Cows before Easter


This morning I awoke to the bellow of cows. At first it made no sense. How could I hear cows through our bedroom window? We don’t live on a farm. We live in the city center of Schagen next to the main square. But my mind accepted these bellowing cows with the same ease in which it accepts my ability to flap my arms and fly in my dreams.

It was a pleasant, familiar sound from my youth. As I lay there, not quite awake and not quite asleep, I pictured cows in an expanse of field slowly walking toward a red barn, their tails swishing lazily in the sunshine.

Of course I can hear cows, my mind said, a bit more awake now. Today is Paasvee, one of the most popular events in Northern Holland. Although this will be the 121st recurrence of Paasvee, it will be my first time experiencing this wildly popular event.

Paasvee, if translated literally, means Easter livestock or Easter cattle. It occurs ten days before Easter every year and is the kind of tradition that everyone and their grandmother and great grandmother grew up with. It’s like a county fair minus all the rides, rodeos and cotton candy. In this case, it’s all about the cows. And later, all about the drinking.

According to the locals and DuckDuckGo, the town square will be transformed into a livestock market, and the cows will be judged, sold and eventually taken to slaughter.

Slaughter is not a pleasant thought first thing in the morning. Not that there’s ever a good time to think about slaughter. I listen to those cows a little differently now. Am I hearing some of their last cries? Do they know the end is near?

Inappropriate poster facing cows.

I think about the parallels between Easter week and Paasvee. Jesus was betrayed by His people and then taken away to be judged, poked, prodded and eventually crucified in a public place, surrounded by crowds. Sounds awfully familiar. Are those bellowing cows actually saying something to the tune of “My Farmer, My Farmer; Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus’ death was viewed as a sacrifice for all of humankind, creating passage for eternal life. But the only ‘afterlife’ these cows will experience is as a hamburger, steak or other cut of meat on someone’s plate.

I wonder if there will be animal rights groups like PETA or ProVeg out today, protesting on the square. I kind of doubt it. Although vegetarian and vegan products have made it into the local supermarkets and vegetarian options grace the menu of just about every restaurant in Schagen, this little city is still, at its heart, farm country. And Paasvee is part of that beating heart.

I get dressed and head downstairs. My family is still asleep, but I want to take a first peek at the market before the crowds arrive. We’ve been warned that this will be one of those days where it sucks to live near the city center. Because after the Paasvee closes at 12pm, the second stage of cows to the fodder begins in the form of all day long drinking into oblivion. Think Isla Vista Halloween minus the police barricades and costumes, plus trains packed all day long, bringing the soon-to-be-plastered drinkers to Paasvee.

After I let the puppy out and we’ve both had breakfast, my phone buzzes and my friend Ilse has Whats-App’d me to ask if I want to do a round before it gets busy. Sure. Getting dressed. 15 minutes?

We step out into the cold sunshine and the wind whips our hair about our faces. It’s not even 9:00 am and there are already a few hundred people milling about, but there’s enough room to walk.

The cows are beautiful, but also strange looking. I’ve heard the locals call them ‘dikkebillen’, which means fat butts. They are very literal, these locals. Dikbil cows are bred to have gargantuan bottoms so thick and muscular, that it seems the simple act of walking has become a difficult task. You can almost see the cuts of beef outlined on their butts.

Meaty cow butts

It makes me feel guilty. My friend feels it too, because we talk about how we’ve cut back on meat, how this display of cows tied up, mooing, shifting, eyes looking worried, surrounded by stands serving beef items like sausage and burgers, seems like a new level of cruelty. Both of our families have cut back significantly on meat consumption over the years and I have tried to be both vegetarian and vegan. I’m ninety percent there. But 90% doesn’t count. That’s one of the reasons we prefer our occasional meat consumption to be greatly distanced from the actual creature that dies on our behalf.

Cow appearing relaxed
Farmers washing cows

Strong, quiet farmers guide the cows to the washing area, where they spray the cows down. They use brushes to scrub their coats sort of like one might do with a horse. I don’t see any love in their faces, but I don’t see hate either. I think of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and how he described different ways animals are treated. There are cattle and sheep that have good lives: access to open fields, proper food and space, etc. He refers to this lot as only having “one bad day.” I don’t know if these cows qualify, but besides that little walking problem, they seem healthy and well-cared for.

