donderdag 3 juli 2014

No Milk Today

Limburg is easily the most un-urban of the Netherlands' provinces. Nowhere are you as far removed from the coast and its streetwise city life as in this southernmost appendix of the country. It's full of quaint local customs, of which the rest of the Dutch haven't got the faintest idea. Like the event which takes place every last Sunday in June in the town of Valkenburg. Or rather, outside it, in the wooded hills.

I crossed a footbridge over the Valkenburg to Heerlen railway line and climbed a wide path, sloping up quite steeply by Dutch standards, through a dense wood from which was emanating a constant concert of birdsong. No woodpeckers, I noticed.

I arrived at a somewhat muddy clearing to the right of the path - the middle of June had been quite rainy - which was full of people. To my right was a sort of improvised church altar on a stage protected by an open-sided white garden marquee. A white-robed preacher was addressing the crowd, about a hundred mostly elderly people, seated on wooden folding chairs, neatly arranged like church pews, with a central aisle. Behind their backs was the main feature of this hilltop glade: a little whitewashed chapel, surrounded by a walled garden.

Keeping to the path which skirted the clearing, I sneaked to the back of the sylvan congregation. It was a Roman Catholic service, the people mumbling in unison from time to time, responding to the preacher's formulas. But some features made it stand out from a run-of-the-mill mass: for one thing, the open-air location, making the meeting look like a clandestine church gathering or a druids' ceremony. Also, there was a women's choir, some twenty good-looking ladies with modern hairdos, dressed in contemporary black dresses, skirts, trousers even, with red accents like a shawl or an artificial flower tucked behind the ear.

On the right, on the path along which I had arrived, a lone cyclist appeared, climbing the slope, in professional racing gear, not casting the merest glance into this chapel in the glade. We might as well not have been there; conquering his natural adversary was all that mattered to him. In return, no-one on the wooden seats paid the slightest attention to him.

A tallish woman with short straw-coloured hair, seated on one of the seats in the rear was wearing a pair of oversized plastic ears, as if she had dressed up for carnival. But she looked quite sensible otherwise, her weatherproof coat buttoned up against the chill. Nobody took any notice, just like they hadn't with the cyclist.

Looking over the rows of seated believers towards the raised wooden stage with the altar, I spotted the backs of four uniformed men seated on the front row, wearing over their black tunics something looking like symbolic silver armory - shiny plates, loosely linked by chains. Any good marksman could have planted a poison arrow in the wide chinks between the armour plates, had this gear been worn in a conflict.

The preacher, a bald tubby man who must have been at least 80, vacated his central position behind the altar to make way for a lay preacher of about the same age who read a lesson.

The congregation again obligingly muttered a response at the required places. I was beginning to think that this was a regular mass after all, and my gaze wandered to the other side of the clearing, to the left of the stage. Neatly lined up with the ends of the pews was a regiment of some ten men, smartly turned out in what looked like 19th-century police uniforms. Some of them were armed with blunderbusses, others carried drums, one having a snare drum strapped to his belly. These men, and the armoured officers in the front row, I later learnt, belonged to the local archery.

As the robed preacher, who had embarked on the next part of the service, reached some significant point in the ritual, one of the archers sounded a brief drum roll. The chapel bell responded, striking twice, its clear sound reminding the people in the pews that the little chapel was still there, right behind them.

The liturgical part of the service seemed to be coming to an end. The elderly preacher and his lay sidekick exchanged a few short remarks, which made the believers chuckle. The effect of the subdued laughter rippling over the crowd was not as startling as John Cleese saying "fuck" in his valedictory speech at Graham Chapman's funeral, but it still felt odd.

After a few more pleasantries, about twelve loud shots were heard in slow but regular succession, in a salute from somewhere in the woods.

The crowd began to get up and leave, folding their chairs and handing them to an attendant who appeared from behind a tree and neatly stacked them up. But the villagers were not leaving, as I thought. They sauntered past the side of the little chapel to the other side, to another clearing. The archery lined up and marched in the same direction. One of the uniformed men held up his inverted cap, inviting contributions towards the upkeep of uniforms and instruments.

