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Tidy up and letting go

Like so many baby boomers we are looking at our stuff – the ‘too much’ part of our stuff. We are getting advice from Millennials who are riding the boom, so to speak and selling us methods and books and movies as we transition to what may well be the last phase of our lives.

There is Marie Kondo who tells us how to ‘tidy up’ Japanese style (the folding of clothes into little tents is particularly remarkable). There is Peter Walsh from Australia whose approach gets to the root – his book is called ‘Letting Go.’ It’s the one that speaks most to us. Letting go of treasures (how many treasures do we need?), of stuff we might some time need (but when, didn’t we say this 10 years ago?) of mementos of a long time ago…oh there is so much of that.

And so we are throwing things out, boxes full of written papers we were once so proud of (look what I wrote!), or things I made in Kindergarten, of entrance exams I wrote for the UN, more than 3 decades ago, of my entire administrative correspondence with UNESCO headquarters in late 1979. Out, out!

There is also a staging area in what used to be my office – piles of stuff to go to the thrift store, to the Afghan family in Gloucester, to our daughters.  We are learning from Mr. Walsh not to make a pile of stuff that someone else might like. This would be the equivalent of kicking the clutter can down the street. We help each other by saying – why do you think they’d want this? Aren’t they decluttering too? The hard things are those that express something about what we had wanted to be, aspired to, but didn’t quite get – the letting go is to let go of that image of ourselves. But once you di let go it is so very liberating.

I am now fully moved into Axel’s office. This afternoon we laid the rugs on the floor, over some kind of bubble wrap between reflective paper – it kind of pops, ever so softly, when you walk over it. It is for warmth as the studio has no foundation – just cold air below the floor. The rugs are clean now, we hope, after we hung them out in subzero temperatures for a few days, vacuumed them, sprayed them with pyrethrum to get rid of the carpet beetles that had nestled into the rolled up rugs when we were not looking. The would have eaten the entire rug if I hadn’t moved into my new office and upended the piles of stuff.

Ripples of a shutdown

People in Holland asked me how the government shutdown is hurting us. Compared to people who work for the TSA and others who have to work without pay if they don’t want to risk losing their jobs, we cannot complain. But now my first income producing activity of 2019 is also in jeopardy as my trip to Senegal cannot take place until approved by government officials who are currently not at their desks. I had another three days of income attached to this trip by an organization that is also in Dakar (but doesn’t need any US government approvals for internal corporate work). But since they are not paying for the travel, that activity is by extension also in jeopardy. 

Beer trading in Africa in the 50s

The last few days we passed in Den Haag (or rather Scheveningen – the ultimate pronunciation test for non-native speakers) at my sister’s, in her new house. Here we had our sibling New Year’s lunch, the main reason for the visit. We ate typical winter fare (pea soup with pancetta on dark rye bread) while reminiscing about our youth and our parents, long since gone. It is amazing how different our experiences are and how different our knowledge is. My sister, the oldest, was born during the war (and passed her first winter in what is called the ‘hunger-winter.’  Things were so bad that people even ate the tulip bulbs. I tried to eat one as a teenager, out of curiosity, but dismissed tulip bulbs as inedible (confirming the Dutch proverb that ‘hunger makes raw beans taste sweet’).  

My Irish twin brother and I were raised in a different era, one of great economic growth (the 50s) and my youngest brother, when the rest of us had left for university , has been raised nearly as single child by his parents and grandmother who had moved in – even though he was number 5 of 5.  A pencil drawing of the brother I never knew (who would have been 2/6) hung on the wall. He lived for just a few weeks because of spina bifida, his death an enormous sadness that my parents rarely talked about. 

We looked at old letters and pictures and made new pictures of these 5 aging siblings – it was a joyous occasion! I was given 65 single-spaced carbon copies of letters my father typed on various typewriters during his 3 months trip through Africa. The copies were sent to my mother with handwritten personal notes on the back. The originals are probably still in some archive of the Dutch Brewery Trade Association over which my father presided in the early fifties until he retired.

I am only a third into the letters which provide a window into trade negotiations of European powers in Africa, the French mostly. Over a period of 3 months he traveled from Amsterdam to Stuttgart to Zurich to Lisbon to Dakar. He stayed in the hotel (the Croix du Sud) where both of us passed our first night in Subsahara Africa, me 25 years later. He then traveled to Conakry where we probably also stayed in the same hotel, then to Abidjan, then via Accra (then called the Gold Coast) to Lome where we also stayed in the same hotel, multiple times upgraded and renamed by the time I got there. All these trips he made in small DC3 planes which he welcomed because of the air conditioning (I do as well), and mentioning the endless delays between planned and actual departures (maybe not as bad now).  From Lomé he went to Cotonou in what was then Dahomey, then on to The Cameroons as it was referred to at the time. From there to Fort Lamy (now N’Djamena-Tchad) and then onwards to the Congo, Nairobi, Madagascar…but I haven’t gotten that far yet in reading his missives to his HQ.