We move past the cows to the other parts of Paasvee. The side street is lined with brand new tractors and farm machinery that is for sale. It’s actually quite fascinating to see these giants close up.

Plastic-wrapped hay bale
Tractor wheel and sunshine

We enter the shopping mall where another section of Paasvee takes place. Cages line the central hall of the mall filled with bunnies and chickens of all different breeds.

North Holland Chicken

Judges in blue coats inspect the animals and take notes on their clipboards. For some reason, I don’t picture these animals all ending up in someone’s stew, but perhaps becoming family pets. My friend confirms this rosy scenario by telling me she purchased their family rabbits here a few years ago.

Rabbit with judge

Later in the morning, I make another round with my friend Anneke and the place has really filled up. You can no longer really walk, but rather shuffle along among the cows like . . . cattle. The significance of this thought is not lost on me. There will be more human cattle coming soon.

By the time I write down my impressions of my first Paasvee, it’s mid afternoon and the sounds of the cows have been replaced with the steady beat of electronic music and the constant hum of a crowd. An occasional exuberant “Whoo hoo!” breaks through the hum. I can tell they’re getting wild.

Many of the locals don’t go to the center after 12pm, as they want to avoid the mayhem. Here’s a bit of legend passed onto me over the last few months:

The trains just keep coming, completely full with people from all over the Netherlands who come just to drink.
People get so drunk they go and pee on people’s front doors.
They pass out on the street or in people’s gardens.

The second wave of cattle
Just the beginning . . .

I don’t think anyone will mind if I post some pictures of cow butts, but I’m pretty sure the afternoon cattle wouldn’t appreciate a little photo exposé on my blog post of their butts on the ground.

Now the only question is, do I join them for a drink?

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What is an Hour to You?


In California, as in many other states in the U.S, it’s hardly a thing to drive an hour to visit a friend. In fact, friends an hour to a two-hour’s drive away are considered to be living relatively close by. This makes sense in a country where an hour commute just to get to work each day is considered a perfectly normal pain in the ass.

In The Netherlands, if a friend moves to a region that’s an hour away, it has about the same impact on your social life as moving out of state–you are suddenly viewed as geographically undesirable to all except your very close friends.

From mylifeelsewhere.com

At first glance, this doesn’t make any sense at all. The entire country of The Netherlands is less than 1/10th of the size of the state of California. Given its tiny size, shouldn’t everyone in this cute little country be considered geographically desirable?

Yet it’s a common phenomenon.

I have to admit, when I came back to The Netherlands in 2011 and settled in The Hague, I rarely visited my expat friends I’d met in Amsterdam seven years earlier. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them. It just seemed like Amsterdam was far away and a bit inconvenient. Not to mention that the round trip train fare is about twenty-four euro and driving to Amsterdam is not a great choice either, as parking is scarce and parking fees excessive.

So what will happen to all of my friendships I’ve developed over the last eight years now that I’ve moved an hour and fifteen minute’s drive away and a close to two hour train ride away? Will they meet the same fate as my Amsterdam friendships all those years ago? Or will there be mutual effort to see one another? 

If the first quarter is any indication, we haven’t dropped off the face of the earth and friendships are holding strong despite our relocation to Schagen. We’ve had multiple visitors from The Hague, and even a few from as far away as Berlin and Luxembourg. Other friends are planning visits in January and February and Dutch family members have made the effort to visit us on more than one occasion. It’s exciting, but there is that looming fear or fact that the novelty will wear off and our friends we used to see a few times a month will morph into Facebook friends: you have a somewhat skewed (happy) version of what’s going on in their lives, but without that face to face contact, you lack the personal connection needed to go deeper.

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Well, luckily, the train travels both ways. I’ve already been back to The Hague four times for various appointments, and have managed to visit a handful of friends on each trip. Sometimes, my visit with a friend is only an hour long, but that is long enough to reconnect. And since you know you won’t be running into that friend by chance in the supermarket, there seems to be an intensity to the visits, like we’re all paying a bit more attention.

