Monthly Archives: May 2013

ON THE TOWN

Recently we went to the province of Zeeland and visited its capital city, Middelburg. This is a beautiful old (what isn’t old in this country?) city that was bombed during the second world war. The city rebuilt the buildings using the same historical designs, so that it is hard to tell what are the “new” buildings and what are the really truly old buildings. Here is the  city hall that was built in 1520 and in 1940 the entire inside of the hall was burned. The outside was saved, but the inside was totally destroyed.  Today the city hall is only used for weddings and since 2004, it is the home of the Roosevelt Academy. This is a small liberal arts college and has many international students. The school was named after Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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Here is a photo showing us that we are in a modern city. This Erotica Shop had quite a full window display and lots of people did not hesitate to stop and look. Me? I was discreetly many yards away.

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Dutch towns and cities have unusual names for their streets. This one is literally called “Choirchurchstreet” which I thought was kind of different. Then I realized that on either side of this sign were two bars.  Then it just seemed so perfect.

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This bronze woman is inviting people to sit next to her and have their photograph taken together. It sits right in front of a souvenir shop as you can see some wooden shoes in the background.

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The tower is called Long John. It is super tall but not as tall as the Domtoren in Utrecht (which is still the tallest tower in the country). This tower can be seen from many miles away. No matter where we traveled in Zeeland, it seemed like we could see this tower.

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As we left Middelburg, we drove on this road and it was so beautiful. I wanted you all to see these wonderful houses and the water. A typical Dutch street and view.  In the next blog, I will be sharing photos from the seaside.

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THE BUNKER

In fourth grade, in southern California, our class studied the gold rush. The time in history where prospectors searched for gold and people had great dreams of making it rich out west. As I recall, our teacher spent a lot of time on this subject and for me, a recent resident of the sunny state, it was a great chance to learn California history.

The big excitement was that we were going on a field trip. We were going to go out to the woods and pretend to dig for gold. This was quite a production, as we brought all the things needed to pan for gold. The teacher wanted this to be as realistic as possible. We were out there on our knees panning for gold at this creek, and all of a sudden, someone yelled out that they had found gold! Then another one yelled out that there was even more gold…and we all looked into the water to see if they were right. Sure enough, there were small golden nuggets in the water. We were so excited, and for just a few moments we thought we were rich.

Before we got back on the bus, our teacher made a confession. She and her husband had come out there the night before and placed those “gold nuggets” in the water. She wanted us to feel like a prospector from the 1840’s. I was disappointed that the gold was not real, but I remember being so impressed with my teacher. She went to a lot of trouble to bring history to us and it made me think that history was really interesting. It has always been something that has fascinated me as a student and still does to this day.

Living in The Netherlands is a history lover’s paradise. I have written many times about history that you cannot escape and why would you want to? As someone who is fascinated with the second world war, this country has many things to see and study. This is where things happened.

Recently, we visited the province of Zeeland. This is a part of the country right on the coast and we wanted to see its capital city Middelburg and the surrounding towns. We were going to the ocean and tour some small towns, and we had to drive by many farms to get there. We were going to Walcheren, which used to be an island before the war, surrounded on three sides by ocean. In 1940, it was occupied by the Germans, as the whole country was. But this area was vital to the Germans, as the island was at the mouth of the river leading to Antwerp.

The people of the small town Westkapelle had a tough life living so near the sea. Living on this island, made their lives a constant challenge. They worked hard to build dikes to keep the sea back and it seemed to work. If they built the dikes and maintained them, they could live a good and safe life. But on October 3, 1944, the allies bombed the dikes. Why would the allies do such a thing? Knowing that it would flood and destroy the village and the land? Because the Germans were there and they wanted all transport blocked to Antwerp. The allies did fly over and drop pamphlets warning residents of the bombing, but still 180 people were killed. All of the dikes could not keep out the water and the town and island were covered by the sea.

The thing that got me the most about the visit to Westkapelle, was the drive into the town. On the working farms there were still German bunkers. There are a few bunkers near our town, but these were massive bunkers just sitting in a field and there were so many of them. Tractor tracks were around some of them, as the farmer is working his land and has to move around the bunker. The walls of the bunkers are two meters thick and some were as big as a house. They were used as storage for ammunition and shelters for German soldiers. But they were also used as a great spot for anti-aircraft guns, as they were supposed to shoot down allied planes. There were hundreds of bunkers built during the war and it always amazes me to see them. They are historic landmarks, they are so huge that they cannot be moved and I am not sure how they could be destroyed. There is a bunker tour, where people go from bunker to bunker, and if the farmer says it is okay, you can go in and check them out.

