in your vacation, that you just have to visit certain places, was a liberating feeling. So, wandering around a town without a destination, relaxing in a new sauna wellness center and outside dining did for me what I needed. And visiting a few sights in the area ad random just because I felt to go there. This blueprint repeated itself a few times – short drives of two or three hours at the most, leaving the Autobahn and travelling over rolling back roads through lovely scenery. And then nice hotels waiting, al fresco dining, forest walks and fabulous spas like Bali Thermen in Bad Oeynhausen, and the wonderful Kristal Thermen in Altenau, Harz – wonderful, because you can find relief for arthritic problems there. Didn't I mention I'm getting older?
So, why do so many people have the conviction that their vacations should be packed with preplanned trips and excursions dictated by a pile of travel guides and websites that they felt had to be consulted?

Relaxing. No one looking over my shoulder. No plans. No travel guides. That sums up my German days this summer. Just enjoying the moment and clearing out your mind. That's what I needed. It's the feeling I get when I hear that great classic song Moon River. It creates a comforting state of mind. Nothing rushing you. That's what a vacation should do to you. Take my advice. Embrace nothing for a change.

The title of this blog was inspired by a line in the song 'Yellow Beach Umbrella', a track from the Bette Midler album 'Broken Blossom'.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Beach off limits

Beach off limits. It's not allowed to enter the Katwijk beach area right in front of the town this winter. The entire beach will be moved 100 meters west, into the North Sea, and a new artificial dune, with a dike constructed under, will be created in that area. All beach restaurants have been removed. Reason: the Katwijk coast is too vulnerable if you take the rise of the sea level and expected severe storms as a result of climate change in account. 

If the Katwijk coast would collapse, an area where one million people live may be floaded. This is a national project of course, not something that is implemented by the Katwijk town council. The beach and the dunes are not Katwijk's own domain - they are the responsibility of what in the USA would be the US Corps of Engeneers and the National Forest Service.

Katwijk makes use of this project to build a new underground car park for 700 vehicles. The entire project will cost € 29 million. There's a considerable downside: you won't be able to see the North Sea anymore from the seaside Boulevard, but there will be a pedestrian trail over the new dune, so that you can see the ocean from there. There are people who want to hold on to the current situation, because sentiments over how the Katwijk beach should look are important to them. But I don't mind. The Katwijk seaside Boulevard is not the best business card for our town, and for a defining facade you should expect something better. Architecture is horrid, as a result of money driven development plans, influenced by a conservative view on Katwijk's tourism based economy in the early 1950s. During 1942 and 1943 all structures along this Boulevard, apart from a few landmarks such as the Old Church, were demolished by ordenance of the Nazi occupiers, up to 200 meters from the beach. Gone were the many Victorian hotels with their beautiful porches and facades. And they never returned after 1945. Brick attached homes, as if they were built from a box of Lego stones and designed by a six year old, came to dominate the most important recreational area in this town.

In later years the Boulevard suffered from the growing number of cars, while in recent years speed cyclists added terror to motorists and pedestrians alike. Never had our town council the refreshing thought to make it a one way road. The Boulevard is not a place I'd like to spend a nice summer's day. And why should I? Too many cars, too many people, and only a handful of third rate restaurants. All in all, a symphony of missed oppertunities.

I'm looking forward to see how the new beach will look. An extra dune of 100 meter should create a more natural environment, and a much needed distance from the crowded Boulevard. The less you sense its presence, the better it will be. I remember visiting Tybee Island beach in Georgia, and how wonderful it was that you had to walk some 100 meters through a dune area to get to the ocean, as this photo shows >

April 1, 2014, the beach and the wooden pavillion restaurants will open again.