I am learning a lot about the complexity of trading (at that time) with Africa, beer drinking habits of both my father, the locals and the colonial elite (“the French elites don’t drink beer, they drink champagne”), the relationships between blacks and whites and the attitudes of the Europeans towards the locals. Some of my father’s comments make me cringe. My father also writes a lot about the climate, which is of course familiar to me but his comments are interesting given that my father had never been in the (sub)tropics and left Holland in the middle of the winter, now exactly 64 years ago.


All of my siblings have moved in the last few years. They sold their old house and bought a house in another town. They fixed them up/modernized them – at considerable expense, time and plenty of headaches and stress. But all are now all completed and they are all happy with the result. We got to spent time in their dream houses and admired each one of them.

Our first stop was Amersfoort, a town not well known by Americans – lovelier in the summer than winter but interesting any time. It lies at the center of Holland where the major north-south and east-west traffic axes meet (train and road).

We visited the ‘Caravaggio in Europe’ exhibit at the Utrecht Central museum where I learned about Dutch, Belgian, French and Spanish ‘caravaggionists’  I had never heard of and whose masterpieces were at par with those of Caravaggio himself. Some of the enormous altarpieces were done by those painters when they were still in their twenties! Impressive.

We had beer and ‘bitterballen’ before taking our evening meal in a specialized ‘Pannekoeken’ (Pancake) restaurant called the ‘Shrieking Maid’ (this is also the name of a type of firework that is very popular with 13-year old boys, even a week after New Year’s Eve).  The giant menu (24”x18”) consists of countless combinations of bacon, apple, cheese, mushrooms, onions, molasses, confectioner sugar (a la carte) or American, Malaysian/Indonesian, Mexican, Italian ready-made combinations that can be guessed.

Day 3 and 4 we drove further east in our wheelbarrow-wheeled Daihatsu to my Irish-twin brother, and visit him in his very new house. The rather boring two storied back of the house had been replaced by an enormous floor to ceiling glass wall that brought the outside in: a meadow with tiny little ponies grazing in the rain. The yard in between the house and the ponies is still awaiting planting season and looked rather sad but there is a plan to make the view even more spectacular.

We visited another museum I had never heard of, the exquisite Modern Realism museum ‘More’ in Gorssel. Here too we discovered artists we had never heard of but from another period, the modern realists who produced their work during the 20th century. We had dinner afterwards in what appears to be a chain (Loetje) that is famous for its gravy – the tenderloin Axel order was served in a bath of (rather salty) gravy, with slices of wonderbread to sop up the liquid – a rather unhealthy combination it seemed to me, but apparently a selling combination for the chain.


The flight to Holland was uneventful. But then, as we were walking towards the baggage claim area I discovered that I had dropped my iPhone someplace, probably on the plane. Two hours later, thanks to some concerted efforts by various employees of Delta, KLM and Schiphol I had it back (it was under my seat). After a nice breakfast at the airport, we continued our journey. The first leg was by train to pick up a car in Den Haag, courtesy of another brother. Then, after a cup of coffee and an ‘oliebal,’ (a traditional new year’s eve food, kind of like fried dough but rounder and with raisins), we drove to Amersfoort (in ‘the green heart of Holland’), where my youngest brother and his wife live.  The car is tiny; the wheels no larger than those of our wheelbarrow, with just enough space for our two small bags – but one cannot look a gift horse in the mouth: a car is a car, saving us a pricy rental or cumbersome public transport with suitcases and much walking.

Last year the siblings came together with their spouses to celebrate each other and the new year. We are all still here, all 10 of us (5+5) – with Axel and me being number 7 and 8 out of the 10. I am very aware that this is not something to be taken for granted.  Last year I was still employed and without enough vacation days to make the trip – we joined the dinner via Facetime but it was less than satisfactory.  This year there is another meal planned, on January 6. I guess it now has become a tradition. Not having to count vacation days anymore, and having enough frequent for the two of us to fly for 90 dollars (taxes) there was no reason to stay away from the event.  And so we are in Holland now, till January 8.  

A good Christmas

The joyful holiday season, which tend to dread, passed quite pleasantly this year. It was, as it is supposed to be, rather joyful. It was also chaotic, with the 6 of us adults, two grandchildren and three grand-dogs in our not so large living space. The space shrinks when you add a Christmas tree, however small.

I would prefer to have the Christmas tree outside, but Axel insists it is inside. At the start of December, he always says something like: “this year I will get the Christmas tree early.” I don’t encourage this so I don’t do any reminding. He gets busy with other things, until Christmas is nearly there and only small and scraggly Christmas trees remain, the Charlie Brown kind. I like it. Additional benefit of late buying: there is always a discount this late in the game.

I trim the tree (because he is still busy). As soon as Christmas is over I remove the ornaments and return the boxes to the (unplugged) freezer chest that holds the Christmas stuff. And the space opens up again. I can handle a short week of Christmas clutter and cramped ness.