So here is the interesting thing about Zeeland and the towns by the sea. It is a popular area for tourists because it is a beautiful area and the ocean is right there. Who visits this area more than anyone else (other than the Dutch)? German tourists come to Zeeland as it is not that far from their country. Restaurants have menus in Dutch and German. You cannot go anywhere and not hear German spoken. On our afternoon visit, I think we heard more German than we heard Dutch. And yes, there is a big difference in these two languages, if you live here, you can hear the difference.

So time marches on. They say that time heals wounds and maybe that is true. Germany and The Netherlands are now great friends. This was a different story 70 years ago, but now the war is over and the Dutch and the Germans are allies. But on the ground, in the sand and dirt, there are still holes and marks of the bombings and the flooding. There are old tanks and ships for children to climb on. And there are those bunkers. It is so startling to see this beautiful green field with cows and horses and a big gray bunker. The bunker is a stamp telling us that something happened here many years ago and it was not good. In The Netherlands, people were sent to camps and thousands died. The bunkers will not let us forget and for that reason, I am glad they are here. I don’t think that history should be denied or buried or forgotten, even when it hurts to remember. During the war, most of the bunkers were covered up with trees, dirt, and leaves to hide them from the allies. Now they are stripped bare, there is nothing around these bunkers and that is how they should be. A startling image that should not be hidden anymore.

The simple little gold nuggets made my history lesson become more real, even though there was no real gold. The very real bunkers are reminders that life is not as simple as we think. It is isn’t just about photogenic farm land and an ocean view, history happened here and as our elders age, survivors of the war will not be around to tell their stories. War is horrible and painful and we must not forget things easily. That is why the bunkers must stay in those pretty fields.

A recommended visit: please visit the small but wonderful museum in Westkapelle, called Polderhuis Westkapelle. You will learn a lot about the dikes and the second world war.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

ARCADIA by Lauren Groff
I was very excited when I heard that Lauren Groff had a new novel out. I was a big fan of her first novel, THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON, and was eager to read ARCADIA. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. Groff is so gifted at setting a place, making you feel that you are right there, and creating characters that are so well defined that you think you can hear their voices.

It is the 1970’s, in western New York state, and there is an eclectic group of people who are living off the land. This is a commune and everyone, in theory, has a job to do. There are bakers, carpenters, midwifes, and many created families. A boy named Bit was born in this commune and we experience this unusual world through his eyes. Bit is able to speak, but for a period of time, he has decided to not do so, and this makes him an even better observer of his surroundings. When Bit is a teenager he and his parents leave the commune and have to face the “real world”.

This novel is basically the story of Bit, as a boy and as a grown man. But Arcadia (named after the old mansion that was on the land) does not leave him. It has impacted his life in many ways. And as in many things in life, it brings him to a point of full circle.

Wonderful writing and so many memorable images, Lauren Groff has written a brilliant novel.

THE BORROWER by Rebecca Makkai
A children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, Lucy is not a happy person. Her life is without direction and for a librarian, shockingly disorganized. Ian, is ten years old, and a regular user of the public library. He absolutely loves to read, but his parents control every book he reads. They are very religious, and there is a long list of books he cannot bring home.

Impulsively, Ian decides to run away and Lucy becomes his driver and accomplice. This first novel is about two people who go on the road and have no clue about what they are doing or where they are going. But as the reader, you are so taken by their relationship and how it develops and changes their lives. There are little adventures along the way and you are glad you are along for the ride. A good story and a good start for a new novelist.

Recommended viewing: British television just aired the first season of ENDEAVOUR and I assume it will be coming soon to the United States. This is the prequel to Inspector Morse, as we see how his career began. Viewers have already seen a film and it has now become a new series. It is lots of fun and I enjoyed the early years of Morse. But no matter what, I sure do miss John Thaw. By the way, Thaw’s daughter has a regular supporting role in this series.

