A foreign correspondent par excellence has to camouflage himself trying habits and customs of the place where he momentarily lives. A professional conversationalist as well as a great connoisseur of journalistic techniques, the brilliant modern reporter can cheat in many languages.
As Ryszard Kapuscinski puts it on his book Imperium talking about his dangerous mission in Nagorno Karabach dressed like an Aeroflot pilot: "If a Russian patrol starts to talk me, it's not a big deal: I pretend to be Armenian and I answer in Russian with an Armenian accent. If an Armenian patrol starts to talk me, it's also not a big deal: I answer in Russian but with a Lithuanian or Latvian accent". That's exactly what I did in these five Dutch months. No, I did not learn Russian. Or Latvian.
Yet, I cycled a lot, pedaling backwards to stop. I ate cumin cheese, pindasaus, bitterbal, frikandel, vla, hagelslag and stroopwafels. I went to the National Cheese Museum (in Alkmaar). I also went to the National Bicycle Museum (in Nijmegen) I made pannenkoeken (in Utrecht). I did the Herring Ritual (in Den Haag). I survived to a Febo's kipburger (in Amsterdam). I drank Grolsch, Bavaria and Jupiler. I joked on the Belgians and dated a girl from Friesland. I gave money to local celebrities Albert Heijn and Super De Boer. I got tired of chipknips, strippenkaart and welpies. I wore in orange more often than necessary. I blew in a plastic horn cheering up for Holland. I read the most intellectual free press. I pretended to be one of the tallest person in the world.
Thus I can say that except for carrying a local blond lady on the back of my bike I behaved in a typical Dutch way. What? Wat? Are you telling me there is something else I forgot to try?
Excuse me, did you say drugs? Well, it's not my style, you know. I am not Norman Mailer or Truman Capote. But you have a point.
Listen, I tried mushrooms days ago. Those mushrooms. Together with three colleagues from Munich, Vienna and Toronto we made a focus group.
As we crossed the threshold of the closest smart shop we were immediately asked "Where do you wanna go? "Sorry?" "I mean, what kind of trip do you wanna try guys?" said the shop owner (we will call him Leopold). A travel agency, we assumed.
Silence. Embarrassment. Two steps forward. Six steps back.
"Wait! - Leopold yelled- "Aren't you looking for mushrooms?" "Yup" "Well, so you are in the right place!" Smiled the shop owner moving his long ponytail. Lesson number 1: speak the lingo.
"May I suggest you these Thai? They give you an excellent ticket to ride". "Oh, do you really import them from Thailand?" "Ehm, actually we cultivate them here." "Oooh" Lesson number 2: do not get fascinated by exoticism.
"Have a nice trip!" "Thank you, Leopold". "And don't forget to tell me what you will see!" "Sure. Doeg!".
But we did not send him a postcard.
We had the Thai mushrooms in my room and then spent hours laughing at the Oog in Al (Bambi Park for insiders). We shared a childish happiness and a bowler hat while three generations of Dutches were staring at us from the benches around. What a perfect disguise we had!
All that I can say by my side is that when I am under mushrooms I can see every detail and feel every smell in a clearer way. The colours of flowers. The perfume of sun tanned skin. The stripes of a t-shirt. The aroma of Euroshop hazelnut chocolate.
Someone in our focus group saw a lot of action happening in the sky among the puffy white clouds. Someone else stared for a long time to a pair of jeans trying to convince us that there were blue dots moving in waves and circles. I tried to get the same show on a pair of socks but it did not work. Perhaps I looked there during an intermission.
Once an important poet (T.S. Eliot?) wrote that anticipation of pleasure is better than its fulfillment. That's utterly true. And not only about love. I was not expecting that much from our Leopold's Shroom Day, but as a reporter I am quite disappointed. I guess I chose a wrong angle.
The Black Goose is the only Dutch I love. I swear.
We understand each other in a perfect way. There's no need of many words between us. And something like this doesn't happen that often.
Wherever I go, she comes with me. Wherever she wants to go, I take her. We rode among sandy dunes and in the Dutch woods. We walked hand in handle staring at the North Sea getting closer.
It was not love at a first sight like for Bianca the fiancée I have left in Bologna, but soon she became as important as her.
It is true that I used to date Ravenna Banger for a couple of months here in Utrecht, but we broke up. Well, actually she broke up. Stress happens.
