Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Poor li’l Lucy

While I was growing up, there was always one dog (although not necessarily the same one) in our household whom my Dad called ‘The Flying Nun’, because it had to wear a head cone to stop it scratching at some injury or other.

The original Flying Nun was the annoying (and annoyingly ageless) Sally Fields, who played the part in a 1960s sitcom produced for American TV. The premise was that, thanks to her very light build and heavily starched cornette (headpiece - brilliantly, if a little disturbingly, illustrated at left), she could catch any passing breeze and fly. In this way, she solved the problems of her community. (I know. Sheesh.)

Since I’ve had my own household of animals, the dogs have escaped the Flying Nun treatment, but our cat, Evan, did not. When the vet fitted the cone, to stop Evan scratching at a mysterious gaping wound on his back, I expressed serious reservations about him actually keeping it on for the requisite 10 days. And I did finally have to take it off when Evan simply would not learn that he couldn’t take a running leap between the burglar bars as usual – the cone would cause him to bounce back, which was absolutely hilarious to watch, but made Evan embarrassed and depressed.

And now it’s poor Lucy’s turn. She developed some sort of ulcer on her cornea (probably caused by running pell-mell through a prickly bush, as she so loves to do, and impaling her eye on the tip of a thorn) which didn’t respond to topical treatment, so the vet decided to stitch her eye shut to give the cornea time to heal.

It’s been a difficult time for Lucy’s mom, Tanya, not only because having an ailing loved one is worrying (‘you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child’, as the old saying goes), but also because Max, the love of Lucy’s life, turns out to be something of a lookist. He is one of the most beautiful dogs on the planet, it must be said, but does that really make it okay for him to be so disdainful of Lucy, temporarily disfigured as she is? Sure, she’s not as pretty now as she was – but she needs lots of love and support, okay??! And it’s not forever!! Ugh, men!


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One of those dogs?

I get very excited when I see a dog that resembles my Balu, as the dog’s owner will almost always confirm that the dog is (a) a rescue, and (b) of unknown origin. All the owners suspect Rottweiler is somewhere in the mix because all these dogs have ‘Rottweiler eyebrows’ – but I know this isn’t necessarily the case, because Balu’s parents were both pure breeds, a chocolate Labrador and a border collie.

Elvis (left, and below looking groovy), a lovely big male dog we met here in Riebeek Kasteel a few months ago, and also a rescue dog, threw in another possibility: he’s probably a Hovawart. This German breed (it originated in the Black Forest region) has been around since the 1200s. Hovawarts are intelligent, loyal and devoted working dogs – much like many of the other mixed-breeds that resemble them. They come in three colour forms – black, tan and Elvis’s black-and-tan mix.








I managed to find this picture (below) of a full-breed Hovawart in Elvis’s colour-form, and it has to be said that Elvis does appear to be a perfect Hovawart specimen.


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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Some last Dutch tales…

Smoking it

The Netherlands has had strict tobacco-smoking legislation* in place since 2008, and there are very few places where you can enjoy a cigarette or 20. Apparently it’s technically legal for a restaurant or pub to set aside an outside smoking area, but because of the weather and the very restricted space in Amsterdam, this hasn’t happened in a big way (or anywhere we went).

So, after a very truncated meal on my birthday, my sister Bev, my friend Michele and I were left wondering how to spend the rest of the evening. We decided to take a walk from our hotel and see what presented itself, and what did was simply delightful: a corner pub that totally ignored the smoking legislation, and was staffed by a friendly young Dutchman who might have been Leonardo di Caprio’s younger and better-looking brother. We were by far the oldest people in the pub – all the other customers were Mr Di Caprio’s friends, all in their 20s (and it’s worth mentioning here that the Dutch are, generally speaking, a very goodlooking nation, particularly the youngsters). Not only that, but these young people were playing, listening to and dancing to ‘our’ music – not the doef-doef-doef crap that, for instance, my own kids are such fans of, but Dire Straits, The Police, Bob Marley, David Bowie… We were in heaven, sitting in a dark corner, smoking fags, and occasionally breaking into song, while the beautiful young Mr Di Caprio kept us supplied with red wine. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to see in 47.

* An interesting adjunct to the Dutch tobacco laws is this: marijuana is technically illegal in Holland, but a ‘tolerance’ programme is in place, where as long as long as you’re over 18, you won’t be prosecuted for smoking joints. However, you will be prosecuted for smoking tobacco in a smoke-free space, which means that if you smoke a pure marijuana cigarette in an Amsterdam coffee shop, you’re not really breaking the law; but if you mix it with tobacco, you are.

Hoofing it

I’ve never been a girl scout but my sister made clear her reluctance to be the chief map-reader in a foreign city and my friend Michele has trouble finding her way off a rugby field. So I ended up clutching the guidebook and steering us through the streets of Amsterdam. It’s not a hard city to negotiate, as it’s laid out in a semi-circular pattern around a series of canals, but it takes a while to get used to it. So, the fifth or so time I was asked, when we’d been walking for what seemed like hours and still hadn’t found our hotel, ‘Are you sure we’re going the right way?’, I had a sense of humour failure and snapped, ‘No, because I don’t live here either.’

