Holiday in Holland (Benelux)

It is always a pleasure to return home from traveling abroad. Yes, one neighbor has a penchant for mowing the lawn at 7 AM and another starts my day with a screeching sound as if a metal table were being dragged across concrete; there are packs of hounds barking for hours at imagined burglars and real possums, and a husband who periodically forgets that no music is allowable until the second cup of coffee is a memory (and even then Mahler or the 20th century are unacceptable). But my dreams float in disturbing patterns when I am on vacation and relate minimally to events and people long forgotten, in juxtapositions that make no sense at all.

Sometimes I discover pretty strange things on my travels. This was definitely an art history trip, and we tried to see everything: the Rijksmuseum, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, the Groeninge and Memling Museums in Bruges, the homes of Rembrandt and Rubens and countless fabulous churches.The luminosity of the oil paintings of the great masters; the Van Dyck brothers, Brueghel, Hals, Vermeer, Van der Weyden: their works cannot be experienced sufficiently through reproductions in a book. In person, the paintings appear as if they were underpainted with gold or silver that peeks through mixtures of incredible color. Most of the paintings, which are close to four hundred years old, are also in excellent condition (unlike the shocking condition of the Italian masterpieces on view in the Uffizi Gallery which are being ravaged by car exhaust--but that is another story). Some of these great artists are lumped into an unfortunate category called "Flemish Primitives," which I imagine has something to do with their odd yet fascinating use of perspective in a painting.

The big surprise was the violent undercurrent in so many masterpieces of Flemish art. After the Madonna and Child and Jesus Suffering on the Cross, it is strange to count the numbers of painted depictions of John the Baptist's head ( along with another Biblical Apochrypha character, Holofernes, who met a similar fate by Judith's hand under totally different circumstances.) In my mind, John scores third in frequency as subject material. There he is, laid out in shocking anatomical detail; someone's severed head on a plate following a particularly bad party.

Even Rembrandt got into the action and painted a scene called "Doctor Nicolaas Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm", in which five students in stiff round collars are very dispassionately watching the lesson. (By the way, those fashionable collars led to the development of my favorite champagne glass, the tulip flute, because a normal glass couldn't reach the lips any other way). They say that the public would pay to watch the abdominal dissections at Tulp's Anatomy Theater in Amsterdam. (Theater? Strange entertainment). Rembrandt also has a really grotesque "Blinding of Samson By the Philistines."

But the most horrific painting of all is the flaying depicted in the "Judgment of the Cambyses" by Gerard David, large as life in the Groeninge Museum in lovely Bruges. Talk about bad dreams. The painting depicts corrupt Judge Sisamnes' awful punishment and it was on view in the judges chambers as a warning so that they might not meet a similar fate, being stretched out and carved like a turkey.

The Flemish fascination with gore is well preserved in the torture chamber of the Catharina Gasthuis Museum in Gouda which is augmented by lots of sick toys and a working guillotine in the dungeon. Come to think of it, anyone who attended an art history slide show class cannot forget the frightening visions of Hieronymous Bosch, who hails from Holland, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

The Netherlands is rightly counted as being one of the world's most tolerant nations. Walking along sightseeing, I remarked on the ugliness of the Queen's Palace in Dam Square (no wonder she rarely stays there) and proceeded a few short blocks to observe prostitutes in the Walletjes Red Light District plying their wares, lounging or knitting in storefront windows, in plain view alongside drug dealers, legitimate businesses and five year olds. My friends are raising a child of that tender age in an apartment in this part of town and my prudish nature comes raging forth as I imagine what route I could possibly take to protect her if we were trying to accomplish a mundane shopping errand together. Go five blocks out of the way to avoid letting her see this seamy side of life on the street? I suppose my friends figure it is all just a part of life, that little girls don't really get what all that leather is about anyway, but it is interesting to discover that, despite my lifelong attempts to be open minded, I am indeed a hard headed Midwest puritan.

Many of the Dutch also provided hiding places during the infamous events of Hitler's invasion of Europe. As I was growing up, my two absolutely favorite books were Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Anne Frank's Diary. I'd read and ponder them through the dark days of rainy spring vacations, imagining myself in poor Anne's position having to remain cloistered in silence during working hours so their family wouldn't be discovered as they hid above a warehouse. Someone betrayed them anyway and only Anne's father, Otto, survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.

Excerpt 1 from Anne's Diary (353K).

Her observations and optimism seemed so amazing and incisive to me and I was thrilled to have the chance to see her house in Amsterdam when I graduated from high school and was traveling all over Europe with my sister. Back then, her house was left as it was, a small apartment with the most steeply angled steps you can possibly walk on. (You have to develop a special technique when entering these flats, which are quite common in Holland, of throwing your body sideways and leaping like a goat, never stopping to allow your entire shoe to rest on any stair). Then, behind a false door cleverly made of a revolving bookcase, you entered the space where the family was hidden and could see the tiny apartment and Anne's poignantly decorated room pasted up with postcards of film stars, colorful advertisements and anything to remind her that those four walls did not constitute the universe.

