Thursday, 18 October 2012

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Unready

This is not a book by me on 'Directors I've Known' - although with that title it could be. Would be quite a good read too. I could devote some chapters on the various types out there, plus throw in a few tips and tricks on how to deal with the more challenging ones (think spawn of Satan). I might even give away the secret to perfecting the 'You So Do Not Impress Me' look. Growing up with a cat in the house has many benefits.

Not what this book is about though. The Good, the Bad and the Unready by Robert Easton (childhood nickname 'Ridiculous Robert') is 'the remarkable truth behind history's strangest nicknames'. The man's not lying - he's got some pretty odd ones summed up in there. You have to feel sorry for the subjects of some of the included monikers though. It's one thing to be nicknamed 'the Terrible' or 'the Cruel', but really, doesn't your heart go out to 'Elizabeth the Red-Nosed Princess' (centuries before Rudolph), 'Heneage the Dismal' or 'Ladislaus the Elbow-High'? Oh and poor, poor 'Hugh the Dull' - an epithet like that would have almost made him wish he'd butchered a peasant or two (or two thousand) to earn a more fierce cognomen. No need to frown - I said almost.

If you're one of the seemingly dying breed that loves history, chances are you’ll be familiar with quite a few of the mentioned characters and their nicknames. Not that the likes of Tum Tum, Nose Almighty and the Prince of Whales are not still worth a good snigger. But it's the more obscure names that really tickle the imagination. Take ‘Athelfleda the White Duck’. That one had me seriously intrigued. Did the damsel in question have distinct Donaldian features (pale with webbed feet)? Did her mother blame her pregnancy on a white bird (can't believe Leda got away with that), or was poor Athelfleda just cursed with a bit of a funny voice? Here’s what Easton had to say on the origin of the name: ‘We don’t really know – it could have just been a term of endearment’. Yes. I liked my suggestions better too. Not sure Athelfleda would agree though.

I do admit to a childish delight in nicknames - especially (and this will come as no shock to you) the more irreverent ones. Chances are I’d think otherwise if I knew all that people called me. As a penniless student I was temping at a shower curtain factory one summer (not one of the high points in my life) and was  mortified to discover some of the male population had started referring to me as ‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’. Not the kind of thing a very self-conscious young woman wants to hear. Especially as mine are really more of an average size anyway. I wore baggy things for the rest of the season. Of course now I think it was actually quite funny – and possibly a bit friendlier than ‘the Missing Links’, which is what I called the gentlemen in question from then on.

If you like nicknames as well, and enjoy historical anecdotes (peppered with quite a bit of gossip and hearsay), you will enjoy reading the Good the Bad and the Unready. No self-respecting toilet should be without it. Which is maybe not the kind of praise Robert Easton had in mind when he wrote it, but the bathroom really is a perfect place to 'dip into this little book and enjoy a good giggle' (pinched that from the cover). Now if I were to write the book I mentioned above, I would be thrilled if it became a toilet read. Considering how some of its main characters were full of crap, it might actually be quite appropriate.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Aladdin's is a cave no more

It used to be a mix of Aladdin's cave, pirate's den and older boys clubhouse. One of those secret places that made you feel glowing with smugness for knowing about it. Hugely satisfying to take visitors from out of town to and wait for the inevitable gasps - that kind of place.

Treasure hunting here was not to be taken lightly though. Especially not while carrying an oversized handbag. 'You break it you buy it' meant you could just end up with an 18th century squinting Madonna. A broken one. Then there were the dangers of setting foot on the creaking and groaning mezzanine, wondering whether that second helping you had the night before was going to prove fatal. Ah, that feeling of indecision in the pit of your stomach as you reached the end of the entresol - would it be best to chance a quick yet light-footed dash back (desperately trying not to knock anything over), or try your luck descending the Spiral Staircase of Death: wobbly, narrow and out to ruin your heels.

Risking your neck could be worth it though. Really worth it if you allowed the minx in you to come out and play. Which isn't all that hard when there are pretty things to be had, let's be honest. I struck some really good bargains here with the odd lash flutter, a demure smile and a whispered 'well I don't know' while discussing the price. Whoever said I even resorted to twirling my hair is a big fat liar though - I haven't stooped that low since I was six. And even then it made me feel quite ridiculous.

It was a dream of a place but sadly, all good things must come to an end. The owner has found himself a lady friend. And wouldn't you know - she likes to play house. All of a sudden the downstairs has a proper floor. A nice one, that you can actually see. No more mad stacking of as many antiquey kitschy items the building can hold. Objects are now arranged in pretty displays. Tasteful. Stylish. CLEAN. Even my old nemesis the mezzanine has been getting quite a makeover. Which hasn't actually stopped the creaking and the groaning and the murmured 'please don't let this be the day the whole bloody thing comes falling down' prayers.

Funny thing though. They've incorporated all the changes I thought would make the place even better, and yet part of the magic is undeniably gone. Goodbye Aladdin's cave, hello upmarket antiques store. Did I mention that prices have gone up significantly?