A small fairground was laid out on the wet grass on the other side of the chapel. Stalls were lining the perimeter of the open area, their backs to the forest edge. Some sold food or drinks, others knickknacks created by local artists. Long tables in the central area invited the punters to add some food and drink to the spiritual nourishment they had just received. At regular intervals, a Wheel of Fortune was spun, and the winners duly came up to collect their prizes, supplied by local businesses. A one-man orchestra was churning out popular songs, accompied by his singing-and-dancing magic synthesizer, all in two-fourth time. One of the stalls was run by the Netherlands' National Trust, the owner of the land on which the little hermitage stood. Volunteers were handing out propaganda leaflets; the woman with the plastic toy ears held a basket containing freshly picked herbs in front of visitors, challenging them to identify them.

I went back to take a closer look at the little chapel. Two guides, both retired men, explained that the building had been a hermitage: the living quarters and religious shrine of a hermit. Inside was everything you would expect to find in a full-blown church, only smaller: a bank of votive candles quietly burning, a colourful decorated ceiling, real wooden pews, an altar and a small organ.

One of the guides, a distinguished-looking gentleman called Mr Tissen told me that on one of the guided tours he regularly gave here, he had had a church choir from Aachen. "They had brought their local preacher, and it turned out he could play that thing quite well," he said, pointing to the harmonium with its two pumping pedals driving the bellows. "I went outside, and the German choir stayed inside singing the most beautiful Gregorian chants I've ever heard. It gave me goosebumps." Mr Tissen looked at me. "Isn't it fantastic?" I agreed.

A succession of devout hermits had lived here for over 250 years. All alone, living a life of religious observance and deprivation. The last one, Brother Lutgerus, left the little hermitage in 1930, disgusted at becoming a tourist attraction. The annual mass in honour of St Leonard and the fair were held to raise money for the hermit and for the upkeep of the hermitage. Though the hermitage lay deserted, the tradition was not discontinued until 1939. Thirty years and a World War later, a local group resurrected the annual event.

I left the dark, cosy chapel to have a slice of bread with scrambled egg and bacon at one of the stalls outside. No big city pizzas or shawarma here. Somehow, the snacks were in tune with the simple life that the hermits must have led here.

It was just what I needed.

(See Footnotes for additional information)

maandag 23 juni 2014

Dutch Country Diary

Here's my take on theGuardian's Country Diary.

A Country Diary

The Metaphor that Wouldn't Fly

Parus major, aka Great Tit or Koolmees
(Photo: Luc Viatour)
How sentimental. I watched two juvenile great tits leave the nest for the first time. Despite their grand name, they're pretty small birds - no more than a fistful.

I happened to glance out of the kitchen window, and saw a beak protruding from the nest box nailed to an East-facing wall in the garden. A young great tit flopped out, buzzing like a bumblebee towards the hedge opposite, which it barely managed to reach. But it did.

Following Big Sister came Little Brother. Visibly smaller, and thinly covered in white fluff below which the black and yellow was discernable, out jumped Little Brother. And flopped onto the floor below. No jump to the hedge for him.

It had been getting audibly crowded on the floor of the deep nest box. Muffled, frantic scuffling and screeching could be heard inside, the young summoning their parents to come up with the goods, which they duly did, looking increasingly dishevelled as they shuttled back and forth. The two overworked adults had clearly had enough of this.

Sitting still on the edge of a pavement slab below the next box, Little Brother did not appear to have got the hang of this flying-out thing yet. So we sit on the pavement, huh? And we try and pick little things from the gaps between them tiles? And how do I get away from here, anyway?

The little, not quite black, tit spent so long musing over its new circumstances that the sunny spot in the garden crept on, beginning to warm its little body. Little B. tried to hop, and managed to cross half the tile. And what if I rattle those wings? Goodness, that's a big jump.

Pica pica, Magpie (ekster)
Teemu Lehtinen from Salo / Helsinki, Finland CC BY 2.0
Meanwhile, I had begun casting worried glances toward a pair of magpies gleefully rubbing their wings, scurrying high up in a conifer with an excellent view of our garden. Still clutching the wet dishcloth I was wiping the sink with when this whole rigmarole began, I slunk outside, slowly lowering myself onto the garden bench. At least I was armed now.