And then I found her, The Black Goose. She has everything I desire. She is elegant but modest. Faithful but with a strong personality. Calm but adventurous. In other words, The Black Goose is fascinating and desirable.
What is going to happen to our relationship in the very next weeks? I don't know.
She will not follow me back home.
I would like to believe in a world in which mutual love and precious feelings can cross mountains or even oceans lasting for a long time, but lately my romanticism rhymes with scepticism.
I am cycling through the streets of Utrecht when my glance is caught by a second hand store. It is the first time after the Queen's Night that I come back to Hopakker, the road where my dealing with the Dutches began and finished in a hour.
The shop sells old clothes, creased books, cumbersome ornaments, deluxe coffee machines and any sort of odds and ends. The owner of the second hand store is a gracious woman in her fifties. She moves fleetly among the stacks of stuff that fill every corner of her small shop. When a customer forgets a plastic bag on a wood wormed chair, the woman runs after her on the sidewalk gently yelling "Missen! Missen!"
Then she puts a vinyl record on a dusty gramophone. It's Kilo by The Nits. And it's the first time I listen to what I assumed to be the most famous Dutch band since I have come in these Lowlands. I smile. She smiles. I am going to pay a couple of two € priced books. Cosmopolis by Don De Lillo and a selection of short stories called Worst Journeys edited by the Picador Book of Travel. The woman notices they are both English written and asks me.
"Where do you come from? "Italy - I have to admit. "Oh, poor you! - she says as patting sympathetically on my shoulder. "Don't worry! I'm not really into football and I had a great time on that night. "Yes, but... "And now I am a supporter of the Dutch team. Don't you see? I am wearing an orange t-shirt! "I see, but... "It's so amazing the way in which you celebrate the victories here! You, crazy people. "Well... "Hup Holland Hup! "Ehm, actually I was referring to your political situation. Why don't you sack that Berlusconi?
Hit and sunk. What a fool I am. Three days after the 3-0 another humiliating defeat for Italy while facing the Netherlands. And it is going to be worse and worse.
One of my recent favourite hobbies has become crossing borders. Living in Europe, I am lucky enough to have the possibility of doing it with no passport and without bribing the customs officers or digging a tunnel under barbed wire. Saint Schengen may you be blessed.
Listen, I am not only crossing borders. I am crossing borders by bike. Uh. Pretty stupid to say, but quite interesting to do.
At the moment my best feat is going from France to Spain through the hostile Pyrenees. Second comes a bike trip from Vienna to Bratislava in which I managed to get lost losing sight of that narrow stream called Danube. On that glorious August day I firstly reached the Hungarian border by mistake and then spent forty minutes convincing the zealous Slovakian policemen that I did not want to import any drug in Bratislava.
It took one year to fill the third step of the podium, but now I have another crossing experience to tell to unimpressed women in gallant conversations.
Ladies and Gentleman, I went from Holland to Germany. Ja. Ja. (caught the difference?)
Well, honestly I just wanted to cross the river Waal by bike on the huge car bridge which overtops Nijmegen. But, you know, I have this tendency on complicating things. Anyway, when it became clear that I was actually passing under the bridge I decided to go with the flow of cyclists ahead me. It turned out to be a good choice.
The Nijmegen countryside is in fact relaxing enough and the weather was perfect to enjoy a pleasant jaunt with no destination and a train return ticket to Utrecht safe in my pocket. Cycling on the river bank I soon began to hum pastoral melodies solaced by the signs which informed me I was on the Ooij Fietsroute. Where (or what) is Ooij? I had no idea, but all those people on their familiar Batavus and Gazelle bikes pointing on my same direction were reassuring enough.
Now picture the following performers, please.
Straw hatted Dutches selling homemade honey along the way. Mustard coloured horses pasturing on the sandy riverside. Herons hidden by canes in ponds and marshes. Human beings hiking, bathing, picnicking, viciously licking homemade honey from their fingers. Passing barges carrying coal from a point A to a point B.
Done it? Thank you very much. That's easier for me. Let's go further.
Next stop that town. Millingen aan de Rijn. A nice place built under the river bank. No more than a church, a couple of pubs, a butcher shop, a chemist, a kindergarten. Hey, wait a moment! Aan de Rijn? Rijn, Rhine, Rhein, Reno. Whatever you call it.
