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.