Monthly Archives: April 2012

HAPPY, HAPPY

There was a recent study done on what countries are the happiest in the world. Columbia University Earth Institute graded countries on these subjects: health, family and job security, political freedom and government corruption.

The top five “happy countries” are:

  1. Denmark
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. The Netherlands
  5. Canada

Coming in at #11 is the United States.

Honestly, I don’t walk around and say “these people are so happy! They must be one of the happiest people on earth!” But I have been thinking about this study and wondering are the Dutch that happy?

This is what I know-the Dutch don’t seem to be that stressed. They are known for their honesty, and maybe that helps. They get things off their chests and move on. They do value the quality of their lives, they are not just driven by their salaries or their careers. They are not just defined by their professions, much importance is put on family life and how they relax and LIVE. This kind of balance, I would assume, gives them happiness. The Dutch people like and request part time work, this country has one of the highest amount of part time workers in the world.

One thing that I love about this country is the fact that the Dutch are not really interested in butting into people’s private lives. There is a good sense of freedom to live the life you want, as long as no one gets hurt. Freedom to attend or not to attend church, to marry who you love and to live a full life with independence. Does that equal happiness? It sure doesn’t hurt. By the way, every single adult citizen must have medical insurance. It is not free, but there are levels that you can select and the government does subsidize low income families. But would you not think that you are less stressed if you do not have to worry about medical coverage? Every child, until they are 18 years old, gets all their medical care for free. Parents have one less thing to worry about.

Yes, the economy is hurting. People have lost their jobs and are struggling. But there is a strong resilience to face the variety of struggles that come their way. These are people who wore wooden shoes to work the farms, who built windmills, who figured out how to stop water and make fabulous cheese. You cannot escape history here, whether it is the Romans, Napoleon or the second world war…the proof of the past is here.

There is a popular saying here: act normal. That means that the Dutch do not believe in flaunting their success. As an example, if a sports team is a big winner, there will be a parade and a rally, and then life goes on. Their philosophy is, you did a good job but don’t keep bringing it up, act normal. You are not allowed to get full of yourself here, as the Dutch don’t approve of bragging or being too proud.

On any good weather weekend, you will see the bike lanes filled with families. People of all ages are riding their bikes or roller skating. They are certainly enjoying The Netherlands. I would guess that they would say they have a good life, that this is a great place to live. They would also say it is not perfect, but what country is?

So what is it about Denmark that makes it such a happy place? Denmark is a little less than twice the size of Massachusetts and has a population of 5.5 million people. The population of Massachusetts is 6.5 million and that means that they are a lot more crowded in America, than they are in Denmark. You will have to discover for yourself all the great reasons why the Danish are consistently considered the happiest people on earth, but one thing that struck me was their famous motto:  “Jante-lov” which means you’re no better than anyone else. The Danes live by this. And it also sounds very Dutch.

I think the bottom line is that people in Denmark have a lot of space to live and they never have to fight about who gets the most herring. There is plenty for everyone. As for the Dutch, they just keep going. There is a little turmoil right now, as the government recently collapsed. But people are still out and about, the bikes are turning, the ducks are still crossing the road and Heinekens are being popped open across this land. It is a “prima” life (Dutch for good or great).

What makes me very happy is reading a fabulous book. I can’t imagine anyone not loving this book:  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. He had me from page one.

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Jane’s Boekentips

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Cher said it best: “If I could turn back time”

Jake Epping is a 35 year old English teacher in Maine and he stumbles upon a way to go back in time. He calls it the rabbit hole and this takes him to 1958. There are many things he can do that will alter people’s lives, he can at least stop some local murders from taking place. But what if he waited until 1963 and he could stop JFK from being shot?

There are a lot of what ifs in this novel and that is what makes this so entertaining. For those of you who have never read Stephen King, I say that you are missing out. Yes, he writes a lot of scary books and I no longer read those. But King is a great storyteller and he is at his prime with this novel. There are no monsters here, unless the true monster is time. Time is what Jake is always aware of as he constantly has to make decisions on his past, his future and his current life in the early 1960’s.

What I would suggest is that you take some time off from work and read this book. Tell the family to make their own dinner and let everyone else know that you are unavailable until this book is read. It grabs your attention and it is so hard to focus on anything else. Honestly, I didn’t want to focus on anything but this book. It was so much fun to read. I must warn you that it is a big book, with 734 pages, but it never dragged or got boring. If you can lift it, you can read it.

Big book news: J.K. Rowling’s first adult book comes out on September 27, 2012. The title is The Casual Vacancy and Amazon is taking orders now. Can you imagine how happy booksellers are?

