Archive for February, 2007

Fairytales and Carnaval

Monday, February 19th, 2007

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, so tomorrow is … Fat Tuesday! And that means it’s Carnaval season in the southern (historically Catholic) part of the Netherlands. The flavor includes a generous slosh of Mardi Gras, a soupçon of Philadelphia’s Mummers, a dash of Austin’s Sixth Street on Hallowe’en, all mixed into a a Dutch base.

We actually missed the big local parade on Saturday, because there was a big work event. The company rented out the entire Efteling fairy tale theme park. It’s decorated for winter (lots of fake snow on trees and rooftops) and most of the wilder rides are closed this time of year, but we still had a good time. The Dutch employees were very impressed that the company had rented the park; it’s apparently an iconic childhood memory for a lot of them. It is aimed more at children but had enough to keep us entertained.

The most impressive ride was Villa Volta, the home of a accursed brigand. It’s You go in and sit on benches lining both sides of a room furnished like an 18th century drawing room. The benches move just enough to let you feel your weight on your back or to fall forward a little, but the rest of the room rotates around you, eventually to a full 360 degrees, so that it looks like you’re moving much more wildly than you actually are. There were some other good rides as well: a very large swinging ship, a rollercoaster in darkness, a “bobsled” ride. One of the most memorable rides was Carnaval World – not a wild ride, but not precisely gentle on the sensibilities, either. It was something like an extremely un-PC version of Disney’s Small World ride.

It was entertaining to spot the differences between the Efteling and US theme parks. The first one we noticed was in “PandaDroom” (Panda Dream), a 3-D movie sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation. The film in the intro area had several clips showing human activities followed by equivalent animal ones. While the bare-bottomed baby toddling in a field might have passed US censors, I’m pretty sure the closeup of a baby nursing wouldn’t have made it into a family attraction (which is funny, considering it’s nothing the youngest members of the audience haven’t seen recently). The next difference was when I visited a restroom: men with babies to change or small daughters to supervise take them into the women’s restroom. It makes sense; all of the stalls had doors that came down close to the ground and extended much too far up to see over, whereas the men’s restroom had lots of urinals (with nobody using them, probably thanks to the open main door that showed them off). There were several times when we were closed into a secondary waiting area (with a film showing, or something to set a mood) with no visible staff – in the US there would always be one. There were a lot fewer “pregnant women and people with heart conditions should avoid this ride” sort of signs; one ride, the dark rollercoaster I mentioned, could actually have used signs, because there were strobe lights in some areas, to help disorient people. Given that my only sibling spent his adolescence avoiding video arcades after flashing lights there triggered a couple of seizures, I tend to expect warnings for such things.

One thing that charmed me entirely: in the Efteling Museum, they had not only pictures and exhibits from the park’s history, but also fairy-tale artifacts, like Snow White’s apple, Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, and the pea that proved the princess who couldn’t sleep on it.

We were afraid that we’d missed the best of Carnaval because we were at Efteling all of Saturday. We’d already seen balloons decorating the Centrum area, a couple of small marching bands, and lot of people in costume Friday and Saturday night. As we came home from rowing Sunday, we heard a band playing up the street, so went to see. It turned out to be a small parade with a safari theme and several bands. This parade seemed to be for families and there were lots of adorable small children in explorer or animal costumes. The bands in this one were all kids too, middle-school or high-school aged (presumably this is how they grow all the adult bands we’ve heard playing at every holiday). One guy was pulling a sled, runners clonking on the cobbles, with a small gray hill on it labeled “Laatst pool ijs” (last polar ice). This parade was mostly just people in costume, no floats, and the signs and many of the costumes were clearly homemade. I think the big parade Saturday would have been glossier, but I like that there are enough parades that everyone can be in one if they want. Inexplicably, there was another band following the parade, adults in medieval-ish costumes. Possibly they were on their way to a different parade and had to follow this one to get there.

Nearly everyone we’ve seen in the Centrum, whether parading, at a bar, or just walking around, has been in costumes – many more than we saw watching Mardi Gras parades, or even promenading Sixth Street in Austin on Hallowe’en. We’ve seen cows (with udders!) and convicts, angels and fairies, powdered perruques and feather boas, along with plenty of people in nonrepresentational outfits of many colors.

There are quite a few bands walking around. I’ve enjoyed them all except for the drummers that woke us at midnight last night – one downside to living right in the Centrum. There was also a huge temporary building set up the market square last night, with a band playing. I don’t know what they were playing, but every else did, and sang along. In parades but even just while walking along, people often start bobbing to the music in something that’s almost but not quite a Mummers’ Strut: more rocking the head and hands side to side, less kicking out the feet. The bands are brass rather than string, and I haven’t heard “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” yet, but it’s been going through my head all day.

