Friday, December 28, 2007

The Short Harbor

I've always kind of liked this building on the "Korte Haven," Short Harbor, in Schiedam. It cast such a clear reflection in the water on "Tweede Kerst Dag," Second Christmas Day. Yes, the Dutch have two official Christmas days. All the rumor about many Europeans having a lot of vacation is true. Six or more weeks a year isn't uncommon.

Big or Saint John's Church

Here's another shot of the Schiedam Christmas tree, with the "Grote of Sint Janskerk," the Big or Saint John's Church, in the background. The church has a lovely wooden organ with a beautifully carved mast (I think that's what it's called.) According to rumor, the organist plays passionately while drunk. All rumor, although I have walked passed while the church is locked, and heard an organist playing what seemed like "madly," although perhaps she was practicing, something any good musician is known to do a lot of.

The New Church

This is the "Nieuwe Kerk," or New Church, in Delft. It's called new since it's newer than the "Oud," or Old, church, which is from the 12th century. The New Church dates from the 15th. Of course, not all of it is that old. It's been rebuilt after fire, sections were added, etc, over the centuries. It stands right across from the old city hall building, which you can catch a glimpse of by scrolling down. Somewhere, hovering in about the middle of the square, is a statue of Grotius, the political thinker who was an early advocate of internationalism. I like the misty effect the light casts in the damp darkness. Humidity is high, and it's cold, but not freezing, creating lots of small water particles in the air, which gives off this interesting white, fading into black, luminescent glow.

Swans in Delft

On our way to a restaurant in Delft last night, I spotted two swans sleeping in a canal, beaks nuzzled into their wings. They're alert animals. When I walked up to the edge of the canal to photograph them, first one, then the other awoke, and swam right over to me. It was such a pretty, and graceful image. Once the second one reached me, they both started hissing, and I crossed the street. Swans can be aggressive, and they're strong, or so I've heard. I still don't know if the rumors are accurate, and I wasn't about to find out for myself. Of course they aren't bears, wolves, or large cats, but still. I'm a city girl. Animals scare me.

Delft Christmas Lights

Here's the Christmas tree in neighboring Delft, home to the political thinker, Grotius, and well-known for the white and blue porcelain, Delft's Blue. The wind-proof umbrella, and a cool car-bike hybrid were also designed at the Technical University in Delft. The building in the background is the old city hall.

Schiedam Christmas Lights

Christmas lights aren't quite as big in The Netherlands as they are in the United States. Here's the city Christmas tree in Schiedam, simple and austere, right across from the 13th century Protestant church. The building pictured is the old city hall, now a pricey restaurant, and a popular wedding location.

It gets dark around 4 o'clock here in the winter time. It's cold, overcast, and it rarely snows. Last week it snowed several days in a row, and the canals froze over, a rarity, but fun when it happens.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

It's already Christmas in The Netherlands!

I went to a Protestant Church service at a 13th century church in the neighborhood, the Grote of St Jan Kerk (The Big or St John's Church), and sang Silent Night in Dutch. Most of the congregation seemed reticent to sing full notch, but I did my best. It was nice to get a chance to sing so heartily. I love singing.

Really, most of the people were mumbling. When it was time to say, "Amen," no one said anything. It was so bizarre. I don't understand this half-participation. It seems like a joy to me to be able to float in, sing a little, listen to the organ, float back out again.

Even the priestess (I'm not sure what it's called in a Protestant church) was pretty interesting. She said that when you find someone who needs your help, who's dependent on you, then you've found Jesus. It was a nice message. Something to take home. A few women in the back actually talked back at her few times, saying they didn't see something, and one woman laughed and clapped a bit, yelling out the songs at times. I don't understand. Why come, if you don't like it.

Most of the people will come again next Christmas. Not that I'm religious, but it does seem like something interesting to do every week, sing, listen to the organ a bit. I didn't grow up Protestant, so I don't have any of the baggage someone might have who had it forced upon them in her youth.

Half of the hymns I didn't know, which can be tricky when it's not your native language. When I knew the English version of a hymn, I could easily sing along. It was great to hear my voice again echoing off the program. It still sounds pretty good after years of neglect. Everyone should learn to sing. It's a great thing to do. To me, church is primarily a place to sing.

The pastor here is from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, and I assume she must have a Ph.D, so she knows how to word things. I'd heard her mentioned once by someone from Pax Christi. Perhaps I'll become a church tourist, going around, listening to organists, singing songs.

One embarrassing thing. When it came time for the "collection," I realized that I didn't have any money, except what looked like a Polish Zlotky! They had three collections. I gave the Zlotky. Oh well. I didn't grow up in a church where they have a collection, and I went over there at the last minute. It slipped my mind altogether. It was enough for me to leave the house! :-)

Merry Christmas! The church clock bells are ringing again. Midnight mass? At two am? Is that possible? It sounds like the Catholic Church bells.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Marginal Art Existence

Since age 19 I've held a marginal relationship with art people, artists, the art world as such. I've floated in and out of art circles, resisted inclusion in them. I've hovered at the outskirts.

What am I saying here.

Sometimes I think it takes a skewed vision of the world to create or understand art. This is in part truth, in part myth. It also takes discipline, networking ability, personality, and business acumen to succeed in art. Among these are few people of outstanding genius. Of course genius takes courage. There's a quote on a wall at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to this effect. Any artist of merit needs a lot of courage and perseverance. You've got to plug away, even in the face of extreme self-loathing, if you're ever going to get anywhere.

Right now, I'm going through a period of isolation from the art world, and I'm considering dumping it all together. Too many egos. It's just me. I can't deal with egos asserting themselves over me, insisting on their intellectual and creative prowess in every contorted facial expression. Really, it's okay. Don't worry. 'Cause I'll be fine, even when things appear tentative for long stretches of time. As long as I keep writing, I'm a fine peach cobbler.

Back on track. I won't go into all of the personalities, genteel, arrogant, congenial. This a blog post, and should be of limited duration.

What it all boils down to is this. In April I took a writing workshop. I'd been on a great roll in my Amsterdam writing group, churning out story lines. It was great. I felt stimulated. Then an editor of a literary journal joined our group. I met his approval at first, but then one day, I brought in something that I'd written very quickly, no revision, a roll. This is always a hit or miss process for me. When I'm feeling right, I can sit down, and write something quickly. Somehow it just all fits together. My first published piece was written in this way. But this editor dude didn't like what I'd written. He was very snide about the whole thing, and he burst my creative bubble in the process. I went into a long writing slump that I haven't quite recovered from.

So in April I took a workshop in Amsterdam. It was a painful experience. One girl dominated the group, chattering on and on. Incidentally, a friend of that editor.

I'm not sure if I'll ever be a writer because the two things I want for are discipline and courage, so perhaps it's time to pack it in, and get a job doing whatever.

Problem is, I'm not too good at doing whatever, either.

Cut to the chase. Where is this gal headed to here?

Okay, here's the skinny. I had to write a story for the workshop, and couldn't get it going. About nineteen years ago I met this artist named Jack Goldstein. I visited his studio. He showed me his lightening paintings. I really liked him as a person. He was nice to me. Then, fifteen years later, I found out that he'd hung himself three days before my 34th birthday. So I started writing a story about him. I wanted to capture the essence of what I knew of him, which wasn't the impression that some people were giving. He alienated a lot of people with his outbursts and drug abuse. I wrote what I could, and stayed as true to his memory as I could. Even the girl in the workshop who talked incessantly, and developed a dislike of me when I asked her to talk less, couldn't say anything against what I'd written. My writing was vindicated, but it didn't get me out of the dark writer's block pit.

Writing certainly takes stamina. It was an emotionally exhausting task writing about Jack. I tried learning what I could about him. I put myself into it, and I got scared in the process. It's hard to imagine now, but I really was haunted by him. Maybe that's what it takes. I started to think that I had an obligation to his memory to write something about him. It became too much. In the end I started to imagine that he was here with me, that I was communing with the dead. It was pushing me over the edge. For several years it stuck with me, his suicide. I was upset about it. I wondered why people left him where he was. Why is it that certain people get abandoned. The world seems so heartless. I also wanted to explore what it was that lead him to that point. I wanted to go back and save him, a common impulse. There've been people I've wanted to save at different periods, but Jack was dead, and it was too late.

When I think about the story writing process, and the distance I've put between myself, and "it," I start to realize that all of my complaining, irritation, negativity, is just a distraction from doing something worth while. What else is bitterness but a degeneration of thought. When you're creating, doing something with your mind, you're succeeding in moving away from whatever obsessive thoughts muddle and trip you up into the dark pit.

I suppose. It could be true. It can be a difficult balance not to tip too far over into another form of mental instability. I've also gotten emotional satisfaction from my writing. There are no rules here.

Emotionally wrenching, stimulating, rewarding, whatever results. It's still better than irritation. I've been wondering which project to devote myself to, because it's true that I've got choices. It's got to happen soon.

