Posts Tagged 'Holland'

The good and the bad

On Saturday June 3 we came to a lovely little castle (Kasteel Amerongen) which once housed the Kaiser who sat out his final years in Holland – a controversial move from the Dutch government but what can you do when the royal family ties are so deeply intertwined with Germany.

Despite the expectation of rain during our 9 day vacation in Holland, it was a glorious day and we celebrated my sister and brother-in-law’s 50th anniversary. Some 140 people joined us for this festive event, representing various phases of the couple’s life:  family, high school friends, study friends, fellow bureaucrats from Den Haag and Brussels and friends from their brief stay in Washington DC.

We continued to stay at their summer house in the center of Holland and do mostly nothing other than sleep in, eat all the goodies that springtime Holland has to offer and sit outside in the sun and talk.

And then we got the call from Sita that Tessa was in the ICU of Elliott Hospital in Manchester (NH) with what turned out to be Acute Transverse Myelitis.

We shortened our stay in Holland by one day and rushed home to be with her. She is leaving the hospital today for an acute rehab center closer to her home. I am posting updates on her condition at this website and will not repeat them here.

Spring and election fever

We celebrated my brother’s 70th birthday a day before the actual day, with his sons, another brother, two sisters in law and a newcomer to the family, little Willem, my niece’s child, just 8 months old.

Holland was also in election frenzy mode. The elections will be held in a few days, on March 15. There are some 20 parties vying for seats in parliament, and those with the largest number of seats can expect a role in a coalition government. Unlike the US, there is no ‘winners take all.’

The Dutch passport holders in my family have arranged for others in Holland to vote on our behalf. I generally don’t follow Dutch (or European) politics all that much but it is kind of interesting these days with Trump wannabees doing amazingly well in Holland and France.

There are so many choices who to vote for. There is a party for animals (huh?), a party for people over 50, there is a ‘pirate party,’ (huh?) a party for people not voting (huh?) and a party of people voting. And then there are of course the old stalwarts: the old democrats my mother used to be active in, the Christian democrats, the Labor Party (mighty when I lived in Holland, shriveled up now), the Socialists, the Reformed Dutch Church party, Green Left and more.  I think our votes will either go to D66, an alternative democratic party that was founded when I still lived in Holland (in 1966) or Green left, a Bernie Sander’s kind of party that follows his tactics, campaigning America style.

There is of course the Geert Wilders party which has gotten very big, possibly the one with the most or second largest number of predicted seats. Wilders’ Free Holland Party follows in Trump’s shoes and wants to make Holland lily white again. A lot of people think this is great, even the husband of an Afghan friend of mine, a Muslim who arrived decades ago. They are like the Trump supporters, children or grandchildren of immigrants from a previous wave who feel that the new immigrants just have it too easy and should be deported, spoilers rather than contributors.

Spring fever was also apparent everywhere – the sun was shining; the crocuses and even some daffodils were in full bloom, blooming in large swatches of purple, white and yellow on green fields. People were out walking and running or cleaning their yards. Garden furniture was brought out of their winter storage places. We sat outside in the sun, drinking endless cups of tea and talking about all the things that tie us together. On days like this I miss being with my family in Holland.


The last afternoon in Abidjan I checked out a new ‘residence,’ because all the previous places we stayed were not good value for money. But this one was. I had a ‘studio americain’  which was more than good value for money. The place is near the office. There is an American dinner (the O’burger) and a patisserie around the corner. It also has things I never use such as a swimming pool, workout room. The best feature is the terrace on the 7th floor from where one can observe traffic jams in all directions, while sipping a dark rum or a ‘sex on the beach’ cocktail, underneath an artificial cherry tree which has blossoms that light up once the sun goes down (it does require electricity).

I finished my reports and packed up for our return trip to Paris first. The driver had called an hour before our agreed upon departure time that he was already waiting for us below. What he did not say is that he was waiting for us at the Ibis hotel that is on the other side of town. This we discovered when we were ready to go and he was not there. The mix up had us arrive at the airport a little later than we had planned, just about exactly the same time that all the other 1000 passengers arrived to fly to points north and east.

