Monthly Archives: November 2011

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

I think I was a very gifted child, for when I was born I was able to read. As a matter of fact, I would not be surprised to find out that I was born with a book in my hand. My mother has often told me what a difficult birth it was, now I know why: I was wedged in there with a book clasped in my tiny hands. Bookmark, anyone?

I do know that I have loved to read from an early age, and if I could not understand the book, I just liked looking at the pages. It was meant to be that I became a librarian, because not only was there much joy in having books at my fingertips, it was wonderful to put books in people’s hands.

The act of reading is truly one of the greatest pleasures of my life. So I am sharing with you my wish list. These are the books that I want to read. I have read the reviews and I am determined to read these new novels. If you are looking for books to buy for others or trying to make your own wish list, this might help. And of course all of these books should be in your local library.

At dinner every night, our ten year old boy, with silverware in hand, says “eet smakelijk!” which means enjoy your food. And so I say to you, enjoy these books as, rumor has it, they are a wonderful gourmet meal.

  • LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
  • MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • ART OF FIELDING byChad Harbach
  • NIGHTWOODS by Charles Frazier
  • V IS FOR VENGEANCE by Sue Grafton
  • 11/22/63: a novel by Stephen King
  • PARISWIFE by Paula McLean
  • TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER by Tom McNeal
  • CAT’S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje
  • FAR TO GO by Alison Pick
  • DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Donald Ray Pollock
  • EMPEROR OF LIES by Steve Sem-Sandberg
  • MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan
  • HOUSE AT TYNEFORD by Natasha Solomons-this book was published in the UK as THE NOVEL IN THE VIOLA. It will be in theUSA at the end of December with this new title. I loved this book.
  • SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward

 Enjoy, everybody!

THE HUNTING PARTY

Welcome to the 50th post of this blog. It is hard for me to believe that I have not run out of things to say. I never thought the blog would last this long, so thank you to all the readers.

Imagine me in a camouflage outfit. Imagine me tiptoeing on a blanket of leaves trying not to make a sound. Imagine me holding a shotgun and going on a hunt. Have I turned into Elmer Fudd? I am hunting for a turkey.  A Dutch turkey that cannot understand English and will not come when I call him.  If you are having trouble imagining me in this scenario, you are not alone. All I can tell you that looking for turkey in the Netherlands made me feel like I was a hunter, but it never got so bad that I picked up a gun and went into the woods.

This country has plenty of turkeys, but there is  a weird turkey thing here. You can buy turkey legs and turkey fillets throughout the year. You will have trouble finding a full turkey in the spring, summer or fall. A turkey with all of its body parts is easy to find in December as it is very popular at Christmas. But if you want to find a turkey breast, then you will have a lot of trouble. I have been in search of a turkey breast since late October and have been dreaming of Elmer Fudd volunteering to find me that elusive piece of meat.

I wanted to cook just the breast. It is so moist and wonderful, and I didn’t want to deal with the legs or the little packet of unspoken treasures that come inside the tummy. I just wanted a breast. Was I asking too much? Apparently I was. By the way, to all of you vegetarians, you are absolutely right: if I did not eat meat, I would not be having this problem. I would be over here trying to find tofu, and I cannot think about how I search for that stuff.

When we asked our local butcher about buying just the breast, he looked at me (he already knew I was an American) as if I had three breasts.  He told us he could get us a small turkey, probably the size of a breast. But he would contact “his people” and see what he could do. But alas, he could not give us what we wanted.

The search continued and I was trying to accept the idea of getting a full turkey, but I had to decide soon as I had to special order the turkey. I know that this sounds so strange to Americans, as the grocery stores have mammoth mountains of frozen and fresh turkeys. You can get a 12lb turkey or a 24lb turkey…whatever you want, you can get. And breasts?!! America has millions of turkey breasts, couldn’t they ship some of them over here?

But someone suggested that I try a store just outside of Utrecht that I didn’t know even existed. It’s a store like a Sam’s Club or BJ’s and I was speechless walking into this store. It is very much like the stores in America, just not as ridiculously huge. But still it could fit three large Dutch grocery store within its walls. And they had a great meat section, this place was my last hope. And there it was, a 3lb turkey breast, with my name on it. I clutched it to my breast and thanked my feathered friend who gave me this gift. Now I could plan on an almost traditional Thanksgiving meal.

