Saturday, December 31, 2011

Downton Abbey to the rescue

Television-wise this was one poor Christmas break here this year. The more channels you have, the less seems to be offered. Or is that the TV programmers are just running out of ideas? Or has my taste changed? I so fondly remember the Charlie Brown Christmas specials of many years ago. One Charlie brown made your Christmas vacation. But help came this year from an unexpected corner: British nobility. And ITV of course.

Charlie Brown knew how to create a Christmas ambiance, although I doubt if he ever realized it himself. Not a loser, not a hero, but nobody knew more about human relations as he does. The Charles Schulz animation series was shown here decades ago, but never made it to reruns. And I regret that. I'm sure the problem is that the TV channel programmers are too young to have known the Charlie Brown. But I do miss him and his friends, even Lucy. And sadly, each year I forget to see if I can order Charlie Brown Christmas dvd's. So, I had to do with High Society on dvd, not bad, amusement without any pretensions, but hardly something for the Christmas break.

Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)

But all was not lost. There was at least one scheduled and one surprise television highlight. We have to thank ITV for bringing us the most beautiful drama series in years. Christmas Eve Dutch public television would show the last and extended episode of the second series of that magnificent Downton Abbey series, and much to my surprise the day before New Year's Eve we were treated to another extra long Christmas special. This series was awarded with many Baftas in the UK, is nominated for four Golden Globes and was selected the best drama series of the year by my newspaper. If you know Downton Abbey, I’m sure you'll agree. There are many story lines, centered around the Crawley family, and the staff of Downton Abbey estate, but most attention goes to the relation between Lady Mary Crawley and her cousin Matthew Crawley. They are attracted to each other, drift apart, engage themselves to other partners, but keep moving to each other like magnets. There are scenes between Michelle Dockery (Mary) and Dan Stevens (Matthew) that have an erotic tension, while they are just dancing or talking to each other. Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as the count and countess of Grantham play their characters in a magnificent way, but top honours go to Maggie Smith in maybe her best role ever as Violet, Dowager countess of Grantham.

The Christmas Special was worth more as all other offerings on television combined. I'm sorry I did not record it, but that is a great excuse to order it on dvd, when it comes available. The Christmas special functioned more or less as an interlude between series two and three, that will only be ready for airing September 2012. But what a show it was. Women and men alike were glued to the screen. Of course, being a Christmas Special, it brought what we all were hoping for regarding Mary and Matthew. We would not have accepted anything less, and ITV and director Julian Fellowes – of Gosford Park fame – understood that this was vital for their survival. Eleven million pounds per episode, and it shows. I agree, a lot of money, but you get something in return. Dutch producers have to make a movie with half of that budget, but we do not want to watch their movies during Christmas break. Charlie Brown was forgotten. For now.

The Christmas special here on Youtube, while it lasts.

And here's one for the Charlie Brown fans:

Scene from one of the several Charlie Brown/Peanuts animation series.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Horror sauna

The days between Christmas and New Year are wonderful. A full week off, time to relax, and I always try to go somewhere special. I happened to come across a website called – which you can translate into “purifying spa” – promoting a new large wellness center in Amsterdam. Now, if you know me, I love saunas. So I rejoiced by the hope that finally German style wellness made its way to The Netherlands. I convinced a friend, Mr. K., to accompany me on this epic quest to the ultimate Dutch sauna experience. Off to Amsterdam it was.

 Well, at least I have some nice slippers as a souvenir.

Google Maps' directions were pretty straightforward – no need to take the Tom-tom. Of course, Google's suggestions might have been the shortest route, but were by no means the most efficient to get to the Zuiver wellness center. So, after leaving the motorway we soon go stuck in traffic, and following the Zuiver signs on streetlamps it was clear that Google Maps also overlooked a couple of streets that meant a shortcut to our destination. Arriving there, in the Amsterdam Forest, the car park was full with hundreds, if not thousands of cars. “Surely these people are not all visiting the spa,” Mr. K. said. “There are many sports activities possible here.” But once inside, after walking through a corridor past an indoor tennis hall that welcomed us with that unmistakable smell of indoor activity sweat, we soon concluded that most of the car owners indeed were at the spa.

But where to start describing my impressions of this wellness center? In the locker room, that's only logical. That's where I was confronted with a broken strap of the wrist watch-like electronic coin, that will register whatever you buy for refreshments or special beauty treatments and massages if so desired, or necessary. It had to be fixed by a staffer, but it was not a good start. What should I mention next? The depressing tomb-like ambiance in the center atrium with pool, like a mausoleum without a coffin, but with people swimming in the nude? Black and grey granite everywhere, and the dreary December light did not help here either. Neither did the lack of illumination. The steam bath, where temperature was just too low? The hamman, that was only available to you if you made a reservation for a Turkish massage? The annoying music in the sauna, that to everybody’s relief was switched off soon. Maybe the lack of cold cooling off dip baths, essential to the sauna experience? Most sauna amenities were located outside by the way, which required a walk through the cold late December air. But still, at this point we kept our hopes on some kind of relaxation – because isn't that what the website says? “Get away from it all, find relief for stress in an environment that offers you peace and quiet?” But in the relaxation room every single ugly white lounge chair was occupied with that special kind of people who looked like they regard Nespresso as the optimum in coffee experience and are snobbish enough to transport their kids in an expensive cargo bike through the streets of Amsterdam. This provided us with serious problem. There was no way we could have any refreshment here. And you surely need that after a sauna session. Snacks were off limits any way, due to the exorbitant pricing for even the smallest and most modest sushi dish. Sushi, what else, I would almost add. Mr. K. was longing for some soup, so maybe the restaurant could help us out then? Only by reservation, but there were tables free despite the number of visitor at the spa. One glance at the menu explained why though. Ordering something to eat here would result in a negative credit rating by Standard & Poor.

The website makes it all look so beautiful - with perfect lighting and no other visitors...

So, there was nothing left for us than to sit on a small bench that provided a view to the center pool. It also gave us a view to hundreds of buttocks, breasts and penises belonging to all kind of people between the age of 18 and 80. The concept that humans are the pinnacle of creation soon bewildered me. After seeing two anorexic ladies in their late sixties wearing nothing but towels on their heads, a very well endowed guy who obviously spends way too much time in the gym than is good for him and an older fat man accompanied by a beautiful slim girl in her early twenties, I was convinced that it was time to leave. If I want to visit a nudist resort, I'll go to a nudist resort. Mr. K. desperately needed his soup by now anyway. So, we headed to the locker room for a premature exit. Of course, there were no mirrors in the locker room, making it impossible to even address my coiffure.

“Was everything to your wishes, gentlemen?” asked the reception girl where we had to pay our debts to Zuiver. “No,” I replied. “This was a horror sauna experience.” This obviously shocked her. “But you visited us on the busiest day of the year,” she said. “Are you sure you would not want to come back on a quieter day?” Yes, we were sure about that. In her defense, she did subtract one hour admittance of the two were were supposed to pay. So we left, convinced that Aachen's Carolus Thermen, Baden Baden's Caracalla Thermen and Bad Kreuznach's Baederhaus did not find their equal in The Netherlands. The next unknown wellness center to explore would certainly be in Germany again, so much was clear. Spa7 in Bad Bentheim maybe. The irony will be however,that we will promote the Zuiver spa for times to come – the pool slippers we had to purchase proudly wear a Zuiver logo. That will trigger interesting conversations when visiting other saunas.

Once outside we spotted a Grand Café overlooking the 1928 Olympic rowing rink in the Amsterdam Forest. Inside, enjoying a good Latte Machiato and a great apple pie, while Mr. K. enjoyed a tasty chicken soup, we finally found our wellness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The end of being European

Now that the downfall of the Euro is a daunting possibility, it may be time to ask myself some questions. Did it make me feel more European? Will I miss it, in case it disappears? Questions that are not easy to answer. What is obvious though, that decision makers have been sleeping. Or, maybe they have not. They knew. But the Euro was a philosophy, a religion almost, that served a bigger purpose. The unity of Europe as a social, cultural and economic power. But they might have been more rational. And settled for economic prosperity alone.

Where do we go from here?

