All posts by pier

The Urge For Going

In fourth year of secondary school in Rotterdam, we were asked to write a French essay on the subject “voudriez-vous vous habiter à l’étranger?” — “would you live abroad?” I remember it well, rambling on about how I wouldn’t mind spending some time travelling the world, but concluding that I would never wish to move away from Holland permanently.

Famous last words.

It’s now almost 25 years since I came to live and work in Dublin — and so I have spent more than half my life away from the home of my French essay. Of course I’m still a blow-in, although it appears that being Dutch is not half as incriminating as being from, God forbid, Cork or some other culchie place.

Ireland has been good to me, even if the romantic idea of playing the pipes by the turf fire in a cottage somewhere in county Clare is not something that has become a regular part of my life here. I’ve always played it safe, and moving to Ireland was something I did only after I secured a job so I would not have to depend on busking for a living.

Europe was in a recession back in 1986, although I don’t remember anyone calling it that. I had finished a two year course in Finished Art at the Amsterdamse Grafische School and decided to enroll for another course to turn me into a proper designer. I didn’t get very far. Having spent the summer doing freelance work, a return to the school benches felt like a step backwards.

There were other factors that contributed to my sudden decision to pack up and go — although I suppose a 23 year old does not need much of an excuse to develop itchy feet. My friend and oboe teacher Joost Flach had set an example of how you can take control of your life, when jobs for oboists were at a premium after he graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory. In 1984 he took a job with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and has been living in South East Asia ever since. It was Joost’s radical move that planted the idea in my head that you can always try your luck abroad.

I had been on holidays in Ireland just once before, in the summer of 1984. While the rest of the world was watching Live Aid, I took uilleann pipes lessons at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, co. Clare. After a week I was joined by my friends Bill and Jochum and together we hiked across the Burren and Connemara.

Plans to return to Ireland for another holiday were thwarted through lack of funds. The closest I got to anything Irish were frequent music sessions in The String, just off Dam Square. And then I suffered a broken heart (but that’s another story) and one night I announced to my brother’s understandable bewilderment that I’d had enough and was going to move to Dublin. My brother and I shared an apartment with two other guys at the time. Their joined efforts at making me rethink such a drastic decision did little to divert me from the road ahead.

I have been asked that question many, many times: why Dublin? The connection with Irish music was one reason, the fact that they speak English another. I had wanted to go back anyway, so why not try and live and work there for a few months?

As it turns out, there was in fact a good reason not to move to Ireland: the Irish themselves were leaving en masse. “Will the last one to leave please turn off the light” is said to have been painted on the outside of my namesake in Dun Laoghaire, at a time when more than 40,000 people a year were leaving Ireland for good. Jobs in 1980s Ireland were a rare commodity, but I was determined to find one.

Armed with photocopies of the advertising and printing sections from Dublin’s Golden Pages, kindly sent to me by the Irish embassy in The Hague, I set out to write 200 cold call applications. Only 17 companies bothered to respond with the familiar “we’ll keep your CV on file” — and then there was the single phone call that changed my life.

Irish International was one of the bigger advertising agencies that were dotted around Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square area. They happened to be on the lookout for a competent finished artist when my letter arrived. As it turns out, formal training in finished art did not exist in Ireland, and the job was usually given to design graduates with higher aspirations.

I was asked to come over for an interview, and on the 10th September I was in Dublin for the second time in my life, scanning the impressive Georgian doors I had photographed two years previous. When the formalities were over and done with, I was told that I got the job and brought to Sachs Hotel for a liquid lunch, in good old Dublin advertising tradition. All I had to do now, was go home to pack for a one-way trip.

Schiphol, 22nd September 1986
Schiphol, 22nd September 1986

Two days after my 23rd birthday, friends and family flocked to Schiphol Airport to bid me farewell in a bizarre reversal of Irish fortune. As always, my wonderful mother fully supported my decision, my brother reckoned that moving from one big city to another is probably less traumatic than moving between rural and urban habitats, and my sister would be the first to visit me in my newfound home.

Joost and I now share the common bond of being expats. What did not strike me as relevant at the time, is that we both hail from Friesland — and like the Irish, the Friesians have a tendency towards emigration; much more so than people from other parts of the Netherlands. America and Canada were popular destinations with tens of thousands of my fellow tribesmen and -women over the years, and the parallel with the Irish diaspora is remarkable.

