Friday, December 31, 2010

An afternoon at the museum

I love museums. And the more traditional they are, the better it is. I remember how I loved the British Museum, with its big rooms, and long wooden en glass cabinets. The museum I visited a few days ago, has little to do with art. However, that is open for discussion of course. The Louwman Collection is one of the world's most distinguished vintage automobile museums. A few months ago it relocated to a new purpose built building in The Hague. Does it live up to the expectations?

1935 Duesenberg SJ

My feelings toward automobile museums are a bit ambivalent. Cars are machines that are best enjoyed in motion, or when used, which is maybe a better description. I love vintage car rallies, even though there is always one that does not survive the challenge. But the cars in museums are so disconnected from their purpose. A painting was always meant to be admired while hanging on the wall, but that is not the case with automobiles. Of course, I know, you can’t have Talbot Lagos or Duesenbergs participating in a rally anymore – however one of my Flickr contact once came across a Duesenberg on a country road, parked with the keys still in it and nobody to be seen. Still, there are some car museums that have their charm. I liked the Kleinwagen und Roller Museum (microcar and scooter museum) in Germany’s Bad Iburg, but alas, it has long closed up. And I love the car museum in the German town of Melle, where all cars are privately owned and see regular use.

I have known the Louwman Collection for a very long time. As a kid I visited the museum when it was still in our area. It was located in the building of the Dutch Toyota distributor, and when that company moved to the other side of this small country, I visited a few times in its new location. Which did not have much prestige, because it was noting more as a modern warehouse. But it served its purpose, and once inside the display was very well laid out. But with the purchase of a collection form Germany and the one from a Dutch museum that closed its doors, more space was needed. And I suppose the Toyota distributor sure could use the space itself too, since sales have soared the past few years, making Toyota the second best selling nameplate in this country.

The Louwman Collection is one of the “money no object” kind. It is the private hobby of one of the richest families in the country, that made its fortune with importing Chrysler, Dodge, Toyota and Suzuki. A zoo used to be another hobby of the family, but that was a money pit, so they got rid of that. Not after begging for money and getting it from the provincial authorities and several towns in the area, and closing the gates a few years after the millions were transferred to the zoo. The vintage car collection was spared this fate, and continued to grow. Crown jewels are two Duesenberg SJ models, worth several million euros. But the remarkable so called ‘swan’ cars, once belonged to a maharadja, just as a silver Rolls Royce did, various automobiles from the very early days of motoring, Bugattis, one of the original Goldfinger Aston martin DB5s and many, many more cars give a great overview of the automotive history. The collection is displayed now in a brand new building, with a love it or hate architecture. I don’t like it, but hey, that’s me.

The museum's lobby

Once inside, after parking your car for €5 (!), one is greeted by a grande hallway, where a few interesting cars are displayed in a way, that visitors can walk around them, and peek inside. But next, a déjà vu is what comes to mind when you visited the old museum. The oldest vehicles are displayed exactly the same as before, beautifully illuminated in black hardly lit rooms. But after that things get very traditional: vintage cars displayed on both sides of the rooms, behind ropes. There juts does not seem to be any themes, and it is my humble opinion that the management missed a lot of opportunities here. I fondly remember the last room in the old museum, that was nothing less than an apotheosis: all the masterpieces were grouped together, with the Duesenberg taking the main stage. Oh, all the old luxury cars are still there, but divided over several rooms. I miss that old room, which was like a grand desert buffet after a great dinner. Some of the magic is gone, just like that interesting collection of vintage Japanese cars I was hoping to see again. But the only surviving pre-war Toyota, no matter in a deplorable condition, makes up for that of course. Even the Toyota Museum in Japan does not have one.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

That old fashioned feeling

I like Christmas time. I like it better as Christmas itself, which is actually rather a bore. But the time around it is not to be missed. And I like my Holiday Season to be quite old fashioned. For me, this is not a time to be innovative, but one to rely on trusted and admittedly conservative habits. Maybe it is the only time in the year we can safely act conservative and even corny?

When I was a child, the Holiday Season, and especially Christmas vacation, was a time of warmth and fun. When we were lucky, there was snow and we would play outside with the neighbourhood kids. When the weather was not to our advantage, my sister and I would built a tent on the attic and pretend that we were explorers. A few hours of daytime television during Christmas break was a special event to us as well, since there was only public broadcasting in those days that usually did not begin until 6 PM. But during the two weeks of freedom from school at the end of year television would treat us on Walt Disney cartoons and numerous movies special for kids during the afternoon.

Certain TV shows and movie have always been synonymous with Christmas for me. When I got older it was Charlie Brown and his gang and you could count on that Charles M. Schulz’ men would do a Xmas special. Too bad that they have not been shown here on television for years now. Today, I cherish the moments you have when you can lay down on the couch and watch a traditional movie during the season, with tea of coffee and of course something sweet and high on calories – or glass of wine with some cheese. There are three movies I just can’t do without during the Holiday Season: that all time classic White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. Great song lines here: “Even guys with two left feet, come out right when the girl is sweet. If by chance their cheeks should meet, while daaaancing! Proving that the best things happen while you dance!”
National Lampoon in Christmas Vacation has become a modern day classis, I must watch and it keeps being hilarious year after year. Neighbour: “Hey Griswold, what are you going to do with that tree?” Walt Griswold “Bend over, and I’ll show you.” And then the Muppets Christmas Special, where the uncontrolled gang decides to bring Fozzy Bear’s mother a surprise visit. A turkey calls on the door. “I was invited for Christmas dinner by some Swedish guy.” Fozzy Bear: “Err… you are Christmas dinner.”

 The movie adaption of Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a true holiday classic.

Of course, there are more movies waiting fore the season, like The Holiday and Sun Valley Serenade. I’m just afraid that online movie shop will live up to its tradition once again not to deliver on the promised date, so Hello Dolly will have to wait for some day after Christmas. Apart from movies, I love good music shows during these days. But what I do miss today, with commercial television all around, and public broadcasting having to compete with it on ever tighter budgets, are the great quality shows you used to have during this season. Shows with live performing guests, with a genuine band or orchestra and a real audience are all too much replaced by an instant mix of clips shot against snowed mountains. I have no illusions here, quality will not come back.

 Ken Eberts Christmas card issued by Leanin' Tree.

Another tradition I value are the trusted old Christmas cards. I love Christmas cards, and the more traditional they are, the better it is. Painted snow scenes with cottages, robins on snowed branches… I love ‘m. Alas, they are getting rare these days, far too often replaced by cartoonlike Santa’s and Christmas bears… please, please send me a traditional card! Part of the Christmas card fun is guessing from who it came before you open the envelop. Recognize that writing? My love for Christmas Cards explains my shock when I read that a friend will not send Xmas cards anymore. I know that I simply had no time and was not in the mood to send them a couple of years ago, but that was an isolated event. It is fashionable these days among certain people to declare that they will not send cards anymore. So be it. But it would be fair to announce that in time, so that others had a choice whether to send those Xmas card sabotagers a printed wish or not. So there I am, having send a carefully chosen card, to read that this friend will not participate in this “pumping around of cards anymore”. Well, sorry that I have offended you by sending one. Can I have it back please?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

St. Nicolaas left the party

The Dutch do not have Santa Claus. Well, actually we have him too, but he plays second fiddle to Sint Nicolaas. Our Saint Nicholas, also known as Sinterklaas, is a very old traditional figure. December 5, the evening before his birthday, is “present evening” - the annual gift exchanging tradition that other countries know on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.