In a discussion shortly before the referendum on the new European treaty here in The Netherlands some years ago, a friend said that he was proud that he felt more European thanks to the Euro. It was a statement that surprised me a little, because for me feeling European did not depend on the currency in my hands. To be honest, using foreign money abroad contributed to my vacation feeling. It proved you were away, in a different country, with different people, different cities and different scenery. True, it was not always convenient. Belgium with its francs and Italy with its lires demanded you to be good at math – and I surely wasn't. But one had its tricks, and could survive.

When I was young, traveling abroad required truly crossing a border, and that was one of the romantic aspects of vacation in the eyes of a kid. Would we make it across, would they want us to open the trunk and inspect its contents? Sometimes the uniformed border control officials, with their impressive caps, did. But over the years they relaxed, and we were mostly waved trough wherever we went here in western Europe. And when a number of EU countries signed the Schengen treaty, that essential part of the vacation mystery was thrown out officially. But I was older then, did not rely on my parents anymore to take me abroad, and drove myself across the border. And actually, that was very convenient. Ask me what made me feel European, it was just that – being able to travel without being checked. Well, not everywhere of course, since not all EU countries were so Europe minded. Like our British neighbors, who preferred to keep an eye on those odd silly continental characters in order to protect their national identity. Well, that's what I assume. But nowhere near as strict, impolite, unwelcoming and intimidating like the US border officials after 9/11, drenched in an anti foreigner attitude called Homeland Security. America, the land of the free, can still learn a thing or two when it comes to welcoming visitors from befriended Europe. I'll never forget entering the US at Sault St. Marie from Canada, where me and my companion were ordered to follow in our rented SUV at walking pace, our passport taken from us, the RAV4 entirely searched – even with mirrors to check the underside. And when we were handed our passports back half an hour later, there was not one word of apology or even 'have a good trip'. So much for investing thousands of tourist dollars by two citizens from the country that is not only one of the biggest investors in the New World, but that was the first to raise the flag for the United States in 1776.

Border between Germany and France at St. Germanshof.
You cross it almost without noticing it.

But what is Europe to us? Hard to say. I've always claimed that the EU should focus on being an economic unity, instead of being a social and cultural melting pot. Because Europe is not America. Blindfold someone, and drop him in whatever country you can think of, and it would not hard for him to guess where he is. The sounds, the people, the houses, the towns seem to be unique in almost any country. So much difference with the USA. Drop someone in a Seattle or a Boston suburb, and the abundance of Wendy's, Olive Gardens, Wal Marts and generic houses and streets, will confuse him. Or make him feel at home of course. No matter what, it will be the license plates of the cars that tell him where he might be.

There is too much diversity in Europe. When you live in Spain you have little in common with someone living in Finland. But the European train was unstoppable. It moved forward as a force that was out of control, a unity of too many social and cultural nations, without an exit strategy in case things would not work out well. And that is not as farfetched as it might seem. While some countries are very liberal and consequent defending and securing the rights of all, other countries have different views on that. There are east European states where Jewish or gay people are less equal than others. And there's a small green island country where until shortly people were still not allowed to divorce. And yet, we embraced them all as our fellow citizens, as if we all paid tribute to the same set of values. The lack of an exit strategy also handicapped that ultimate flag on the European unity, the Euro. And that's where Europe will stumble.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti Europe. I am not anti Euro. It made doing business in member states easier for many companies, it helped export because the new currency's value was determined by both the strong and weak national currencies, which was profitable for us here in the Low Countries. Granted, it made traveling easier too. And even with the unfolding debt crisis in the southern European countries, it helped us in Holland. Investors fleeing from Greek and Italian loans were looking for something more reliable – and interest rates dropped for us. But ironically, the same day that investors started paying The Netherlands to take their loans, Standard & Poor threatened to take away our Triple A rating. Is there still any logic in the world of the financial institutions?

Ah well. What can we do, the John Does in this world? Opinions and prophecies tumble over each other in politics and media, and many sound valid and logical, if not all with a dark warning attached. How can we chose who to believe? But the end of Europe? No, if the Euro goes, Europe will still be there. Only not as we knew it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


There are few Wednesday nights I love as much as the ones of the murderous kind. Kick out shoes, lay back on the coach and let the victims fall. Mind you, that should be British victims, and preferably from the upper middle class. I'm talking about Midsomer Murders of course, that lovely ITV series that is wildly popular around the globe. But Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby retired. So, I hold my breath if his replacement can live up to the expectations.

Inspector Tom Barnaby(John Nettles)  and DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes)

The British have a reputation when it comes to sophisticated murders. Only occasionally we see someone being finished with something as common as a bullet. Most victims are stabbed, hit by a heavy blunt object, strangled or suffocated. Poison is popular too, but that's how women take care of their business. But a vulgar and loud gun is very rare. And that is how it should be. And that's how the victims fall in Midomer Murders. I was not a Midsomer Murders fan from the beginning. I missed the first seasons this series, because I was simply not aware of it. When I saw my first episodes, DA Ben Jones was already Barnaby's third assistant. Meanwhile I've seen the early shows too, but I do think they are not as fine as the later ones. But John Nettles retired now, and let's be honest about, he was starting to look too old for a police detective in active service. He was a very agreeable person though, and we only have to wait how his cousin, who will replace him, can stand in his shoes. It was a kind of dues ex machina by the producers though, but I can understand they did not want to kill of such a money making series.

Tom Barnaby with wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) and daughter Cully (Laura Howard)

Midsomer Murders – there is nothing realistic about this series of course. Ever noticed how small the part of the forensics is? Oh yes, you see men and women in white suits walking around on the murder scene, and there is always the pathologist explaining with what size kitchen knife a victim was cut open. Barnaby and Jones always seem only to work together, sometime with the help of a female assistant, but that's about it. But it makes for a good story this way. Let's not bother the viewers with reality, because after all, that is not what we are longing for. That is not what I am waiting for anyway. I want to see the lavish green rural English countryside that consist only of small villages. We all want to live there. Big mistake however if you want to do so, because you are most likely to be killed. Or to be a killer. Reality set aside, we are guaranteed at least two corpses per episode, and if we are lucky we get three. The third is always an extra, for me usually after I finished my evening tea, a great beginning for the second half of the episode. Then it is time to focus on who is the villain in this nights show. We know that the murderer is usually an intelligent middle upper class person, slightly eccentric and always the one you'd expect the least to be. So, that's the way to pick 'm out. And even we that knowledge I always put my bets on the wrong suspect.

I'm very picky when it comes to British detective TV shows. I actually do not like most of them. In particular not the ones that try to be too realistic – Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren comes to mind. Or the ones where the detectives carry too much personal problems with them. I tried to watch the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, but that arrogant fellow with his problematic love life is just too distracting. And let's not forget his bland and neurotic female assistant Barbara Havers. Please, that name alone is enough to develop an instant dislike to the woman. I keep waiting for an episode where she is the victim, but alas. Give me Barnaby, his wife and daughter – a regular family without problems, that counterbalance the tragedies around them perfectly. However, I always thought it to be very suspicious that wherever Joyce Barnaby appears, be it in a choir or an amateur play group, someone around her will be killed. And strangely, she never was a suspect.

Long ago Inspector Dalgliesh was maybe the first British TV police detective that I'd liked to follow. Later, when I watched it again, I could not understand how I could ever have bared this guy. The slowness both in acting and in editing became so old fashioned, that the Dalgliesh episodes must have been burned meanwhile to prevent any further reruns. Which is good, because an audience that falls asleep is not good for ratings. Still, an old series does not necessarily have to mean that it is not worth looking anymore. One of the best is surely is BBC's adaption of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple with Joan Hickson. Truly excellent, every episode was shot as it was meant for a cinema showing.

Recently I have been watching the ITV series Lewis, and it is a worthy replacement for Midsomer Murders when that is not scheduled. Oxford is an appealing location, as much as the fictitious Midsomer county is. There might be just a little too many references to the private backgrounds of inspector Lewis and his assistant Hathaway, but you can't have it all. Middle class to upper middle class eccentric characters in abundance, and jealousy and frustration as underlying reason - just as I like it in a show like this. I learned that Lewis is a spinoff off the Inspector Morse series, but I regrettably never saw that one...

