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.