Little Brother had made another jump and was now hanging on to a dead branch of a potted fuchsia in a corner of the terrace. One of the adults whistled a signature tune. Little Brother replied with its rough, repetitive beep beep beep, and Father Tit, or Mother, descended from the small oak tree with a mouthful of nourishment.

Big Sister was nowhere to be seen, probably gone frolicking inside the privet hedge, but Little Brother clung to his fuchsia twig in plain view, looking straight up, its beak spread wide open while its parent bent down from the only fuchsia branch in the pot that appeared to be alive. Tit Senior disgorged whatever it was - I'd rather not know - into Little Brother's beak. Little Brother appeared to derive a little more strength from this and managed another fluttering leap, ending up on the garden bench.

A new round of parental care followed, and finally Little Brother set off into the oak's leaves, where its relatives were happily tweeting and twittering, venturing out for an occasional circumnavigation of the tree. 'What? Nothing - just trying.' They stayed safely out of sight of the magpie hoodlums.

Having done the dishes I prepared to go out around the back of the house when I heard a nervous, even panicky chatter from the oak tree where a female blackbird had claimed its regular branch back.

Turdus merula, Blackbird (merel)
Andreas Eichler CC BY-SA 4.0
'Oo, she's big! Out of here!' The three black tits - parent, Little Brother and Big Sister - flew right past me as I stepped out of the kitchen door. Parent and Sister braked just in time to turn back over the hedge, but Little Brother, who looked as if he fluttered along just for fun, unaware of any potential danger, lost control and hit the kitchen window. Tock! Not a big slam, no, but not a big bird either.

Little Brother sat a little dazed on a tile below the kitchen window and scurried into the foot of the hedge when I tried to take a closer look. What a life: getting knocked out on your first big adventure.

When I came back from my errand I checked between the leaves where the tiny tit had been. Gone.

That's OK then. No stray feathers or bones left over from a magpie's feast.

Fledgling, I thought. That's what he was, a fledgling. I had used the word a thousand times in its metaphorical sense. Only now did this useful metaphor lose its status as an abstract expression. From now on I would always picture Little Brother when talking about a fledgling democracy, a fledgling enterprise or a fledgling state. Tock!


Notes, 23 June 2014:

A Dutch Country Diary was written in Hilversum, the Netherlands. The only couleur locale is to be found in the typically Dutch error of the female blackbird claiming "its" branch. Yes, her branch - I know.

maandag 16 juni 2014

Been Theroux, done that

This morning as I sat on a train, re-reading Paul Theroux' The Kingdom by the Sea, about his journey around the UK coastline, a few pages fell out of my battered Penguin edition of this 1983 book.
Here they are:

Another Kingdom by the Sea

Rolling into Roosendaal station, the first stop on Dutch territory, our international train was carefully guided around a scruffy maroon two-car set waiting to set off on its shuttle service to Belgium. As if to make a point, our intercity was brought to a halt at the northernmost end of the platform, removing the slightest temptation to even consider returning south, to Antwerp.

At the guard's whistle a few minutes later, the seven carriages made a final statement to underscore that we had moved into a different country: the train shifted to the rightmost track on the line - in Belgium the train had been running on the left.

So what else is visibly different here in the Netherlands, I wondered. Until 1830, there was no border here: the Netherlands stretched further south, all the way to France, and the Northern and Southern Netherlands - hence the plural that persists in the official name to this very day - were one country. Maybe better try to spot similarities here.

Looking out of the train window at the Sugar Union factory, I thought that a sweet tooth is one of the things that is common on both sides of the border. Only the other day I had enjoyed a freshly-baked crêpe in a Brussels park, a simple concoction consisting of a paper-thin pancake, lavishly covered in vanillated sugar, rolled up and cut into bite-size portions. Served still warm in a card bag, the same shape you get your chips in, it was just what I needed to satisfy my rumbling stomach after the Belgian beer-tasting of the day before. Maybe the sugar had been produced at Roosendaal's Sugar Union.
After built-up Belgium, the landscape of North Brabant province appeared almost empty. (The geographic qualification in the name indicates that the region lies to the North of the real Brabant, which is in Belgium.) Straight tree-lined roads diagonally crossed our railway line - or perhaps the tracks cut across the roads at an angle; after all, the roads must have been there first.