DS James Hathaway (Lawrence Fox) and inspector Robert Lewis (Kevin Whately)

So, what is wrong with us? I say 'us', because I am not the only one, with millions of viewers and followers of these series around the globe. Why can we relax watching ingenious murders? Is it a secret admiration for people who manage to get rid of people who are an obstacle to their well being? And while doing so, manage to look sophisticated and acceptable at that? Do we secretly wish we could shut off a part of our moral, live without scruples? Still, it's no use. Because in the end, intelligence does not help. They all get caught. And that's where these show differ from reality.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Steam of Life

Over a year ago, my first real and still one of my best blog entries, was inspired by the movie Steam of Life. I had not seen this movie at the time, and only knew the fascinating trailer. It is about men opening up their minds and souls, and revealing deep emotional experiences. Not your everyday movie. Did it live to the expectations? It did and more than that.

Readers who do not know this blog, or the movie, I invite to read the blog I wrote in August 2010, where you can also watch the trailer. Steam of Life, or Miesten Vuoro in Finnish, was not in Dutch movie theatres at the time, and it did not arrive there either for months. Ultimately I ordered an English subtitled edition at, and it was shipped to me from the USA. And as was to be expected, just a few weeks later it made its appearance in Dutch cinemas.

The trailer did the movie justice. The emotional and touching stories told by ordinary Finnish men, who are no actors, at times cut through the soul, and sometimes make you smile. The captivating scenes are separated by hypnotizing shots of Finland’s nature and scenery, supported by a dreamlike musical score. It is not often that a minimal movie like this can carry you away with so little.

It makes one think. Would I have the courage to bare myself like that for a movie camera? I’m not talking about the physical bareness alone here, but even more so about the emotional nakedness these Finnish men are not afraid to show. That takes guts. For me, a sauna can be a kind of reassuring, comforting and secluded environment where you are anonymous, and nobody takes notice of you. Circumstances that create the perfect conditions for conversations with my nephew. Nobody hears, nobody listens. And if people can listen, we simply move to a different cabin or to a quite place near the bar. So, what I look for, or actually, what we look for, is an experience at the other end of the spectrum of what the people in Miesten Vuoro portray. Still, it would be interesting if our experiences could be documented one way or another to remember them later. Maybe I see use for the GoPro I’ve set my mind on here? Ah, better not. I’m pretty sure my younger companion would not want to be caught on camera like that at all, so there will be no movie career for him when a Dutch version of Steam of Life would be filmed. I vividly remember his terror when he spotted his employer’s wife, and two hands were barely enough for him to cover his face and various body parts. As was to be expected, it was not his boss’ wife at all – but it took at least 30 minutes for him to establish that relieving fact.

So, was I a role model here? Likely, but it helped me too, it educated me to open up emotionally in interaction with a younger generation. And young people can be so inspiring. But there is something else in respect to this. Men have made an impressive emotional turnaround during a few decades, I’m sure of that. It’s funny that the blogger who inspired me to do my own blog, and who is so open about his emotions and life, is male. While the female blogger who dared me to create my blog hardly lets you into her mind and inner thoughts… But the strong men of yore, the Marlboro men, providers of income, always at the wheel of the family, as if they are driving the family car, and not showing emotions, have changed. We speak out our feelings, are not ashamed to push the baby stroller, we cry, we are a kid and a man combined in one body, and we are not ashamed of it. But to do so for a camera? Let me think about that.

Naked investment in life

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


When many moons ago I received an email, asking if I could help tracing down contact addresses of high school class mates, I was excited. Just a few weeks earlier I mentioned to someone that I could remember so few names from those years. And there came an Excel sheet with all the names of 35 years ago.

To keep it short, with the help of many we were able to track down most of the former fellow students, who graduated from our high school in 1976. I’ll have to be honest here. Time left voids in my memory, because many names did not ring a bell. On the other hand, there were many I had not forgotten and some came to life again in my now middle aged brain. Expectations were high when the day of the high school reunion came close. But typically, as if to remind my soul that we are talking about 35 year older physical entities here, a muscle in my shoulder decided that it was time to send out tormenting pains to the entire neck, shoulder and upper arm area. The help of a physiotherapist could not do a lot on short notice, so I braced myself, swallowed a dozen pain killers and promised myself not to stay too long.

This is an old class photo, but not the graduation class of 1976. This photo is from 1975.

Six years of high school during that stormy period in life they call puberty, might put a decisive mark on our psychological blueprint. Were these our wonder years? Or were they a mere phase on our road to adulthood? After all, if you’re honest, that road never ends. So, when I look back, I can not say that these were defining years in my life. Actually, those started when the doors of high school were shut behind my back when I walked out with my diploma. Because when you leave high school, you are 18 years young. But old enough to cast your vote, drive a car, receive a compulsary invition to visit the army baracks in those days, go on vacation on your own, live away from home in a dorm, be ready for more serious relations, and form political and social convictions. In short, life begins. You are 18, high school closes for you, but the world opens up. And entering a world they call university, I got to know people from all parts of my country, and yes, even from other countries. Literature was often in English, just as several classes since lecturers sometimes came from the United States or the United Kingdom. I literally flew out to the USA on my own when I was 19, something I could never have imagined just two years earlier.

When I drove up the parking lot of the restaurant that was the location of the reunion, I instantly noticed the abundance of dark blue, grey and black conformist cars. There was one bright red Mazda MX-5, and of course I immediately felt a bond. At least one other classmate had the guts to break free from the obvious. Alas, I never got to know who that was. But that parking lot showed the reality of life. The cheerful gang from 1976, now 35 years later has obligations and, typically Dutch, does not want to stray away from greatest common denominator. It made me even more curious. How would the actual encounter be?

The reunion, September 2011.

You see faces you can’t recall and hear names you can’t remember. But still, I instantly recognized many. Isn’t it funny how the notion of time can evaporate right there and then? The ladies, who were still girls back then, were the easiest to put a name to. Men were grey, bald or balding – and that made it sometimes more difficult for the brain to retrieve them from memory. Conversations were light hearted, and remarkably, did not focus on the school years. But as one of my old classmates, who could not attend the reunion, asked me in an email later, did you have good talks? What interests me most, he wrote, is what people moves and to know what their expectations in life, their challenges and disappointments are. But conversations did not go as deep as that – at least, not during the hours I was at the reunion. There was no time for that, I suppose. And just too many people. Maybe we just do not know each other well enough to jump over that barrier.

Just one week later, someone needed my attention. There were just the two of us. Nobody around who could overhear our conversation. I listened, and that was enough. So, who we are and where we go in life are the most fascinating questions. Because no matter if you win or loose, and the way that you choose, it is a question of honour.*

* Line taken from the Sarah Brightman song 'A Question of Honour':

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Is the world too big?

I have a confession to make. I have not been in the mood to write the past few weeks. The body worked against it. Nothing serious, but annoying nonetheless. RSI, repetitive strain injury, nose surgery, and RSI again kept me away from my keyboard. But it gave my time to look around on, and see what my contacts were up to. And that gave me time to make a list of the things I want to see.

My recent trip to Germany fuelled these thoughts too. For many, many years I wanted to see the Bavarian Forest. The pictures I saw in magazines and later on the web were so promising. After a few mandatory days in the Black Forest near Baden Baden – hey, you really find your rest there in the mountains and spas – it was time to move on. With no particular plan drawn up before the trip, all options were open. I need to say that the vacation was compromised by the fact that pain in neck, shoulder and arms – the notorious RSI – shortened the trip considerably, because we left days later as was planned. So, Bavarian Forest it would be. And it should be no more than three hours on the Autobahn, we figured. Wrong. Can’t remember exactly, but all in all it took six hours to get there. Road construction after road construction sabotaged forward progress, and upon arriving at the outskirts of the Forest, we kept going on. Because surely, it should all look better if we just continued to the next hill range? It did not. The Bavarian Forest turned out to be a deception if you are used to the Black Forest. No startling scenery. No nice towns. No restaurants. No gas stations. Luckily, there was Passau, a two hour drive from the hotel. After two nights, the bags were loaded in the MX-5, and we hurried back to the Rhine Valley. Always a safe option if you don’t know where to go.

I'd love to raft again. Did it five times, can be very scary, but the adrenaline... I'm on that raft here.