Lash flutters would now be wasted here. The new lady manageress is patrolling the store. Charming, elegant,  sophisticated, she greets visitors with a polite smile. Not to mention a very, very steely gaze.

All photos were taken post makeover. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Brontës

Capturing the Brontë sisters and their oeuvre in just a few simple images and words. 

I bow to the master. Mistress in this case. 

Hurry over to Hark! A Vagrant for more of Kate Beaton's portrayals of historical and literary characters. I dare you not to snort or chortle or possibly wet yourself. 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Painter, his Lover, their Child and the Baron

Hm. I thought I read somewhere that the new series of ‘Who do you think you are’ would be starting this weekend. Apparently not.

If you haven’t heard of it (oh the shock, the horror!) - WDYTYA is a BBC series that looks into famous people’s ancestry. It’s really more fun than it sounds - promise. One of the things I enjoy most about it is that you never quite know what they will unearth this time. It's history shown through ‘ordinary’ people's lives, their heroism, their romance, their hardships. Sometimes even their saucy little scandals. As the producer of the series once described it: ‘Though we don't reveal anything about what's coming up to those taking part, we do always warn everyone that history has a habit of taking surprising twists and turns - and that they might not always like what they find’.

Of course it’s usually the twists and turns that make for great television. I greatly enjoyed the look on Boris Johnson’s face for instance when he discovered he was a descendant of King George II. Priceless. Especially as he had said earlier he thought the aristocratic claims of his ‘Granny Butter’ were probably a load of tosh. She’d have been chuffed to bits I'm sure. Some other celebrities were not so lucky if you want to call it that. They saw stories that had been passed down through generations debunked as mere myth. At times to their ill-disguised chagrin. Told you – GREAT television.

My own family would have some rather interesting legends for this research team to sink their teeth in actually. And I’m not talking about dad's alleged Scottish Connection, although I do still really fancy that castle. As it happens, mum’s ancestors passed down some even taller tales. Dad always did call them a bunch of story tellers (still does as a matter of fact). How I would love it if they turned out to be true. BUT. There's this nagging little voice warning me that the Münchhausen gene ran rampant on both sides of the family. And that our version of Granny Butter probably fell into the category 'hopeful' rather than 'truthful'. Enter Auntie Gussie.  

Auntie Gussie (or ‘Tante Guusje’ in Dutch) wasn’t actually my auntie. She was my grandmother’s aunt, my great grandfather's sister, who almost lived long enough to receive a royal telegram. And a very interesting character she was. Never married, she was once a celebrated concert pianist, with men throwing themselves at her feet in admiration for this tiny virtuoso. At least, according to Auntie Gussie. 

She may have been a slightly eccentric old lady, complete with wonky hats and oversized cardigans, but she had kept her wits about her. Bright as a button, not to mention sharp as nails. Auntie loved regaling us with tales of the past, and not just of her own glory days. She took enormous pride in her ancestry, and could frequently be found boasting of the ‘spark of genius’ she felt ran through our bloodline. I know - don't start. Everyone would smile indulgently as she went off on another one of her ramblings, but she always insisted her stories were not just the imaginings of a silly old bat. Hmm. 

Her favourite tales concerned two of our alleged ancestors. We’re talking BIG names in Dutch history here. In the list of ‘Greatest Dutchmen/women of All Time’ numbers 9 and 32 even. Not too bad eh? Not that that list is sacred in my eyes, considering who was granted first place by popular vote. I still haven't quite recovered from the shock. Never mind about that though. At the risk of doing a Molly Sugden's Bridesmaid, I'd like to tell you the story of number 9. His is a name that even non-Dutch people will recognise. The man could well be the Netherlands' most famous painter. Not the one who cut off (only part of) his ear. Nor the one who since the book and film is thought to have had a penchant for girls with pearl earrings (rolls eyes). 

It's Rembrandt. How's THAT for a tall tale?

(Clears throat) Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was already a successful painter in his own day, but one whose personal life was marked by tragedy and financial hardships. Of the four children he had with his first wife Saskia, three died in infancy. Even the one son who survived into adulthood, Titus, preceded him in death. Saskia herself died shortly after Titus' birth, aged only 29. The loss this meant to Rembrandt is clearly visible in the paintings he made of her around this time. It didn't stop him from selling her grave when he needed the money though (always thought that slightly bizarre if not disturbing). After quite a lenghty affair with the woman hired as Titus' nurse (a tale with more disturbing facts but let's not go there), Rembrandt fell in love with a young maid who had joined his household shortly before. Insert drumroll. Her name was Hendrickje Stoffels, and she would remain with Rembrandt for the rest of her life, bearing him the one child who would survive him, Cornelia. Now If I can believe dear old auntie Gussie, this Cornelia was my many times great grandmother. 

Sadly there are no known portraits of Cornelia. Bit odd that. There are however quite a few paintings that are said to represent Hendrickje. There is a chance I'm just being sentimental here, but of all Rembrandt's works, these are the ones that touch me the most (apart from the heart-breaking Jewish Bride). Not because I can say there's any marked family resemblance. After 350 years that would have been a bit too much to expect anyway. I do feel she's much prettier than Saskia though - obviously. The portraits show a woman with a gentle expression on her face and large, somewhat sad eyes. Even when she is portrayed in the nude, she keeps her modesty, always displaying a quiet dignity.  

