Monthly Archives: March 2012

HERO

When Tina was twenty years old, she lived with her mother and they ran a three story boarding house, with six bedrooms. Their address was 282 Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and it was located behind the Royal Palace, in Amsterdam.

Tina was a medical student who spoke fluent German. But the Nazis closed her school when she and other students refused to sign a loyalty oath. She was not Jewish, but she had close friends who were Jewish and at one point she had a fiancé who was Jewish. Her family were socialist atheists who had taken in Belgian refugees during World War I and hid German and Austrian refugees before the second world war.

Tina and her mother, Marie, were members of the Dutch Resistance and were an important part of the Underground network. They hid over 100 Jewish refugees in their home during the five years of the war.

The refugees were hidden on the upper floors with a quick access to the attic, which had a secret compartment that two or three people could fit in. A carpenter came to the house one day with his toolbox and announced that he was a member of the Underground. “Show me the house and I will build a hiding place”, he said. They could only hide four or five people at a time, as they did not have enough food. The people never stayed too long, as they were waiting for the Underground to get them out of the city.

There was an alarm bell on the second floor that would alert those in hiding to get out of the house. They would scramble out a window on the roof and make their way to the adjoining school, which was unlikely to be raided. The Gestapo banged on their door many times and would sometimes search the house for two to three hours. A Dutch spy in the Gestapo would alert Tina to an impending raid. She never knew who he was, but he was always right.

Tina would also carry news and ration stamps to Jews who were hiding on the farms outside of Amsterdam. In all sorts of weather, she rode her bicycle on these dangerous missions. She also smuggled radios and guns to members of the Dutch Resistance.

She became quite creative with what she would do to help the refugees get out of the Netherlands. She patched together false papers by stealing documents from gentile guests and inserting new photographs and fingerprints. She even made deals with pick pockets to steal papers from railway travelers.

During the five years that Tina worked the Underground, she was taken and questioned nine times by the Gestapo. Once they threw her against a wall and she lay there unconscious after they were done with her. She was never formally charged. She also continued to study medicine by visiting the hospital and reading the medical books.

Of this extraordinary time, Dr. Tina Strobos has said “It was the right thing to do. Your conscience tells you to do it. I believe in heroism, and when you’re young, you want to do dangerous things.” After the war, Tina studied in London and then moved to New York in the early 1950’s. She got her degree and became a psychiatrist. She died on February 27, 2012 in Rye, New York. She had three children and seven grandchildren and she was 91 years old.

Dr. Tina Strobos has received many awards and much recognition for her heroism. Her work has not been ignored or forgotten. But I had never heard of her until I read her obituary. And this story is the kind of story that needs to be told. There are not many twenty year olds who would do what she did and keep on doing it for five years. She had a legacy of a family who took risks. Her grandmother was also involved in the Dutch Resistance. She had a radio transmitter that sent messages to England. Referring to her grandmother, Dr. Strobos said “she was the only person I know who scared the Gestapo.”

During the time that their home was part of the Underground, Tina could walk past 263 Prinsengracht in just ten minutes. She did not know that this was where Anne Frank and others were hidden in the now famous attic. It makes you wonder how many more people were in hiding and how many people were heroes for risking their lives to hide them.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city. Most of the streets are narrow…on one side there is usually a canal and on the other side are buildings and parked bicycles. There are tiny shops and cafes and statues and trees and people everywhere. The houses are pretty well known by now: tall and narrow with three or four floors. Sometimes there is a shop on street level and then apartments up above. A row of buildings can look like it has been squeezed shut like an accordion. They are truly beautiful buildings that we know have stood there for hundreds of years. So when I hear the story of Dr. Tina Strobos, I think of the secrets she had behind her narrow door. I think of her climbing three flights of stairs to give a hidden family some bolletjes (bread) and news about the war. I think of her walking past the house that was a ten minute walk from her house and not even knowing that families were hiding in the attic behind a false bookcase. Behind the doors and inside the houses of Amsterdam, there were secrets and risks were taken. Some survived and some did not. This wonderful city was not bombed during the war, the buildings still stand. We who are here in 2012 have a big job: become the story tellers. Please tell your family and friends about Dr. Tina Strobos. Tell the story.

