Monthly Archives: August 2012

MOONSTRUCK

In the summer of 1969, my family drove from southern California to the state of Washington. We were going to visit my father’s family and have a good long stay. My uncle and aunt lived in a very small town. It had a tiny grocery store with a post office, a school and not much else. At the front of their house, there was a screened porch  with a few old stuffed chairs. This was where I read Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. I have no idea why I read that book that summer. It was not on a reading list, but it was a book that I embraced and it certainly took me away from life in rural Washington. This was farm country. There were not too many television stations, but the big hit was Hee Haw…a variety show for those who loved country music and country humor.

It was hot. You could walk the creek barefoot and start to feel a little cooler. It was a summer of little boys playing baseball and of us sitting in the stands cheering on our cousin. It was the perfect time for watermelon seed spitting contests. There were sleepless nights because of sunburns on our backs and waiting for the skin to peel. And it was a time for the moon to become a parking lot.

On the night that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, all of us were in front of the TV. We were watching Walter Cronkite explain what was going on and why this was such a big deal. My mom jumped up and said to my sister and I and our four cousins “come outside and let’s see history.” We all followed her to the front yard and we stood there wondering what in the world were we doing. My mom pointed up to the moon and said “oh my god, I can see him….can you see him moving up there?” The six of us stared up at the moon following the angle of my mother’s finger and we finally realized what we were looking at. “yeah, we can see him!” My mom said “we should wave at him…if we can see him, then maybe he can see us.” And so we waved and jumped up and down. The older cousins knew how ridiculous this was, but it didn’t matter, we were waving at an astronaut. We were barefoot and hot on this July night and we thought the moon was smiling upon us.

The death of Neil Armstrong made news around the world. The Dutch press have given a lot of time to what Armstrong did and why it is important to remember him. His death has brought us back to that extraordinary summer and it is a good thing that we remember men bouncing on the moon. When I heard of Armstrong’s death, I thought of us looking up at the sky and listening to my mother cheer on the landing on the moon. And who really knows the truth? Maybe my mom was right, maybe Neil Armstrong did see us waving at him. And maybe, just maybe, he waved back. We will never really know, will we?

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY

I have seen the Statue of Liberty twice in my life. In the 90’s I visited Ellis Island and saw the statue from the ferry boat, but did not go in. The very first time I saw her, I was 9 years old. My mother, sister and I were on the QEII, traveling from England to New York City. We were on deck and staring at this magnificent statue, my mother gave me a quarter and said “you are now in America”. I will never forget that moment of holding that quarter and looking at the Statue of Liberty.

For my final French post, I will share a brief story about a famous Frenchman. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was born in Colmar in 1834. He was a sculptor and his biggest claim to fame was that he designed the Statue of Liberty.

There have been rumors through the years that the face of the Statue of Liberty was modeled after Bartholdi’s mother and that the body was inspired by his wife, Jean Emilie.

The city of Colmar has many monuments and statues that were created by Bartholdi. But in a roundabout, as you enter this beautiful city, there is a replica of the Statue of Liberty. I had no idea it was there, so I was quite stunned to see this. Our daughter had recently done a report on this famous statue, and you can imagine what a thrill it was for her to see it. Granted it was not the real thing and much smaller. But it is a lovely way to honor a gifted man, in his birthplace. And it is a lovely way for this American to say au revoir to France and return home, to The Netherlands.

Statue of Liberty at Colmar, France.

WAR HORSE

Our family had watched the film WAR HORSE together and we talked a lot about the first World War. When we were planning our week in France, it was obvious we were going to visit Verdun, the location of many memorials and museums of WWI.

Here are some basic facts about the battle of Verdun:

  • There were nine villages completely destroyed, Verdun is the only one still standing.
  • In 1916, the French and Germans waged a war in this one area for 11 months. This was the longest and one of the most costliest battles of the war.
  • 362,000 French died
  • 336, 000 Germans died
  • 101, 000 French are missing
  • and 210,000 French were wounded

The memorials and museums are spread out over the Verdun area. And the battered land is also a memorial. The grass is not smooth and flat. You see holes everywhere, there is grass there now, but you cannot easily walk on it. You can see where the trenches used to be, as there are still indentations in the ground. This is still a burial ground, as human remains are  found each year. There are 130,000 unidentified remains buried in Douaumont Ossuary.