Rembrandt now would not have been the easiest man to live with. He had the temperament as well as the (lack of) financial savvy of most artists in those days. Putting it mildly. His constant lack of money meant he could never marry Hendrickje, as he would have lost access to a trust set up for Titus if he had. Sadly, Hendrickje was the one who had to pay the price. When she was pregnant with Cornelia she was summoned before the church council, and forced to admit in front of those sanctimonious gentlemen that she had 'committed the acts of a whore with the well-known painter, Rembrandt'. She was then banned from receiving communion. And where was the great painter during all this? At home behind his easel. Hm. Not too impressed with you there, granddad.

All difficulties aside, Hendrickje remained Rembrandt's constant and loving companion, always trying to keep his creditors at bay. Her death in 1663, age 37, is said to have been a great blow to Rembrandt, whose self portraits now show a man old before his time. He had one more loss to bear. Titus died in 1668, shortly after his marriage. Rembrandt died the following year, leaving Cornelia an orphan at age 14. Poor thing. As young as she was, she had tried to take care of him the way her mother had. Only two years later her guardian married her off to another painter, Cornelis Suythof. She bore him two sons before dying an early death in the Dutch East Indies, the present day Indonesia. It was there that some time later, her blood line is said to have mixed with that of my mother's family. 

Is there ANYTHING to corroborate this story I hear you ask. Er. I asked the same thing of my grandmother once. She told me it had apparently already been a party favourite long before her aunt was even born. It would be! 'Here's a drink, here are some nibbles and oh by the way, did we ever tell you one of the most famous painters in the world was our ancestor'. I can picture it now. Of course, mum's family is said to have been present in Java for centuries and is therefore likely to have come across the Suythofs. The Dutch community in Batavia couldn't have been all that big in those days? All the same, nan had never seen or heard any real 'proof', like a family tree. So if auntie Gussie wasn't the one entitled to proudly bear the name of Münchhausen, one of our other ancestors still might. 

I suppose it would go a bit far to head over to the Westerkerk with a crow bar and a shovel to collect some DNA. Especially as both Rembrandt and Hendrickje lie in an unmarked grave so there'd be quite a bit of ground to cover. Oh alright - and it would be a bit creepy to dig up the grandparents. I did however manage to look up Cornelia's two sons on the web (Rembrandt and Hendrick - named after both her parents, doesn't your heart just break) and could only find their dates of birth. So unless I'd start a serious search through whatever records may still remain, I can't prove or disprove our family legend. 

Chances are not entirely in our story's favour. Surely with a man as famous as Rembrandt, someone would have already tried to find out if he had any living descendants. Like the hopefuls in my family for instance. And we'd have heard of the results somehow. So if I'd do some serious digging (no pun intended), I might just find our claim has no basis in truth. Which would rob us of a fantastic story. At least now we can say: 'we're not sure if this is just a family legend, BUT ...'

So alright - I'll admit it. I would quite like it to be true. I do really think Rembrandt is one of the greatest painters of all time. And as you can probably tell, I'd be no less proud of claiming Hendrickje for my ancestor. Unfortunately, the Baron at this moment seems a more likely candidate. Oh well. At least my forebears weren't boring. Where did I hear that before - was it Fiona Bruce? 

There is one tiny glimmer of hope though: not every tall tale passed down in my family is necessarily a fabrication. If she couldn't shed any light on the truth about 'number 9', my grandmother was convinced of our descent of 'number 32'. Did she show me any records to prove it? What do you think.

Still, it makes quite a story. A tale of high politics, the wrath of a man who would be king, and gruesome murder.

I'll save it for another day.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Spring sale

Isn't it wonderful that spring has finally sprung?

Yes, I'm all for cosy nights in (with all the trappings) on cold winter days, but really: enough is enough. Time for sunlight, fresh air, activity, Change! Yes, I did put that capital C there on purpose.

I've been giving my home a good old-fashioned spring cleaning this weekend (inbetween tea & retail therapy sessions with friends), so I think I deserve a treat. And lo and behold, the universe responds to my desire for some self-pampering. My friend Bobbi over at The Lazy Designer is having a spring sale. Lots of gorgeous sparkly things to appeal to my inner magpie. God, I do take after my mother.

You had better head over quickly before I scoop up the lot. Seriously.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Book lover's heaven

Some people would say that Maastricht is well worth a visit just for the sake of sampling at least one variety of its famous pastry, the so-called 'vlaai'. Now I'm quite partial to a nice bit of pie myself (you would never have guessed it I'm sure), but its allure isn't so great that I would travel an hour and a half for it. Especially as you can get half decent vlaai all over the country these days. A great bookstore on the other hand - now there's another matter. And Maastricht has one I think is nothing short of fabulous.