Although my social visits were wonderful, it felt a bit surreal being a ‘tourist’ in my former city of residence. Another oddity was that I actually knew where I was most of the time. When I lived there, I had a hard time navigating this sprawling city,  and was known for getting lost even when visiting places I’d been a handful of times before. Yet during my last few trips to The Hague, my internal geographical map was fully functional and I easily navigated my way around. Ironic that I had to move away for this to finally happen!

But back to time and what it means, how it feels, how it changes. An hour can be a long or short time, depending on what you are busy doing. On a trip to the organic farm with a newfound friend, we got to talking about time. This particular friend is in his seventies and even though he has quite a lot of activities in his agenda, he quite often says, “take your time” or “there’s no hurry, we have all the time.” It could be that I’m used to rushing or it could be that he’s particularly relaxed. I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

He and his wife are laid back people and even though life has thrown a few nasty curves their way, they really seem to enjoy life to the fullest. If they have regrets, they don’t dwell on them. Instead, they seem to approach the world like the inside of a Christmas card: with peace, love and joy. I could chalk this up to small town life and a Christian outlook, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a learned sense of time; you can rush it or you can zen it. Either way, it’s going to pass. After that hour together, I felt slightly changed, more chill, more zen. I suppose this is a good example of actions being more influential than words.

They are not the only influence in reshaping my perception of time. I am currently blissfully jobless and loving it. I am also being very careful not to sign up for too many volunteer activities, clubs and other time devouring commitments. I was completely overbooked in The Hague. No matter how fulfilling it might have felt to be over-committed and socially saturated (e.g. running around like a chicken with its head cut off), I am planning a different path for my life in Schagen.

Free time takes a bit of getting used to, but luckily, I’m no longer one of those people whom you silently think of telling “life is what happens to us when we are making other plans” (Apparently Allen Saunders, 1957, not John Lennon, 1980). 

Now I’m one of those people who is thoroughly enjoying the time I do have and surprised on a regular basis at how quickly it can flutter away, despite my very much “in the moment” approach.

Yet there is one other influence who is slowing time right back down. Her name is Jamie and she is a time expander as well as a time magnet. She’s also a chick-magnet, an old-man magnet, a teenage-magnet, you name it, she draws ’em in. She’s just a little thing, but she demands many hours of my time each day and she’s too cute and dependent to ignore. No, I didn’t secretly have another child, but we did something pretty close; we got a little Beagle puppy. As you can imagine, there might be a number of blogs in the near future themed around a puppy named Jamie. If you don’t like puppies (what the hell’s wrong with you?) then you might want to skip any such puppy posts, should they ever get written up.

I have spent many an early afternoon with her curled up on my lap, tired and happy from her afternoon walk, but fidgety and whiny if I don’t stay right there while she falls asleep. She’s growing in leaps and bounds and has almost doubled her weight in the last month. The lap naps are over as she hits the three-month mark (that’s a pre-teen in a dog’s life) and now she thinks she is ready to take on the world.  We all know that the puppy phase only lasts a few seconds, so I am doing my best to enjoy this precious time.

It might of taken me an hour to write this up, but that’s an hour well spent. Wishing you a new connection with time throughout the Christmas days.

Kristin in Holland

Family Night in Prison


If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.

As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.

“I don’t have my bag!”

His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.

“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.

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The keys to the vacation house? OH CRAP!

“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.

We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.

If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.

But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.

Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.

Leeuwarden or Bust!

As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.

I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.

Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.

I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left.  The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.

We walked the four hundred meters and arrived at Blokhuispoort, our final destination.

We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!

The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.

img_7920We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.

It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?

“We’ll take it!”

 The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.

We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.

Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.

What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.

I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.

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The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.

If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.

Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.

The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.

Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.

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Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?

In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.

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In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.

So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.

 

 

The Passion Dutch Style


When you’ve lived in a country long enough–even if you tend to live in a bubble or under a rock–eventually local cultural phenomena infiltrate your consciousness. As Easter approached this year, I had one of those moments where something that had vaguely hovered on the periphery a few years in a row suddenly punctured my little bubble and made it’s way in: The Passion–a live Christian rock opera of sorts combined with a silent march that occurs each year on Holy Thursday and is broadcast live on TV.