What happened to my Waal? Dazed and confused I opted for a rescue mission resolving to make a u-turn at the end of Millingen, the kidnapper of rivers.
But exactly when the town ends Germany begins. And in a very low profile, I should say. No flags. No billboards. No checkpoints of course. I appreciate it. It's simple. It's practical. It's definitely European. Just a street sign informs the neighboring Dutches on the speed limits of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.
Before and after Millingen on a plane trees coasted road everything is identical. Except for a couple of interesting details. a) as soon as Germany comes the fields are cultivated (corn, I guess) b) there are cyclist friendly public fountains in the towns (at least in the first one I met, Kleve).
I am not going to judge Dutches, but I cannot resist to blame them for being tight relating to point b). I do not understand why with all the water they have in these Lowlands there are no public fountains as far as I can remember. (actually a deep throat told me there is a fountain in Amsterdam's Rembrandtplein, but I need to check this information).
Anyway, to cut a long story short. I went to Kleve. I drank German public water while eating Albert Hejn's bought stroopwafels. And then I came back to Nijmegen completely satisfied with my crossing borders hobby.
Once again, it is not my ambition to criticize Dutches, but why do they not have a single street sign informing that you are entering in the Netherlands? Does it cost too much? Nevermind. Neverland.
While in Nijmegen it's hard to find a well-located bench.
Yet there are plenty of panoramic spots in this town and you can have many spectacular views on river Waal.
Nijmegen lies on the southern shore of this large gray branch of river Rhine and offers more than expected. A former Roman settlement, the city claims to be the oldest in Holland, although people in Maastricht have a different story to tell.
Whether the oldest or simply old, Nijmegen does not have much to share with most of the Dutch cities. You will not see any canal here. In compensation, a surprising number of scooters, motorcycles and even electric bicycles (!) crowd the streets. This might have something to do with the conformation of the town, which is pretty hill-marked. I am not saying that people in Nijmegen are lazy even if looking at them walking and dragging their bikes instead of cycling on painless cobblestoned uphills more than a suspect may rise.
The town is often referred as the warmest in the Netherlands and local legends say that once the temperature reached a Mediterranean top of 39°. Today there might be 20 Celsius or something and yet I can confirm how the sun here hits the skin with a power unknown elsewhere in these Lowlands. But no decent sun-bathed bench may be found.
It's a charming Sunday early afternoon. Along Waalkade, the river promenade, young and old couples are strolling hand in hand while lapping ice creams or picking at French fries from their mutual vlaamse friten gigantic cornucopias. They walk straight from the rail bridge to the impressive car bridge that alternatively mark the beginning and the end of Nijmegen. Above the riverside stand a couple of hills punctuated by old brownish stones, half burned towers, ancient walls, ruins of churches and a Michelin starred restaurant. Add lawns, trees, a bunch of Nordic walking teenagers and many poorly located benches and you will have a picture of Hunnerpark.
Although many of its inhabitants prefer to put a motor under their seat, Nijmegen houses the Nationaal Fietsmuseum Velorama, the only Bike Museum of the Netherlands. Open your ears folks: this is the best thing I saw in Holland so far.
And this even if, oddly enough: - there are no bike racks outside the museum and I had to tie my Batavus to a utility pole; - the custodian does not speak any English (Waar ga je naartoe? Wij hebben een tweede etage boven!); - as usually, there is no discount for students.
Yet, believe me, this museum is a gem. Here you can find the weirdest kind of bikes, mono cycles, tricycles and even roller skaters from the late 18th century on in a clever arrangement. There are bikes of all shapes named, say, Boneshaker, The Swift Safety, The Matchless, Xtraordinary Challenge or Diamond Rambler No 2, (my favourite one). For those of you who are Orange fetishists there is even a section dedicated to the bikes rode by the Dutch royal family. The tandem of princes Bernhard and Juliana still radiates a majestic aura. Definitely entertaining the Velorama is also didactic being its signs Dutch written only.
Besides, at the ground floor you can choose among a large selection of funny old-aged posters and postcards. You just have to mime your choice to the inscrutable custodian who is not only Dutch speaking, but also half deaf.
Even if you are not a bicycle nerd like me, Nijmegen definitely worths a visit.
The second and final stage of this Tour will be decisive to convince you. Trespassing Germany.