I decided to put the project aside, and I haven't touched it since. I'm not sure if there's a better, less emotionally exhausting way of working. Maybe that's why I often stop writing my stories. It always ends up going too deep, and I stop.

I read a book called Jack Goldstein and the Cal Arts Mafia. In it Jack mentioned a gallerist, and it was funny. He said, all she ever did was drink coffee. All day long, she sat back her office drinking coffee. He was talking about all of the time he put into working, and this gallerist sat there drinking coffee. Sip, pour, sip, pour, gulp. What a placid existence.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

By the Rivers of Babylon

By the rivers of Babylon, there we
sat down, yea, we wept, when
we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the
willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us
away captive required of us a
song; and they that wasted us
required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of
How shall we sing the Lord's
song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let
my right hand forget her
If I do not remember thee, let my
tongue cleave to the roof of my
mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem
above my chief joy.

Psalm 137, King James Bible

This is excerpted by Harold Bloom in a review he wrote for The New York Review of Books of a new translation of the Psalms. This isn't the new translation, but a very old one from the 16th century by William Tyndale. It really is quite beautiful. I'd never really thought of the Bible as a literary work until I read Bloom's review.

I wish I had the time and fortitude to read and write all of the things that appeal to my interest. So many things pass me by, or I allow them to pass by, or I don't have the time and money to pick them up. I've often thought, I could spend my life in a library. They're such wonderful places. Of course, it would have to be an English library. Every now and then, I might want to read something in Dutch, or Swedish, (when I'm finally proficient), but I just love the cadences of the English language. It's music to me when I "hear," in my inner ear, a beautifully written line, and I'm such an emotional person, if it's beautiful enough, it will make me cry. Yes, the sound of language, the beauty of it, can move me to tears.

That's why I didn't become an English major in college. I was afraid of what all of that reading might do to my emotional well being. So I became a Political Science major, instead. This really was my reasoning. It was an attempt to stave off a slip into the depths.

It's funny, too, that we should slowly begin to cleave to the things that were available to us in our youths once there comes a time when there are so few things left to cleave to. I am aware of the modern psychological adage, rely on the self! You must find the strength within yourself! Do not allow yourself the illusion that you can rely upon anything outside of your own inner strength. Independence! Self Reliance! But I am not that tough. If I were, I would have "made it" by now. I'd be some tough person somewhere with a career, not allowing anyone, or anything get me down. Because there aren't too many circumstances that can crumble the self reliant.

As the Dutch are so fond of saying, "Hup, naar de volgende!" (Okay, onto to the next thing!) Hup here implies movement, springing up from whatever it was, as if our feet had springs on them. Because it is an option to bound through life, especially in the Western world, where there is so much wealth and opportunity, so much lack of misfortune, poverty, hunger. (But this has apparently become less true in the United States.)

After all, I shouldn't be one to complain, or to bemoan anything at all. What do I really have to complain about? When I'm feeling bold, I can approach people, ask how they're doing. When I'm feeling dejected, as if there's no point, anyway, because people don't like ME, I can walk past anyone, even women in whose faces I detect an interest. The glimmer of a beginning. If only I had been able to seize on all of these small opportunities. But no, I am almost always too afraid of what might happen. They might reject me. It's happened before. I make assumptions, discredit myself, put up a wall, and walk on, past the glint in some woman's eye, looking into my face for what I am also seeking, a friend, a companion.

I feel unworthy, and I walk around with a diatribe on a loop in my mind, telling me all the time how bad things are, repeating over and over everything that's gone wrong, all of the false turns, every slight, bad word, ill feeling people have directed toward me, or so I think. This way of thinking has been weighting me down for years. The monologue of the self, "You're not good enough, Emily!" "People don't like you!" And then it reflects back into blame. Because there are always enough people to blame for all manner of ill treatment.

Self reliant soul soul doesn't allow this to happen. Almost nothing can hamper the resilient. Even some of the worst experiences can be turned to one's advantage. Perhaps advantage is the wrong word. Even some of the worst experiences can be a kind of self education applied, stored, chalked up, woven in to the self's esteem.

Grand. I just saw an owl with prey in its claws, but it flew away before I could take record it with my camera. It could have been a falcon. I'm no bird expert. Some birds species are so adaptable, surviving urbanization, pollution, climate change. It's freezing cold today, and the sky is clear. There are also lovely blue and yellow jays out there flitting about.

I'll be sitting here still, on the banks of the Muse, pining for that place I once called home, bereft of all those people so far away, and of the opportunity I left behind.

At the end of High School, we had a party, and we could "choose" who we wanted to be. I went as Janus, the Roman god of gates, whose always looking two ways, backward and forward. He has two faces. It would seem that I am quite good at looking both ways, but is it possible to look at the present? To grasp at what's here, before me? Because if I continue looking deep into the past, while making leaps into a hypothetical future, I will continue to squander everything that's standing right before me, and then I'll be left with more regret. I can resolve to do a lot of things, but can I ever make a final resolution to seize the moment? Grasp and grab. Smile. Live for today. Yes, I can make that resolution, but tomorrow I will be stuck again, grappling with myself, lamenting what's over there, across the ocean, all of those far away things and people I can't see or touch, all of the smiles we will never share.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Union Violence

As a teenage college student in New York City, I worked in hotels to support myself. Several, though not all, of the hotels I worked in, were unionized. In some hotels, if a department was small, it wasn't required to join the union. The result was a few dollars less an hour than at other jobs, but the job itself was more pleasant. At union jobs, we paid so much in dues every year, that I used to wonder what the point was of the union. They must have taken a lot of the extra salary they negotiated for us right back into their own coffers.

While working in union hotels, I heard stories from a Latina who'd worked in the same job, supporting her children, for about twenty years, that when there was a strike, you had to strike, too, or the union people would harass you. They'd spit, yell, scold, scream. The strike fund was $100 for one week. After that, you were on your own financially.

It all seemed so bizarre at the time. I just needed money for school. I didn't care about strikes.

I never had to strike. My hotel career didn't last long.

(In The Netherlands you can't even get a job in a hotel if you don't go to school, and get a special kind of training, to work in one. Even if you come from another country where you worked in hotels for decades, they won't hire you here without a hotel school diploma. When I worked in hotels, only people in management had gone to college, and not necessarily to study about the hotel industry. I'll never get the Dutch system. You need special training to clean houses here. Funny that, going to school to learn how to handle a mop.)

Union violence is something that's starting to hit closer to home. My brother, who just got a job in a New York hotel, had his life threatened by a unionist several days ago. When he went to the police to report the threat, they treated him belligerently, sent him to several different precincts, refusing to take him seriously. My brother (college educated) didn't know much about unions or striking before he took the job. He's now learning a hard and undeserved lesson. I hope he will find another job soon. One where his life isn't being threatened.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Love Thy Neighbor

It's funny that I've been struggling with these concepts of aloneness, alienation, and questioning myself all along the way. I keep wondering, why should I care if someone is rude to me, doesn't want to say hi, isn't interested in neighborliness, or common courtesy. Why should I care if I feel excluded, slighted, constantly, wherever I go. Why should I bemoan a lack of substance, an emptiness in my regular adult human relationships. It's funny that I should come, after my rejection of religion, and in particular, Mormonism, to the concept of "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself." Isn't this an infinitely outdated idea in an era of self-serving consumerism, where personal fulfillment and accomplishment, or the outward appearance thereof, have become the highest form of achievement?

And yet, it's true. All of the pieces started coming together for me. I had been skipping from article to article in an attempt to catch up on my New York Review of Books, unable to settle on anything, reading a paragraph here, another there, when I stumbled upon the article Auden and God. I was eager, for I have always loved the poet WH Auden. Reading his poems has always filled me with a deep sense of meaning, profundity of thought and feeling.

Auden was a much more religious, erudite, talented, thoughtful, worldly person than I. It doesn't really matter, though, does it, because that's not the point.

I ran out the door, looking forward to the Metro ride, and my read. The Metros were backed up, and delayed. When I stepped onto the Metro, four young Mormon missionaries were sitting there writing Christmas letters home. I thought of greeting them, "Hey, Elders!," and telling them that my brother served a mission in the Philippines, but, as is my usual state these days, I became too welled up with emotion to utter a word, so I just sat there, trying to concentrate on my reading, looking over at the Christmas letter one of the "Elders" was writing to his family, all stamped as it was with a "Merry Christmas!" stamp on red and green Christmas stationery. For the second year in a row, I will not be visiting my family "back home" for Christmas.

I'm still reading the article in bits and starts. I had to take my son to the speech therapist, where the woman was cheerfully gruff, once again, re-inforcing my feelings of isolation. Why can't anyone ever be genuine? She's not bad, but why the off-hand comments. All the time, always. There always has to be a snide undercurrent, not bluntly rude, but challenging. "Oh! You're still eating your lunch!" And then she walks away. I told her that we're always in such a hurry to get to her office on time that we don't have time for lunch. My children were hungry. Still, she can't resist throwing in a little jibe. This seems to be very common. Somehow, people often feel the need to cut you down to size from the get go, to emphasize how truly unworthy you are. It's become the universal that's replaced "Love Thy Neighbor," "Undercut Thy Neighbor."