In the villages we passed, like Oudenbosch and Zevenbergen, new-looking single-floor industrial buildings were situated in pleasant green grass borders - not cramped at all. On the horizon, though, below bulbous grey clouds, heavier industry made its mark in the shape of a concrete cooling tower, some tall chimneys and rows of pylons probably transporting the electricity generated there to other parts of the grid.

A couple of miles on, six wind turbines lined the waters of the Holland's Deep, clearly visible as our train sped across the one kliometre long bridge spanning this expanse. More and more of those slender spires with their Mercedes-star-shaped rotors were popping up in windy areas of the country - which is everywhere.
The arrival of the 21st century windmill was often greeted with hostility by local residents, who preferred the landscape as it was in the 19th. Despite public protests and drawn-out appeal procedures against these wind power farms, the government always won. The three-bladed turbines along the Holland's Deep spun slowly in the weak breeze, in a superior gesture of self-confidence, brushing aside the protests of the past.

A slight nervousness began to be felt as our train approached Rotterdam, a major hub in the rail network where many of my fellow passengers, together with a gentleman who might be called Mr Sing, and myself, were to change trains.

But first - as they always say on radio programmes after they've read out the preview of the show - but first, Dordrecht. A city on a river, dominated by the fat tower of Our Lady's Church, also known simply as the Big Church, completed in the 15th century.

With ships navigating the Dordtse Kil, the city of Dordt as its inhabitants call it, is an echo of the city that Rotterdam once was. Steadfastly trading, transferring cargoes, selling goods, meanwhile earning vast sums of money which were proudly ploughed back into the city. Merchants built their richly decorated homes along streets whose names derived from the trade: Wine Street, to name but one. They were displaying their wealth, but also contributing to the building of the churches and the expansion of the city, out of a sense of what I can only call 17th-century civic pride.

Dordrecht still looks like that, respectably frozen in its former glory; it was eclipsed by its young upstart neighbour Rotterdam in the 18th century, which is growing and developing still, but now looks nothing like it used to, way back then. But that's another story.

Even the view from the train on the bridge crossing Rotterdam's Meuse river has gone. We pass through a tunnel instead and arrive at the city's new central station. Mr Sing - I am adopting Paul Theroux' penchant for inventing names for people he meets on his travels - having got up too early twice before to change trains, now finally descends from the train to catch his fast connection to Amsterdam. The young, businesslike Mr Sing had asked me, on platform 5 back in Brussels whether 'this' was the train to Rotterdam. After two commuter trains had passed, it was, and we could both board the brightly-liveried carriages taking us North. Having crossed over to the fast train waiting for us, we took separate seats on the short haul from Rotterdam towards Amsterdam. When I left the train at Schiphol Airport, I reached over to shake his hand, and wished him a pleasant stay in the Dutch capital.

See Footnotes for some additional info.

maandag 17 maart 2014

Een rechthoek met drie hoeken

Zo'n knus boerenschuurtje in expressieve baksteenstijl... staat dat midden in een stad? Of ergens in de provincie Groningen, waar ook veel van dit soort juweeltjes te vinden zijn? Nee, niet in een exotische plaats als Usquert of Stadskanaal: dit pandje staat in Den Haag.

En wel midden in de stad, op de hoek van de Herengracht en de Prinsessegracht. Als je uit het Centraal Station komt, zie je het bouwsel links voor je. We bekijken een ronde hoek deze keer, in de serie hoeken van gebouwen

Huisje met een dak. Maar er is meer. Foto RK
Op foto's van Google Streetview is dit optrekje ook te vinden, maar dan geheel dichtgeplakt met posters voor concerten en dergelijke. Toen wij er waren op 7 juli 2013 zag het er gelukkig keurig uit. Gezien het hermetische uiterlijk - geen ramen - is het vrijwel zeker een utiliteitsgebouwtje. De gepantserde deur en het stalen luik ernaast zijn niet erg uitnodigend. Gevaarlijk ogende waarschuwingssymbolen op de deur wijzen op iets elektrisch, een transformatorhuisje bijvoorbeeld.