Saint Nicholas was a bishop in the Turkish town of Myra around the fourth century. His fame for helping children gave him the stature of patron of kids – these days we have mixed feelings reading this, but the 4th century was definitely a different time, I do hope. What caused the change in location is unknown, but tradition tells us that Saint Nicholas later moved to Spain, where he lives surrounded by his Moorish male servants, called Zwarte Pieten, or Black Pete’s. Please don’t ask, but I can add to this picture that every year mid November the bishop sails to The Netherlands with his Black Pete’s on a steamship, packed with presents, and of course, his white horse. His arrival is broadcasted on national television, and he mysteriously appears in every town at the same time. Saint Nicholas rides his white horse over rooftops, where the Black Pete’s drop presents down chimneys for little children who placed their shoes in front of the stove, fireplace or just central heating – preferably with a carrot for the horse or a nice painting. Singing traditional Saint Nicholas songs as loud as possible helps very well. But the apotheosis is the evening of December 5, when the Good Holy Man – yes, that’s how we call him too – delivers presents at every door. A tricky problem for kids with a bad conscious, because the naughty ones used to be abducted to Spain with Sinterklaas and his black Pete’s. In a sack that is, but if your acts weren’t too bad, a beating with Black Pete’s rod would your only possible punishment. I know, this calls for explanation, but I can’t. However December 6 everything is over again, because Saint Nicholas and his servants disappear back to Spain, without anyone noticing it.

The Saint Nicolas tradition was brought to the New World with Dutch emigrants, where it mixed with the Christmas Man that was known in other cultures. Saint Nicolas gave his looks – a red outfit, red hat, white hair and a long white beard – and his name to the Christmas man, and evolved into Santa Claus. The horse somehow became a sleigh with reindeer, and Santa learned to fly through the skies, and without doubt that is a step up from riding rooftops on a horse. The Black Pete’s shrunk into white elves, and once again, this calls for further investigation. We however still have our Sinterklaas, and for many years he withstood the eminent advances of Santa Claus in our neck of the woods, as a robin defending his territory in a garden. As you might understand the tradition I pictured above, it is best enjoyed when there are still children around who are young enough to firmly believe that Saint Nicolas is a reality. But we live in a world where television shows us Christmas according the American way of life, and more and more people give in to that when their children get older. Still, Saint Nicolas has a firm position and is more popular as Santa Claus. So, December 5 is for many the occasion to give each other presents accompanied by rhymes, pointing out the good and not so good events around the recipient, but all in a humorous way. An evening that calls for special candy, hot chocolate, or warm red wine.

Scene from horror movie adaption 'Sint' by Dick Maas.

I have left the Saint Nicolas tradition myself. But as I see it, the Saint Nicolas feeling left the party. I still long for the old fashioned Saint Nicolas evenings of yore, with a few presents, short rhymes that get to the point quickly, and after the exchange of presents is over, a nice evening filled with laughter over a glass of wine. But that intimate old fashioned evening seems impossible these days. Way too many presents are given, whose nature often got out of hand being too expensive and grand, and above all – the rhymes got longer and longer, and hence the evening developed into a bore that just does not seem to end. The last Saint Nicolas evening I was participated in ended past midnight – while 10.00 PM should be the moment to call the ceremony closed and move on the part where you just enjoy the evening. Alas, the family seems to think otherwise – and so I value Christmas morning so much, when I put my presents under the Christmas tree. Un-Dutch, I know, but such a nice morning that is.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

I have it for several months now, but have not opened it yet. Almost afraid to touch it. The DVD of Das Weisse Band is still waiting to be watched, but something is holding me back. Do you know that feeling of coming back to a vacation spot you visited before, and it does not live up the memory? The same feeling keeps me from inserting the DVD in the player. Because it is the most impressive movie I have ever seen, and I want it to hold on to that status.

The German cinema and television at times turn out gems, some gain wide acceptance, some are overlooked by the masses. Of course there was Rainer Maria Fassbinder, who gave us, among others, Die Ehe der Maria Braun, Leli Marleen and Berlin Alexanderplatz. But there is more: Volker Schlöndorff’s Der Blechtrommel, Bagdad Café, Buddenbrooks, ‘Paris, Texas’, Goodbye Lenin, Das Leben der Anderen, and who can forget the impressive TV-series Heimat ?

And so, early 2010 Das Weisse Band, or in English The White Ribbon, reached Dutch movie theatres. Awarded the Palm d’Ore in Cannes and receiving raving reviews, it was enough to hop in the car and drive to The Hague to see this movie.

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), source:

Das Weisse Band tells about the mysterious and violent incidents in a small rural village in northern Germany during the last year before World War I would disrupt traditional social structures for ever. Who ever wonders why Marxism and socialism could get a foothold in Europe, I suggest to go and watch Das Weisse Band. Not only social economical differences are apparent, but the social hierarchy that dominated all aspects of the common people's lives was just waiting to burst. Das Weisse Band does not touch on politics at all, but director Michael Haneke paints an obvious picture without referring to a clear defined and outlined social uproar. Living in rural Germany in the 1910s meant that everybody had to be fully aware of his or her place in society. Only the gentry stood above all this, they were the centre of the community, directing the preacher and police. On the opposite end of the social spectrum were the voiceless farmers who had to work hard to make a living and pay their rent to the gentry. In between we find the small middle class, portrayed in this movie by the doctor, who abuses his power over his maid – cruel and sexually. We are also introduced to the harsh way the vicar raises and punishes his children – maybe common at the time, but incomprehensible today. We see the strange and disrupting occurrences through the eyes of the new and young schoolteacher – the only one who looks at everything that's happening as an outsider. Any ideas and suspicions we may have concerning the person responsible for the assault on the doctor, the abuse of the baron’s son, the fire in the barn, comes to us through the eyes of the teacher. Between all this, the village children are a constant factor in this movie. The stunning screen performances of the young actors are one of the things you will not forget after seeing this movie. But are their characters evil and are they the force behind all this? Or are they just highly intelligent and is it their curiousity that brings them to the places were the unexplained events happen? We will never know for sure, but we can have our suspicions – and that is the way how this brilliant movie ends.

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), source:

It is the first movie I watched that kept me discussing about it for days with the other people who have seen it. That's telling. But I should not forget that there is more then just a story to make a truly great movie. The beautiful black and white cinematography, Haneke's lazy pace to bring this story, the simple but effective music, and the subdued but great acting. Haneke chose unknown actors, many of them very young. And the language, Hochdeutsch, once again proves how fascinating and beautiful German can be.

So there we have it. A movie that impressed me so much that I am almost afraid to see it again. I don’t have a cinema screen at home, so the impact could be less overwhelming then when seen in a movie theatre, and I know how the story will develop. But then, there are so many questions left, that I should watch it again. I will. And so should you.

English language movie trailer.

German language trailer:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Georgia on my mind

“The Dutch are nicer than the Americans,” my naturalized American uncle Neil told me just last week. I was knocked off my feet. Americans are very nice people in my book – and most will agree with that. But my uncle lives in a small rural village in Holland now, and that is probably more social then the new development in Florida’s Punta Gorda where he used to live. But let me tell you, don’t listen to my uncle, contact with Americans is usually a very pleasant experience.

I will not claim I know America. I visited about half of its states, but I must confess there is a number of states I actually only drove through. Like Rhode Island, when I finally found a place to park, I had already left the state. But add to that a couple of Canadian provinces, and I think I can have a general view of the way the people of North America socialize with their foreign visitors. The first impression is not always favourable, mind you... Immigration officers at airports all seem to suffer from a bad case of hemorrhoids, and only on occasion can afford a friendly word, or even a joke. Like the one at Atlanta’s Hartfield Jackson Airport, asking me if I was travelling alone. When I said “yes”, he replied, “so, on your honeymoon then?” Why I said yes, is actually still a mystery to me, since I was travelling with a companion.

Sandersville mansion - quessential south

America is a big country, and big countries have differences within their borders. Friendliness may vary. Bostonians are, to be honest, not that friendly to their visitors, and the Chicago area is not high on the top ten list either. They have probably seen too many tourists. It is said that New Yorkers are not the most social people as well, but standing in a square with a map, looking in all directions, immediately attracts people asking you where you want to go. But I can see the point – people in cities are in general more focused on themselves and too busy to give much attention to all those tourists with their backpacks. How different it is when you get to the countryside – and that is what I do most in the USA and Canada.

