Monthly Archives: June 2011

NUTS

The Dutch television news is pretty serious. There is not a lot of chit chat among the news people and they basically get right to the point. Very Dutch of them.

The other night I saw a news story that literally made me drop my jaw and watch in stunned silence. In celebration of bike naked day (and support of the environment) in the Netherlands, a group of people spent a Saturday bicycling completely naked. And it was a rainy day so most of them had packed handy little see through plastic ponchos.

The part that made my eyes bug out was that the news story showed everything. I mean we saw all the bits and pieces and even the kibble and bits. The Dutch term is that they were “wearing their Adam and Eve costume.” The nude bikers were being interviewed about their adventure and they didn’t seem to care about the rain. There was even a tight shot of someone’s buttocks that I would guess had easily felt the hot sun for over 70 years.

As I watched this news story, I was thinking that this would never air in America. The Boston news channels would have covered the event, but they never would have shown any nudity. I mean, this would not even be on cable. The Dutch constantly surprise me. I have seen television at 2am and there are naked women talking to the camera and inviting you to call them. Like having the red light district in your own home. Don’t have time to tour the houseboats? Just put on the TV, get out your cell phone and get a thrill. But the bicycle story was on the regular news and aired at 8pm, and once I got past the shock, it wasn’t that big a deal. The only thing that I thought about after the newscast was I hope that those bikes were not rentals.

Here is another news story: a woman was pulled over for weaving in and out of her lane. She was arrested for suspicion of drunk driving. She had a three year old with her. And she was riding a bicycle.

The first story was about nude activists who rode bicycles. They were doing nothing illegal and it all seemed pretty harmless. The second story, was indeed illegal. And stupid. One news story may have shocked me, but it also made me smile. The other story just made me angry and sad. And life goes on…

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Jane’s Boekentips

MY FATHER’S NOTEBOOK by Kader Abdolah

When I read THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini, I was immersed in the politics, history and culture of Afghanistan. Not only was it a wonderful novel, but I learned so much about the country. That same feeling came back to me when I read MY FATHER’S NOTEBOOK by Kader Abdolah.

Born in the early 19th century, in Iran, Aga was the son of a concubine and he was also a deaf mute. He learned a trade as a carpet mender, and eventually married and had four children. He was given a notebook which he filled through the years with a code that only he could understand. His son, Ishmael, became his translator and guide through life. Not many people could understand Aga or communicate with him, and Ishmael was that bridge.

Eventually, Ishmael went to Tehran to the university and became involved in the Communist Party. His life was in constant danger and he later left Iran for the Netherlands. Ishmael now is a writer and is struggling to make sense of his father’s notebook and to better understand his father.

It is a fast and poignant story about a father and son. The educated son who tries to explain religion, politics and science to a father who cannot conceive of these “big ideas”. I knew very little about Iran before I read this book, and Abdolah has given us just a glimpse of this country. Ultimately, this is a simple and yet, complex, tale about a father and son and, no matter where you live, you will find yourself turning the page for more.

No passport needed to read these novels:

Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

God of small things by Arundhati Roy

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

THE MORNING AFTER

I have recently been waking up with some bouwvakkers. You may remember that bouwvakkers are people who work in construction and it is currently my favorite Dutch word.

I had a very bad bout of the flu and was in bed for many days. The days were horrible, but the nights were worse. By morning, all I wanted to do was catch up on some lost sleep. On the first morning, I woke up at 7am to hear this loud machine outside the bedroom window. This was mind blowing loud. It was the city mowing the grass in the neighborhood and when I realized what the horrible noise was, I turned over in bed and said “ah, the bouwvakkers.”

The next morning, at 7am, I heard a different noise but still extremely loud and annoying, just at a little higher pitch. The city was now trimming the edges of the grass they had mowed the day before. With a sick stomach, I whispered “welcome back, bouwvakkers.” There may have been a little bit of sarcasm in my voice.

On the third day, the city decided it was now time to wash the sidewalks…at 7am. I punched my pillow, turned over and said “#@* those bouwvakkers!!”

At 7am the following day, I was wide awake waiting for a bouwvakker. There was just the sound of birds chirping and bicycle wheels turning. I tossed and turned with the deafening silence and wondered what had happened. Surely there must be something that had to be done in our neighborhood. So I laid there and thought about what was missing and then I heard the hum of the dog poop vacuum coming towards the poop park (see Dog Day Afternoon for a previous post). All was well on our street. We were mowed, cleaned, trimmed and poop free. Ah, those marvelous bouwvakkers.