I shouldn't have, but I did. I did what she'd done to me. I told her what I'd been thinking. I used her sarcastic comment about our hasty lunch as an opportunity to inform her that American is not a language. I also told her that when we're not living in The Netherlands anymore, my son won't have the need to loose his American twang, and that yes, it's true "American is a softer language than Dutch, and the culture is softer, too," although, that might be stretching the matter. At least if I'd been there, instead of here for the past nine years, I wouldn't be this alone.

I'm getting so worn down these days, which always throws be back to the question, why do I care that she, or anyone else makes a rude comment? Why do I care if people ignore me, or simply don't care? Just let it roll off, right? I really ought to study Buddhism.

After all, why would I want to love my neighbor? I've seen my neighbors. I've made attempts at be-friending some of them. Others, I'd really rather not have in my neighborhood. But of course, the point isn't the physical neighbors, it's the fact of seeing people regularly, walking past them, being in their midst, and the pure lack of contact, year after year, that is so bothersome.

As the article on Auden and God states: "human indifference, no matter how commonplace, is a moral failure, a refusal to love one's neighbor. And that commonplace failure has universal significance. As Auden noted, the gospels describe the commandments to love one's God and to love one's neighbor as "like" each other, and for Auden the moral significance of one's neighbor becomes clear when one thinks of him as created in the image of God."

Ach, there's such a tragic lack of love in this world, and religion is more commonly used to hate, to show fault, lack, in others, than to build a sense of "sisterly," or "brotherly" love, than anything else. Let's face it. Most of us have become secularists who shun religion as fervently as we would choose not to practice it, and those who do choose to practice, wag their fingers in turn. It's mutual finger waging. The church-goers believe fervently, and the non-church goers believe that the church goers are fervent fanatics. Surely, they couldn't believe in that, they all think, suspiciously, of the other!

I like Auden's concept of "being" Christian: "Auden referred to himself as a would be Christian, because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. "Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become."

One of my yoga teachers is fond of stating, "Don't think of what could be, but what is." She wants to encourage acceptance of the status quo. Stop trying to change things. Humpf. Sorry, yoga instructor, but I will keep on trying. It's in my nature. As my foster father, who I haven't spoken with in twenty years, always used to say about me, "You're a fighter, Emily." Yes, it's true. The struggle continues. I'll keep looking for the peaceable kingdom, even if, in doing so, I never find it.

Create it, you say. Ah yes, to have the strength within oneself to create my own miniature peaceable kingdom. Harmony at home. Within these few walls. Yes... It's true. I ought not to complain, because I don't have it so bad, after all.

I leave you with the WH Auden poem, Musee des Beaux Art, a poem about a Breugel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus that hangs in a museum in Brussels of the same name:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Peter Greenaway

My attention divided between a Swedish radio broadcast, and my latest blogpost, still I go forward.

Yesterday I saw Peter Greenaway at the Rotterdam bookstore Donner. He was there to talk about film, painting, writing, visual imagery. A theater production of his premiers this week in Rotterdam, and he was there to promote, to discuss.

When asked to describe himself, he said that he disliked being dubbed a director, likening it to being the conductor of an orchestra, a somehow inferior artistic function. He said that he always called himself a television technition, stating that he'd started out as an editor, on that side of things, putting things together.

His eight-nine-year-old daughter sat on the floor coloring in five large gray circles with a professional drafting pencil onto a professional drafter's pad, thickly textured white paper. The dots became cakes of silvery black as she scribbled away, four dots in a square arrangement, and one on top, in the middle. Her dress was also covered in silvery white buttons around her midriff. She looks like him.

Once the pencil started working against her, (because after a while, caked on pencil starts flaking back at you as you draw), she drew a slight and uneven circle around the five large dots, and skipped off to her aged father sitting alone by then in an empty row of chairs. His pearly white prosthetic teeth chattered something back to her that I couldn't overhear. They were false teeth, and the skin was tanned leather, but the manner was surprisingly gentle, paternal.

Greenaway said that film could have been one of the greatest communicative mediums, could have been, he emphasized, if it weren't dominated by writing. The elite has its hold on the way things are done, and so writing, perceived as a superior art, will always have its unjustified hold on film.

You can't have a film without a script. He always has to write everything down for everyone, or they won't understand, but really, it is the visual language that should dominate, somehow superceeding the word.

We should really do away with words all together, let go their interpretive hold on us as people, and give ourselves over to pictures. Pictures go beyond words, and form a superior language, if only we could form them, doing away with words for once. Imagery should come to prevail over the word, leading us into a realm beyond the mere word-based reality we live in currently.

He went on to discuss the ground-breaking work he made with Rembrandt's Night Watch, projecting bright lights right onto the ordinarily dimly lit treasure. (I missed this production.) Rembrandt never made an ugly portrait of a woman, he said, although he did paint ugly women, but Vermeer is really his favorite painter. He "made" the landscape what it is. "Rembrandt is too Hollywood," he declared. "Who knows what we'll think of Rembrandt as a painter in fifty years," after all, he didn't have the status fifty years ago that he has today.

I guess it's also rather "Hollywood" that Rembrandt died an impoverished, broken man.

It made me wonder if Greenaway ever took the time to behold Rembrandt's etchings, some of the most marvelous objects I've ever seen in their intricate beauty.

Greenaway has plans to brightly lite other world masterpieces of paintings in the future. The Rijksmuseum (he kept saying "rice" museum) paved the way for such projects.

I read in a Dutch paper that his project in the Rijksmuseum, which attracted 6,000 visitors a day (or was it the Night Watch that attracted them?), didn't make a bit of sense, as stated by a writer, of all people. If only they'd made a collage, projecting their review someplace, perhaps the reviewer could have done justice to the Night Watch project, but then again, I didn't see it. It's odd.

Two of the singers were on hand to give us a taste of what's in store this week in the Rotterdam Schouwberg production, Rembrandt's Speigel. They sang about red, I believe, red is the color of blood, red is this, red is that, and then, shockingly, yellow, yellow is this, yellow is that, "yellow is the color of PISS." (hiss.) I wanted to add, "but only if you're pissing out excess vitamin supplements, in which case it's yellow. Otherwise, it can be colorless, I've noticed," but I guess this wouldn't have as much punch. I wonder what would happen if, instead of words, pictures came out of the singer's mouths. That would be truly profound.

I would never argue that visual art should or does have supremacy over the written word. It's a bizarre either/or dichtomous line of thinking that I don't understand. One could argue that imagery has long since become more influential than words, but of course, there's always a script somewhere, right? And, perhaps you might also add, it's become more influential with the hoards I imagine Greenaway disdains, like the masses of people who can so simply, so basely, be entertained by the dump synonymous with artistic degradation, Hollywood. Horror of horrors.

It made me wonder if bringing a child into the world at his age had so drained him of what little energy he has left to give that it had distorted his ability to process thought. Such bizarrely platitudinous pronouncements. Such a jumble of ideas so thinly expressed. I expected more.

And then, the production Rembrandt's Speigel (Rembrandt's Mirror) will be done in a language that he, Greenaway, doesn't understand! He's only been working here for 21 years, has a Dutch wife, and a child, and he still doesn't understand the language. Don't get me started. But then, he's a not-so-typical example of someone who's been shielded from ever being exposed to Dutch for 21 years out of courtesy of his stature. I'm sure no Dutch person would ever dare converse in her own language in his presence. If they had, after 21 years, the language would have rubbed off on him, but he's a great artist, so he can be excused. Funny that he called himself an honorary Dutchman.

When the composer of the music, Vincent van Warmerdam, got up after Greenaway and proclaimed that there are no theatrics in opera, I really started to wonder which zone I'd landed myself in. Had he ever seen an opera?

Greenaway also told a story about his Rotterdam-based Dutch producer, Kees Kasander. Kees approached him at the Rotterdam film festival years ago, and said, "Hey, do you want to go to Hollywood, and make films with Elizabeth Taylor on an airplane with sixty pigs, or what? I'll fund all of your films for you." And so he they did, years later, form a partnership. Greenaway was saved by the Dutch Kees from Hollywood pigs. Could the pig be a reference to Taylor's weight? I wonder. He didn't specify. Pigs should no longer be permitted as analogies for obese people. But then, Kees was mixing words and imagery there, an even greater crime than words themselves? I'm getting confused.

Greenaway's been living in Amsterdam for twelve years. He married Saskia, the brain behind a lot of the imagery in his films, and the woman to whom he deferred. "I don't know. You'd have to ask Saskia. She's produced so many images." Saskia was sitting behind me. The interviewer, a Dutch actor who'd appeared as a waiter in one of Greenaway's films, wanted to know what it was like for them to prepare for a production together. He said something like, "You wake up in the morning, sit at the breakfast table, and talk about the production...," to which the pompous Greenaway modestly blushed.