The plane was full again with babies; maybe they were the same babies as on the way out. Some slept, some cried and some did a bit of both. We left late which made for a mad dash to catch my flight to Amsterdam, requiring endless long walkways, a shuttle, check points and other obstacles.

I did not want to miss the flight since I had paid 140 Euro for a B-class upgrade, seduced by the words “offre spécial.” I thought it was special indeed; imagine that, an upgrade from Abidjan to Amsterdam for only 140 Euro! It was early in the morning, my brain not fully awake and my ignoring my intuition saying “too good to be true!”

It was of course. The upgrade I had just purchased was only for the 50 minute flight to Amsterdam. I got to the gate just when it was closing, the last person on board. I collapsed in my chair, a regular economy seat but with a guaranteed empty seat between me and the person at the window. The economy row in back of me also had only two people with one empty seat between them. And so there was nothing else to do then to enjoy my 140 Euro breakfast: a sliver of salmon, two pieces of (nice) cheese, a croissant with “fresh Brittany butter” and raspberry jam in its own little jar, a few spoonful’s of something in between yogurt and crème fraiche and a cup of coffee. I enjoyed every little bite and licked my fingers to not miss anything of my most expensive breakfast ever (the Meridien hotel in Dubai comes in second with a 75 dollar breakfast but it had a lot more going for it).

And then I was in Holland again. I took the train to my brother’s house, just in time to see him spent his last two days as someone who can still say he is in his sixties.

Eater’s digest

My brief vacation in Holland was nearing its end. I drove back to the center of Holland to my professor brother and experienced typical Holland weather: sun, rain, hard rain, light rain, sun, endlessly repeating itself in short cycles. There is an app that many Dutch people have on their phones. It is called ‘’buienalarm’ which means ‘rain shower alert.’ It is a handy app when you live in the lowlands.

I managed to squeeze into my short Sunday afternoon: a visit (in the rain) to Amersfoort centre, eating a new haring by the tail, accompanied by a ‘zure bom’ (sour bomb, a large sweet pickle) and a large pancake at a traditional pancake restaurant. In Holland pancakes are eaten for dinner not breakfast, and come with just about any topping you can imagine. I had two halve pancakes (this for people who cannot make up their mind): one half was called ‘the shrieking pancake’ (chorizo, bacon, cheese, mushrooms and sambal oelek) and the other half was called the farmer’s hand and included apple, raisins, walnuts and brandy. The two halves made for a whole pancake that took me till next morning to digest.

I took my brother to Schiphol the next morning, both as good company during the crowded commute into western Holland where most of the jobs are, and as a guide through the unfamiliar network of highways. At Schiphol he took the train to his office in Amsterdam and I handed in my rental car and spent the next few hours waiting for the delayed flight back to Boston. I decided once more that an upgrade was worth the money and the miles and got seat 2A which made the return trip quite pleasant.










On Sunday mornings most of not-church-going Holland is asleep. With a borrowed bike from a neighbor we biked into the quiet city of Emmen, hoping that the gate to the old abandoned zoo would be open, but it was not. Nothing was open. My friend called someone she works with as a volunteer and asked if she could come by for a visit. Unlike the rest of Emmen the couple was awake, and to my surprise, elderly. We had coffee and talked about religion, mostly or exactly because they have turned away from religion. And here I sat with a nice Muslim girl who volunteers through a Humanistic Society. In Holland everything is possible. I had a lovely time getting to know this active and activist couple in their 80s who had become friends of this young Afghan woman – they are part of a network that she had created around herself to help with a difficult transition. I was proud of my fellow Dutchmen and women.

We left to find the gates to the old zoo open. The new zoo is now a little outside the town, rechristened WildPark and based on the American model of a zoo with a whole lot else to do, hoping to attract crowds from all over Western Europe. This poor city, in economic decline, could use a few visitors with money to spend.

We peddled around the sad old zoo that was the destination of countless school trips in the 50s and 60s. I posed in front of a large photo of a class with their teachers made in 1957. It could have been my class. I have a picture just like that. Of course for us in the west the Northern Zoo was too far away – we went to Artis, Amsterdam’s city zoo, or maybe to Rotterdam’s zoo although that one was already too far away.


