Posts Tagged 'Holland'

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.

Memories, mortality and a midsummer’s night

Saturday morning I joined a three of my erstwhile housemates for a breakfast reunion. I am the only one still married – one has been divorced for a long time and the other two are widows.  The men we were dating when we lived together in our student house, and later married (and the one I divorced), have all died of cancer (intestinal and pancreatic) before their 70th birthday – that makes for a 100% mortality rates of our men back then.  Was it the enormous amounts of alcohol male students consumed? The smoking? Or simply bad luck and chance? It makes one think.

We visited our old house and dared each other to ring the bell to see if we could take a look. A young Irish couple now live on the ground floor. I think we woke them up. Nevertheless they were gracious enough to show us around, including their bedroom – something rather unheard of as I remember. Their front room was my first room, the bedroom was F’s. We giggled and exclaimed as excited old ladies can, pointing out where the first encounters with our now dead mates took place. For some it was an emotional trip down memory lane.

The next part of the day was devoted to the reunion of the women’s student association which merged with the boys’ club one year after I joined, thus making my cohort and the next forever the ‘young ones.’ I caught up with people I hadn’t seen in 40 years, found out who was retired, who was not and who was ‘playing’ Sinterklaas (Santa) with their own or other people’s monies, reinforcing once more my belief that there is no lack of money in the world.

We listening to a very inspiring ‘sustainability’ activist, a young woman who founded Urgenda, trying to get Holland to do more to turn back CO2 emissions and even took the Dutch government successfully to court for irresponsible behavior in the face of undeniable facts on global warming. I wonder whether this would be possible in the US – irresponsible behavior is rather blatant and our influence is big, much bigger than little Holland. I was very inspired by her practical and creative approach to get people to do their share of the effort that will and can turn back the clock. A familiar cabaret from the late 60s by a friend of my sister who started her professional cabaret career in Leiden and was now grooming the next generation, had us all pull out the stops to sing along the melodies and words we remembered. Afterwards we split into smaller groups and dined together for a more intimate reunion and catching up.

To complete the day I caught a ride to Scheveningen where I joined Axel and my nephew and his wife and child for an extraordinary performance of Purcell’s The Fairie Queen (based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night Dream) with music by the Dutch Blazers (Wind) Ensemble and the story told in a light-hearted way through enormous puppets. My nephew does is one of the technicians and provided us with complimentary tickets.

The good life in Leiden

A week trip is actually only 6 days/nights, with the two transatlantic crossings, and so it went much too fast. On Thursday we settled into our lovely little boutique hotel on the main canal (Rapenburg) in Leiden, and then hurried to Scheveningen to see my sister and her husband in the construction site that will become their new house – only the heating system was installed, to help with the drying of the plaster. For the rest it required a great deal of imagination to see what they had bought. Decades long unpruned bushes had grown into large and ugly trees that towered the house. One had fallen over in the near hurricane that swept over Holland some weeks ago. But in this town you cannot just cut a tree, even if it used to be a small bush – once the diameter of the trunk exceeds a number of centimeters it is considered a tree, ugly or not, and you have to ask for a special permission which can take months.

In the evening we obeyed Tessa’s rules about researching where you are going to eat but the number 1 and 2 wouldn’t let us in without a reservation, and reservations wouldn’t be taken until Sunday night, when we would have moved on already. Later we discovered that it was a special ‘dinner’ week during which participating restaurants offer 3-course prix fixe dinners hoping to attract people to go out during what is otherwise a very dead time of the year. We learned our lesson and reserved for the next night in the first restaurant that was actually taking reservations – it was not participating in the week’s specials. It was the most expensive dinner I can remember, but memorable indeed, if not for the amazingly creative cuisine and skilled plating, then also for the young and inexperienced waitress who dumped a fancy champagne/liqueur cocktail over one of the guests. The girl was mortified and close to tears for the rest of the evening. We kept smiling to here, sending oxytocin her way in the hope of counteracting the high levels of cortisol; a practical application of all the neurochemistry I have learned this past year.


Our group of women were about the last from a period when the men’s and the women’s clubs had separate existences, separate buildings and separate governance bodies before the two clubs merged in the early seventies. My sister who completed her studies in Leiden before the merger, was never part of the new ‘mixed’ club that was named Minerva.  Only the women who joined after the merger were invited. As a result we were a tiny minority standing out in our colored clothes amidst a sea of dark suits.

The women’s building that we inhabited before the merger was an elegant house on Leiden’s main canal – but it was clear the men could not move in with us. And so we ended up moving into the men’s building, a large, hideous and indestructible building, reeking of beer (and cigars in the olden days) on the main drag of Leiden.

We had decided to enter the large room together, there is force in numbers. At the coat check some older men looked at us with, what I assumed to be a question mark on their head (‘what are these women doing here?’) or made awkward jokes about ‘shouldn’t we have separate places for men’s and women’s coats?”

We had agreed to join the men for the cocktail hour. After all some of the men from our year (or just above) were no strangers; we had studied together, we were related (like me),  some had husbands, ex husbands or boyfriends in that group, or we had served together on committees. After the noise levels had deafened us enough and our voices became raw from trying to get ourselves heard over the din, we left to dine together in the intimacy of a small elegant restaurant in town – the opposite in all aspects of where the men were congregating. It was a most exquisite restaurant (‘Puur’) which I promptly gave a five star review on Tripadvisor.


Leiden memory lane

I left on the 3rd to fly to Holland to be at a reunion of friends I studied with. My showing up from afar pulled in others who would otherwise not have come. The occasion was the annual reunion of people who had joined the student clubs during a period that included 1971, when I had started my studies.

I flew in a very full plane to Amsterdam. The plane was so full that people were offered money to give up their seat in a clever reversed auction system – you bid an amount you want Delta to give you in order to give up your seat. You can ask for $100, $200 or even propose you own amount.  The approach is full of delicious anticipation, possibly followed by disappointment.

On long trips we are allowed to overnight in Europe, a perk I never use since my trips are often too close together. But this time the timing was perfect. I reserved a small hotel close to the action in Leiden. It is funny that people who go to Holland always want to go to Amsterdam while the provincial cities are so much more pleasant, as interesting and much less a tourist trap.

As it turned out the hotel was a tiny (5 room) boutique hotel on Leiden’s main canal, where the original university still stands. I was given the room under the roof in a beautifully restored old ‘grachtenhuis’ (canal house) that was probably built in the 1600s. The hotel was even nicer than I had imagined from the already very nice webpages. I gave it a five star review on Tripadvisor.

The room wasn’t ready when I arrived early in the morning and so I missed the chance to take a little nap or even shower and change before my brother and sister in law came to pick me. They had organized a nice side trip that included a visit to a delightful museum in Wassenaar (Voorlinden) I had heard about. It is located in one of the old mansions in the, a wealthy suburb of Den Haag, the former home of a wealthy art collector, now open to the public.

Afterwards we visited my nephew and his young family in Den Haag for tea and catching up. And then it was time to go back to Leiden to my charming little hotel which I was anxious to show my brother. There we would meet up with another friend before going to the festivities that had triggered the stop in Leiden in the first place.

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.

July 2019
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