In 1941 there were 80,000 Jews living in Amsterdam and by the end of the war, 61,700 of them had died in concentration camps.

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CITY OF ANGELS

She wears jeans, has a laptop bag slung over her shoulder and she is talking on a cellphone. This is not your typical Dutch teenager, this is a statue called the Little Angel, and she stands above St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Hertogenbosch (about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam). There are many statues on or around this cathedral, but only one that is in modern dress with wings…and holding a cell phone.

I found out about this angel from an article in the New York Times. What is so interesting about this story is that people not only call the angel, but the angel answers. A local couple set up a number so that people could talk to the angel. She gets about 30 calls a day. The anonymous couple started this as a joke, but it has become a hot line or a help line for many people. This couple says they are making no money from this project.

When the call is made, there is no recording. There is a real woman’s voice that answers. She says “hello, this is the Little Angel”.  She hears a variety of stories, from children to the elderly. Children talk about their homework, they ask about the weather or what’s for dinner. They wonder if the angel is cold. There was the child who called because her grandmother was dying. A woman called because she was lonely and had lost hope in humanity. This woman called back a few days later and said she was feeling better.

A very busy time for the angel was when Steve Jobs died. The phone rang constantly and the angel told callers “Steve Jobs will soon arrive upstairs—perhaps I will get a new model.”

Some people are not amused or impressed with the angel and the “service” it provides. The Catholic Church who administers the cathedral has nothing to do with this phone number and the woman who answers the calls. Last December the church decided to create their own phone number. For $1.07 a minute you can call and hear about the church. A male recorded voice gives options like, “dial 1 for church history, dial 2 to learn about Christianity”. This phone number gets about 100 calls a week and they are using this as a fundraiser for the cathedral. So there are now two phone numbers for the angel, and they are providing different services for callers.

The angel came about because of a competition to have new angels placed at the cathedral in 1997. Dutch sculptor Ton Mooy designed the Little Angel. “Angels are there to guide, to protect people, they get messages from above. How do you show that? With a cell phone.”

I am not into angels or cathedrals, but there is something to be said for people having the need to reach out. People of all ages are comfortable enough to make a call to a statue and you can assume that some are calling as a lark. But there are others who have no one else to talk to or have no one else that will listen. Children who may want to believe that the angel can really hear them or help them. Adults who are weary from life and want to just be heard. And others who just want to feel like there is a little bit of hope. Maybe they really don’t have anyone else to call and this makes them feel a little less lonely. The woman who answers the calls, always tell the caller the same thing: “I will blow some angel magic on you.” If that makes them smile, then who does it harm?

And now this angel is so popular that she has two phone numbers. She could be texting soon.

My favorite angel is Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Clarence looked like an ordinary guy, and he was kind and helpful. His big goal was to get his wings, and he finally earned them by saving George Bailey. In this classic film, we learned that whenever you hear a bell ringing, an angel gets his wings.

Personally, I have no interest in calling the statue/angel. But I am happy to know that some people can find comfort from a phone call. If it gets them through another day, then the angel has performed some magic.

Recommended angelic viewing: It’s a wonderful life, Heaven can wait, Angels in the outfield, Michael, Defending your life and The Bishop’s Wife. Get a lump of clay, watch Ghost and have fun.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Devil all the time by Donald Ray Pollock

Rules of Civility: a novel by Amor Towles

Victoria has been in the foster care system all her life. At 18, she has aged out of the system and is now homeless. In The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, we meet the very complex character of Victoria. She is one of best developed characters that I have read in a long time.

Victoria has always had troubling communicating her feelings and she has every right to be an angry little girl. At the age of 10, she lives with Elizabeth for one year (the longest stay in her life) and this is where she learns about flowers. She discovers that every flower has a definition and that they each have significant meanings. What happens in this one year, impacts her life and is a turning point that marks her future.

At the age of 18, being homeless does not stop her from creating gardens where ever she can. She eventually gets a job with a florist and this allows her to use her talent of matching flowers with the emotional needs of her customers. The job leads to many things, including her first home and a romance. And there is of course a mystery and many secrets…all this makes the novel very readable. I would not hesitate to recommend this to any reader.