And map-reading is by no means the only challenge to the Amsterdam pedestrian. As  mentioned, the city teems with trams, buses, cars and bicycles, and a moment’s hesitation at a busy cross-street might easily see you flattened by any of them. We laughed hysterically at the notion that a tourist should rent a bicycle to get the best out of the city – cycling here might be physically easy because it’s so flat, but just negotiating the streets on foot requires eyes in the back of your head and the reflexes of an Olympic gymnast; we simply couldn’t conceive of trying, as newcomers, to join the huge population of fast-moving cyclists. (Above: a very rare sign in Amsterdam - the only one of its kind, in fact, that we saw.)

We were on Utrechtsestraat one evening, looking for a place to have dinner, and because the street is lined on both sides with restaurants, we had to cross it several times to squash our noses up against the windows and stare at what the people inside were eating. Michele took such severe emotional strain each time we crossed (taking life and limb in our hands, and often causing racing cyclists to ding their bells crossly at us) that the fourth time we decided to do so, she said, ‘That’s it. I’m not crossing again. If you decide to eat on that side of the street, you can just bring me a takeaway.’

Hearing – and watching – it

Also in Utrechtsestraat is a record store called Concerto, and we were thrilled that same night to discover that a Tom Waits CD, Bad As Me, was being released there. A Tom Waits tribute band was installed on a tiny platform and the shop was crammed with fans. The band was absolutely amazing – the singer gave a very convincing Waits rendition, and I developed an immediate crush on the bear-like trombone-player, and would have thrown my panties at him if I hadn’t been wearing two pairs of tights over them, which made them hard to take off. We loved just coming across this fabulous impromptu concert on a random and freezing Wednesday night in the city centre.

Boating it

My sister, my Dad and I did a little boat tour of the Naarden canals which, together with various battlements and casements, constitute the fort-village. It was our first day so we were still battling with the language, and the boatman had only a smattering of English, so mainly we just sat there and enjoyed the scenery while he kept up a non-stop Dutch narrative over (bizarrely) a powerful sound system (it was just a little boat, as you can see at right). An hour later, when it came time to dock, the boatman somehow misjudged things, and spent the next 20 minutes trying to park his boat. As we went fruitlessly backwards and forwards and *bump* and backwards and forwards and *bump* and backwards and forwards and so on, I felt like an embattled mom with children engaging in risky behaviour - my Dad was endangering his fingers by gamely trying to secure the boat to the embankment by way of a bungey chord, and my sister had a fit of the uncontrollable giggles. We’d had only about 2 hours sleep after a very long and uncomfortable flight, and this was a sure sign of overtiredness; when this used to happen to my actual kids I immediately sent them to bed because tears were sure to follow. Fortunately, the boatman finally got the boat docked and we got off before my Dad crushed his fingers or Bev burst into hysterical tears.

Speaking it

I was pleasantly surprised, during the first couple of days in Holland, to discover how close to Afrikaans written Dutch is – the sentence constructions differ slightly but so many of the words are either exactly the same or very similar that it’s really easy to translate. The spoken language is another matter – the accent is so unfamiliar that it sounds, well, utterly foreign.

But after a few days I realised something useful: if you speak Afrikaans with an English accent, you’re basically speaking Dutch. It is the one and only time in my entire life that my atrocious Afrikaans accent (which is really just Afrikaans words spoken with an English accent, and is a source of huge entertainment for my Afrikaans friends) has worked to my advantage, and I had many happy, completely understandable conversations with Dutch people in English-accented Afrikaans.

I loved this plaque honouring the coastguard on the island of Ameland. The Dutch word ‘paraat’ (meaning ‘ready’) is the same in Afrikaans, and in South Africa is often used by English-speaking people too – although in South Africans of my age it has a slightly derogatory connotation, probably because it was used to describe the (mainly Afrikaans-speaking) officers in the SADF during the 1980s civil war, when our brothers and boyfriends were conscripted, usually very much against their will.

Some random English words pop up in Dutch, for instance, ‘fruit’ (rather than the Afrikaans ‘vrugte’), as seen on this mobile market, which brings us to…

… Eating it

I’ve mentioned the fantastic food we had everywhere we went in Holland, but this was a real treat: the mobile fruit and veggie market that arrives in the town of Naarden twice a week in a gigantic refrigerated truck. It’s a one-man show – the owner of the truck goes to the fresh-produce auctions at dawn’s crack, loads up his corner-shop-on-wheels, and drives to his customers. He had every conceivable seasonal fruit and vegetable on display, and everything looked fresh and crisp. He even had a nifty mobile connection to the bank, which meant you could pay by card (if your card hadn’t been blocked by the automatic ticket machine at Centraal Station).