Years ago when I read Gore Vidal, he lamented the demise of the writer as a "star" in Hollywood film. Perhaps Greenaway is going down this path as well? Throw out the writers. Let's just paste together a bunch of clips. Who needs concept, after all. I was mistaken. I always thought that the basis of a great film was a great script. Who needs words, though. Words are moot. From now on, I'll carry around a set of flash cards with me, and point to them whenever I want to communicate anything. A picture is worth a thousands words? AWH! There she goes again with that word garbage thing a ma boob! Could I be possibly becoming Hollywood, too? Oh, dread greater than dread itself. Flash. Flash. Words disappear.


Nederland is voor mij geen matschappij.

The Netherlands is no society for me.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Little Prayer

My favorite horoscope is on I know it's silly, but I read it a lot of months. It's my own version of hanging onto or dangling from a thread in my reliance on its predictive wisdom. I don't know why, but it often rings true. Perhaps this is a sign of my propensity to paranoid thinking, perhaps, perhaps. I confess. It's true. I'm vulnerable, and in need of some outer strength. Where's my guide? I admit it, too, I'm lacking any form of crutch. So the horoscope shuffles in as a substitute, as a lean-to, and I'm leanin' on it, baby. Some months it becomes a kind of mental topographical guide. I find myself using it as an advice tablet, and lawd knows, I could use it. All other sources having failed, it's my back-up. Back up. Back me up. Here's an excerpt. Sure, it could all be hogwash. Could be. Who knows:

Finally, Pluto is now challenging very strongly the lives of all born after March 17th. Quite simply you are being forced to stand up for your own belief in self and power and your own status. The only problem is you can become ruthless and create enemies when such a drive is around. Years of being retreatist or having been bullied may now be coming home to roost and you may want stand strong. This is understandable, but remember that you don’t want to repeat the behavior of those you have condemned in the past. If wise, this can be a time that combined with humility, your demand for a destined say in the world can be fulfilled.

On another note, I will be facing the Sinterklaas challenge this afternoon. An entire room full of the "in" family. My heart is already racing. Send me your blessings. I may just need them...

Thanks be to those who remain my supportive friends. I know you're out there.


Monday, December 3, 2007


I'm reading an article in The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth's new novel Exit Ghost. It discusses Roth's character Zuckerman:

The amplification of reality is to Zuckerman one of literature's great consolations, and the will to amplify a mark of human vitality.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Pantheon

The clock in The Pantheon in Paris is now working thanks to a group of clock repairing bandits. Yes, there's actually a group in France that goes around stealthily repairing things the government neglects. They call themselves Untergunther. They break into monuments, and set to work nights. When I saw the headline, my stomach dropped. At first I thought someone had damaged the Pantheon, but they'd fixed the clock! Gotta love it.

Long and Languid Vacation

In The Netherlands, there are actually groups of people in government who can't figure out why Moroccans, Turks, and other immigrant groups go back to their "home" countries on long vacations. They even have houses there! Outrage! It's a heated discussion here, and people waste a lot of breath over it.

It seems pretty easy to figure out why people would want to keep in touch with their roots, but a lot of Dutch people find it irksome when, after someone comes to live here, and gets somewhat established, that he would want to keep up his language, traditions, and to continue visiting wherever he came from. It seems as if they'd like to lock us all up here permanently, and keep us from ever uttering a word in anything but Dutch, or going on vacation to where our relatives are.

It's a discussion that totally baffles me. I don't understand why anyone in government or anywhere else cares why I, or anyone, would go on a long vacation to visit family, and friends, but it upsets the Dutch. In fact, they're in outrage over it. How something as harmless as a vacation should upset anyone else is beyond me.

This post is repetitive.... Why. I ask, why? The obsurdity of the debate begs repetition of the question, why.

Yesterday in the most reputed Dutch newspaper, the NRC Handelsblad, there was actually a review of a book that studies this "problem." The author researched Irish people who emigrated to the United States, and found out that they actually kept in touch with their home country. It was the same with Italians, Chinese, and even, Dutch people! They wrote letters, kept up their languages, lived in communities together. The Dutch scratch their heads over all of this, but it seems too obvious to me. I can't imagine someone writing a book about it. What a worthy research problem. I could have told them so myself.

Years ago I was about to embark on a two month holiday to the United States with my son, when one of my mother-in-law's friends expressed bafflement at how long I was going to be away. She was astonished, "two months!"

It's the same over and over in the papers and government, bafflement by people who can't believe that people who come here could actually go to visit their families for so long. Surely, it's not good for integration. A person who's become "theirs," after all, should stay here, immersing herself in the Dutch language and culture in ever increasing intensity, without a thought "backwards."

I've said it many times before: The Dutch should be happy that anyone comes here at all, and we can go wherever the hell we want to go on vacation! Thank you!

Here's a great story. My sister knew a white Dutch guy who was on the dole in The Netherlands because he was "disabled." He spent six months or so every year in Salt Lake City, came back to collect, and then went to Salt Lake again, and worked under the table doing something. He was white, and he was born here. He probably has a perfect accent. Maybe Parliament should have a debate about him! Not two, but six months, and he doesn't even have a job to pay for it.

It's funny that the question of how "we" can make people feel comfortable and welcome never enters into the debate. It's always about how to make people feel as shitty, undervalued and insecure as possible. I guess that kind of psychology works for the Dutch. Put someone else down, so you can bring yourself up. It's a massive stroking of the self. They feel threatened by all of the "new comers," so they're doing their best to make the new comers feel as inferior, and unwelcome as possible. Maybe it's a natural group process, squeeze out the new guy, and see if he can survive here while being squeezed. It's a test of our endurance, and long suffering ability.

I think that these people are just jealous that we immigrants have houses, friends, and family in nice places, and can go on long, cheap vacations to people who treat us well, and care about us. They're so envious of us, it leads them to heated debate, up into Parliament. Maybe the debate is also another way of them shouting, "What's a matter, aren't we good enough for you?"

Answer: No.

After all, I'm sure they'd all like to grow up speaking two languages, and having a meaningful relationship with a cool place outside of cold, uncaring, brutal Holland.

Better start planning my next two month vacation back home. Yes, home.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Concert Michael's Church, Munich

It's pouring rain today, and our kitchen ceiling is leaking, damaging the ceiling repair I had done several years ago. I'm looking at hotels and apartments in Prague, and getting a slight zing, even with the drip in the background. Ah. Drip away.

Meanwhile, a shaky clip of a concert I attended in Munich recently...

Running Around

Today I did a lot of walking around. I don't own a car, and peddling my bike has become impossible. It's not the best bike. Even the back tire, so thick it can withstand tacks—it's guaranteed not to go flat!—is flat. We must have biked through glass shards, or extra long nails. It should have repelled those tacks I saw on the ground.

I bought a three-year insurance policy, unaware that the bike wasn't going to last that long. It's a reasonably-priced Dutch bike. I was determined to get all I could out of it. My full money's worth. In the process, I've damaged my right knee. Actually it was already weak, but it's gotten progressively worse.

I got into the habit of wearing running shoes everywhere, but since my trip to Munich, I've started wearing fashionable boots. With all of the walking I do, it isn't a wise decision, even if it does make me more socially palatable.

Maybe what I need to do is to spend even more money on some socially acceptable running shoes! I could invest in a "hip" pair, and look good enough to attract other parents at my kids' Dutch school! Wow. Why didn't I think of that before.

As you might be aware, it's advisable to walk 10,000 steps each day to promote longevity. That's about five miles. If you do so, you're supposed to need a new pair of running shoes every six months.

Oh what a mistake fashionable boots are. Sure, I look good, but I'm paying the price. My feet hurt, and I have to place my weight on my right leg to compensate for my left knee, in order to walk up and down stairs.

But hey, more Dutch people might say "hi!" to me! Where have my priorities gone, and what was I ever thinking? I'd become such a practical loner.

But enough! I'd already vowed to knock off the sob story routine. I had one friend at the school playground, and now I'm going to have two soon! Another mother has be-friended me now.

My first new friend is an extremely nice, accepting, interesting person, and her daughter is my daughter's best friend. We don't meet everyday on the battlefield, uh playground, but when we do, it's nice. This morning her three-year-old son invited me for a cup of coffee, which was very sweet!

In total, I've walked about three hours today running errands in fashionista boots, bringing little people here and there. In the past month, I've spent about two weeks confined to the house with sick little ones, so it's either run all over the place, or sit inside.

This is my third post of the day. Two of them were transcriptions. This is also possibly my last post in November, which marks the end of the "post everyday month." Now it's time to catch up on studying Swedish. I also hope to make it to yoga class before all of my yearly lessons expire! :-)

Guidelines for Care

Today, I got an invitation in the mail from Ypsilon, a Dutch organization for family members of people with Schizophrenia. It was an invitation for the Christmas evening with drinks and snacks. I don't go to their monthly activities or meetings, but perhaps I ought to...