Have you ever read a book and felt like you needed to take a shower? That your finger nails feel dirty? This is what happened to me while I was reading The devil all the time by Donald Ray Pollock.

Pollock has been compared to Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy…this tells you that this is not a light comedy. As a matter of a fact, it has been called an American gothic.

The story takes place from the end of WWII to the 1960’s. It tells many tales about numerous memorable characters. It is dark, disturbing and dirty and I could not put it down. It is a powerful book that is simply brilliant. It is full of fake preachers, real preachers, serial killers, and young people who you worry about the whole time. And yet, you cannot get this story out of your head, and in the middle of reading this, I emailed friends and told them to get their hands on this book.

I can only tell you that it if you don’t mind a tough story, you will appreciate this book. I do confess that after reading this novel, I had to read something completely different. I needed to get out of the darkness.

Which leads me to Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Here are some of the things in this novel: jazz, martinis, cigarettes, filthy rich people and working class people, art and literature, and New York City. It is 1938 and the Depression is over and Americans are living the high life.

This is story takes place in one year and explores the friendships of Katey, Eve and Tinker. There is comedy and tragedy. This is a fabulous read. If you are a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as I am, then you will really love this novel. I cannot wait for Towles next book.

All three books are really, really good. They give you well developed characters and fantastic plots. I think you will be impressed with all the writers, all first time novelists.

For your listening pleasure: I got this cd for my birthday, and I cannot stop playing it…Birdy. This is the title and name of the artist. Enjoy!

PAUSE

Here in the Netherlands, the weather is fabulous. The sky is bright blue and the temperature is warm. There are flowers popping out all over. A month ago, people were ice skating on the sloot outside our house. Today, children were standing on the grass with fishing poles aimed at the water. This was a perfect early spring day.

But we are sad. The people of the Netherlands, of Belgium and Switzerland are in mourning. By now you have heard the news about the horrible bus crash that killed 22 children and 6 adults. This country is numb. We all want to comfort the families here and in Belgium…but what do you say? What can you possibly say?

When I first heard this news, I confess that I was a cliché. My eyes filled up immediately and I said “I just want to hug our kids.” All you can do is hold on to those that you love and make sure that they know that they are loved.

No matter where these tragedies happen, we as human beings feel. We feel. And we feel helpless. These are small countries and you have to imagine that these countries are like one state in the United States. The intensity of loss is big here, as we are within driving distance of these families and of the crash site.

Tomorrow, Friday, March 16, the flags in Belgium and the Netherlands will be lowered to half mast. The weather forecast is good. Children will be in shirt sleeves, riding their bikes or skateboards. They will be on swings and kicking a ball. They will be making a lot of noise, just so happy to be outside with the sun on their backs. This is what children should be doing across the world.

The Dutch word for children is kinderen. I love this word, as I always see kindness first.

LEAVING LAS VEGAS

Other than the news, I only watch one Dutch television show. It is called Ik Vertrek (translation: I’m Leaving). Each week they tell the story of a couple or family who are leaving the Netherlands and moving to another country. The first part of the hour is finding out why they want to leave, what they do for a living and what they plan to do after they move.  We see them saying goodbye to co-workers, to neighbors and to family. Family members are generally very supportive of this move, but there are many tears as they admit how hard it will be to be away from relatives.

Because this is Europe, most people are driving to their new home…their new country. The most popular destinations are France, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Italy and Germany. They have sold their Dutch homes, have packed their car and trailer, and they are ready for the long drive. What is so interesting about this show are the consistencies. Rarely does anyone know the language of their new country, they know Dutch and they know English. But most of them barely know a single word of another language. They all have the attitude that they will learn “on the job” and they are not so worried about this. And this fascinates me: none of these people have any experience with cooking and yet most of them have to run some kind of café or restaurant….they stand in the kitchen with a stunned look on their faces. And yet, it all works out.

Almost all of these families have purchased land, a home and many times, a business. The most popular business for these families to start?  Owning and running a camping site. These are Dutch people who have worked all sorts of jobs, from sales, computer technology, teaching, and social work. And they have a dream to start a new life and run a camping site. If not camping, then a bed and breakfast. Why are they leaving the Netherlands to follow their dream? The main reason is that it is cheaper to buy a business in another country. They are usually purchasing an existing business such as a camp site, and these are very popular destinations for Dutch tourists. They are counting on the Dutch coming to their new country and business. They want to be their own boss and not work a 9-5 job.  I think they are also people who are looking for a big change in their life and this is one way to do this.