Het huisnummer is 20, in een fraai jaren-30-lettertype. Maar welke straatnaam daarbij hoort, is een raadsel: Koekamp 20, Herengracht 20, Bezuidenhoutseweg 20, Koningskade 20 - het zou allemaal kunnen, maar voorzover die adressen bestaan, zijn het stuk voor stuk andere panden.

Het dak is bedekt met groen uitgeslagen koperplaten, die gelukkig nog niet de aandacht hebben getrokken van malafide stadsjutters. Zo'n dak is dan ook moeilijker mee te nemen dan een Denker van Rodin, denk ik. Die platen zijn eropgelegd door een dekker van klasse. Kijk maar eens naar de kleine ventilatiekapelletjes, twee op de lange zijde en een op de korte. Geen soldeernaad te zien!

Wel bleek het moeilijk het loodbeslag op de gootrand plat te houden. Zie de schaduwen die de boven ons staande zon werpt op de zijkant van de dakgoot links.

In het oog lopend is het metselwerk rondom de deur: zware, afgeronde zijden in het zelden voorkomende stapelverband of strekkenverband. Meteen na de rondingen gaat het weer over in gangbaarder metselpatronen, zo te zien een kruisverband. De rondingen naast de deuren worden effectief benadrukt door de doorlopende verticale voegen die er ontstaan in het stapelverband.
De ronde linkersponning maakt het gebouwtje ineens bijzonder: de rechthoekige plattegrond krijgt hierdoor drie rechte hoeken en één ronde. Spanning door een sponning.

Ook het dak lijkt niet regelmatig van vorm te zijn: op de foto hierboven lijkt de linkervleugel van het dak steiler en kleiner dan de rechter, die we niet goed kunnen zien. Klopt dat? De luchtfoto uit het Haags Gemeentearchief geeft uitsluitsel. En ja, van de andere kant gezien:

Het gebouwtje houdt zich klein, probeert niet op te vallen, en trekt geen aandacht. Midden in het Manhattan aan de Beek hurkt 't stilletjes aan het water. Draai u om, u bent er zojuist langs gelopen!

Foto: Haags Gemeentearchief, Willem Vermeij

vrijdag 28 februari 2014

Inbreien op z'n Portugees

Stadsplanners gebruiken het afschuwelijke woord 'inbreiding' om nieuwbouw aan te duiden op lege plekjes in de binnenstad. Uitbreiding naar binnen.

Een gevalletje van dat inbreien is dit hoekpand in Lissabon. Wandelend door de Travessa Fiéis de Deus in de Portugese hoofdstad kwamen we deze hoek tegen. Een gele stapel balkonnetjes dus, in deze aflevering van onze serie over hoeken van gebouwen. Het pand staat op de hoek met de Rua da Rosa.

De Travessa Fiéis de Deus is een smal, tot voor kort wat smoezelig, straatje, maar er is een duidelijke gentrificatie aan de gang. Weer zo'n fijn urbanistenwoord. Hier en daar zagen we een woldesignwinkeltje of een kleine fotogalerie, tussen andere pandjes die overduidelijk viswinkel of bakkerij waren geweest.

We keken dus niet vreemd op van dit fris en nieuw ogende appartementengebouw. Scherp gesneden balkonnetjes van een kwartcirkel die leken te zijn aangeplakt tegen de inspringende hoek van het pand, die zelf ook kwartrond is.  Met beton kun je tegenwoordig alles maken. Maarreh... is dit wel zo nieuw?

Met zijn vier verdiepingen heeft het gebouw ongeveer dezelfde hoogte als de belendende percelen. Daar kun je niks uit afleiden: ofwel het nieuwe ontwerp is door de architect respectvol aangepast aan de aangrenzende oudere huizen, ofwel hij moest dat doen van de gemeentelijke schoonheidscommissie, ofwel ten tijde van de bouw was het normaal om de hoogte van de andere gevels als richtlijn te nemen. Is er iets anders dat een clou geeft?

