Monthly Archives: June 2012

THE CONSTANT GARDNER

I think I am half way intelligent. But sometimes I can say something stupid, yes, it can happen to the best of us. As an American living in the Netherlands, I have been surprised and shocked by certain things. And some things take a little longer to get used to.

This is a country that does not have the financial struggles that larger countries have. Unemployment has increased and families are facing tough times. There are people who are not members of the upper middle class, there are people who live in subsidized housing and there are families who are in need of assistance from the government. I did not expect to find a perfectly rich land, but still….

I did not expect to see shacks. When you are driving on the motorway, you can see these collections of shacks, like a small village, and it looks like each shack has a small yard and not much else. These small houses reminded me of something I saw as a child in southern California. We would drive by a section of train tracks to get to another town and we would see a few men sitting near the tracks. It was known as “hobo junction”. That image has stayed with me, as it was like so many old black and white movies where men would leap onto a train with a little knapsack. It all seemed adventurously romantic to me.

So after a few months of living here, and seeing numerous collections of these run down little houses, I blurted out: “I am so surprised that there are so many poor people living like this in the Netherlands.” I was asked to explain myself and I went on about the shacks and “hobo junction”.  That was my stupid comment. I was then told that those buildings and yards were not for poor people…they were garden allotments. Those shacks were sheds for  garden tools. Those yards were vegetable gardens.

First, I was so happy that I was wrong. That people were not forced to live there. Secondly, I was glad that there were options for people who wanted to garden, but could not because of where they lived. I have heard and seen allotments on television, but I had never seen them in real life.

In the Netherlands, garden allotments were started in the 15th century. This was done to help the working class grow fresh food. By the 17th century, there was a movement to increase the happiness of the poor, and gardening was a solution. They could rent a small piece of land and grow their own food and it was good for their health to be outside, working in the dirt. The popularity of the gardens has grown and there are now 250,000 allotments in this country. They are called “volkstuin”—the people’s garden.

You have to appreciate the limited access to open space—this is a reality of this country. So many people live in apartments and they want to garden vegetables or flowers. There are wonderful allotments in New York City and that provides city dwellers a perfect opportunity to get their hands dirty. Here, if you want to rent an allotment, you must be a legal resident of this country, and you have to join an association and pay dues.

There are two types of allotments:  the kind with a shed and land and the other one is of a grander scale. With these, you get a bigger yard and a house that you can live in for 6 months a year. That is right, you can basically have a summer home and a garden. The locations for these places are just beautiful and are all within city limits. As an example, Amsterdam (and surrounding the city) has 29 different allotment areas, with a total of 6,000 gardens.

The other thing that people can have on their piece of land is a  greenhouse or hothouse. Now I am not talking about the red light district, these are the traditional hothouses that have flowers and vegetables. The Netherlands has the largest greenhouses in the world and over half of all greenhouses in Europe are in this country. So you can imagine that a small scale hothouse would be very popular here.

I am not a gardener and never will be. But I love the world of gardeners and I have many friends who can grow a cucumber blindfolded in a snow storm—they just have very green thumbs.

I told the children about my mistaking the allotments for very sad little homes. Each time we are on the motorway and pass allotments, the kids yell out “Jane, that is where the hobos live.” I smile and laugh along and remember those men at the train tracks from all those years ago. Now we don’t even use the word hobo, they are now called homeless. That there are people in need of a home, in countries all over the world, is a very sad thing indeed. But I am glad that they are not living in garden sheds either. Everyone should have a roof over their heads and if they want a place to garden, then at least there are places available.

My English grandmother lived in a terrace house most of her life, it is where she raised six children. When you walked out the back door, you followed a path that led to the gardens of all the houses. Nana would send me there to gather carrots or pea pods. There I would be, squatting in the garden, cracking open those pea pods and eating the tasty, crispy peas. I loved them so much more than cooked peas. The other day I bought some pea pods at the farmer’s market and I was so happy to sit at the table and pop them open. I told our children about my garden exploits in England and they were intrigued with the peas. They had only tasted cooked peas and they love those. Our son was brave enough to try one pea and he absolutely hated it. He looked like I had given him the worst piece of food in the world. Our daughter, upon seeing her brother’s face, said no thank you. No one likes these peas but me, and that is okay. I have a bowl of fresh peas and some wonderful memories of me, in a rare moment, in a garden.