Imagine moving to another country, whether it is in the EU or not, there is another language. And you have to hire workers to do work on your property, you have to deal with city hall, with real estate people, etc.—and none of it in your native language. Children will be going to school where they do not speak Dutch, so they will have to learn another language pretty quickly.

These families know that by having a camping site in France, they can appeal to Dutch campers. They advertise their business with a special appeal to the Dutch and that has worked out very well. The campers or customers like going to another country, but they still get to speak Dutch to the owners. Obviously, the business is not exclusively for the Dutch, but it sure helps when advertising on the Internet.

These moves take a lot out of people. Both partners have to do a lot of work, as they also live where the business is. This kind of move can bring on much stress, but most people handle this change very well. It can be hard on the kids at first, but they usually adjust very well once they make new friends.

You can imagine why this show appeals to me. Many parts of these stories are not relatable to me, but there are also some that are. People have a hard time dealing with separation from family. The good news is that many of these countries are a day drive away. But no matter what, your familiar has changed. You have new routines, new types of foods, new shops, new laws and regulations and a whole new soundtrack to your life. This show makes you realize how important the Internet is to these families, for many reasons. They could not do this move without it, they certainly need it for their business. And the Internet is my lifeline to my friends, I don’t know what I would do without it.

One of the most entertaining episodes was about a couple who took over a campground. As we watched the show, we saw the owners stepping into the pool, naked. Okay, that was not such a big deal. But then we saw campers coming out of their caravans, naked. It finally dawned on us that they had opened a nude camp site. And most of the people that were there, were Dutch. People were just walking around the grounds naked as can be. One night they all had a barbecue and I don’t even think the chef wore an apron. Everyone seemed very happy and fancy free.

It makes you realize that people have dreams, and sometimes those dreams are not being met in their hometown. They want to be their own boss, they want to own land, they want to explore new cultures….and they want to play horseshoes naked.

Recommended reading: one of my favorite authors is Anne Tyler and this is one of her best—Ladder of Years.  All about starting your life over.

TEACHER’S PET

Let me go on record by saying that I loved school when I was young, and I loved my teachers even more. Most of my teachers were very kind, patient and smart. Well, I sure thought they knew a lot. My experience was a little unusual from most, as I attended schools in England, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. And now as a grown up, I count teachers as my friends.

I have not yet fully understood the entire Dutch educational system, but there is one big difference between education here and in America. In America, each state has an educational department with their own regulations, etc. and there are cities, towns and districts who run and fund the schools. In the Netherlands, education is completely funded by the national government. That means that schools are funded the same across the country…living in a upper middle class town does not mean that that school gets more money than a school in a poorer town. Teachers are paid the same rate across the country. You do not get a larger salary because you teach in Amsterdam or if you teach in a dinkie town. Schools receive money based on how many students are in that school. Children are supposed to have the same educational opportunities as children from all over the country.

On March 6, the teachers held a one day strike. Two thousand schools were closed and 50,000 teachers did not go to school. Instead, most of them went to a rally at the football stadium in Amsterdam. They were protesting the proposed cuts from the education budget. The proposal was to cut 300 million euros from the 3.7 billion euro budget earmarked for education. The teachers say that this will greatly impact special needs education, their hours will increase and salaries will be frozen. The government has admitted that 5000 jobs will be eliminated with these cuts.

Obviously, not everyone in government is happy with these cuts. But on March 6, the politicians voted to support the proposed cuts, and it won by a close margin. I am not sure what hope there is for the education budget to be saved, but it does not look good.

All I know is that children with speciaI needs need special attention. A classroom teacher cannot do it all alone….they can only juggle so many things at the same time. This is a world-wide problem, how to give teachers the support they need and want. The bottom line is to make sure the children are getting the very best, in all aspects of life. I know that I dearly loved my time in school (except for math) and I truly respected my teachers. When I hear stories about education cuts, I just say “find the money, just find the money.” If only life was that easy.