The children presented me a with a present. “We brought you a bouwvakker, Jane.” I first looked down the hall, in a panic that they had actually met a worker outside and brought him in to meet me. But they actually gave me a Playmobile figure of a bouwvakker and he was dressed completely in Dutch orange. Now we have our own little bouwvakker inside the house.

Okay, even I am getting sick of the B word. Enough already.

MIDNIGHT RUN

This is a follow up to a previous post titled HOUSEBOAT.

We were out late one night in Utrecht and impulsively decided to check out the red light district. We had not been back to that area for a few months and wondered how different it would be at night.

As you pull into the driveway, you can see the houseboats and lots of cars. Our plan was just to sit in the crowded parking lot for a few minutes and observe this world that was so foreign to us.

I felt like I had a View Master from my childhood. Those little red viewers that gave you a slide show of Niagra Falls or Mt.Rushmore. But this was a view I have not seen before—crawling cars and men walking on the sidewalk, looking into the
houseboats. The houseboats are lined up and close together. They consist of one room and a bathroom. There is a large window, basically a wall of glass, that allows you to practically see everything inside, including the woman.

How do I know all this? Well, here is the funny part…we decided to turn around and leave, but we accidentally got into the line of cars that cruise the houseboats. We were in the parade and there was no way to get out of the line, unless we parked the car, which we were most definitely not going to do. And get this—we were behind a police car. Remember, this is all legal. If everyone behaves themselves, no one is arrested. The police are there to make sure that everyone is safe and that there is no trouble.

This parade of cars goes very, very slowly. You can actually make eye contact with the window prostitutes (as they are called) and you have time to check out the room décor (Martha Stewart could be kept very busy sprucing these rooms up).

What were the women doing? They were dancing, posing, talking on their cell phones and one woman was actually on a saddle. She looked like she was ready for a roundup or a hoedown (sorry, I couldn’t resist). No matter what the women were doing, they always faced the street and looked for potential customers. By the way, the women were wearing lingerie.

A driver would pull over and park his car and then walk to the houseboat he wanted. He was as casual as if he was going to a barbecue at the neighbors. The woman would open the door, they would discuss the plan of action, he stepped in, she shut the door and closed the drapes.

Apparently, you don’t have to have a car to be a customer, men would also be walking by the houseboats and carefully looking into each window until they found what he wanted. I never saw any rude behavior or any public drinking. In fact, it was very quiet and the men were pretty matter of a fact about the whole thing.

So here we were, two women in this dinkie car, caught up in a parade that we never thought we would be in. When you go shopping and the store clerk asks you if you need any help, you say “no thanks, I’m just looking”, well, that is what I wanted to say to all the women in the windows. But the women would wave at me, dance and straddle the saddle.

We could not move fast enough and I found myself saying “don’t hit the police car!” But we realized we could not move any faster, and we were aware of men walking by. We could see their faces and they could see us, I tried to keep my eyes looking straight ahead or I would fiddle with the radio. And finally, to our great relief, we were able to leave the parade.

I found out some interesting things about the houseboats and the prostitutes. Here are a few facts:

– The city of Utrecht has helpful information for prostitutes on their website.

– The city states they want a safe and healthy environment. This area is well lit, has surveillance cameras and community police patrol the street. There is a safe shelter for the prostitutes and there are specific times when a doctor and nurse are available.

– Prostitutes must be 21 years old to work at the houseboats. They must register with the Chamber of Commerce and with the health department. They must pay taxes and fill out tax returns each year.

– They can rent the room for a minimum of four weeks at a time and they cannot work longer than a 12 hour shift.

– On this website, the city stresses the importance of safety and making sure that you are not being forced to do this kind of work. They give contact information for anyone needing help.

Needless to say, this is not what Americans see when they go to their municipal web sites.

The day after this midnight adventure, we took a drive in the country. I saw numerous orchards with apples, pears and cherries. I saw cows, sheep and horses. There was a windmill proudly standing guard over a farm. Bikers were flying everywhere and hikers with backpacks were enjoying the beautiful day.

