Tuesday, October 29th, 2002

Greetings from the sunny Netherlands

Filed under: random — alison @ 15:13

Sunday we enjoyed Holland’s most severe storm in eight years. I wanted to go for a walk on the beach and then to my first-ever sauna, but Mark said the sauna would be too crowded and to wait for a weekday. So I settled for taking a map and going for an hours-long walk in Rotterdam and getting lost. Very exciting: I had to hold onto poles so as not to be blown into the street, and much dodging of debris (trees, awnings, roofs, windows). Cyclists had a particularly difficult time of it, pushing their fietsen on the sidewalks, hopping along with one foot on a pedal to weigh the thing down.

I’ve been here since Saturday the 18th, and have done almost everything on my list. (I sent Mark a list of Things To Do that when he was worrying that he would be unable to entertain me. Both of us were convinced it would take two months. We’ve crammed it into two weeks. I have developed a bit of a cold. I’m sure I deserve it.)

Our morning ritual involves getting up late and slowly (reduces jetlag problems), eating in the living room and reading (Mark: newspapers; me: books) and drinking tea and taking turns checking one another’s mail. So even if we weren’t doing anything else we would still be having a lovely time.

Right now Mark is in bed, still recovering from the one-two punch of a visit to the family followed by Fight Club on television the other night.

Let’s see…

Saturday – took the train and tram back from Schiphol, toured the neighbourhood, got groceries at Albert Heijn and had supper at a restaurant with Marijn (he’s much prettier than Mark had suggested).

Sunday – walked around the shopping district, took the tram to different parts of Rotterdam. Went to the Hema (Holland’s general store and national symbol) and got checked dishcloths for Ola.

Monday – went to Mark’s studio, picked up the van, bought a passel of prepaid parking vouchers, went to dinner with Peter and Hester and their new daughter Madelief. Mark was finally able to give them the baby lambskin he had combed Rotterdam for.

I immediately pried Madelief out of her mother’s arms and monopolised her, unconcerned with propriety: Mark didn’t want to hold her anyway, her parents get to hold her the rest of the time, and while they were subject to the emotional discomfort of any parents of a kidnapped child we all knew intellectually – and could see and hear – that technically speaking Madelief was perfectly safe. So I kept her out of pure selfishness.

After dinner, went to the Sneak Preview (an unannounced movie every week: could be a Hollywood movie in English, could be an Albanian art-house film with Dutch subtitles, in this case was Bend It Like Becker) followed by beer in the cinema bar with his geeky Sneak friends.

Tuesday – the Hague, the Mauritshaus [sp?], more tram and train. We passed the University of Delft, which is the most densely populated spot in the world: all those highrises with one-room student housing. Inspected the Parliament buildings and the royal palace from the outside. Noted dull clothing stores catering to the upper crust. Wondered if this was what my psychiatrist meant when she said I’d enjoy the fashion in Holland.

By four o’clock my blood sugar was crashing and if I didn’t have something to eat soon I was going to have a hissy fit. Went to a typically Dutch eet-café but they didn’t serve food between 3:30 and 5:00. Left. Went to an Indian restaurant but they wouldn’t serve us unless we ordered a full meal, and all I wanted was soup and pakoras. At that point I did have a hissy fit. Left. Went to Macdonald’s and had a veggie burger. Marvelled at the difficulty of getting the kinds of things tourists like (snacks) in a high-tourist zone. (Mark describes this as “uptightness.”)

Walked on the beach and searched for the defenses that Mark had built with the Hogerhand group but they had been bulldozed along with the commercial kiosks at the end of the summer. Very peaceful, almost deserted. It started to rain so Mark took shelter in a Burger King while I roamed the dunes. When I joined him an hour later I announced my desire to sleep on the beach. He thought I was cute but unrealistic, but allowed as I could if I really wanted to. I didn’t.