I suppose the big parades probably are as glossy as the ones we’ve seen in Philadelphia or New Orleans (though probably not as much as Pasadena!) but I like these more participatory celebrations, and I like that the celebration is everywhere, not herded into narrow parades. I think this is what Fat Tuesday and New Years’ Day might have been like decades ago, when they were still mostly about a bunch of people get drunk and dressing up funny. Also, like the Mummers, who take their name from a tradition that began with the Romans, there’s a resonance here that makes me think maybe this Carnaval celebration that happens when winter is growing old and spring is waiting to be born has roots older than the Christian holidays it’s tied to.

a Dutch spring poem

Friday, February 16th, 2007

This is all Grada’s fault. (Scroll down to see her comments on the previous entry.)

“Mei”, by Herman Gorter
(first verse only)
My translation
(with much help from a dictionary)
Een nieuwe lente en een nieuw geluid:
Ik wil dat dit lied klinkt als het gefluit,
Dat ik vaak hoorde voor een zomernacht,
In een oud stadje, langs de watergracht —
In huis was ‘t donker, maar de stille straat
Vergaarde schemer, aan de lucht blonk laat
Nog licht, er viel een gouden blanke schijn
Over de gevels van mijn raamkozijn.
Dan blies een jongen als een orgelpijp,
De klanken schudden in de lucht zoo rijp
Als jonge kersen, wen een lentewind
In ‘t boschje opgaat en zijn reis begint.
Hij dwaald’ over de bruggen, op den wal
Van ‘t water, langzaam gaande, overal
Als ‘n jonge vogel fluitend, onbewust
Van eigen blijheid om de avondrust.
En menig moe man, die zijn avondmaal
Nam, luisterde, als naar een oud verhaal,
Glimlachend, en een hand die ‘t venster sloot,
Talmde een pooze wijl de jongen floot.
A new spring and a new sound:
I want this song to be pure as the tune
I often heard in a summer’s evening
In an old village, along the canal.
Inside it was dark, but in the still street
Twilight gathered; from the shining sky
Golden light played over my window.
It was then a wandering boy piped his tune,
The sound shuddering in the mellow air
Like ripe cherries nodding, as a spring breeze
Rises up into the woods and begins its travels.
He wanders over the bridges, up the bank
By slow-flowing water, anywhere he wills.
As a young bird sings, unconscious
Of his own happiness in the evening stillness.
Many a tired man at his evening meal
Listens, as if to a beloved old tale
And smiles, taking his hand back from the latch
To listen longer, while the boy plays.
A more literal translation:
You can see how close the Dutch is to the English (I wouldn’t have dared translate poetry otherwise)though I have rearranged word order for clarity in a couple of places.

A new spring and a new sound:
I want that this song sounds like the whistling
That I often heard before a summernight
In an old small town, along the watercanal
In house ’twas dark, but the still street
Gathered twilight, on the sky shone late
Yet light, there fell a golden bright shine
Over the front of my windowframe
Then fluted a boy like an organipipe
The sound shakes in the air as ripe
As young cherries nodding while a spring breeze
In the small forest goes up and its travels begin
He wanders over the bridges, up pine bank,
Of the water, slowly going, everywhere
As a young bird flutes, unconscious
Of his own happiness in the evening rest.
And many a tired man, that his evening meal
Takes, listening, as if to an old story
Smiles, and a hand that the window latch
Tarries a while, while the boy plays.

Note: Since first posting this, I’ve made a few small changes in the translations, thanks to some helpful suggestions from Grada on the literal translation. This poem is from 1889, and I don’t really have any sense of how the language has changed, of the older uses of words or, really, of poetic usage in general. There were a couple of places where I misinterpreted which noun an adjective or verb applied to, and the word “als” can be if, when, or as, which makes translation a bit tricky (in fact, Dutch people speaking English make mistakes there all the time). I’ve also taken her suggestion to render “was ‘t” as ” ’twas”, which is literally accurate. (I had thought of it before, and decided it was too precious – but when I looked up the poem’s actual date, it seemed appropriate. ) I’ve changed only four lines in my freer translation, but I think it makes a little more sense now.

it might as well be…

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

I think spring has hit us. It’s been noticeably lighter as we drive to work in the mornings (the Netherlands is far enough north that for a couple of months, that period from 7:30 to 8 AM is still definitely night). The trees are getting that look that means winter starkness is over and buds are starting to grow. Yesterday I saw daffodil leaves along the side of one road, and tulip leaves along another (I don’t know if they’re permanently there or transplanted for seasonal color. And today when I walked to another building for a meeting, I didn’t even need the blazer I was wearing, let alone a coat.


Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Snow outside! Real snow, not like the flurry last time, with big fat flakes that drift upward or sideways as often as down, and the roofs already white.

Given the predicted temperatures, it will probably all be gone by this evening, but it’s still fun to watch. The world is winter-white and gray. The sky is opague, flecked with swirling flakes, and the clouds are low enough to be called fog, so that I can’t see beyond the snow-blanketed roofs of the nearby buildings. When I went to get a cup of hot chocolate, in tribute to the winter scene, the view was even better, because the windows on other sides look out over fields frosted with snow. I may have to go outside in the next few hours, before it all melts or turns to rain, just to scoop up a handful.

I keep reminding myself that Taiwan will be a fun adventure, and that at least it’s cooler than Houston was, but the shortness of our time here is making the experience of this climate precious to me, and the Dutch law that every office must have a window have given me the full glory of fall and of the few tastes of winter we’ve had this warm year. I’ll enjoy the greens of spring as they come back, and I know I’ll love all of the flowers in this country full of bulbs, but just now I’m in no hurry for winter to be gone.

Delft, and London next

Monday, February 5th, 2007

We haven’t gone anywhere much since the holiday cruise, but this weekend the weather was far too gorgeous to stay home, so we headed off on the highway. We had some trouble deciding whether to go to the Kinderdijk (which has a long line of windmills) or to Delft, but opted for the latter on the theory that the Kinderdijk is probably better as a side trip than an end in itself. We’d slept in and gotten a late start so had to pick and choose what to do in Delft.

The travel was made a little more difficult because we had a Netherlands map that showed us what highway to take to get to Delft, and we’d downloaded and printed a map of the city center but we were a bit lacking in drections from getting from the one to the other. However, there were some signs and we didn’t have too much trouble finding the Koninglijke Porcelayne Fles (Royal Porcelain Factory) which has been there since the 1600s. there they had exhibits of all the different types of pottery they’ve made and explanations of the different styles, some painters we could watch, and a walk through the factory. It wasn’t as intriguing as the Waterford Crystal factory tour, but still interesting. Reportedly the prices for real hand-painted Delftware are far cheaper in the factory showroom than in the stores in town, but it there were quite a few pieces well into three and even four digits in the showroom. They also had some lower-cost items made at a satellite factory with transfers instead of handpainting, so we got a few small bits and grabbed a copy of the catalog in hopes of ordering hand-painted tiles and building them into a house someday. There’s another Delft Blue factory on the other side of town, so if any of our guests want to go we can visit that one and the churches.

My favorite of our purchases was a large tile with a mouse painted on it – meant to be used as a mousepad.

After that, we headed for town, except that we crossed the wrong canal and went 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Once we got ourselves straightened out, we decided it was too late to visit either of the old churches in town (it’s one of those places where the “Nieuwe Kerk” was completed before 1500) and contented ourselves with a visit instead to the Legermuseum, which covers Dutch military history from Roman times through to recent UN missions. It was very well done; the gem of the museum is probably the huge collecting Dutch-made firearms from the “Golden Age” in the 17th century. I can’t imagine they actually worked all that well (no rifling yet, only muzzle-loading until the end of the period) but well enough to change the whole way wars were fought. These were beautiful, too: intricate inlay, all kinds of materials, some even with ivory stocks with faces carved into the butt. A lot of them were probably used more for show than for killing purposes. Maybe what we need now are beautifully-tooled cellphones for similar purposes?

We did have a bit of trouble finding our way back to the highway, but not too bad. (Though we think we may have driven on a bike path once. Oops.)

The other activity of the weekend was travel planning; we’ve now got airfare, hotel, and theater tickets (Patrick Stewart in The Tempest!) to spend my 40th birthday in London. (Ted’s was on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean sea.) We’re staying in the Bloomsbury area near the British Museum; the things I want to see are scattered enough that I think it’s more important to be near a Tube station than near any particular thing, and Bloomsbury is both fairly central and not overly expensive (by London standards). We’ve been to the British Museum before, though of course we’ll go again if time permits. My priorities this trip, besides the show, are to visit the new British Library, the V&A Museum, and the Greenwich Observatory. Also, maybe a meeting with online friends, if schedules match up.

I’ll probably be back there in May with my mother; she’ll need to see the Tower, since it’s her first visit, and the Crown Jewels, and probably the Changing of the Guard. Maybe the BM again, or the National Portrait Gallery, depending on what she wants to see.