Monthly Archives: October 2012

HALLOWEEN

Americans have fond memories of past Halloweens from their childhood (at least, I hope they do). I don’t really remember the costumes or masks, but I do remember walking the streets in our California neighborhood and eventually going through the haul. It was so much fun to be outside in the dark and on a school night. And you were not alone, as there were many children doing the same thing you were doing. This was a time when it was rare to have a house with all their lights out, a very clear indication that there were to be no treats handed out at that house. There was a lot of hustle and bustle and trying to figure out who was who. But when the trick or treating was over, it was time to get home and see what you got from the neighbors.

My sister and I would empty our bags onto the floor and start to make piles. There was the pile for the favorites…the candy that you would eat first like M& M’s, Milky Ways or Baby Ruths. There was the pile for the small packets of gum and Life Savers…they were not bad, but they could certainly wait until all others were consumed. That left two more piles to make: the one for the stuff you did not like at all and for the stuff you hoped to trade with your sister because you know she likes it more than you do. The negotiations would begin and we were both pretty successful. If there were still things we did not like at all, we offered them to our parents. The whole Halloween season was so much fun and satisfying and it was a great time to be a kid.

Here in the Netherlands, things are a little different. There are Halloween items for sale in the stores, like decorations with skeletons and scary things. And you can get costumes as well. But here, Halloween seems to be more for adults to have a “fright night” at a club or to have a private costume party. Halloween is not a big deal here for children, but there are some who do trick or treat, if it is organized by the families. And I think that is mainly for expat families who want to continue their American traditions. Some Dutch are resistant to the idea of Halloween as it is not a tradition in this country, it is an American tradition. Besides, the Dutch would argue they have their own version of Halloween.

On November 11, it is Saint Martin’s Day (Sint Maarten). Young children dress up, carry paper lanterns and go through their neighborhoods. They will sing a song and gets sweets or even a tangerine. Sometimes there will be a small parade of children as they go door to door.

Why? The story goes that on a dark and stormy night, Martin was walking alone and was wearing a cloak and he had only a piece of bread. He came across a man who had nothing. Martin gave him half his cloak and half his bread and invited him to come home with him. He is now known as Saint Martin and he is famous for his kindness.

In this country, this day is more popular in certain regions. In the northern part of the Netherlands, Saint Martin’s Day is a really big deal. But it is not so popular in other parts of the country. You never know what town or neighborhood will be participating. Parents will invite neighbors to give treats, and to put out a sign on their door letting the children know that they can ring their bell. That seems to be a practical way to do it and not surprisingly, a very Dutch thing to do.

So there you have it, the story of two countries and how holidays are so different.  For some of us, we just have our memories of Halloweens past. As I am writing this, I have remembered two more things: One house on our street, would give away homemade popcorn balls…they were so fresh and delicious. We knew where they came from so it was safe to eat them. The ball was one of the first things we would eat, as it smelled so good and we did not want it to become stale. You knew they were made that day. I then remember being too old to trick or treat, and I became the door monitor and got to have a different point of view. Opening the door and seeing the witches, the ghosts, the cowboys and princesses all screaming “trick or treat!”  and you put your hand in the bowl and drop goodies into their bags. Life was good. And it still is for a whole new generation.

I hope everyone has a sweet time this year. Let the doorbells ring.

Recommended reading-one of the scariest storytellers in the world is Stephen King. He has made me look into sewage drains, closets and even toilets. He has spooked me on many occasions. But King has also written great stories that are not filled with horror. His latest novel—11-22-63-is such a book. It is absolutely a page turning entertaining read.

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JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER BY SARAH MCCOY

GONE GIRL BY GILLIAN FLYNN

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY BY RACHEL JOYCE

I think I am at the point in my reading career to want to find new and exciting novels about war. I have read so many stories about the two world wars and so many of them are simply fantastic. But because I have read so many, it has made me wish for a writer to do something different. Simply put, wow me. Sarah McCoy has done just that.

THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER has two points of view—a small town in Germany, during the war, and a family run bakery and a modern day story in Texas. How do they have anything in common? Elsie, the teenage daughter of the German baker, is now elderly and  living in Texas running her own bakery. The novel is about what happened to her and her family and how she came to Texas. But we also meet Reba, the young woman in Texas who befriends Elsie…we see two women, in different time periods, who have life changing decisions to make.

There are so many things that work well in this story, and it still amazes me that after all this time, there are still war stories that are fresh and new, and credit goes to McCoy for doing this. When young Elsie slowly discovers the truth about Hitler and that the rumors about the camps, it all seems so believable and painful. Once again, the dilemma is do you have the courage to risk your life to save another? Do you have the courage and faith to change the course of your life? For those of you looking for a book that begs for discussion, this is a perfect choice.

Now let us take a leap into something completely different. GONE GIRL is a thriller and a mystery, but there is nothing traditional about this novel. This is a story that is so radical and unique that you will not believe how Gillian Flynn came up with this idea and how well she pulled it off.

All I will say about this story is that it is about a marriage, a missing wife, an accused husband and who is telling the truth? Who can you root for when Flynn has created characters who do not have many redeeming qualities? The brilliance of this book is that you don’t really care who is right or wrong, you just love and love this story. You turn pages and then remember to breathe. You end a chapter and try to think about what you just read and then give up, and just keep going. This is runaway train and you must get on board.

Rachel Joyce has created characters that we feel could be our neighbors in THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY. Harold, a quiet retiree, steps out of his British home to mail a letter. Once he reaches the mail box, he just keeps walking and walking. He decides that it would be best to see the woman he is writing to and not just reply with a letter. That morning he has received a note from a woman he had briefly worked with many years ago and she is now in hospice. Harold thinks that if he walks the 500 miles to her, he can save her life.

This unusual novel is not just about a man having a walking adventure, but it is also about his past, his marriage and family and it is also about the people he meets along the way. This is a gentle story that quietly makes you think about your own journey in life. Joyce has created very real characters in Harold and his wife, Maureen. But as the story unfolds, we find out there is more and more to this quiet, mild man. A very satisfying read.

THE HANGOVER

There are two things I heard and saw this week that reminded me that I was not in America anymore.

First, the legal age for purchasing beer and wine in The Netherlands is 16 years. There is some talk of stopping happy hours in bars because so many teenagers are taking advantage of the early bird specials, like four beers for five euros. The government is concerned about the high number of young people who are drinking early and often. The bar owners say that it would be devastating to their business and it would not be fair. Others say it is good to have the teenagers inside a bar and off the streets in a safe environment.

You have to be 18 years old to vote and you have to be 18 years old to drive a car, but you can drink at 16? I was truly shocked to hear about this law and maybe I have to go with the flow. But I cannot imagine seeing one of our children walking into a bar and ordering a Heineken at the age of 16.

In America, the legal age is 21 years of age so you can understand how shocked I was at the idea of 16 year olds drinking. I did a quick survey of the drinking age in other countries, and it seems that the average age is 18. A few countries have it as low as 16: Belgium, Germany and Italy.

Okay, here is my second you are not in Kansas anymore moment: there is a store that we go to a lot because they have fabulous sales on shampoos, toothpaste, household gadgets, etc. As I was standing at the counter I looked at this tabletop display of mints. I thought it was interesting that they were selling them in individual packages and I imagined that you got 5 mints per packet. Or maybe they were packets of licorice, something very Dutch. But as I had time to study the display, I realized that I was not looking at anything edible. I was looking at hundreds of condoms. A variety of colors and sizes were on display and as my nose got closer to the packets, I thought that maybe I was a little too close and showing a little too much interest. In my defense, the text was all in Dutch and my language studies have not reached the condom category yet.

