Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On this day in Alkmaar, many, many years ago...

"Here the storm of Spanish warriors was thrice repelled and the genius of liberty made its stand." Think that's the right translation. My wife said she thought it was old Dutch when the city was Alcmaer. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.  

Alcmaria Victrix
Anyway, the inscription was at the side of the statue of victory located in, you guessed it, Victoriepark, which we pass every time we leave the old Spanish camp (Oudorp) and cross the Friesebrug into Alkmaar, usually on bike, sometimes on foot or by bus. 

A Marks the Park

Of course, on Oct 8th, the long siege of the city finally ended, signalling the beginning of the end of Spanish rule and with little fanfare, the start of the Dutch Republic later on down the road, or canal, for a local twist on the expression. Where the Spanish rear guard has gathered on the left near the tents is where we live. Not quite as hard to get into the city nowadays and a little more tranquil.

As I mentioned in my post last year, no national holiday to celebrate independence, but there are local festivities which unofficially mark the start of beer festival season and the count down to Octoberfest. Also, in keeping with the Spanish-Dutch theme of this post and heavy picture content, see this image of the Friesebrug:

When the cause is a single sailboat whose mast is three times as high as the hull is long, there is no grumbling, no shitting in the milk or on God, for those Catholics who are really furious. No one loudly complains about the audacity of having to wait and the important things this dickhead in the shitty little boat is causing him or her to miss. Someone might light a cigarette. Another might say good day and start a little idle chit-chat. When the bridge goes down, people don't ironically clap and shout, "Finally." Less entertaining in some ways, but little more even keeled, which pretty much sums up the difference between the Dutch and the Spanish almost 500 years after their separation.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review - Herman Koch, The Dinner

Called "Het Diner" in Dutch, the book was a best seller in Holland and dispels my neighbor's theory that all Dutch authors are gloomy. A dark comedy set at a trendy restaurant, two couples meet and over the course of dinner, a family secret is revealed. I don't want to give away too much, but I found it a gripping and entertaining read, both in terms of the plot and character arc, as well as the peek inside contemporary Dutch society. For example is it true waiters here fill wine glasses without asking?

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs

Seriously. There was a recent article in the NY Times about a Philips plant in the Netherlands which uses 128 robots, with many experts saying it's gaining ground on Apple's famed model of using cheap Chinese labor. Meanwhile, projections place 2032 as the point there will be more robots than people and most experts are getting better at when human level AI will be achieved.

I know this post might come across as a bit on the paranoid side but it's actually a big deal that'll touch large swaths of the economy. Think globalization, but with most tasks being automatized rather than outsourced. If you have a strong constitution, the blog Early Warning deals with these and other subjects. I'm going for a stiff drink now.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Going Back to the Middle Ages

This weekend (June 16th & 17th) Alkmaar is celebrating Kaeskoppenstad, which I think translates as Cheese Head City. According to the local website (translated from Dutch) the city streets will revert to what it was like in the Middle Ages with sand and straw, sheep, chickens, shit, fish, fishwives, nobles, fishermen, beggars, plague, lots of music, whores, blacksmiths, shoe makers, cheese bearers, children, rope-makers, tins makers, haringkakers, potato peelings, coal, fire jugglers, town criers, fishermen, soldiers, pitch, the scaffold, Spanish soldiers, the famous Beggars in their boats in the Alkmaar canal and of course lots KAES.

Should be a good time for anyone interested.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Worst. Candy. EVER

...is called Salmiak knotsen. I bought it thinking it would be like salt-water taffy but it's hard and seems to be mostly salt with a hint of vanilla. After doing some research to see why the saline taste continued to linger an hour later, I discovered the main ingredient was ammonium chloride and the candy was classified as licorice.

I have to admit until I moved here I thought there were only two types of licorice, black (which makes me cringe) and strawberry (which I can pig out on). There are actually much more. There's brown and white, salty and sweet, all classified as "drops" and one of the most sought after products by Dutch people living outside the Netherlands.

Friday, June 8, 2012

From Barcelona 2nd Edition -- Coming Soon

Sorry for the non-existent posting. I've been busy working with a new publisher on the second edition of my short story collection, From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City. The good news is that it's due to be released this July and I now have a cover to share.

It's what I called "city-lit" with twelve stories set in the popular Mediterranean metropolis. There's a little bit of everything. The origin story behind the famed Caganer. Horror in the form of a haunted flat within shouting distance of a leafy square. Historical fiction starring Barcelona's most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. Crime, romance, comedy etc. Initial reviews say it captures the essence of Barcelona from the perspectives of the locals and foreign residents living there alike, which is what I was aiming for.

The first volume was quite well received when it was released a few years ago, but I'm much more pleased with the second edition. Mostly because, as with all artistic endeavors, you become better with practice, which includes learning from your mistakes and the feedback of readers. Also, I was able to approach the stories with more objectivity now that I don't live there, allowing me to give a more well-rounded picture of the city, I think.

I'm hoping to have a .PDF version available before the actual roll out. If anyone would like a free copy to read, shoot me an e-mail and I'll send it over. I've put some excerpts on the side to give you an idea.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The World's Rudest Nation is...

Surprise, surprise... France, according to travel site Skyscanner who recently ran a poll. Here is the top ten. 
1. French 19.2%
2. Russian 16.6%
3. British 10.4%
4. German 9.9%
5. Chinese 4.3%
6. American 3.3%
7. Spanish 3.1%
8. Italian 2.3%
9. Polish 2.2%
10. Turkish 2.1%
I have to say, most Frenchmen and women I've met outside of France don't match this description. They've actually been some of the least pretentious people. The French in Paris weren't the most polite, but I find most big city dwellers are assholes, no matter the country. It's stressful living with noise and congestion 24/7.

