Category Archives: Human Experience

Motherlode

motherlodeSeventy-four years ago today, Holland witnessed the outbreak of World War II. I posted about this topic before, in a Letter From my Grandparents to my Mother. That post was spotted by Carolyne van der Meer from Canada, who was in the middle of writing a book about the Dutch experience during that dark period. She asked my permission to use my post – or rather my grandparents’ letter – as a source for her book – a request I could hardly refuse.

Carolyne’s book was published in January of this year under the title Motherlode, is well worth a read, and available on Amazon. I’m proud to quote the poem that was inspired by my grandparents’ letter:

 

Today, margarine fell from Allied airplanes.
Last week, we got
one hundred grams of oil and two kilograms of barley flakes
from the Janssens,
a tin of milk
from the Vissers, and
half a loaf of dark bread
from the Altenas.
Just last night,
Marinus brought
two kilograms of barley
and Cas another
kilogram of oatmeal.
Bitter when we mix it
but we get a good-sized pancake.
With the borrowed milk,
we got to have a nice cup
of coffee substitute
last Sunday.

There’s been an outbreak
of typhus,
some suffer from
hunger edema.
But us,
we are managing.

Motherlode, page 90.
Carolyne van der Meer.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press. © 2014.
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

And then there’s coffee

Drink Coffee

It's True.

Earlier this week, Patina Vaz Dias posted a picture of one of those mock vintage advertising signs on her Facebook page: “Drink Coffee — Do Stupid Things Faster with More Energy.” I was sipping my own early morning coffee when I read that, and said to myself “En dan is er koffie”, which roughly translates into the title of this blog post.

That phrase is an advertising slogan from the 1970s, praising the qualities of Douwe Egberts coffee, which has become ingrained in the Dutch vernacular forever more. The campaign was playing on emotional values and bringing people together, similar to the Irish “Golden Moments” adverts for Barry’s Tea.

Douwe Egberts TV Commercial, August 1982.

The comparison between those two advertising campaigns immediately highlights an important cultural difference between Ireland and Holland: tea versus coffee. When we talk about a “nice cuppa” in Ireland, this will always refer to tea, whereas the Dutch term “lekker bakkie” is reserved exclusively for coffee — and even immortalised in song by Rita Corita.

Of course the Dutch also drink tea, but as far as the Irish (or indeed, the Brits) are concerned — they haven’t a clue. Extremely weak and without milk, often polluted with strange fruit flavours, what passes for tea in Holland is an affront to tastes everywhere to the west of the North Sea. However, when I first set foot on Irish soil in 1984, the Irish interpretation of coffee was probably even worse by comparison.

Upon ordering a cup of coffee in an Irish establishment, you were presented with a mug in which half a teaspoon of that sawdust that comes in a red Maxwell House jar had been dissolved, weak enough to resemble Dutch tea. On that first Irish visit, my friends and I quickly got into the habit of ordering coffee by asking for the jar of instant and making our own, in order to at least obtain some caffein even if flavour remained elusive. Only once did we come across something drinkable — the little restaurant at the Cliffs of Moher served Rombouts Coffee, albeit those little plastic one-cup filters. It was heaven.

All of that has changed since the arrival of the Celtic Tiger, and even though that creature has now been assigned to history, it is no longer possible to order just a cup of coffee — Maxwell House or otherwise. Instead, we must specify a Latte, Cappucino or Macchiato, Espresso or Americano, Tall, Medium or Grande, the list is endless. Chains of specialist coffee shops have spread across the nation and it appears as if Ireland is trying to make up for a centuries old caffein-free tradition.

Before someone comes along to point out that tea actually contains more caffein than coffee, let me make it clear that I’m not interested in that or any other aspect of tea. I never drink the stuff. For as long as I can remember I’ve been drinking coffee, and I only recall drinking tea when I was still living with my mother, always in the afternoon. Coffee was the morning and evening beverage.

Comicbook hero Asterix the Gaul is invited by his British cousin to help fight the Romans. Since tea has not yet been introduced into pre-Christian Britain (until Asterix accidentally creates the first pot of tea at the end of the story), the British tribesmen and -women are depicted drinking cups of hot water at every opportunity. I guess that image stuck in my mind: tea is no more than coloured hot water.

