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.