On the inside of the invitation was this list (I've translated it from the Dutch):

Guidelines for Good Medical and Community Care for People with Schizophrenia or Psychosis:

1. Involvement of parents, family members, and those closely involved with treatment and guidance, in deliberation with the patient, when possible.
2. Continued ambulant care that's arranged before discharge from the clinic. Attention to possible dual-diagnosis. No discharge without an observation plan and agreement in care plan/care agreement on paper.
3. Support in self-care, house-keeping, budgeting, debt advice, via care plan/care agreement. (inclusive SSI and insurance.)
4. The right to a safe and individually suited living arrangement with modern facilities in an environment where safety and human dignity are guaranteed.
5. Prescribed medications offered in the form preferred by the patient, pills or injection. Realization of hospitable and pleasant (brunch) policlinicals within own location—potentially with an expert volunteer—to ensure medication intake.
6. Good attention to physical health. Yearly medical screening for heart and artery illnesses, and diabetes; half-yearly dental check-up, and encouragement of physical activity.
7. The offering of and guidance toward constructive daily activities, work, or study, including transportation, if necessary. Opening of day programs on Sundays to break the "empty Sunday" routine.
8. Offering of psycho-education. Liberman modules and cognitive behavioral therapy to support functioning in society.
9. Attention to life questions, depression, suicidal thoughts, and absence of meaning in life, possibly by a spiritual care-giver.
10. Attention to the development and maintenance of social contacts and relations, and for vacation possibilities.

Ypsilon 2007

Malamud Quote

The world is full of invisible people stalking people they don't know. More homeless strangers than ever before. God since the time of man should have made it his business to call out names: Jacob meet Ishmael. I am not my brother's brother. Who says?

pg 25, The Tenant

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bringing in the reigns

Okay. My negativity about the Dutch is getting out of control. It isn't good for my health, or life expectancy to carry on this way. I've been on the edge here for far too long, but there must be some way of not allowing it to further chip away at my psyche.

I suppose immigrant groups face similar challenges in the United States. I just finished reading an article about Asian American communities in California. It's funny, though. The key word there is "community." I know plenty of people in the United States who were quite capable of succeeding there no matter what their background or skin color. It seems a lot easier to establish a secure life in the United States, but perhaps I'm wrong.

I'm sure there are plenty of Americans very happy to be here. I've met Americans who almost stop speaking English once they get here, even with their kids, and they certainly wouldn't speak English "on the streets."

The author of the piece on Asian Americans made the same point. There are people who do all they can to shed their identity, and want to "blend in" as much as possible. And there are those who hold on to their language and traditions. I don't see why it should be such an either/or proposition. I think it's mainly the pressure from "outside," or the population of the "host" country that immigrants feel so much pressure from to change their ways. It must seem a natural expectation from most natives to expect people who come to "their" country to adapt and assimilate as much as possible, to change completely, in fact.

One of my favorite Dutch writers, who died last year, Henk van Woerden, who wrote the wonderful book A Mouth Full of Glass, and taught at the University of Michigan said, "You don't know what you're asking of a person" when you expect them to make such a radical change in who they are in "integrating."

I had no notion of what would be expected of me in coming here, the invisible pressures I would face to bend my identity in order to be accepted. Well, I didn't do it. I haven't given up my language. I am who I am, even if in being that I've often felt that I am "an island in a sea" of hostile, indifferent, oblivious Dutch people. A stranger in a strange land, though I am no stranger. Somehow, whatever I do, I just don't fit here.

In the past few weeks there seems to be a small change taking place. I think a few more of the parents at my children's school are actually starting to wonder what it is about me, and we'll see. The nice people might finally triumph over all of the nastiness I've experienced. It looks like I might be accepted, after all. Wow. I guess if you make yourself into a fixture for long enough, people will take notice.

Again, there are a few golden individuals who've stuck their necks out for me, and I must concede, and be thankful to them. There's one mother who's particularly helpful and friendly, and a few of my yoga teachers are also quite nice. There might be hope; there might just be some light on the horizon.

A French woman once approached me on the school playground, and to9ld me that I really ought to speak Dutch with my kids while we're at school. But I'm perfectly capable of going back and forth between languages. If someone wants to speak Dutch, I can, but when it comes to my kids, I speak English all the time. The speech therapist even backed me up in this decision, saying that it was "consequent," as they call it, bi-lingualism.

Once, waiting for my bags at Schipol, I spoke with a Dutch woman who had moved to Rhode Island with her husband, and had a family there. She told me that once her kids went to school, that she met people, and that everything was fine. I guess it's just taking longer with me. It's happening now, after four years of school. What a long wait. I think Americans are probably more open on the whole, but I was born there.

Old European societies might represent more of a bulwark for outsiders than the United States.

I also read an article that negative and positive experiences of the day are processed during various phases of sleep. If you short change yourself on sleep, you'll end up short changing yourself on processing the positive experiences, since that happens later in sleep. Depressed people also have too much "active," REM sleep, and are therefore more prone to fatigue. Negativity, depression, fatigue, more negativity. It's a snowball effect. I wonder how many years I'm taking off my life by staying here.

Maybe if I studied Buddhism I could learn not to allow all of these things to eat at me so much. Buddhist are good at that. I went to see a Tibetan Buddhist speak in Rotterdam. Even after being driven out of his homeland, he was still able to laugh, and experience positivity most of the time, it seemed. It can't be found in a pill. Let it role off you. If only I were a rubber band.

Someone came by and fixed our water heater. It's getting warmer in here already.

Some people simply belong in the comfort zone of their own cultures. Maybe I'm one of those people. It's been time to "go back" for a long time, but I don't know how to do that, either.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The "American" Language

It's true. The Dutch think they know everything. They even think they know English better than we Americans, and they also think that "American" is a language, an inferior cousin to the English language.

It's a bizarre state of affairs. In the United States we don't refer to the Mexican, Puerto Rican or Columbian languages. We also don't refer to the Australian language, the Canadian language, the New Zealand language. No. These are all either Spanish or English. We recognize that there are differences in accent, usage, punctuation, but it always goes without saying that people in Australia speak English, and people in Mexico speak Spanish, unless they speak a tribal language, which we recognize as distinct.

In the United States we speak English. We know that our version of English differs some from folks in England, but still, we can converse, read each other's books, and watch each other's films.

That's why I never get it when a Dutch person tells me or my children we speak "American." There's no sense in correcting them, because they'll always brush you off with a "whatever, you know what I mean," and they'll continue on with whatever they were doing as if you hadn't said a thing. Because Dutch people are always right, and they always know better. They're Dutch, and you're American, and therefore inherently inferior. They also learned English English, so their English is also better. They think they can translate Dutch into English, but I can always tell when one of these people has translated anything, because it grates my ears.

Several weeks ago I was faced with the unpleasant experience of conversing with one of my son's teachers. The one who is so mean and impatient, he stews about her at times when he's not in class. She wanted to impress upon me the urgency of his problems in speaking Dutch. He's introduced the "th" sound into their most sacred of tongues, and urgently needed speech therapy. Though I spoke to her in perfect Dutch, she still asked me if I could understand her, and then she said, "Should we speak Engli, uh, American?"

(She's also one of the teachers responsible for the art project her students completed last year: 100 dollar bills with the words "The Bogus United States of America." I saw it, and said, "Well, I guess they don't like Americans here very much," and walked away, so I suppose she's taking out her ire on my son by making his 3rd grade experience as miserable as she can. She's going to change her manner soon, or else.)

We were at the speech therapist today. I thought she was enlightened. She's a speech therapist, after all, with an education in language, but I started to wonder when she kept repeating herself to me like a parrot, "Dutch is a what harder language," she said, "unlike American." I bit my tongue. It's no use telling these people anything.

Sometimes I wonder if they think this way because of the distinction they make between Dutch and Belgian. They'll say that a person in The Netherlands speaks "Nederlands," and a person in Belgian Flanders speaks "Flaams." But "Flaams" is still "Nederlands," something that even the snootiest of the snooty Dutch will concede. (They're a proud and arrogant people, but the softer Belgians are still "one of them," "in their camp," "on their team," etc.)

Next time anyone is stupid enough to tell me that I speak "American," I'm really going to have to call them out. Then again, maybe it's not worth it. The Dutch are highly skilled in brushing people off as though they're nothing, I've learned.

It's taken me quite a long time to realize it, but they actually really do see me as their inferior. Everyone, except for about three people. It seems like almost a universal. Perhaps it's something you can never really shed. I realized it when suddenly the word "FOB," popped into my head this evening.

Fob is actually an acronym for "Fresh off the Boat," and was used as a derogatory term referring to Europeans who just landed in America over a century ago. It's become antiquated as most educated Americans have learned to treat people from other cultures as intelligent equals.

