Monthly Archives: November 2012

SWEPT AWAY

The Dutch have a reputation for being very clean. Do they deserve this reputation? Oh yes, they do. They keep their homes and properties very clean. I have rarely seen a front yard not look perfect. The grass is mowed, the bushes are trimmed, the driveways and walks are swept, and the house itself is well taken care of. The inside of the houses are not only clean, but things are in their place. That does not mean that people cannot have messy rooms, but in generals terms, the Dutch like things to be “just so”. In the house across from us, there is a woman who takes such good care of her front steps, her walk way, her plants…that I am entertained by just watching her. She brings out her pail and scrub brush and her broom and I know I am ready for a show. She sweeps everywhere and then she scrubs like the queen is dropping by for tea. She even washes down the door and the wood around the door. I have never been in her house, but I can only imagine how clean it is.

To be even more dramatic, I have also noticed how clean the Utrecht red light district is. The houseboats seem to be in good shape and well taken care of. And the windows are spotless, better to see the women making eyes at you. Okay, maybe I am stretching this a little, but you do get my point. No matter what the profession or neighborhood, the Dutch are pretty clean people.

Imagine my surprise when I recently read the results of a Dutch survey about clean work environments. Eleven hundred people who work in offices were asked what irritates them the most in the area of hygiene.

#1   the smell of sweat from co workers

#2  people who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet

#3  bad breath

#4  people who make sounds while eating

#5  people who sniff and blow their noses loudly

More than half the people said they never clean their desks. Four out of ten people say that they have seen a mouse at work and one in ten have seen a cockroach.

These results raise many questions. Are these people being too picky? Are they working with pigs or people raised by wolves? Where are they working and what kind of product are they making, as I am not sure I want to buy it. It does seem like hygiene is an international concern, as I think these results would be the same in any country. I just thought the Dutch were above this kind of stuff, but it just reminds me that they are only human. I guess not everyone can be like my neighbor, but I do think that most people here are like her.

Can you relate to these results? Anything remind you of your work space? How many rodents have you seen and named?

Recommended reading: THE DARKROOM OF DAMOCLES by W. F. Hermans. This is one of the most popular books in The Netherlands. It has long been on reading lists at high schools and universities. I read this book (in English) because the libraries in The Netherlands have chosen this book to be read during the month of November. It is a novel that tells of life in The Netherlands during the second world war. But it is more like a mystery/thriller with a twist, not your typical historical fiction.

QUEEN OF VERSAILLES

I just saw a documentary that has not yet left my brain.  I viewed this film 24 hours ago, and I am having trouble thinking about anything else.  I cannot stop talking about it. Last night, I even dreamed about it.  So naturally, I have to share this with you, as I cannot imagine writing about anything else.

I won’t bore you with all the details about the film, but will just give you a taste of the story.

David Siegel, a billionaire in Florida, was building the largest single family home in America. It has 90,000 square feet. He and his family are living in a nice house already, with their eight children. But they were eager to finish the construction of their new home, so that they could play on their own baseball field and two tennis courts. But the economy crisis happened, and Siegel’s business got hit hard. The film starts as David and Jackie are riding high…spending money like there is no tomorrow. Then we see how their world becomes a little more stressful with major cutbacks in their spending power.

The film, which is fantastic as a documentary, is really all about Jackie and how she conducts her life as the wife of a billionaire. Her comments will make you scratch and shake your head. She was planning on having a couple of children, but when she realized that she could have nannies, she decided to have more. The nannies are a big part of their lives, and it is hard to imagine how these children live without the hired help.

You see this life of wasteful spending and decadence. When the economic crisis happens, they have to lay off most of the house staff. They still have a driver and a few nannies. So the house is filthy, there is no one to clean it anymore and there is no one to cook. There is dog poop all around the house and why? Because the staff are no longer there to take care of it. This is a family who are very good at  consuming and collecting stuff. Even after she has been told to cut back on her spending, Jackie goes Christmas shopping and loads up 4 or 5 carts of toys. And many of the toys the children already have. And that is the point: these are people who have too much and still want more.