On the train on the way back we encountered Rose and her son Derek. Rose is a student from Kenya doing her PhD in sociology [in English] at the University of the Hague, they had just seen a friend off at Schiphol, had missed their stop and were lost. Mark explained what to do and how to get back. They were in agreement that Dutch people aren’t very friendly.

Wednesday – Amsterdam. Had an eel sandwich at a sandwich shop Mark used to go to with his father, right beside a bookstore owned by his father’s friend. (Eel is tasty but it leaves a greasy eel smell on your hands for the rest of the day.) Walked around a hofje, an enclosed courtyard in the middle of the city. This one was the Begijnhofje, a sort of gated community for Beguines. There are no Beguines any more but it’s old Catholic ladies anyway. Bought special filled cookies.

Window-shopping for nice expensive designer clothes and for glasses frames. (Okay, if this is what my psychiatrist meant, this is more like it.) Actual cash changed hands for a little black sweater to go with my little black travel dress.

Canal tour. For the first time in nine years the boat had more Dutch people on it than English-speaking tourists. For the first time in nine years the commentary was in Dutch. Saw Anne’s (Mark’s most recent ex) house from the canal boat where it was pointed out as the narrowest house on the canal: only 150 cm (5′) wide. Went back on foot and measured it at around 167 cm (less than 5’6″) wide. [Ha!]

Met up with Dolf and Mansa, who were responsible for Mark and me meeting: Mark came to Canada for their wedding, Mansa being a Canadian of Jamaican descent. Toured their new house-in-progress (an old mattress factory they have gutted and are in the process of renovating into a gezellig family home for them to populate) where I made architectural and design suggestions that were happily seized upon. Went to dinner with them at an Argentinian restaurant where I was abundantly gifted with little Netherlands-related surprises all through the meal, Dolf being independently wealthy and having nothing better to do with his time than to think up and acquire clever presents. One of the presents was raw herring sprinkled with raw onion. As it was a restaurant we couldn’t eat it there so Mark carried it home in his bag where it leaked. He was going to get the lining of the bag replaced anyway…

After dinner we walked them back to their current tiny apartment and Mansa and I talked around the idea of racism in Holland. I expressed my surprise at cultured, travelled, educated, curious, liberal people having such limited flexibility in their approaches to difficult questions. That there would be a standard philosophy, but if it didn’t work in a given situation people didn’t seem to know how to ask different questions, how to look at the situation from a different perspective, how to pick at the knot from another strand. (The particular issue that illustrated this odd inflexibility for me is the social conflict around the difficulty of integration of Moroccan immigrants. Mark is yer basic bleeding-heart liberal and he knew only two ways to approach what appears to be a serious and complex issue: “Moroccan immigrants enrich Dutch society, everything they bring with them and everything about Moroccan culture is entirely positive, and any apparent social conflict is entirely due to intolerance and misunderstanding on the part of ethnic Dutch” and “the Netherlands for the Dutch: send all immigrants back to where they came from.” The latter position is typical of the reactionary List Pim Fortuyn and is anathema to Mark; however he is unable to look around the neighbourhood he lives in [immigrant-dominated: 40% of Rotterdam residents are foreign-born] and enthusiastically endorse the former position. When I asked him once how Moroccan-born Dutch see the issues – how they understand the apparent fact of their children not joining the professions or succeeding in business, their sons dropping out of school to roam the streets – and what they see as problems and what they see as solutions or preferred outcomes – he appeared never to have encountered the question before and to have no answer beyond “I don’t know. Moroccans don’t have a voice in the Dutch-language media because they have no professional class here.”)

Mansa’s observation was that Dutch people don’t have different perspectives. That each group (religious, political, social, whatever) is responsible for maintaining their own ideology. That they argue among themselves to refine and define the ideology for their own group, but there is no responsibility to understand or even listen to other groups. That debates or conversations often take the form of talking loud enough to drown out any other voice. Eeew.