Years ago I did something similar, but it proved to be a success beyond anything I expected. I’ve written about this earlier on this blog. I always wanted to see Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, and when I did, it exceeded my imagination. So, it can de done. Going or doing something, and being surprised it actually is great. So, I started thinking. I don’t see myself camping on the banks of the Zambezi, but I do want to see Mont St. Michel in France. I want to spend a few days in Tuscany. I’d love to drive Stelvio Pass. But I also would not say no to visiting Wales, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Northern Germany is still on my list. And I fondly remember a trip to New England – should do that again and stay in cabins. And do a rafting trip again. In 2007 I had to skip the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. I simply had to catch a plane back home. So, that’s another place I need to go to. But the Pacific Northwest is calling me constantly too. Oh, how I love to see the Cascades again, and relax on a bench in Edmonds, overlooking Puget Sound. And there are so many spas around in Germany that I still want to experience. Barcelona, Andalusia, Finland, put them on my list. Did I forget to mention that I never visited St. Petersburg and the Hermitage? And not a destination, but I’d love to drive a couple of vintage cars, like a British roadster from the 1920s or 1930s, a Duesenberg or a 1963 Corvette. Anyone has one waiting for me? Most likely, only a fragment of the above will be realized. But dreaming is great. Isn’t imagination the only creative power we all have? But tell me, how does your ‘to do list’ look like?

Is the world too big for one lifetime?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The vintage car vacation

A long time ago everything was an adventure to young eyes. Few occasions illustrated that as our annual family vacation trip. It was not the destination, but the highlights on our journey. And when I say highlights, I do not mean famous tourist attractions or scenery of epic magnitude. I’m talking of wildlife crossing signs here.

With the reliable Opel Kapitän in Switzerland, Furka Pass, 1966.

Living in the per square kilometre most densely populated country in the 1960s, in a rather urbanized area, life did not hold many surprises for us. Probably more so for people living in rural areas if they visited the western part of The Netherlands, but for us it was just what it was – streets, cars, towns, you name it, but with little space for the surprises more arcadic surroundings can offer you.
So when we ventured out of our safe biotope, we knew life could only bring us exciting expectations. Positioned on the back seat of our parent’s Opel Rekord, Kapitän and Kadett, or the Ford Taunus 12 and 15Ms, not in that order necessarily, my sister and I were ready to absorb everything that was synonymous for life outside urban Holland. And we made a competition out of it. Who’d be the first to see something special, would be awarded with points. As I already pointed out, that could be almost anything: wildlife crossing signs, the first German town to be mentioned on the direction signs, the border, castles, hills, mountains, and best of all, snow capped mountains. Points you could earn varied from 10 for the wildlife crossing sign to 50 for snow capped mountains.

Well, that might have been an easy quiet game to kill the time while on our way, it usually was not. Because Dad also participated. And this was not always regarded as fair play by his offspring, because he had a head start. Sitting behind the wheel, he obviously had more chance seeing things first as his kids on the backseat. Why Mom never participated in the contest, I don’t know, but that was just how it was. Dad however enjoyed it to add new categories to the game, and he chose not to discuss them with us. So, rather often we would hear 'I see a castle on top of a hill, 100 points for me!' Add anything you can imagine to that. I knew Dad was just teasing us, but it infuriated my sister. ‘That is not fair!’ she would shout, ‘You did not tell. We could not know. Mom, tell Dad to stop cheating!’ It was the same each year. Not that it would obstruct the final score, because in the end, nobody knew anymore what his or her score was, and nobody ever won that way.

The competition is one memory that comes to mind when thinking back to the vacation trips op yore, the self cooked food is another one. We were lucky to go away on vacation, stay at modest hotels or bed & breakfasts, but my parent’s 1960s budget did not allow for family dining out at night. So, Mom had to cook, and we always chose a nice location somewhere in the countryside, usually in a forest. Out came the Camping Gaz cooker, and Mom would create a one pan dish. So far so good. If not for the fact that somehow in my memory it always rained when it was time to prepare a meal. Now, that confined us to the backseat, without being able to run around. Fireing up the Camping Gaz cooker was a drama of course. It took ten minutes before it fired, costing about half a box of damp matches. The cooker was positioned between the car and the open door, to prevent the fire raining or blowing out, and to keep as much raindrops out of the food as possible. I still bow to my Mom for presenting is with a meal under such circumstances, but honesty forces to tell me that my sister and I were soon sick and tired of the several variations on rice and pasta we had to consume. Even more so when you know that if you kept the pan upside down, the rice would still stick into it. I’m sure my parents were not thrilled about this too, and not at all Mom of course. I vividly remember the vacation when Dad suddenly decided to break with that self cooking tradition. 1968, the village of Ossiach, in Kärnten, Austria, my father noticed the menu of a so called Imbiss, a modest eatery. It offered potato salad, and if there was something my father loved, it was potato salad. It was cheap, and from that moment on Mom never had to cook on a Camping Gaz cooker in the rain. Or in the sun for that matter.

Ossiach 1968 stays in my memory for one other experience, and one that extended our vacation for two days. The Ford Taunus 15M was a nice car, according my Dad, but it overheated easily. In traffic jams, on mountains, you could count on the front wheel drive Ford to send the needle of the temperature gauge into the red zone. My father followed the advice given to him to extract as much heat from the engine by setting the cabin heater as high as possible. So, there we were, climbing mountain passes in the summer sun, with the heater on maximum. That we survived is still a mystery to me. But during one of our final days of the vacation, the Ford gave up on us. At the Austrian/Italian border, for a short daytrip into the country of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, the border guard said to Dad: ‘Do you know there is water leaking from your radiator?’ No, he did not, because the engine was overheating anyway. We made it back to Ossiach, but the car would never make it to Holland of course as it needed a new radiator. So there we were, in the days without mobile phones or plastic money, and the holiday budget almost depleted. Dad’s employer wired him money for the repair, and the Ford provided us with two days extra vacation. My sister and I did not object.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beach, a boring pile of sand

A warm summer evening, around 9.00 PM – it is the best time to enjoy the beach. Sitting on a beachside terrace, looking at the sun going down and the people strolling by. This can mean only one thing. I am getting older. The beach is a magical place when you are young, but looses its appeal when your hairs turn grey. This might be a bold statement when you do not live near a beach, but when you’ve live close to it for so many years, it can become a boring pile of sand.

Katwijk beach

‘After so many years, you’ve seen the beach’, the nice elderly lady told me a couple of years ago. The lady and her husband overheard us talking over big ice cream creations outside a Baden Baden Italian ice cream parlour. ‘You are from The Netherlands?’ they asked in Dutch. The German lady and her Dutch husband lived in Spain almost on the beach for many years. After running a successful travel agency in Spain, they settled down there to enjoy their retirement. ‘You know what?’ the lady aid. ‘Many of our foreign friends returned to their native countries. You loose your contacts. At the same time family and friends from Holland and Germany expect you to welcome them during the summer months. When you get older, that is not what you are waiting for. And with the years, you will be needing more health care, like physiotherapy. You are better off with that in Holland and Germany than you are in Spain.’ So the couple decided to leave Spain and migrated to Baden Baden. ‘We have everything here’, the husband said. ‘And most things we need are in walking distance, our car sometimes won’t lave the garage for days. In Spain, we had to rely on the car for everything’. But, I said, the beach? Didn’t you like the beach? ‘Oh, that gets the same after so many years’, the lady said. ‘I don’t miss it’.

Dutch beaches are great. Wide, shallow, soft. Better then most Mediterranean beaches for sure. I’ve spent one week on a Spanish beach near Torremolinos, and actually, it was rather pathetic compared to Katwijk’s beach. And the Romanian Black Sea beach near Constanta can better be forgotten. The bad weather did not help of course. But the nicest looking beach I’ve seen was not even a sea coast beach. Along the shores of Lake Michigan the beaches are perfect, white sand, blue water and a beautiful backdrop of dunes. But as beautiful as they are, they did not temp me to lie down and close my eyes, but an evening stroll along the shore was quite relaxing, I must admit.