Interesting that the Dutch aren't in the top ten, given "rudeness" is supposed to be a characteristic and that the British and Americans are 3rd and 6th respectively when we value manners. Apparently the rest of the world sees us differently. Tatiana Danilova, Russian Market Manager for Skyscanner commented: “Russians can be more direct when talking, which may be misconstrued as being rude. However, this is more a difference in culture than genuine rudeness. The Russian language is not as polite as English, so when Russians translate directly from Russian to English, it can sound rude to an English speaker even if they don’t mean it to." 

You could replace Russian with Dutch or most other languages and that quote would be true. Although, at least here kids use the phrase, "Mag ik...?" for May I when asking for something. Spanish tends to be imperative base with no word like "maar" at the end to soften the barked order.

As for the most polite nations, they are: Brazilians, those from the Caribbean islands and Filipinos. I'd have to add Thais, too, as long as you don't give them a noogie.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review - A Couple of Dutch Authors, one old, one new

Nescio means "I don't know" in Latin and was the pen name for Dutch author J.H.F. Grönloh (1882-1961), whose writings were recently translated into English for the first time under the title Amsterdam Stories.

A contemporary of Jame Joyce, Grönloh was not a writer by profession, rather he earned a comfortable living as the hard driving director of Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In fact, it wasn't until after a nervous breakdown in 1929, that he took public ownership of his few published works.

The conflict between our youthful artistic desires and the need for respectability as we become adults is a recurring theme throughout his stories. The first entitled, "The Freeloader," stars Japi whose personal motto is I am nothing and I do nothing. He slacks and mooches off his friends who find him both irritating and inspiring. He disappears to Friesland and comes back with not a story but a mystery. He is, alas, not immune to life's demands. I don't want to give too much away and spoil the ending.

His group of friends are collectively referred to as "The Little Titans" in the second story and can be found throughout the collection. They are a group of bohemians, who as youths do, wail against the bourgeoisie and bemoan the lack of a revolution, while searching for answers to existential questions, as they walk the Dutch countryside and streets of Amsterdam.

One of the group has enough talent to earn a living as an artist, while the narrator is a struggling writer and the others end up surrendering to society and getting jobs. The artist, Bavink, stars in the shortest story called "Out Along the IJ." He and a friend rent an old cabin along a river, losing themselves in art and nature, oblivious to the nude ex-girlfriend washing dishes to the amazement of the local children, until their money and credit run out. The final story, "Isola Dei" looks at loss during the Nazi occupation, finding salvation in memories and the sunrise while riding a bike to Eindhoven.

Lost Paradise: A Novel is a book by contemporary Dutch author Cees Nooteboom. The premise is simple enough. The narrator picks two random strangers (One is a sensual woman on a plane to Berlin. The other, a weary man on a train platform) and interweaves their story. In many writers' hands this could be a sprawling epic, but this Dutch great manages to write a compact, lyrical book about angels, totems and life, that takes us from Brazil to Australia to Germany and of course, Holland. Cees Nooteboom is a master at conveying so much with a simple sentence and I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the seamless translation done by Susan Massotty. I'm really surprised Cees Nooteboom hasn't garnered more international press, because this book, at least, ranks up there with some of today's bests, defying comparison. I look forward to reading more of his work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Benefits of Bilingualism

There was a recent article in the NY Times about bilingualism and studies showing people who speak multiple languages tend to be smarter and better able to withstand the onset of dementia during old age. Even what was once considered a negative, linguistic interference, is now a positive because it forces the brain to work harder to solve the problem, giving it strength. As for those of us who will never be bilingual, "there is reason to believe that [these benefits] may also apply to those who learn a second language later in life."

I know in California, there has been a push to offer dual immersion programs in a variety of languages after a period of English only being the law of the state. Yet, in the Netherlands, apparently, the recommendation is to speak only one language at home, although when I visited the government Dutch well baby clinic, the doctor suggested I speak to our daughter in English while my wife use Spanish which was what we had been doing because she was worried the alien would end up talking like this:

Neither of us being Dutch speakers hasn't impacted our progeny from learning the local language. She's attended daycare three times a week since she was one and the teachers say that she has no problem in communicating with them or the other toddlers. In fact right now, she serves as our de facto translator when people talk to us on the street. The only negative, if you can call it that, is that the cheeky monkey wields her languages as a weapon. When she's angry with my wife and I, she uses Dutch to tell us off while at school she'll use Spanish because she knows her teachers speak English.

The one issue I'd take with the radio Netherlands article cited above is this.
Misconception 1. It is better to teach a child a second language at as young an age as possible.

It is true that it is good to start early, says Sharon Unsworth. “But there is no critical age, like four years old for instance, which is thought to be too late to learn a second language.”
She stresses that learning a second language depends greatly on the number of hours a child is exposed to the second language. The more a child hears, reads or uses a certain language, the better they pick it up - at whatever age.
Research has shown a child's ability to form or distinguish between certain sounds ie. phonemic awareness usually ends, neurologically speaking, before age two. So the sooner you get your tyke exposed to the language the better.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Spring was here, then it was gone

Up until the middle of last week the weather was really delightful -- sunny and warm with the flowers starting to bloom. But it looks like winter is making a come back and temperatures are supposed to drop to freezing. Hopefully the frost won't play havoc with my garden. The good news is the Alkmaar Cheese Market starts this Friday for anyone interested. Remember it's only in the morning and you can read more about it here. Finally, we're off to London for Easter. Here's some comedy for the holy week.