Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Holland From a Higher Plane

…continued from Bikes and Dikes

Back in Amsterdam, I was in for one last treat. Michael, a British expat and long-time resident of the Netherlands, invited me to his loft apartment atop a 300 year-old 5-storey building right between the Royal Palace and the red-light district. Buttressed by thick wooden beams that make the space feel like a huge, cozy attic, his home has its own rooftop garden where we sipped wine through the long sunny afternoon with the city spread out before us.

Drinking it all in among the flora and foliage of this unlikely spot, I realized how horticulture is such an integral part of the country’s fabric. As sombre as their architecture can be at times, the Dutch sure know how to touch things up with a well-placed row of tulips or spray of ivy. Their charm really creeps up on you, it’s not a massive all-out assault with everything pretty all of the time. Sometimes there’s gloom, and a little bit of doom, but then the country’s beauty blooms through and true.

After one last perfect zero-degree-cold Heineken at the Schipol airport lounge, I got on the plane back to storms and semi-sobriety in Manila. As we took off and ascended, I looked down at the Netherlands’ patchwork patterns, carved precariously from the invading tides and foreign powers, and realized how I’d expanded my consciousness simply by chasing the horizon and keeping my head in the clouds. Try puffing on that!

The Facts of Flight

KLM flies direct from Manila to Amsterdam daily. A nifty way of passing the time on the long journey is to study a few lessons in Dutch or other languages using the in-flight entertainment system. Besides the pampering and other perks (which you really come to appreciate on a 14+ hour flight), World Business Class passengers are also given a Delft blue porcelain figure of old Dutch canal houses filled with jenever. Now collectors’ items (some styles go for US$1000 at auction), there are 90+ different houses, one for every year of KLM’s operation, with a new house style introduced every year.

Bikes and Dikes

…continued from Layover in Limburg

At the Artis Zoo, people-watching is just as enjoyable and enlightening as seeing the many impressive animal exhibits

The Dutch have their own version of the pedal-powered tricycle-for-hire, but have improved it by featuring a more restful reclining posture for the driver

It was on the train trips north up to Amsterdam, and later west to The Hague and Antwerp, where I really got a feel for the countryside – as flat and green as you could have imagined it, with the occasional windmill or cow adorning the view. And everywhere was water, carefully channelled and controlled, be it stream, pond or river. Every village or housing development, however simple or compact, boasted a water feature. The air was fresh with vapour, diffusing the sun into that distinct Dutch glow which lit the canvasses of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. The land was as stringently planned, parcelled out and crisscrossed with waterways and bike lanes as the exacting lines and rectangles of Mondrian and Rietveld. But like everything in the Netherlands, something radical bubbles beneath the rigid structure on the surface. The Dutch ride their bikes like madmen, secure in their status as queens of the road. Pedestrians and motorists better beware when crossing bikers’ paths. Bicycles are such a big deal that their theft is a huge national menace, with over 700,000 stolen every year. This beggars the question, if there are already 16 million bikes in the Netherlands, with more than one bike for every Dutch person, then why steal someone else’s? It’s probably just like a huge game of musical bicycles!

the blogger on a bike

While tourists take leisurely boat rides along the canals, true locals pedal fiercely on their fiets (bikes) practically everywhere. So I knew I ought to have a go at this great Dutch tradition while visiting my cousin Jamie and her family in The Hague. Most Dutch keep two bikes, an old outdated one (which they wouldn’t mind getting stolen) for short, simple trips, and a souped-up cycling machine for serious speed (carefully kept under lock and key). My cousin’s Dutch husband Ron, easily half a head taller than I, lent me his well-used “granny-style” bike to take for a spin around their neighbourhood. Once I’d figured out how to mount the imposing mass of metal, and gotten over my fear of losing control and hurtling into a canal or the path of a speeding tram, I actually started to enjoy myself and feel like I’d managed to embrace the full Dutch experience.

Croquettes, frites and pea soup are as Dutch a meal as you can put together.

Since they expend so much energy getting around, it’s no wonder the Dutch stay mostly lean (but not mean) despite their traditional cuisine being heavy on pancakes, fritters, meat, potatoes and powdered sugar, or various combinations of the above-mentioned. Going by the gastronomic landscape though, you’d think it was the Indonesians who’d colonized the Netherlands and not the other way around. You can’t go very far without running across a rijsttafel (rice table), a Dutch colonial adaptation of the Javanese dinner. Surinamese restaurants and Argentinean steakhouses jostle for attention between automats, falafel shops, and kiosks peddling pickled herring. Clearly, conquering the munchies is not a problem in this country.