Oh alright - so I didn't board a train to Maastricht last week to indulge in booky delights. But I could have. What's more, even after hours of sauntering around TEFAF admiring its many treasures - steadfastly ignoring increasingly urgent messages from the extremities to the grey cells to flop down somewhere - I still wanted to make my way into the city centre. In the heat. Just for the sake of a visit to the 13th century church that has been transformed into a temple of the written word. Now there's a place I can see myself worshipping in.

I'm not the only one who thinks the old Dominicanerkerk or Dominican church is a book lover's dream. It even made it to this list of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world (along with another great NL store - cloggies rule). The place simply has everything. To start with the blatantly obvious: it houses a good range of books. Not exhaustive - but enough to make sure there's something there for everyone. The thing that really can't be beaten (enter my favourite word again) is the atmosphere of the place: great architecture, amazing light, nooks and crannies and special little details everywhere. I love the faded frescoes and murals (not really very obvious in the photos but then they ARE faded), and even the tombs with their heraldic motifs add to the special character. They're not still in there by the way. I think.

The only thing it lacks in my view is a smattering of comfy armchairs instead of only the odd stool here and there. It does have a great coffee corner so I guess I shouldn't really whinge. In spite of it being the Dutch national sport (and here's you thinking we were into ice skating or football). 

A picture paints a thousand words, so have a good look and tell me if I'm not right. 

So what's your verdict? Book lover's heaven yea or nay? I thought so.

And now for the bad news. Trouble in paradise I'm afraid. This wonderful bookstore is part of the Selexyz chain, which has last week gone into administration. If a solution isn't found urgently, the Selexyz bookstores, including this one, my beloved Donner in Rotterdam and wonderful Adriaan Heinen in Den Bosch might have to close. I can't begin to tell you how utterly unreal and devastating that would be. An English friend told me not too long ago that our's would be the generation to witness the closing of the last bookstore. He'd better not be right (so far he hasn't been the most trustworthy oracle so there's hope yet). 

As you can understand I was feeling slightly melancholy leaving the Dominicanerkerk, not knowing whether this might have been the last time I visited it as a bookstore. I did make several purchases there - and what a load of good that will do now. But it did make me feel slightly less guilty for buying numerous books over the internet - not to mention downloading a fair few. 

And then I finally decided it was time to give my feet a rest. 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A fine art fair

I must have spent well over a million euros on Friday. In thought that is. Sadly.

Now I do tend to spend virtual dineros more often (mostly while drooling over great houses), but this was on a trip to Maastricht. Ah, lovely old Maastricht. So very rich in history and culture. They do a rather nice type of tart there as well. And an excellent beef stew. I didn't go to Maastricht to stuff my face though - I was going on my annual visit to TEFAF, The European Fine Art Fair.

This is really the crème de la crème, possibly even the crème brûlée of art fairs. An opinion that is shared by quite a few millionaires if the number of private jets landing at the local airport is anything to go by. Not to mention the Old Money Parade. But even if your purse is slightly smaller - like mine - it's still well worth a visit. Whatever tickles your fancy in the field of art and antiques, chances are you'll find it here. Displayed to perfection I might add.

Some stands are kept deceptively simple, with dramatic black or white walls, highlighting only a few choice pieces. Art - haute cuisine style. But you can also find the gloriously over the top rococo boudoir here, complete with gilt chandeliers and mirrors and curvy swirly bits. Or something that looks like a modern-day version of the Diogenes Club. Quite liked that one actually. And I was oddly taken with the curiosity cabinet an Austrian dealer came up with this year - complete with floating dead things in glass containers and a rather saucy coco de mer taking pride of place. So there you have it: every stand takes you to another period and another world. I could just picture Joséphine de Beauharnais writing a passionate billet doux in an Empire style room. Possibly because it featured armchairs that were once made for her - plus an enormous coronation portrait of Napoleon. The little corporal* was trying his best to look fierce and manly. I'm afraid the cringe-worthy outfit had rather the opposite effect. 

In all, going to TEFAF rather feels like visiting a museum - one with the most diverse collection in the world. Of course unlike in a museum, everything you see here is up for grabs. Just one tiny snag: you probably already guessed it but you do need rather deep pockets. In some cases journey to the centre of the world type deep. Fancy a nice Henry Moore? You can take one home for a mere €27 million. If you don't want to spend all that much, you can buy a genuine Van Gogh for €3 million. A trifle in comparison. Not one of his most appealing works though if you ask me. It's the potato harvesters. Blasphemous for a Dutch person to say it, but: meh.

Personally I always spend the longest time at the classical antiquities. I used to have this dream of becoming a female Indiana Jones. NOT because of the whip. Interestingly enough, this section always has some items that, although incredibly old and breathtakingly beautiful, are not entirely out of reach. I once stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted the most gorgeous faience scarab. It was of the deepest turquoise, with separate wings, perfect in every intricate detail. It not only called my name, it crooned to me Sinatra style. In spite of me not being overly fond of real-life creepy crawlies. We are talking big beetle. Amazingly, for all its beauty, the price was slightly under what was then my monthly net salary. I ended up being practical and sensible and exceedingly dull and responsible and not buying it. Of course the following year, as I stood gazing at a display of not quite so gorgeous scarabs in the British Museum, I mentally kicked myself. Hard. On the plus side - I did escape the curse of the mummy.

