Usually I love nature. Just last week I was saying to my husband how much I want to live in a natural environment, away from the screeching sounds of the tram rails, the bricks and concrete and the compressed feeling I experience when I’m among the crowds in the shopping district.
But when a biting cold wind ushered in the first of June beneath a pewter gray sky, I wasn’t feeling the love. It’s like this nation is being punished by mother earth for some crime against nature. What? Too many bicycles? All of that public transportation upsetting you? Or perhaps its the recycling they do here–multiple drop off bins for paper and glass in every neighborhood. That’s got to be irksome.
But there’s only so long one can stay inside on the first of June. So, refusing to bow to the cold, I put on a lightweight fleece and announced to my family I was going for a walk. They looked at me skeptically. I set out alone.
I didn’t know where I was headed, but my feet didn’t lead me down my usual route to the forest a block away, but into the city. The city, where the crowds are; where things are happening in warm, brightly or dimly lit interior spaces away from the dreadful cold of nature.
I walked in the direction of the train station in search of adventure. But on the way, a well designed poster caught my eye, and I found myself turning into the smooth glass entry of the Letterkunding Museum. I walked up a flight of stairs. At the top you have a choice of experiences. You can turn right to enter the Kinderboekenmuseum, a fabulous museum where children’s books (all written in Dutch) come alive through a series of interactive exhibits. Or, you can go left through the thick glass doors, which open automatically for you, into an exhibition room that is either a part of the Nationaal Archief or the Letterkundingmuseum. But in either case, it is a surprisingly exotic experience (at least to someone who once worked in a bookstore in the rare book section, and whose mother was a librarian).
The room was dark, save for blue lighting that gave the space a retro-futuristic glow reminiscent of the starship enterprise control room. The entire left wall acts as a projection screen, the contradictory images of old and new merging into one another. This exhibition space is filled with small glass cases on columns, each holding a rare book or book-related antiquity, some close to 600 years old. I gazed at the gold, ruby and sapphire blue illustration in an historical bible from the 1600s surrounded by Latin text. Would those monastic scribes have brought their quills to the page with even more precision had they known the copies they were making would still be on display half a millenium later? Talk about pressure.
And then there was the book Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker. Up until that moment, I’ll admit, I only knew that Max Havelaar was a brand of Fair Trade products for sale in Europe. I didn’t know a cultural history was tied to the name, originating from a work of fiction that criticized the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) treatment of the natives in Indonesia.
It was here in this darkened room, gazing at the treasured books resting on velvet cushions beneath protective glass that I had a realization; nature isn’t the only object of my desire; culture, in all of its lushness, absurdity, timidity or boldness also has me entirely smitten.
The walk home through the crisp air synergized my two loves, the cold snapping me into mental and physical alertness, the ancient books filling me with a lust for knowledge. Perhaps such dark and miserable weather, combined with mental acuity is what drove all of those brooding European philosophers to greatness over the centuries.
Over dinner, I talked to my family about the books I had seen. My husband, a brooding philosophical type, related to my excitement. My son related to his pasta. And then the sun broke through the fortress of clouds, blasting its happy beams through our window onto the dining room table. Thank God for the sun.