Den Haag (the Netherlands) 18/11/12: Pretty high on Nicole’s Europe checklist was to go to a European flea market, so it was perhaps providence that on our first day in Den Haag we spotted a large banner outside the station, broadly proclaiming “VLOOIENMARKT” tomorrow.
It was out in the suburbs, which meant a bus-borne adventure, but before we knew it we were out in the wilderness, rubbing shoulders with the public at large and picking through tables overflowing with all manner of superfluous treasures.
Averting our eyes from the man at the entrance selling hard-core porn and possibly used marital aids, we made our way into the basketball stadium to pan for some nuggets of our own. The hits-to-shits ratio was about as low as any other swapmeet I’ve been to, just more European. Never-the-less, I still walked out with a Gameboy camera and Nicole scored some smurf figurines, a euro-poodle book and some antique postcards. Success.
We headed back into Den Haag to meet John, Marie and Zoe for a light feed then meandered back to their place via the shops for a home-cooked chickpea curry and chocolate self-saucing pudding a la Pete & Nicole, plus some competetively-priced exotic Dutch ales. Then, a baby photoshoot.
Bonus Zoe shots:
Den Haag (ND) 17-22/11/12: A chronologocally oblique post to cover some of our foody experiences around The Netherlands.
Erwbten (pea and sausage soup) from a Den Haag soup cafe. Just the thing for a cold, foggy saturday.
Hot chocolate and coffee from another nice little Den Haag cafe as we waited to meet John and Zoe. We could sit here and watch Zwarte Piet direct traffic in the street outside.
Chips with mayo, the dutch condiment of choice outside a Den Haag pub with Zoe, Marie and John on Sunday. Tastes better than you’d think.
Burger (patty sans bun) and chips (with mayo of course) at Efteling on Monday.
Kebabs in Leiden on Tuesday. Turkish food has possibly overtaken chips in a paper cone with mayo as the ubiquitous Dutch fast food of choice.
Entrée of paté and a raw meat dip (whose name I forget but all tasty) plus €2 supermarket glühwein at Kyl and Vikki’s in Leiden. The glühwein (warmed) was more delicious than the price-tag and point of origin might suggest.
Kyl prepared a traditional Dutch meal of sausage, potato, broccoli and onion mash plus bread. He has his game face on here. Apparently home cooking is not such a popular pass-time here, so we were told, making Kyl & Vikki anomolous in this respect.
Dim Sum, a la carte, Den Haag style. Actually pretty good, though no fried squid tentacles.
If I haven’t mentioned already – and I will surely raise this again – booze here is cheap. Wine from around €1, beer is cheaper than water and a good whiskey is maybe €20-30. I seem to recall seeing a Laphraoig Quarter Cask for around this price. That’s Christmas taken care of then, eh?
Den Haag (The Netherlands), 18/11/12: Our very excellent hosts in the Netherlands – the Hague / Den Haag more specifically – have been John, Marie and baby Zoe.
Straight off the boat at the Hook of Holland we hopped on the train bound for Den Haag and were greeted by John at the other end.
I last stayed with a pre-Zoe John and Marie about four years ago (in the same place) but over New Years Eve. It was a good time to be in the relative safety of a first-story apartment. Fireworks are legal on NYE here so every man, woman and child is armed with an Australia Day’s worth of crackers and rockets and turned loose in the streets. It crossed the line dividing celebratory and riotous, with head-level rockets being launched down streets and laneways and bonfires at every major junction. There was a memorable combination of these two ideas when some over-excited reveler dumped a box of rockets into a bonfire. That sure got the people dancing. However, the really scary people weren’t your garden-variety upbeat anarchists, rather the passive aggressive groups that would set fire to public property in back-streets then just stand around it quietly and watch. I didn’t get quite close enough to hear, but I imagined a lot of heavy breathing.
The whole city looked and sounded like a BBC special report from Gaza. The paper the next morning said that this year’s celebrations were far more under control since only about 80 cars got torched.
This time round we are a month-and-a-half early for the fireworks (though there are a few warning shots every evening) but we have been instead been lucky enough to experience another extremely Dutch tradition – Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.
As the story goes, Sinterklaas, the jolly fellow pictured with the snowy white beard and bishops hat, arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain in mid-November. Children line the streets and sing traditional Sinterklaas carols and sweets are distributed forthwith to the good kiddies.