The tower of Delft’s Nieuwe Kerke, where members of the Dutch Royal family are buried

The Tiles that Bind

After a quick stroll and drive around the monuments of The Hague, where the Dutch government and Queen Beatrice reside and preside, Jamie and Ron took me to Delft, the town synonymous with its iconic blue-and-white glazed tiles and pottery. With their two-year-old daughter Elise in tow, we strolled through charming streets heavy with the history of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange, Father of the Dutch Nation, lived, died and was buried here) and as the home port of the Dutch East India Company – the original importers of the Chinese porcelain which inspired the famous Delftware. Although they live and work in The Hague, Jamie and Ron actually prefer spending their leisure time around Delft, which they consider more family-friendly, especially with a young child, and more importantly, has better parking, always an issue in a country of such density.

A stall for used books at the University of Amsterdam, helping satiate the Dutch’s apparent addiction to reading material

Earlier in the summer, they took a break from the bustling Randstad (the conurbation of the four largest cities in Holland) and with Jamie’s parents rented a bungalow in the countryside near Maastricht in the Southern Netherlands where I’d just been. Turns out that among the Dutch, vacation time is sacred and best spent communing with nature. I guess it makes up for their high-tech hyper-efficiency while at work. As both Ron and Peter explained, one restaurant staff in the Netherlands is expected to do the same amount of work that in the Philippines you’d probably have three different people doing, which is probably why even the simplest cafes have wi-fi-equipped waiters.

Amsterdam’s modernist face emerges along the Oosterdok. Leftmost is the Stedelijk Museum CS, housed in a former postal building and containing many masterworks of modern art, the ship-shaped structure to the right is the Nemo (National Center for Science and Technology)

Over dinner at their home, we talked about the differences between the quality of life and raising a family in the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Hong Kong (where the couple met and first lived together). Jamie valued the importance the Dutch place on independence, competence and living harmoniously with the environment but missed the warmth of family and easy access to help with babysitting and housework. After coffee, Ron drove me to a spot with a good view of that quintessential Holland postcard scene – a row of traditional windmills, picturesque yet functional and still helping keep the sea at bay.

Bummed by missing a photo-op with Rembrandt’s grandest opus at the Rijksmuseum? This 3D reinterpretation of The Nightwatch in bronze is ripe for the snapping at Rembrandtplein

continued in Holland From a Higher Plane

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Canals, Cannabis and Culture

…continued from High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands 

At the Leidseplein, artists start stripping down for a public performance, one
of the wackier ones I’ve witnessed

Budding cannabis cultivators can grow their own stashes from seed or
shoots for a steadier supply. Lots of pot in pots line some smoky streets

From red we go green, and check out that other disreputable Dutch treat. The nose knows best in this case and it won’t take long to sniff out the fumes. A veritable haze hangs over some streets, as thick as Dutch pea soup. Red-eyed recreational trippers stagger out onto the sidewalks, giggling about nothing in particular. For those who’d like to imbibe as well as inhale, Holland is the birthplace of Heineken and jenever (gin’s more flavourful ancestor), and they flow into eager mouths much like the Amstel river feeds into Amsterdam’s canals. Party boats and beer bikes brimming with giddy, tipsy pleasure-seekers circle the city, sparing no corner from the high-spirited buzz of herbs and alcohol.

Among other substances, “coffeehouse blends,” cocktails, and candies with a kick can be freely had for a fleeting hit

The cycle from day to dusk to dark reflects on the canal water, a sight enough to explain some souls’ Amsterdam addiction

When the sun starts to set, the street lamps and neon signs flicker into life and the tone of the town shifts: Performance artists take over the Leidseplein, their antics growing zanier with the darkness. The main acts at the legendary Melkweg and Paradiso begin their sets, poised to enthrall another audience. And those still searching for that one elusive thrill to remember start moving on to riskier and more potent fare. Sadly, some lost souls never stop. Good thing the trams keep running right on time, or else there’d be even more led astray by Amsterdam’s notorious night.

It seems best to reminisce and write about Amsterdam while slightly intoxicated, if only to help recapture the heady feel of hedonism that runs through the grachts and straats of this small but significant European capital. Stone sober prose just doesn’t cut it. But then it’s probably easiest (and cheaper) to get high on culture than any other substance around. Getting an “I Amsterdam card” (which affords entrance to nearly every major museum, a canal tour, and limitless use of public transport for up to 72 hours) practically forces you to see as much as you can. From walls pulsing with avant-garde graffiti to museums stuffed with Old Masters and Modern originals, saturating your eyeballs is easier done than saying Stedjelik three times fast. Galleries for every taste parade a staggeringly eclectic range of artistic wealth. The visual variety on display is a testament to how one’s view of the Netherlands can easily change with the light, the weather, or choice of intoxicant.

