Monday, September 05, 2005

September dispatches, 5: Elfring days

Rien, Sept. 6--

WE TRIED TO PUT politics and the news behind us and have fun and be sociable for three days, visiting the Dutch sector of our extended family, the Elfrings, who were host to our daughter Thérèse for a year nearly thirty years ago.

We've remained in touch ever since, and grown closer over the years. It's a wonderful family. Saturday and Sunday we were in den Haag, first with Tom and Judith, who spend a few weeks in our house five years ago. (Can it really be that long?)

Sunday we visited Joost and Tanja, who were in our house for a week in July. You don't spend time with Elfrings without bicycling, and Sunday we biked maybe eight or ten kilometers out into the country around den Haag.

Sunday night there was a party, where we met Judith's father, a fascinating man who has published significant books on cerebral neurology -- it was fun to defend Mozart against his champion Bach, and to explore ideas of scientific materialism and the irrational.

We then went up to Friesland to visit Kees and Irma, who have settled in a marvelous 18th-century house there, and who took us on a leisurely cruise through nearby canals.

I've posted a number of photos from the trip so far on Shutterfly: you can see them here


And I hope to have more things to say about all this in forthcoming dispatches.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

September dispatches, 4: some words on Katrina

UP THIS MORNING LATE, to log on to Tom's marvelous high speed connection wirelessly, and read the news, oh boy.

In Le Figaro two or three things quickly catch my eye. An account of Les Américains consternés par la fragilité de leur puissance, America in consternation at the fragility of her power.

Another account, L'administration Bush aurait ignoré les prédictions des experts, discusses the Bush administration's having ignored expert predictions of the New Orleans disaster.

Somewhere, I've already lost track of the URL, there was a fine round-up of the world press response to the crisis.

And in Corriere della Sera an editorial, Il mercato non ci salverà, suggests that optimism won't "correct" the market's disruption following this disaster, and a market recovery won't resolve the real crisis, because it extends far beyond the state of the dollar.

The financial fallout will be bad enough, as L'économie américaine déstabilisée points out. According to this article the grain market, for example, is collapsing, at least for the moment, because the barge traffic between wheat storage in the midwest and freighters in the Gulf of Mexico is interrupted.

And warehouses are affected. Do you drink coffee? According to Le Figaro, a quarter of the stock of coffee in the United States is rotting in a Procter & Gamble warehouse in New Orleans.

But this is only to discuss the economic fallout from Katrina. The real meaning of the disaster goes farther, much farther. I think the Katrina disaster will quickly prove to be much more influential on the course of social and political American history than was even 9/11. For one thing, it will be very hard indeed on the incumbent Administration. The President, poor man, is never terribly expressive of his emotions, and this was clearly not a moment to hide them. He was elected for two reasons: He's a the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, and he's the kind of guy you want to keep the steady course. What we needed in New Orleans was another kind of man, someone closer to Mister Rogers. No one has ever confused George W. Bush with Mister Rogers.

Second, the American penchant for gambling. We've been betting badly lately. In Iraq we bet on hidden WMDs, on quick military victory, on easy democratization of the Iraquis: we lost each bet in turn. And like so many compulsive gamblers when confronted by a loss we redoubled our investment, throwing good money — not to mention less replaceable capital in the form of friendships and credibility — after bad.

Similarly, we bet the levees wouldn't fail. Preventive maintenance is boring and expensive and frequently its payoff is a long time coming: we're an impatient nation. We bet the levees would hold, and we bet wrong.

Finally, worst of all it seems to me, a very ugly side of the American mentality has been revealed, the side that is callous, even contemptuous, of losers, of victims, of the poor and downtrodden. I know: it's axiomatic that Americans stick up for the little guy. But they stick up for him when he's still got some spunk: nobody loves you when you're down and out.

A few months ago a taxi-driver in Madrid asked me about the American health system. Is it true, he wanted to know, that there are many people without any medical coverage?

When I explained the situation he shook his head sadly. "A nation that doesn't provide for its poor is like a father who refuses to care for his children," he said — a phrase that's stuck in my mind ever since.

The citizens of New Orleans were told they must evacuate. Those with cars drove away. Others got out in rental cars, or other transportation.

But thousands were left for a number of reasons. They didn't have transportation. They didn't have money for transportation. They were too sick or frail or old to leave. They simply didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Or they were simply to skeptical of a government announcement to heed.

The whole world is looking at the faces and the bodies of these people, listening to their outcry. They are almost invariably poor. And like all the poor in our country they are for the most part sick, frail, old, children, and/or illiterate. They get their information from pictures, not the printed word. Their dietary advice comes from advertisements for sodas, potato chips, and fast-food restaurants. Their health advice is little beyond pharmaceutical advertisements.