Canadians are probably – as a nation – the friendliest people I’ve met. The Canadian immigration officer warned me not to lose my US visa. “We don’t care, but as for them over there…”, nodding at his US colleagues on the other side of the street. A traffic policeman in Sault St. Marie welcomed us in his country and advised us to set up camp in the wild. And in Canada the Francophone community in the province of Québec is in a league of its own. I still remember how a maybe 18 year old waitress put her hand on my arm, expressing her concern that I could not be careful enough on a trip to the almost uninhabited east part of the province. And the employee of the Cartier railroad in Sept Iles said, with a very big smile and a heavy French accent, when we told him we were there to see the railroad: I do not believe you! A tip for anyone travelling there: always start your conversation in French, and when they will hear you making an effort, but butchering their language, almost all will immediately shift into English. And contrary to popular belief, I actually only met one lady who did not speak English.

 Tybee Island, near Savannah, has the most wonderful beaches

The Quebecois are extremely friendly, but their top position on my chart is challenged by the people of Georgia. I visited the South in 2008, and truth to be told, it is how you think it is. My images of the south were created by In the Heat of the Night, A Streetcar named Desire, The Dukes of Hazard, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – you name it. And it is that way. Sunny, warm, muggy, lazy, lustrous green, palm trees, good food and live bait vending machines, beautiful beaches at Tybee Island, the great historic town of Savannah, which is one of the prettiest US cities – and very, very friendly people. Totally unknown people wave at you from their cars, police stop to ask if they can help you and wish you a pleasant stay, wand when walking on the sidewalk other pedestrians say hello. Two hip hop teenagers passing me politely said “how y'all doing sir?” A waiter at The Olive Garden restaurant in Atlanta offered me an entire bottle of wine for free, because they were not expecting other orders for Pinot Grigio anymore that night.
I will never forget my conversation with the park warden at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer cottage at Warm Springs, not far from Atlanta. I was the first visitor that morning, and when I entered I busted her trying to hide a sub under the counter. I never heard an official laugh so loudly, when I said I saw what she just did. A very nice conversation followed, and she told me she came from New York, but was tired of city living. Moving to the south was like a warm bath, she said. Never expected people to be so friendly, and never going back to the Big Apple. Some unexpected encounters will always stick to you.

 Franklin Delano Roosevelt's summer residence in Warm Springs, Ga.

Now, Georgia was not only hallelujah, because the almost intolerable August heat and humidity prevented open-window driving for most of the day, and the RAV4’s climate control blowing at full force was needed. With my history of chronic sinus problems, and cold air on my face, a massive sinusitis explosion was the result. Once again, I had to visit an ER – in the town of Sandersville – but even there the friendliness of the people surprised me. When a nurse brought me my prescription, she also brought me a dozen of printouts with interesting spots and things to do in southern Georgia, which she had quickly checked the internet for. Can you understand that I have Georgia on my mind?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Can I drive in Havana?

Maybe I should be ashamed of it, maybe not even tell. But there are places I’d like to go, and I haven't done so far, because I’m scared of the thought of having to drive there. It all became clear to me again when I saw a TV show this week that was filmed in Morocco. I’d love to go back there. But Cuba is another destination on my wish list, which suffers from that same maybe unrealistic fear.

I’d love to see and experience Cuba. I know, it is probably a romantic image created by the media – the colourful clothes of the people, the vintage American cars, the music – the Buena Vista Social Club, just try to say that out loud with a Spanish tongue -, the beautiful girls on the beaches, the Hotel Nacional, sipping drinks under the palms, while listening to sounds of the country. Maybe the last Latin American country in the 1950s style way we so like when we watch old movies?

The Bueno Vista Social Club in concert, Amsterdam, 1998.
With amongst other İbrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ry Cooder.
Scene from the Wim Wenders movie with the same name as the band.

But there is a problem here. I’d like my freedom of movement. I hate organized trips where you get in a bus and are transported from one location to the other, having to deal with company you probably do not like, and be dependent on a guide who decides where you will stop to take photos. I know you can book trips to Cuba and go around in a reliable Japanese car. But do I have the guts to do that? I always have visions of corrupt police that will stop you, I even had that when driving in the Czech Republic, so why not in Cuba? And the language – how are you going to communicate when you do not speak Spanish, and you are outside Havana, where chances that you will meet people who do understand English are less likely than in the city? On the other hand, I managed driving in communist Romania in a Citroën Oltcit, that despite being new, gradually started to fall apart during the trip. But getting fuel was problematic, and outside the hotels hardly anyone spoke English, making it difficult to express yourself when you felt you were being cheated.

 Hotel pool in Meknez. Like a fairy tale at twilight.

I thought about this, after seeing a TV show with a Dutch rap artist of Moroccan birth, who visited his country and showed places that suddenly looked so familiar again to me. I visited Morocco in 1984, and it was magic. North African culture, friendly people, vivid colours, great food, excellent service in hotels, the fairytale like scenery and cities combined to an experience that was a joy to the senses. Why have I never been back? Together with a friend from university we had booked an organized trip along the old royal cities like Meknez, Marrakech and Casablanca. Marrakech was the absolute highlight: the famous town square, the casbah, the nightclub with the belly dancer and the acrobats, the evening trip into the desert to a Tuareg camp, where we were treated with a fabulous dinner that just seemed not to end, with traditional dancers and a stunning horse show. Even after all those years I still see it all right before me. I should have gone back, but never did. It is not only a fear of driving in an unknown country, it is also the fear of being on your own – even when you go with a group of friends. To be honest, deep in my heart I want to rely on the help and support of a guide when I think of exotic destinations. Because the guide was the man who kept the platoons of souvenir selling obtrusive boys at a distance. Or tried to do so. He was the man who navigated us through the narrow maze of crowded alleys of the Meknez casbah. And the only time we went there on our own, I came back with silver bracelets I had no use for, and did not want to buy anyway.

Moroccon roads are actually very good, even in the desert.

The guide was also the one who arranged for a doctor when I needed one. Visitors to Mexico call it Montezuma’s Revenge, and I have no idea what its Moroccan equivalent is named – but it does exist. You know how helpless you feel when everything exits your body from both ways as fluids one and the same time – knowing you have to travel the next day. The German doctor the guide called for arrived soon. I still see his silhouette in the dusk room set off against the window, holding a large needle in the air, testing if it was okay. “Holland?" he said. “I know Holland, I’ve been there a long time ago.” And I feared his revenge when the needle came down at a part of my body I will not discuss here, for a war lost, after so many years.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The white horse and St. Elmo’s fire

My grandparents were walking on the beach on a dark night, and they knew they were not alone. The sound of the waves silenced any other sounds. But they sensed they were being followed. And when they looked over their shoulder, they could vaguely see a light spot between the surrounding darkness. The spot got larger and more defined. A white horse, without a rider or any human accompanying it, was walking behind them. When they stopped, it stopped. When they walked, it would resume its pace. When they approached the houses of Katwijk, the horse had vanished and was nowhere to be seen...

Katwijk, the town I am not born in, but lived all my life, was small village surrounded by kilometres of dunes to the south, east and north, and the North Sea to the west. It was a poor village, where many families depended on fishery for their living. Not many people followed higher education, and who lived in Katwijk focussed on their neighbours and families. There was little interaction with the outside world. Which is not to say the outside world did not know Katwijk – it was a popular seaside resort for families, and many famous painters spend months in this then small village to be inspired by the dunes and the sea.