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

The main reason we went to Maastricht was to visit a very unusual bookstore. It is in a 13th century cathedral in the heart of the old city. It was built in 1294 and it truly is a marvel. Every inch of the cathedral has been creatively used for the store. In the area, the rotunda, where the choir used to sing, is a lovely café with a huge long table in the shape of a cross. The bookshelves are three stories high.

When I entered the Selexyz (boekwinkel) bookstore, my eyes looked up at the ceiling and my mouth dropped open. You cannot stop the awe. On the day we were there, it was announced that another Dutch book store chain will buy this store. The good news is that the cathedral will still house books. These photographs do not do this place justice, but they give you a sense of its beauty. Put this on your list, and make plans to come to Maastricht, and see for yourself.

My favorite place to buy used books? Friends of Gale Free Library book sales in Holden, Massachusetts. The best deal in the universe…sold by the nicest people ever.

DRIVE

If you tell a Dutch person that you are driving to a city that is two hours away, the first thing that they will ask is  “what hotel are you staying at?”. In the Netherlands, a day trip means that the destination is an hour or less away. If it is longer than an hour, then you pack a suitcase. It is so strange to me, as this is a country that can easily be traveled. It is completely flat, the road conditions are wonderful and it is, may I remind everyone, a very small country. But the Dutch do not do long distance driving unless they are staying overnight.

In New England, people drive for hours to reach the beach or the mountains. You can leave Massachusetts and go to Vermont for the day. You can drive for two-three hours to get to Cape Cod and be back by bedtime. In the Netherlands, it is just not done.

No matter where you are driving, there is something to think about in this country: the rising cost of fuel. One liter of petrol costs 1.88 euros. In American terms, it means that an average gallon of gas is about $9.00. You read that correctly: $9.00.  It is one of the highest gas prices in the world. I looked up what fuel costs in other countries compared to the United States. The highest price was in Turkey where it is $10.11 and Italy was second with $9.35. European countries have the highest prices in the world, with the average being $8.60 a gallon. In the United States, in March, the price of a gallon of gas was $3.89.

The Netherlands has one of the highest gas taxes in the world. Taxes account for 68.84% of the fuel price. The taxes support road creation and maintenance and public transportation. The taxes also go towards environmental concerns. There are no road tolls in this country. And the road conditions are very impressive. There is one street near our house that has been going through some major work and for a few seconds I think I am back in Massachusetts, as it is rough and bumpy. I can’t even remember ever seeing a pot hole here. Granted, Dutch winters are nothing compared to the winters in New England, so the roads don’t get the same action. My point being that I can see that the fuel tax, as high as it is , does have an impact on the quality of the roads. There is a joke here that you always know when you have entered Belgium, as the road feels completely different. It is funny and true, the Dutch roads are smooth and the minute you hit Belgium, you are in for a bumpy ride.

Okay, enough about gas and roads. This was supposed to be a story about going to the beautiful city of Maastricht. It is a two hour drive from our house and yes, we did it in one day! It is supposed to the most beautiful city in the Netherlands, and that says a lot, as there is much beauty in this country. I wanted to share some photographs of the city square. It is a city filled with cafes and shops, a mecca for Dutch and Belgium residents and tourists. I felt like I was in the United Nations, as I could hear so many languages and accents.

We have a dinkie car. You have to be airlifted to get into your seat, it is that small. But to fill the gas tank costs about $80.00. So you have to be selective about where you go and how much do you want to go. That is why so many people ride a bike or take public transportation. But we drove to Maasstricht for the day, and here is the big Dutch shock, we were back by dinner time. Ladies and gentlemen, it can be done.

Here are a few images from our day in this majestic city. This is the square where we had lunch and next door to the restaurant is a McDonald’s, but in a nice old building. I have included the final photograph because I was struck by how narrow the house is…and it is for sale.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

NIGHTWOODS by Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier is a master storyteller and what is impressive about him, is that he uses so few words to say so much. He has only written two previous novels: Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons. There was much anticipation for his third book and it certainly does not disappoint.

It is the late 1950’s in the hills of North Carolina. It is a pretty desolate area, with one small town and people living all over the region. Luce lives in an old abandoned lodge as a caretaker. She lives simply and off the land. She has left the town and its people to find peace and solitude. But her sister, who left many years ago, has been murdered by her husband and her children are brought to Luce. These twins, obviously traumatized by their mother’s death, will not speak. They refuse to have anything to do with Luce.

The murderer, Bud, has gotten off from the murder charges and comes to the hills. He is a cold blooded killer and he wants money. Like a cowboy coming into a western town, there comes the hero: Stubblefield. He remembers Luce from many years ago and wants to begin a relationship, which does not interest Luce at all…or so she says.