Stereotyping it

I last visited Holland in 1981, and my pictures from that trip are mainly of windmills, clogs and flowers. It’s actually rare to see the old-fashioned type of windmill in working order in Holland any more, but the new type of windmill – used to generate power – can be seen everywhere. The Dutch consider them eyesores, apparently, but I think they’re marvellous – gigantic and monumental, and in my opinion an improvement to the otherwise somewhat mind-numbing landscape of flat-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see fields and canals.

No-one wears clogs any more, unless you count the woman in traditional Dutch dress at Madurodam in Den Hague, who posed for pictures with tourists clutching a huge wheel of cheese, and typed SMSs on her cellphone in between photo ops. This clog tree was outside the ‘clog factory’ (not really a clog factory) in Marken.
Dutch cheeses are, of course, utterly fabulous. (Although I took exception to a Dutchwoman who declared all English cheeses to be ‘crap’ – I’ve tasted some cheddars and cheshires that easily measure up to the Dutch cheeses.) One of the most amazing things is that in ordinary supermarkets there are cheese counters that you could spend hours at, with every kind of Dutch cheese available, and all freshly cut from the wheel when you order it.

When it comes to flowers, I mentioned FloraHolland, the huge Dutch flower market. What I didn’t mention is that the flowers in Holland are ridiculously cheap, ridiculously plentiful, and all smell like flowers. A bunch of, say, 8 St Joseph’s lilies, which may cost up to R200 in South Africa and last about a week, cost about R20 in Holland and seem to last forever.

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Fabulous things about the Dutch #6

They know how to do museums.

Any tourist, and especially those on a whistle-stop visit to a country, knows to limit their time in museums, churches and other ‘places of interest’, as if you do too many of them pretty soon all you’re thinking about is how sore your feet are and how much you’re dying for a cup of coffee, and anyway how many damned churches did these people build, for god’s sake?!

So we did only the most obvious ones in the cities we visited and almost all were simply fabulous.

Much of the Rijksmuseum was, alas, closed for refurbishment while we were there, but we did get to see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (of course – and it was colossally stunning, even when you take into account the appalling fact that it was cavalierly ‘trimmed’ in the 1700s so that it could fit into the town hall!). My walkie-talkie headset (at a rental fee of R100) informed me, among other fascinating things, that the subjects portrayed, of which there are 26, paid Rembrandt various prices to be included, the sum varying with the person’s prominence in the painting.

I also loved the two elaborate multi-storey dolls’ houses, one of which you had to climb a ladder to peek into. These were, my walkie-talkie told me, not children’s toys, but a very expensive adult hobby – one of them, with everything exactly to scale (and the furniture and fittings made by some of Amsterdam’s finest craftsmen of the day), cost as much to put together as a real house would have in the same era.

Another high point at the Rijksmuseum was Dutch designer Maarten Baas’s ‘human clock’, where a 24-hour-long video gives the impression that a man inside a grandfather clock rubs off and redraws the time every minute – I was as fascinated as a monkey by this, and even searched the back of the clock to make sure there wasn’t a real man inside (while my sister rolled her eyes and pretended not to be with me).

The other tourist spot we went to in Amsterdam was the Anne Frank house, which was incredibly moving – in spite of being absolutely packed with visitors at all times (I repeatedly thanked the heavens that we’d gone – against advice – to Holland in its autumn ‘off season’, as I can’t imagine how crowded the city and its attractions must be at peak tourist times). The upper rooms in the ‘annex’ house behind a spice factory in which the four members of the Frank family and four other people lived in hiding for two years before, heartbreakingly, being betrayed to the Nazis mere months before liberation, and shipped off to various concentration camps (where all but Anne’s father, Otto, died), have been left empty, but scale-model reconstructions, plentiful illustrations, supporting videos and other material give a clear and shattering idea of their life during that time. It’s not really possible to describe the experience; you have to go and see it.

In Den Hague we visited Madurodam, Holland’s ‘mini-city’. It was swarming with people (and I offered up yet more thanks for being there out of season), and children in particular, but it was huge fun. We especially enjoyed the funfair (with tiny working bumper cars and a rollercoaster), the waterskier (performing non-stop Olympic-level slaloms), the open-air Golden Earring concert (with the ‘golden circle’ miniature people dancing their socks off) and the clog-making factory, where you inserted a Euro into a slot, then listened while your clogs were ‘made’ (hammering noises coming from the inside of a little workshop), and then waited for a mini-truck to drive out and deliver a tiny pair of clogs to you. Ag, we realised it was very touristy, but we loved it.