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp)

No television or radio around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, dark evenings in the streets where the poor fisherman families lived, legends were abundant, and stories were important. Katwijk was a village where Johnny Depps's portrayal of Ichabod Crane, the colourful police investigator in Tim Burton’s lovely horror movie The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, based on the story of Washington Irving, would not be out of place in Katwijk trying to analyse the white horse story – albeit without a headless horseman. And now we are on the subject of movies, Joel and Ethan Coen are my favourite cinomatographic story tellers today. Their latest film here, A Serious Man, a great movie by itself, starts with a superb legend like scene, situated in a small rural Jewish village in 19th century Poland, where a couple is visited by a dybbuk – a man, a rabbi in this case, who is actually dead, and comes to the living with evil intentions. The dybbuk is stabbed by the woman, if he survives, it is proof it is already dead. The man walks out, so it was obvious a dybbuk according to the woman. But then they notice the man lost blood…

But I am drifting off, I need to focus myself to the real world here. I love stories. And I miss them. My father told me the story about the white horse, as it was told to him by his mother, and of course, even his generation did not believe that story anymore. But still… When my father was a teenager he had to pedal back to Katwijk on his bicycle in the 1930s, after seeing a Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie in the town of Leiden, some ten kilometres away. Having to cycle in the dark, between the dark streets and the fields, he was scared. Almost as scared as he was as a 12 year old boy when he was asked to bring the weekly pension to a former employee of the shipping company his father worked for. This particular man was a bachelor, who lived with his single sister in small house in one of the creepiest and darkest alleys of the village. This sister was known to be extremely ugly, with an appearance that would qualify for a position as a witch. There was no electric light where she and her brother lived, and when my farther knocked on their door, he was frightened as he never was before. A cracking voice, as the story goes, asked who he was and about the natureof his visit. When my father explained that he was bringing the pension money, he was invited in. What my father did not anticipate however, were the steps down behind the door, because the dark living room was lower than street level. My father walked in, and fell down from the stairs. Lying on the floor he looked up at the face of the witch that was illuminated by a lantern from below. My father was so scared, that he threw the money on the floor and ran off without looking back.

Now, that is a story I love. And it is with regret that I must admit that I can not tell stories. Maybe I could, but I do not have any stories worthwhile to tell. We have rational explanations for everything around us, and there are few things that scare us today. That’s too bad, because the art of story telling is a tradition that should be kept alive, but is an endangered species these days. I blame myself too. When I have stories, it is not because they are mysterious, but because of a kind of bizarre nature at the most. Like when I was spending a few days in Bacharach with my parents, and we left the famous old inn “Altes Haus”, which not surprisingly means “Old House”. I opened the door to go outside, but at the same time the door was pushed open from outside. And I was staring right in the face of Mr. Klaus Kinkel – at the time the minister of foreign affairs of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and leader of the German Liberal party. “Guten Abend”, he said to me. I know, it is a pathetic attempt for a story, not only because of its triviality, but also because it so short. Somewhat more words can be used to describe an odd conversation at a bus stop many years ago. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and the around 60 years old lady sitting on the bench was obviously eager to find a reason to start a conversation. It did not take long for her to find one. “Look at her,” she said, pointing at a young and tanned lady in a nice summer’s dress, passing by on het bicycle. "I bet she is going to the beach.” I replied that the lady was absolutely right to do so on such a glorious day. “Well, not for me. I don’t go there. My hips. I can’t walk through the sand, and when I sit down on the beach, I can’t get up anymore.” I enquired if she did mot have a garden to enjoy the summer. No, she did not. “But we do have a trailer in the Veluwe forest.” For non-Dutch, the Veluwe is the large forested nature area in the centre of the country. “You go there often?” I asked. “No, we do not anymore.” So, why was that? “My husband’s heart.” I did not understand this right away. “When my husband gets a heart attack, I will not be able to walk to a phone to call a doctor. Because of my hips, you know.” I was glad the bus arrived at that point.

Katwijk beach

So, there you have it. My supply of stories is limited, not very interesting, and consists only of remarkable, but probably pathetic situations. I so much wish I could tell stories that would bring my audience to the edge of their seats and keep ‘m awake at night. But we are too sophisticated for nonsense like that these days – and with that, an ancient tradition fades away.

The people walking on the beach that night realized they were not alone. The sound of the wind and the sea prevented that any noises could be heard, but it was absolutely clear that there right ahead was a moving light on that deserted beach. No matter what they did, the light stayed ahead of them. They could not catch up. And when they stopped, it stopped as well. That light was seen before and it always meant doom. Any rational explanation that there was a man walking with a lantern, or that it just could be St. Elmo’s fire, were out of the question when it was obvious that there was a demon walking there, or by golly, the devil himself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ashamed to be Dutch

This week Holland can join the company of European countries like Denmark and Norway, where governments are kept afloat by the support of extreme right wing populist parties. Every year on May 4 we remember all who fell victim during the Second World War, civlians and military – just “so we will never forget”. But how forgetful we are. Two established parties do not have a problem teaming up with a populist movement that shows many similarities with the Dutch fascist party during the years of the great depression, that ultimately supported the German occupation from 1940-1945.

So, what happened to those pot smoking, nude beach visiting and gay wedding attending Dutch, just to exaggerate some foreign images about this country? Why did the pendulum swing to the other side, to narrow minded conservatism and perceived threath for alien influences?
Part of our problems can be attributed to our archaic political system, that has not changed since 1917. Party representatives in parliament are chosen by a system of equal representation, instead by a majority “winner takes all” victory in a constituency. So, to make it simple, if a party gets 20% of the votes, it gets 20% of the seats in Parliament. That might be the ultimate in democracy, and the Liberal Democrats in the UK just dream of such a system, but the drawback is that it can provide an easy parliamentary stage to parties with debatable ideas. They can get a foothold with just one or a couple of seats – and gradually grow from there on.

 Idyllic Holland - but for how long?

This system gave us a wide array of different political parties on both the left and the right wings of the political spectrum. Instead of consolidating themselves in a few large parties, people with different political opinions go their own way. The practical result however is that coalitions between different parties have to be made, before a government can rely on the support of the majority in parliament. But the traditional conservative parties - and I include the labour party in this - never wanted to change this system.
I have always been against this. I advocate representation based upon constituencies. To those, who argument that it is not democratic to block smaller groups from entrance in political arena – see the UK - I say: democracy is more than just a voice in parliament. Access to media is easy for many these days, and voices can be heard using different channels.

Second problem is the decline of the established political parties. That system as described above worked quite well, when there were actually just a few well defined parties: the labour party (PvdA), the christian democrats (CDA) and the liberals (VVD) – mind you, liberals are conservatives here, and that might be confusing for North American readers… But times have changed. The labour party alienated itself from its traditional voters, by focussing on middle class families, who use their support for the former socialist party as a loincloth for their material and bourgeois lifestyle. So, its working class voters left. The christian democrats suffer from a decline in religious conviction, and those who are religious do not see a problem anymore in voting for a different party not based on religious principles. Plus, the christian democratic prime minister was extremely unpopular - the result of hanging on to power well beyond his ‘sell by date', while showing too much arrogance in dealing with a number of issues. Only the liberals have done quite well the past few years. But, the result of this all: voters are adrift. And many of them landed at a new party, whose leader knows how to manipulate the ignorant masses.

Enter Mr. Geert Wilders and his Freedom party (PVV). A ticket of anti Islam, anti art, anti public broadcasting, anti “The Hague”, anti EU and in general anti intellectualism – as Jan Isaacs-wade pointed out in a comment on an earlier blog - and evoking any discussion, while constantly making bold and often untrue statements, gave him a popularity with people without intellectual analytical capacities, and previously without any interest in politics whatsoever. He was also able to attract voters fleeing from the traditional parties, mainly because of his rabid anti Islam ideas. True, there are isues the old established parties have not solved, and even ignored for a long time. Issues that are fueled by our populist and largest newspaper De Telegraaf, a publication that was pro German during the second world war. And obviously has not learned anything, as proved by the fact it refused a comment by me on a political issue concerning Geert Wilders on its website. And Wilders has a strategy: shout, but don’t answer. His warnings against Islamic mass immigration can be countered by the fact that for the past 10 years we have a negative immigration figure of minus 3,500. But he does not go into any discussion, does not answer to questions when he is asked.

The Enclosing Dam. Holland is famous for its dikes and dams to control water. Will we get dikes against anything alien and even remotely progressive now?