Ludington beach, Lake Michigan

When I was young, during summer the beach was a way of life. When the weather was fine, you got on your bike and rode to the beach. There is always something to do when you are young. There were friends and family, the sea was always inviting and the summer was endless. When you grow up, things change. When I was studying, my friends in Leiden often called me to come over to Katwijk on a nice day. That was fine with me, on most occasions. But when you live on the beach, it does not have that magical appeal as it has to people who live in town. When you live near it, you go down to the beach when you feel like it. It is not a day out for you anymore. And it should not be an obligation. There was something else. When it is nice and warm in town, it can be windy and cool just 10 kilometres away on the beach. To this day I’m convinced my friends did not believe me when I said so over the phone…

Tybee Island beach, Georgia

I’m not claiming that my views on beaches are universal. Far from that. Sit down on the beach and look around you. Young and older people everywhere enjoying themselves. Packed with windscreens, beach chairs, cool boxes – I never forget that guy getting his herrings out of the box, and swallowing it under the burning sun on the hottest part of day. Just as I will never forget the odd sensation when you walk along the shoreline, and you feel something soft and warm beneath your foot, pressing up between your toes. If I ever found the dog responsible for that, he’d better run for his life. The older man and younger girl engaging in activities not suitable for public display is another image I have of the beach, but one I’d like to forget because of its grotesque nature – but somehow I can’t. You see a lot of things on the beach, and not all of them you want to see. But truth to be told, sometimes the mere image of a beach can be so beautiful, that you do not have to dive into the traditional beach activities. Just watching can be rewarding.

But for me? When I can’t hear the sound of the waves over the buzz on the beach, the fun is gone. When you fall asleep on the beach, you know it is time for you to turn your back on it. And enjoy the beach from a beachside café with a nicely chilled white wine. But the real defining moment that made me leave the beach, so to speak, was about ten years ago on a Sunday evening. The incident somehow killed my desire for seaside recreation ever since. Not having a computer at home back then, I decided to drive to the office one day after an afternoon on the beach, to check my email. What happened is still a bit unclear, but leaving my office suit to look for the bathroom I heard a loud ‘snap’, my left leg lost its power and I fell against the wall. My Achilles heel fractured, and there I was, alone in an office building, with the sand of the beach still all over my body. It was bizarre.

 Katwijk beach

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Big Boredom

It’s terrace season. Enjoying a coffee, a drink or lunch outside. Just a few weeks ago, when summer showed its lovely face already in springtime, something daunted on me. Twice on the same day it suddenly became apparent. It’s something that can be found with middle aged people, and especially the married kind. I think I’ll call it The Big Boredom.

It was a glorious day. Perfect for exploring the unknown countryside. Pointing the car to roads you don’t know, and following signs to small rural villages you never heard off. Narrow country lanes meander between the green meadows, lined with trees and hedges. A sign pointed our attention to a ‘tea garden’, that was part of a farm and providing the owners some extra revenue. Patio seats and tables were scattered around the large garden. The setting could almost be Arcadia. Beautiful scenery, the quietness of the countryside, trees providing shade for the visitors on that warm day. The coffee was good.

When looking around, absorbing the moment, I suddenly saw something very odd. A few meters from where I was seated, a middle aged couple was having a drink too. It was the kind of couple that goes out on a sunny day in their Renault Scenic, with two tour bicycles on a rack mounted on the tow hook of their car. That the couple was taking a break from their bike tour was not odd by itself, but what I could not understand was that the lady was reading a book. There on that beautiful day, in that wonderful location, she could not enjoy from what she saw around her, nor was she engaged in a conversation with her husband. She preferred to read a book and close herself off from the world around her. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing against reading a book, and Oprah will back me up here, but there is a time and place for everything. And this was not it. I’ve seen this before. And it is probably a female thing. Sitting down on their vacation to have a drink, and instead of looking at the new and fascinating world around them on a spot they are not likely to visit again soon, they open their bag and get a book out. Last year, waiting in canal boat to set off for a tour through Amsterdam’s waterways with a British visitor, I noticed that on the bench next to me a lady was not looking around at the buzz, no, she was reading. I somehow can understand this if you are travelling alone. But the lady in the countryside tea garden was not alone. She was with her husband. And they had nothing to talk about.

 The 'Buitenlust' inn terrace, where our lunch break was somewhat disturbed by the loud and trivial conversation of two middle aged couples sitting ariound a table next to ours.

By itself this is not something worth remembering, if it was not for the fact that later that same day, on a terrace in the quaint little village of Amerongen, we were confronted with yet another typical habit for certain middle aged couples. Once again, couples doing a bike tour, in this case through the Utrecht Hill Range, admittedly one of the most beautiful parts of the country and very inviting to be explored while pedalling. But when two couples meet, or go out together, it is for some reason necessary for them to pump up the volume of their conversation, annoying the other people sitting down there. And take my word for it, those couples seem to have only one subject to talk about for all to hear. It is always about their vacations. We all should listen to their stories about their weekend trips, and their experiences in far away places and their future travel plans. When you listen to these stories - and you have to, because you can’t close yourself off from it – it becomes clear that those trips are always done with the company of other couples. I suddenly understood. I’m happy for those men and women who, through the years, do know how to live their lives together to the fullest and who are even after all those years, still inspired by each other’s company. But these terrace bike tour couples lost that ability somewhere along the road. Most of their married life centred around their children, enjoying their company, bringing them to sport events, keeping an eye on their homework, comforting, feeding, clothing them, being interested in their education, raising them to responsible adults, and sharing that with friends and family. But then suddenly, the kids are gone. Don’t come along anymore. Out on their own feet. And then there is nothing left. Only a partner, but they lost the art of mutual communication. They don’t know how to spend time together. They need other couples to spend vacations and fill the void there is in their own company. And they need other couples to talk about their trips and wonderful experiences to scare away The Big Boredom. I pity them. It is probably a typical Dutch phenomenon. Or is it universal?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In vino veritas

Four misted glasses on the table. Wine cooled to perfection. Two Bacharacher Posten, the best wine I ever enjoyed. And two German red wines, my memory tells me it was Dornfelder, but I’m not sure. Poured in those typical German glasses, 0.2 litre each. The owner of the hotel, who also owned a winery, was proud of his wine. And so he should be. One minor problem though. All glasses were mine.

The cellars of winery Jost.

I do not claim to be an expert on wines, I am not by a long shot. However, I like my glass of dry white wine and over the years I’ve mastered somewhat a talent of choosing the wines I like. Note the words ‘I like’. Few things are as subjective as a taste in wine, it is pointless trying to educate people how to appreciate wine. Many people like red wines, but red wines are not for me. Red wine and I have never become friends. They give me headaches. They make my throat dry. Most can only be appreciated to the fullest when accompanied by cheese or food, but alas, many people do not offer that when you visit. And leave me struggling with a hostile liquid, I’d rather pour into a plant pot, if not for the fact that most people have thrown all their plants out these days.

Between the left and main tower you can see a slope where the Riesling grapes for Bacharacher Posten grow.

I’m not sure if it is the ambiance next to the wine – but white wine never tastes as good as it does in Germany – provided I choose the dry varieties. There are many sweet German wines, but it is preferable to drink grape juice instead. It spares you the alcohol in your veins. Now, the funny thing is that many people outside Germany associate German wine with sweet wines. I wonder if that dates back to the days that the now elderly booked a bus tour to our eastern neighbours, and daringly tried their first wine there. Not used to drinking alcohol, a sweet Mosel was a safe choice. And liquor stores stepped in that custom, leaving the dry French wines for the small elite of connoisseurs in those years gone by.
So, I could have been warned. But I was still shocked when only a few years ago a friend, an intelligent woman who is not a stranger when it comes to wines, confined to me that she never tried or bought any on the trips to Germany she did with her family. “You can only get those sweet lemonade wines there,” she said, leaving me speechless in disbelieve. I tried to convince her that some of the best dry wines in the world come from Germany, but I’m sure she did not believe telling from the way she looked at me.