Millions of shell casings fell onto the ground and they have scarred this land. There are craters everywhere. During the battle, there was much rain and that, in addition to the mud, devastated the land. In some areas, there was more human flesh and bone, than natural vegetation. The shell craters were so big that soldiers would slip on the mud and fall into them and drown.

Needless to say, the visit was overwhelming. These were not just cemeteries and statues, this was where the blood was shed. This is where soldiers are buried and still not found.

It is very quiet at Verdun. It was a beautiful sunny day and you can imagine the conditions of war almost a hundred years ago. I was reminded of Gettysburg as the feeling is very similar because you are at the place where people died. You are standing on land that men fought on and died. Being at Gettysburg was very emotional for me and the visit to Verdun was very similar. Everywhere you went reminded you of the tremendous loss of life.

As we were leaving one of the memorials, a man was speaking to us in French. We finally figured out that he was telling us that we had a flat tire. This was not part of our plan for the day, as we had a three hour drive ahead of us, but there was no way of denying that the tire had to be changed. We were having trouble getting the spare tire out of the trunk, it was lodged in there very tightly. Finally, we asked a man who had just pulled up next to our car if he could help us (in broken French) release the tire. This man was burly and seemed very strong, but he even had trouble with it. The tire did come loose and he continued to help us, and basically did all the work in changing the tire. He did not speak to us and we all assumed he spoke no English. By then, he knew we spoke Dutch and English. When he was done, I gave him a moist wipey thing to clean his hands and I thanked him. He smiled and nodded. Then I said “you are a good man” and he beamed and said “thank you” in English and French. We thanked his family for being so patient with us and they were very friendly and smiled too. When we got back into our car, I said “I now take back all that I have said about the French. (this was based on the Olympic coverage and our observation that the French refuse to even try to speak English) I announced that the this French man saved our butts big time and that he did not have to do what he did. Everyone agreed. We had to drive very carefully down the hill to the city to find a tire garage and we were all silent. We were driving past the memorials, the unmarked graves and the scarred land…I reminded the children of the scenes from WAR HORSE and if they could imagine how bad it was for the soldiers and the horses. The tire was forgotten, the tire was a non-issue, the tire was a tire. But on this day, a Dutch American family came to a battlefield to learn and to pay respect. A French family came along and solved our problem and we were grateful. And on a day like this, gratitude is a very good thing.

STAND BY ME

On one of our French day trips we climbed a mountain…in a car, of course. Dabo Rock is at the top of a very big mountain and it has a chapel at the top. The Dutch are not used to having their ears pop as they live in a country as flat as a pancake, but on this trip our ears were sure popping. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking and you wonder how people climbed this mountain years ago. I forgot to mention that a chapel was built in 1002 when someone climbed the mountain and decided to make a ‘holy place’.

Dabo Rock France

Before we started the trip down the mountain, we decided to use the public toilets. I was surprised that there were some. Dabo Rock has a restaurant and hotel, but these toilets were right next to the parking lot. We three, of the female persuasion, were stopped in our tracks when we walked through the door. We were facing a stall that had no toilet. Was the toilet stolen? Were they replacing it? Were the bathrooms being remodeled? No, this was a pretty typical French public bathroom. Women stand in the stall and relieve themselves. We stood in the doorway, we stared and then the three of us quickly left, but not before our daughter took this photograph.

French toilet

When we were driving down the mountain, we stopped on the side of the road to take a photo of the incredible view. Our son, who was in the back seat, said “why are we stopping? Are you going to pee here?” I laughed and said, “if I didn’t go in that horrible stall, why would I go in the bushes and risk poison ivy and all sorts bugs crawling around me?” Our family had a good time talking about the bathroom and we were so grateful when we got back to our cottage. It had a real toilet that you could sit on and read a magazine.