And now TEFAF is all over for another year, leaving me to fantasize what it would be like to go there with unlimited resources and buy everything I never knew I needed desperately. Yes, chances are I would end up with quite an eclectic mix, if I may use an increasingly popular word. I'm not daunted by the prospect. There might be a bit of John Soane in me after all. Plus, if I would really be filthy rich I could afford to buy me a mansion big enough to house all of my pretties. Plus a hired help. For now, I need to be content with doing a spot of dreaming and drooling while browsing the TEFAF app (they move with the times) or leafing through the brochures. Speaking of which: don't you agree the head in the first picture looks amazingly like Elvis? The King not only lives - he time travels.

* I have it on good authority that the little corporal wasn't actually that small. Not that Stephen Fry can't get it wrong of course.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The comfort of small rituals

It's a bit like the Tardis. Just really big. And gothic. When you enter St. John’s Cathedral (the Evangelist, not the Baptist - in case you were wondering) it is rather like stepping through a portal into another reality. Because of the whole atmosphere of the place. Instant far from the madding crowd. It’s vast and old and positively steeped in history. Emperors once came to worship here. I can think of at least one anyway. The place even SMELLS ancient. 

This region has always been Catholic territory. I once got a splash of holy water on my bald little head too. Apparently I didn't like it. My parents weren't too thrilled either, being agnostics. They just thought it the best course of action. It certainly prevented weekly installments of my grandmother's Hell and Damnation series. Interestingly enough, my other grandmother would have professed equally adamant views in favour of the Protestant faith. Had she lived longer, we might have seen a reenactment of Clash of the Titans. Epic battle material or so I'm told. 

Even though I don't consider myself a Catholic anymore, having adopted more agnostic views ages ago, I've got nothing against the old faith. It's the institution I have some problems with. Like I imagine a certain young carpenter would have had. Just a hunch. All the same, I still enjoy visiting dear old St. John’s -or the Sint Jan as we call it. A monument telling over a thousand stories. A lot of them involving a small wooden statue.

She is what most people come to the cathedral for, even if they are not actually Catholic. Even if they're not actually believers of any kind. For some reason it still feels good to light a candle (in truth, the smallest of tea lights) in front of the Zoetelieve Vrouw, our Dear Sweet Lady of 's-Hertogenbosch. Hard to imagine now that she was once found on a scrapheap, thrown there because she was considered hideous. Not worth a thing. Until miracles started being attributed to her that is.

Her face and her smile are enigmatic but sweet. Compassionate. In another culture she could have been a representation of Quan Yin. Or a symbol of the Divine Feminine. Oh yes, do give me an eye roll why don't you. I'd like to think that she says even something seemingly small and insignificant can prove to have real strength. And that difficulties can be overcome.

For me too it has become tradition to light a candle in front of the Lady whenever I visit the cathedral. Sometimes I even go there for that specific purpose, as I did this week. As always, I didn't say a prayer. Nor did I ask for a miracle or a wish to be granted. I think we need to create our own. And to be honest, if I would be asking for a boon right now, it'd be one of the Sredni Vashtar kind. Somehow I don't think that's the sort of thing the Lady would be granting.

It's just that my magic lamp has been rubbed up the wrong way once too often lately. Making me want to tell people to bugger off because they've long run out of wishes. One of my friends who is very active in the spiritual field tells me to 'send them to the light'. I asked her if I could shove a rocket up their arses and blow them into the light instead. I can tell she thinks I've got a long way to go.

I've been trying several things to restore my peace of mind and sanity, and with success I might add. Lighting a small candle in front of a small statue was only a tiny part of it. Oddly enough that little ritual did provide some comfort. As it did for the decidedly atheist friend I lit a candle for at the same time. At his request I should say. It made him feel better too. Which arguably makes no sense as he is opposed to any beliefs in a supreme being, benevolent spirits or the supernatural. He is the first to say there is no logic behind it whatsoever. And still it comforted him to know that in an old church, a candle was flickering in front of a statue with a sweet smile.

Isn't that all that matters in the end?

Monday, 20 February 2012

Yoga - yea or nay?

I’ve been having an inner debate about the topic of yoga again the past few weeks. Unfortunately, we have not reached any conclusions yet.

There is a distinct possibility I might actually like doing it. I’m all for things like breathing techniques and meditation for one. Quite a fan of Eastern philosophy too (including some of the sexier bits of Taoism). Did Qigong for a while and loved it - once I got over the feeling of looking like a demented crane. And yet, whenever yoga is suggested to me, my mouth appears to be going into grimace mode.