From there, it was on to the Panorama Mesdag (also undergoing refurbishment), a gigantic cylindrical painting that you view by climbing a spiral staircase in its centre. You end up in what feels like a beach gazebo, gazing out on a 180-degree 19th-century beach and city scene. There’s a glass dome (hidden by draped fabric) above the painting which lets in natural light, so the experience is somewhat surreal – the light changes as you stand there, right in the 120-metre-long painting-in-the-round. The primary artist, Hendrik Mesdag, was a banker until he turned 35, when he suddenly decided he’d like to be an artist instead (good for him!). His wife and various artist friends contributed to the Panorama; he included his wife in the artwork – she can be seen down on the beach, under an umbrella, working at an easel.

My sister and I had gone to Den Hague intending to spend the night, but we don’t know anyone who lives there, so we asked the woman at the Panorama Mesdag main desk if she could suggest a reasonably priced hotel. She immediately got on the phone and arranged for us to meet Basil, who runs a hotel right outside the gates of the Palace Gardens. We walked there, giggling, expecting to meet John Cleese, and instead got what Basil Fawlty could only ever have hoped to be as a hotelier: repeated assurances of only the best possible service at all times, utterly devoid of any venom-spitting, and a lovely room at a good price, above a busy pavement café where we could sit in the sun and drink red wine and smoke cigarettes without being shouted at by anyone. Heaven.

The next morning we set off early to see the Palace of Justice (because, you know, you have to – and very beautiful it was, too),
and then marched smartly on to the Escher museum, which has been on my wish list since my Dad told me about it. Alas, Dutch museums are closed on Mondays! A bit of insider information you’d have thought a Dutch person might have told us about! (This recalled, for me, my one other major life-tourist-spots disappointment, when the Statue of Liberty was closed for refurbishment when I visited New York in 1985 – the only time until recently that it’s ever been off-limits to the public.)

But there wasn’t much time for weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, because Rotterdam and the Euromast awaited. My sister and I are both afraid of heights (I can’t go on the escalators at Cavendish Square because the last time I did, I felt strangely compelled to jump into the gaping four-storey drop below and had to – to my children’s intense embarrassment – sit down until I reached the next floor), so this may seem an odd choice of tourist attraction for us to visit, but everything else was closed – it was Monday. We debated the wisdom of what we were about to do for some time – I had gone on the ‘Amsterdam Eye’ a few days before and, mainly by keeping my eyes closed, gripping on for dear life and babbling frantically, had managed, even if I did tremble for several hours afterwards, so I reckoned I’d be okay. (Showing near-inhuman courage, I prised my fingers from the safety bar for long enough to snap the two pics of Amsterdam-from-above at the top of this post.) My sister wasn’t so sure – but, in the spirit of adventure, she finally said she’d try. And up we went. We were terrifically brave, and had a lovely lunch up there in the sky, and came down feeling as if we’d just done a Moon landing.

A couple of other attractions deserve special mention. First, the little museum in Naarden, which is the historic fort town (with five ‘points’ to its fortress, much in the style of Cape Town’s castle) in which my Dad lives. The town and its surrounds are, to all intents and purposes, a living museum, having changed little in structure over the last few hundred years, but the museum was intricate and interesting and informative, and I loved it. (And an added bonus was the oddness of the family of goats living in one of the battlements, which poked their billy-goat-gruff faces out of their houses on the rainy day we walked past.)

Also, FloraHolland, a gigantic flower-auction market that is as large, in total surface area, as the kingdom of Monaco. We watched some of the auctions in progress and stared down in astonishment at the gigantic warehouse below, where thousands upon thousands of cut flowers are traded every day, ending up in all parts of the world; it was organised chaos on such a grand scale that it’s another experience that has to be seen to be understood. And, third, our canal-boat tourist trip in Amsterdam was good fun – we didn’t learn a whole lot (the recorded commentary, in several languages, was too soft and a bit scratchy) but travelling the canals, and out into the harbour for a while, on a warm boat was a marvellous way to pass a couple of cold, rainy Amsterdam hours.

If you’re ever in Holland, I’d suggest you skip the Marken museum. It’s madly overpriced and all you get for your bucks is a look at some mannekins wearing strange and not terribly attractive clothes, a video presentation about the pig-headedness of the people of Marken (discussed here), and the knowledge that Dutch people slept in cupboards in the old days.

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Fabulous things about the Dutch #5

They have a public transport system.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say they have a good public transport system, but coming from a country where public transport is a national outrage, any public transport system is better than none at all. (That said, South Africa is trying: the Rapid Bus Transport system in Cape Town is apparently making a big difference to traffic flow between the west-coast suburbs and the CBD, and we now have the Gautrain, which whisks people between the airport, Sandton and Pretoria. But it’s nowhere near enough.)

Required early one morning to negotiate, to a tight deadline and carrying baggage, a tram to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, and then a train out to the suburb of Naarden (only about 20km away, which is practically walking distance for South Africans, but requires packing padkos for the Dutch), we abandoned the idea of trying to find the right tram. We were told we could get the number 18 tram, or the 7 or maybe the 9, but I (as chief transport organiser and map reader) deemed the chances of getting hopelessly lost too high. So we took a taxi and were charged directly through the nose at R180 for a 10-minute ride.