When I visit the country of the Teutons, and I look at the wine lists there, I feel like a kid in a candy shop. So many good dry whites, that it is difficult to make a choice. But my favourites are the full bodied, crisp dry Rieslings. Old fashioned maybe, and perhaps not as fashionable as the Alsacian Pinots or Italian Pinot Grigios, nor as popular as the cliché Chardonnays, but it is the wine of my choice and the one I try to bring home a few bottles of. That brings me to the owner of Guesthaus Jost in the quaint little town of Bacharach in the Rhine valley. Mr. Jost doubles as a wine grower – but I’m pretty sure that it is actually the other way round judging by the modest state of his small hotel. When sitting down in the hotel restaurant for a basic, but calorie rich Schnitzel dinner, the wine list was - as can be expected from a wine grower - both eloborate and seductive. One white attracted my attention, not only because it was clearly more expensive as the others, but primarily because of its imaginative name: a Jost Bacharacher Posten, listed as dry Riesling, from 1996 vintage – by then ten years old. It was obvious that this would my choice for the evening. And an excellent choice it is, I was assured by patron/wine grower. He did not say one single word too much. It was heaven. Tasteful, with the exact amount of sourness, and a long ‘after taste’. After dinner the patron grabbed a chair and inquired what I thought about his a Bacharacher Posten. A nice conversation followed on the ins and outs of wine growing, and the difficulties and hardships wine growers in the Rhine valley region face. Young people have no interest anymore to work on the steep slopes where the vineyards are located. And many young people leave the region because there is little work apart from the wine business. Many vineyards have closed the past two decades, and the only way to survive is growing first quality grapes to produce excellent wines. Like the Posten. And it is not a mystery how to distinghuish a sweet wine from a dry one, the patron learned me. “Look for the percentage of alcohol,” he said. “The less there is, the more sugar there will be, and the sweeter the wine. Eight percent is very sweet, but eleven to twelve percent alcohol guarantees you a nice dry wine."

I could not leave without buying some bottles of Bacharacher Posten. Mr. Jost looked around to assure that he was not overheard, and with a soft voice he said that he had only a few boxes of 1996 Bacharacher Posten left in his cellar before a new vintage would be ready for sale. Bacharacher Posten grapes are difficult to grow and require special attention, so supply is always limited. ‘I don’t have the Posten listed at my cellar for direct sale to customers, but for people appreciating this special wine, like you, I keep a few boxes.” And so I left with a box of six expensive ten year old wines, that could not be stowed in the trunk of the MX-5 anymore. So the remainder of the trip the passenger had to share the footwall with six bottles of wine.

Guesthaus and winery Jost / Gästehaus und Weingut Jost:

Time to get back to the four glasses of wine that were all exclusively for me. My travelling companion never drinks one single drop of alcohol. Not out of principle or conviction, but simply because he does not like it. “What is so special about that wine?” he wanted to know. But you can’t explain taste. “I’ll have one too,” was his unexpected and bold decision. After just one sip he had to catch his breath and that was his firts and very last taste of wine. That left me with two glasses, but I was not prepared for what happened next. The patron, meanwhile mistaking me for a connoisseur, emerged from the kitchen two 0.2 litre glasses of red wine. “These are on the house. Dornfelder, German red wine, rather unknown, but so nice. You should try it and tell me what you think about it.” Four glasses were staring at me. I vino veritas they say, but I will not confirm that. But hey, finally someone sees me as a connoisseur. One for whom the doors of the cellars with rare Bacharacher Posten are opened.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The catalogue of dreams

Women are on an eternal quest to find the answer how to keep their youth. New hairdos, fashion that is far too young for them, cosmetic surgery, Botox treatments. We men do not need that. The older we get, the more interesting we are of course. Plus, we are easier satisfied. We just buy our youth back by ordering the things we liked when we were young. And we are content.

Granted, why women are on a continuous fight against the effects of gravity and facial erosion is understandable. But, let’s face it, appearance is only skin deep – pun intended. So, we men do not care. There’s no use anyway. When the days we look as young gods are over, we simply shift our interests back to the days we were young. And we can now do this thanks to the joys of internet.

As a young boy I spent many hours flipping the pages and looking at the photos and ads of a special book. My father, working as the accountant of an Opel dealership, one day came home with a car catalogue, the 1965 Swiss Automobil Revue. 462 pages, filled with colourful ads, photos of new cars and concept models, and an alphabetical listing of the world’s car companies and their products. There was a problem though. Being just seven or eight years young, I could not read German or French, the two main Swiss languages used in the catalogue. That did not stop me trying to read it, because German can sometimes be somewhat like Dutch. And, when the technical data mention that a car has a “Hochgeschwindigkeit 120 km”, my young investigative mind was intelligent enough to figure out that it was referring to the maximum speed. And my father always joked that the French “gamme des modelles” meant that the cars were ‘gammel’, Dutch for awful quality, but I did not buy that.

That catalogue was somehow my outlook on the world. Young people today will have a hard time understanding how people lived with only a few TV channels, a newspaper and library books, but that’s how we lived in the 1960s. It was surely defining my automotive education. I saw cars from far away countries like Japan – Toyota and Datsun still had to make their entry on the Dutch market and only Isuzu was selling cars here. I saw ads promoting a nice looking Prince Gloria, and only recently I learned that this company was absorbed by Nissan/Datsun just a few years later. The photos in the catalogue sometimes put me on the wrong foot altogether, and it took years until the internet could give more information. Like that fascinating big Japanese SUV, the Cony 360. Only one photo, without any people, did not tell me anything about its size, but I was convinced it was as large as a Kaiser Jeep Wagoneer. When I Googled the Cony 360 ten years ago my illusion fell to pieces. Not a SUV, but a tiny so called Kei van, with the engine under the front seat. Kei car: those quessential Japanese mini cars of strictly limited size and displacement for tax reasons.

General Motors 1964 concept cars, the GM-X and the Firebird IV.
The following page showed my favorite Runabout concept.

There were far more of course. The Egyptian Ramses, that suspiciously looked like a NSU Prinz with a different front – and that was just what it was. My first acquaintance with names like OSI, Abarth, Checker and Bertone. Numerous cars to be discovered over and over again. But 462 pages not binded, but glued, suffer over the years, and suffer hard. Pages let go, the catalogue gradually fell to several pieces, and moved up to the attic to be parked on a pile of Donald Duck and Flintstone comic books. And the times I looked at it got scarce. But no matter that, I was devastated when one day I could not find it anymore. The most obvious had happened. Weeks before my Mom decided to clear out the attic of any unnecessary junk. And the poor catalogue was labelled as such by her. Catalogue gone, but the memories always remained.

The Rambler ad I liked so much as a kid.

You might wonder how this relates to my introduction. I’ll tell you. We men do not need a new appearance to rejuvenate ourselves. Maybe we are less complicated then women. Or just more primitive. We buy our old toys back on eBay. Matchbox cars. Faller slot car system tracks. Model car kits. And we feel young when we have them in our hands again. But I did not know what the content of that package was that a friend gave me for my birthday a few years ago. I can not describe my feelings when I removed the wrapping and before my eyes unfolded the 1965 Automobil Revue. Mint, unused. Bought at the publisher in Switzerland, that was still was in business and surprisingly still had ‘new’ copies of its catalogues on the shelves. When I turned the pages I was swallowed by a whirlpool of emotions and memories. I was that young kid again, sitting on the coach, during fall break with the rain against the window pane, looking through these pages. When I looked at the photos and the ads, it felt like I had this catalogue in my hands only a few weeks ago. But it were 35 years. The beautiful Rambler ad with three colour photos, the impressive 1965 Pontiacs, the Triumph advertising with the baby blue Spitfire and white TR4, the OSI concept roadster based on a Fiat, the 1964 General Motors Futurama concepts. I was young again. I was happy.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Skykomish, ever again?

Few places speak to my heart as Skykomish. A very small town less than two hours from Seattle. In the Cascades’ green and wet mountains. So, what’s so special about this community? My answer will be as short as honest: nothing, when viewed from a distance. But you should look at it from the inside, and that’s how it charmed me. But Skykomish might not be Skykomish anymore.

In the summer of 1995 I paid my first visit to Skykomish. I’m not sure anymore if it was a planned visit, or just a stop to spend the night. It was probably planned, because I was travelling with a railroad enthusiast and Skykomish does have a name, albeit not too big, in the circles of trainspotters. The town’s existence can be attributed to the railroad. During the days of steam locomotives, the Great Northern railroad had an important yard here. Electric locomotives were added to help the trains over Stevens Pass and through the Cascade Tunnel. But like many communities that depended on the railroad, things went downhill after steam and electric locomotives were replaced by diesel engines, requiring far little support and labour as the old impressive locomotives did. So the Great Northern left Skykomish, and only a few diesel locomotives were stationed in Skykomish to help the trains over the steep tracks of Stevens Pass. Great Northern became Burlington Northern, and after the merge with Santa Fe, the locomotives show the logos of the BNSF.