Condoms are openly sold in America. They are sold on regular shelves and they do not have to be behind the counter anymore. No one has to ask for a packet of condoms, they can help themselves. But I have never seen them on display like they were in this store. Right above the candy bars and next to the cash register. Is that a bad thing? No way. For the rushed shopper who is trying to remember everything, this would be a perfect reminder. And as the Dutch say, this is a fact of life, there is nothing to hide or be embarrassed about. The Dutch have a very liberal view of sex and because of that view, things that would be a big deal in the USA are not here. If you have been reading this blog, you know about the Utrecht houseboats. You may have heard about the window shopping you can do in Amsterdam in the red light district. Children are taught sex education in school without too much fuss…it is just the way things are here. All I can say is that Dorothy’s eyes would be opened wide by the Dutch life. She would not only have Toto in her basket, but a few bottles of beer too. And then she would remember to stop by the store for some toothpaste and oh yeah, some mints might be nice. Wink, wink.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin

I believe how hot it is in Mississippi. I believe how a man can be hounded for a crime unproven. I believe that lies, secrets and fear can destroy lives and even kill. I believe these things because Tom Franklin says so. In his brilliant novel, CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, he brings us to a small southern town and makes us believe that these fictional characters could be real. In fact, they feel awfully real.

Silas and Larry were briefly friends when they were young, but their lives took different routes. Silas is now the lone police officer in Chabot, Mississippi and Larry lives a life of solitude as he has long been thought of as a murderer. Both these men live in this town, but they do not speak…until another girl goes missing and the focus is back on Larry.

The writing is so superior, it is so fluid and hot. Franklin’s characters are so true and real that I really do believe that all of them could exist.  After reading the first chapter, I put down the book and thought “that was a perfect chapter. Can the book continue to be so good?” Yes it can. I urge you, I beg you, and I order you: read this book.

THE SEARCH by Maureen Myant

I have read many novels about the second world war, but I did not know that much about what happened to the Czechoslavakian people. This novel is about children of the war. The German army took Czech children and the plan was for them to be raised by German families so that it would firm up the Third Reich. Parents would be killed or put in camps, but young children would be kidnapped and given new identities.

Jan, age 10, has lost his family to war. He escapes the Nazis and is now on a search for his young sister, who he believes has been brought to a German family. The story follows Jan and the people he meets along the way. He is always hungry, he is always hiding from soldiers and he is in constant fear of death. But Jan is a survivor and he fights his way to bring his family together again.

This is a well written story giving the reader two perspectives—a young boy on the run and a German family who are also struggling with the war and what it means to their family. I love reading a historical novel that is not only entertaining but also tells me something I didn’t know.

FOLLOW THAT BIRD

For a few months I have been thinking about writing about the Dutch version of Sesame Street, called Sesamstraat. There are twenty international co-productions of Sesame Street. That means that they use the set and characters of Sesame Street, but the language and names are Dutch, as an example. It is very odd to watch at first, as the voices are not the voices we Americans are used to. You are hearing Dutch come out of Big Bird’s beak.

Ah, Big Bird. The bird has gotten a lot of publicity this past week as he was mentioned in the first presidential debate. The funding of Sesame Street has long been debated by politicians as the government gives some money to public television and that includes Sesame Street.

When I graduated from  college and moved to Massachusetts, I could not find a job. I ended up taking care of two small boys, basically I was Mary Poppins without the singing and magic. I had never seen an entire episode of Sesame Street before, but I was now their audience as the boys loved this show. Soon, I was hooked on it and looked forward to watching it each day.

Sesame Street has succeeded for 43 years because it respects children. It knows that children want to laugh. It knows that you can teach without lecturing and small children respond to silliness, music and bright colors. If you want to teach children how to count, have a Count who counts everything. If you want to talk about friendship, just watch a scene with Bert and Ernie. And if you want to show children what grouchy looks like, all you have to do is spend a few minutes with Oscar. Children around the world learned the alphabet and they also learned how to spell by watching this show. Sesame Street has never been a real street, but we wanted it to be.