We have a minority government now, because the last general election left the country with a selection of parties that could not team up with majority backing. Two parties, the liberals and christian democrats secured themselves of the support of the Freedom party. With Wilders outside the government, but in parliament and in the comfortable position of influencing decissions, he can shout his questionable ideas on any occasion there and outside, like at Ground Zero in New York, and last weekend in Berlin. These are The Netherlands. A country that was known for its tolerance and being open minded. And now known for making itself dependent on the abject ideas of a party that appeals to gut feelings of the ignorant. I’m ashamed.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Boys toys

Time for a confession. And please do not scorn me. Deep in my heart I want an SUV. Not any soccer mom car, but one particular SUV. The cynicals amongst you will tell me it is not an SUV, but a crossover, but I do not like that name. Alas, it will never happen. Because our tax regulations do not make it interesting to drive one. But even more so, because that vehicle is not available here in Holland the way I would like to have it. And let’s not talk about the money you need to bring with you.

  With Ford Explorer in Beaverhead National Forest, Montana

Travelling to North America with a railroad buff means that you have to be prepared for the new world’s often challenging back road conditions. Because photographing at yards is only a small part of the fun. The real stuff is found out there on the tracks, so into the wild with the right gear. On the second trip to the USA in 1994, starting in Seattle, going to the Cascades and Glacier Park in Montana, it was deemed advisable to rent something with four wheel drive, because the Ford Escort rented a year before was not really a success in that respect.

That trip was my first experience with a Ford Explorer. A huge vehicle for a Dutchman used to more modest means of transportation, and an SUV designed from the old book of four wheel drive vehicles. Body on frame construction, a gear selector on the steering column, diving heavily under braking, leaning in corners, no handling to speak off. It almost tipped over during a fast u-turn, but still, during the vacation trip it was great for its task. Comfortable and fine for unpaved and gravel roads. Being quite tall, one of the best features of the car was the easy getting in and out and getting stuff from the rear seat or cargo bay without having to lean over. And then that in those days rather unique feature, a tailgate window that could be opened separately from the hatch. So perfect for grabbing your subs from the cargo bay! I think the Explorer was such a great vehicle, because it seemed so well adapted to the easy going American way of life, cruising at night, and arm out of the window. That a copious dinner, that started with an all you can eat salad bar, almost exited my mouth out of the Explorer when going over a nasty speed bump, is an anecdote that does not fit in the scope of this story here. But managing the impressive Gravely Range Road in Montana’s Beaverhead National Forest, picked by Men’s Journal as one of America’s best drives, wading through a shallow creek, with a view of the Grand Tetons in the distance, will always be locked to a Ford Explorer in my memory.

I don’t know if there were no Explorers available at Hertz a few years later, or if I wanted to have a try with the new first generation Toyota RAV4, but the smaller Japanese AWD proved to be a far better solution for the train chasing trips than the bulky old fashioned Explorer. Because it added elements to the driving experience the Ford lacked: performance and handling. A lovely rental with plenty of room for the two train explorers. “You will not be able to follow the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway over gravel roads, because that is too dangerous” a trainspotters travel guide warned. But it was not impossible with a RAV4, an accomplishment I as the driver am still proud of today… But RAVs were either in short supply or very popular at Hertz, because at the start of the next trip there wasn’t one available. The lady at the desk wanted to upgrade us to an Explorer, but through the windows I saw a Subaru Outback on the lot. Once again, it topped the driving experience, while having sufficient off road capabilities for our needs – but cargo space for two suitcases was limited. I loved the Outback. Outbacks hold a special place in my automotive heart. Although I backed out of buying one three years ago – the car had grown too much, it felt too large on narrow polder roads, and it was rather lethargic with the A/C on and being fuelled by LPG. But that’s a different story.

Toyota RAV4 in Franz, Ontario.

Ah, nothing as impulsive as a man when it comes to cars. Or is it that I grew older and my priorities changed? Or is it simply because cars evolve? Any dreams of Explorers, first gen RAVs and Outback Subies were wiped away a few years ago when the Hertz employee handed me the keys of the most recent generation RAV4. I instantly fell in love with that car. The ergonomics, the ride, the quality, it is to me an ultimate boy toy. I want one. I need one. Ah well, a dream is a dream. American RAVs differ from Euro RAVs, because a longer wheelbase offers more cabin space, and we do not get the 2.4 engine. And the window sticker is out of my league. Importing one would even be more costly I fear. Maybe it better stays a dream then. Because, after all, it is a SUV at heart, and isn’t it politically totally incorrect to drive one these days because of its CO2 emissions? So, better leave it as a perfect American train chaser, and focus on miserly hybrid econoboxes. Hurray.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The eye of the beholder

We live in a society dominated by efficiency, rationality and functionality. Beauty takes a back seat to our drive to make most of every inch of land, euro, dollar or minute we have. It is called life in the fast lane, addressing the needs we create for ourselves in our society. But what if we don’t take time to look at the things we see as beautiful, that can help us to enrich our lives?

Years ago I visited Vienna. Austria’s capital is one of the most boring and certainly geriatric cities I have ever visited. If you like pompous and baroque architecture, this is the town for you. But not for me. Still, there was one place in Vienna where I just sat down and stared at a building that stands out from the rest. Friedrich Hundertwasser is an Austrian artist and architect, famous for his colourful buildings. And I don’t think I have seen an apartment building as colourful as the Hundertwasser Haus, located on the corner of the Kegelgasse and Löwengasse. A building where Jugendstil and Gaudi merge in a cheerful and imaginative structure, where not one single line seems to be repeat itself. It is a feast for the eye, where you keep seeing new perspectives. I just loved to look at it in a way I never did when it comes to buildings. If people can live in a creation like this, why do other apartment buildings have to look like square concrete boxes?

A different occasion where beauty really struck me was during a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Between all the masterpieces the tormented master left to the world, the “Almond Blossoms” painting touched me right in my heart. The white blossoms set against a cyan background hypnotized me, and is for me one of the greatest paintings I know. And once I got lost in reading a novel. “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt caught me, challenged my imagination and set new standards for me by which to value literature.
Beauty however, does not necessarily have to come to us shaped like physical objects. It can also be an experience that inspires and stimulates you. Being a fan of Sarah Brightman’s voice and music, I googled if she would be performing in my country after I enjoyed watching a concert dvd. Much to my surprise Ms. Brightman was on her Harem world tour and would be doing a show in Amsterdam six weeks later. Her concert was an experience I will never forget. The voice, the songs, the music – orchestred by 20 musicians – and the show all came together in a performance that will be difficult to match by a future tour – or by any other artist for me. Some people prefer singers, that sit on a stool with a guitar an mumble songs of lost loves and lives – I however do appreciate music showing effort and the hand of a great producer.

Beauty is our only safeguard against a completely generic society. During my recent trip to Switzerland I was disappointed by the way how the efficient Swiss replace old public buildings full with character by generic concrete structures, that seem out of place in this wonderful country. And the Swiss are not alone in that, no doubt. Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m genuinely interested if you, reading this blog, have experiences like I described above, and what you regard as valuable beauty that disconnects from mere convenient consumerism. What inspired you?

I sincerely think it is important to cherish moments like I talked about. We must stimulate young people to open their eyes for treasures in our world. There is a challenge here for both schools and parents. When people grow up in a world dominated by computers, we must get them out of their rooms and show them the world around us and teach them where to find beauty. The emotion brought to us by Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Vivaldi, Hopper, Mozart and Gershwin and whoever you can come up with, can’t be matched by the rational bytes from Windows, Linux or Apple. Nothing can better the beauty of nature and the love of the people around us, but in the society we create, a better effort to add more quality to life is badly needed. Otherwise we will settle for a life in a world that has no room left for inspiration and where mediocrity is the benchmark.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A trip to Solitude

Solitude is a subjective state of mind. For me it is experiencing nature with all your senses, without being bothered by people. This does not say I should be alone however. “Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature”, Einstein said. Alas, it is impossible for me to find solitude here in The Netherlands or in the countries around it. I’ll have to go back quite a few years to dig up the memories of solitude.