Now, unfortunately, you enter Anne Frank's house having waited an eternity on line with a gaggle of cackling tourists, hoping they don't speak any language you comprehend, having been amused by itinerant jugglers and popsicle salesmen, assaulted by panhandlers and manhandled by those in charge who think that every single visitor's attraction must be warped by the entertainment industry and cheapened by commercialism. Do we really need to see the Academy Award Shelley Winters won for her role in the movie version? Did they need to expand the original house to accomodate more sweaty visitors snapping their gum? I felt sorry for Anne, for the memory of her loving diary, for her dreams and hope for the future and I was sorry for myself and my lost childhood as well.

Excerpt 2 from Anne's Diary (790K).

The only thing I did find interesting was to learn that dear Anne's sexual fantasies had been edited out of the version I checked out of my local public library in seventh grade. I wonder, do youngsters in open minded Holland get the x-rated version?

By the way, there is an interesting Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, across the street from the Jewish Historical Museum, that was finished in 1675 by Jews whose families had come to Holland after being tossed out of the Iberian peninsula between 1492 and 1496. The horror is that in 1940 there were 140,000 Jews in Holland and after the war only 20,000 were still alive.

There is a contradiction in the fact that the normally tolerant Dutch outlawed the public practice of the Catholic religion following the Alteration (to Protestantism) in 1578. Naturally, the Catholics figured out a method to continue worshiping as they pleased and created what is now an interesting museum called Amstelkring, or Our Lord in the Attic. It was a hidden church in a merchant's house that had a special entry on an alley off the prominent canalside. Parishioners climbed the steep steps and worshiped three stories up in a complete church that occupied the two adjacent rear houses as well, and they had a pump organ and footwarmers that burned peat in the winter months. It was a parish church for 300 years until it became a museum in 1888.

There really are windmills throughout Holland, although not as many as there used to be. I never knew that their main purpose was to pump the water out of the land so the Dutch could grow vegetables and exist on land that is basically underwater. The windmills are amazingly efficient and, one dark Sunday when we ventured inside of one operating in a gale force windstorm, I wondered if we were not going to suddenly launch into space by the force of the wind. The sleeping accomodations in these structures require a fetal position the size of an infant but there is never any problem getting to a source of water. It may be polluted by human waste but it is plentiful.

Each little town in Holland still has many defining architectural elements from the past, unlike Los Angeles where nothing over 20 years old is allowed to stand unless it is in the shape of a giant donut or has pillars made in the image of the Seven Dwarves (I wish I was kidding--we could use a little charm in southern California). My favorite edifices tended to be the old Weigh Houses where merchants would repair to weigh their wares brought on boats through the canals for trade. Cheese making was woman's work and it was difficult; milking the cows, churning the cheese, pressing out the liquid, getting it into large tubs, fitting presses so the cheese mashed into the desired shape, finally covering it with wax so it would last through hard times. It was obviously a lot of hard work but, eventually, individual farmers entered into agreements to make cheese cooperatively and the modern cheese industry was born and still thrives in places like Edam and Gouda (which by the way is pronounced How-dah. The problem is, no one will understand what you are asking for back home in your local deli if you pronounce it correctly and they will probably say "howdy partner" back to you. And everyone will think you are the worst kind of cultural snob if you dare to say Van Gogh's name corrrectly with the gutteral Dutch "KHUH.")

We were lucky to be traveling during springtime to view Holland's main industry, flower growing, exploding in fields of color that must look amazing from a helicopter. The Dutch supposedly provide 80% of the world's cut flowers, half of that going to Germany. The Keukenhof gardens, outside of Amsterdam, are only open two months out of the year and display the most outrageous hybrid creations of tulips anyone could imagine with colors and shapes that mimic birds and seahorses, with ragged shapes and soft gentle colors you never see anywhere else. Spring is also a time for holidays: first Easter, then Ascension and Pentecost are celebrated in the church year, the Queen's birthday and swarms of celebrations in memory of the end of World War Two.

Sometimes I'm sure I live in the wrong part of the world. Every imaginable kind of music was being made at the Shantyfestival in Enkhuizen the weekend that commemorated the end of the war. Two really terrible little choirs were my favorites: the male chorus was singing rope-pulling songs like "Halen, Halen" and the women's choir presented "Brandytown Shanty" to the strains of an accordion and a scratchy violin. Such enthusiasm! Who cared if half the notes were out of tune. We were lucky to be in Amsterdam on Liberation Day even though we first found ourselves in the middle of a rock concert in Dam Square that must have taken a thousand cycles off the top end of my hearing. Departing quickly, and pushing through gyrating bodies dressed like dropout flower children from Haight-Ashbury in the 60's, I commented on the villainy of rock songwriters who have stolen melody away and reduced music to the barest boring elements of screaming and drum machines. What a poverty of ideas. Everywhere you go (with the possible exception of India) people love it---

I don't get it.

We walked to the other end of town where the celebrations consisted of a wonderful symphony orchestra (was it the Concertgebouw?) on a barge overlooking the Amstel River, with Dvorak and Smetana and opera singers and young and old people together toasting and having fun. The power and richness of classical music brought tears to my eyes as I pondered what it must have meant to live through a WORLD WAR. I was pleased that people my age and younger marked the memory of an event occurring before they were conceived and I was moved that all members of a society can gather together to weep, drink beer and celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. I felt embarrassed and spoiled by the easy life I have led and I was proud that my nation had marched in, on that May day in 1945, to help end the horrors of war. I felt so happy, as I always am, to be coming home to America.