We all want to live on a street where people smile and greet each other by name. We want to live on a street where people are treated with kindness and respect. We want to work on a street where the customers are also our friends. Sesame Street has always been a safe place to play and to talk about funny things and also some sad and scary things. When Mr. Hooper died, it was talked about in a way that was honest and loving. When 9/11 happened, it was not ignored. Children learned about people with disabilities and they saw a variety of colors on the street. No one judged Grover because he was blue or Elmo because he was red. It made no difference what you looked like on the street, you were just accepted.

I want to live on Sesame Street! This is the way the world should be. This is the show that world leaders should be watching to see how it can be done. Big Bird is the mascot of the street. He is over 8 feet tall and bright yellow and young. He is the symbol of the street and his friends are our friends. Children love him because he makes them smile. They see themselves in him and they would love to know him. When you see children with Big Bird, they run to him with their arms open wide. There is no fear, they know him. They trust him and love him. And he loves them back.

The idea that the American government would consider cutting funding to this show and other shows on public television is mind boggling. It takes a lot of money to run a show, and Sesame Street does receive private grants and sponsorship, but it is not enough. The show is on 5 days a week and it all takes money. If political leaders want to talk about investing in education, in our children, then it seems to me that Sesame Street has been a fabulous teacher.

Before I step off my soapbox, I will just say that we need to leave Big Bird alone. Let Sesame Street do what it does best, and find other places to cut spending. This street is seen in over 140 countries, and that means that children all over the world are all part of a super classroom. Imagine a world without Snuffy, Cookie Monster, Gordon, Bob, Maria, Susan and Luis. Imagine a street where The Twiddlebugs did not exist.

It is not the street that we know and love.

Recommended reading: Brian Selznick, who wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret (it became the wonderful film HUGO), has a new book out called Wonderstruck. In my mind, it tops Selznick’s previous book and that really says something. Wonderstruck is fantastic storytelling and is simply perfect in every way. If you are looking for a gift idea for a child, this is the book. It won’t surprise you to hear me say that this is completely appropriate for adults and should be required reading for anyone age 10 and above. The pleasure will be all yours.


TO CATCH A THIEF

Recently, there have been some interesting crimes in The Netherlands. Here are two that caught my attention:

In the small town of Velp, 90 metal manhole covers (putdeksels, as they are called in Dutch) have been stolen. The holes have had to be taped off and warning signs have been posted. Then in the town of Arnhem, 30 covers were stolen. It is believed that the covers were stolen for their valuable metal. Replacement covers will cost 35 euros a piece.

How the putdeksels were taken is beyond me, but I would guess it was at night. The thieves must have been strong, as I cannot see how they got the covers into their truck or van. Can you see them rolling down the street?

Breaking news: the police, acting on an anonymous tip, have arrested a 24 year old man for stealing 120 putdeksels. They have confiscated his car and they have not said how he managed to remove and take the heavy covers.

The second crime concerns sheep rustling. I have written many times about seeing cows everywhere. But there is a fair amount of sheep (schaap) in this country. You can drive anywhere in this country, and see sheep eating grass.

In the last two weeks, 550 sheep have been stolen from various farms. It is believed that the sheep get a good price overseas and that they have left The Netherlands. They have left the beautiful, lush green Dutch grass for new land. But here is the interesting thing—309 sheep have been found! They were located in a shed and in a field. Authorities have no idea who they belong to, so they are trying to reunite the sheep with their owners. All of the found sheep are now in quarantine and hopefully will return to their farms soon.

Who are these thieves? Could they possibly be the same ones? Could this be the work of a new Dutch gang that steals manhole covers and sheep in the same week? What would the connection be? If you want to make money off of stolen metal and some hot wool, is this the way to go about it? As far as I can see, we may be looking at two different gangs—sheep rustlers and metal robbers.

Okay, these may not be exciting crime stories but they distracted me from American politics which is stressing me out.

Recommended viewing: SHAUN THE SHEEP. This was a British tv series for children and it is now on dvd. But do not dismiss this series, as it is just perfect for adults. It is by the same studio that created Wallace and Gromit. It is very funny and it has a dense farmer, a smart dog and a group of very charming and cute sheep. It is an international hit, as NO words are ever spoken.