What makes this a compelling film is that this is not a story about evil people. Jackie actually comes across as good hearted. She seems naïve at times about the world, but she is never mean. There is a scene where she goes back to her childhood home and visits with her oldest friend. She is very loving to her and tries to help with her financial problems. She clearly loves her husband and needs a lot of attention and affection. Meanwhile, this man is losing millions of dollars and he is angry because they are leaving too many lights on. You see a man, who at the start of filming is on top of the world and smiling and boastful about his life. And then you see someone who is sad and worried and not sure how he will survive. You see his wife, who is almost compulsive about shopping, trying to cut back by flying commercial to visit her friend in New York. While renting a car at Hertz, she asked what was the name of her driver. She honestly believed that a driver came with the rental car. This is someone who has lived a plush life a little too long and is struggling with the real world.

This film really makes you think about what you value in life. It makes you wonder if you are the alien or are they?  Are we weird for having children clean their room? Is there something wrong with us for wanting to have a clean kitchen? And when do we say this is enough, I have more than I need, thank you very much. This documentary makes you see what is important in life and that you do NOT want to be like them. That does not mean that wealthy people cannot be thoughtful, compassionate and raise responsible children. Wealth does not mean that you stop caring about your community, just ask Bill and Melinda Gates.

I urge you to see this film and then look at your world. It looks awfully good.

BABY’S DAY OUT

The year:  1957  The place:  Fairbanks, Alaska

This is me sitting in the grocery cart. My mother took this photo and sent it to her mother in England. She wanted to demonstrate that there were carts that had seats for babies. My mother came from a small town in England and they did not have the kind of store where you would use a shopping cart. But to actually see a cart with a place for the child to sit…well, that was big news.

I have previously written about grocery shopping in the Netherlands. I am going to share a few more tidbits. The shopping experience here and in America is pretty much the same, but there are a few things that still stand out to me.

You cannot get a “free” grocery cart. You have to put a 50 cent piece into a slot on the top of the handle, and that releases the cart. When you return the cart, you get the 50 cents back. This system was put into place because so many carts disappeared and were left parked in all sorts of places. You can get a basket with or without wheels inside the store at no cost. The carts are just like the ones in America, except in one of the grocery store chains, the carts have a pop up shelf to lay bread on. And another grocery chain has a slot on their carts for a scanner. You can scan all of your items as you pick them up and in this way, you avoid the checkout line. I am sure they have these kind of scanners in America, but they were not in any of the stores where I used to live.

One of the first things I noticed about Dutch stores is that there were no free bags. You can buy a plastic bag with handles, but you must bring your own bags for the groceries.  There is no question here about paper or plastic. Some people actually fill their cart with groceries, wheel it out to their car and put the non bagged groceries in the car. These are people who never use a bag. Some people bag or box their items after they get to the car. But most people are prepared and bring bags with them.

In all grocery stores in The Netherlands, they sell wine and beer. I mean, a lot of beer and wine, from all over the world. Being such good Dutch environmentalists, they even have plastic boxes or crates of beer. Example: you want 24 bottles of Heineken and you can buy that two ways, by getting six packs or by buying it in a box made for 24 bottles. When you buy the beer, you pay a deposit on the plastic box and you get your money back when you return the box. Why do people do it this way? The box or crate is just simpler to use, it is an easier way to carry 24 bottles. And let me tell you that this way of purchasing beer is very popular, you see these boxes coming in and out of the store all the time. Sometimes you see people with 4 or 5 of these boxes and you know they are having a party.

Finally, I can say that one of the big differences between shopping here and in the USA, is customer service. In America, the people at the register will ask you if you found everything you were looking for. They will make comments on the weather and will chit chat with you about anything that you want to talk about. Here, this is rarely done. The workers are certainly nice and smile at you. They are polite and friendly. But there are no questions asked of you. No discussion about the weather or the latest football game. They are not being rude, they are just not overly friendly. This is not because I barely speak Dutch, I have been observing this for quite some time. When I talk to Dutch friends about this, they wonder why would the grocery clerk talk about anything other than her job. I didn’t have an answer for that.

The Dutch are really nice people. They look you in the eye and smile. They greet friends with three kisses and not too many hugs. Americans love to hug…it is my goal to introduce hugging to the Dutch. When I hug a Dutchie, I hear “oh!” and then they laugh. But I have also learned to do the three kisses While grocery shopping, I see all sorts of interaction and it is very much like any shopping experience in America. Children running around, parents chasing the children, people in a hurry to get their stuff and friends greeting friends. Sound familiar?

Recommended reading:  A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME by Wiley Cash. What a wonderful and powerful Southern novel.  Beautifully written.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

THE LOST WIFE BY ALYSON RICHMAN

Rarely do books make me cry. I am moved by a story, I can be an emotional wreck about characters and plot…I can have a book enter my dreams in ways that are dark and very real.  Movies make me cry, commercials can make me tear up, but not so much with books. That is kind of surprising considering the amount of dramatic books that I read and so many of them are about war. I don’t really seek these historical novels out, they seem to find ME.