In keeping with this Friesian characteristic, my mother’s family has seen its fair share of emigration, my uncle Meinte moving to the States in the early 50s. The other two uncles passed the buck to my generation, with cousins from both families settling in America and Spain respectively. And so it appears that the urge for going is part of my genetic makeup.

By moving to Ireland from Holland in pursuit of a career in advertising, I unwittingly became part of yet another tradition. Nick van Vliet, Gerry Huisman and Willie van Velzen are just some of the names associated with a wave of Dutch graphic artists who invaded Ireland in the latter part of the 20th century to exploit a gap in the market. Having a Dutchman on the studio’s payroll appears to have become the holy grail for Irish ad agencies in those days. This might be the reason why MD Finbar Costello invited me to join him and his team at a client briefing in my first week in the job — his agency could now boast two Dutch graphic artists, since Willie van Velzen Jr. had joined their ranks earlier.

On holidays in the sun a year or two ago, my sister-in-law was discussing the merits of moving to Spain to live and work there. In all innocence she asked me if I would ever consider such a move. The truth is, I wouldn’t mind spending some time travelling the world, but I would never wish to move away from home permanently.

Been there, done that.

Tonge & Taggart and the World Beneath Our Feet

Tonge & Taggart

When friends of ours decided to get married sometime in the mid 90s, they asked me to look after the layout and printing of the missalettes. Of course I was happy to oblige, and the booklet went through a few versions before everyone was happy. At one stage the groom asked me to make sure the priest was mentioned in the line-up. His name was father Tonge — “as in Tonge & Taggart, you know, from the manhole covers”.

I have to admit that I had never heard of Tonge & Taggart, not having spent much time reading manhole covers. Since that day however, I notice the name every time I look down while walking Dublin’s streets — strange how a sewage drain can remind you of a friend’s wedding.

Tonge & Taggart Limited was a Dublin foundry which has since been swallowed up by the Smurfit group. If you’re in Dublin, you don’t have to travel far to stumble across, or even over, an example of their ironmongery. Chances are there’s a Béal Tuile cover right outside your front door, adorned with the three castles of the Dublin crest and the historic company’s name, of course.

Invariably, these iron Flood Mouths are complemented nearby by a small, usually round cover which hides a mains water stop valve. The majority of these little covers are Irish speaking, but more recent versions appear square and English speaking. There is even a bilingual version for those who are unsure about the difference between uisce and water. It is unclear which company provides these water valve covers — and there are far more players than Tonge & Taggart.

Once you start looking under your feet while crossing streets and pavements, you come across names such as Dudley & Dowell, Cavanagh, Conway & Sons, William Lacy and so on. Some are kind enough to put the year of manufacture on their creations; Conway Foundries appear to have been busy in the 1960s. Cavanagh have been providing manhole covers and other castings for 200 years and are still very much in business.

And it’s not just sewage pipes and water drains that are covered by these iron lids. The city has a vast array of tunnelled utilities buried underneath its streets, and the number of hatches, covers and lids that provide access increases dramatically as you get closer to the city centre. Water, gas, electricity, telephone, cable TV — they all fight for space in what must be a veritable spaghetti soup of pipes, wires and cables. Bus shelters and traffic lights have their own hatches and business premises have cellars and basements with iron trapdoors and grilles to add to the streetscape.

Bomb-proof manhole cover
Bomb-proof manhole cover

When the Queen came to visit Dublin recently, followed closely by the US President, all these metal covers on the street surface became potential hiding places for bombs and assassins. As part of a massive security operation, gardaí roamed the streets armed with spanners, yellow spraypaint and filler guns. Every single manhole cover, lid, hatch and trapdoor was inspected, sealed and marked with the yellow paint, using the spanner as a stencil.

Dublin’s manhole covers provide an insight into the history not only of its foundries and ironworks, but also of the companies that used their products. As a result we can now witness the scattered chronology of P&T, Telecom Eireann, Eircom and even Esat Telecom throughout the city. Apart from being a purely functional piece of street furniture, some are actually quite attractive — such as the rare Uisce covers with intricate celtic lace patterns and the cryptic acronym WSC-R. An example can be found on Mellifont Avenue in Dun Laoghaire.

WSC-R Uisce Cover
Pretty Uisce cover in Dun Laoghaire

However fascinating these unassuming objects that we walk on every day may be, I don’t think I’m ready to join the Flickr Manhole Cover Pool as yet. Surprisingly, that group has more than 1,000 members and almost 13,000 pictures — and you thought trainspotting was weird.