Just a spot of milk, please.

My sister is the complete opposite of me — she only drinks tea. Some time ago I stayed with her and discovered that the only coffee available in her kitchen was of the decaffeinated variety. At least it was proper ground coffee and tasted good enough. After this morning cup of decaf, I went for a walk to try and clear an annoying headache. I came by a little coffee shop, was tempted, and slipped inside for another coffee. This time, it was real coffee — and within seconds, my headache vanished. I must have been suffering caffein withdrawal symptoms. In any case, it is my firm belief that decaf coffee falls into the same category as low fat milk, herbal cigarettes and alcohol free beer: Pointless.

The Maritime Museum in Amsterdam taught me a lesson about drinking too much coffee, back in 1983 when the Dutch State put me to work there as a conscientious objector (I foresee another blog post). On a typical day, we started “work” at 9 in the morning by congregating in the canteen for our second dose of coffee — we would already have had some with our breakfast. At 9:30 my boss and I would brew some more coffee in our office and go through that before 11. At that stage it was time for our coffee break and we’d return to the canteen for a well deserved caffein fix. One day we had a bit of a slack day and upon returning to the office we made another pot of coffee. By lunchtime my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my pupils had swallowed my irises. I was awake. Since that day, I limit my caffein intake somewhat.

Taken from the BBC’s “Walk on the Wild Side” series

For many years, I considered the ultimate breakfast to be a cup of coffee and a cigarette — freshly brewed and hand rolled respectively, of course. It is probably no coincidence that two of the largest purveyors of coffee in Holland — Douwe Egberts and Van Nelle — had an equivalently large share of the tobacco market. Although I became a non-practising smoker more than three years ago, I still miss this perfect way to start the day. At least I still have my coffee, without which life would become truly meaningless.

En dan is er koffie.

Grave Spotting

Glendalough

Read in Peace - Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.

I’m sure that most of us have spent time looking at monuments in a graveyard or church at one time or another. On holidays or at a funeral, reading the inscriptions on headstones, we may secretly (when at a funeral) or loudly (when on holidays) try to spot the oldest or youngest deceased or simply the oldest grave in the plot.

Living in Ireland, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to visiting old and fascinating burial places, ranging from the ancient passage tombs such as Newgrange in county Meath, to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin with the final resting places of many Irish heroes. Both are in fact tourist attractions, complete with guided tours.

It comes as a shock to my Irish friends when I tell them that a final resting place in my native Holland may not be all that final after all. I would have a hard time trying to find the graves of some of my relatives, for example, even if I know where they were buried. This is because cemeteries in Holland’s urban areas have long run out of space. Just as most Dutch people rent their home during their lifetime, their final resting place is also — rented.

Around the city of Rotterdam, the average rental period for a grave is 25 years. I imagine that means that if you’re in your seventies and decide to pick that nice spot under the big tree, you’d better keep in mind that if you live for another 10 or maybe even 20 years, you’ll have precious little time left in your “final” resting place. When the rental period ends, surviving relatives are notified and asked if they wish to renew the lease — it seems that in most cases, they let it go.

If you had planned to spend your sunset days in Holland and this has turned you off, then you’ll be glad to know that you can always buy a grave, in which case your mortal coil does get the eternal rest you had in mind. Also, most cemeteries in rural parts of the Netherlands do not have the same space problems as their urban counterparts.

One wonders what happens to those graves that are cleared when their lease is up. Of course the official guidelines tell us about the sensitivity surrounding exhumation, and how the remains are placed in smaller boxes and interred in a communal vault — the practise will vary between cemeteries. It appears that these practises have not always been so sensitive, however.

When I spent a weekend with one of my friends in secondary school, he took me to the grounds of a church in a nearby village. At the time, we were going through a teenage Gothic Horror phase, reading Edgar Allan Poe and the like. The church grounds were of interest because part of the old graveyard had recently been cleared, and the freshly dug soil had been distributed around the walls of the church, presumably to provide bedding for plants. To my amazement, the white bits that could be seen scattered among the lumps of soil turned out to be — bones. Teeth, vertebrae, bits of ribs and skull… they were definitely human. Weirdos that we were, a few samples ended up in our pockets.