I don’t ask for a lot of things in my life, but the basics are just required. I would rather do yoga, naked, at the top of the Eiffel Tower than use that stall. Granted, it was the only toilet-free toilet we saw in France and yet I understand they are still pretty common. Maybe these toilets were “new and modern” in 1002, but right now, in 2012, we want to sit down. I ask you, is that too much to ask?

View from Dabo Rock France

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

We have just come back from a holiday in France. We visited the region of Lorraine—home of the famous quiche and so much more.

To get there, we drove from Utrecht to Belgium, to Luxembourg and finally into France. It took a little over six hours. The biggest thing that I noticed on our trip was the changing landscape. I have lived in The Netherlands a year and a half and I am just getting used to living in a flat country. As we entered Belgium it was startling to see that the land was no longer so flat. There was also less water, as the Dutch have sloten, polders and canals everywhere. And this change continued until we entered the lush, glorious countryside of France and then there were hills beyond hills and mountains upon mountains. I thought I was going to see Julie Andrews running around the bend singing “the hills are alive.” I did not expect to be so wowed by the French natural beauty. Where there are mountains, there are valleys. In every valley are small villages or just a smattering of homes. There are fields of corn so high you could lose a Dutchman in there. Coming from the land of Van Gogh, it was a treat to see thousands of sunflowers that gave the land the perfect amount of color. And the bails of rolled hay reminded us of so many famous farm paintings from the last two hundred years.

When we drove through the small towns, I immediately thought of all the French films that have those houses or shops. There is such a distinctive look to them…they are all very old, have many different colors, most windows have shutters and there are window boxes in front of almost every home, filled with flowers. In fact, there are flowers decorating all the towns. In the center of town, there are hundreds of flowers, there are pots along the roads filled with bright colors. Some of the towns look tired and not very busy, but there are flowers  and that gives a great sense of life.

This may not sound very romantic to share, but I have to let you know about the grocery store we visited. It was like a super store, similar to American stores, and not like anything in The Netherlands. What impressed me the most was the selection. France is a big country and they can have a variety of products and they seem to have everything there. A pleasant surprise were the prices for certain items. The wine section is enormous and the prices for local wines are ridiculously cheap. The cheese area was simply overwhelming, as my eyes got big and my nose was twitching…there were a variety of cheeses and the aisles were filled  with multiple aromas. I really thought that there had been a mistake with the pricing, as they were so low. Finally, the bakery was fabulous and why shouldn’t it be? There were shelves filled with all sorts of breads and on the bottom shelf was a line of tall bagettes standing at attention for this American. How do you choose a bagette? I went back and forth looking at them all, and just took the one that looked the crustiest. I found out later that it cost 45 cents. I am not the Barefoot Contessa or any kind of cook at all, but I felt like one of those tv chefs who visit Paris and shop at the individual markets. The ones who squeeze tomatoes, get a free slice of smelly cheese and taste a pitted olive…as they close their eyes and moan out loud. I did none of these things, but I felt like I should have.

I have saved the best for last. The holiday was just perfect but if I had to choose one negative thing about France it would have to be their television coverage of the Olympics. In The Netherlands we had great coverage of the Olympics—from Dutch tv and the BBC. During the first week, we were able to switch back and forth to get a comprehensive look at the games. Remember that Dutch television uses subtitles and never dubs anyone. If someone is talking in English, I hear that person and there are Dutch subtitles at the bottom of the screen. The French, on the other hand, dub everything. Every single thing on French tv is dubbed. That means that if they show President Obama talking, they have a man’s voice speaking in French and you never hear the President’s words in English.