17 million people on a piece of land barely larger than the state of New Jersey give you the constant awareness of people around you, even when you wander around in nature. Visitors will find the concept of Dutch nature parks to be like city parks in their own countries. “Do not leave trail” is a sign you will see in Holland, but that I have never seen abroad.

I have memories of solitude while travelling in the USA and Canada. Lake Superior’s north shore comes to mind, just as the Oregon forests, where we got lost in our SUV until we found a ranger station. The Réserve Faunique de Port-Cartier-Sept-Îles in Quebec was an impressive experience, while following the Cartier Railway deep into the wilderness, two hours from the entrance of the park. We met only one other vehicle, and apart from its driver, a young bear looking at the car was the only living creature we encountered… But the most inspiring moments of solitude, those that are so overwhelming that I can still see it right in front of me as looking at a film, hearing the thundering silence, and smell the world around me, come from Maine. In 1999 my nephew Pieter and I travelled to the logging town of Millinocket in Maine’s heartland. Our goal was to raft the Penobscot River with one of the outfitters there. Whatever gave me the idea that it was fine to battle class IV-V rapids is still beyond me to this day – but that is what we did. The outfitter’s station was a one hour drive from Millinocket into the Maine wilderness, not far from Mount Katahdin, in a vast area that stretches out to the Canadian border and that can only be crossed over gravel roads. We set out very early in the morning from our hotel, at about 6.00 AM. Shortly after entering the wilderness area we had our first impressive experience – next to the road, in total silence, was a herd of about ten moose grazing between the tall grasses. Now, moose can be dangerous and should be respected. But they did not seem to be bothered by our big blue Ford Explorer in any way, so after a few minutes we ventured outside – they barely gave us a glimpse. We just stood there, in silence, knowing this was a very special moment and unique experience.

Later, the raft trip was a nerve torturing experience, with calm breaks of quietly floating until the next rapids would ask all we could give. It was a challenging trip, because four secretaries that would also be in our party had cancelled their reservations. Two rowers plus a guide are not really enough for a raft – it is too high on the water and you need more than three people to handle the most challenging rapids. A second guide, who’s task it was to inspect the rocks and the rapids, tied his canoe to the raft and helped rowing to prevent a whitewater Titanic experience.
“Why are you looking like that?” Pieter asked me between two rapids. “Are you scared?” I denied any such assumptions, but I was. But there are few moments I have enjoyed in my life so much as these – soaking up everything I saw around me, until hell would break loose again. Being there all alone with our small party of four, no other rafts, the omnipresence of nature hit me so hard, in a positive way, that I am sure I will never experience something like that again - unless I will go back one day. The image of a moose standing in the water, while we were slowly floating past, against the backdrop of Mount Katahdin and eagles in the sky above is something that can not be captured on photo or told to others. Just a couple of years ago Pieter told me something. “Remember how the guides joked that I was so silent? But it was all so beautiful, that I just could not talk.”

The next morning we drove past the moose spotting site again, but the moose were nowhere to be seen. The trip we did that day took us for hours and about 200 kilometres right across the forest reserve to the Canadian border, entirely over gravel roads in four wheel drive mode, and over narrow one lane bridges. At one point the road was strengthened with poles over a couple of hundred meters to cover a swamp area, that made our forward progress like a luna park attraction over a giant washboard. Pieter was driving most of that trip, 16 years old and no license… I think we met four vehicles during the 200 kilometres trough the wilderness to Canada. It was just him and me, a four wheel drive Explorer and the imposing beauty of the vast Maine wilderness. And did we see bears, you will ask. Yes we did – but not there. Two bears crossed the street in front of the car later during the trip in the outskirts of North Conway, New Hampshire, emerging from a garden…

Now years later, I long for such moments again. I am not really a person to set up camp on the banks of the Zambesi, but travelling north to countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland, or boarding a ferry west to Scotland, will probably provide in that need. I should try that one day. But the Maine experience is something that is worth revisiting. And I am surely not the only one longing for solitude every now and then. I wonder how many people reading this have the same wish. Where do you find solitude?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

You can find me on a bench in Bacharach

A border is a line drawn in the land. Funny then that people on both sides of that line do not speak the same language, do not share the same history and have a different way of life. Just because of that I like it so much to travel east, two hours from my hometown, to cross the Dutch-German border. And just in case you are missing me, there is a pretty good chance you’ll find me sitting on a bench on the banks of the Rhine River in the small town of Bacharach. My secret spot that is not secret anymore.

I love Germany. I know there are people out there who have some prejudices against the Teutons, but to them I say: forget about that. It is time to discover a country that has so much to offer. Autobahns without speed restrictions, beer, Bratwurst and Schnitzel. That is what many people think of when they are asked about Germany. But I rather tell you about the long and winding country and back roads with excellent blacktops, that follow through fields and forests and mountains and that are just carved out for topless driving in the MX-5. I’d like to tell you about al fresco trout dining and the best dry white Riesling I’ve ever had, about the Biergarten (beer gardens), that are not only for drinking excellent German beers – or their mineral waters, that are treated like wine - but also a perfect spot to relax after a long walk along on of the numerous well maintained trails through the forests.

I also like to tell you about the Konditoreien, luxury bakeries where you can sit down to have coffee and that offer a wide choice of different pies, cakes and cookies. About the ice cream parlours that offer a varieties in numbers I have not seen anywhere – something like 100 different sorbets and coupes, as we call them, in an ice cream salon in Daun I visited some time ago. What about the delicious breakfast buffets that greet hotel guests every morning? And I think that Germans did invent the concept of leisure, as proved by the meticulously restored Fin du Siècle and Jugendstil bathhouses and the superb wellness spa centres that look like nowhere else in the world with their high tech pools and great saunas. Sit down and relax. That is what the Germans do. As a visitor, who am I not to join in?

A Dutch love affair with Germany does not come naturally. The deep wounds created by five year German occupation between 1940 an 1945 prevented that many Dutch could even admit to like Germany. The war cost the lives of some 225,000 Dutch, almost half of that number Jewish citizens. My father was a forced labourer in a German locomotive factory in Chemnitz and nightmares haunted him for many years – there must be stories he never told us. In my town of Katwijk all houses and Victorian hotels along the North Sea shore were demolished, and the people living there forced to move to other towns, just to give the Wehrmacht a clear line of fire in case of an allied invasion. But after the war houses and hotels were rebuilt, and the Germans returned – as tourists. My parents however had no problem travelling to our eastern neighbours. When income rose my father was able to buy a car in 1955, an Opel nonetheless, and foreign trips meant vacations to Germany. Today, Germany is Holland’s most important economic partner, and competing with France as the most popular vacation destination.

Still, many of my fellow Dutch see Germany as a country you drive through non stop – except for coffee, fuel and sanatary relief - on their way to the Alpine countries or Italy. And for many North American and Asian tourists Germany is a four day stop at the most on their European tour: a quick visit to the Rhine valley - after all, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site - and then on to the Kaiser Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle in the Bavarian Alps. That is too bad. If you take your time, and look around, there is so much to see and enjoy. I have learned that on my American trips too. No Western Highlights package for me, which will only result in endless driving, having a quick look, and drive on again. But that might be the subject of a future blog

I started to discover Germany in the late 1980s, simply because it is nearby for me. I have my favourite spots. Bad Bentheim, Tecklenburg, Aachen, the Harz area, the Sauerland and the Black Forest, where Baden Baden is a place that begs to be visited at least once a year. But it all comes together in Bacharach, a small medieval town, famous for its wines, located in one of prettiest parts of the Rhine valley. Sit down on a bench there, and watch the barges slowly battling upstream, or with considerably more speed downstream, and look at the numerous freight and passenger trains pass by on both sides of the river. There are few places that sooth the mind so much and where time seems to stand still. So, wherever you go in Germany, do stop by at one of the Bacharach benches. You might meet me there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Coffee Conspiracy

Few companies have made such an impact on America’s drinking habits as Starbucks. I love Starbucks, but then, I love coffee. You might argue that coffee is too expensive there, but Starbucks completely turned the way America handles this precious drink around. A company that made an impact on Europe’s culture comes from Switzerland - and I am not happy with that.