It's odd that in the day of mass migration, of large numbers of people working, marrying, and moving across continents that people should still maintain such provincial attitudes toward people with an accent, another language, etc, but the Dutch manage to hold on to these attitudes with an ever tightening grip. I wonder if it will ever be possible to be treated as anything other than a "fob" by the masses of Dutch on automatic pilot, constantly putting you into the "foreign," or "lesser" pile as soon as you open your mouth.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Malamud Quote

This from a Bernard Malmud book I'm reading, The Tenant, about a writer struggling to finish a novel, while fighting eviction from his apartment in New York. My copy is from The Slegte in Rotterdam, and is from 1972...

Without looking up at the window at his side, the writer imagined the wintery day beyond, crystal bright, lit cold beauty, glad of his existence, but without desire to be in or of it, breathe its stinging glow into his half-retired lungs, live it. This sort of pull and push he had long ago quelled in the self, else he would never have seriously written.

Irrational Dislike

I've met two men and one woman over the past six months who've expressed a total and irrational dislike of a nation of peoples.

The first, an older Irishman working for a Dutch bank, hated the English absolutely. The second hated the French, their language, everything about them. The third disliked Americans as a group.

This past Friday I met a very nice man, he was really quite reasonable, who suddenly changed when it came to "the French." He turned his head in disgust, and looked away, as if he couldn't bear to hear it, when I told him, "I always love it in France. It's wonderful there! People are always nice. It's such a beautiful place!"

His wife laughed, shook her head, and warned me, "He hates France, the language, everything."

It seemed unreasonable to hate France. You're bound to encounter weird, shower stall-like toilets in France, but I think they're working on this one over there.

Otherwise, the French have always been fine, to absolutely lovely whenever we've been there. They're almost always courteous, quite often charming people. I think it would be fun to be capable of rattling off a few sentences in fluent French.

Once in a bakery in Aix-en-Provence, I tried ordering nut bread. The woman hesitated, looked at my son, and headed for the ice cream machine. Thankfully my husband wasn't too far away, although I'm sure my son would have liked an ice cream. Nut bread is a delicious luxury. They also sell bread with chunks of lard, which is probably tasty, if you're not vegetarian.

Somehow I was always able to charm the French, and vice-versa. A few times I was even congratulated on the streets while pregnant, or while walking around with my lovely little son. He was an infant or had big blond curly locks at the time, and had a natural ability to charm, at least the French, who seem capable of being charmed.

I have a better understanding of the Irishman's irrational dislike of the English, merely from my basic understanding of the Irish-English conflict.

I haven't spent nearly as much time in England as I have in France, but the English were always perfectly nice, too. I flew into Stansted, went to my hotel, wandered around London, met some nice people for drinks. People everywhere seemed just fine to me. We also went to Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, London another time. All nice places, all nice people. No complaints. There was this strange waitress in a bar when we missed the boat who warned us, "Children suck everything out of you." Otherwise, seamless journeys through England.

Of course, being a tourist, and living someplace are two entirely different experiences.

I ought to keep better tabs of the positive experiences I've had here, of course. It's true. It's too true. They're there. I do have a few quite nice, budding friendships with some wonderful Dutch people, none of whom are native to South Holland. But let's not get glib.

I also have to admit to riding on the train many times uneventfully.

This all harks back to posting everyday, and being subject to time constant, mood, and wavering judgement. If I had any Dutch readers out there, I'm sure they've evaporated.

I've have plenty of encounters with perfectly nice, polite Dutch people in grocery stores, health food stores, pharmacies, etc, etc, all of the time, for years. There are some stores, like the Bijenkorf and other department stores, that I find dismal, but generally, most people in most shops are friendly, congenial, open. I concede. There's a great bakery here I love going to. I was able to tame a nasty woman in another bakery by not going back there for about a year. The bicycle shops are another story. There's a shop that sells delicious chocolates, but the people working there are hopeless. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they are forced to work overtime without any compensation. After hours they don't get paid, but they have to stay to clean up.

Over the weekend I had a friendly chat with an Australian woman who finds America, and New Yorkers in particular, the worst, most dreadful people of all. Not personally, but as a general rule. We had a nice, warm talk. No bad feelings at all.

It isn't these brief, often pleasant encounters with with people in shops that matter. In this regard, I'm sure being a tourist here is perfect.

The staff at the Boijmans van Beunigen is also always superb. They've gotten to know me by face, and will even permit me to take photos, just as they tell other people that it's not allowed. Becoming a regular has its privileges.

I shouldn't get too wrapped up in this everything is black and terrible routine. Of course. Of course. I have some friends and contacts here and there.

It's odd living on the same street for nine years, and not succeeding in becoming friendly with anyone. There are a few people who will say hello, but that's all. Most of them won't even do that. It seems quite prudish, and unneighborly of them.

I guess when you're faced with store personnel, it's their job to keep you as a customer. Also, I'm quite friendly. When people are nice, I'm nice, too. I'm often friendly, which puts people in a good mood, I think.

Relations with store personnel has nothing to do with substance.

I've encountered people for years at a time, for example, at the schools, and not even succeeded in getting a nod. It seems quite normal to me as an American to start out on the right foot. You create a pleasant, congenial atmosphere with people you see regularly by smiling, and saying, "hi!" I'm more than willing to do the same. But it seems to me that there are vast seas of Dutch people who wouldn't agree with such niceties, and have done away with them altogether. Niceties are an inefficient waste of time to them, it would appear. I've even met people at the school, talked to them briefly, but the next time I see them, they walk right past me, as if they don't know me from Job. Even if I say "hi," or begin looking in their direction, they still keep on walking, looking straight ahead. A few of them have scoffed, or looked at me as if I were a cretin from outer space. It's scary. They're scary.

But, as I've said, to give credit to the few genuine people I've met in the past nine years, they're out there. It can take a long time, a lot of patience, loneliness, pain, and suffering, before they actually cross your path.

Of course I've met enough people who are happy to be here above anyplace else, so it all depends on your experience, your take on it, the people you meet, etc., etc. Getting over "culture shock," can be a long process indeed. When I tell people about my experience they say that it isn't right I don't feel at home here, and that something serious has to be done to rectify my feelings.

That's all for now...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Burhnam Boiler circa 1983

In more mundane news, our water boiler broke after 23 years last Thursday. It's been a chilly few days at home. Yesterday I made crab cakes in the oven, a pumpkin pie, and roles. It got pretty toasty in here. I also did a few loads of wash. The drier also warms things up. Our son slept in his sleeping bag last night with three duveés (dekbeds) on top of that, and our daughter wouldn't get out of bed this morning to attend school. I told her it was warmer at school, but she wasn't convinced. That's logic for a five-year-old.

Two years ago it broke down, and we left it broken for about four months. Mercifully, it was a hot summer. It got so hot in the attic, it warmed up the water in the tank, and we could all shower. We also spent a few weeks at a campsite in The Hoge Veluwe. There wasn't any electricity there except to light up the bathrooms, so we couldn't charge our phones, but the warm water was plentiful. I recall it also getting up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), which is pretty damn hot anyplace. One afternoon we made the mistake of leaving the roof flap open on our tent, and went on a day trip to the Kröller-Müller. That was the day it poured rain. We had a portable radio, but of course, noise must be kept to a minimum in a "nature camping," so we hadn't bothered with the weather report. For a nature camping, it was much too crowded.

Sometimes I like to think that it's a kind of survival training, or a preparation for something. I'm ready, whatever it is. I lived for four months without a water heater. I'm a survivalist. I could live anywhere.

Then there was the year my daughter was born, 2002. The economy was bad. We lived on 700 euros a month, a great salary in parts of the world, but not in The Netherlands. I learned to make delicious Indian food, economical, and scrumptous. I also took trips to the Rotterdam market by Metro with five euros in my pocket. Of course, I couldn't pay the fare, but I could buy enough fruits and vegetables for a family. I'm a survivalist. We own a house, and so, were ineligible for government assistance. Of course, that was a recession time.

This evening we swung by the Karwei, a housewares store, and picked up a space heater. I could double up on sweaters, and live through the week until we get a new water heater, but it's too cold for everyone else. It's still in the high 40s during the day outside. I'll be happy to see that boiler go.

Incidentally, I love the term "water bubbler," for the American "drinking fountain." It's such a funny term, water bubbler. I first encountered the term water bubbler in the Edward Gorey book, The Shrinking of Treehorn. In it, Treehorn starts shrinking, and none of the adults around him notice. He becomes too small to reach the water bubbler. If you ever get a chance to read it, or any other Gorey books, do. They're brilliantly written and illustrated.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dutch Trains

The Dutch have this great public transport system. You can get just about anyplace by train, tram, bus, metro. Sure, there can be delays, maintenance periods, during which buses are put into place, or you are forced to go hours out of your way to get to your destination. It's happened to me many times. I've arrived hours later.

What typifies the train riders' experience most in The Netherlands isn't the poor service, delays, or the general filth of the trains. This would all be bearable if it weren't for the grotesque behavior of fellow passengers.