Recommended reading and viewing: Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE. Dvd: ANOTHER YEAR, wonderful British film about a couple who have a garden allotment…but it is also about their friends and family…gardening seems easy in comparison.

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THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

Within seconds of viewing the trailer for this film, I could not wait to see it. I hoped that the film was as good as the trailer. It is a very familiar situation—the trailer shows the best parts of a film. How many times have we been disappointed in the film because we had already seen the best parts in the trailer?

But in the case of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, the film delivers and delivers. In fact, the trailer made it seem like it was more of a comedy, it had a lighter feel to it. The film is actually not a cute little British romp with aging actors playing old people. This is not a film about the pain and suffering of getting old. It is not filled with geriatric jokes. This is not a film about a hodge podge group of losers who have no family or friends and that no one would miss them if they left the country. And this is not a film filled with Indian stereotypes that perpetuate the myths and fears of many.

This is a film with an actual story (how about that for being radical?) about multi- dimensional characters. For very unique reasons, they leave England for India. The hotel they are all booked in, is similar to them. It is very rough around the edges, kind of falling apart, and waiting for something to happen. The hotel and its guests are a perfect match. Emotionally, the men and women are a little worn out, just like the hotel.

These characters have life stories and the director, John Madden, is intelligent enough to let the actors be. He puts the camera on them and lets them talk. The simplicity of the scenes are what makes this film stand out: Maggie Smith sitting in her wheel chair, telling the young woman who speaks no English, what she did for a living and how her life did not turn out as she had planned and Tom Wilkinson sharing with Judi Dench the reason why he came to India. These scenes are only two examples of how the power of the film shines through-the acting, the script and the directing all work together because, and here it is friends, there is a respect for the audience. This is a film that assumes that you are smart enough to get it. To get the humor, the tension, the culture and the passion…to just get it.

We see the busy and crowded streets. We see the many colors of the market place and we see the people in motion, there is constant movement beyond the hotel walls. The characters are mostly explorers, in their own way, and they are all seeking something from this Indian city. And ultimately, everyone learns something from everyone else. And as hectic as life is on the streets, the real drama is consistently at the hotel.

This could have been another kind of movie, with silly broad humor that would be at someone’s expense. There could have been nastier people, so it would be fun for us to hate them. But even the “least likeable” character, played beautifully by Penelope Wilton, is a very unhappy person who never wanted to spend a minute in India. Her anger and her fragility is clear, and so we know she is struggling and that she is not going to make it. We don’t hate her, we feel sorry for her.

So in a summer of men wearing capes or climbing towers or redheaded heroes (all movies I want to see), go see this film too. This film is not going to make the millions of dollars and euros that the blockbusters will make, but here is your chance to see a film of quality where the heroes of the story are just regular folk.

Recommended reading: THE GRIEF OF OTHERS by Leah Hager Cohen. This is a fantastic family drama by one of my favorite writers.

BABY

My goddaughter will soon be having her first baby and I have had babies and childbirth on my mind lately. A birth is a birth, right? How different can American and Dutch births be? Well, the actual mechanics of birth are the same…hello?! But the Dutch do things a little differently than most Americans. It does not involve giving birth in a wooden boat on a canal. The woman does not grip a herring between her teeth as she goes through labor. And the baby does not get itty bitty wooden shoes as a gift from the hospital.

In fact, many births happen at home. The Netherlands has the highest percentage of home births in the western world. Thirty percent of all births happen at home, with a midwife.

Women who give birth in a hospital do it because of a medical need or urgency. Women who are expecting twins are automatically hospitalized. There is absolutely no anesthesia or medications for home births and in fact, it is rarely given in hospitals. The Dutch have a reputation for being tough, and this confirms it.

Women are allowed to take four months of maternity leave, if they choose to. They must start their maternity leave six weeks before their due date, that is the law. Both parents can take unpaid maternity leave, if they want. The partner of the mother gets two maternity days with pay when the baby is born.

Each family gets a home visit from a professional maternity nurse, no matter if the baby is born at home or in hospital. The nurse comes the first eight days after the baby is born. They are there to help with the baby, take care of the other children, make meals and do light housekeeping as well. This is at no extra cost to the family.