I remember that, when visiting the USA and Canada in the first half of the last decade of the past century, café’s and restaurants tried to poison you with some kind of brown colored hot beverage. After a week I had to switch to tea, because my stomach started protesting. But I do vividly remember, while walking through Boston’s historic center quarter on a very hot July day, that I sat down in a Starbucks-like bar at the edge of Beacon Hill near the state capitol. The names of the beverages were a mystery to me, as they still are when I walk into a Starbucks, but my cold coffee drink was great. A few years later going to Starbucks has become a daily routine while visiting America – their cookies and lemon cake are great too. And even motels serve Starbucks at breakfast, and if not, at least a pretty decent coffee these days. Sadly, Holland is still almost a blind spot for Starbucks on the world map, with only three or four franchises in the entire country. Which is a bit cynic when you know that the Seattle company has its European headquarters in my country. No matter this, Starbucks rules.

Coffee rules. I like my coffee black. With cream. With cream and with sugar. Oddly, I do not like it black with only sugar. Anyway, a day at the office without coffee is unthinkable. Next to my desk is a DeLonghi coffee machine that makes coffee with a cream collar, espresso, cappuccino if desired, and takes any grain coffee you like, or beans if you prefer. I wish I had one at home. But at the office it is a tax deductible luxury, at home it would drain my wallet. So what about Nespresso then? Nespresso is a hype, and I do not follow hypes. I do not jump on the trend bandwagons just because I want to conform to certain social circles and while doing so, discarding my own individual tastes. For those of you who do not know Nespresso: Swiss company Nestlé, of Nescafé instant coffee fame, developed a system where you order online – only at Nespresso of course – expensive cups, that you just drop in your machine to get a predefined thin tasting coffee.

One of the kindest qualifications I read came from a magazine that compared Nespresso with several ways of making coffee, concluding that “at least it looks like it”. As I understand the way the coffee is produced does not allow for the best beans you can have, resulting in a shallow taste. For me, used to the full bodied coffee the DeLonghi machine gives, it is a big disappointment.
However, countless people follow Nestlés modern day Pied Piper of Hamelin disguised as George Clooney. Nestlé contracted the greying actor to persuade European consumers to buy the system. Now. Mr. Clooney has more paying customers than a hooker on the corner of Times Square. He drives a Fiat Punto, checks the time on his Omega watch and persuades women with Nespresso coffee. Frankly, that’s quite worrying. If Mr. Clooney has to rely on coffee to be successful with the ladies, than surely there is no hope left for the rest of us.

Of course, we can’t all buy an expensive coffee machine like the DeLonghi for use at home, or even better, chrome barista style coffee makers with impressive gauges and idiot lights that I love to look at, no drool over, in speciality shops and that will easily cost you 1,200 euros. If only… But there are very satisfying options. Old fashioned coffee, where you poor the water yourself in the filter. Like grandma did. Ah, the great aroma of coffee you will smell! And according to a connoisseur, as I recently read, the best coffee you make comes from a simple coffee press, or cafetiere, as it is called in Europe. Add coffee, pour hot water, stir, and after four minutes press down. Indeed, great tasting coffee. Full bodied and mellow at the same time. Can you ask for more?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The end of desire?

Seeing a vintage Pioneer tuner on eBay made me start thinking in reverse. When I was a teenager, it was common to collect all the bits and pieces to build a nice stereo system. It was a dream that could become reality. Looking back, it was actually a rather modest dream, set against the material welfare so many young people have these days. But dreams we had when we were young. Where have they gone?

Stereo systems were an important part of our young lives. When you compare it with the small mp3 players of today, or the small audiosystems you see, a stereo system was a rather substantial element in our rooms. For most of us, we had to be patient. You could not buy an entire set at once. You had to save up for it. You started with the amplifier, speakers and turntable, then a tuner and a cassette deck. Aluminum fronts, soft turning switches, toggle switches, illuminated dials and VU-meters – they were a dream. Lovely sound quality, provided you had good speakers. I still remember the soft ‘thump’ sound through them when you switched on the amplifier. A Pioneer tuner, Sansui record player and a Toshiba cassette deck, which was later replaced by a Panasonic. And a Sony cd-player was added to it in 1990. Akai, Onkyo, Awai, Sansui, Marantz, Pioneer - names that tickled the imagination, but hardly say anything anymore today. Ten years ago, my stereo was replaced by a then state of the art and quite expensive, but rather awful Denon midi system. I never liked it. There was no emotion left whatsoever. I now want to go back to a vintage system, using my old amplifier and the tuner I bought on eBay. It is my new retro dream. It makes me think back of the evenings listening, often with headphones, to my music from my long play record collection – which I still have. And of course to music taped to compact cassettes from records borrowed from friends. That was our way of downloading, and the music industry was furious about it. Nothing has changed.

There were more dreams of course. Dreaming about things we wanted to have or wanted to do – some dreams might have been fulfilled, some goals not achieved. Times were different, and the way we experienced life did not look like the lives of young people today. Instant information provided by the internet, Wikipedia, Google Maps, you name it, were unknown to us. We had television, we relied on printed media, on the local library, and on our imagination.

In the early 1970s, as a young teen, I bought a booklet about Canada, issued in 1954 by the Royal Bank of Canada, that somehow ended up in our local library and was sold off for 25 cents. There was a black and white photo of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. I knew I wanted to see that with my own eyes one day. This fueled the interest I already had in Nova Scotia, since buying a package of View Master 3D reels that showed the splendours of Canada. One photo showed one of Nova Scotia’s tourist highlights, the little town and port of Peggy’s Cove. When I was old enough to travel on my own, there was no money to visit such a far away place and realities of life stood in the way of visiting Canada for many years. And then, at 39, there was talk about a trip to New England and Quebec. I instantly knew that I just had to make it to Nova Scotia to live my childhood dream. And I did. The beauty of Cape Breton and Cabot Trail took my breath away, and surpassed even the image that I had created over the years – or maybe that image was deluted a bit because of the many years that has passed? Peggy’s Cove however was the proof that reality does not always log on to your imagination. Pretty for sure, but too touristy and above all far too foggy. So there you are in a place you have been wanting to see for more 25 years, and there is a heavy fog.

I’m worried, and ashamed, that there are not really that much dreams I want to see happen anymore. Not a ‘been there, done that’ attitude, but a fear that my imagination falls short of coming up with possibilities. A trip to Tuscany and Rome maybe, and the vintage stereo system. What about a ride in a 1960’s Mercedes Benz 280SL? But where is that unexplainable drive to focus on something? How can we rejuvenate ourselves? Bring passion back for actually non important, but inspiring wishes and dreams? I am really interested how young people today look at this. Do they still have dreams, despite the abundance of information they have access too, and hence all the knowledge they gather? Can they inspire us here? Tell me.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Crab massacre

America is one of the easiest places to spend your vacation. Still, a lot of people in Holland think of it is a major tour de force to go there. There are many stories I can write about my USA and Canada travels, and maybe I will, but let me focus on one important aspect of vacation: food. The Dutch are notorious for being weary about food in other countries. Time to set things straight here.