Unpleasant scenes in Howth

Of course the force of nature will sometimes compromise a final resting place, even in Ireland — where the thought of renting a grave is almost as abhorrent as renting one’s home. The torrential rain of last October washed away part of the graveyard at St. Mary’s Abbey in Howth, exposing some of the coffins. Pictures that appeared via Twitter and Facebook have since been removed from the more established news sites, probably because it emerged that the affected graves were quite recent.

Mud slides and rental graves notwithstanding, most burial places are of a more permanent nature, thankfully. My morbid teenage fascination with such places appears to have stayed with me, and over the years I have roamed among the permanent addresses of the faithful and not-so-faithful departed in various locations.

Père Lachaise in Paris was one of my first encounters with a different approach to honouring the dead than what I was used to. This incredible necropolis is home to the remains of countless famous people, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Victor Hugo and Chopin among them. Recently the cemetery featured on the Irish news when the tomb of Oscar Wilde was restored, having become the victim of thousands of kisses.

A completely different experience awaited me when I visited the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg — once again). Around half a million victims of the Nazi siege of the city lay buried in enormous mass graves, marked only with a stone with the year on it. Tschaykovsky’s “Pathétique” sounded from dozens of speakers around the cemetery, adding to the gloom.

Much more colourful was the town cemetery in Comares in Andalusia, Spain. Perched on top of a massive rock, the location does not lend itself to the traditional method of placing the deceased six foot under. Instead, they are stacked up to more than six foot above the ground in drawer-like tombs, with neighbours on all sides. One gets the feeling of navigating the cemetery like supermarket aisles.

17th century graves in Malakka

Apart from the quirky architecture, the historic ties between Holland and Malakka in Malaysia become apparent when visiting the ancient graveyard beside St. Paul’s Church in the centre of the old town. Dozens of weathered headstones bear testimony to the adventurous souls who sought to start a new life in a new world, at a time when such an undertaking was far more dramatic — and permanent — than we can imagine. Dating back to the 17th century, the most elaborate and best preserved monuments adorn the graves of merchants and their families, whereas ordinary citizens have to make do with more clumsily carved markers of lesser quality. Plus ça change.

Back in Ireland, one of the more bizarre burial spots can be found near the village of Glencree in the Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin. Nestled in the shade of a steep rock we find the picturesque German War Cemetery. That’s strange, because the last time we checked our history books there was no mention of a war involving German troops on Irish soil. It turns out that most graves are from the time of “the Emergency”, among them those of Luftwaffe personnel on one of their raids who somehow managed to miss England (where they refer to this era as World War II). The plot thickens when we spot a grave from 1947, when even outside Ireland the War was over. This grave belongs to Dr. Hermann Görtz, a German spy based in Ireland who committed suicide when the Allies were hot on his trail. De mortuis non est disputandum, or something like that.

Ids Haagsma, Ereveld Loenen

I’ll finish by referring back to my first blog post. My uncle Ids Haagsma was executed by the Nazis in November 1944; his body was found after the war, in a mass grave on the Waalsdorpervlakte near the Hague. He was re-interred, with full military honours, at the Zuiderbegraafplaats in Rotterdam, and later at the Ereveld (Field of Honour) in Loenen — the final resting place of some 4,000 casualties of various wars.

May they rest in peace.

Christmas Odyssey

Arctic conditions at Dublin Airport

This time last year, our part of Europe was in the icy grip of winter, and many Irish living abroad were struggling to make it home in time for Christmas. Ironically, I found myself “at home” in Holland for my mother’s birthday, and then tried to get back home to Dublin in time for Christmas. Things did not quite turn out as expected, and it took me more than 3 days of travelling through snow-covered airports and iced-over railway stations to get back in time for Santa’s visit to my real home in Goatstown.

This was the very first time I came to appreciate the power of “social media”, keeping in touch with friends and family throughout my journey via SMS, Email, Twitter and Facebook. This blogpost attempts to put all of the messages that I sent during those 80 hours – and some of the ones I received – in chronological order.

I was lucky enough to make it home in time to help Santa with his deliveries. To all of you who missed out on following me on Facebook and Twitter during those days, and of course to all of you who did, I wish you all a merry Christmas and a very happy New Year.

Email, November 26, 2010
ITINERARY/RECEIPT – All times are local.
From Eindhoven (EIN) to Dublin (DUB)
Mon, 20Dec10 Flight FR1965 Depart EIN at 18:25 and arrive DUB at 19:05
PASSENGERS
1. MR PIER KUIPERS ADT

The Start

I take the 13:00 train from Amsterdam to Eindhoven to begin my journey back home to Dublin.

SMS, December 20, 2010 at 17:28
Flight delayed. Supposed to leave now but not sure has it even landed here yet…

SMS, December 20, 2010 at 17:30
There’s about an inch of snow here but not snowing now. No plane either, though…

6 hours

SMS, 20 December 18:57
URGENT-Your Ryanair flight has been cancelled – please visit www.ryanair.com for free rebooking/refund

SMS, December 20, 2010 at 19:51
Amsterdam Dublin €300 with Aer Lingus. No Ryanair until friday at the earliest

SMS, December 20, 2010 at 20:15
Aer Lingus Booking Ref:28VPT2
EI0607 21DEC AMS-DUB
dep 15:10 arr 15:50.

SMS, December 20, 2010 at 21:40
Still on train travelling at snail’s pace. Jobien picking me up from station. Still snowing there?

12 hours

Twitter, December 21, 2010 at 0:07
OK, so I’m back in Amsterdam, having spent 6 hours in Eindhoven waiting for a Ryanair flight. Dublin Airport closed. Yikes.

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 8:48
Got stuck in Holland due to weather, trying to get home on 3pm flight.

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 9:41
Looks like dublin is in chaos. Praying that airport stays open

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 12:37
On my way to airport, but just heard that “We have had to suspend operations until 17.00 due to a recent heavy snowfall.” fucking great.

Twitter, December 21, 2010 at 13:17
On my way to Schiphol, second attempt at going home. Wish me luck.

24 hours

Twitter, December 21, 2010 at 13:36
Just in from Dublin Airport: “We have had to suspend operations until 17.00 due to a recent heavy snowfall.”
Great.

Andrew Watchorn
Does that mean that you’re just in from Dublin Airport or just in from Dublin airport – as in news. Former = Congratulations. Later = Commiserations!

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 16:39
Hell on earth. Queue at rebooking desk 3 miles long.

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 16:45
If you’re online, would you mind checking if ferries from holyhead are sailing?

Caoilte Guiry
Holyhead to Dublin:0040-0630, 0130-0630 or 1310-1810 (at £41) on 22nd according to national express. I’ll check bus routes too as its quite busy apparently

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 17:25
Stena offices closed, am on the train. Packed to capacity, people standing. What a madhouse

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 17:27
Everything booked out until Friday, including Cork. Thousands stranded. Trains chaos. Making my way to ferry to England, is only hope to get home before Christmas. Not joking.

30 hours

Twitter, December 21, 2010 at 18:48
Flight cancelled, nothing available until Friday. Making my way to Hook of Holland to try and catch a ferry to England.

England here I come

Facebook, December 21, 2010 at 20:30
Fuck Dublin Airport

SMS, December 21, 2010 at 21:55
Status update: Just pulled away from the quay, ferry from Hook of Holland – Harwich. Arriving tomorrow 7am, then train to London, onward to Holyhead. Across the Irish Sea, and home for Christmas:-)

Twitter, December 21, 2010 at 22:40
And the band played “Dreaming of a White Christmas” When the ship pulled away from the quay…

Henk Kuipers 
It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
etc. etc.

Twitter, December 21, 2010 at 22:47
OK guys, this is it. On the North Sea en route to Dublin, with just that pesky bit of land inbetween. Wondering when I’ll lose my network.

42 hours

Foursquare, December 22, 2010 at 7:43
Harwich International Station
So far, so good

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 8:56
Home sounds like a good place to be! Just arrived in London, gonna check flights. Will keep u posted

Foursquare, December 22, 2010 at 10:07
Liverpool Street Platform 6
Getting tube to Euston station…

Mark Palmer 
You seem to be running to your new schedule OK. Good luck with the rest of your journey.

Chaos at Euston Station

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 10:21
In London Euston waiting for delayed train to Chester. No flights available until Saturday. Not sure if I’ll make Holyhead in time for tonight’s ferry…

Foursquare, December 22, 2010 at 10:41
London Euston Station (EUS)
See if Virgin can get me a ticket all the way to Dublin

Facebook, December 22, 2010 at 11:14
Train to Chester delayed. Massive crowd here, but maybe it’s always like this :-/

Twitter, December 22, 2010 at 11:28
Chester train cancelled. Fuck.

Sinead Lawlor
Don’t lose hope!!

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 11:41
Train to Chester cancelled. Now on the train to Crewe.

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 11:42
It’s unlikely that I’ll make the 5:15 ferry. There is one at midnight, it appears. Still need to get from Crewe to Chester to Holyhead first, though…

Twitter, December 22, 2010 at 12:07
OK, on train to Crewe, it’s a start. Seat with table, power supply and free wifi – no excuse, better do some work :-(

Twitter, December 22, 2010 at 12:15
Right, so the wifi is useless. View from window nothing but SNOW. Read my book?

48 hours

Snowy landscapes near Birmingham

Twitter, December 22, 2010 at 13:07
Picture postcards views of snowy English lanscapes near Birmingham somewhere

Foursquare, December 22, 2010 at 13:54
Crewe Railway Station (CRE)
On to Chester

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 15:03
Given up on ferry, Fully booked so no guarantee of getting across. Eoin got on alright, the bastard. Booked flight from BMX at 20:15

Facebook, December 22, 2010 at 15:57
Leaving Chester, heading back to Crewe. Stena not accepting any more passengers until Friday, so not heading to Holyhead but to Birmingham to catch a flight – hopefully…

Gerry McLoughlin
Jesus Pier, I hope you get sorted.

Tom Wiebe
I sense a book in the making…

Willie Van Velzen
ya poor git!

Email, December 22, 2010 at 14:30
Passenger(s): MR PIER KUIPERS
Flight: EI0277 – Wed 22 Dec 2010
Departs: Birmingham-Terminal 1 (BHX) 20:15
Arrives: Dublin-Terminal 1 (DUB) 21:15
Status: Y/Economy Class CONFIRMED
Airline: Aer Lingus

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 17:14
Made it to Birmingham Airport, flights looking good. fingers crossed.

Foursquare, December 22, 2010 at 17:44
Wetherspoon, Departure Lounge (BHX Airport)
FECK! DRINK!

53 hours

Facebook, December 22, 2010 at 17:53
Having travelled all this way over land, getting on a flight at this stage feels like cheating. But let’s not speak too soon – it may yet be cancelled…

Facebook, December 22, 2010 at 20:49
OK, flight’s delayed until 2300. Things are looking up for the anti-cheating squad.

Facebook, December 22, 2010 at 20:56
In Birmingham Airport sipping pint of ale. Flight delayed until 23:00. Aer Lingus gave me a €5 voucher – yay. I lost it – sigh.
Recent experience has taught me that delay is the first step to cancellation…

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 21:39
I am so goddamn bored and homesick. Entering day 4 of my attempts to get back. I’ll get the Aircoach to Stillorgan and a taxi from there no matter what the time, they go all night.

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 21:56
Latest news: flight delayed until midnight. I think I’ll have a pint, so.

SMS, December 22, 2010 at 22:16
Delayed, estimated 0001, gate opens 1 hr 5 mins. Believe it when i see it.

Now boarding...

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 0:35
“passengers please proseed [sic] to departure lounge by 2355.” Woah. I’d better drink up.

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 1:26
NOW BOARDING AT GATE 48. Oh yeah, baby.

SMS, December 23, 2010 at 00:27
I can SEE the plane, and people getting off it. They’re very slow, though…

61 hours

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 2:56
Guess what? My flight has been CANCELLED.
Aer Lingo are putting us all in the Hilton tonight, along with the crew who need their 12 hour beauty sleep now, rather than flying us back to Dublin first.
OK so. Whatever.

SMS, December 23, 2010 at 2:56
Latest travel news: flight from Birmingham CANCELLED at the last minute. Staff need their 12 hour beauty sleep. We’re told we’re flying tomorrow at 14:45. Yah right. All of us being transported to the Hilton now (at 2:45am)

Foursquare, December 23, 2010 at 3:56
Hilton International Birmingham
Ireland? Huh? Where’s that?

Dave Slater
Well, at least you’ll get to see what the outside of the National Exhibition Centre looks like – which I am sure has always been one of those boxes in life you wanted to tick.

Pier Kuipers
Heh. I ticked that box a few months ago when I was here for a meeting. Any other suggestions as to why being here might be a good thing?

Dave Slater
Pier, I was just trying to give you some encouragement.

69 hours

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 10:12
From Dublin Airport via Twitter: “We are temporarily suspending flight operations for about 30 minutes to allow the runway to be sprayed with de-icer.”

Ronan Doyle
i think dublin is closed until 1.30 :-0

Willie Van Velzen
snowing heavily in Leixlip at the moment

Ronan Doyle
Ever feel like that steve martin from Planes, Trains & Automobiles??

Mr Flight Delayed

SMS, December 23, 2010 at 10:55
Dublin Airport closed until 13:30 to clear snow

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 11:13
Latest News > 09.30: Flight Operations Suspended At Dublin Airport
Think Happy Thoughts.

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 12:43
The name is Delayed. Flight Delayed. And that’s Mr Delayed to you.

Andrew Watchorn – Classic!

Johan Sölve – Bummer.

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 13:45
Look! I got another boarding pass for my collection.

73 hours

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 14:09
Yesterday Dublin Airport was open, but we had no plane.
Today we have a plane and a crew, but no Airport. Two out of three ain’t bad?

Facebook, December 23, 2010 at 14:11
Dublin Airport Flight operations resumed at 13.00. Woot!

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 16:21
“ladies and gentlemen, can you please take your seats to enable a speedy departure so we won’t miss our slot”.
HURRY UP YOU MUPPETS!

77 hours

Arctic conditions at Dublin Airport

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 18:06
LANDED IN DUBLIN

SMS, December 23, 2010 at 18:07
Just landed after circling for 30 minutes. Nowhere for the plane to park, pilot describing “chaos & confusion”.

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 18:22
Chaos at Dublin Airport with planes fighting over spaces as if they’re in the car park at Tesco’s

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 18:45
Our plane’s captain needs a martialler to guide him to our parking spot. Can anyone help?

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 18:48
That should be “marshaller” of course. Anyone with a couple of torches and big earphones will do.

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 19:09
OK, plane’s parked. But now the air bridge is stuck, so we can’t get off. Oh, and it’s snowing again.

Twitter, December 23, 2010 at 19:42
And bingo: Dublin Airport closed.

SMS, December 23, 2010 at 18:53
Getting next available aircoach out of here

SMS, December 23, 2010 at 19:56
Sitting on bus but not going anywhere fast. It’s supposed to go to stillorgan shopping centre, trying to find out. Chaos here.

The Finish – 80 hours

I finally arrived home at sometime after 21:00 on the 23rd December. I shared a taxi with a fellow Christmas 2010 Veteran from the Burlington to somewhere in Goatstown where the taxi driver told us to get out, because he wasn’t driving any further through the snow drifts.

Twitter, December 25, 2010 at 1:25
Merry Christmas to all, and especially all of you who kept me company on Facebook and Twitter during my recent odyssey – thank you!


View Christmas Odyssey 2010 in a larger map

The Colours of the Alphabet

Hear the ColoursSome time ago, my older brother Mans was working as editor of a Dutch magazine for university graduates. He pointed out one of the articles he had been working on, which dealt with the somewhat obscure subject of “cross-sensory experiences” known as Synesthesia.

At first glance, synesthesia appears to fall into the same category as telepathy, clairvoyancy and what not. Let’s face it: people who can hear colours or taste numbers are the kind of thing we hear about on late night radio chat shows, purely for entertainment – but not to be taken seriously.

As it turns out, there’s far more to synesthesia that meets the eye – or the ear, for that matter. It was a popular topic of research in the late 1800s, but then again, so was the idea of creating life through electricity. Largely abandoned in the 20th century, synesthesia has only recently returned to the radar of scientific research, which is how the article in my brother’s magazine came about.

Everyone is familiar with metaphors such as “loud colours”, “colourful language” or “bitter cold”. Appropriate as these descriptions may appear, for some people this mixup – or maybe enhancement – of the senses is an actual reality. The most widely experienced and researched form of this phenomenon appears to be grapheme-colour synesthesia, where the person perceives letters or numbers as having different colours. This is also a form which can easily be tested independently – unlike, say, lexical-gustatory synesthesia, where one associates different tastes with different words.

Synesthesia Test

Synesthesia Test - as seen by a typical person (left) vs a synesthete’s perception (right)

The tests for grapheme-colour synesthesia are very similar to those for colour blindness. The person is shown an image made up randomly arranged different letters or numbers. Certain identical numbers however, have been arranged in a recognisable pattern – which can only be easily perceived by someone who is a synesthete. In the simplified example shown here, a synthesist may see the black and white pattern shown on the left as something like that shown on the right.

If you think that is strange or maybe even impossible, then consider the substantial proportion of the male population who, like myself, are partially or wholly colour blind. When we are presented with the familiar circular images that have a number or letter displayed by means of a differently coloured pattern, chances are that we simply see a bunch of dots, and nothing else – which is exactly what I see in the circle displayed here. Nothing. Somebody who does see the pattern that makes up the number 45 (apparently), is seeing something that does not exist, as far as I’m concerned. Only, in the case of us – the colour blind – we constitute a minority and  the people who can see the hidden pattern are not considered strange. To suggest that colour blindness has anything to do with intelligence (as the ad for wixawin.com below does) is of course a completely different matter – but I digress.

Like the colour blind, people who have synesthesia do no consider themselves to “suffer” from a condition. It does not interfere with the person’s ability to function and it appears that synesthetes are born “that way” and only find out over time that their experience of the world around them differs from that of other people.

Once you start considering synesthesia as a reality, it seems to be a part of many people’s lives to a much greater extent that one would have thought. Just think about all those people who cannot bear the sound of fingernails scraping over a blackboard, for example. Why on earth would a simple sound make somebody feel physically uncomfortable? Goose bumps at the sound of beautiful music, the power of smell to evoke memories… Maybe these more familiar “cross-sensory” experiences are pointers to the more dramatic synesthesia experienced by only some of us.

There’s quite an extensive article on WikiPedia on this subject – for those who want to know more about what the days of the week taste like or what the colour red sounds like.

Letter from my Grandparents to my Mother

Ids Haagsma GraveToday is Liberation Day in the Netherlands, when the Dutch celebrate the end of the occupation by Nazi Germany, 66 years ago. At the time, my mother was living and working in Waagenberg, in the southern part of the country, which had already been liberated by Polish troops in early November 1944. While she lived among the ruins of the orphanage which had been destroyed during the fighting and bombing raids, she was unable to make contact with her family, who lived just 50km away in Rotterdam – still in occupied territory.

After six months of being cut off from each other, my grandfather finally managed to get a letter across to my mother. A translated extract follows here. Note that my uncle Ids mentioned in this letter was executed by the Germans the day after his arrest.


Rotterdam, 10th May 1945

Dear Rins,

Just now mr. Numan told us that someone is going to Breda tomorrow and there may be an opportunity to get a letter over to Braband. Therefore we hurry to briefly tell you a few things in the hope and expectation that you will soon be in our midst. Presently a few things in telegram style.

8th Nov. Ids and I were picked up by the S.D. Ids was detained for possession of Trouw en Vrije Pers. I was allowed to go home. Since that day we have heard nothing whatsoever from Ids. We have absolutely no idea where he is.

10th November Jacob was taken away with the raid. Went to Osnabrück. 16th Feb saw him safely back home. They are doing really well, Annelien too.

10th Nov. Douwe managed to go into hiding. No work this winter, at the moment he is with de Waard, Groene Hilledijk, and now gets 10 Kg potatoes per week. 3rd/5th January I brought Meinte on a bicycle without tyres to Friesland. He is doing really well there at uncle Bouke’s. Last news from him was 4th April. Uncle Bouke has pleurisy, so does Piet Busink, he’s in the Zuiderziekenhuis. Jitske’s Sake from Weidum has passed away. Tine – Jantje have lost their little one after only a few days. Uncle Ate had an accident while cutting trees en aunt Treintje is expecting. We think later this month. Uncle Jan and Jacob were in hiding with uncle Inne and made clogs there.

In spite of the hunger we are doing well here. We are still healthy, but very weak the same as everyone. Today we received our first margarine from the aeroplanes. Mother had not had coffee with milk since November. Because I had been to Friesland and Beekbergen I had gotten milk and some fat.

This week the food supplies were critical. There is absolutely nothing left. Our canned reserves had been finished for 14 days. Still we continued to get help in wondrous ways. On Mother’s birthday Mrs. van de Feijst gave her 100 gr oil, 2 kg barley flakes, Mrs. Amoureus gave her 1 tin of milk, Mrs Kuipers half a loaf of bread. I managed to get 1.5 litres of milk from Mrs Verschoor across the road, so that we managed to have a nice cup of coffee substitute last Sunday.

Mrs de Leeuw gave Mother 1 pound of flour. Because Douwe was working at the greengrocer’s we managed to get something now and then. Also from his friends, who are with the merchant navy. They slept here this week. We didn’t have any bread, but that day they brought some kidney beans.

When you get home, we would love you to bring something home with you. It doesn’t really matter what. We lack everything, or rather we have nothing left. Douwe got 2 Kg. barley and last night Jacob brought home 1 kg oatmeal. That’s somewhat bitter, but when we mix it we can bake a good sized pancake with it.

But don’t overload yourself just because we have nothing. It might be best if you manage to pick up some food stuffs, to leave some behind in Wagenberg if you have to, because it’s quite a journey by bicycle. Soap, washing powder is something that especially Mother is looking forward to.

Henny Kuipers is still based in the Hague. But Monday she came home and now today she wasn’t allowed to return to the Hague. She’ll have to stay here for the moment.
Old Mr. Founon has died. A large number of people are suffering from hunger edema. There also appears to be an outbreak of typhus here, which is why the Zuiderziekenhuis is no longer taking in any patients.

There’s been a party since last Friday night. Sunday night during the thanksgiving services (2 at six thirty and eight) there was heavy fighting, between the underground en German marines and infantry against the Dutch S.S. Monday there was a party on the Dreef. This has been beautifully decorated. There was lots of singing. Mr de Greef’s piano had been placed at Aurora.

Even now it is busy everywhere. Monday and Tuesday the girls who were going out with Germans had their heads shaved. At the moment members of the NSB are rounded up and detained and are getting a treatment just like the Germans used to do. Van de Kraan from the Restaurant was ordered to eat sugar beet in public, from a nicely garnished dish served with grass.

At last we are now getting milk, margarine and biscuits and thus our nutrition is much improved, so that we are gaining strength.

Now that we are free again, a weight has been lifted from us. This year I once again have an allotment at de Enk. The civil servants give us vegetables once a week. Douwe is still with de Waard (Groene Hilledijk) and has 10Kg potatoes extra per week and perhaps this week he’ll go to van de Vorm, so he is also supplementing our food supplies.

You therefore do not need to worry about us and our immediate future. On Ids’ birthday we would love to be able to at least report that he is doing well, and for all of us to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary together here on June 26th next. Of course we don’t know if you are going to stay there, but if that were the case, we count on you being able to come home on that date if God provides the opportunity. Mother put the clothes together. I picked out something to read. I would have liked to include a good book for you, but there is almost nothing available in the shops. On my birthday all the books I got were second hand, which were much to my liking even if they didn’t look the best.

[My Grandmother takes over and finishes the letter]

Well Rinske, we have written you about a few things, take good care of yourself, en we hope to meet each other soon and in good health. Should we hear from our Ids, then we hope to let you know as soon as possible. The very best regards from Father, Mother and Douwe and may God give that you get well soon!