It is absolutely normal to be driving around town with a Dutch person and have them pass by a house or apartment and say “ See that window on the left? That is the room I was born in.” Most people assume you have given birth at home because that is the normal thing to do here. If you say you were born in a hospital, the assumption is that there were complications.

While finding out about the home births in The Netherlands, I kept flashing to all the old movies where a woman is about to give birth. The births all seemed to happen at home and everyone is usually in a major panic. The father is never allowed in the room, he is told to boil water, get clean sheets and towels, some rope or string and oh yeah, don’t forget to boil some water. The doctor, the midwife, or the 95 year old woman who lives down the lane in a tree house where she grows strange little herbs will then be with the mother for days and then you finally hear a baby’s cry. The father, who has been crazy with worry, is now allowed to see the baby and his wife. All the signs of childbirth have disappeared and he only sees a clean and beautiful baby and his wife who now looks like the Virgin Mary. This is the old Hollywood version and we know the real deal.

No matter where the baby is born, the most important thing is the health of the mother and the baby. I remember the first time that I held my goddaughter’s face to my face. The feel of her soft cheeks on mine, kissing her and then holding her on my shoulder…it is truly one of the best feelings in the world. It is a feeling of pure love in your hands and you don’t want it to ever stop. When a baby is on your shoulder, you can feel them breathe. You want to protect them and keep them near for as long as you can. One of the greatest things about being around a baby, is that moment when they recognize you and they react in pure baby fashion: the eyes light up, the legs and arms kick out, and their smile is aimed just for you. So now this baby is going to be a mother, I am here and she is there. I wish all babies in the world a happy life with parents who love them as they should be loved—like they are the most wanted gift in the world. Because they are.

Recommended viewing:  a wonderful documentary on dvd called BABIES.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

Half-blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I am always amazed at how much I learn about war from novels. If you have read this blog you know that I read plenty of novels that take place during the second world war. This novel is another view of war through the eyes of fictional characters. American jazz musicians were living and playing in Berlin and they were doing very well before the whispers of war. But slowly life changed for them and it is now 1939 and reality has hit them hard. Sid and Chip are old friends from Baltimore who are struggling to keep their band together as the clubs are closing in Berlin. The newest member of the band, Hiero Falk, is a young black German. This kid plays like no one they have ever heard before, and he is the one in the most danger. Into this mix of musicians is a woman, naturally, and she becomes the center of the struggles between Sid and Hiero.

The band moves to Nazi occupied Paris and then the novel goes forward to 1992 where Chip and Sid are on shaky ground as friends and they are trying to face the truth about the past. Sid is the narrator of the novel and he is a flawed man. He is wrapped in insecurity and guilt and this has carried him for years. But this is also a story about betrayal and how the actions of the past can haunt us.

Half-blood Blues was a finalist for the 2011 UK Booker Prize and I know why. It has a voice and a soundtrack that is unique to fiction and it should be picked up by all readers. And as I said, there are new things that I learned about these occupied cities and it just makes the horror of any war, that much more sad and terrible. To read about the Nazi flag being flown over the Eiffel Tower is shocking and surprising. It led me to find a short film online that shows Hitler touring “his city” and going with his officers to look at the Eiffel Tower with a swastika flying overhead.

So many times war is the backdrop to compelling stories that have romance, friendship and all those emotions that make us human. This novel gives us believable and far from perfect characters who are just trying to make music and they end up just trying to survive. A fantastic read.

Recommended reading:  Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, two great books about Paris during the war.

THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS

I heard that a cat had been hit by a car and the neighbors were waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Did they mean a regular ambulance? Or an ambulance that picked up animals? Yes, they did mean that. In this country, there are ambulances for animals. They look like regular ambulances and are equipped for emergencies. This was news to me.

As an example, when an animal is hurt in traffic, the ambulance service will give first aid, transport the animal to a medical shelter and they will also take care of animals who have been killed. Because of all the sloten, there are many ducks, geese and swans who are hit by cars. Naturally, there are accidents with dogs and cats too. No matter what the animal, and that means horses and cows too, the ambulance will come to the rescue.