The other big shock was finding butternut squash in the grocery stores. When I held the squash in my hands, I had a big smile on my face. Things were looking up. The mature side of me says that it makes no difference where you celebrate this holiday, it is all about who you are with and the gratitude and love you give those that are not near you. After all, it is just a turkey. It is just a dinner. But for whatever the reason, it has a bigger meaning to a lot of people. I simply love this holiday.

I think I will be better prepared next year. This was a learning experience for me, and I am always learning about what is and is not here. I don’t need to be Elmer Fudd to have a good meal. And I don’t have to creep into the woods to find dinner. I can just walk into the store and buy a breast, just like I could in America.

Whether your turkey is huge or dinkie, I wish you much joy. Whether you have tofu and pine nuts, I wish you a day of happiness.

An update—I saw THE HELP! I loved it.  All I want is some chocolate pie…..

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS

I have written about my adjustment to the Dutch way of life, and one of my challenges has been going out to eat. It is unusual to find any place serving breakfast. It was also a big surprise to find out that there are no free coffee refills in the Netherlands. I might add that going out to eat is also very expensive. Going out to lunch for two people will cost about 24 euros and that is being conservative.

So the big news is that the other day I had breakfast  for one euro (that is $1.37). AND I had free refills for my coffee. What kind of place is serving breakfast at 9am in this country? How can they possibly charge just one euro for a breakfast and then not charge for extra cups of coffee?!! I have one word for you: Ikea.

If you have had breakfast at your local Ikea, then you know what I am talking about. For one euro, I got: a croissant, a small hard roll, one slice of cheese, a hard boiled egg and coffee or tea. Oh, I also got a small container of jam and butter. And I could fill my coffee cup as much as I wanted to. There was no free cookie, but who cares? There was an abundance of coffee. And on this day, everyone could get a free slice of apple pie.

The restaurant was almost packed at 9:15am with a diverse crowd of hungry people. There were lots of young families and seniors too. As soon as a table was empty, new people sat down. All eating the same one euro breakfast. Some people had orange juice or milk, but all of our plates looked the same. There is a picture of this breakfast near the entrance of the restaurant, and I promise you, that my plate and hundreds of other plates, looked exactly the same as that picture.

In America, when you go out for breakfast, the plates don’t match. Diners have such a variety of choices and they are all over the map with their selections. On the menu, you have about 8 types of omellettes, pancakes and waffles, scrambled eggs and fried eggs, bagels, poached eggs, eggs benedict, egg sandwiches, bacon, sausages, ham and toast. Lots and lots of toast. And there is unlimited coffee and tea. BUT none of these meals are equal to one euro.

So if you don’t mind having a choice. If you don’t mind creating your own plate. If you don’t mind getting your own food and having a flashback of your school cafeteria, then Ikea is the place to go. By the way, once I went into the store it was pretty obvious that most people were in the building for the food, as the rest of the store was pretty quiet. The quality of the food was absolutely fine and I began studying how people approached their plate. Were they going to peel the egg first? Did they cut open the roll or eat it like a pirate? What in the world did they do with that slice of cheese? How many people used their butter and jam and how many just put them in their pocket or purse? Did I actually see people smiling when they went back for second cups of coffee? Oh yeah, you know I did. I don’t know about the rest ofUtrechton this Saturday morning, but I can tell you that there were a few hundred Dutch people who were very happy. They got a breakfast for one euro and free refills. Make that hundreds of Dutch people and one American.

I wondered if Ikea served the same breakfast in every country and this is what I found out:

  • Perth, Australia—you can get a hot breakfast of beans, sausage, bacon, hot tomato, scrambled eggs and hash browns for $3.95. But on Wednesdays, the cost is $1.95
  • United States—on Mondays you can get a free breakfast until 11am. But the rest of the week, you can get scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns for 99 cents
  • Stockholm, Sweden—it looks like the Swedish breakfast is just like the Dutch breakfast

It seems to be that the international breakfast menus are reflective of its host country. The Swedish and Dutch have the most simple fare and that is consistent with what I have learned living here. The only things missing are Nutella and chocolate sprinkles.

No matter what, whether the price is one euro or four euros, it is another brilliant move by this company. Imagine going to Ikea for breakfast and spending a few euros in the restaurant and then going into the store and spending 80 euros on candles, towels, a wok and a bookshelf. You have to walk through the store and pass by all of its eye candy as you enter and leave the restaurant. You are a captive customer with an empty or full stomach and you will likely spend money. And I am assuming (please correct me if I am wrong) that in all Ikea stores, there are free refills of coffee and tea. I know I am an sentimental optimist, but I dream of free coffee refills all around the globe. I should ask Hillary Clinton if she gets free refills in all the countries she visits. No matter what, I say thank you, Ikea.