It might be that I’m still failing to grasp the real benefits of bending my body into pretzel shapes with funny names. The whole idea after all, I believe, is to come to a deep state of relaxation and inner tranquility. Now for some reason I don’t associate body contortionism with inner peace. I just don’t think I’d be feeling very serene trying to do the Nearly Dead Crab. I’m sure it’s me. Just haven’t heard the right arguments yet – but am quite willing to be convinced. No really.

One of my dearest friends happens to be quite a fan. Her attempts to enthuse me would probably be a lot more effective if she wouldn’t complain of aches and pains for days after a session. I did try to get her to tell me exactly what the attraction is. Apart from the instructor who is apparently very cute and does not wear one of those outfits that show a man’s package all too clearly (talk about inner peace).

She told me that she can feel incredibly frustrated and sore, attempting to get her body to assume the desired awkward pose. And once she’s there, she ends up thinking she may never be able to uncoil herself without causing irreparable damage. Ah, but then! When she's at the end of a session and knows it's all over for another week and she's allowed to lie flat on her back for 15 minutes, listening to some sweet meditative tones, she can feel so very very content.

Hmm. Even as I type that I can feel my left eyebrow arching. Doesn't it all sound suspiciously like 'Why do you keep hitting yourself on the head with a hammer?' 'Because it feels so darn good when I stop!'. Yes. I’m SO going to be lectured about this. And for mentioning the instructor’s package obviously. I'll let you know once she gets a hold of it (for the record, I'd like white peonies at my funeral - I know they're out of season but if you'd truly love me you'd get them for me anyway).

Admittedly, I do have this silly mental image of myself doing yoga. Just not in some gym smelling of old shoes. In my fantasy yoga session I’m in the open air, on a plateau by an oriental style temple. I rather fancy a Balinese one. I’m wearing white cotton clothing (looking deceptively simple yet elegant) and have a fragrant melati flower stuck over one of my ears. A soft breeze gently ruffles my hair (not too much – said flower needs to stay put), carrying with it the scent of blossoms and the ocean. And all the while I’m bending my body into all sorts of positions with an easy, effortless grace.

Bit of a pity there's this little nagging voice inside my head that says that the whole point of yoga is probably to obtain that kind of tranquility even when life does not provide a Balinese temple and a gentle sea breeze. Maybe I should try to overcome years of extreme body consciousness and the fear of feeling awkward and clumsy and just give it a go. I'm the one who's always telling people 'you won't know until you try' after all (never realised quite how annoying that is).

I think I secretly want to be convinced yoga would be great for me.

Thoughts anyone?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The low rumble of trains

The place was still bare apart from the new bedroom furniture and the freshly laundered towels in the bathroom. It felt zen and minimalist and brimming with new opportunities. The rest of my things would only be moved in later that week. But even though the old bed was still there, I didn’t want to spend the night at the other house anymore. A typical case of Chapter Closed. Possibly even padlocked. I was perfectly content sleeping under a throw on the plump new mattress, stretching and snuggling like my inner cat. Just lying there in the comforting dark, enjoying the feel of my new home, with its different smells and different sounds. A new leaf. Every now and then I could hear a faint low rumble, like distant thunder, that added to my contentment. It was confirmed. I had actually moved. 

I live near my town’s main train station. It’s a new, up-market area, with a fresh and modern look and feel. Very nice to live in if I say so myself. Still, every time I tell people from around here where I'm at, their initial enthusiastic reaction is mostly followed by something along the lines of ‘shame it’s so close to the railroad tracks though’.Yes. Quite annoying. Especially when you haven't even started to properly gush about your new place. Plus there's the fact I do really disagree with them. To me, the railroad bit is actually more of an added bonus. 

I love trains. I love train travel. As a child, it felt adventurous to board a train, not really knowing where it would take me and what I would get to see on the way. I thought it was wonderful to watch the world roll by while I could just sit back and relax, take in the scenery or day dream to the rocking motion. Or, being a child after all, run through the carriage trying to look at an intriguing site for longer. Often my parents would point something out to us and tell us the story behind it. And those tales of drowned princes, great battles and secret trysts all stuck.

More often though, I would make up my own. Is it me, or does the rythm of a train put you in a more relaxed state of mind, in which you are more open to thoughts and ideas that come to you naturally? I'm sure J.K. Rowling would agree. Wasn't Harry Potter born while she was travelling on a train? Oh wait. It may have been standing still at the time - there goes that theory! I still suspect she may have a bit of 'a thing' for trains though - having created the fabulous Hogwarts Express. A steam train to take children to wizard school. Stroke of sheer bloody brilliance.

And speaking of steam trains - as you would expect from a real train aficionado, nothing could ever beat travelling by that most glorious of industrial inventions. These days it's a rare thing, but whenever I'm at a train station and get a sudden whiff of a unique, sooty smell, I crane my neck and start looking around frantically - where is it, where is it??

An other author felt the same way, many years ago:

And how I love trains, anyway! Snuffing up the sulphurous smell ecstatically - so different from the faint, aloof, distantly oily smell of a boat, which always depresses my spirits with its prophecy of nauseous days to come. But a train - a big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big puffing engine, sending up clouds of steam, and seeming to say impatiently: 'I've got to be off, I've got to be off, I've got to be off!' - is a friend! It shares your mood, for you, too, are saying: 'I'm going to be off, I'm going, I'm going, I'm going...'

