Friday, May 30, 2008

The Clash of Civilizations

I went to Sweden for a few days. While there I wrote a lot instead of toying with the idea of a cultural exchange which never really happened (you know what I mean).

I would like to annoy you with my reflections on the meaning of existence jotted down at the Skogskyrkogården Cemetery in Stockholm, but this weblog is dedicated to the Lowlands. So I decided for a compromise. Here it is. Don't fall asleep.

A spannende match in one single set.

> Culture
While in Amsterdam, don't miss the Sex Museum, the Torture Museum and the Beer Museum, but remember that the most visited cultural attraction is Madame Tussaud's on Dam Square with its wax stars. Stockholm offers an Historical Museum of Wines and Spirits, a Tobacco Museum and a Custom Museum (!) where you can pretend to be a drug trafficker assaulted by smuggling detector dogs. Isn't that amazing?
One point for each one.

> Drinks
Dutches are proud of their beers. Heineken and Amstel conquered the international markets, while Grolsch and Bavaria reign on the national one. When asked, Swedes are not able to mention a decent local beer.
Point for Holland.

> Fashion
Swedes girls and women in late May use to wear skirts on pantyhose and summer dresses on jeans. At first it seems ridiculous, but then you have to admit there is a logic behind that. Pippi Langstrump rules (ok, ok let's avoid stereotypes). Dutch ladies don't care that much about covering their legs in stockings and as for skirts they have a strange taste in choosing colours. But they can cycle wearing stiletto heels and that's impressive.
One point for each one.

> Food
They both go crazy for herrings. But Dutches eat those fishes in a more glamorous way.
Point for Holland.

> Freedom I
On a regular two hours train trip Dutches control your ticket twice. Swedes investigate over you four times inquiring your ID to be sure you are under 26 to deserve your ungdom discount.
Point for Holland.

> Freedom II
In Stockholm you can drink in the streets by night. In Amsterdam it's not allowed.
Point for Sweden.

> Habits & Social Behaviors I
In Sweden is pretty common seeing or listening people spitting in the streets. In Holland, as far as I know, it's not. See part II below for a plausible explanation.
Point for Holland.

> Habits & Social Behaviors II
Things are going to change pretty soon, but still in Holland you can find friendly coffee shops around selling shisha (as they call it) and other interesting herbs. And yet Dutches don't smoke that much and they're generally polite while doing it. Swedes don't smoke so much as well, but they suck snus "a moist powder tobacco product that is consumed by placing it under the upper lip for extended periods of time" (Wikipedia). Disgusting black teeth and black tongues as well as an insane wish to spit on the sidewalks are a logical consequence. Luckily enough the feminine population of Stockholm keeps away from snus.
Point for Holland.

> Health Care
They both go to the toilet (thanks God). But the Swedes remember to close the door.
Point for Sweden.

> Language
The pronunciation of letter "g" resembles letter "y" in Swedish. For example Blackeberg sounds like "blakkebery" while Göteborg is "yohteboor". Dutches pronounce "g" like having a stomach spasm followed by the impulse to strangle themselves. Try with Groningen at home.
Point for Sweden.

> Public Transportation
With a two zones tram ticket in Göteborg you can go to the southern archipelago and take all the ferries you want within a hour and a half. Utrecht doesn't have any archipelago and just one tram line. The far you can get with a two strippen ticket is from the central station to the university.
Point for Sweden.

> Final Result
7-6 for Holland which wins at the tie-break.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Eindhoven Conversations

The Eindhoven cab driver doesn't like his hometown. I am the lucky one staying in Utrecht, he says in a melancholic way as if he were living in a shantytown.

Can I see? Eindhoven is all like this. Tiny skyscrapers. Large avenues. Lines of trees. Coffee addicted commuters. Neon lighted offices. A city of dead souls. A boring place branded Philips.

- Well, it's a modern place. - I reckon.
- Yes, a modern one - confirms the cab driver.
And he looks quite disgusted by this kind of modernity.

I wonder if the local tourist office knows about this man promoting Eindhoven in such a way.
They might care.

I don't like cabs and I tend to don't take them. But there is a two days strike of public transport in Holland and no bus were waiting at the central station. I didn't know anything about that.
- Good for me. - says the man in his taxi.

And for a moment or two he looks optimist, forgetting how much he dislikes his hometown.
We are waiting at a red light.
On our right side two symmetric bell towers emerge from the rooftops shining in the sun. A six seated tandem crosses the street with six cute girls cycling on it. Eindhoven tries to be nice.

But then comes the green light.
- I really can't stand Eindhoven. I should move to Utrecht - mumbles the cab driver.
- Oh yes, you should - I sympathize with him.

I am sharing this cab to the airport with a forty something Spanish woman. She carries a backpack taller than her. Apparently she doesn't know any English.