Here are some books I desperately want to read, all published in 2011:

 The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

NIghtwoods by Charles Frazier

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatie

To my friends-notice that they are all male writers!

TALL STORY

If you asked an average American what do they know about the Netherlands or Holland, I would imagine it would be: wooden shoes, tulips, windmills, smoking pot in Amsterdam and Hans Brinker. Who is Hans Brinker? Why, he is the boy who kept his finger in the dike to save the town from flooding. Everyone knows the story of this heroic boy who saved his town, right? Hans was on his way to school and saw a hole in the dike and he put his finger in the dike to stop the water and he stayed that way all night, until help arrived. What a dramatic story, but it was only fiction, and it was not Hans Brinker.

American Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905) wrote HANS BRINKER OR THE SILVER SKATES and it was published in 1865. It was the story of Hans and his sister Gretel who wanted to win silver skates in a skating race so that they can use the money to help their father. Within this novel, there was a story about a boy who stopped a town from flooding by putting his finger in a dike. But that boy was not Hans and had nothing to do with Hans, and in fact, the boy in the story is never named.

Dodge had not been to the Netherlands before writing the book. But her book introduced many readers to this country and Hans Brinker became a very famous fictional hero. Americans have loved this book for years and it is still in print. In fact, most Dutch people are not familiar with this book or the legend of the boy. The only reason they may have heard about this heroic act was because American tourists kept coming here and asking if they could go to the home town of Hans Brinker.  They also wanted to see the monument or statue in honor of this boy. Tourists were shocked to find that there was nothing to celebrate Hans Brinker. I imagine many Dutch people said “who is Hans Brinker?”

But there are now two towns who have statues in honor of Hans or the boy at the dike. Due to the increased requests from tourists, three towns have acknowledged the fame of this book. The towns are: Spaarndam and Harlingen.

By the way, I would have not known this fact unless I had lived here, but the idea of a boy sticking his finger in a dike and stopping a flood is just a physical impossibility. Dikes are not made of stone, it was not like a brick or stone popped out of the wall and the leak just happened. Dikes are made of sand and clay and a finger or hand is never going to stop the water.

As for the other Dutch stereotypes, there are 1500 windmills in the Netherlands and most of them are still working. There are thousands of wooden shoes in gift shops, and there are actually some on the feet of farmers. They are great for working in the mud. Tulips grow in abundance here and to see them at a tulip farm will take your breath away. And the issue of legal pot smoking is currently being debated with politicians, and I will write about it later on. It is a complicated story. But I can tell you that on my third day here, I stood at a street corner a little too long, and I got high as a kite…and all I was doing was looking at the boats on the water. I swear that the boats were moving like a slow motion film and everyone was wearing wooden shoes and throwing tulips at my feet. And then this blonde little Dutch boy went up to a wall, stuck out his finger and pretended to save us from the ocean which is 30 miles away. All I wanted to do was go home and make some brownies.

Recommended reading: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

THE TOWN, PART TWO

In 1925 a very unusual thing happened in the Netherlands. A tornado ripped through the eastern part of the country and almost destroyed the small town of Borculo. Houses and businesses were torn to the ground and almost every roof top disappeared. The Jewish School was completely destroyed, but the synagogue was still standing. Residents must have thought that this was the worse thing that could have happened to their town. But they were wrong.

Borculo was one of the first Dutch towns that Jews settled in and by the mid 17th century, there were many Jewish families living in this town, located near the German border. In 1842, Borculo had a synagogue and in 1877, a new synagogue was built in the center of town. Behind this building was a bathhouse, also know as a mikvah. Borculo soon became the center of Jewish learning and the Jewish population grew and became a community. There were Jewish organizations for women, a society for the sick and dying, a burial society, a theatre society and also a group to promote Jewish identity for young people. In the early decades of the 20th century, there were numerous Jewish leaders on the town council.

By the beginning of the second world war, there was a Jewish family on almost every street in Borculo. In 1941, the Nazis tried to burn down the synagogue. Even though they failed, the building was severely damaged and  the synagogue was closed. In 1941, there were 160 Jews living in Borculo. They were taken away by the German army to the Dutch work camp in Westerbork and then later taken to Áuschwitz, Sobibor or other concentration camps. 87 people from Borculo died in one of these camps. Those that were not taken to camp had gone into hiding. When the war ended, survivors of the war rarely came back to their beloved Borculo. They had moved to Israel, Ireland or the United States. Only a few people came back and when they did, they were shocked to find that their homes were taken over by Dutch families and shockingly, as was the common practice in many countries, the camp survivors had to purchase their houses back, if they wanted to return home.