She got it! This was Dame Agatha Christie of course.

I've got a number of steam train trips on my wish list. Abroad that is. There's nothing wrong with the Dutch landscape, but it does tend to give you the 'more of same' feeling at one point. Flat. Green. Neat rows of trees. Neat canals. Cows. All very organised and orderly. Well, the cows not so much perhaps.

No, I've got my heart set on more spectacular scenery. I would for instance love to take a trip on one of the Great Little Trains of Wales. Or go for a rather more posh experience on the Royal Scotsman. I admit I would really enjoy dressing up and then boarding a train to the haunting notes of a bagpipe. And then start on 'a journey that takes you straight to the heart of the Highlands, through landscapes of towering, pine-clad mountains reflected in mirror-still lochs'. To visit places like Achnasheen, Kyle of Lacholsh, Kingussie, to name but a few. Those types of names are enough to make a romantic linguist like myself quiver with delight.

But, of course, there's one trip that must still be the Holy Grail of train lovers. You know the one I mean.

A lot has been said and written about the Orient Express. The name immediately summons up a feeling of romance, adventure, but also intrigue, suspense and of course... murder. It would be hard to find a person who doesn't know Agatha Christie's famous novel - or at least one of its film adaptations. I always wondered though what Christie herself felt about travelling on the Orient Express. Yeah alright, I did already have a hunch.

Many, many years ago, when going to the Riviera or to Paris, I used to be fascinated by the sight of the Orient Express at Calais and longed to be travelling by it. Now it has become an old familiar friend, but the thrill of it has never quite died down. I am going by it! I am in it! I am actually in the blue coach, with the simple legend outside: CALAIS - ISTANBUL. 

I felt so connected to her when I read that. And how wonderful that she, no matter how famous she had become or how many times she had made the trip, still kept that child-like ability to feel wonder and amazement about it.

I've now been living in my apartment for the better part of a year. And I still enjoy my occasional background rumble. Although I have to admit that once you're out on the terrace, it stops being in the background and becomes rather more audible. So when my dear friend Naeem came to visit a while back and got ready to indulge in his guilty pleasure (the apartment is a smoke-free zone), I felt it only fair to warn him he would be exposed to a bit of noise from the trains once he'd step outside. 

I needn't have worried. His eyes sparkled as he started on an enthusiastic tale about how it only added to the atmosphere of the neighbourhood. And how trains mean adventure and excitement.

Thank heaven. Another one who gets it.

Text in italics is taken from 'Come, tell me how you live', Agatha Christie's account of how she and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan fared on digs in the Orient. It is a little gem of a book that I can't recommend enough - starting with the most fabulous humorous poem of her own making 'A-sitting on a tell'.  

Photos are stock photos from, except the last one, that I can't seem to find the original source for. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

My week so far

I used stronger language than that when the umpteenth machine died on me. And it's not that time of the month. In case you were wondering. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Forgotten Book

Right. Before I start with the story, I need to sort some technical stuff first. Bear with me, it’ll be over in a minute. There are gnomes and witches and secret gardens ahead, so it’s worth sticking around. Oh dear. Lost some of you already.

I want to introduce one of my favourite Dutch children’s books to you, but I've stumbled on a slight problem. The title of the book, which also happens to be the name of its main character, is not the easiest one for non-Dutch speakers. It’s Scholletje. What did I tell you? Impossible name. And try translating it! The main character of the book is nick-named Scholletje, because she once nearly drowned during a traditional (and unbelievably stupid) Dutch game called ‘scholletje trappen’ or ‘kicking the ice’. You go to a frozen ditch or canal, stand on the ice and kick it, to separate the ice you’re standing on from the main body. Now the game is to stay afloat on that bit of ice as long as possible, without falling into the water - and possibly drowning. Told you: mind-bogglingly dumb. But there you have it.

You see my problem. Try making a catchy translation of a name that means ‘little plate of ice’! I suppose I could go with something like ‘Frosty’ but then it either suggests the girl has a bit of a cold personality, or it conjures up an image of a grinning tiger with a bowl of cereal. It just doesn’t work. But never fear: I've thought of an alternative. As this is a water related incident, and the story is about all sorts of creatures from the realm of enchantment, I've decided to go for Nixie. A nixie being a water sprite. The name sounds rather fun, don't you think? Quite pleased with it actually. All in favour of Nixie then? Alright yes, I'll get on with it now.

Nixie is an eleven-year-old girl. Her actual name is Jacoba Lapwing, which is obviously something she'd prefer to forget. The things parents do to their children. Anyway. Nixie is a dreamy girl as well as a bit of a tom boy, who lives with her family and her rather promiscuous cat Betsy Catchum in a small house in the city. The family only recently moved from the country and Nixie still misses the outdoors desperately. Her new home only has the tiniest of patio gardens - barely large enough to store the garbage bins.