Battle of Waterloo by William Holmes Sullivan

196 years ago today, one of the most famous battles in history was fought on a small plot of land south of Brussels, in what is now Belgium but had at that time just become part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, following the Congress of Vienna. On Sunday 18th June 1815, the French army under Napoleon launched the attack on the Anglo-Allied forces under Wellington. Joined later during the day by the Prussians led by Blücher, the Allies eventually defeated Napoleon’s forces after a bloody battle that raged for 12 hours and left 50,000 dead and wounded — one out of every four soldiers who took part. Napoleon did not surrender, as Abba would have it, but it did signal the end of his career — for once and for all.

When the creators of The Simpsons picked Springfield as the ubiquitous American town, they might as well have picked Waterloo. If this name does not appear as a town in every state of the union, then it will at least show up as a street, square or building not only in the US, but in virtually every country of the English speaking world. One wonders if this would have been the case if the battle were to have received one of its more appropriate names — the Battle of Mont Saint Jean or the Battle of Braine L’Alleud, for example. History being written by the victors, it appears that Waterloo is easier to pronounce for English speakers, and so was favoured over those awkward French tongue twisters.

I grew up surrounded by the meticulously hand-painted Airfix armies of my older brother. He taught me all there is to know about the history of the Napoleonic wars and about the art of wargaming. We were joined in our enthusiasm by my cousin and my best friend René, and in an era before computer games, we spent entire school holidays amassing miniature armies and re-enacting historic battles in our attic in Rotterdam — my brother invariably emerging as the winner, but that’s another blogpost. Waterloo featured on a regular basis, needless to say — my brother even built a model of the battlefield.

Our fascination with Waterloo extended beyond playing wargames — it also involved trips to the Army Museum in Leiden and the model soldiers shop “La Grande Armée” in The Hague, among other things. When my mother bought her first car in the early 70s, her first real trip took our family and my cousin — at this stage an honorary member of our family — to Waterloo.

La Haye Sainte in 1979

The battlefield at Waterloo is remarkably well preserved. The buildings that featured so prominently during the battle still stand today, such as the farm house of La Haye Sainte, which looks the same as it did in 1815, and is still privately occupied. La Belle Alliance, the inn where Napoleon set up his headquarters, is now a night club, thereby maintaining its allegiance to the hospitality industry. Monuments, statues and plaques commemorating various commanders and regiments are dotted around the landscape and its buildings. Disproportionately large is the monument that marks the spot where the young Prince of Orange was wounded at some stage during the battle — much of the surrounding lanscape was dug up to provide the material for a huge mound topped by a stone-faced lion. Most of the souvenir shops are concentrated near this monstrosity and in the town of Waterloo itself.

Our tent on the battlefield

To behold such a historic site in real life made a huge impression on me. So much so, that I felt obliged to return for another pilgrimage, this time accompanied by René and taking the train to arrive on the eve of the battle’s anniversary, in 1979. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, we pitched our tent on the field of an incomprehensible but accommodating farmer — smack in the middle of the area where Marshal Ney’s desperate cavalry charge of some 5,000 horsemen would have thundered past all those years ago.

As our understanding of the events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo increased along with our age, so too did the realisation that the history books were maybe a bit unfair in their depiction of the Dutch-Belgian contribution. Of course the universally accepted version of events is supplied by the English, who have been less than complimentary about the soldiers on whose national turf the fighting took place. Reports about the troops fleeing en masse at the start of the battle usually fail to mention that Wellington had positioned them at the front of the sloping terrain, facing the French artillery who mercilessly pounded their ranks. English troops were placed on the slope facing away from the French and thereby spared the role of cannon fodder — at least initially.

Dutch author N. Vels Heijn makes a valiant effort at placing the Netherlands’ army in a better light in his 1974 book Waterloo — Glorie Zonder Helden (Glory without Heroes), re-evaluating events leading up to Waterloo, such as the fighting at Quatre Bras where Dutch troops held the French at bay. It’s a case of too little, 160 years too late and the British version of events prevails.

The 18th of June still triggers childhood memories of Humbrol paints, Airfix soldiers and our stuffy attic. René and I were BFF avant la lettre, and we promised each other that no matter how far we drifted apart, we would meet again on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo at the monument of the French Old Guard near La Belle Alliance. Only four years to go — I’ll be there.

The Fast Lane

Upon my arrival in Dublin in 1986, one of the first things I bought was a bicycle. Being from Holland, I could not imagine how else you’re supposed to make your way around the city. Sadly, cyclists were and still are very much a minority group in this country.