I recently read THE LOST WIFE by Alyson Richman, an author I had not read before. And yes, about half way through this book, I cried real tears.  When you have that kind of connection with a story, there are many reasons why you are moved. Is it the great writing? Are you having a sensitive day? Or is it the subject matter?  For me, it could be all three.

THE LOST WIFE is a novel about the holocaust but with a twist. A man is at his grandson’s wedding and he sees a woman that seems familiar. At first, she does not recognize him. He asks if he can see her arm, and her sleeve is rolled up, and there are numbers from the war. He tells her “you were my wife.”

In pre-war Prague, two young people fall in love. Lenka and Josef are young and preparing for their lives to change because of the war. After getting married, their families have different ways of getting out of Prague, as they know their time is limited in the city that they love. Lenka and Josef are separated and make plans to meet, once their papers are in order, in England. But Lenka and her family are taken to the camp, Terezin. Lenka believes that Josef has died and she is now only focused on surviving. In Prague, she had been studying art and now has been put to work making little paintings for the Nazis. She meets fellow artists and discovers that the others are using their skills to let the outside world know about this camp. Lenka also sees what art can do for the children in the camp, and so she sneaks out bits of paper, charcoal and paint for the children.

Lenka survives by taking care of her parents and sister and creating art. She believes that this is the worst it will get, but suddenly she and her family are transported to Auschwitz. Josef, meanwhile, has come to America and tries for years to find Lenka. But after the war, he has married and has a family. Both Josef and Lenka believed each other had died in the war, and they sadly have moved on with their lives. Josef has never forgotten his first wife, and he has kept all the returned letters that he had sent Lenka.

This novel stands out because it says so much about the individual spirit, about the varieties of love and how art can impact lives in meaningful ways. And that there is power in creativity. You can make a difference with some paper and pencil. Richman has created characters that grow and learn, that love with all their beings and it still is not enough. These are people who passionately live because of the death they have seen. The story is so beautifully written, and as much as it is a sad story with a fabulous happy ending, it is also a book filled with hope. This is a story that you will not forget. There are so many images that stay with you and I try to focus on the positive: small children drawing a mural in Terezin with the stolen colors. That mural actually existed, and it is what the children did to survive. The power of art.

And now for something different:  a little worn out by serious and sad novels? Here is  a new book that is fun and also well done: GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES by Jennifer Close. 


 

TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!

I recently learned that the book FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James is a big hit in The Netherlands. One million copies have been bought in this country of 17 million people. I know that this book is an international best seller (over 40 million copies sold), but to hear that a million copies of this book are in just this little country, is just mind blowing.

To be honest, I have not read the book and have no plans to read it. There are two reasons for this: I have absolutely no interest in this subject and the reviews are enough to convince me to not read it. But I am obviously the minority as many people have embraced this book, people in 37 countries.So it is not just the Dutch who are drawn to this erotic novel. I am always happy to see a book draw so much attention, so I am truly happy that people are reading, but that does not mean that I have to read it too.

What I have learned in my brief time here is that sex is not a dirty word. It is not a word that is whispered as it is in many other cultures. You can talk about bodily functions and body parts and your face does not turn red. You can discuss sexuality without stuttering in this country. Children are introduced to sex education at an early age here, whether that is in school or at home…it is just not such a big deal. Does that mean that Dutch children don’t giggle when you talk about body parts of a boy or a girl? Sure they do, but the subject is brought up so much that it just becomes part of the family conversation.

Children are naturally very curious about the human body and that curiosity is not discouraged. There is no shame in talking about these things. By the way, The Netherlands has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Young people are taught about contraception and STDs at a young age and it seems to be paying off. Sex education is part of the science and health curriculum, and parents do not have to sign permission slips so schools can  talk about this subject.

Amsterdam has an actual sex museum that is supposedly very nice (notice I am making a point of stating that I have not been there).  It is also famous for its red light district. But I must promote the city that I love-Utrecht. They also have a fine red light district with a beautiful canal of houseboats, the drive-by lust tour, as I call it.  Sex is on parade and for sale…legally.