The beige building is stove store, the historic Skykomish Hotel at right. The hotel suffered inside damage after the rebuild because of too high water pressure.Photo by Cornelius Koelewijn.

After that first visit, a few more followed. Because Skykomish is for some reason a great place to stay a few days. Is it the crisp mountain air? Maybe. But there are more places to go if you want to breathe air so pure. And the Cascades can be gloomy – rains are frequent, and clouds will hang low, giving the area a Twin Peaks mood. And actually, David Lynch shot his cult series not that far away from Skykomish. There are many names here that make this area special, for several reasons. Fox River Bridge, Scenic Hot Springs, Tye. You´ll find Tye after some looking around. You can hear the buzz of this once important town at the base of the old Cascade Tunnel through the sound of the wind in the trees. March 1, 1910 an avalanche swept away an entire train here, killing 97. To this day one of America’s worst railroad accidents. Some claim that the cries of the victims can still be heard. Later the tunnel closed, when it was replaced by a new one and the town died, and what is left are only the fundaments of its structures. 

Snowsheds at Tye protected trains against avalanches near the entrance of the old and defunct Cascade Tunnel.

But I suppose that the easy pace life takes here plays as a role that defines Skykomish for me. The great Sky River Inn, where you walk out of your room before breakfast through the glass sliding doors and you stand with your feet in the moist grass alongside the Skykomish River, is just a fine place to relax a few days. During the night you’d hear the rumbling of the diesel engines of the locomotives waiting for trains that need extra horsepower. Walk to Main Street, that follows the BNSF tracks, and it is not hard to imagine that little has changed the 1920s. But Skykomish still has its importance for services to many people living in the area. There is a large school, and a small library. And a vintage stove and oil lamp store caters for the nostalgic needs of Seattle yuppies. The lady who owns the store when I visited, did not express too much friendliness though, as if helping clients who bought some old postcards were an annoying disruptance of her quiet afternoon.

For railroad buffs there is enough to find between Skykomish and Stevens Pass tunnel. However, not being a trainspotter myself, there is something else that makes this part of the Cascades interesting for me. The mountains and forests around the town offer a labyrinth of gravel roads that just beg to be explored. I remember that during a weekend along those roads you’d see many people camping out with RVs or tents. You need to have a permit though, but where to obtain one is something I never understood when reading the notices. But so far, those forests and mountains did not really deliver what I always hoped for. Even though a man who was camping nearby told me that he saw a mountain lion just a day before, I have not seen any wildlife there – safe for a marmot. No bears, not even lynxes, let alone that mountain lion.

 The Sky River Inn, not seen from its best angle here, will open again in 2012. Photo by Cornelius Koelwijn.

I have not travelled to Skykomish for many years now. I wanted to, but there is little point going through the trouble right now. Skykomish is and is not. Its involvement with the railroad left a deep scar under the surface. Massive oil spill, when servicing and fuelling locomotives was done with little regard to environmental consequences. Since 2006 street by street buildings have been relocated to a field outside of town. Even the historic hotel on Main Street. The Sky River Inn closed its door when it too had to be removed. Its website - tells us it will reopen again in 2012. But what will be left of the heart and character of Skykomish? Trees gone. Branches gone. New pavement. New sidewalks. New lawns. A new town with old buildings.
Will I feel the wet grass under my feet alongside the Skykomish River again?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Joy of MX-5

Drive to the corner with full throttle. Shift down. Hear the engine revs when the needle moves to the redline, while reducing speed using engine brake. Feel how you steer the car into the corner and halfway press the pedal again, exiting with full force. Enjoy how the car seems to be part of your body. And to go with that: feel the wind in your hair. Welcome in the world of Mazda MX-5. Or Miata, as the Americans know it.

The current MX-5 on a rural black Forest road

Years ago, when I visited relatives nearby, I parked my first Mazda MX-5 in front of their garden. While sitting outside, enjoying a drink, a neigbour said, “nice, but when I see a car like that I always think what you should do with it”. She missed the point. And she will never understand. It is a fact that most women do not like sports cars. They only like MPVs, even when they don’t need one. And if an MPV is too ridiculous even for them, they will only drive very small cars. And can anyone tell why women, when they do drive a cabriolet, always do so with the top closed, even on the brightest of days?

A roadster is pointless when you look at it in a rational way. It is highly unpractical. And we can think of cars that are more comfortable. But that is not the issue here. A roadster has a mission. And that is not just the topless driving experience with the wind in your hair and the sun in your face. It is the joy of driving with all your senses. It is the way how the car handles. How it seems to swivel from under your butt in corners. It is the experience of a responsive car that makes you sense all the reactions that come from your commands, the inputs you feel from the road or whatever you pick up from the world outside. It is driving, not because of transportation, but of being involved in a machine and being rewarded by a car that does what you want it to do. If you ever had one, you’re hooked. There is no escaping. A coupe may have its advantages over a convertible, but in the end it is car like any other, just more cramped and its limitation will be apparent soon, because there is just not enough to compensate for that. But drop the top, press the pedal, and you know why a closed car can’t compete with a roadster.

For sure, you can’t live with roadster like this, if it is your only car. But since I have that obstacle covered, I can safely say that love does not make blind – because it doesn’t matter in this case. My love affair with the MX-5 goes back from the day I first saw one. At the time I did road tests for the newspaper I worked for, and of course I immediately inquired at the Dutch distributor if I could have one for a week. No problem, said the friendly PR lady at Mazda, but you have to be patient. I was, and waited, and waited. Every time I called, she could not tell when it would be my turn. Obviously, car magazines and national newspapers came first. Months went by, and then just a week before I would leave my job, the friendly Mazda lady called. I could have one for seven days just a month later. Too late. And that was my only regret when I left the newspaper.

Left: the first MX-5. Black Forest, of course.

Years passed by, and the spark was ignited once again when I saw that little roadster at a convertible car show, and for the first time, I could sit behind the wheel. Quite stationary, mind you, but it was more than I had ever experienced Mazda-wise. But I was not in the market for a new car then. So, again a couple of years went by – and then it was time for a new car. However, by that time the MX-5 had sunken deep in my subconscious, and for some unexplainable reason I had convinced myself that a Subaru Forester semi-SUV was the vehicle I needed. Buying proved to be not so easy, because the only salesman was occupied with another customer, and there was still someone waiting before me as well. I decided to go away, and come back next Saturday. Now, something odd happened just two days later. You might say I was guided, you might call it coincidence. But I walked to my supermarket, and on the parking lot there it was, waiting for me in a beautiful bronze colour, topless, and winking at me. The new second generation Mazda MX-5, most likely parked there by a nearby living Autoweek journalist doing a road test. Lightening struck. And a silver MX-5 was ordered that same week in May 1998. With thanks to the Subaru salesman, who was too busy.

Meanwhile I am on my second MX-5, the current generation. The car has grown more mature, lost some of its boyish light footedness and simplicity. But it gained in strength, speed, economy, comfort and quality. With 160 horses on tap in a small light car, traction control and a limited slip differential it is an absolute thrill to drive over curvious mountain roads and a joy on the Autobahn. I do not have to explain to you that Germany is one of my favourite vacation destinations, do I? But has the MX-5 reached its zenith with the current generation, and in my experience? I sure do not hope so, but the images of the next generation do not pump the adrenaline. And a 1.5 liter engine as the only choice? I’m all for progress, and the same horsepower and performance as the current 2.0 liter look fine in print. But what about that low end grunt? That ever effortless accelerating, no matter how fast you go? Because, why be rational here?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sue singer-songwriters!

It was one of those occasions that music really gets to you. A pleasant location - a quiet pool - and the music on the sound system was not of the unobtrusive elevator style music you can’t remember anymore when the next song starts. It was good solid 1970s style pop music. And it triggered a discussion about music. Well, it was not much of a discussion, because we agreed. Music was better when we were young. So there’s the proof. I’m getting old.