After the war, the synagogue never held services again. The building had many lives, among them, a metal shop and a butcher shop. As the years went on, the building stood empty and it seemed like it had been forgotten. But people got together and decided to save this historic building and it took many years, volunteers and fund raising. In 2008, the synagogue opened its doors again as a community center and a historical museum. Upstairs, in the former women’s gallery, you can study the history of the synagogue and the former Jewish community. It is an impressive and beautiful building and the citizens of this town should be very proud of all that they have achieved.

On the first floor of the synagogue is a plaque with a list of the 87 names that did not survive the war. Behind the building, there is still the white marble mikvah.

As you leave the synagogue, and cross into the next street, you will see a large shoe store. In front of this store, in the sidewalk, are five squares called Stolpersteines. This is a German word that means stumbling block and they have been created by German artist Gunter Demnig. He makes a 4” concrete cube that he covers with a sheet of brass. Words are then stamped on top. Stolpersteines are placed in front of the home of a victim of the holocaust, most of the stones are for Jewish victims of the holocaust. At the top of most of the stones it says “here lived” and then their name, birthdate, the date of where and when they died.

In Borculo, there are currently 28 Stolpersteines and many more are planned for installation. On this day that I visited the town, I saw the Stolpersteines that are near the synagogue.

Above the store, the family of Louis Meijer lived. He and his wife had five children and their youngest child, a boy, died at the age of six before the war. Their other four children’s names are in the stones of the sidewalk. They all died at Auschwitz, including daughter Bethtje’s unborn child. The five Stolpersteines are for Johanna, Bethtje, Michael Izak, Izaak and Bethtje’s husband, Horst. Standing there, in a circle with my family and the man who was giving us the tour, the busy street seemed deafeningly quiet. As we read the stones, it looked like our heads were bowed in prayer. As the stones were in Dutch, they were read out loud in English for my benefit. Hearing these words just made it an even more powerful experience.

Louis and Ida were not arrested and did not go to a camp. Instead, they went into hiding. They lived separately during this time. Louis, who was a butcher, worked as a bicycle repair man and Ida posed as a nun in a Catholic hospital.

After the war, Louis and Ida returned to Borculo to start their lives over. There was no longer a Jewish community and the synagogue stopped being a synagogue, but Mr. Meijer was still very active in the town. In 1975, there was the final Jewish
service in town, held in the former school and led by Louis Meijer. He had long been thought of as a hero in this town, as an example, in 1941, he had been warned that the Nazis were coming to Borculo to destroy the synagogue. He and his daughter Johanna saved the Torah scrolls and other sacramental items and hid them in the fire station. Ida died in 1959 and Louis died in 1976. Louis was a short man and everyone called him “little man”, the Yiddish word for that is “Pieman”.  No matter what, Louis Meijer had a big impact on this small town.

In July, 2011, artist Gunter Demnig came to Borculo to install the 28 Stolpersteines. There was a ceremony inside the synagogue and all 28 names were read out loud, including the five Meijer children. There are many Stolpersteines in the Netherlands and they are in about 600 towns or cities in Europe. 30,000 Stolpersteines are currently placed in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands. And there are no plans to stop this project.

This small town (population in 2007 was 10,420) faced their horrible history and did something about it. Instead of denying it, pushing it aside or downplaying it, they took their history and put it under a spotlight. The synagogue or the stones are not just bricks or concrete, they are a reflection of the people who lived there. This town knew that their history was based on its people. The synagogue was a second home to some and it was certainly a large part of their lives. The Jews were killed or moved away, but their homes are still standing. Now their names are where they once walked and played.

The school children of Borculo visit the synagogue and are taught about the second world war. They then go on a field trip to Westerbork, the work camp that was run by the Nazis and that held most of the Dutch Jews (including Anne Frank for a short time). These children now know what happened in their town and I hope they are horrified. I hope that by visiting the camp they will find out what happens when humanity disappears. And then I hope they know about Louis Meijer who came back to his town and worked to make Borculo a better place to live. He did not live to see the five stones in front of his former home, but he does not need them to remember his children. We do.

The Synagogue of Borculo

Stolpersteine Meijer Children