America has turned her back on a large percentage of her children, and they have grown resentful. New Orleans is perhaps only the beginning of their outrage. It is an outrage that transcends race. It is an outrage that just might have a profound influence on the future of American politics. At least I hope so.

September dispatches 3: Botanicals

Giant lily, Botanical Garden
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
Amsterdam, Sept. 2 (and very early in the morning it is!)—

A leisurely morning waiting for breakfast, included in the price of this slightly louche hotel but not served until the ridiculous hour of nine a.m. — for reasons that became clear later in the day.

A motley group in the breakfast room — Lindsey and I quite the oldest; one couple looking to be in their forties or fifties but yearning for youth; the others in late twenties or thirties. Nearly all the men in casual cotton trousers and tee shirts, the latter often emblazoned with slogans. Nearly all the women either dressed in the latest slob manner, folds of skin emerging here and there, often pinned or clipped with oddly positioned jewelry; or in a retro flowerchild fashion, long gauzy skirts and translucent tops.

Tattoos more often than not.

Juice, coffee, corn flakes, three cheeses, four sausages, hardboiled egg, three kinds of bread, two kinds of roll.

And then a walk to the Botanical Garden, said to be the oldest in the world (though I find it hard to believe China didn’t plant one before 1680). It was a short walk, over the broad Amstel River, then northwest a few blocks, crossing two or three canals.

We walked round the Garden before entering it — by mistake, of course, not design — and stopped to watch a huge drawbridge lift, stopping cars and bikes and trams and pedestrians, to let a barge go by. This happens several times a day, but it always seems like an event; and I’m sure it contributes to the resigned equanimity of the Dutch.

The Garden is worth much more comment than I’ll give it here. It began as a collection of medicinal plants, carefully studied, propagated, and tended for scientific value. What a near-loss it was to human knowledge when synthetic medication was invented — late in the 19th century, one of the many helpful signboards told us.

There’s still a prominent section devoted to medicinals, and it was arresting to notice a cannabis plant, taller than I am — the first I’ve seen in the out-of-doors, I think, certainly the first of anything like that size.

There’sa prominent half-circle of beds, say half a hundred-foot circle divided into three wedges, each with a number of concentric beds. Here hundreds of plants are set out to demonstrate a new “molecular” classification system the botanists are erecting in place of the familiar old Linnaean system, taking DNA proximity, not the similarity of physical structures, as the basis of organization.

Along one side of the vast gardens there’s a series of beds tracing the evolution — pardon me, revelation— of plant life, from the time of the trilobites — they can’t quite get back to the primordial soup, apparently — through such landmarks as the carboniferous era down to fairly recent divergences into flowering plants, gymnosperms, cots and dicots, and so on.

Any of these could have occupied us an entire day, but we gave it only the morning, ending up with the two enormous greenhouses, each quite tall enough to house the tallest of palms, and big enough to make them seem not tall at all.

There are some old plants here. A fascinating huge-leafed Gunnera was planted in the 1880s and is thriving, and two southern hemisphere trees of some weird kind are three times that old.

There is also a very nice cafe, and there we took our cappuccino and the requisite appeltaart, Dutch Apple Pie to you, sweet and buttery and crunchy and flaky, its complex texture offering apples, raisins, currants, streusel, and flaky pastry, the whole thing a continually developing revelation of vanilla, apple, wheat, grape. What a celebration of botanicals!

Since I’m on a culinary note, let me tell you about dinner at Le Hollandais, around the corner from us along the Amstel. Ten years old, neither horribly expensive nor cheap, with an extremely interesting wine list and a fairly extensive menu —

But we chose the daily special: a salad of mizuma and mache and sauteed cantarels and slices of house-made Toulouse-style sausage; then braised goose with potatoes Dutchess (ah there, humor on the meu) and onions; then chocolate ice cream in a chocolate shell — to which we added a second dessert because it sounded so special: something between a Bavarian cream and a pudding, with almonds and spices, very Dutch, completely new to us.

With all this (well, not with the desserts) glasses of a fine red Pyrenees wine whose name I have here somewhere. Price, 32 Euros each, another twelve for the wine.

Our friend Kees suggested the place, and we found it with no help from our desk clerk, partly because the whole damn hotel lacks a phone book of any kind, partly because she was busy helping another guest find the best hash and weed in town. And then I realized this hotel, and indeed a good many in its economic class, caters to soft-drug tourists, and that indeed that is a significant part of the Amsterdam tourist industry.