In a small village, we sat at an outdoor café and had a great view of people eating gelato, children racing each other and friends greeting friends. There was a breeze through the trees that were protecting us from the hot sun.

This is the Netherlands that I love. There is something for everyone here. If you want to eat cheese and gaze at windmills, you can. If you want to visit the red light district or even work there, you can. This country seems to recognize the reality of the situation, and is trying to be practical about it. I definitely don’t need to visit the houseboats again, I have had enough. For me, I choose the farms, the cobblestone streets of tiny towns or a cup of coffee with a free cookie.

Recommended Reading:

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman

Jane’s Boekentips

A LESSON IN SECRETS by Jacqueline Winspear

This book review is for those who have never read Winspear before and for those ardent fans of her main character—Maisie Dobbs. My goal is to get everyone to read this mystery series and please believe me when I reassure you that this series is popular with men and women. Don’t assume that these books are just for women, they cross over that sexual reading line and actually appeal to men.

A LESSON IN SECRETS is the eighth title in the series and there have been many changes in Maisie’s life. One of the strengths of this series is that Maisie, who was a maid as a young girl and then a nurse during the Great War, has grown into a successful private detective and has adapted to the changing world around her. This is not a mystery series that stays locked into sameness, Winspear has developed characters according to their personal lives and to the dramatic changes in England after World War I. And now, it is 1932, and there is talk of a potentially dangerous man in Germany who is appealing to some young people in England. Maisie is approached by the British Secret Service to keep her eyes and ears open in Cambridge and she basically goes undercover in a university.

I cannot stress enough to you to read this series in the order it was published and that is for one very important reason. Winspear writes her books in sequence and you will fully appreciate what she does with the characters and the years after the war. Start with the first book, MAISIE DOBBS, and step into her world. I know of teenagers who love these books and they have told me that they had no idea what happened after World War I. I don’t think they are the only ones, many of us did not know how this war impacted the survivors. In addition to the historical setting, let’s not forget that these are wonderful mysteries that are smartly written.

Get to know Maisie Dobbs, and if you already do, then pick up an old friend.

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

One of the hardest things I have ever done is try to learn the Dutch language. It is not easy. It would be a lot easier if I was much younger. By now, I have stored too much useless information in my head. My brain was already crowded with English words, and now I have to learn Dutch.

If I am going to live here, I should be able to speak a little of the native language. It is not only practical, but respectful. And, by the way, the government requires it. Anyone moving to the Netherlands is required to take a language test—within three years of arrival.  

One of the biggest challenges is making sounds that I have never made before. This isn’t just about a different language, this is about having a whole new soundtrack to your life. Americans don’t have to make certain sounds like the coughing up of a hairball. Do you know the feeling of having one hair in your mouth and you are going crazy trying to get it out?  You cough, you clear your throat and move your tongue around trying to catch it. That is what it is like to talk Dutch. You find you are doing things with your mouth that you have never done before. We all have the same body parts, but it does make me wonder if an American tongue is designed differently, because the Dutch can say things with their tongues that simply amaze me. They say words that come from the back of their throats that I am sure are not physically possible (or even legal) in the United States.

When I recently saw the dentist, I was tempted to ask him if he found some words stuck where my tonsils used to be, and if so, could he delicately remove them. Because since I have been here, I believe there are some words that have lodged themselves in my mouth.  The only way to truly remove them from my mouth is to…speak proper Dutch.

Most Dutch words don’t sound like English words, so they make little sense to me. My favorite word for a long time has been winkel—this means a store, but mainly a grocery store. It is just a fun word to say. Winkel.

But it has now been replaced by a new word:  bouwvakker. To truly enjoy this word and understand why I love it so much, you must say this word out loud. The wv makes the sound of an f.  Now say it again. This word makes me giggle and smile.  It means a construction worker. If I see a man wearing a bright orange vest and sometimes pants too, I will say “there is a bouwvakker.” It was a shock to me the first time I heard the children say this word.  In America, their mouths would have been washed out with soap.  Here, it is just a construction worker. 

I have a long way to go and I will continue to share my language adventures with you. This is my advice to you—when talking to a Dutch person, if you feel that you have been spit upon, don’t take it personally. Many times I have had spit in my eyes and I now know it is that amazing tongue action at work. If the hairball is not coming out of there, then a little spit will have to do. 

Tot ziens!  (goodbye)