We’d also been told that the automatic ticket machines at the stations are so easy they could be operated by a 2-year-old (presuming the child carries a chair around to stand on so he/she can reach them). Well, either Dutch 2-year-olds are a lot brighter than me, or I’m a lot stupider than I thought – or, wait, here’s an idea, maybe the Dutch automatic ticket machines, which take only cards (ie, no cash), don’t accept money cards inserted by non-Dutch people? No, not even Euro MasterCards of the type I had specially acquired before leaving South Africa and whose emblem is proudly displayed on the screens of the automatic ticket machines. The ticket machine I tried to use took such exception to me that it blocked my card, managing, in a few quick seconds, to create a serious cash-flow problem for me that I spent irritating time and energy trying to sort out for the rest of the trip.

Anyway, long story short, we finally found a human being dispensing tickets at a ticket office and paid cash for them. (We should simply have been directed to the ticket office in the first place, which highlights the notion that Dutch people who don’t actually use the public transport system should probably not give advice about the public transport system to visitors.) We’d wasted quite a bit of time by then, which necessitated a mad dash down the platform and then some very lucky guesswork about which way to go (right or left) to get the correct train, which we flew onto as the doors closed. Phew!

On another day, we decided to catch the train from Naarden to Den Hague. On this occasion, we weren’t on anyone’s time but our own, which made the whole experience a lot less fraught – but not without its problems. When we arrived at the Naarden-Bussum station, it was to find the ticket office closed (and the automatic ticket machine wasn’t an option because, oh yes, the one in Amsterdam had blocked my damned card). So we just got on the next available train, assuming we could buy our tickets en route. Well, we couldn’t, and the fine for not having a valid ticket was 35 Euros each (that’s about R700!). Fortunately, the conductor was a lovely Dutchman who realised we weren’t trying to scam a free ride but were simply clueless tourists, and instructed us to get off at the next station, where the ticket office was open, and buy tickets.

Which we did, and then waited for the next available train. I was super-excited to see that it was a double-decker one, and we got on and rushed up the stairs. Safely seated, we chatted for a while before I began realising that there was a strange stillness in the carriage. While my sister continued nattering away, I looked around: all our fellow passengers were sitting in preternatural silence, and I began worrying that we’d somehow slipped through a wormhole and were on our way to Zombieland. ‘Don’t you think it’s weirdly quiet?’ I whispered to my sister, whose mouth snapped closed like a Dutchman’s wallet. ‘Gosh, yes,’ she whispered back after a moment, and we craned our heads and stared around, fearful of what we might see. What we did see was ‘STILTE’ (‘SILENCE’) printed on all the windows of the carriage – we’d somehow ended up on the ‘silent’ carriage, where music and children and tourists talking loudly aren’t welcome. Once we’d got over our embarrassment, we both appreciated this very civilised innovation and sat in contented quiet for the next hour, being lulled into semi-consciousness by the infinite sameness of the passing landscape.

We caught trams in Den Hague (and were laughed at good-naturedly by a driver who informed us we were going in entirely the wrong direction) and Rotterdam (where you don’t buy your ticket from the driver, as is the way in Den Hague, and who gets annoyed when you try to; rather, you buy it from the conductor). And we took the ferry to Ameland (a fabulous hour-long trip across water that is actually shallow enough to walk, if you don’t mind tramping through freezing seas for about 20 km; in the pic above, me, Bev, Catherine and Tuti the dog wait for the ferry; and, below, the companion ferry to the one we're travelling on passes us at the midpoint), and a water-taxi back from Ameland (noisy – but then, I’m not a fan of high-powered water machines).

We also did private transport, which I found stressful as the only person in our party with a valid driver’s licence. There’s something about driving a strange car on unfamiliar routes in the dark in the pouring rain on the wrong side of the road in morning peak-hour traffic after too little sleep that can make your heart go pitter-patter. And my sister’s vocal chords went squeak-squeak from the back seat when I suddenly found myself on a highway onramp with a very large articulated lorry bearing down on us and realised at the very last second that it had no intention of giving way (in fact, it probably didn’t even see us in our miniature car). My Road Angels must have been with me, because I can honestly say that it’s a miracle we’re alive. (The speed limit on all Dutch highways is 100kph. I was the only person, probably in the whole of Holland, who kept to it.)

One other notable thing about the people who use public transport, and in fact just Dutch people out and about in general: there isn’t the obsession with cellphones we see in South Africa. With a few exceptions, nobody used a phone at a restaurant table or whittered into their phone, ‘I’m on the train to Amsterdam!’ or conducted a loud phone conversation on a street corner or blocked your way into a café because they were telling their friend, by phone, about their date last night. It was very refreshing.


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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Fabulous things about the Dutch #4

They hold back the sea – something that even King Canute (of nearby Denmark) didn’t manage.