Their Olympic coverage was naturally in French and that meant that we had no idea what they were saying. And where we were staying did not have the BBC as an option, so we were stuck with the French. When Michael Phelps was interviewed, he was asked a question in English and as soon as he started to answer the reporter translated his words into French! You could tell this was not making Phelps too happy. The French sportscasters like to talk a lot while covering an event and it seemed like they did not take time to breathe or smoke. And their coverage was really focused on the French athletes, whether they won or not. There were times where we could not see a live competition because there were no French people involved. The issue of favoritism by country is nothing new, and the BBC sportscasters have certainly been pro-British. But the French take it to a whole new level. Hey, I know I am spoiled by watching American television coverage for years, but Dutch have done a pretty good job this year. In fact, it shocked me to say that after a few days in France I really missed hearing the Dutch.

In the stores, the clerks speak English. And it does not seem to make a difference whether you are from Spain, England or The Netherlands—they are going to continue to speak French. On the sidewalk, a man sneezed and I said “bless you.” I was quite stunned when he said “thank you” with a French accent. I have been very spoiled by the Dutch, as their English skills are quite impressive.

France is a beautiful country, there is no doubt. And they have their own way of doing things, but don’t we all? I have more stories and photos to share and they will come soon. The kids and I joked that we wanted to see a man with a tiny French mustache and he had to be wearing a beret. Mission accomplished. We saw our first beret on our second day and it was quite a thrill. More to come….

THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE

I have never been a fan of bike races. If I saw the Tour de France was on tv, I would quickly flip the channel. To watch men, in tight little outfits, ride around on those skinny bikes seemed more excitement than I could handle. But living here in The Netherlands, I have been surrounded by bicycles and a very shocking thing happened to me during the Olympics—I actually watched a bike race. We started to watch the race about half way through, and I automatically picked up my book. The race was going to be background noise for me as the family enjoyed themselves. I would peek over my book to see how well the American and Dutch teams were doing, and pretty soon I was completely sucked in. By the time the race was near the finishing line, I was screaming and waving my arms as the Dutch biker Marianne Vos won the Gold Medal.

I have often written about the bike culture in this country. There are over 16 million bikes in The Netherlands and about 17 million people live here. This country has more bikes per capita than any country in the world. 99.1% of the people here ride a bicycle, compared to 32% in America. Bicycles are not just a way of life they are a necessity. They are how people get to work and school. It is how they get their groceries, how they get their kids to hockey practice, and how they get to their hot date.

These Dutch bikes are not cheap. The average bike costs about $1000 and that is not just for adults, children’s bikes are just as expensive. Nearly one billion euros is spent on bicycles a year. If you own a bike shop or you can repair them, you are doing well in this country.

I recently visited our local bicycle shop as our son is ready for a new bike. When he rides his bike it is like he is leaving little bread crumbs along the street, so many parts are falling off. From the outside, it looks like a nice little store and the showroom is really not that big. But they have hundreds of bikes crammed in there, and the prices were 800 euros and up. We asked to see what they had for used bikes, and we were taken in the back. This was just amazing to me, as I felt I was stepping into Santa’s workshop. There were three bikes hanging from the ceiling on ropes, and they were being repaired or tires were being replaced. And there was a lineup of bikes just waiting to get up into the air. Then we left the workshop, and came onto a footbridge that crossed over a sloot (most people would think it looked like a dinkie canal) and into another area that had used bikes. The shop also had bikes that were all painted red and those are the bikes that are loaned out when the owner’s bike is being repaired. Finally, we stepped into another huge room that had more used bikes and bikes waiting to be fixed. What an incredible business this is.

The used bikes are really great, as they are usually half the price and obviously have to be in great condition. We were only lookyloos on this day, as we want to be smart consumers and get the best deal. Trust me when I say there are plenty of bike shops to choose from.

In addition to the bicycles, this shop had plenty of accessories. There were all kinds of bicycle seats, for every kind of butt in the world. There were even many types of seat covers that were not just for padding but for protection. Just think how long these bikes are outside in the rain, so there are plastic seat covers similar to rain hats. There were walls and walls of bells. Bells come in every color you can imagine and then there is a variety of bell sounds, and you naturally have to find the ring a ding that suits your personality. And there are the baskets. There were plastic and wooden kind that look like crates and then there was my favorite: a basket that looked like it belonged to Miss Gulch in THE WIZARD OF OZ. I swear I looked inside to see if Toto was hiding there. And for movie fans, the basket is not identical to Miss Gulch’s but it had that old picnic basket look to it, and that is right where my mind went.