I’m probably too old for today’s popular music. There is so little that interest me. Today’s artists and producers are only reaching back to old familiar songs and use ‘m as samples in a techno beat. And then there is so much superficial commercial dance music that I ask myself: where has the music gone? Surely, Lady Gaga, the much hyped darling of the music industry, somehow fails to connect to my musical taste. In my days – the high school years that are so important in our memory – we listened to rock music. And with the years came the appreciation of all kinds of popular artists and performers. Yes, I started to like classical music as well. But as far as popular music goes, artists should make an effort. We are music consumers, we absorb lyrics and notes, we have a right to be entertained with songs, or if you like, a musical concept that is the result of a joined creative process between writer, artist and producer. Listen to the Stones’ great Miss You – that instrumental downbeat just melts together with passionate way Jagger treats us to the lyrics. I am thrilled when I listen to the 1940s style big band music, how thoroughly produced a complete array of brass instruments can join together in a fascinating piece of music that really illustrates what the word ‘swing’ means. Do not get me started about Frank Sinatra – there has never been greater performer, a singer who can hypnotize his audience. Because he does not sing, no, he acts the lyrics with his voice and timbre.

There are far too many artists and bands I like, and I can’t list ‘m all here. My absolute favorite song is You’re so vain by that great singer Carly Simon. And no rock band can beat Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy – and truly, there has never been a greater music video. And why do I show here a link to Robbie Williams and the lovely Jane Horrocks? Only for the sheer joy you witness when these people perform and the conductor’s enthusiasm… Now that is music.

So why all this? Listening to that 1970s hit song Shout, by The Trammps, we concluded that the music we know as the Philly sound was so good, and that is such a shame that there is so little original worthwhile music today. And we concluded that the utmost uninteresting artists that are so popular today, are the so called singer-songwriters. There is no music that triggers an acute allergy as these thin and shallow songs with me. A shocking level of musical nihilism, that is primarily embraced by the sub intellectual crowd can only be listened too while drinking huge amounts of alcohol. What we would regard as a promising debut by a 17 year old high school kid with a guitar on a school concert, is nothing more as pretentious, but pathetic attempt to bring us amateur style poetry accompanied by an adult with a guitar. Who act as if their audience is their therapy. “Amazing that many of these guys have to perform in bars in their home country, and are only popular around,” a friend once said. Go figure. Today’s singer-songwriters are an insult to legacy of the real great singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Luka Bloom, an apparently popular singer-songwriter, is responsible for this impressive lyric, of which I shall only give you a few lines:

Everyday is the rainy season
Every night is a full moon
Whenever I’m with you darling
Love is a monsoon
Goosebumps all around my skin
Whenever you come into the room
Fresh wild smell of jasmine
Love is a monsoon

I won’t continue, this kind of kindergarten poetry is enough to sue the writer. And we bring evidence. This is what the great Leonard Cohen wrote:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind

I rest my case.

Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let me stay in a hotel

As a kid my parents took me to hotels during vacations. Hotels were big square buildings, with high ceilings and long hollow corridors. And at night, it was even a bit sinister. Nights were never as dark like in hotels, and since the old style hotel rooms in the 1960s our family could afford had no bathroom, you better grinned and bare it and waited until the next morning if you had to go. Because a walk through the dark corridor - you never could find the light switch - was an unpleasant option for a young boy.

But it must have provided the framework for my love of hotels. There are few things in life I like as much as staying in hotels. It is that special feeling, being pampered by anonymous people, the usually lovely beds, and when you wake up you know their will be a rich breakfast buffet that can keep you going for most of the day. The breakfast at the Kurhaus Hotel in Bad Bentheim, where I stayed for two nights last December, was one of the best ever. If you wished, there was even a glass of sekt for you to start the day. Sekt - Germany’s sparkling wine, a kind of champagne, at breakfast was however a bit too hedonistic for this modest Dutch guy.

 The Kurhaus Hotel, Bad Bentheim, Germany.

There are good hotels, mediocre hotels and downright bad hotels of course – but these days, thanks to the internet, it is difficult to go wrong. Many hotels in Germany, Austria or Switzerland also offer you a pool and a sauna. What else can you wish for? Well, actually, a nice bar would be great, but not all hotels see the necessity for that evening hideaway. Still, sometimes you are still surprised. One of the best hotels I had the pleasure to stay in was a modest looking building, but offered beautiful rooms with a big balcony overlooking a small town and mountains in Germany’s Black Forest. I fondly remember the evenings, relaxing on the balcony, seeing the day changing into evening, and watching hikers, farmers with their tractors, people walking the dog or just cars on the narrow one lane roads through the fields on the mountain slope. A kitchen halfway down the corridor provided a big fridge for your drinks and snacks, while free coffee and tea was available. Best of all – a room only set you back 22 Euros per night per person, including a sumptuous breakfast with locally bought ham, eggs, cheese, jams and buns.

 A room with  a view - from the Sauerland Stern Hotel in Willingen, Germany.

Now, if you get the impression I am spending my vacations in five star hotels, I’ll have to set the record straight: I don’t. In my lifetime I only stayed in real luxurious hotels in Morocco, where the rugs were so thick, that your feet sank into it. And the American Hampton Inns are very comfortable too. Related to the Hiltons, they offer the best beds you can imagine, and only the question of your stay is financing Paris Hilton might keep you awake. Great beds notwithstanding, something is not right there, just as in most American hotels. When you come down for breakfast, you are reminded every morning that the Americans still do not know how to offer a great breakfast to their guests. Granted, in the 1990s there was no breakfast at all, and you had to go out to start your day with bagels, waffles or eggs - scrambled, omelette, no cholesterol, you name, they do everything with eggs. But Europeans want breakfast in their hotel, and they do not want those greasy options. Luckily, many business men have no time to look for diner outside, so offering a breakfast has become a requirement in the USA as well. But what kind of breakfast… even the Hampton Inn directs you to room that look more like a cantina then as the breakfast room of a $120 hotel. Coffee comes from big pots with a Starbucks label, and your choice is bagel, waffle, cereal, toast. Of course, all self service and plastic plates. Pathetic is the only word to describe this. What will Americans think when they experience a European breakfast buffet, with their own China coffee pots on their table?

 Fontana Village Resort Hotel, Great Smokie Mountains, North Carolina.

The best hotels in the USA are the motels in the mountains, privately owned and not part of the big uniform chains. I fondly remember the beautiful Junge’s Motel in North Conway in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Their rooms look like luxury bungalows. But a modest looking motel near the Great Smokies National park, offering a rocking chair on a porch and a vast garden with big trees that stretched out to a streaming river, with barbecues, picnic tables and solitude not even a nature campsite could offer. And do not get me started about the Sky River Valley Inn in Skykomish, Washington… You hear the Skykomish River streaming close to your spacious room with fridge and kitchenette, and sliding doors bring you from your room directly in the riverside garden. But alas, it is deconstructed right now, and it is anybody’s guess if the owners will build it up again. Lovely quiet Skykomish in the Cascades is undergoing a massive oil spill removal, caused by the Burlington Northern and BNSF railroads, and most of the soil is removed – including many structures. And one of them is my beloved motel.

One of the most bizarre hotels I know, brought me back to my childhood just a few years ago. Hotel Zum Türken in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, is an old style establishment. Rooms with high ceilings and without bathroom, and once again I had to cross a cold looking tiled corridor at night. And I could hear the hollow sound of soldier boots in my imagination. Soldier boots, you say? Yes, because Hotel Zum Türken has a sinister history. It is located on the Obersalzberg, and anyone with interest in the Second World War will understand what I am hinting at. This is the location where Mr. Hitler used to spend his summer and winter vacations. Maybe just 50 meters away from the hotel Hitler had his Berghof built, and guests of the Hotel Zum Türken have pretty much the same view the Führer enjoyed. There is not much left of the Berghof – only a part of the stairs leading to the main entrance can be found, and under the hotel in the mountain are the rooms and corridors where Hitler and Eva Braun could seek shelter in case the allied forces would bomb the Berghof. Except for their private underground rooms, the labyrinth of corridors and rooms is open to the public. I was a grown man when I stayed here. For the six year old boy it would probably have been too scary.