Of course cycling in Dublin is quite a different experience than it is in Amsterdam, not least because of this minority issue. Cycle lanes were not introduced until the mid 90s and usually consist of nothing more than a strip on the side of the road where the tarmac is painted red. Irish cyclists wear those funny helmets that you would rarely see in Holland. And the bikes themselves are different too, of course — I quickly discovered that you really do need gears in a city that’s not conveniently flat like Amsterdam, where the highest points are the bridges across the canals and the bike of choice is a “High Nellie”.

However, the biggest difference between Ireland and Holland are the motorists. It did not take me long to discover that, as far as Irish motorists are concerned, cyclists simply do not exist. If a car is turning left or right, he will just cut across the path of any cyclists that may be around — this is especially true when turning left and the car cuts across bicycles travelling straight on on the same road. It appears that Irish motorists are blissfully unaware that the bicycle actually has the right of way in this case.

Rush Hour Ireland
Alas, not anymore

My bike was stolen sometime in ’88, and I bought my first car when I moved to Dun Laoghaire. Some of my friends fondly remember the light blue Renault 5, registration 103PIK — it served us well for a few years. This was in an era in Ireland when the closest thing resembling a motorway was a couple of stretches of dual carriageway on the N11 and the Naas road. “Ireland — where motoring is still a pleasure” and “Rush hour in Ireland” was printed on postcards with pictures involving Morris Minors and cattle or flocks of sheep.

A lot has changed since then. We now have more than 1,000 kilometers of motorway, and it is finally possible to drive from Dublin to Galway without getting stuck for half an hour on the Main Street in Moate. This journey used to take over four hours and now only takes around two. It has to be said though, that in those pre-motorway days there was never a problem finding a place to stop for a coffee, something to eat, a toilet break or petrol. That too has all changed — they somehow forgot to build a few service stations alongside the motorways. Or maybe it’s because some local politicians objected when the businesses of their constituents came under threat now that their towns were bypassed. In any case, it seems that service stations have now started to appear on some motorways so that we may eventually catch up with the rest of Europe, instead of having to look for Digan’s Garage in Tullaghnageeragh somewhere off the M6.

Driving on motorways and other dual carriageways is still a relatively new experience for Irish motorists, it seems. There appears to be no general consensus on which of the two available lanes constitutes the fast lane. Maybe the choice of lane is influenced more by the fact that the driver may wish to turn left or right at any time in the near or distant future, than by the speed they are travelling at. This lane dilemma has become even more interesting now that some stretches of motorway have three lanes, such as the M50 which circles Dublin. In this case, the preferred lane for motorists who like driving slower than the speed limit, is the middle lane. In both scenarios, the result is that overtaking on the incorrect side is commonplace on these types of roads.

The lack of driver education must surely lie at the root of this behaviour. How does one learn how to drive on a motorway if there’s none around? There’s an entire generation of Irish drivers on the road today who obtained their driving licenses long before the first motorway was built — or the first roundabout, judging by the current ad campaign on Irish television, attempting to teach viewers how to approach, indicate and exit these things. About time, since indicators are no indication — pardon the pun — as to the direction a car on an Irish roundabout might take.

That brings me to the most baffling of all motoring related things I have ever come across — the Provisional License. Now, I know that this idea was copied from the U.K., but that’s no excuse. How on earth can the people who run this country think that it’s a good idea to let someone do a simple theory test, hand over some money and let them drive off into the sunset? And do they really think that everyone bides by those rules of having a fully qualified driver sitting beside them and not driving on motorways? Thankfully there’s a good incentive for drivers to get their full licence, since without it the cost of their car insurance is astronomical. Before they pass their test however, they can happily drive around with their L-sticker as the only qualification. Even more bizarre, they can go to the test centre to do their driving test, fail — and drive off again. Not to mention the amnesty of the 1970s in which around 45,000 drivers got their license with no test whatsoever.

Irish roads are certainly safer now than they were 20 years ago, and the new drink-driving laws appear to be having a positive effect. If only they would get rid of the provisional license and make every motorist take proper driving lessons instead of circling around the local parking lot a few times – but hey, I’m sure people are glad I don’t make the rules.

Language of the Upperlands

For many years, the small seaside town of Greystones was home to the Dutch literary and artistic genius Marten Toonder. His contribution to the Dutch language has been considerable and it is unfortunate that the English speaking world will never appreciate him fully, even if his cartoons appeared in Irish newspapers too — only in English, of course. Observant readers (to use one of Toonder’s phrases) will have noticed that I am Dutch also, and I still consider Dutch to be my first language.

