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: http://dasweisseband.x-verleih.de/

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: http://dasweisseband.x-verleih.de/

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?