Je blik is meteen gevangen door die strakke balkons op de hoek. Als je afdwaalt naar de ramen in de straatgevels, en eens naar de detaillering kijkt, dan begin je te twijfelen. De afronding van het muurgedeelte naast de sponningen lijkt niet te passen bij de functioneel ogende, onversierde balkons. Ook de sierlijke afschuining aan het houtwerk van het venster suggereert een bouwjaar uit een  eerdere periode.

Dezelfde afronding is, bij nader inzien, ook te onderscheiden aan weerszijden van de balkondeuren. En ook daar is het houtwerk versierd met fijne cannelures.

Kortom: dit hoekpand heeft modern belijnde balkons, en is netjes geel gestuct, maar ik vermoed dat het geen 21ste-eeuwse 'inbreiding' is.  Ik hou het op de jaren 30 of 40 van de 20ste eeuw, goed onderhouden, ruim van opzet en daardoor nog altijd bij de tijd. Hoe het ook zij, het bouwwerk valt wel op, maar valt niet uit de toon.

dinsdag 14 januari 2014

Een streepje Finse zon

Filmproducers kiezen Helsinki vaak als decor voor scènes die zich afspelen in een onbestemd Oostblokland. Vaak zie je dan de witte Kathedraal van Helsinki, classicistisch met een hoog oprijzende koepel in het midden. Of de pittoreske eilandjes ten zuiden van de haven; als je de stad buiten beeld laat, kan het water makkelijk doorgaan voor een gigantisch Russisch meer, waar een enkele eilandbewoner probeert te overleven.

Maar voor onze serie Hoeken van gebouwen hebben we daar weinig aan. Finland is ook het land van strak design, en dat is goed te zien aan de foto van deze keer. Het voormalige hoofdpostkantoor (Postitalo) in de Finse hoofdstad heeft een hoek die ongeremd modernistisch is. Negentig graden, om te beginnen. Maar er valt meer over te vertellen. Bijvoorbeeld: Uit welk jaar dateert dit gebouw?
Postitalo, hoek Mannerheiminaukio/Postikatu, Helsinki. (Foto RK, 8 aug. 2013)
Het Finse hoofdpostkantoor werd (al) in 1938 gebouwd, naar een ontwerp van Jorma Järvi, Erik Lindroos en Kaarlo Borg.

Eigenlijk heeft dit gebouw een niet-hoek... het is een inspringende hoek, gevormd door de smalle zijgevels van de twee blokken die we zien. Het zijn trouwens twee zijden van een carré, maar de andere twee kanten zijn minder krachtig. Aan de voet van de hoek is de entree, nog steeds getooid met het opschrift Posti, hoewel er inmiddels andere gebruikers zijn ingetrokken: oa. de openbare bibliotheek, een eersteklas-fotozaak, en een restaurant. Bij de renovatie (door Vahanen in 2010) is het interieur netjes in stand gehouden.

Spel van licht en donker
De ingang ligt iets boven straatniveau, bereikbaar via een statige trap. De zes vertikale stroken die de gevel decoreren, lopen deels door aan weerszijden van de toegangsdeur. Mooi effect van de architect: naarmate de zon verder schuift, ontstaat er een fraai lijnenspel van licht en schaduw op de zes stroken. Op de meest rechtse strook is al te zien hoe dat lichteffect begint.

De ingang had evengoed aan het rechteruiteinde van het hoge blok kunnen liggen, dichter bij het centrum en het station, maar dan had hij een groot deel van de dag in de schaduw gelegen. En het is toch al niet erg licht op de begane grond in de Finse winter. Afgezien van deze zijgevel toont het oude postkantoor verder weinig decoratie. De natuurstenen plint en de dito sponningen, dan heb je het wel gehad.

"Posti" wordt wel gerekend tot het Finse Functionalisme. Zie ook bijvoorbeeld het verpleegkunde-gebouw van de Metropolia-universiteit in dezelfde stad. Met een hoek die niet op de hoek ligt... maar dat is een ander verhaal.
Nursing department of the Helsinki Polytechnic represents functionalism
(Foto Pöllö/Wikimedia)