Once again, my world opened up a little more on this day. I stepped into a world that is so normal and even boring in this country. The Dutch cannot imagine their lives without a bike, as they have been on them since they were infants. The other day I was in the car at the hardware store and doing what I love, people watching. A couple came out of the store with their baby. The mother put the baby in the front seat and she then put her items into her two saddle bags in the back. The father had two bags of potting soil and he strapped them to the front and back of his bike, he seemed pretty confident that the bags would not fall. He bounced the bike a few times, the bags did not move, and he was satisfied. The mother got on her bike and he got on his and off they went. And I would not be surprised if they stopped at the nursery to get some plants. This man and woman would find a way to get them home. It’s what the Dutch do so well.

Recommended viewing: THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE is one of my favorite animated films. It is about a bicyclist, the Tour de France and everything ends up in New York city. This is a fabulous French film for all ages. Enjoy!

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

THE TWIN by Gerbrand Bakker and THE DINNER by Herman Koch

In the last few weeks I have read two Dutch books. Naturally, I did not read the books in Dutch, I read the English translations. This is big news, as these are the second and third original Dutch novels that I have read.

The English title is THE TWIN and the Dutch original title is BOVEN IS HET STIL (UPSTAIRS IT IS QUIET). Gebrand Bakker came to my attention because he won the 2010 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, for best novel translated into English. When I saw that it was a Dutch author, I knew I had to check it out.

First of all, let me say that I really loved this book. This is so beautifully written, with a sure pace and a dry sense of humor. The setting is so real that at times, I thought I was living on a farm (and this convinced me, one more time, that I could not live on a farm). Henk, age 55, lives with his dying father on a farm that has cows, sheep, chickens and two donkeys. Over 30 years ago, his twin brother was killed and Henk became the heir to the farm. This was something he did not want for his life as he was in college at the time. For all those years, he never left the small village and never gave up farming. The son of an old friend comes to stay with Henk as his helper and this shakes up Henk’s tidy little world. He has never confronted his father, he still has the box with his schoolbooks in the back of the closet, and he has never had an intimate relationship in his life.

The book is full of characters who come to the farm, the dairy truck driver, the livestock dealer, the neighbor and her two young boys, and the vivid memories of Henks’s brother…they are all here. Bakker does such a brilliant job of giving the reader a feel for the land, for the winter and spring, and for the sense of isolation and bareness in this life.

If this is an example of what the Netherlands has to offer for literature, I am quite excited. And I just have to hope that more books will be translated into English. The English translation THE TWIN, is also available in England and the United States.

THE DINNER (HET DINER) by Herman Koch is very different from the first book. This is a dark, thrilling and sadly humorous story about two couples having dinner in Amsterdam. That is such a simple description of this novel. I have often said that a great book is like the unpeeling of an onion, and this is a great big onion with many layers.

The couples have teenage sons and the plan is to talk about the horrific act the boys have committed and how to save the boys and the families. The theme of this story is to what extent will a parent go to in order to protect their child. In this case, pretty damn far.

Koch has written a story that takes you on a ride that continues to not surprise you, but stun you. It is a perfect example of a “page turner” as it will draw you into this shocking and also, enjoyable onion.

It was not my intention to read these books back to back, but it was a perfect thing to do. Here are two books that could not be more different in all sorts of ways. One is a rural story with complex characters that face the daily life of a farm and of also starting your life over again. You could say this is a representation of Dutch farm life. And then you have two families living in the big city who are dealing with anger, deception, and parenting. There is much in this novel about Dutch life and culture and that is where there is much humor.

THE DINNER has received rave reviews by the Dutch and British critics. And it will be published in America in early 2013.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and will make an effort to find their other novels, IF they are translated into English. You don’t have to live in The Netherlands to read great Dutch writers, it just takes a little more effort to find them. Please check them out.