So back to the book. I know of two friends who have read the book, one in America and one here in The Netherlands. I was actually speechless when I learned that my American friend not only read the book but loved it. I was always afraid to recommend books to her that had any sex scenes in them at all, and here she was with this book?!My Dutch friend is someone who loves to talk about sex…is so comfortable with this subject that she could teach an adult class… so it was no surprise that she embraced this book. But I am guessing there are also some secret readers, some who would never admit that they have read the book, but have    read it again and again. They have underlined passages and turned down the corners of pages, and hidden it in their sock drawer. They will be ready for the next book and the next one….and then the movie will be out soon. You can also buy the calendar, the soap and all sorts of leather toys.

A few days ago, at the dinner table, the subject of sex came up. The children, age 11 and 12, were being told about sexually transmitted diseases and why condoms are so important (this was a perfect discussion over meatloaf). We were asked what a condom actually looks like and because this is a house without the need of condoms, we did the next best thing. A nearby innocent banana was grabbed and a virtual demonstration followed. The children were hysterical, but they got the point. And it led to a more serious talk about sex and after dinner, the best book for children about sexuality was brought out—IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL by Robie Harris. We had the edition translated into Dutch. This is a book that every family should have in their homes, by the way. There were a few more giggles, but that is okay. It was a time to answer questions and for them to know that they can talk about this subject without shame or embarrassment. And it is okay to laugh, as we know that adults laugh a lot about sex too. Before, during and after…and that is okay. So, other than socks, what is in your sock drawer?

THE CONVERSATION

One of the most intimate things that a person can do is read a book. It is you and the words of the writer. Just you and the story. You have this time to just be by yourself and go into another world of fiction or non-fiction You can be on a crowded train, reading a book, and it is still about you and the words. It does not matter if it is in book form, or an e reader, or an audio book—it is just one book and you.

For some people, there is a desire to talk about the book. There are certain books that demand to be discussed, readers may have many questions about a story. They want to know if others thought the same thing about a character. Did they agree with the way the plot changed? And what did you think about the ending? If you read a mystery, it is even a more compelling need to talk to someone.

I have seen complete strangers start to talk to each other because of the book they are reading or holding in their hand. Books are a great ice breaker, a way to find common ground. What does a person do if they love books and want to talk to others who feel the same way? They join a discussion group. These groups are very popular around the world and come in all varieties. There are some at bookstores, private homes, churches and public libraries.

I am a librarian who not only loves books, but also loves talking about books That is why I write book reviews, because I have to tell people about what a great book I just read. In 1999, I started a book group at the library where I worked. It was a fabulous mix of people who had a passion for reading and took great joy in talking to others about books. They also came to the group because they wanted to hear other opinions about a novel. Discussion groups are not only about talking but also about listening. This book group was a great success and ran for eleven years, until I left my job to move to The Netherlands.

The need to share books did not end when I moved. The joy that I got when I started a new book never left meand so I knew when the time was right, that I would try to reach out to readers again.

Recently, a new book discussion group has started…the Dutch version of what we had done  in America. It was strange to think about a roomful of strangers and that they would likely be Dutch. I knew that they spoke English, as this group was publicized as an English discussion. But it was still very daunting to me as I did not know if a Dutch reader would be like an American reader—would they want to share their thoughts? I did know that the Dutch people were not shy about sharing their opinions, they are known for even being a little blunt. There was a very positive response to the sign up for the group and we were off and running.

Our first night of the Dutch Book Circle was just wonderful. It was a great group of readers from all walks of life. They were all women (no surprise) and almost everyone was Dutch. The big shock was that all the women, except three, read the book in English. This really shocked me and impressed me. Their language skills were excellent, rarely did anyone struggle with the English. And what was I worried about?! We had a two hour discussion and not one single dull moment. This was a very thoughtful group of women who were bright and curious and were ready to talk. The bonus for the evening, was that they were really nice and friendly.

This is something that did not happen in America—at 10pm, almost all the women got on their bicycles and rode home. Or they went home by car, bus or train.  There are some things that are very different and some things are the same. The bottom line is that no matter what country you live in, people love to read and there are readers who want to talk about a book that they either liked or didn’t like.  And how impressive are the Dutch? The book I have selected for the Book Circle are all translated into Dutch, but most of these participants want to read the book in the original language, which is English. How many people can say that?

I think this is the beginning of a whole new adventure for me and for this new group of friends.

What book did we discuss?  THE HELP by Katherine Stockett. Our next book will be THOSE WHO SAVE US by Jenna Blum. Read the book and be part of the conversation.