CAMP

It was a very rainy day. Our son, who rode his bike from school, looked like he had fallen in the sloot. He was wet from the top of his head to his shoes. As I peeled off his coat and then dried his hair, I was grateful that he was safe and home. When I asked him about his ride home, he admitted it was pretty bad. I then asked the big question: why didn’t you use your hood? This is the hood that is attached to his coat, the hood that was sitting there gathering a liter of water, I would imagine. He answered: oh, I forgot I had a hood.

This is the moment that parents know, the moment when you sigh and shake your head. How can such a smart boy, a very bright child, be so clueless about practical things? How is he not able to open a small bag of M&M’s? How can he not remember to take the washcloth out of the shower? And how is this boy going to survive at camp without us to guide him all the way?
His class is going to a three day camp. This not a rustic camp. There are cabins, power and plumbing. But he is going away for three days! He was shown all the items that were packed for him, he was reminded to brush his teeth, to take a shower each day and maybe, possibly, to wash his hair. He was shown how many changes of clothes he will have, his sleeping bag and his pillow. We made sure that he was prepared and that he was ready to live without parents for three days. But we wonder if he will ever see his toothbrush or a drop of shampoo. We wonder if he will even change his jeans in those three days. I did request two things of him: to have a fabulous time and to brush his hair. He did promise, but I think he will forget he has a brush or even hair.

I guess that is what growing up is all about. Letting them go to camp and be wild and crazy with other children. To let other adults be their minders for a few days. Just as long as they come back to us and if they are smiling, then that is a bonus.

But who is going to kiss him good night and who is going to give me those massive hugs that I love so much? I think camp gives me a taste of what life will be like when he goes away to university. Maybe by then we will all be happy to say a temporary farewell, but I somehow doubt that. If he goes to university at the age of 18, I will still see him as this blonde, blue eyed eleven year old who is not too old for a snuggle. I come to parenting late in life, and now I know what all those parent’s tears were all about. This is day two of camp and it is raining and I am wondering if he remembered his hood. Whether he did or did not, there is nothing I can do about it and that is the hardest thing to accept.

As our boy was leaving for camp, he yelled back “did you pack me a pillowcase?” A pillowcase? Now he cares about covered pillows? Now he is Martha Stewart? We will be so happy when he comes back, and I hope with all my heart he remembers to bring the pillow back.

Recommended reading: ARCADIA by Lauren Groff. What a beautifully written novel! More on this later

RED

It started as a whisper and then got much louder. You could hear the news from friends, neighbors and family members. It was on the television, the radio, online news and then finally, it hit Facebook. It was now official: the tulips were in bloom and you better get ready. In The Netherlands, if you want to see the tulips in bloom and still in the ground, then you cannot hesitate to take a road trip. The timing is very tricky and you don’t want end up driving by miles and miles of dirt and wonder “where did all the tulips go?”

So the cars head out to the flower regions and it can be quite crazy. There are also busloads of tourists and they are not just Dutch buses. There are buses from Belgium, Germany, Poland and many other countries. The viewing of the tulips is like going to Stonehenge or the Grand Canyon, it is a big thing. The difference here, is that you have to be on wheels as these farms are spread out over quite a big region. You can pull over and take photographs. But I refuse to do what I saw others do, and that is to actually step into the area where the tulips are. Number one, it is private property. And number two, I can only imagine what damage can be done to those flowers. So these photos were taken, as Bette Midler sang, from a distance.

The colors are so vivid, alive and deep. The colors are so bright and cheerful. The tulips are the welcome wagon for The Netherlands. I can honestly say that seeing these flowers in print is nothing like seeing them in person. And that is the way nature should be anyway. But at least you can get a sense of a Dutch May.

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Recommended reading: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg and When this happens to you by Molly Ringwald. I read these two great novels back to back and what a treat it was. Both so different but so very good.

THE ENDLESS SUMMER

Today I heard a strange sound coming from the street. It kind of sounded like a cow bell, but that did not make any sense. When I looked outside, I saw this white van slowly coming down the street and it was definitely making a clanging noise. I was told that this was the ice cream truck. I had no idea that there were Dutch ice cream trucks, but why not? Not surprisingly, this is a truck serving real ice cream in a cone or a cup. But the most distinctive thing about this truck was its lack of music, just this funny clanging noise.

In my former American neighborhood, the ice cream truck played “Camptown Races” (doo dah, doo dah). Every single day we could hear that song and NO other song selling ice cream. I used to wonder why they could not have some other songs on a loop, but no, we only heard that oldie but goodie. Now, after hearing the clanging, I miss “Camptown Races”.