You could argue that if you’re going to choose to live in a country that borders a massive ocean and is below sea level, you can’t complain about a bit of damp now and again, never mind actually being washed away from time to time. And hats off to the Dutch: not only do they not complain, but every time they’re flooded off the face of the map by the implacable ocean, they simply build more walls and dykes and sea-gates. And houses.

Nowhere is this stick-to-it-ness more obvious than in the tiny town of Marken. This little village used to be on an island in the Zuiderzee, a huge inland extension of the North Sea. Nowadays, the island is a peninsula, joined to the mainland by a purpose-built raised causeway; and the Zuiderzee is no longer a sea, but a giant lake known as the IJsselmeer. Today Marken is more tourist trap than anything else (it’s where we took our de-rigueur pictures in giant clogs, outside a ‘clog-making factory’ that sold a lot of stuff made in China), but that’s not how it began.

Way back when Marken was still an island, the people grew crops. But the sea came in and washed away their harvest and their houses. So they rebuilt their houses and, because the saltwater had turned their land brackish, they began farming livestock instead. But the sea came in and washed away their sheep and their cows and their houses. So they rebuilt their houses (on raised mounds, this time) and decided to be fishermen instead. But the sea came in and washed away their houses (which they rebuilt, on stilts); and then their countrymen dammed the Zuiderzee and created the freshwater IJsselmeer in its place, which put paid to offshore fishing, so the men of Marken were compelled to travel into the North Sea to catch whales.

I mean, golly! Not once did anyone say, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting mightily weary of this being-washed-away-by-the-sea thing. How about we go live somewhere above sea level?’

To a greater or lesser degree, this amazing doggedness applies across all of Holland and its people. It’s a steely-willed persistence that has kept the nation from disappearing under the ocean, thanks to a staggeringly complex system of dredgers, dams, dikes, walls, sluices and canals. (It also makes for a landscape that’s interesting for about half an hour – then you realise the entire country looks the same.)

Interestingly for me, it’s also a characteristic that can be found in many of my fellow South Africans, for the simple reason that they’re descended from the Dutch. Back in the 1800s, farmers of mainly Dutch descent (‘boers’) living in the Cape Colony (the Western and Eastern Cape of South Africa today) had a decision to make. The Cape Colony had been established by the Dutch in 1652, but had ping-ponged between them and the British for a couple of hundred years, and by the early 1800s was once again under British rule. The boers didn’t like this (as is true even today, the Dutch don’t like being told what to do, and particularly not by members of other nations), but the alternative was pretty intimidating: to pack up their entire lives and move, lock, stock and barrel, into the then largely unexplored interior of South Africa. It was a hostile country, not only because of its geography, with a giant escarpment to climb, and a massive semi-desert plus several raging rivers to cross; and its stock of fatal diseases to catch, including malaria and sleeping sickness; but also because the indigenous people didn’t hesitate to protect their own homes and families by killing anyone who threatened them.

On balance, but I would have been tempted to pay my taxes, free my slaves* and learn to drink afternoon tea. Not the boers. These Voortrekkers packed up everything they owned and headed north. The story of the Great Trek is one of almost indescribable hardship and heartbreak, but not once did the Trekboers consider turning back. For better or worse, it’s an intrinsic part of the history of South Africa, and the inherited Dutch characteristic of fortitude against all odds contributed to it in no small part.

* I was told by a Dutchwoman (bless her) that the Dutch never owned slaves. They did. They were enthusiastic proponents of the slave trade, and imported about 63 000 slaves to South Africa between 1658, when the Dutch East India Company gave Jan van Riebeek authority to deal in slavery, and 1808, when the British abolished the trade.

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Fabulous things about the Dutch #3


The food everywhere, from the smallest hole-in-the-wall takeaway to the most elaborate restaurant, is unfailingly delicious.


Coming from a country where going out to eat is usually a gamble – with the odds normally stacked against having a great meal – it’s a revelation to always, always get a plate of food that’s hot, fresh and seriously yummy; and it’s worth mentioning that the service, too, is lickety-split, entirely without the infuriating waiting game South Africans often have to play in restaurants here at home. From the ‘designer burgers’ we had at Burgerz in the bustling centre of Den Haag to the catch-of-the-day at Land en Zeezicht in the tiny town of Marken, and an endless array of fantastic cakes at many coffee shops in between (the heavenly ‘slut pie’, a chocolate-and-cherry marvel that I had at De Taart van m’n Tante in Amsterdam springs to mind - the pic above is of my sister and my friend Michele in the shop, which was also visually fabulous), the whole experience was a gastronomic delight.

As, it could be argued, it should be – eating out in Holland is a Very Expensive Undertaking. The plate of ravioli I had at a little Italian restaurant in Amsterdam was, for instance, utterly delicious, but at +-R150 for 8 pockets of filled pasta (yup, that’s about R20 per bite), I would have been annoyed had it been anything other than astonishingly appetising.