The older I get, the more I appreciate sitting down and relax over a meal at the end of a vacation day. Mind you: not the food I prepared myself, but that is served to me in a restaurant. But I am not your typical Dutchman here. The Dutch do not trust food outside their own borders. In fact, the reason why so many Dutch prefer to spend their vacation in a caravan, or RV trailer as it is known in North America, is their fear for foreign food. Better take your home in scaled down size with you and prepare the meals yourself, or bring out that BBQ as much as possible when sitting in front of your caravan. I’m sure that this fear is one of the reasons that the Dutch are convinced that you can only spend your vacation in the North America in a rented RV, no matter it will limit them big time in the possibilities they have. I’ve never done that, and I’m sure I would have seen a lot less of that fascinating continent if I did instead of renting SUVs. I also know people who think that the culinary achievement of American cuisine can best be enjoyed in McDonalds and Pizza Hut – these are the only eateries they will see from inside, because these franchises are the only ones they know.

There is good food and there is bad food and you’ll find both in any country. My vacation budget will not allow for dining in high class places. I did once in Hyannis Port, close to the Kennedy compounds, and my tip was returned with a printed card, stating that “due to the location and the reputation of our restaurant, a 20% minimum tip is required”. But to get back to my point, there are enough non chain restaurants, often even in smallest of towns, that serve a very reasonable dinner. And there are franchise restaurants that are worth trying out. I’m very pleased with The Olive Garden, that serves Italian food without charging too much. And I must say, the ultimate in hospitality ever enjoyed in a restaurant was in an Atlanta Olive Garden. When the waiter brought me my second glass of excellent Pinot Grigio, he asked me “would you like the bottle, sir?” Now, that was a bit overdoing it – me being the only at the table to drink wine. So, I politely declined. “Are you sure, sir?” the waiter insisted. “You don’t want to take the bottle with you? It’s past nine, and we will probably not have any orders for Pinot Grigio anymore tonight, so the bottle is yours.” I do not think you would ever hear this in a Dutch restaurant. Put the cork on, in the fridge, and use it tomorrow.

Another pleasant chain restaurant is Applebee’s. The food is nice, very reasonably priced, and the restaurants have a very agreeable sports café mood. There is a slight problem however with Applebee’s if you like to take your time. Applebee’s may not be a fast food restaurant, but they really like it when you finish your food fast. Barely after swallowing the last bite of your steak, you are asked if you care for some dessert. And the dessert is accompanied by the bill. That is something we are not used too. Dining out is a night out in Holland, and it takes at least two hours from our first drink until the coffee to finish it all off. Rushing is however not necessary in the Old Country Buffet ‘all you can eat’ for 8 bucks or so restaurants you’ll find in the Midwest. Oh my, I have never seen anything like that. ‘All you can eat’ in Holland usually limits to spare ribs, or salad bars, but what unfolds before your eyes in the Old Country Buffet borders on the unbelievable for this modest Dutchman. Chicken, roast beef, ribs, steak, soup, potatoes, rice, pasta… you name it, it is there. And a wild variety of desserts, not to mention to free non alcoholic beverages. I still have that vision of that maybe seven year old kid walking with a plate pilled up with all kinds of desserts – walking carefully, otherwise he would have spilled ice cream, or pie, or custard, everything was there on his plate on top of each other. “Look Mom, what I have!”

Is there an American cuisine? I don’t know. America is a big melting pot and that translates into the many different dishes you can choose from. If I had to make a choice, I’d say that seafood is the most American food you can have. Nobody can make seafood like the Americans and Canadians. And that is why I chose to stop by at a typical Maryland Chesapeake Bay seafood restaurant that advertised the region's famous blue crabs. Men’s Journal, which I read before travelling to this region, advised to try this Chesapeake culinary specialty and who was I to doubt that? What resulted was the most bizarre dining experience I’ve had in my life. The fact that we got dressed in plastic aprons should have said enough, but feeling ridiculous we took these off soon. And then the horror began. A bucket load of crabs was served, together with two hammers and the warning: do absolutely not eat the devil’s fingers. What devil’s fingers? Looking around I noticed a lot of people slashing their crabs. I will never forget the nun, clad in plastic, hammering with so much force on her seafood, as if she had to release years of accumulated frustration. What unfolded before our eyes, and where we were part of, was nothing more like a cheap splatter movie. Parts of crabs were spitting in my face, while their legs were broken off in search of some exquisite meat. The photo says enough – I might add though that it is my travelling companion looking in dismay there at his food. An attractive blonde woman noticed our inexperience and bewilderment. She smiled at me, behind her biker boyfriend, as if she understood and was sending me her encouragement. I still remember her look, crab leg hanging from her mouth and grease slowly dripping from her chin. Somehow her smile was even erotic this way.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Naked investment in life

Steam of Life, a movie from Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen, portraits the emotions of men, as told in the archetypal element of Finnish culture: the sauna. I have not seen this movie, because it has so far not yet been released, but even the trailer is compelling by itself.

With the risk of being called pretentious, and certainly not being Finnish, I can somehow relate to the theme of this movie. I am used to going to saunas since my early twenties. Of course the Dutch have no sauna tradition like countries as Finland, Sweden, Russia or Estonia. But the phenomenon spread from northern Europe south to Germany and from there to The Netherlands and other European countries. Dutch and German saunas are now almost all so called luxury wellness centers, spas if you like, compared to the basic saunas you see in the movietrailer at the end of this blog. Sauna is an enjoyable break to sooth the muscles, relax the body and mind and strengthen resistance against the common cold and flu.

Scene from Steam of Life

Eleven years ago however an extra element was added to my sauna routine. I always had a warm relation with my nephew. Actually he is a cousin’s son – but being from the same family clan so to speak, and being in the same age group as his father and uncles, I always called him 'my nephew' and he referred to me as his uncle. Because I had ruptered my achilles tendon a few weeks earlier, and I needed a literally stable person I could hold on to just in case I would fall, I asked my then just 17 year old nephew to join me in the sauna. Being a teen he was obviously reluctant to do so. And it is still a classic story: his Mom told me Wednesday around 6.00PM that my nephew would not be accompanying me. “There is absolutely no way I am going to walk around in my naked butt,” so he said to her. Fair enough, no problem. Just 24 hours later the phone rang and a very casual nephew asked “What time are we leaving actually coming Saturday?”

From this first visit on, my nephew was hooked on the sauna – and after eleven years he still is. On average once a month we make time to go to one of the saunas we have around here. Sometimes we venture further away, as far as Aachen in Germany to visit the beautiful Carolus Thermen there. And there are more on our list. Why do we like it so much? Maybe because you can shut the world out and forget everything when you are inside. No cell phones to bother you, no one looking over your shoulder. A perfect place to sit down and talk and listen to each other. Throughout the years many stories have been told, problems discussed, and confidentialities exchanged. But there is of course also plenty of time for lighthearted subjects, like discussions about cars, gossips and there are many laughs while drinking coffee, a good beer and having lunch. When young, I listened to his stories told from a teenagers perspective, without bothering him too much with my views, shaped by age and experience. I think it is so important that you listen to what a teen has to say. They tell us their lives, and about things that are important or interesting to them and they appreciate it when someone older listens. And the sauna proved just to be the perfect place for that. Literally stripped from all inhibitions, naked, sweating and close to each other – what is there left to be ashamed of?

Obviously, the nature of the conversations changed. Because the boy grew into a man, added 20 kilos to the scales over the years, married, and became a father of a girl and a boy - whos coming arrivals were confined to me before other family members knew about it, while sweating at 90 degrees Celsius. “Martin, Saturday sauna?” was often an indication for an announcement. And me? I just grew older and smiled. But the tradition remains and nobody is going to take that away. I’m still touched when I think back to what my nephew suddenly asked me, out of the blue, a couple of years ago. “We will always be doing this, right?”

Our experiences may not be so deeply emotional that it will bring us to tears, as we see in the Steam of Life trailer, but still this tradition is very special to us. I am not a father, but I say to all fathers with teensons: go to the sauna. Yes, if you are not used to it, it might feel a bit awkward since there is no covering up and both sexes use the sauna at the same time. But believe me, those reservations will be gone after a few minutes. Your reward will be that you will enjoy the best conversations with your son and create a stronger bond. And if a father is too shy to take the initiative, well, maybe be an uncle will do. I know all about that.

Related: Estonian smoke sauna tradition:

Steam of Life