This ice cream truck took me back many years to my childhood in two countries. In England, there was a large van, it looked like a Bookmobile, and it was a grocery store on wheels. It came right pass my grandmother’s house. We would step into this “store” and silently look at all the goodies .There were vegetables and fruit, canned goods and lots of bread. I was so impressed at how everything was placed on the special shelves, so that nothing would fall off. My grandmother lived in a small town, and it was almost a daily trip to the local shops, but here was this van coming right to our doorstep. I just remember my grandmother clutching her coin purse and getting one or two items, as she was also going to be making the trek to town.

Then we moved to California, there was also a unique van with food. This was a van that sold two things: bread and donuts. After school, this van came through our neighborhood and kids would go crazy for the donuts. I cannot remember the prices, but I am guessing it was ten cents per donut. Sometimes there were some moms out there too, but the appeal of this van was purely for the children. Just imagine a truck full of donuts coming by your house, after school. I can still remember the smell of sugar as we waited in line.

Of course, we also had the ice cream truck come through each day. It was so much fun to look on the side of the van at all of the colorful pictures, as if we were really thinking about getting something different that day. We never did. We always got our favorite and rarely did we change our order. The sound of the ice cream truck was the sound of summer. It made summer official and it was reason to celebrate. On a hot day, to sit on the sidewalk, with a popsicle in your sticky little hand, desperately licking the sweetness before it dripped away…that was when life was supposedly simple. If it was not, we sure wished it was as simple as having an ice cream.

So whether you have an annoying song, a fabulous song or just a clang…hopefully there is an ice cream truck in your part of the world.

Recommended viewing: a fabulous new British mystery series called THE BLATCHEY CIRCLE. I absolutely loved this intelligent and thrilling series and cannot wait to see more.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

The guilty pleasures of reading. There are certain books that we individually consider a guilty pleasure.Each reader has their own version of a guilty pleasure. Some would name FIFTY SHADES OF GREY as a very deep pleasure that is best kept a secret.Someone else would choose romance novels, light mysteries or even fantasy fiction. A guilty pleasure is usually a book that has either not been reviewed at all or has received bad reviews.It is a book that is not considered great literature, a book that is not going to make the top ten list of the year.It may even be a book that you want to hide the cover. Many times these kind of books are called “beach books”, the kind of book you want to read while on vacation. Not too intense and not too serious.Guilty pleasures are very subjective and they can vary as much as there are books. Some people will welcome these books as a break from their regular stack of books that offer many dysfunctions or dramas. These books do not ask too much of us, they are not the most challenging books around, and that is perfectly okay. I am going to share two books that I recently read that I really enjoyed.I would not put them on my top fiction list, but that does not mean that they were not entertaining. On the contrary, they held my attention and I kept turning the pages. They were a welcome break for me. What are your guilty pleasures? Are you willing to share?

ON THE ISLAND by Tracey Garvis Graves
Anna has been hired to be a tutor for a 16 year old boy, T.J. His family is on vacation in the Maldives. He and Anna are flying to his family when the plane crashes and they end up on a deserted island. They soon realize that there is very little hope of being rescued and they try to survive by making fire, creating shelter and finding food. Years pass, and there is a growing attraction between Anna and T.J. This is a combination of an adventure and romance story and it is well done. I got caught up in the survival part of the story and then was interested in how their relationship would change and there is no big surprise when I tell you that they do get off the island. How do they now relate in the real world, back in Chicago? A good beach book that takes place on the beach.

THE SUMMER HOUSE by Mary Nichols
I read this novel in between seasons of Downton Abbey and it was a good fix for me. This British story begins at the start of the first world war, and Helen has been pressured to marry a man that she does not love. She falls in love with another man and that affair leaves her pregnant and it forces her to make a life changing decision. Now, twenty years have gone by, and we meet the next generation, in the middle of the second world war. You know by now that secrets are necessary in a good novel, and there are plenty here and that is what makes it so much fun.
This novel has big stately homes, small villages, love affairs, multiple secrets with the backdrops of world wars. The author did a good job of holding my interest as I got caught up in these lives. I call this a British comfort book, all you need is a nice cup of tea to go with it.

Recommended viewing: The Guilt Trip is now on dvd. Fun film with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen.