Monthly Archives: August 2011

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

There are many shops and cafes on Utrecht corners. It really is a lovely city that is very much alive, especially with thousands of students and yet you cannot ignore the history. When I say history, I mean that Utrecht citizens were having tea parties way before Boston had its own.

Recently, we took a short walking tour of one neighborhood in old Utrecht. We walked on cobblestone sidewalks that are separated into three parts: a section for walkers, a section for bicycles and a space with ridges. The ridges feel very different from the other stone work, and there is a reason for that. The ridges are for the visually impaired, so that they may walk safely without being run down by a bicycle. And let me just say that there is an art to crossing a street when you are dodging hundreds of students riding their bikes, while they text, talk on cell phones or eat a croissant. On this day, it was the first day of school and there may have been more panicked faces than normal.

You know how animals have an instinct to know when they are in danger or that another animal is coming? I think the Dutch have a natural gift in knowing when bike riders are coming around the bend. I was about to cross the street, I looked to my right and left. No car or bike was in my vision. But a hand stopped me from moving, as a herd of bicycles came around the corner, like it was the Tour of Utrecht. “How did you know?” I asked. All I got was a shrug and “after awhile, you just know”. I don’t know what will come first, me learning Dutch or knowing when to cross the street. I will keep you updated.

We then came across a steel line in the sidewalk and street and it had a marker that stated that under this spot, 2000 years ago, the Romans had built a wall. And the bottom of the wall is under this exact spot we were standing on. This sidewalk was built about 800 years ago.  So we have an ancient wall, on top of that is an old sidewalk, and an almost old American looking down on this.

The big surprise of the day was finding a church, called Janskerkhof Utrecht. This church is the home to many different religions. Originally built in 1080, it has been many things…mainly churches, but also the city library in the 1800’s. On Sundays there are Unitarian services (I am proud to be a Unitarian) and I think that the church is very busy, as there are so many students in the city from a variety of countries.

In front of this church, is a small and delicate statue that has been there since 1960. It is of Anne Frank. She faces a busy street of cafes, bookstores and an art school. And on any given day, thousands of people pass her and hopefully some slow down to say hello. But on this day, when I walked up to the statue I saw something odd. Someone had left three parts of a half eaten sandwich on Anne’s shoulders and at her feet. It looked like someone was leaving food for the birds, but I thought it looked horrible. At that point, I got called to look at the church behind me. As I was looking at the church, a helpful person took the food off of the statue and threw it on the ground about 25 feet away. When I turned back I had a tissue out and was prepared to take off the food myself and saw that she looked perfect and three birds were now eating the sandwich. I was offended by the placement of the sandwich and felt protective of Anne. But when I thought about it later, I thought that this young girl would likely be amused by it. In my opinion, it just did not look right and I was glad that someone took the food off, as I was going to do the same thing.

The other big highlight of this walk was going to the Domtoren (Dom Tower). This is a cathedral and is the tallest tower in the Netherlands. It is 368 feet high or 112 meters. It is so high, that I got dizzy just looking up at it. As we stood there the bells rang. It was a priceless moment. Below the tower, there are outdoor cafes with people drinking beer or coffee. Tourists were looking at maps and a big white cat was lying in the sun. And the bells rang.

As we left to get to our car we walked along a street that is known as the Dutch Rodeo Drive…all the pricey shops are here Naturally, on top of these shops are apartments, I can only guess how expensive they are. At the top of one of these buildings, we spotted a creative way to dry your laundry if you don’t have a back yard or even a terrace. Hey, you do what you have to do, even on Rodeo Drive.

Another Monday in Utrecht. Enjoy the photographs.

Janskerk Utrecht

Anne Frank Janskerkhof Utrecht

Domtoren Utrecht

 Hanging out to dry Oudkerkhof Utrecht

THE RIVER

When I was young and living in southern California, my family made a day trip to Los Angeles and that included Beverly Hills. We drove around looking at the homes of movie and television stars. It was kind of a weird thing to do, but there were many cars doing the same thing as us. It was like being at a drive-by zoo. The homes or mansions were certainly impressive and we all wanted Lucille Ball or Bob Hope to come outside and water their front lawn and then wave at us.

The other day we went on a little drive along the Vecht River and it reminded me of touring the stars’ homes. The Vecht River runs from Utrecht to Muiden and is almost 26 miles long. Along the course of the river, on both sides, are small towns and stately homes. These homes were built in the 17th and 18th centuries by Amsterdam merchants, so they had a place to escape the city life during the summer months. They are absolutely beautiful and very well maintained. Along the river are many restaurants that have outdoor seating, so that you can watch the boats come up and down the river as you drink and eat.

On this day, we drove on both sides of the river and that led us to drive through Breukelen. As we drove out of Breukelen, we lost sight of the river and were now in farmland. There were the most beautiful green and lush pastures. Black and white cows were dotting the land as if they were extras in a movie, it all looked just so perfect. And then I saw something that was out of place: a large cement box, about the size of a shed. I was told that it was left over from the war, it was a German bunker. Before I could comment on this, I saw two more on my right and left. Three bunkers from WWII were just sitting on these farms, surrounded by cows and trees. And then all of a sudden, the river was back again and the bunkers were gone.

I was a passenger on a strange tour. I was completely entranced by the boats, the homes, by the castle that is now the University of Nyenrode, by the small bridges that boaters have to pay a toll to go through, and by the historic legacy of this river. And at the same time, I could not get those bunkers out of my head. Seventy years ago, this country was occupied and those bunkers were filled with ammunition. They are certainly reminders of what life was like along this river, it was not always calm and peaceful. This was a country at war. No matter how long I live here, I will not ever stop being moved by the knowledge that this country was occupied during the war and that its citizens survived the best they could.

I end with this one image. Towards the end of our drive, there was a huge downpour. There was a man and a woman bicycling. They were senior citizens and they did not speed up or stop even though they were getting drenched. The woman held an umbrella straight up and steered with her left hand. When we passed her I could see she was smiling. This is who the Dutch are. They have been through it all. Some of them remember those bunkers being used and they now ride by them. Life goes on. They see the beauty in a river and the joy of being able to ride a bike. It is a lesson for me to remember.

Recommended reading:

Too Close To The Falls – Catherine Gildiner

Sea Room – Norman Gautreau

House On The Salt Hay Road – Carin Clevidence

Goudenstein in Maarssen

University of Nyenrode in Breukelen

Bunker in Breukelen

THE BIG STORE

Do you enter a store and know exactly where you need to go? To find your brand of toothpaste or your favorite crackers? Are there certain brands that you have bought for years and cannot imagine buying anything else? Were you a Skippy kid from way back and you still reach for a jar of Skippy peanut butter today? There are many of you out there, and I know, because I used to be just like you. But now that has all changed.

I have written that American culture has influenced the quality of life in the Netherlands. From TV, movies, music and the numerous products that are available here… American “stuff” is here. Even so, I have struggled to find specific items that I was used to while living in the United States.

I have been searching online for certain things. There are companies in the Netherlands that sell American products, but the prices are very high and you have to pay shipping costs.

I could ask friends to mail me things, but again, the cost is just ridiculous. Just the price of mailing a small package of feathers from the U.S. would be mailing a block of cement. It is just unbelievably high, so that option is not going to fly.

My challenge was to find a store in this country that sold the products I wanted. In Utrecht there is one very small store that sells American and British products and the prices are high. I did find a store about 30 minutes from here that was a regular grocery store that had numerous international products. All of my hope was in one grocery basket.

We went to the city of Amstelveen to Kingsalmarkt with hope of finding at least a few items. I was looking for some specific things, but also ready to be surprised. My expectations were low, and I knew I would be happy with just a few things. But I did not expect to walk into the promised land.

As I walked in, I saw America and it was in the form of Milk Duds. There was a display of Milk Duds greeting me. I don’t even care for Milk Duds, but I knew that I would be okay if this store had boxes of American candies. Immediately, this place made me smile. Noises were coming out of my mouth, that I did not know were possible in a public place. There were shelves and shelves of American items and why was this so wonderful? There are really two reasons. First, it reminded me of life in the USA and second, it gave me choices.

I was prepared for the prices to be high, and they were. One can of Campbell’s soup was 2.45 Euros (about $3.50). I cannot find condensed soup anywhere, so this was a great find. There is no root beer in the Netherlands, but here I found individual cans of A&W root beer for one euro a can. That was my big treat of the day, getting a can of root beer.

There was one big ticket item I was looking for: pancake mix. I had shipped pancake mix with my books and stuff, so that I could make American pancakes for the children. The Dutch are famous for their pancakes, but they are very different from American pancakes. They are much thinner and come in two sizes: one is as big as a hubcap and the other is as small as a bottle cap. They usually put chocolate on top, or some kind of strange molasses stuff. But my pancakes were a big hit with the kids and I was running out of mix.

I was going down the aisle, and then these bright blinking lights were on the top shelf. I saw a box of Bisquick just glowing right at me. I think it was calling my name. Then I heard  “America the Beautiful” through the store speakers. I stood there with my mouth open and looked up at that box. And then I saw the price…equal to about $11.00. For one box. That is a lot of Euros. But it was cheaper than paying the shipping, and so I got the box without hesitation.

This was a good day. I now know that I can come back here whenever I run out of those certain things that I need. But the bad news is that they still don’t sell my brand of deodorant or toothpaste. My teeth and body will have to adjust to new brands. Speaking of teeth, the vision of Milk Duds took me back to when I was young and getting a box to take to the movies. That box would last for almost the whole film. It is just a little bit of America coming to me, and that is a good thing.

I may end up toothless and smelly, but I will continue to make the best American pancakes in the Netherlands. Well, that is what the kinderen (children) say and who am I to argue?

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese

Yes, I am writing a review of a book that came out in 2009. But it is rare to have a book talked about for as long as this book has been and still to be a best seller after two years. I cannot begin to count the number of people that have spoken or written to me about this book. And I know why. In my life, I have said that one of my “jobs” was to put books into people’s hands. This is a book that I happily thrust into your hand.