We biked along the meandering paths, past empty spaces that once housed monkeys, elephants, giraffes, bears, and other exotic beasts that are now, presumably, roaming more or less wild in the new park.

Dutch Siberia

Saturday morning I drove across Holland to a part of my country I barely know. Along the way I recognized towns from the old yellow and green maps that hung in our elementary school rooms, with red squares for cities and red circles for towns. There were no names on the map. We were supposed to know the names. And here they were, Hogeveen, Ommen, Emmen, Ter Apel.  The province of Drente was never a destination; a quick drive-through on my way to Groningen when I had a lover there, eons ago.

This time I would be visiting a young woman who I worked with in Afghanistan. A set of circumstances that are hard to fathom landed her in Emmen three years ago, after an arranged marriage with an Afghan man who had lived there for some time. In those three years she has learned to speak Dutch so well that we no longer converse in English, as we used to do in Kabul.

It is Ramadan, but her God in Holland is more tolerant than the one in Afghanistan. They are not fasting. She no longer wears a headcover and she rides a bike. She also works as a volunteer for a humanistic society. Her life in Holland is as opposite to her life in Kabul as one could imagine. She is happy with the freedoms but sad to be so far away from her family.

After an Italian lunch (go figure) we drove further north to a prison museum that has received much attention lately because of a book I happened to have picked up at Amsterdam airport sometime in May and had finished by the time I landed at Logan. The book describes a series of misguided attempts in the 19th century to reform poor and homeless people. Some of the author’s ancestors had been caught in that net. The “colony” was set up in what was then referred to as Dutch Siberia. That is where we were heading. I had to see this place.

The old colony houses are still there and later real prisons were added. We took a tour of the prison that only recently closed and the stories about prison entrance and daily life would be sufficient to deter anyone from committing a crime.

The area is no longer a Siberia though many houses were for sale – the economy is not good here. The old houses have slogans on their gables that harken back to the ideology that produced the colonies first and then the prisons, as the former were pretty much prisons – easy to get in but hard to get out. The slogans read ‘Rust roest’ (rest rusts), ‘Arbeid adelt’ (work makes you noble) reminding me of the Babson Bolders in Gloucester (Be clean, Be out of debt).

We drove back in the pouring rain, passing endless fields of soaked campers who had streamed to Assen by the thousands to watch the annual motor races.

Back in Emmen we had a ncie Afghan meal and caught up on not having seen each other for many years. We skyped with her sister in Kabul, another colleague in Amman and Axel in the US.


I arrived early in the morning in Amsterdam, got my rental car and drove to a hotel in Leiden where I claimed my nearly free night from booking our hotels in Southeast Asia through Today was the Inaugural Address of my little brother as Full professor in Law at this oldest of all universities in Holland. All my siblings, their spouses and several of their kids had converged onto Leiden, not only to witness this amazing achievement but also to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our father’s birthday on the 23rd of June in 1916.

I found familiar faces sitting on a terrace across from the old Leiden University building, waiting for the ceremonies to start. It was a beautiful sunny day with Leiden at its best.

We filed into a special room in the old academy building from where we could see a closed on a TV screen the official welcome of my brother into the elite community of full professors. We all learned about what was on his CV, pages and pages, things I didn’t know about and we were all very proud. After that we proceeded to the old auditorium with its creaking floors, wooden benches and very high pulpit (much like a church) already filled with his current and past colleagues, professors, students and friends. It was all very formal and laden with tradition, with professors in full black robes filing in and sitting in the side pews. I should probably have known the title of the chief black robe but can’t remember. He is the one who holds an enormous silver staff which is put in a holder next to the pulpit and heads the line of professors in and out.

The nearly one hour speech was mostly about dilemmas and challenges in private and corporate law that many of us know little about. The room perked up when he gave some examples of how we as humans, even if we have studied Law, are full of biases that get in the way of objective conclusions when judgments are made. He referred to the Twelve Angry Men film as illustration and made public his own internal reasoning about seeing someone yawn, check a phone or close his eyes in the audience. I felt a surge of energy and recognition around me. We had talked about him weaving this into his speech while I was in Cape Town and I was happy to see how well he’d done this and the effect it had.

September 2017
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