How did I find out about it? Through my church? No. Through my Dutch husband or friends? No. Actually, it occurred while I was reading a rather heart-wrenching New York Times article on my iPhone while waiting for my son to finish his guitar lesson. It was about a U.S. soldier who was imprisoned while suffering from PTSD. When I saw an advertisement pop up, I actually clicked on the ad as a means of postponing my knowledge of this one young soldier’s fate.

The advert took me to an article about The Passion 2017 that would be broadcast live that evening on television. You could virtually “join” the march online. My mind reached into its memory banks and excitedly announced that this “Passion performance” was something I’d come across before. Coincidentally, we had just resolved a technical issue with our television, which means I had access to TV once again. I put it on my digital agenda and hog tied my son into watching it with me.

To be honest, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of contemporary versions of Bible stories, but that night, I gave my critic a rest and settled into the couch to watch the live performance. I wasn’t alone. According to NOS news, 44 percent of all viewers who were watching television at that time were watching The Passion along with me! That equates to almost 2 million people. Another 16,000 were participating live in Leeuwaarden.

Considering The Netherlands has a population of approximately 17 million, that’s more than 10% of the nation! Almost twice as many people were tuned into The Passion as those tuned into the quarter finals of the European League soccer match between Ajax and Schalke. And the Dutch LOVE their soccer.

Jesus was played by Dwight Dissels, a tall, dark and handsome singer with an amazing voice.

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Photo: NRC.NL

A striking red-haired woman named Elske DeWall played Mary and she sang in Frisian, a language spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland in the North of The Netherlands. This was also quite fitting considering the concert was held in Leeuwarden, which falls within this province. Omri Tindal, a young man from Rotterdam with a rich musical career and fantastic hair, played Peter.

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NLpopblog.nl

The entire performance was in Dutch (Frisian part was subtitled in Dutch), which meant that it was also like a musical Dutch lesson for me. Although many people say I’m close to fluent, I still can’t read the NRC newspaper without looking up at least 10 words per article. But the words used in this broadcast were completely within my grasp.

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Taken from the web (can’t find source. Sorry)

 

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(Taken from a blog, but can’t find source again! Sorry)

The cast was diverse, talented, energetic. I Enjoyed the entire performance and felt like I’d learned something that night about how the expression of religion doesn’t need to be confined to a church. I don’t view these sort of performances as a means of converting anyone, but it can certainly make an important religious story accessible to a broader segment of the population, and make it fresh to those who have heard it before. Well done folks!

Sunday Ride: Now and Then


When we were kids, my brothers and I were periodically subjected to my father’s long Sunday drives after church. If my father was still alive, I think he would recall these drives as the foundation of our interests in architectural style. My memory to date is that I hated them: the three of us kids in the back seat poking at one another; my dad putting on classical music and telling us to be quiet; he pointing out interesting homes for us to look at and appreciate; sitting after having already sat through Catholic mass–it was really a lot to ask from three rowdy kids.

Today, history repeated itself one generation later, but with an improved concoction if you ask me. We skipped church this morning and slept in (or at least I slept in; the boys did a few science projects, played chess and played with legos). I finally joined them for a leisurely breakfast and we stayed inside until the early afternoon.

Only when the sun was beckoning did we get on our bicycles and head out. The three of us cycled through Wassenaar-a  town within twenty minutes cycling distance of The Hague. The estates, mansions, and embassy homes have such grandeur that I accidentally called Wassenaar Montecito a few times. (Montecito is a wealthy estate-laden area just outside of Santa Barbara, California with grand villas and mansions of the rich and famous, all tucked into the rolling hills of California bordering the Pacific.)

Whereas Montecito offers beautiful curvy roads, it is far from bicycle-friendly. Wassenaar on the other hand is full of bicycle paths that parallel the streets and highways and weave in and out of natural spaces and parks.

Bicycling through the neighborhoods is far preferable to sitting in the back seat of a car. Our son replied with enthusiasm as my husband pointed out grand churches, estates from the 1890s now home to ambassadors of Middle Eastern countries and grand mansions with the requisite Mercedes and Jaguars parked out front.

