Netherlands Travelogue

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Delft

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.

Portrait of the later middle-aged artist as a gargoyle

Portrait of the later middle-aged artist as a gargoyle

Taken by Matthew Weinreb, on his iPhone, while I was giving a solo performance.

Who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a pre-primer

I caught a bit of a television program devoted to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) affair this morning, and I have done a bit of research on the Internet.

First, this affair is huge in France, newspaper sales have skyrocketed, the news weeklies are devoting 13-20 pages to it this week.  DSK was, prior to this affair, thought to be the frontrunner for the nomination of the Socialist Party to oppose Sarkozy in 2012. DSK is widely thought to be a man of some brilliance in the financial/economic realm, as well as in the political realm.  Despite having to apologize to the IMF quite early in his tenure for an affair he had with a subordinate Hungarian economist, he is regarded as having rescued the IMF from irrelevance and obscurity by orchestrating the bailout of the European banks and the Greek government.

DSK is married to a glamorous former telejournalist, Anne Sinclair, who was one of the most famous media figures in France in the 80’s and 90’s, a Barbara Walters-like figure, but with more substance.  They live together in a Georgetown townhouse.  Sinclair was born of French parents with the name Schwartz and is the granddaughter of the very successful artdealer Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso and Matisse, among others.  Sinclair was born in New York, her parents had fled Europe, but went to high school and university in France.  It is thought that DSK might have been able to introduce economic policies that would bring France out of the economic doldrums.  It was this hope, possibly widely shared among the French professional class, which wants only results and cares little about ideology, that made him the frontrunner for the Socialist nomination.

He is a charismatic figure with certain liabilities known best to himself (he rehearsed them recently to a journalist in a published interview):  his Jewishness, his womanizing, his money, much of which comes from his third wife, Sinclair.  DSK reminds me of Helmut Schmidt somewhat.  There was no note whatever in the telecast I saw of complaint about American prudery or about draconian American laws concerning sexual assault or rape.  French journalists are trying not to prejudge the case, and there is no sense that the Americans have somehow overstepped any bounds.  There were prior allegations of abuse in France, one from a 22-year-old novelist, another from a Socialist politician.

Prickly Expat Egghead Buys a Kindle E-reader

Readers of my blog may be interested to hear reports of my experiences with the Kindle e-reader.  I purchased the device yesterday.  The one I purchased was the “Wi-fi” model, on the grounds that I would not often need or want to download content while in transit.

Generally speaking, there has been one overwhelmingly pleasant surprise and some minor disappointments.  The overwhelmingly pleasant surprise has to do with the amount of free content available for the Kindle through http://openlibrary.org/subjects/accessible_book

Here are some titles that I have downloaded at no charge in my first day of Kindle ownership:

Austen, Jane:  Pride and Prejudice

Eliot, George:  Middlemarch

Gibbon, Edward:  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 4

James, William:  The Varieties of Religious Experience

Knight, Frank H.:  Risk, Uncertainty and Profit

Proust, Marcel:  Du côté de chez Swann

Swift, Jonathan:  Gulliver’s Travels

Whitehead, Alfred North:  The Concept of Nature

It appears that many titles are available for Kindle download but are, in practice, barely legible.  Examples are the “Essais” of Montaigne in French and Durkheim’s “Les règles de la méthode sociologique.”  These downloads produced too many illegible characters.  Both works are probably available in English translation Kindle editions that are legible.  It does not appear that the Kindle supports reading texts in Greek.  The quality of the open-source Kindle editions varies considerably, and many of the scans contain heavy underlining.  Users are advised to view the prospective download in the online reader at openlibrary.org prior to download.  Some books, e.g. James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience,” are available in several Kindle-formatted editions, and it looked to me as though the 6th impression of the Longmans edition provided the most readable print combined with relatively little markup of the text.

I originally purchased the Kindle primarily in order to be able to purchase trade books at reduced prices.  The first book of this sort I purchased was “Freefall” by Joseph Stiglitz.  It appears to me that, if I am at home, I would normally prefer to read a book formatted for Kindle on my PC – the Kindle device itself is mainly for being in transit or perhaps for reading in bed.  (I believe that Nicholson Baker reported being very pleased with the Kindle for that purpose.)  But I suspect that I will also be repairing from the computer at a desk to a more comfortable sofa and using the Kindle there.

The true Kindle devoté might want to wear the device around his neck, in order not to lose it.

In practice, it appears that one can accumulate a large and exceedingly rich library of works that are out of copyright on the Kindle.  It may be too much to hope that Amazon would support the reading of Greek, Russian, Hebrew, etc. in future versions of the device.  It would be nice to think that millions of readers will be availing themselves of the opportunity to read classic works on their Kindles.

In future posts, I may report on the ergonomic and technical features and flaws of the Kindle.  My initial reaction is that this is a wonderful waystation along the road of the digitalization of human culture.

Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”

I have often said to friends and acquaintances that I think Martin  Scorsese is a hugely overrated director.  “Goodfellas,” which I recently watched for the second or third time, chronicles the history of people so repulsive that one hardly knows where to begin.  Scorsese has given the phrase “banality of evil” new meaning, and he has done so repeatedly in his movies.  Looking at gangsters objectively, or from a distance, fails to make them attractive subjects.  But Scorsese’s entire approach to the phenomenon of the Italo-American gangster is to attempt to endow his gangsters with the charm of the quotidian.  Yes, gangsters like to eat and cook and have sex.  Still, where they belong is in jail or in a cemetery and away from human view.  The antiheroes of “Goodfellas” are despicable, stunted creatures.  Watching a movie like this becomes an exercise in self-loathing.

I cannot improve upon what A.O. Scott had to say about “Shutter Island” in his “New York Times” review:  “But in this case the equivocation, the uncertainty, seems to come from the filmmaker himself, who seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern. He has, in the past, used characters whose grasp of reality was shaky — or who stubbornly lived in realities of their own making — as vehicles for psychological exploration and even social criticism. But both Teddy’s mind and the world of Shutter Island are closed, airless systems, illuminated with flashes of virtuosity but with no particular heat, conviction or purpose.”

http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/movies/19shutter.html

While I was often gripped by the technique in this movie and by the claustrophobic atmosphere of pervading dread, I also felt terribly cheated in the end by the simultaneously overwrought and superficial nature of the screenplay.  I honestly do not understand how people of talent can commit themselves to this kind of childish manipulativeness.

I did catch a few minutes of “After Hours” on television recently also, and that is a well-made, funny movie, one I will watch with pleasure again in the future.  And I watched the entirety of “Raging Bull” again recently, widely regarded as Scorsese’s masterpiece.  Here again, the central character is mainly repulsive, and the fight scenes in this movie are not the masterpieces of realism they are sometimes represented as being.  In fact, they are highly stylized and unrealistic.  The fight scenes in “Hurricane” are considerably better, for example.

“The Last Temptation of Christ” awaits me.

Coincidence in a State of Mourning

My mother, who died on December 3, 2010, was living in a large condominium complex for seniors that also had assisted living services.  I asked the management if I could see what she had put in her storage locker in the basement.

There were two empty suitcases and a box filled with papers.  I would like to have one of the empty suitcases, it would come in handy.  One of the suitcases had a plastic label attached to it that said “Ruby Cohn,” with a San Francisco street address.  When I looked at the papers inside the box, there were several envelopes addressed to “Ruby Cohn” and some literary manuscripts.  I realized that the belongings in the locker assigned to my mother did not belong to my mother, but rather to Ruby Cohn.

I knew a Ruby Cohn in San Francisco.  I asked at the desk to see if this were the Ruby Cohn who had taught French and literature at San Francisco State College, where my father had also taught for a few years before he died in 1964, and it was.  I had a survey course in modern European drama from Ruby Cohn at SF State in the winter of 1967, what would normally have been my last semester at Lowell High, but I graduated early from Lowell and took three courses at SF State instead.  This was one of the best courses I ever had, certainly one of the best lecture courses I ever attended.  I have wonderful memories of Ruby Cohn, who was rumored to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett.  I cannot see or hear about a 20th century European play without thinking of Ruby Cohn.  I ran into her several years later.  She was on her way to the library at U.C. Santa Cruz and I was on my way back.  She was a visiting professor there, I think I remember telling her that I was then a graduate student in Classics at Berkeley, so I don’t know exactly what I was doing at Santa Cruz, where I did my undergraduate work.  But she remembered me well and wished me well, I had got an “A” in her upper division course, I was precocious.

I would very much like to own the suitcase that belonged to Ruby Cohn.  It somehow seems destined that I should own it, since it has been sitting around empty in a locker for 2.5 years.  It appears that Ruby Cohn died while at my mother’s complex just before my mother arrived there.  I had no idea that Cohn had ever been there before visiting the locker, nor do I know what sort of physical condition she had been in.  On the one hand, it is not terribly surprising that an older upper middle-class woman on her own who had lived in San Francisco for many years would live in this facility at the end of her life.  On the other hand, it is surprising that the things I discovered in what was supposed to be my mother’s locker turned out to belong not just to someone I knew, but to someone whose influence on my life was  greater than that of all but a few people.

Whether or not I get the suitcase, because I have asked to have it, I think I will interpret this incident as a sign that I am supposed to be writing imaginative works.  I think that is what Ruby Cohn would have wished for me in my later years of relative leisure.

Brief Eulogy

As already noted on my Facebook page, my mother, Barbara Scodel, died on December 3 at the age of 87.  Her health had been deteriorating seriously for about two years, and she had had three major strokes over the past six years or so.  She was a person of great generosity and joie de vivre who had a rich and varied life.

I am the eldest of four children, and my father died when I was 14.  My mother went back to work after my father’s death and saw all the children through college, something that would have been much more difficult to do in today’s harsher economic climes.  She was a woman on her own with four children, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and perhaps $10,000 equity in a house in 1964.  The University of California university system was almost free in those days.

My three younger siblings and I will all miss my mother.