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.