On the other side of the coin, if you have been a bad child, you are instead spanked with his birch rob, stuffed into a sack and taken to Spain. In the olden days I guess a one-way trip to Spain might not have been so desirable, but as I was shivering in the Dutch mist, watching the parade pass by, all of a sudden sunny Spain doesn’t look so bad.
This is all good family fun but non-Dutch readers might have spotted the elephant in the room here: Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Yep, it’s a blackface act and also an inseparable and important part of Sinterklaas tradition. As we wandered through the town that afternoon, numerous bands of boot-polished up Zwarte Pieten were roaming the streets, entertaining the crowds, playing the fool and up to their usual mischief.
My favourite was the Black Peter with a walkie-talkie who was directing traffic – mainly car-loads of other Black Peters. It was like a particular episode of The Goodies.
He’s big business here – Zwarte Pieten are in all the shop windows and all the ads and product packaging. You can buy Zwarte Piet cards, chocolates and even make-up kits (in fact, Nicole did just that). There was a remixed version of “Gangnam Style” with the words “Zwarte Pieten Style”. There’s more boot polish applied to faces in this one day than in all of Hey Hey It’s Saturday and The Footy Show combined. It’s huge and it goes off.
This has been a regular tradition since before blackface started happening in earnest elsewhere in the world and well before it became offensive. If anyone suggests that the tradition is out of step with current sensibilities, they are shouted down in an outcry. There have been attempts to gild the issue by suggesting that Zwarte Piet is sooty from coming down a chimney, but then why the curly wigs and red lipstick?
For my part, when I spotted a young African-Dutch kid dressed as Zwarte Piet, complete with black make-up, I decided that it’s an unmovable tradition here and an bracingly European novelty for foreigners like us. A pretty good start to the tour of the continent.
I don’t think this photo does the beard justice – must be the soft lighting. Yeah, the chops are still clearly the dominant force but not the the extent implied in this pic. It’s not strokeable and I look probably 20% more thoughtful as a result, but I’m really hanging out for the full blown “highland philosopher” or “maritime war hero”.
The English Channel, 16-17/11/12: I didn’t quite know what to expect for this trip but the website said there would be casinos and discoteques. Not far wrong – for a 7 hour overnight trip there was a ludicrous amount of entertainment and lounge space.
It might have been nice to stay up all night, soaking up the opulence, but we must’ve spent ourselves in Harwich, plus our old chum jet-lag was still hanging around like an unwanted party guest so we pretty quickly retired to our cabin.
Apart from comfy beds, my other favourite feature in the cabin was the Doggy TV channel, which played a live feed from the on-board kennels, like Big Brother for woof-woofs. Unfortunately, there were few if any of our canine friends on board that night so it was only marginally more interesting than regular Big Brother.
England, 16/11/12: The best thing about Harwich was leaving Harwich. Stop saying Harwich.
We said our farewells to our Warwick hosts Val & David and set forth on British Rail to the coast where, that evening, an overnight ferry would romance us across the Channel.
We stopped in London for just long enough to make me think we could get from Liverpool St Station to the London Bridge and back without missing our connection. Almost true – with our suitcases rumbling behind us we got to within a few hundred metres before retreating back to the station. Close enough.
Eventually we arrived in Harwich. Harwich is where boats to the Netherlands go from. Since we were starting the day in Warwick with three train trips in between, I booked our tickets to get us there in embarrassingly good time – four hours prior to departure. The terminal is suggestively called “Harwich International” – surely a bustling and cosmopolitan port and therefore an easy place to kill a few hours, right?
We were instead greeted at 4:30pm by darkness, a think fog, some vacant carparks and shipping containers and two bored attendants in an otherwise abandoned terminal building. One attendant suggested we could kill some time at a local supermarket, 20 minutes down a dark road, just past a derelict service station on the left, so off we went. We tried to make the best of things.
In fact there were two supermarkets and a home & garden store on offer. We camped in a cafe section in one of them (dinner closed at 7 though) and whiled away the hours until, inevitably, we headed back on the same long, cold, dark road. This time, however, there was the very real prospect of a ferry ride at the end.
Warwick (England), 15/11/12: Today we were touristing to Coventry.
Over the years, Coventry’s gone through its fair share of holy buildings. Early on they had a nunnery, but that got sacked by the post-Viking Danish King Canute. Next, Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his nude, equestrian wife Godiva planted a monastary, later converted to a priory and cathedral. This lasted a few hundred years before King Henry VIII got into his famous disagreement with the Pope over his desire to re-marry and had it taken apart brick by brick.
Some decades later they gave the cathedral idea another go on the same site, this time with the new Church of England branding. They got about 500 good years out of it before World War II broke out and, as a result of being next door to Coventry’s weapon factories, it became an unfortunate victim to German fire bombing. Its ruins remain and provided direction and form to the current cathedral, designed in the 60’s by Basil Spence.
We took in a tour of the new cathedral. I was underwhelmed at first but to hear it all explained added a great deal to the experience. It initially appeared to me a bit of a hodge-podge of ideas and designs. I still think it is, but it all hangs together in a funny sort of way. In retrospect, I guess most grand old cathedrals and chapels I’ve seen are just as stylistically discombobulated but you just don’t always notice from so far away on the time axis.
We ran out of time to go to Stratford – next time, as they say. For good measure, the public contributions to the arts at the park-and-ride bus shelter (which I present here as Exhibit A) were mildly inspirational but short of divine.
Warwick (England), 14/11/12: The other thing that never ceases to amaze be besides the rich fertility of England is the old things and how accessible they are. Following our sit-down breakfast, we, along with our hosts, set out to explore some of Warwick’s more famous examples of the genre.
First stop was the Cathedral, just another workaday magnificent European, centuries old structure with dozens of dead Earls and clergyman from the middle ages buries beneath the foundations.
A big part of what I like about such relics is that they are still in active use and, while treasured, treated with a kind of callous affection. Another more specific thing I liked was this lectern:
I would love to do a gig from behind this thing.
As we were inspecting the chapel (which contained tombs of the early Earls of Warwick) a friendly guide told us a bit about the various tombs and some of the town’s history. She wasn’t overly precious about it though and, while obviously loving it all, would casually dismiss certain relics as a bit rubbish or incorrectly sculpted and at one point was giving the golden crown of the very late Ambrose Dudley a jolly good tug to make her point. Sweet.
She also mentioned that the current Earl of Warwick in fact lives (or recently lived) in Perth. True story, look it up.
Our guide had warned us that The famous Warwick Castle had been badly Disney-fied since it was purchased by Madame Toussauds and that it wasn’t worth the steep entry price. We were determined however and had 2-for-1 vouchers to justify our decision. Turns out she was right to a point – it had been camped up a fair but we weren’t too proud to get involved.
The castle and grounds are never-the-less magnificent though and the history fascinating at times. We were able to storm the parapets, which called for some epic posing.
Also gave me a reason to experiment with the panorama feature on my bat-phone.
Fun engineering fact: they were generating – and battery-storing! – electricity for the castle using a paddle/dynomo in the river next door as early as the 1890’s. The Earl of the time’s wife, Daisy, had an electric ferry she used to take around the waters.
Took the long and winding route through town and back to Val & David’s, then back out into the cold for a nice pub meal at a little place next to one of the canals in Warwick that form part of the English canal system.The thought of a canal barge holiday excites me a bit and I don’t care who knows. Maybe for the 20 year long service leave…
Warwick (UK), 13/11/12: Arriving at Heathrow airport on Tuesday morning, we were greeted by Nicole’s rellies, Val and David, who were to play host to us at their place in Warwick for the next few days.
Warwick’s about a 90 minute drive up the M4 from London. England’s cool, overcast weather suited me well. I never cease to be amazed by this country’s ability to grow things, though at this time of year there’s a good mix of greens and autumnal yellows, reds, oranges and browns. Very pretty.
Val and David kindly acted as cooks, chauffeurs and tour guides during our stay. Five star service. On our first afternoon we made a trip to the neighbouring town of Leamington, ostensibly for the shops but we also took in some of the local sites – the historic spring and public bath building being a stand out. The spring water was once said to have curative properties. It tastes very salty, as if having marinated generations of Englishmen in times gone by.
At 9:15, after a lovely home-cooked meal (mustard-marinated chicken with home-grown beans and a berry pie), I was falling asleep in my floral-print covered armchair and drooling on my chest, so we bid our hosts auf wiedersehen and headed upstairs to bed, where I slept fitfully until 4:30am. Stupid jet-lag.