Jane’s Boekentips

Before you read the book review, I just want to say one of best things about living in the Netherlands at this time, is that the world in on my laptop. I can watch the news from America and feel connected to friends and even citizens I don’t even know. I have been watching the horrible news about the tornados that have torn through many states. So many lives have been lost and altered because of the weather and it certainly makes you feel helpless. You cannot stop a tornado or hurricane. I just want to say that I feel for all the people impacted by the storms and I guess this is my moment to feel helpless.

BOY21 by Matthew Quick

When I was a teenager I used the school library all the time. In middle school, I discovered fiction that was written in the 1950’s (I was reading them in the 1970’s) and I fell in love with books written by Betty Cavanna, Rosamund Dujardin and Lenora Mattingly Weber. No one had any real problems in these stories, the biggest challenges were finding the right sweater to match the skirt and staying away from bad boys who wore blue jeans. What I realized was that the fiction that was written in the 1950’s and even later on, were not very reflective of a young person’s life. There was very little talk about divorce, drugs, drinking, financial troubles, etc. As much as I enjoyed these “safe” books, I was looking for books that let me know that I was not alone. That there were people like me out in the world. I didn’t find those books until I became a children’s librarian and I was happy to pass them on to readers.

The good news is that there are some fantastic books for young adults that are not patronizing or preachy. That have honest voices of young people and they have real life problems. The even better news is that these novels are really well written. Today’s authors of young adult fiction are fabulous because they tell authentic stories. One of my favorite writers is Matthew Quick because not only is he a good writer, but he writes truthfully and with a lot of heart.

His new novel, BOY21, is not only a compelling story, but it has interesting characters that you will have trouble forgetting. Finley is in high school, he loves basketball and he loves playing on his high school team. He is the only white player on the team and he is known as “White Rabbit”. Into his already complicated life comes someone that he is forced to be friends with—Russell is also a basketball player who is possibly one of the best in the country. But he has experienced a horrible tragedy and he has decided he wants to be called Boy21. Finley has secrets that run through this story and his friendship with Boy21 allows all things to be revealed.

This book is a very fast read as you cannot wait to turn the page. Quick has created memorable characters and scenes that will stay with you long after you have closed the book. This is what young adult fiction is all about…writing about realistic situations with true characters.

I encourage you to read Quick’s two previous books. His first novel for adults, THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, is currently being made into a feature film. And his first young adult novel was SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR, a book that you will embrace. You do not need to be a teenager to enjoy young adult literature! A good book is a good book, no matter who the intended audience is.

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY

When I was 10 years old, our family moved from Europe to California. This was a very hard adjustment for me, as I tried to learn American pop culture and “fit in”. The one very positive thing about this transition was discovering American television, especially a show about four members of a band, called The Monkees.

I have just learned about the sudden death of Davy Jones. This does not seem possible, because he is locked in my memory bank, as this young, cute boy. Davy Jones was beyond cute and charming. He always stood at the front and played the tambourine or maroccas, and of course he sang. I confess that he was not my favorite—my guy was Micky Dolenz, the drummer.

In my bedroom, I had a wide closet with plenty of space to tape posters. On these doors I have photographs from the popular magazine Tiger Beat, and there were the Monkees. And  next to them was Bobby Sherman, another singer and actor who was red hot at the time. I didn’t say prayers when I went to bed, I said good night to the cute boys on my closet doors.

My mother had a big old hat box and when I was alone in the house, I would play that hat box like I was a drummer like Micky Dolenz and I sang all of their songs. When Davy sang, I sang. For a few years, Monday nights were all about The Monkees.

Who can forget Davy guest starring on The Brady Bunch? We were all so jealous of Marcia Brady. Davy seemed so nice and appealing. Many years later, I went to a reunion concert of three of the four band members. Never did I believe that I would ever see them in person. I wasn’t a little girl anymore, and it did not matter. All of us had aged, including Micky, Peter and Davy… and they gave us a great night of memories.

His death is the end of a joyous memory lane. I am grateful to this band and the Tiger Beat fandom, as it helped me on many levels. The bottom line is that they made me happy. And now, I remember them with much fondness and gratitude. I am playing their music today and smiling…and yet still sad for the loss of a daydream believer.