This would all be rather depressing for a nature child like Nixie, if it hadn't been for the Garden. Behind the patio fence, there lies a huge, luscious garden, the only remaining part of what was once a grand country estate. The Garden runs along the entire length of the street and Nixie has a perfect view of it from her bedroom window. She's not supposed to enter it of course, as the unpleasant woman who owns it is sure to raise hell if she finds out (Nixie thinks she beats her pale-faced children and nagged her husband to death). Our heroine is of course undeterred and very frequently climbs over the fence. 

There are many different kinds of trees and other plants in that wonderful green haven. It also boasts a large pond and a hedge that runs straight through the middle of the grounds. But the main thing about the Garden is that it is enchanted. Around midnight, the garden dwellers come out from their hiding places. There are fairies, gnomes, goblins, witches, will o' the wisps, brownies and even some musty old demons. Among other things. According to Betsy the cat, there should even be a couple of white ladies and fire sprites about, but she admits she never saw them herself. She just heard that from a rodent she interrogated. Before she killed it. 

The most powerful of all the enchanted creatures is the Garden Spirit - tall and solemn and as old as the world, he is respected by all. His powers include the ability to make the garden and all its occupants take to the night sky - to travel to special places in nature, or the scenes of ancient legends. Nixie is allowed to come along on these trips and the Garden Spirit even takes her to places where the others are not allowed to follow. Still, to her the dearest of all the garden folk will always be Tom, a thousand-year-old gnome, her friend and protector. 

One day, Nixie is forced to make a hasty retreat from the garden after a day-time visit (helping herself to some nuts from the trees), and makes a nasty fall. She breaks her leg and as it is a very complicated fracture, the doctor tells her she will need months of bed rest to heal. But she can see the garden from her bed and her friends do not abandon her, visiting her and still taking her along on their trips when the garden takes flight. 

Then infection sets in and Nixie is moved to the hospital, where she will need to stay for many months. She pines for her beautiful Garden, and worries whether her family will take good care of Betsy, who is expecting yet another litter. The Garden Spirit sends her one of the magical creatures every couple of nights, who tell her stories of their own adventures, or fairy tales, or just make her laugh with their silly antics. 

Nixie's infection however turns to septicemia and her life is hanging by a thread. The garden folk realise she will not make it without their help, and as they are skilled in herb lore, they know only one thing can still save her: a special herb that only grows in the Siberian Taiga. Tom and his friend and fellow gnome Everhard set out on a quest to find the plant for Nixie and take it back to her in time, encountering many dangers as well as helpful creatures on the way. 

Why did I like this book so much? I guess because it had everything I looked for in a book when I was a child. There were so many elements to it that interested me. The fairy tales, the history, an element of spookiness and adventure. And the main character I found so very real and likeable. Nixie addresses the reader in a very matter-of-fact, no frills kind of way and narrates the stories she has been told or experienced the way a child would, without being overly sentimental about some of the more sad or gruesome facts. There's a touch of Roald Dahl in there I think. In any case, I find her totally convincing.

All in all, I don't understand why this book isn't known to a wider audience. As far as I can tell, it has never been translated into another language - quite rare for Dutch children's books of that period. But even in the Netherlands it is long out of print and very hard to come by. Perhaps at the time the book was written (1974) the author, a physician 'in real life' (hence the abundance of medical details in the book) was still not very widely known. But he went on to co-create a book that sold millions of copies the world over.

Who doesn't know this much-loved book about Gnomes? Wil Huygen created it together with illustrator Rien Poortvliet in 1976, only two years after he wrote 'Scholletje'. Many of the elements in Scholletje return in his delightful book about the life of gnomes (including the ecological/environmental messages - plus some very entertaining stories about the outsmarting of trolls). Why is it that one book has found such national and international acclaim, and the other is all but forgotten?

It's true that Scholletje doesn't have Rien Poortvliet's magical illustrations, which I admit played an essential part in the success of 'Gnomes' (it has several illustrations by Carl Hollander instead). But the stories in it are equally charming and entrancing. In my not-so-very humble opinion anyway. I would have thought publishers were sure to study an author's other works to see whether they were equally marketable. And I wonder why they decided this one wasn't. Too many stories in one book, and therefore too much going on? Too Dutch with the local folklore bit? A tad too much realism here and there? Or maybe something as mundane as a dispute between publishing companies? 

I believe children across the world would still be delighted by this little book. You can't tell me there aren't kids out there anymore with a love of reading about magical creatures and adventures and what not. Did I mention there's a time machine device in there as well?

If Wil Huygen were still alive (he passed away several years ago) I would have written to him to see if he couldn't get it reprinted. Secretly hoping he'd then invite me to tea obviously (just assuming a children's book author is a nice person which might very well not be the case). As he is no longer with us, I may just have to approach the publisher myself.

So... what is your verdict, based on my synopsis of the book? Do you think you would have enjoyed reading it as a child? Be Dutch with me. I can take it.

First photo is the cover illustration of the book, made by Carl Hollander, photographed by me with my iPhone. The Gnomes book photo was nicked from, other photos are stock photos from