- Are you a tourist? - asks her our driver.
- Si, tourist! - she nods vigorously.
- Where have you been in the Netherlands?
The woman shakes her head.
- It was not a yes or no question. - Mr. Cab Driver says
The Spaniard looks lost.

Yet, the man at the steering wheel insists. I am surprised. He is definitely the most talkative fellow I've met in Holland so far.
- I mean, where have you been? Amsterdam?
The woman smiles. She is clearly relieved.
- Si, Amsterdam! - she announces.

Meanwhile, we are getting closer to the airport.
The radio plays a hit from the eighties. Lionel Ritchie, I suppose.
Me and the Spaniard keep silent. The Eindhoven cab driver coughs a couple of times as to suggest an intermission in our lack of conversation.

I would like to talk, but the magnificent suburbs along the motorway are taking my attention span. It's unbelievable how everywhere you go in the Netherlands the public housing architecture is more or less the same. Red bricked buildings of two floors with a small garden at the entrance, no curtains at the windows and "Te Koop" or "Te Huur" panels here and there.
We might be in Breda, Haarlem, Alkmaar, Sittard instead of in Eindhoven. And Utrechtland, I am sorry for the dreamy cab driver, makes no exception.

Then we reach the airport which looks like a bus station in an industrial area.
The cab driver takes the money and helps us with our backpacks.

- Have a nice travel - he says behind his Dutch sunglasses.
- Si, travel! - the Spaniard exclaims.

Our taxi disappears in a queue of others coming back to the fake city of Eindhoven.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Definitely Delft

The translation from Italian is taking more time than expected.
But I won't give up.

Delft deserves words.

Leiden in a Jar

Because I am not good in taking photographs, when I travel alone I use to write about places. I like to do it on a train, on a bus, on a ferry, sometimes on a plane. Writing on a bike might be uncomfortable, but I am gradually getting experienced to it. Parks, stations, cobblestoned squares, cemeteries are also good places to write while standing still.
Finally I decided to put some of this stuff on pixel. It is a kind of therapy and I am not going to change anything of what I wrote. It is all about spontaneous sensations, mistakes included.

On its road to Leiden the train from Utrecht does not have any hurry.
When I came to these Lowlands I knew I was going to live in one of the cities which stands on that densely urbanized ring called Randstad Holland. What I ignored is that the ring surrounds an area widely referred as "The Green Heart". This heart is shaped with everything you wish to see on a postcard from the Netherlands. Black spotted white cows. Sheep. Wooden windmills. Those tulip fields.
The tiny town of Gouda is supposed to be the core of the green heart having its own reputation for cheese as a precious extra ingredient. Gouda is fifteen minutes by train from Utrecht and, I guess, no more than a hour by bike. And yet I still have to decide when and if going there. My impression seeing Gouda's surroundings by the train window on my way to Rotterdam or Den Haag is never that good.
At the opposite the small towns and villages which appear along the railway line just before Leiden are amazing. Looking at the back door gardens with their flowered trees, their bunches of blond children jumping around while a couple of kayaks are drying in the sun on a hut rooftop you wish to get the same bourgeoisie once in your life.
The Dutchmen who live in places like these are wealthy, but not in a vulgar way. Apparently they have been able to fix up their lives in one of the best possible ways. Perhaps they are bored, but there are worse tragedies than that one. All around their detached houses the sun is shining, peaceful water is flowing and a gentle breathe of an upcoming summer is spreading.

Once in Leiden it's easy to get distracted. Here it's all about aestheticism. The whole town seems to have been built for giving pleasure to its inhabitants in their free time. You can hardly find an annoying detail while here. On the walls there are poems of Verlaine and Rembrandt silhouettes. Choreographic windmills still stand on the angles of the former bastions now converted into a green paradise for strollers. The people spend their time sitting outdoors drinking tea or beers at nice cafes or canoing in the canals being careful to don't hit the swans with their paddles.
And even the canals in Leiden are different from the ones of any other Dutch town I visited so far. Utrecht canals are mostly brown resembling the colour of rust. Amsterdam canals cover a wide spectrum of colours from green to indigo, passing through the same shade of a stout beer. In Leiden most of the canals are narrow water paths with nymphaea leaves and flowers on both sides. They really looks like countryside creeks and it's hard to imagine a busy golden age where they were essential for trading.

Being romantic and quiet, Leiden holds a kind of aristocratic appeal. Behind the perfectly restored facades of the city centre you can see shelves full of books, ancient maps, bronze modeled heads of well-read men. Latin written mottoes stand on the thresholds. This town was and is a good place for learning. Here culture rhymes with study and theories may turn into discoveries having an impact on everyday's life. The main spot of the city looks to be an old circle shaped fortress which crowns a hill just in front of an old orphanage. From the walls of the tower you can see Leiden on each direction. Inside the walls a gang of local kids is playing football trying to hit the accidental tourist now and then.