Taking a photo of the Iamsterdam sign fronting the Rijksmuseum is one of the
top touristy things to do. As expected, several random Asian tourists pounce
on me to snap their pictures as they pose

continued in Layover in Limburg

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands

Working windmills near The Hague continue to help regulate water levels.
Highly sought-after as homes, people can live in the roomy structures as long
as they can maintain them

My first brush with the Netherlands was probably the same as most international travelers, passing through Schipol airport while waiting for a flight to another city. The facility seemed to embody the vaunted Dutch ideals of organization, efficiency, modernity, but with a bit of a twist to keep things interesting. I was through passport control in mere seconds and no lines greeted me at the security checkpoint. As I readied my carry-on bag for the requisite x-ray machine, the security guy good-naturedly asked if it contained a laptop computer. I nodded and proceeded to unzip my bag. While I was doing so he prodded me with a chuckle, saying “Go on, take out the bomb.”

Jo the lonely bear sits on a bench in Aldenhofpark in Maastritch. His right
paw looks creepily like the bones of a human hand

I froze, but everybody in the security crew just smiled and took his “joke” in stride. I was already past their purview by the time my thoughts about how we civilians couldn’t get away with saying things like that had time to sink in. And so with black humor at its most unnerving, I was welcomed into Holland…

Sex, Death and De Stijl

“Apocalyps” stands in the otherwise serene garden of the Bible museum, a relatively undiscovered quiet corner converted from two canal houses

Little bits of dark Dutch wit dotted the rest of my jaunt through the Netherlands: In Aldenhofpark in Maastricht there’s a statue of Jo, the last bear who lived in the park and died there, depressed and alone. This sad sculpture is actually part of an installation called ‘the half automatic consolation machine,’ where morbid figures of extinct animals mingle among the young students sunbathing. Not far from Amsterdam’s heavily-promoted Torture Museum, in the garden of the Bible Museum looms “Apocalyps,” a moss-covered monument crowned by the disembodied heads of beasts mentioned in the book of Revelation. In Dam Square, bounded by the Royal Palace, the New Church and a monument to the victims of war, I saw Darth Vader hold court with Poseidon. In Delft, a pack of bikers in black leather prowled Markt Square under the shadow of towering Nieuwe Kerke, home to the Dutch royal burial vault.

In Amsterdam’s Dam Square, performers costumed as Darth Vader and Poseidon vie for attention (Vader is the clear winner)

It’s this (almost) anything goes atmosphere that makes the Netherlands the poster child for progressive attitudes. Ever pragmatic, the Dutch were ahead of their time in doing away with silly superstitions and stifling social mores. But with this enlightenment also came a certain austerity. Most post-reformation architecture in the Netherlands, from churches to palaces, seem rather stark in comparison to their more baroque brethren. Centuries later, this artistic asceticism would eventually be elevated to its zenith with such Dutch-led modernist movements as the Amsterdam School and De Stijl.

Some buildings and other structures in the Netherlands have been completely painted in garish graffiti

But all this still didn’t manage to explain to me the Dutch predilection for having large glass windows, which they then leave clear to view by anyone walking past on the street. Differing hypotheses abound: A Dutch friend explained how before gas and electricity, people would burn fires indoors for light and warmth. This necessitated high ceilings to allow the smoke to rise above breathing level, and high-ceilinged homes needed tall windows to let the sun in. A British friend posited how glass must have been expensive even during the Dutch Golden Age, and wealthy homeowners would have grand glass windows installed just to show off. But the most psychologically interesting theory comes from a Belgian friend. A Catholic, he explains how the Dutch, who were predominantly Reformed Protestants, adopted the convention of putting in big glass windows to show to everybody that they weren’t doing anything reproachable in their homes.  Closed shutters or drawn curtains just mean that something wicked was going on within. And with all that’s legal in the Low Countries, that’s a whole lot of wicked you can get away with. The Dutch themselves take it for granted that it isn’t polite to peek inside, and those who do are either crooks, voyeurs, or tourists who don’t know any better.

Shops catering to a wide array of fetishes brazenly display their wares in the streets on the fringes of the red light district

But this unspoken rule doesn’t apply to Amsterdam’s most famous window displays – the prostitutes in the red light district. Safe (and mostly bored) behind glass, you can look at the hookers all you want. But “touching” them will cost you (around 50 euros for a few minutes) and snapping photos can get you in big trouble with the pimps. Better catch the show while you still can. After eight centuries of brisk trade, the government is planning to ease out the world’s oldest profession to make way for fashion boutiques.

continued in next entry, Canals, Cannabis and Culture

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

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