Certain parts of town look like the Haight Ashbury of the 1970s, in quite a studied manner. The only difference, really, is that there’s nothing coy or play-hidden about it; it’s all quite open. You smell marijuana smoke often on the street, and I smell it occasionally in the hall outside our room, though it’s never penetrated into the room itself, which is thankfully clean and well ventilated.

Again this evening we watched a little CNN, sad and unbelieving at the events unwinding in New Orleans. I don’t have to tell you how it looks from here. Our friend Tom said the Dutch just don’t understand why the pumps, and the generators powering them, were housed below sea level in manycases.The Dutch learned better than that centuries ago.

Your country doesn’t like to pay taxes, he pointed out, and it’s been obvious for years that the infrastructure isn’t maintained, that people don’t spend money to guard against future disasters. It’s very sad.

But tomorrow we’ll drive with Petra up toward Hoorn and Enkhuizen, which we hardly know, to do a little research toward our walk; and then we’ll spend the night, and Saturday night too, in Voorburg, on the edge of The Hague, among our extended but very close Dutch family. And we will be counting our blessings, and grateful for them!

September dispatches 2: Parliamo italiano

Elms near Leidseplein
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
Amsterdam, September 1

A long rest and a short wrestle with technology in our little hotel room, and we were ready for a walk and maybe some dinner. I recalled a pleasant
place we'd found last time we were here, een eind, as the Dutch say — an
unspecified but not terribly great distance — down the canal.

(Or would it be up? Somehow the half-ring of five concentric canals in this city seem to go neither up nor down, but sideways,because if you walk along
any of them long enough you'll find you've been led imperceptibly to have reversed your direction...)

That wonderful Amsterdam light! It's been a rainy summer, though yesterday was clear and bright, and the warm still air had brought out dozens of lazy boaters, relaxing in sculls and rowbaots, or lazing about on the decks and flat rooftops of their houseboats.

The surface of this particular canal, the Singelgracht, was dark in the late afternoon, dark green or sometimes almost brown but sparkling with those sudden flashing reflections of the sky in the vivacious wakes of the boats.

Above, the dark greens of the lacy leaves of the elms, whose black rough-textured trunks and surprising green foliage do so much to soften the
urbanity of this city.

And away from the Singel, as we walked narrow streets toward Leidseplein, the light raked in low and luminous against the brick facades, the
sparkling white enamels of woodwork, the impeccable glass windows. People were out sitting on stoops with a bottle of Pinot gris or a pitcher of
lemonade. These neighborhoods always remind me of the best of New York, the friendly blocks in Greenwich Village; perhaps there's still a touch of
Dutch in what was once Nieuw Amsterdam.

We happened on an Italian delicatessen and asked for a restaurant recommendation. Do you speak English, I asked the fellow who was sweeping
the doorway, Not really, he answered. His Dutch was heavily accented, too, so we tried Italian, which relaxed us both considerably.

I've only been in this country six months, he explained, so I haven't really learned Dutch yet.

The Casa del Gusto had good selections of dry
pasta, cans of Italian specialities, a promising case of sausages, hams, and cheeses. The woman behind that case said they'd been open only a month, specializing in small-farm products from Tuscany and Umbria.

They recommended an Italian restaurant, Biscia, in a nearby hotel — one of the best restaurants in Amstedam, they said. It turned out to be Bice: we'd been misled by their soft Tuscan dialect. Bice is a chain of upscale restaurants, with many outlets in Italy and elsewhere — white linen, good
crystal, upscale menu and wine list.

Parliamo italiano, I suggested to the waiter, let's speak Italian, my Dutch is pretty bad, and he happily agreed, and we had salads and pasta and a half bottle of Pinot grigio, the first of which was corked.

I recalled a previous evening in Amsterdam when we were offered two consecutive corked bottles. Maybe it's particularly a problem in this climate: whatever the reason, you want to be on guard. In any case the replacement came quickly and good-naturedly.

Back home we watched the news. Distant disaster always has a surreal component, and yesterday's news was no exception. A thousand pilgrims dead
of their own fear and religious fervor. Another thousand or more, no doubt, drowned in a city insufficiently guarded against a constant threat.

Holland had its own tragedy fifty years ago when a freak North Sea storm breached sea-wall dikes and drowned, as I recall, well over a hundred thousand.
There's much sympathy here for the victims of Katrina, but some concern, I feel, as to whether Americans give sufficient attention to preparedness.

In the meantime we try to justify having a good time. Quando si mangia bene la vita ha un altro sapore, the card from Casa del Gusto advises us: When you eat well life has another savor. We try to keep that in mind.

Today the weather is cooler: perhap we won't need thunderstorms to break yesterday's still heat. We'll loaf our way through the day, maybe with some
familiar Rembrandts, maybe with some familiar pancakes. I'll let you know how it turns out.