And let me not even begin to talk about wine prices. It’s only when you’re paying from around R120 for a very so-so bottle of wine that you can begin to appreciate how lucky we are in South Africa (and, in my case, in the wine-growing region of the Swartland) to have access to good, reasonably priced wine. I took with me a box of Riebeek Cellars’ merlot as a present for my Dad, and we finished it on the first night (here he is, above, honouring that very South African tradition of squeezing the papsak for its last drops) – something I might not have done had I known what it was going to cost to keep my red-wine levels topped up. (Okay, I would have.) (Oh, and for any wine snobs out there: the boxed merlot is the same inexpensive, easy-drinking wine that Riebeek Cellars puts in its bottles.)

The Dutch are very proud of their traditional dishes, some of which I admit I did find a little challenging. For instance, the morning-after tradition of eating a whole raw herring by throwing back your head, opening your mouth and munching the entire fish from top to tail, chased by raw onion, left me cold. The ‘stamppot’ sauerkraut also didn’t really do it for me. Croquettes, which consist of a batter rolled in a crumb and deep-fried, and often served on a white roll, were a bit carbohydrate-heavy for me (although necessary, I suppose, to keep warm in a country where the sun don’t shine). And although I liked the speculaas, I quickly got bored of its flavouring in everything, up to and including ice cream.


One tradition I loved, and will continue here at home, was mayonnaise on chips – and Dutch fries are unfailing hot, fresh and crispy, regardless of whether you buy them from a street stall or order them in a chi-chi restaurant.

In the spirit of ‘what goes in must come out’, a word about Dutch toilets. The Dutch are generally a fairly tall people, so it’s a matter of some puzzlement why their toilets are built with, apparently, Hobbits in mind. And is it really necessary to have a kind of dry ‘platform’ onto which your leavings are deposited, so that once you’ve stood up and rearranged your clothing in a space so tiny that it’s sometimes literally impossible to turn around, you’re forced to look at what you’ve done before flushing the loo? Really, yuk.


The Dutch tend to be a bit arrogant about their cuisine, often subtly suggesting that any other country’s is somewhat lacking, so it was fun to find this made-in-Cape-Town salt-and-pepper set in the restaurant halfway up the Euromast in Rotterdam – so, clearly, our table condiments are good enough for them!



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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fabulous things about the Dutch #2

Boy, can they make coffee.


When my sister Bev and I arrived in the small Dutch town of Naarden, after a very nasteh night flight on KLM (note to occasional travellers abroad: opting for the night flight doesn’t give you an extra day because you sleep during the flight; it gives you a day you can’t remember, because your brain goes into hysterical catatonia from exhaustion after having tried to sleep for 11 hours, but instead wriggled around vainly trying to find a place for your feet, knees, hips, shoulders and head – and isn’t it amazing how you only realise how heavy your head actually is when you’re required not to lay it down on fellow passengers while sleeping on a long-haul flight?), it was to a very, very small and very, very strong cup of coffee. 

‘I don’t drink strong coffee, usually,’ my sister said, but it was pressed upon her, so she did. (My sister also ‘didn’t drink’ neat whisky in the morning, but the last time we travelled together, 20 years ago to Scotland in the dead of winter, she quickly realised the medicinally warming benefits of a ‘nip’ in a pub at 10am.) 

I love coffee, so I did. And it was like dying and going to heaven. 

Goll-lee but the Dutch know coffee! There wasn’t a single place we went where we didn’t get a cup (usually miniature, sometimes of teacup proportions, and very occasionally about 200ml – but never, ever the giant crud that passes for restaurant/takeaway ‘coffee’ in South Africa) of the most astonishingly heady, fragrant, PERFECT brew. I mean, they gave us a cup of this astonishingly awesome coffee at the car-hire place while we waited to fill out forms! Seriously, if it weren’t for the boring landscape and the neverending rain and the teeny-tiny toilets and all the bloody stairs and the kamikaze cyclists and the eye-poppingly expensive cost of living and the bossy Dutch, I would move to Holland for the coffee. 

They always serve the coffee with speculaas, which is a thin, crispy cinnamon/ginger biscuit of which the Dutch are inordinately proud. I say ‘inordinately’ because it’s, you know, lovely, but after a while I wouldn’t have minded a Baker’s Lemon Cream. Call me a philistine. 

But niggles aside (and I’m assuming the Dutch won’t mind my criticism, because I’m kind of liking this ‘being straightforward’ thing), I have to give Holland a full, enthusiastic 10 points for their coffee. It was fabulous.

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Fabulous things about the Dutch #1



There are no hugely fat Dutch people.

I was told (repeatedly) that there are, in fact, obese people in Holland, but they must keep them all in one very large room somewhere, because you don’t see them on the streets. Rather, you see energetic folk of all ages and styles enthusiastically riding their bicycles hither and thither (and often right up your arse, if you don’t get out the way quick enough). Above: Dutch people cycle to the train station, then commute to work. These bikes are at Naarden-Bussum station (a relatively small stop) - every single one belongs to someone who's gone to work, and will cycle home on it at the end of the day. When it rains (which it does all the time), they cycle one-handed, with their umbrella open above them.