(on the left side one of the nice posters I bought)
The black and white cat sits on the counter. She is quietly licking her right foot. Then she passes it on her snout. From right to left. From left to right. Up and down. A customer places a couple of yellow plastic bags on the conveyor belt. The small golden bell around the cat's neck jingles as she jumps on the floor. She is smooth and well-mannered, but cannot be of any help.
A man approaches behind the counter. He weighs the two bags on a scales while whistling. Coins pass from one hand to another one. "Dank je wel. "Alstublieft. "Tot straks. "Tot ziens.
Welcome to Persepolis, my favourite grocery store in Utrecht.
We are in Kanalstraat, the main street of the Lombok neighborhood. A place which I use to call "my own Ha(a)rlem", meaning not the Dutch, but the New Yorker one. An area of red-bricked working class buildings between a wooden windmill and a bell tower. On both sides of the road you can find a large potpourri of Turkish butcheries, Moroccan grills, Surinamese confectioneries, Lebanese bakeries and Iranian-owned hardware stores.
It just takes five minutes to get here from my place walking along the orange festooned Borneostraat. Hup! Holland Hup! Hundreds of triangle shaped banners exclaim.
Once I used to buy my fruit and vegetables on the other side of Kanalstraat in a no named store known for its juicy mangoes, but lately I put faith in Persepolis for Marjane Satrapi's sake. It's only here that I can find my beloved hummus and full moons of feta cheese sunk in milky pools. And every time I come here it's hard to don't fill a plastic tray with olives of all sort, tzatziki, mysterious but colourful sauces.
Making your grocery shopping at Persepolis you can feel as a fellow member of Utrecht's microcosm. While waiting for your turn to pay it's nice to catch a quick glance of that cute blond girl ahead of you in the line who took just one green pepper and a single zucchini. And then looking backwards you have a tall old man in his beige caftan who carries a 5 kilos bag of basmati rice and a handful of cassava roots.
Despite the long queue of customers, the Persepolis owner looks relaxed. He is never in a hurry. He stands on the threshold of his store talking nicely with passing people, suppliers, yobs and acquaintances before deciding of coming back to the counter with slow steps. But as he gives you the yellow plastic bags back adding a bigger stronger white one with a smile, I am sure you will forgive him proclaming Persepolis your favourite grocery shop in Utrecht.
And there is no such thing as customer satisfaction. If you don't mind the cat, obviously.
It's going to be our first date. Just me and her. We decided to meet in a small train station between Alkmaar and Den Helder. Although we are not supposed to know so much about each other, I’ve heard many things about her. Anna Paulowna. The famous Anna Paulowna. My Anna Paulowna, I hope.
I think about her constantly. I wonder what took her to this remote corner of the Netherlands. Rural Noord Holland does not look like a worldly place. Yet she moved here a long time ago.
From my window I can see a milky veil of fog covering a flat, dull countryside. Former wet land. Black spotted Frisian cows stand peacefully along the railway line, flapping their ears and their tails as waving the passing train.
I left Alkmaar a half an hour ago. If I am not wrong just a few minutes separate me from Anna Paulowna. She should be near. She might be near. She must be near. I have to be patient.
According to geography, we are getting closer to the sea. Yet, the landscape does not have anything to do with a marine one. Where are the seagulls? Where are the wrecked boats? Where are the fishermen? Just green fields for miles. And a blanket of haze. Apparently there used to be tulips here. But now their colours are gone. And all that remains are a few purple and yellow spots of sick-looking irises.
Anna Paulowna! Why did not I meet you in Saint Petersburg, Jalta or even in Roulettenburg when I know you were flirting with that gambler named Fyodor? Well, it doesn't matter.
I remember having a similar date with Maria Ellend, a petite Austrian I met between Vienna and Bratislava. We attended to a party hosted by local firemen in the courtyard of a picturesque inn. There were liters of radler beer, spicy sausages and a band was playing while we were sitting under the grapevine. Needless to say that I fell in love with Maria Ellend.
That story is over.
Now my feelings are all for Anna Paulowna, the one I am going to meet. Here we are. The train is reaching the tiny station. Just a few meters between us... Finally I can see her waiting for me. She is standing on the platform wearing an amazing blue dress. ANNA PAULOWNA
The station placard cries. Once. Twice. Once. Twice.