CUTTING FOR STONE is an epic story in many ways. It is a debut novel that follows many generations and decades in three countries: India, Ethiopia and the United States.

Twin boys are born in a small hospital and their mother, an Indian nun and nurse, dies in childbirth. The boys, Marion and Shiva, are raised by two doctors and their lives are completely intertwined with life in the hospital. Medicine is a big part of this story and while it is graphic at times, it never takes away from the brilliant storytelling.

Marion is haunted by his father, a surgeon who fled the day the twins were born. He becomes the son of two loving parents and yet his anger towards his biological father never dies. We are part of Marion’s growing up years and his development into a man, and,  indeed into a doctor. But this is not just Marion’s story. This novel has many supporting characters that give this story its passion, its power and its heart. No one in this book is an accident, readers know that Verghese cares about the full development of each character, and that leads us to care as well. But it also has Marion’s twin, Shiva, who is identical to Marion, and yet so different. They have a connection that you can only admire, but yet, as they age they find their individual paths. And those differences are what make this story so startling and so interesting.

This story is like a train going full speed and you are so glad that you are on it. The train keeps going and you keep turning the pages. As in any good drama, it has a magnificent ending that will shock you and make you ask “why?” But then you will know why.

This is a big book, but it is a big story and it demands your attention. And it is a book that compels you to talk about with other readers. I cannot urge you enough to get this book and start the first page.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM

Friends had invited us to dinner…to a very “unusual restaurant”. They thought it would be a nice Dutch night on the town for this American who had just moved to the Netherlands. It turned out the night on the town was a night in the country also known as the Dutch outback. The place was called “Island in the Polder” (Eiland in het Weiland).

In order for you to appreciate my adventure, you have to have a brief introduction to the Dutch waterways.

Polder—one or more bodies of land (man made) that is surrounded by water

Dike—another man made piece of land that is created to be higher than the water. In theory, water cannot go over the dike.

Sloot—this is pronounced slote and it is the water around the land. It is not a river, a canal or the ocean. It is a sloot and it is generally a narrow strip of water and it looks like a dinkie canal, but it is NOT. Also, man or woman made.

We were told that in order to get to the restaurant we would have to walk about 320 yards from the car. Why? Because the restaurant is located on an island or polder. Just imagine farms everywhere where sheep and cows graze. And then there is some water and in the middle of this is an small island with a home on it.

The reservations were made 5 weeks ago, and this was the first night we could get a table. We all assumed that it must have terrific food to be so popular. Unfortunately for us, it was a rainy night and it made the trip a little more challenging.

Once we parked the car, we began our trek. We zipped up our jackets, popped open our umbrellas and off we went single file. We followed a dirt path and were hit with very strong winds. My umbrella was in front of my face instead of above my head. All I saw was the space in front of my feet. “Tell me when we are there! If not, I will just keep on going!” I yelled this out hoping I would be heard above the wind and the flapping of my now broken umbrella. Soon, I smelled and heard one or more cows. There could have been two cows or fifty for all I knew, but I did think it was a good sign. Where there are cows, there are farms, right?

A voice behind me told me that we had arrived. I could see a farmhouse. And then I saw the water, the sloot. There were three wooden steps to go down and there was the water and a bridge. This was not like any bridge I had ever been on. This was a bridge from the movies. This was the bridge that Indiana Jones had to fight off the bad guys and almost fall into a raging river and plunge to his death.

I watched people cross this bridge as it swayed back and forth. In my neck of the woods, bridges are not supposed to move, bridges are not supposed to dance. This one looked like it was doing the rumba in the rain. I imagined myself falling into the water, holding my bent and crooked purple umbrella like a demented Mary Poppins. “American spotted floating in a sloot” would be the headlines across the world.

But I crossed the bridge. I admit it is not an easy thing to hear a grown woman whimper and whine while crossing a bridge, but my friends were very supportive and tried not to laugh too loudly. When I stepped off the bridge and onto the polder or island, I breathed again. We followed a path of stepping stones past the farm house, past three colorful roosters and two small buildings that turned out to be bathrooms (with plumbing). The restaurant was one room with eight tables, it was cozy and comfortable. I got an English menu which thrilled me to no end and I am happy to say that the food was excellent.

By the time my coffee arrived, I was already thinking about the bridge. If I wanted to get home that night, I had to get off this island and cross the bridge again. If Indiana Jones was being chased, then he would cross the bridge with no hesitation. I knew that I had to buck up and face the music and step on that bridge. It was raining harder when we left, but that didn’t deter me from getting on that bridge. I was silently freaking out, but I got across. Correction: I wasn’t too silent.

When we almost reached the car I was told that I had been walking on a dike. “This was a dike? This was my first dike,” I yelled this out as I was so surprised and happy. On this night, I had hiked to a fabulous dinner. I had walked on a Dutch dike. I crossed a sloot to get to a polder on this crazy bridge. I did this in the rain. I am now the American/Dutch Indiana Jones. Give me a whip and a hat and I am so going back.

Recommended reading: In the heart of the canyon by Elisabeth Hyde