Most recently I was on my way home at night from a writer's meeting in Amsterdam when two women stepped onto the train, and sat opposite me. I was reading, and the car was nearly entirely empty. Still, this didn't deter them from sitting directly across from me only to begin a loud and meaningless conversation.

The Dutch aren't known for speaking quietly out of respect for their fellow citizens. They make loud telephone calls on trains, yell, speak loudly. You are of no concern to them. There are rules on the trains to speak quietly, but no one follows them.

When I put on my IPod, and turned up my music, one of the women started laughing at me, mocking my music. I was listening to English Madrigals, something she, a woman in her 50s, found worth mockery. She then began talking even louder, interspersed with faces, singing, laughter. It was appalling and undignified for a woman her age, but dignity is something that was far from her thoughts. I cranked up my music even louder. When they finally got out in Delft, she stood up, turned her large, square, and totally flat rear end toward me, and farted in my face.

This is an all too common experience on the trains. In an empty car, people will sit all around you, and begin loud conversation. I think it must encourage them even more to to raise their voices when they see a young woman quietly reading. The Dutch will do whatever they can within the law to make your life here as miserable as possible.

One rainy afternoon, I was headed home from my Dutch as a Second Language class in Amsterdam. This was years ago. I was on a waiting list for over a year for a class in Schiedam, and I was unaware that the train fare was going to cost hundreds of Guldens (the Dutch money before the Euro) per month, so I decided to take classes at the University of Amsterdam, and what a delight it was. Thankfully, I spent about two months neglecting to stamp my ticket (I had a wallet full of tickets, which I "forgot" to stamp. A nice conductor will stamp it for you with a warning).

The trains used to be free in The Netherlands, and they still should be, it's such an ungodly experience riding them. Al Gore gave the Dutch government some kind of special award for its train service. Obviously, he doesn't know what it's like to ride with the Dutch.

At any rate, I was sitting again in an empty car. A young man and his girlfriend came and sat right across from me. (On Dutch trains the seats are arranged in fours, two pairs of seats facing each other.) I was trying to study, but again, these people weren't deterred. They were talking as loudly as possible. I bent over the table, plugging my ears. He started speaking even louder. I kept reading with my ears plugged. As I was looking down, he started pounding his hand on the table. I ignored him. He kept whacking the table.

Sadly, this is all too common behavior for the pathetically ill-mannered Dutch.

Aside from the first two months of my class in Amsterdam, I always pay for my train rides. If you fail to pay, and they catch you, you can face steep fines. It costs 13 Euros round trip to Amsterdam with a 40% discount card, a 50 minute ride. My wallet is usually stuffed with tickets. When they come to check my ticket, they usually wave me off as I reach for my discount card, which I always have. There was a day when I forgot my discount card in another jacket pocket. It doubled as a re-loadable Metro card until it started malfunctioning. I had used it for a Metro ride that day in Rotterdam, forgetting it in a pocket.

The middle-aged female train conductor with a bleached blond hairdo fried at the ends was unsympathetic. She confiscated my ticket, and told me to buy a full priced ticket for the ride back. How forgiving of her. If she'd made me pay the fine, I could have at least written a letter to the NS (the Dutch train company), and gotten my money back, but she wanted to be sure I faced the full penalty.

Of course, any one of the people sitting across from me could have offered to allow me to ride on their discount card. You're allowed to take up to three people with you. I didn't think to ask. They didn't offer. Dutch people never help.

I spent years taking my two young children on the trains while they were still young enough to sit in a stroller, and people never offered to help me on or off the train, up or down long flights of stairs. Of course, there was the odd occasion. Usually, when someone does offer to help, it's an elderly woman, or a foreign man with dark skin. White, tall, hearty Dutchmen are want to help anyone. They're too busy pushing their way past you to be bothered.

My husband once asked one of these prize specimens to put out his cigarette as we stood with our infant sleeping in her pram in the doorway of the train. Her pram was too large to fit into the car were the seats were. This man's response to my husband was to punch him in the face with a large ring on, throwing his glasses on the floor. Blood was streaming down my husband's face. My son, then about 3.5, stood by screaming. Thankfully, there were actually people around who helped us to throw this guy off the train, or who knows where we'd be today.

I've often thought, in my nine years here, that it's a land of bandits.

Joyfully popping natural anti-depressants, I continue on my way, a citizen of the bad lands of Holland.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sinterklaas is in het land...

Last Saturday, while I was safely tucked away in my hotel in Munich, little boys and girls all over The Netherlands were working themselves up for the arrival from Spain by boat of Sinterklaas and his black-faced minions, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes.

There are a lot of different stories surrounding the evolution of Sinterklaas. One of them is that we have the Dutch to thank for "our" Santa Claus, which is derivative of the old Dutch Sint Klaas that Dutch settlers brought over with them to New Amsterdam, now New York.

They traded New Amsterdam for Suriname, a prudent decision. Otherwise, who can tell what the world, and more specifically, New York, my former home, would look like today.

The Dutch have done their best to sanitize Sinterklaas and his Piets. There are tales that say he was a real, and charitable person, living around 2-300 AD, who gave away all of his considerable wealth to aid the poor, or to distressed young women without a dowry.

People like to claim that the Piets get their black faces from going down the chimney, but the fact remains that the Piets come out of a time when the Dutch were heavily involved in the slave trade, happily obliging market demand for slaves by transporting them to where they could be sold.

In modern day "tradition," the Piets are depicted as bumbling, stupid, deceitful, but happy blacks, actually whites in black face, and Sinterklaas as their old and feeble, but kindly master on a white horse. The Piets do all of the work, while Sinterklaas rests. There's even a song children are taught to sing in schools about the Piets with the line, "although I'm black as soot, I mean well, because I'm from Sinterklaas," (al ben ik zwart als roet Ik meen het toch goed Want ik kom van Sinterklaas Sinterklaas). It's true. We were given a CD with that song on it produced by The Netherland's most luxurious department store, the Bijenkorf. It's keeping alive the tradition of teaching all Dutch children that dark skinned people are inferior, you might say. After all, "neger," or "nigger" is still an acceptable and everyday word in the Dutch language.

The Dutch are known for their bluntness. It's perfectly acceptable to insult people directly, a tradition my mother-in-law holds dear, but which I have difficulty with. According to The Netherlands expert Ian Buruma, this is a long-standing feature of Dutch culture, too. You're allowed to insult, say pretty much whatever you want, and no one's supposed to take it seriously. They call it "freedom of speech," or "vrijheid van menings uiting." We in the US like to call them "fighting words," or "words with the intent to incite violence." It's all in the subtleties of interpretation, I suppose. Insults, or free speech. Who can judge. My skin has only grown thinner in my nine years here.

We weren't led to believe that Santa Claus was a real person growing up. Our parents and culture didn't make it into a big ruse for children until they were old and wise enough to figure it out for themselves. Adults in The Netherlands go to great length not to reveal to children that Sinterklaas and the Piets are actually her parents (or mothers) going out shopping, and leaving things in her shoes at night.

This year I've tried to economize by cutting it down to small pieces of chocolate, fruit, or nuts in their shoes, but they'd really rather have bigger presents everyday. Our kids already have more clothes and toys than they need, and I'm personally overwhelmed by all of it, but that's another story. I'm all for "buy nothing" holidays, but most children seem to have a need to be enchanted and amused by presents, so I'd be spoiling all the fun. Besides, I'd have to explain to my children why Sinterklaas comes to all of the other children's houses, and not to ours. It's already becoming a problem with the little chocolates. Other kids get coloring books. That's just what we need in our house. Another coloring book.

Children are expected to put on a little show. They "set their shoes" every night by the door with something for the Sint's horse, a carrot, some water, or hay, and then they have to sing a song. In the morning, they go down to check their shoes. It's all very exciting. Our eight-year-old is less enthusiastic as last year. Perhaps he's beginning to catch on.

December 5th is "pakjes avond," or "present evening," a day that I have come to dread. Everyone, even children, are expected to sit in a circle of chairs, as, one by one, each gift is meticulously unwrapped. This can take hours. There's no music, and nothing to eat. If one of the kids gets up out of turn, he gets yelled at. Really, each present is supposed to come with a rhymn, usually involving a lesson of some kind, but my family here has dispensed with that tradition. Instead, my mother-in-law is fond of putting "rue" on my gifts, which is what bad children got in their shoes, a bundle of sticks to beat them with.

Everything is given anonymously. It's common to give inexpensive, "funny" gifts. Lots more stuff to add to the clutter at home.

Originally, it was a holiday exclusively for children, which would be fine with me, but all of the adults have joined in in recent years, which means presents for the entire family. In the United States we draw names to keep costs down. I'm not too sure about the famed Dutch frugality anymore. Of course, the past several years I have gotten dish towels, and even paper napkins. Oh well. If I don't go, I won't see or talk to any of my Dutch family for at least another several months, if not a year, if not years.

