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?