South Africa now has an obesity problem to rival America’s, and it’s amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to seeing gigantic people heaving their huge bulks through shopping centres, into movie-theatre seats (usually next to me) and up to the KFC counter.

So one of the first things I noticed about Amsterdam (and Den Haag and Rotterdam, although admittedly this may not be true of other major centres in Holland because we didn’t go to all of them) was that most people are of the normal size. Some of the women are buxom (and I mean this word as it’s intended, not as a euphemism for obscenely fat) and some of them men are portly (ditto), but in 10 days I genuinely didn’t see one single person who made me think, ‘Golly, I wonder how many pies made that?’

Oh, except once. At Schiphol airport, the morning my sister and I left Holland. There was a very large couple sitting in the air-side waiting room, between them occupying three chairs (but only just). Because the flight was full, my sister and I had been separated, and I (I thought) had drawn the short straw: it was my seat that had been re-assigned. I whispered to my sister, ‘See them? I’m going to end up between them, wait and see.’ ‘Think positive,’ she whispered back to me.

Two things: first, the fat couple were South Africans (I heard the wife say to her husband, ‘Ek hoop hulle bedien ontbyt op die plane want ek’s honger.’) (Okay, I didn’t really, but seriously, you can tell a South African anywhere, can’t you?) And, second, I ended up in a bulkhead seat, with plenty of legroom, between two normally sized and perfectly wonderful gentlemen who adjusted my TV, stowed my tray, ordered me orange-juice-and-vodkas and didn’t mind when I fell asleep on their shoulders and drooled down their shirt-fronts. (And I didn’t even think positive!)

We were way too afraid to ride bicycles in Amsterdam, where simply stepping out into the street is challenge enough, but we did hire bicycles on the North Sea island of Ameland, and my Dad, my sister and I cycled for miles along pretty, friendly bike paths. It was fabulous.


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What I got shouted at for in Holland

It’s fairly alarming, and not a little dispiriting, to be constantly ordered about by people who can’t seem to mind their own business. The Dutch call this ‘being straightforward’; those of us from other (thinner-skinned) nations might consider it a titchy-tad bad mannered.

I attracted what seemed to me (and at least some of my travelling companions) an unfair number of ‘Nee, nee, nee!’ admonishments, among them:

* When I helped 2 hungry swans, trying in vain to reach stale bread left on the wall of a canal – I broke it up and tossed it to them, and was roundly reproached by a passing Dutchwoman who hissed, ‘It brings rats!’ Try as I might, I couldn’t work out the logic of this.

* A Dutchwoman on a station platform who ordered me, ill-temperedly, to tie my shoelaces, which had come undone in our various rushes for trains. (They are actually rawhide strips that tie my boots closed at mid-calf, are too short to reach the ground, and have never, ever tripped up me or anyone else.)

* A Dutchman who took the trouble to actually stop his car to shout at me for not controlling my dog. I felt like Peter Sellers when I said to him, ‘It’s not my dog’ – it was simply a hound that was occupying the same pavement space as me, and was behaving impeccably at the time, lying down in an alert but relaxed state.


* A Dutchwoman who snapped peremptorily at me for pushing the ‘walk’ button on a traffic light - which, incidentally, is the only safe way to cross a street in Amsterdam, where pedestrians wage a losing war against a tidal wave of bicycles, trams, buses, cars and other pedestrians, all moving as if they’re late for a theatre opening (and on the wrong side of the street).


* A Dutchwoman who ticked me off for lack of manners for requesting another bottle of wine at a dinner, and went on to suggest to all who would listen that I have a ‘drinking problem’. Which was amazing to me, given that everyone around the table was at least half-toasted by then, and our hostess had just poured herself yet another generous glass of potent brandy liqueur. (And anyway: me, a drinking problem??!)

* A guard at the Rijksmuseum who crapped on me soundly for pointing out something in a painting, although my finger was nowhere near the actual artwork. I was hugely relieved that he didn’t produce a steel ruler and rap me over the knuckles with it.

* A shopgirl who yelled clear across the shop at me for attempting to remove a T-shirt from its packaging to have a look at its size and design (you know, what we do in Woolworths all the time) – and who treated my sister the same way, rebuking her for looking through a row of scarves for one she liked: ‘They’re all the same!’ the shopgirl growled, although they weren’t.

My Dad (who lives in Holland) gave me a book for my birthday while I was there called The UnDutchables: an observation of the Netherlands, its culture and its inhabitants, which describes the Dutch as (among other things) ‘moralising’ and ‘criticising’, and I suppose I would have had a less stressful time if I’d read it while I was there. Alas, we were too busy, so I only got to that part when I got back to dear old SA. Forewarned might have been forearmed.

There are, however, also lots of extremely fabulous things about the Dutch and their country, and I’ll tell you about them in future posts.

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