These are people who are hurt and afraid, and they don’t even know how to reach each other. But Bud is the darkness in this story and he is someone who can make us all afraid.

The characters are so well developed and realistic. Frazier’s description of the natural world is perfect. He is a spare writer and the action just moves beautifully. Even though this is about the “rough” world, this is an elegant novel.

While reading the last chapters of this book, I don’t think I took a breath. It is a powerful story that is so satisfying and also entertaining.

Bonus book:  I also just finished Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengeance. Grafton is like a pair of old slippers, so nice to come home to.

DOWNTON ABBEY

The first thing we see is the wagging tail of a dog and the back of a man walking. It is a 36 second opening of the fabulous television show, Downton Abbey. The theme music by John Lunn, sets the mood for a classy and original experience for the viewers. I have gone to Youtube many times to play this piece of music…it is the perfect pairing of music and story.

By now, everyone knows about the mass appeal of this series. I have received numerous emails from American friends who were watching season two only a few months ago. We saw the show last fall and it was very hard to watch the Christmas episode, as we knew we would have to wait almost a year before the next season. Over 100 countries have the rights to Downton Abbey, some have shown it with subtitles, but it also has been dubbed  into many languages.

Season one was set in 1912 and second season was in 1916. The third season will be all about the roaring twenties and will begin a few months after the Christmas episode ends. By now you have heard that Shirley MacLaine will be playing Cora’s mother—Martha Levinson. There was much talk about this casting as it was said they wanted a strong woman to stand up to Violet (Maggie Smith). When I was reading the publicity about this casting, I kept imagining Shirley and Maggie wearing boxing gloves or having Lord Grantham yelling “take it outside, ladies!” Maybe the writers will surprise us, and these two characters will actually get along. I would guess that would make a pretty dull show. And can you really see Violet being happy with an American coming to their very British little corner of the world? By the way, our son believes the most famous thing that Maggie Smith has ever done is be in the Harry Potter films. When I told him that she is one of the greatest actresses of our time and has been acting for 50 years, he looked stunned and said “really?!”

The additional news about season three is that there are some new characters added to the staff:

  • Alfred, the new footman and be prepared…he is O’Brien’s nephew
  • Ivy, the new kitchen maid
  • Miss Reed, the lady’s maid for Martha Levinson

But these are the things that I have been wondering about—

Will Thomas become Lord Grantham’s valet now that Mr. Bates is making wooden license plates for carriages? I am afraid he will be and I hate the idea of this guy slithering back into the household. But at the same time, he sure is fun to hate.

Whenever O’Brien shows up, I always hear the music from Jaws playing in the background. I wonder if she and Thomas will be as tight as they once were. And how does it change things for her to have her nephew there?

Will Daisy get the big promotion she was whining about at the end of season two? Someone please make her the assistant cook or Chef Boyardee…just give her the job, so she can finally stop talking about William and their quickie marriage.

Will Lady Mary and Matthew be dating? Now that Matthew’s legs are working again, he might be ready for a little hubba hubba and that makes me wonder if there is a wedding  by the end of the season. Lady Mary has put Turkey behind her, but she knows she needs to have a ring on her finger.

Will Patrick Crawley, the missing heir, make an appearance? Will we find out if he survived his trip on the Titanic by finding a seat on a lifeboat or hitching a ride with Kate Winslet on that floating door?

Finally, who killed Vera Bates? I think there would have been a petition from the audience to have her killed if she had not died. Did she commit suicide? The bottom line is that we love Mr. Bates and want him back. If he is coming back, which I assume he is, then how can he be set free? Will someone else confess? Is Vera really dead? On American shows, the dead pop up all the time…sometimes they are in the shower for a year, but they do return.

No matter what the answers are to these questions, I simply cannot wait for the fall of 2012 when we can see this marvelous series again (in America, the new season will air in early 2013…sorry). I will leave you with a little bit of trivia….

What is the name of Lord Grantham’s dog? This is a tricky question as there are two answers. In the first season, the dog’s name was Pharaoh and in season two, it was Isis. Why the change? The dog that was in season one did not get along with the dogs who really lived at Highclere Castle (the film location of the series), so they had to replace him. Show business can be brutal sometimes and the lesson here is “it pays to get along”.

For those of you who are trying to find ways to entertain yourself while you wait for season three, why don’t you have a Dame Maggie Smith film festival? Here are just a few of my favorite Maggie performances:

  • The prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • A room with a view
  • California Suite
  • Sister Act
  • Gosford Park
  • Tea with Mussolini

And coming to a theatre near you….

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—this is her newest film and it also stars another actor from DA—Matthew’s mother, actress Penelope Wilton.