Villa Ruy in Wassenaar photo credit: Wikimapia
Villa Ruy in Wassenaar photo credit: Wikimapia

As I sit behind the computer and recall our chilly afternoon cycling tour, there is not an ancy bone in my body. My son seems equally content to work behind his desk on another science project without the need to be entertained. In fact, I haven’t heard that tell tale “I’m bored” that often follows too much sedentary activity or screen time since our two hour cycling adventure. I might even go so far as to say there is a certain kind of peaceful harmony in our home as we all work on our own projects.

“Mom. Can I play on the iPad?” My son asks. Where did he come from and what happened to the science project?

“Only if you practice your vocabulary list first,” I respond.

Okay. So I might have given that whole outdoor experience a little too much credit after all. At least I was true in sharing the idealistic views of a parent.

The Smile


I’ve lived in Holland, or The Netherlands, for four years now. It didn’t take me all that time to recognize the smile, but now that I have seen its many permutations, I feel its about time to write about it.

The Dutch are used to being straight forward. Its one of the traits you will read about in any manual on getting to know the Dutch culture. But surprisingly, The Smile is not always intentional. And what they do with it, once it has come, is very telling.

It first appears in the eyes of a native Dutch speaker during conversation, indicating that they have noticed something. And then, as this small realization settles more firmly into their conscience, the puppet strings of the mind attached to the corner of the Dutch mouth tug upward, pulling their lips into a smirk. They can no longer concentrate on the conversation underway, as they must ask the question.

The more refined members of the population delay the question out of courtesy to the conversation unfolding. They know the question lingers, but they focus on the exchange of information between two people, setting the question aside, or even choosing not to ask it at all. They are golden; ambassadors.

Others forget their manners and blurt out the question after your first few words. And then there is the group that doesn’t even ask the question, but chooses the statement form, to show some sort of Sherlock Holmes ingenuity–as if I was trying to fool them and got caught.

“You’re not Dutch.”

The tone and word choice of my answer are influenced by a number of factors including my mood, their age and the demeanor of their smile.

“No shit, Sherlock!” (Sarcastic response appropriate for someone your age or younger, who is not a client, a member of the government, or the person about to make your sandwich.)

“No. I’m not. I’m from America.” (Polite response to be given to clients, people older than you, a member of the government, the person making your lunch and old people with hearing problems).

The problem with this “You’re not Dutch, are you?” question/statement is that the non-native speaker is then caught on a precipice of internal debate. Did they make this comment because of my foreign accent, or did I make a huge, grammatical error? Wrong verb tense, wrong word order? Shit shit shit! This sort of internal dialogue is like throwing a bucket of ice-cold water on the libido of conversation; the chances of peak performance shrivel up rapidly.

Because if you were carrying on a conversation in your native language with a fellow native speaker, no one is going to interrupt the conversation mid sentence to question you about your origin. And if they do, it has nothing to do with your proficiency in the language, but with their curiosity about your cultural background.

The following step in the dialogue is rather insightful. The Sherlock types seem to stand a bit taller, the smile becomes a bit shrewder and they take liberties to correct you at the slightest error, their eyes gleaming with a sense of domination, teaching the simple non-native the finer points of Dutch intercourse. If you encounter this type, don’t bother to talk with them further. They are a waste of your time and energy.

The ambassador types, which seem to be prolific in The Hague, are used to an international environment. They are quick to praise you for your ability to speak Dutch and the efforts you make to use their native language despite the fact that most Dutch are quite fluent in English. And most importantly, their smile, which glints across their face, is one of encouragement, not condescension.

I know you all can’t help the smile. I’m sure I do it too when I hear you speak English. When you all say “He learned me this” instead of “he taught met this”, or the way you all sound when you sing English songs; the way the words are clipped off at the wrong places; I get it. It is smile worthy.

I realize there is a cute factor, but in general, there are not many adults that appreciate being thought of as cute when they are talking to you–including you!