What you're supposed to do is write a list of things you want from Sint, and put it in your shoe this first night he's in The Netherlands. Adults don't set their shoes, but they do pass around lists of things they want every year. I'm expected to write up a list, something I try to avoid. My policy is, you buy yourself something; I buy myself something, then we're even. We don't have to shop for each other. But of course, this is unacceptable. I have to play along, so this year, my husband took over the list task. This year, I decided to come up with some real gifts they might consider.

Sinterklaas is all about joke gifts, too. I just thought of a great joke gift from my sister-in-law, who I saw about 1.5 years ago for the last time, when she actually came to my son's birthday party at the Efteling, the Dutch equivalent of Disney. Here's the gift: A large framed portrait of the close-up she took of my pimple at the Sinterklaas party two years ago at my in-laws house.

I wonder if we'll be eating anything other than fish sandwiches.

Friday, November 23, 2007


The older I get, the more I come to realize that being average is actually superior.

The older I get, the happier I am with mundanity.
--Mama Mojo today

You may have noticed this quote on Google's homepage today:

The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time.
- George Bernard Shaw

You're invited, but I'm going to ignore you.

Have you ever been invited someplace. You got a warm invitation from the host. You go happily. You prepare your wardrobe carefully. You feel good. You're confident of your place. It seems like the right thing to do. You're convinced, but of course, there's always a twinge of doubt, because you can never be 100% sure about anything you're doing. Still. You take your chances, and you go only to be disappointed. The host ignores you. You try talking to people, but most of them are cold and uninterested. You don't really connect with anyone. The spark isn't there. The clothes you picked out so carefully turn out to be all wrong for the crowd, and the occasion. You walk in the door glittering, but within an hour, you realize that you're out of place. You spend most of the evening wandering around alone. People are together all around you in groups. They are intimate with each other. You thought you too were an intimate, but when you introduce yourself to people, try to make connections, it doesn't work. People aren't buying even the most genuine things about you. They look at you suspiciously. Your conversation can't hold them. They're already engaged in conversation with someone else, and shortly thereafter, they've walked away from you, leaving you there standing. Once again you're left grasping, and on your own. Still, you were invited by the host. You were warmly received when you walked through the door, so you linger, even though you've been feeling uncomfortable for hours, you linger, because you think, "I belong, don't I?" You get invited the next night, and dutifully, you go. It's become your duty now. You made a commitment to the host. You've already agreed, so you have to go, but really, you've had it already with lingering around on your own an entire evening long. You'd be better off doing something completely on your own, rather than hanging there, waiting, hanging on to little snippets of conversation, waiting to be included for a moment, and it does happen. You are included here and there, briefly. What you're thirsty for is a long, meaningful, and involved conversation. You've become so starved, your words begin coming out in uncertain halts. Your sentences are half formed. Your ideas, split. Still, you can understand. The host is busy. He's invited lots of people, and you're only one person. You should be able to fend for yourself, to take advantage of the opportunity. You know there are enough people you could approach. You've seen some of them looking at you, and it's all your job. You have to approach them. The host has nearly totally abandoned you, and your social skills are waning, undermined. Gradually, you begin once again to realize the futility of social contact. There are plenty of people to talk to; there's enough to say, but once you've said it, you'll never see that person again. It will never lead to anything, anyway.

My Clog...

The clog to the left is the one I made for my five-year-old daughter at school. The photo is a bit blurry, taken with my husband's phone. I already posted on this. I know you were dying to see a photo of it! :-)

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Yesterday morning I decided to attend the annual Thanksgiving service at the St Pieterskerk in Leiden, or Leyden, in English. It's a beautiful church with an incredibly tall wooden ceiling, and thick stone columns. Rembrandt's parents are buried there. There's a plaque on the outside of the church giving that detail. He was born and educated in Leiden, which was, and has been for a long time, one of the more sophisticated cities in The Netherlands. It definitely has the feel of "learning." Many notables throughout history have studied at the University of Leiden, including John Adams.

I was admitted to the Literature Studies program (Literatuurwetenschap), but lacked funding. Oh well. Perhaps then I'd be too educated for my own good. Sigh.

The Netherlands has a reputation, now dwindling, for being an open, accepting society. People throughout history have come here in search of political asylum. Of course, that's true of many countries today, but The Netherlands has this feature as a long-standing tradition going back to 1500, or so. Spinoza was a product of Portueges Jews who fled Portugal to make their home in Amsterdam, most of whose descendants tragically perished in WWII.

The earliest Pilgrims were among those who sought refuge here in the early 1600s. They set sail from Rotterdam Delfshaven in 1620, after having spent most of twelve years in Leiden.

During the Thanksgiving service, I learned that the Pilgrims got their idea for Thanksgiving from the Dutch holiday 3 October (never heard of it), when people from Leiden celebrate liberation from the Spaniards with a herring and white bread feast. The principle was the same, even if the food is quite different. Lots of people getting together to eat and give thanks.

They also exported the Dutch idea for civil marriage, as an alternative for people who didn't wish to marry under a specific church.

The Pilgrims left Leiden to preserve the integrity of their group, and to escape mounting pressure from various factions, and because they weren't economically successful in Leiden. They also felt that the culture here was too liberal, and was having a bad influence on their children. So they set sail for the New World.

There's also the Pelgrimskerk in Rotterdam's Delfshaven, which is where they left from to go back to England, only to embark once again for the promised land, a journey that would cost half of them their lives, both on ship, and once they got there. They created lore with the Mayflower, and Plymouth Rock.

The Pilgrim's were a quietly religious folk in search of solitude, and the freedom to practice simple ways, not to be confused with the Puritans, a more dogmatic group.

It's been rumored that some of my English ancestors were among the very earliest of settlers to the United States, but I didn't see any Harris's on the list of those who boarded the Mayflower in 1620.

It was a nice, very American service, something that I wouldn't tolerate if I still lived in the US. Lots of Americanism, a message from the President (written by a speech writer, of course), speeches, singing. We stood for the "presenting of the colors." "The colors" is the flag, a term I hadn't heard in decades. There were scouts, a high school band, a youth choir, little kids dressed as Pilgrims. It reminded me of where I came from, and what I left behind "a long time ago," music, singing in the choir, squeaky clean living. The band played Simple Gifts, which is a Shaker hymn, and "Fanfare." We sang America the Beautiful, at which point I became so chocked up, I couldn't sing along, although I do so love to sing.

Interesting that the word "sojourner" came up in the service. The Pilgrims were sojourners. I've identified myself as a sojourner, however enmired I've become, I always think in terms of moving on, somehow. Of course, that's my perception.

I spent some time walking around the church. Most of the people were in groups, and some of them seemed to be tourists. A lot of the crowd also seemed to be wealthy Hague/Wassenaar American expats whose children go to the American school (a mere 20,000 a year tuition for primary school). I recognized one man from the Democrats Abroad, and he seemed to recognize me, too. I went to a Democrats meeting once in a house on the Grachten Gordel in Amsterdam, the most expensive place to live here, and the woman, wearing a diamond at least several carrots, apologized for the furnishings. Ah, the trials we face.) I'm not very at home in that crowd.

On the train ride over I sat next to two American women who have roots here. They were trying to read a Dutch newspaper. There was some news on the cover they were interested in, so I offered to translate for them. They told me that their husband/father was born and raised here until age 15. He's become frustrated in recent years trying to speak Dutch on visits. No one will oblige him. They all reply in English. They also told me that they'd noticed a change in attitude in general, much less tolerance, a lot more intolerance of "outsiders." I told them that I felt shut out from the culture, even though I've lived here for nine years, speak the language, and have a Dutch passport.

This is becoming a rambling post.

I managed to make a tofu turkey. It turned out well, and tastes remarkably like turkey. I'll have to experiment with tofu more often. If you mush it up, and press it between a weight, you come up with a nice texture. You can also add different seasonings to the mush.

I also made fresh cranberry sauce using orange juice, a little strawberry syrup, and loads of sugar, and candied sweet potatoes, loads of butter and sugar. Yams are impossible to find in The Netherlands. My husband cooked a piece of turkey, but he also loved the tofu turkey. I was surprised that my daughter really liked the tofu turkey. Unfortunately, our son wouldn't touch it. It was filled with a stuffing of dark brown bread, mushrooms, dried apricots, dried currents, walnuts, rosemary, parsley, oregano, vegetable broth, an egg, miso, soy sauce, orange juice, sesame oil, olive oil, mustard. I also basted it with a quick mix of miso, soy sauce, mustard, and orange juice. It wasn't hard to make at all. It was good to make the effort toward a family togetherness meal. We should do it more often.

This weekend I'm planning on baking some pumpkin pie, which is a custard pie, also apart of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. I could manage it yesterday. My favorite recipe uses fresh pumpkin, or yellow squash, a pat in the pan butter crust, and either créme fraiche, or reduced fat creme. Delicious.