If you have a large dog that needs to be transported to the vet, and you cannot manage, then the ambulance will take the dog to the vet for you. If your pet has had surgery, and you cannot get them home (remember, many people have bikes and not cars) then you arrange for this service.

There are 92 of these ambulances in the country. Since 1988, the Dierenambulance has been assisting animals and it does not cost the tax payers a cent. It is entirely funded by private donations. There is no charge for the services. If an animal has died, they will take care of cremation for free, if requested.

In the United States, there are animal officers that are funded by towns and cities. Here, there are no such officers, it seems that this service does that job and more. There has been a push to get your pet to have a chip, so that they can locate the owner, by just checking the registry. When the ambulance comes and finds an injured or dead animal, the first thing they check is if the animal has a chip. Most times they are able to reunite the pet and family.

Sadly, the cat died that had been hit. The ambulance came, and they discovered the cat did have a chip and they were able to contact the family right away.

A few weeks ago, I was on the motorway and a swan had just been hit. It was so shocking to see it lying in the road. Two cars had pulled over to the side and feathers were flying all over. It was the first time that I had seen a dead animal on the road since I moved here…which is amazing, considering how many animals are out and about. It is never easy to see a hurt or dead animal… but to see this swan, so beautifully white, just lying there, among the fast cars, it was really tough. You wonder what made it come out on the motorway, how confused was it?

Hug your pet a little longer today. Give them an extra treat. Say something kind to them and they will respond with a wagging tail or a rub against your leg. Whenever I see a dog or cat I greet them. It finally dawned on me that they don’t know English, they are so used to hearing Dutch, and here is this crazy American rambling on. But I don’t care, I still talk to them. I am hoping that there is a google translate for animals, and they understand everything I am saying whether I am French, Dutch, Spanish or English. Let’s face it, they are just so happy to be spoken to and be given some love and attention. Go ahead, give them some love.

Recommended reading: there is a terrific series by Alexander McCall Smith about the residents in a small London apartment building. The first in the series is Corduroy Mansions. One of the main characters is a dog named Freddy. If you are looking for an escape from the usual dramatic novels I write about, this series is just the ticket.

FEVER PITCH

There is a Dutch fever throughout this country, have you heard about it? It starts kind of slow, but when it picks up, you need to be very careful. This fever is technically called Orange Fever and it is all about football. Football madness (this is soccer) is at an all-time high this week as the 2012 European Football Championships are starting very soon. This is like a Super Bowl with multiple teams playing for a few weeks.

There are 16 countries playing in this championship. The games will take place in Poland and the Ukraine, from June 8-July 1. The Dutch team plays their first game on June 9 and they will be playing Denmark.

Everywhere you go in this country, you see orange. There are orange t shirts, hats, suspenders, socks, masks, toys, balls and even underwear for sale. Many food products are now all about football or orange. Cookies, cereals, candy, chips and too many drinks to count are available at your local winkel. You can buy two bags of M&Ms and get a bright orange fluffy cover for your cell phone. You can get a free beach towel from ING when you open a new bank account. Heineken had half a million t-shirts made for this series, and they are also a sponsor of the games. Hey, even Pedigree dog food has orange bandanas for your dog.

Houses are decorated with orange flags, bunting and even the Dutch flag is out. If you stand too long on a street corner, I am sure that you will be wrapped in orange. I am not sure about this, but I would bet that the houseboats in the red light district of Utrecht will have some orange specials.

Why the color orange? It is all about the royals: Willem, Prince of Orange, 1533-1583. He was the leader of the revolt against the Spanish that set off the Eighty Years War. He was assassinated in Delft, by a supporter of the Spanish king. Time heals all wounds as the Dutch now love to spend their holidays in Spain.

If you don’t like the color orange, too bad. If you don’t like football, it is really too bad. This dinkie country has gone over the bend and it is fun to watch. I know that all of you in the USA will be checking the European football scores with breathless anticipation. For my sake, cross your fingers for the Dutch. It will make my life so much easier if this country won the whole shebang. And the rest of the Dutch population might be happy too.

Here are the Oompa Loompas with Willy Wonka. They obviously have the fever. Check back with me, I could be an Oompa Loompa by the end of June.