So we are back in Gascony after two weeks in the Netherlands, les Pays-Bas, where we partook of the joys of contemporary urban civilization. For those who plan to spend more than three-four days in Holland, I can heartily recommend that they buy an annual museum subscription, at a cost of 45 euros, which entitles the user to unlimited access and fast-lane entrance to approximately 400 of Holland’s publicly-funded museums. In two weeks, we went to about 14 museums and would have spent close to 200 euros each, so we exceeded the breakeven point of our investment quite handily.
My favorite museum was the Troppen Museum in Amsterdam, the “Museum of the Tropics.” This is an anthropological museum focusing on non-European cultures, particularly in former Dutch colonies. The curators have used new multimedia technologies to wonderful effect. There was, for example, a map of Africa in which places on the map were connected to music videos representing the various styles of African pop music. I spent over an hour at that exhibit and reconfirmed the fact that I think the music of Mali and Senegal is the best in Africa, with South Africa in second place. The albino griot Salif Keita has a great voice.
Museums are so much more enjoyable when they are not crowded, and none of the museums was terribly crowded, no doubt evidence of the recession. We even went to the Rijksmuseum at the very tail end of our trip, late on a Wednesday afternoon, in order to see Rembrandt and Vermeer, and only Rembrandt and Vermeer, and we had completely unobstructed and leisurely views of the greatest masterpieces of the museum and perhaps of Dutch painting. This is by way of contrast with prior visits. We attended, for example, a special Vermeer exhibit in The Hague some years ago, for which most of the painter’s extant canvases had been assembled. The crush of the crowd made the experience far less than ideal. At the main museum in Rotterdam, which is quite a nice museum, there were perhaps 20 visitors in the fairly large building.
There were some aspects of Dutch culture that reminded us of America more than France does. First, of course, is the general level of material prosperity and the density of urban development. I was surprised at the prevalence of ice cream stores and of people eating ice cream in public. This practice is a barbarism, according to the bombastic Straussian Leon Kass. Women could be found eating various kinds of sweets on the train. People are far less prone to be seen eating or drinking in France in places that are not specifically dedicated to these activities. Fast food is better and available in greater variety in Holland than in France. We went to a Pathé multiplex cinema in Haarlem that was more luxurious than any cinema I had been in. The concession area was a self-service mini-market that had nachos and popcorn served in boxes of various sizes that were delivered on a conveyor belt. We had two very good Indian meals in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, respectively, each about 40-45 euros for two, two very good and relatively inexpensive meals (45-60 euros for two) at a high-end pizzeria and an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant in Haarlem, and an excellent expensive meal (225 euros for two with a fine Languedoc red and coffee/mignardises) at Le Restaurant in Amsterdam, a prix-fixe set menu restaurant that was the highest-rated restaurant in Amsterdam on a Dutch website rating restaurants throughout Holland. This meal was to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary and was appropriately lavish and refined, without being over-the-top or too formal. The chef-owner included tofu in one of the dishes, a first in our experience of high-end European dining. He also included little touches of hot pepper and wasabi, so he is very much on my wavelength, because we eat large amounts of tofu and hot pepper at home, where I am the principal cook.
Whenever I am in Holland, I wonder how many pedestrians are hit by bicycles every day. One does have to be very careful about the bicycles, and my principal criticism of the Netherlands might be that pedestrians are given short shrift there and that bicyclists are given too much sway. I wish that I could have ridden a bicycle myself, but my two artificial hips make that impossible. Many of the bicyclists, who are presumably just getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way, look like they are enjoying themselves tremendously.
We met a former colleague of Georgiana’s for lunch in Rotterdam. He is a tax executive, someone who would oversee managing the tax liabilities of an international corporation. He reported that consumer spending is way down in the Netherlands, that most people are afraid to spend money. Real estate values have generally fallen about 20% since October, 2008. People have lost money by depositing money in Dutch banks, something I had not known. So he now feels compelled to diversify his liquid holdings among several banks. Growth cannot resume, he thinks, until agreement is reached about how resources will be allocated between the northern and southern parts of the Euro zone, where France occupies an intermediary position, presumably. He does not make a practice of reading Paul Krugman and does not appear to think that European governments should be spending more, not less, in order to counter the lack of consumer demand.
I don’t mind the sound of Dutch anymore. Were I ever to live in Holland, I would certainly try to learn Dutch. This is not as obvious a point as it sounds, since nearly all educated people speak good English. I did find, however, that I sometimes asked people if they spoke English before launching into a question, because it simply is not true that everyone speaks English. In particular, many people working in lower level jobs, such as supermarket cashier, do not appear to have much English.
While the restaurants in Holland seem to be at a high level and to offer good price/quality ratios, I was not impressed by the few supermarkets we visited in Haarlem. Selection was limited, vegetables tended to be wrapped in plastic. Four people had to be asked in order to locate tofu at a supermarket in Haarlem. There were, ultimately, three cartons on display, although it was of good quality and less expensive than in France. The beer is good, and was much appreciated, as we enjoyed generally warm weather during the last two weeks of June.
All attempts to hear live jazz came to nought, in the end. We did attend an event in Amsterdam organized in order to militate in favor of preserving the current regime surrounding the public sale of cannabis in Holland. I did not think that the organizers had given much thought to the public relations aspect of this event, which featured a band in the reggae-rap genre with lyrics in Dutch. There was a horn section. It was too loud and uninteresting musically. I have no idea what the singer was rapping about, of course. This event occurred on the night that the Netherlands were eliminated from the European Cup by Portugal. Cannabis is not cheap in the coffee shops.
The Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam is mildly interesting. I like the fact that the Jewish Historical Museum seems honest in its portrayal of the position of the Jews in Holland, there is no whitewashing. There are approximately 40,000 Jews in Holland now, three quarters of whom are almost entirely secular and are not observant.
The train service, and the tram service in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, were both outstanding, an absolute wonder of public services. It’s an orderly, pleasant, and highly civilized place, the Netherlands, and there are lots of very good museums. A nation that has produced Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Brouwer cannot be as boring as others would have it be. The weather and flatness are downsides, but we had pretty good weather, on the whole.
I went to the Troppenmuseum in 1998 & thought it was great (and still lament the missing roll of film with my photos of it, which must’ve gone underground in my sister’s house). Also Van Gogh–looking at those paintings in the flesh is akin to a psychedelic experience.
When I got lost in the streets of Enkhuizen (the small town where my sister lived) I was amazed at how little English people there spoke. (There is also a wonderful open-air museum in Enkhuizen, where you wander through a typical nineteenth-century fishing village).
I agree–the trains in Holland are superior, especially in comparison with the sadly deteriorated British ones (and that was 1998).