So, with all due respect, unless you can learn from the ambassador types described above, get that damned smile off your face Sherlock, and realize that 1) Dutch is a very difficult language without much practical use outside of your very small country 2) most foreigners don’t even bother to learn Dutch, as they can get along just fine with English here. So those of us that are taking the time and interest to learn your language are doing so out of interest in you. You don’t need to laugh at us. 3). I’m not nearly as angry as you think I am. I enjoy learning your language!

Rothko at the Gemeente Museum


Can an artist portray emotions of happiness, fear or ecstasy through the sole use of rectangular shapes of color?  Can they do so without explanation or words? That is the question that came to the forefront Saturday afternoon during a visit to the Gemeentemuseum to view the Rothko exhibit

I have to admit, his large swaths of color, with their soft edges and meditative yet simple rectangular shapes do elicit feelings in me. But not, perhaps, what he intended. We have seen Rothko exhibits before in San Francisco, and I’ve seen a sampling of his work in New York as well. But never before have I spent so much time contemplating them, and letting the colors and feelings wash over me.

imageMy tendency, as a social female and a writer, is to write about the art I see and to discuss them in terms of color and shape. But as I read about the artist, I soon realized he had an aversion to people trying to convey his art through words. Words, according to Rothko, desecrate the art. And they are not about color either; they are about the emotions; about a personal relationship between the painting and the viewer and the emotions that are evoked. They are intentionally hung low on the wall, so the viewer can “step into” the painting, and really experience the art.

As if to drive his point home, all of his works are untitled, as in the name of the paintings are Untitled, followed by the year they were created. Thus, without a title, we lean toward a description through color. “The one with the purple on top and black on bottom edged in orange.” More words, not feelings. But colors are known to be associated with feelings and terminology.

Red: anger, passion, danger, love.
Blue: calm, serene, sad.
Gold: regal, wealthy, happy, holy.
You get the idea. Colors are also a language of emotions. Yet who is to say if these color associations are universal?

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Coronation of the Virgin, by Enguerrand Quarton, 1454
Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton, 1454

Take this untitled cobalt blue and gold Rothko painting above. What do you experience when you see it? For me, I see a spiritual work of art.

The gold rectangle in the upper third pulls to my mind the halos encircling the heads of angels and biblical figures from the fifteenth century a la Corination of the Virgin style (right). The deep cobalt blue reminds me of opulent gowns and the richness of a night sky.

But my associations have a lot to do with my Catholic upbringing and my western orientation with color and art. How would a Muslim woman or man experience this Rothko painting? Or a Hindu? Or someone with a western upbringing who has never entered a church in their lives?

Or how about the happiness and warmth I felt BEFORE I listened to the commentary about this painting. It was one of Rothko’s smaller canvases that he painted during a period of depression, right before he swallowed pills and slit his wrists, ending his troubled life. So much for the happiness that had enveloped me.

What was Rothko striving for in his paintings? As observers, we like to discuss the art. Take this man for example; he stood before the painting, gesturing with his hands, explaining a concept to his son–a concept that was not laid out in the untitle of the painting or in the curator’s interpretation of the art, as these were rather non-existent. image

So for an artist who didn’t want to be categorized, refused to participate in many group shows, and was very controlling of how his art was presented, what was he actually trying to convey?

This explanation struck home: image

 

 

 

 

In case that’s too hard to read, let me pull out a few excerpts:

“I am not interested in colour.” He regarded color as merely a means of expressing something far greater: something sacred, almost divine, that would only be desecrated by the introduction of language.

When I read this, I imagine a man who was extremely controlling and difficult, but also a man that strived to connect in a beautiful way–through the core; trying to touch the essence of what makes us human.

I liken this to the conundrum that is meditation; we can talk all we want about how to do it, but it is in the practice of meditation and the silence of the mind that we get to the essence of spirit. I imagine Rothko would like us to experience his paintings in the same way: Stop talking, be in the moment, step inside my painting and experience the emotions waiting there to engulf you. Sorry Rothko, I’m using words again to imagine your artistic desires and to say just how much I appreciate the feelings you evoke in me through your art.

It’s been 40 years since such an extensive Rothko exhibit came to the Netherlands, so don’t miss your chance! Rothko’s work is on display at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague through March 1, 2015.