I wonder how should have been studying here for a short while. In Leiden there is no trace of Utrecht's struggle for a debaucherous nightlife. Perhaps I am not a good observer and I just have to blame the enchantment this town has given me for my lack of accuracy. I like so much what I see around me. Nice girls reading on the grass with white skirts and a first delicate sun tan on their naked shoulders. Young couples hugging each other half slept on the shores of a canal. In Leiden even my envy for them is forgotten. I just want to lie down on this lawn eating apricots and plums. My left hand almost refuses to hold this pen. I could stay here all day long if I haven't already bought my ticket to Delft. There, then.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Captain of Quarantine

I am facing a Sunday of physical illness in which all that I can do is drinking microwave warmed tea while inhaling cheap
frikandel bought at the closest Nettorama.
This is what I call necessary decadence also known as social debauchery. This might happen in the Lowlands, especially when you went to bed before 1 AM for the first time in months. And on a springlike Saturday night. That's something shameful, I know. I also reckon how missing parties when your body and soul are getting used to them is an unhealthy affair.
Moreover my sober head hurts since my Cameroonian flatmate downstairs is pumping up his music all over the Bhawanie Mansion we share. There is nothing strange in this. On weekends he usually delights us with insisting drums juxtaposed with hardly understandable hip hop lines from 11 in the morning till the 6 on the dawn after. The green carpet of my room is raising up in waves here and there, now and then following the unsustainable rhythm coming from below.

I am pissed off
and ready to write about something else.

Be prepared for a delightful Ying and Yang short trip into Noord Holland. Bring Your Own Bike.
(update: Alkmaar and Zandvoort postponed)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

That Night Has Opened My Eyes

“Night and day, day and night” Ella Fitzgerald sang from the Cole Porter's songbook. And even if the Queen of Jazz never wore the Dutch crown, she really caught the spirit of Holland once a year between April 29 and 30. Because there is no Koninginnedag without a Koninginnenacht. And if Amsterdam is the right place to celebrate the Queen’s Day, Utrecht might be the perfect location for spending the endless night before. In that occasion the whole Binnenstad becomes at the same time a stage for musicians and performers and a flea market where Dutchmen confirm their talent for trade selling and buying any sort of stuff. From old vinyl records to half broken armchairs passing through crinkled kitchen books and out-of-style leather jackets, everything finds its room on the pavements of Utrecht.
This 2008 made no exception. Little showers of rain during the early evening of April 29 have not stopped the local sellers. Equipped just with an orange umbrella and a box of Palm the brave Utrechter crowded the streets with their merchandises pouring beer in their throats and Euro cents in their tight pockets. As foreign journalists and curious observers in search of true Dutch experiences me and Vicky, my friend from KLM, decided to make the Queen’s night business ours. Having both no old clothes to sell we turned our attention to handmade finger food. That’s why we put a basket of shortbread cookies and a bowl of chocolate cake on a cupboard wrecked in the corner between Hopakker and Lijsterstraat.

Semel in anno licet insanire. Once a year it is possible to get crazy, a Latin motto says. It fits perfectly with Dutchmen mentality on Queen’s Day, but apparently not with their attitude in buying food baked by foreigners on Queen’s Night. In fact me and Vicky did not manage to sell anything for more than a half an hour. Despite all our efforts, nobody tried both the original Canadeese koekjes and the famous Italiaanse tart. All that we earned was doubtful glances and skeptical expressions from the passing people. The most educated Dutchmen said “Nei, dank” while the less mannered ones just turned their mouths into grimaces of disgust. We tried any kind of advertisement and special offer passing from 1 € for four shortbread cookies to the policy of one cookie for free and five more cookies for 1 € plus one slice of chocolate cake. No result. Orange dressed people kept on ignoring us. We wondered why, finding no logical explanations. In fact we were irresistible, as you may see above.*

As my colleague in bankruptcy wrote on her witty captain's diary "Most Dutch people tried as hard as possible to avoid eye contact and on the off-chance they had the misfortune of catching our eye, they wouldn’t slow down as they declined". Although me and Vicky were feeling exactly like Lucy Van Pelt behind her lemonade stand-looking psychiatric booth, we insisted in our trade. Finally a fluorescent post-adolescent guy decided that we did not want to poison him and tried our koekjes en tart verkoop. Our customer appreciated the finger food and gave us the first and last Euro of the night. “Good luck!” he waved us back with his mouth full of shortbread cookies and chocolate. I have the suspect that our only customer was American.

At least someone else appreciated our royal-minded bakery.
From left to right, the standard bearer of Germany, Spain and Austria (forget the ice-cream).

*My Dickensian Coal Miner Kid expression has not to be intended as sarcastic. I was simply coughing.