Toured the red-light district and analyzed the women in the windows. Some of them looked approachable and friendly, the kind who would help you out if this was your first time and you weren’t really sure what to do. Most looked bored. One woman was fiftyish, with bleached hair, a thick waist, feet in comfortable bedroom slippers propped up on a pouf, hands folded in her lap waiting calmly for her next customer. Being grandmotherly was clearly her schtick and we were sure she had all the customers she wanted. (Experience and respectability combined!) In another series of windows two girls gyrated and fondled themselves indifferently while a third stared determinedly out the window, knees together and arms crossed. This one invited more questions: did she not want to be there? In that case, what was she doing there? (Lots of horrid scenarios immediately present themselves to the imagination.) Or is being new at this her schtick? In that case, is the appeal to men who prefer being fatherly, who don’t like to think of themselves as men buying sordid sex like all the other johns? Or is the appeal to men with a rape fantasy? (Lots of horrid scenarios immediately present themselves to the imagination.)

Thursday and Friday – Frantic family visit (Nijmegen and Zwolle) and whirlwind tour of significant Mark landmarks (Nijmegen and Arnhem). Mark’s father’s grave, Mark’s childhood homes, his schools, his squat, the apartment he shared with Margot, the nuclear reactor he demonstrated against, an afternoon with his mother and a Mauritanian refugee she had made friends with through her work with Amnesty International, supper with his mother, siblings and in-laws followed by a blessing of our union by one of the in-laws in which I was promised acceptance in return for being a faithful and devoted wife to Mark — and in which Mark’s sponsored emigration to Canada was compared to execution in a death camp (this was ambiguous actually: it could have been a comparison to escaping execution in a death camp by marrying a Nazi officer) — yes, really — then the next day, a visit with his sister and her energetic and chattering brood, a boat tour of Giethoorn (a tourist village called the Venice of the North, but people really live there living the kind of lives Dutch people live anywhere), a lovingly prepared three-course family meal and finally escape to a peaceful night sleeping in the woods. I quite like Mark’s family, even his mother. (She gave me the Saki collected stories! Very nice. And she liked the maple-leaf adorned, hand-batiked, syllabic-signed silk scarf I gave her.) Even Mark doesn’t so much dislike them as find them difficult and exhausting. When with them though he displays great patience and natters away with the rest. When we had a few minutes alone he made a point of thanking me for not annoucing publicly that I had no intention of being a faithful wife, though he could see that I was burning to make this clear. While in one way it would have been exactly the right time, in another it just wasn’t. Rather like the story about the go-cart.*

Saturday – A nature walk in a forest built in the late sixties. Vegetation but no animals except for deer in a pen. There were lots of explanatory plaques detailing the role of heather sheep in maintaining clearings and illustrating birds that lived in the trees, but we didn’t see any sheep or birds or even any obvious insects. (A few years ago ecologists identified a colony of twenty chipmunks on the spot where an industrial park was to be built… the only chipmunks in the Netherlands. The park was not built.)

We got back to Rotterdam just in time to buy me some shoulder bags at a friend’s store before it closed (it’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays, so if I wanted to use my bags while I was here it had to be now). While Mark tidied up, checked e-mail and stretched out, I went to the Geldautomaat (ATM) and the grocery store (alone!) and made supper.

Sunday –

Monday – Bought shoes. Finished a novel Mark lent me and started Saki. Nursed a blossoming cold. Sent Mark off to the Sneak by himself to gossip in Dutch in peace.

Tuesday (today) – Possibly some more shopping followed by a sauna. Possibly more reading and cold-nursing. On this cliff-hanging note I will sign off for now.

Hugs and kisses!

*Reginald On House-Parties
The drawback is, one never really knows one’s hosts and hostesses. One gets to know their fox-terriers and their chrysanthemums, and whether the story about the go-cart can be turned loose in the drawing room, or must be told privately to each member of the party, for fear of shocking public opinion; but one’s host and hostess are a sort of human hinterland that one never has the time to explore.
— Hector Hugh Munro, from The Complete Stories of Saki

[originally transmitted by e-mail October 29, 2002]

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