We left for Easthampton on Christmas Eve to witness the waking up on Christmas Day kids’ experience (joyful and frantic).  Later on Christmas morning we drove back to Manchester where Tessa and Steve joined us bringing a complete Mediterranean Christmas meal, nearly fully prepared. This is a Christmas gift I wouldn’t mind getting every year. Tessa also brought home made gifts, including a perfect gingerbread house that would make Martha Stewart jealous (and I would have killed for as a kid). It had stained glass windows made from melted hard candy, an indoor carpet made from red and green M&Ms, a fence from red striped white Hershey kisses, roof tiles made from white chocolate pastilles and frosted snow in even little florets along the roof line and window sills. Her home-made white chocolate body butter and olive oil presents were equally perfect. Tessa goes for ‘prefect,’ unlike her mother who has adopted a ‘good enough for now (or for the occasion)’ attitude long ago.

The gingerbread house got demolished the day after Christmas, as if a bomb had gone off inside it. It provided Faro with even more sugar than he had already been consuming. He particularly liked the stained glass. It was kind of sad to see it destroyed, but then again, as a kid, you don’t always want to look at a gingerbread house. You want to eat it.

We ate our Lebanese mezze and other Mediterranean delicacies all day long, opened gifts, read Christerklaas poems and searched for hidden presents all over the house, while the dogs licked up any of the foods spilled or dropped by careless little and big humans. It was a good Christmas, leaving Axel and me grateful for our blessings and with anticipation of art classes we will take in the summer at Snow Farm in western Massachusetts ( – a gift from Sita and Jim.

New Year’s Eve was passed with friends and a good night sleep while 2018 quietly made way for 2019. The next day we were on our way to see my siblings in Holland.

Work, life and memories

We are closing in on Christmas. This means that my teaching semester is nearly over, one last class tomorrow and then the grading of papers. The hectic fall season, my first very busy season as an independent consultant, is nearly over. I am looking at a much quieter new year. If the fall was too full, the next three months look rather empty. So far I have only one assignment in mid-January for which the contract hasn’t even been signed. I had to hand over so many papers, as if I am applying for full-time employment: a bank statements to prove that I had indeed been paid by this or that company and not made up the numbers; my university diploma – long since lost in my multiple moves, etc. Familiar and unpleasant memories of working on federal contracts.

Talking about contracts, Sita has assembled a motley but extremely creative, experienced and competent crew of people around her, far and wide, to bid on a municipal town (her own town) planning contract with an unusual and very creative proposal. It is due in 2 days. She and her partners in crime are up at 6AM and going to bed probably very late to fulfill all of the bid requirements. I don’t know where she gets the energy (or maybe I do know, and it is mine, now passed on to her).

At home we have started a de-accessing process. We are carting away boxes and bags of stuff we no longer need and that get in the way of simplifying our life. It is amazing how easy it was to give away stuff that I once valued. The difficult part, not yet tackled, will be the children’s books from my youth which we found tucked away in a far corner of the barn attic. It is amazing how the sight of a book let loose a whole host of memories that were stored, all along, somewhere in my memory library (the brain’s hippocampus). I did throw away a booklet with a dedication in the front from my primary school headmaster. He was a Seventh Day Adventist and gave us homework for the weekend, tested on Monday, to learn a hymn or psalm by heart (also in my hippocampus). The dedication urged us, boys and girls, to read the bible every day. The booklet contained verses from the bible, explained to the young mind. It went in the paper recycling box. I must admit I never read it, only just before tossing it out. The other booklets were also gifts – at the end of each of my Kindergarten years – when I couldn’t read yet. They were stories to be read by a parent I suppose – or else I must have been a spectacular reader at 4 and 5.

One story is about a little African girl and a parrot, another about a girl whose new dress was ripped because she was a bit of a tomboy, and the third book is about a toddler on a farm who was stolen by a bad wild dog and then saved by his own good dog – all good endings. The book about the African girl and her parrot, the weekly contributions (10 cents) to Christian missions in Africa and my father’s three-month tour of Africa when I was 3 or 4, must have laid the foundation for my fascination (first) and eventually life’s work in Africa – the workings of an impressionable young mind. The books and booklets have moved with me to Leiden, then Beirut, then Brooklyn, then Georgetown and now Manchester. Oh, what to do with them? One last glance and toss – or start reading in Dutch to my grandkids so they can read the chapter books on their own, later? And how likely is that?

A de-accessing on a grand scale started today at the end of the driveway where a large bulldozer brought the old proud carriage house (built in 1869) to its knees. All that is left is a pile of rubble that will hopefully be carted away today. Our environment has changed, opened up (Tessa remarked on a photo we sent her, “crazy, so much blue sky.”) We will have to change the directions to our house (turn right at the yellow barn) now that the yellow barn is no more. 

April 2019
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