It is probably a bit bizarre to write about the Dutch language in English, but I am trying to share some of its weird and wonderful traits with readers whose upbringing has forced them into the straitjacket of such a common language as English.

The Dutch refer to their language as Nederlands, Dutch being the anglicised version of the ancient Diets, which has the same origins as Duits or Deutsch, referring to German. And yes, German is a completely different language, although English speakers may be forgiven for getting confused between Deutsch and Dutch.

The first thing one notices when looking at the written Dutch language is the length of some of the words. Dutch uses compound nouns, so where English uses two words for “swimming pool”, the Dutch version becomes zwembad instead of zwem bad. Speaking of bad, this is a bad example, since zwembad is of course nice and short. Try “Government Study Grant” instead, which becomes Rijksstudietoelage, and in theory the application form for one of these grants could be compounded into a Rijksstudietoelageaanvraagformulier.

Double vowels and diphtongs are also prominent, as can be seen in the previous example. One of my favourite vowel-rich words is eendeëieren — duck’s eggs. The umlaut here has the function of a hyphen, to indicate a break between the two e’s. Unfortunately this is no longer the correct spelling and should now be “eendeneieren”, but since this new spelling was introduced after I left the country, I declare myself exempt from this rule. En zoo is het. Still spelled correctly is an even better example, the Dutch word for “seed onions” being zaaiuien. With six vowels in a row, that’s hard to beat.

Many of our diphtongs are unknown to and unpronouncable by English speakers, such as the “ui” in my own surname. Funny enough, ui and ei are Dutch words in their own right, meaning “onion” and “egg” respectively. Alongside ooi and aai there appears to be a number of Dutch words that are completely void of consonants. The unusual combination of I and J in words such as lijst and prijs is in fact an incarnation of the letter Y, which itself is rarely used — thereby making it a more valuable letter in Dutch Scrabble than in the English version. And you thought Scrabble was language-agnostic.

We consider languages such as Russian to display an impossible sequence of consonants in many of their words, but few can beat the Dutch for “cry of fear” — angstschreeuw. Eight consonants followed by three vowels, that’s beautiful. A different beauty can be seen in the word for “supplied” which holds the record of four double characters in a row — bevoorraadde.

Dutch infinitives usually end with -n or -en, as in staan (“to stand”) or lopen (“to walk”). A perfectly acceptable, gramatically correct Dutch sentence can have multiple infinitives, like this one which contains six infinitives in a row: Ik zou jou daar wel eens hebben willen zien staan blijven kijken — “I would have liked to have seen you stand there and watch”.

Opperlandse Taal en Letterkunde, written by Hugo Brandt Corstius in 1981, contains a wealth of linguistic gymnastics to please any Dutch speaker.

Every word in every language has its own history, and I’m glad to say that some Dutch words have left their mark on the English language. Of course Dutch itself has been swamped with English words and expressions over the last few decennia, and we have to go back a couple of centuries to trace any Dutch in today’s English. Most Dutch words that survive in modern English stem from an era when the Netherlands were a powerful trendsetting nation, during the country’s Golden Age, the 17th century. The list is much longer than you would think, and includes such quintessential everyday terms as skipper, yacht, coleslaw, rucksack, geek, cookie and of course Santa Claus.

It's a Decoy
It's a Decoy!

My favourite however, is decoy, from the Dutch eendekooi – literally “duck cage”, a device once used to catch water fowl — an eend being, you’ve guessed it, a duck. The observant reader will have noticed that my favourite Dutch words appear to involve ducks, but I digress. Unaware of the Dutch love of compound words, some smart ass must have decided that the first part of this word was the indefinite article een (“a”) and the rest must therefore be a noun — dekooi. Thus the misspelled een dekooi became “a decoy”.

Admittedly Dutch is not an easy language to master. Pronunciation of the famous guttural G may take a while to get used to, but in my experience the most difficult sound for an English speaker to reproduce is the combination ZW like in the word zwart (“black”). Even after almost a lifetime of training, practicing, being gezellig and blending into Dutch society, the most hardened Dutch language students will still give away their linguistic origins when attempting to pronounce anything beginning with those two consonants. Even so, I think everyone should learn Dutch, if only to appreciate this limerick by John O’Mill:

A terrible infant called Peter
Sprinkled his bed with a geeter.
His father got woost,
Took hold of a knoost,
And gave him a pack on his meeter.

Culture Shock

Culture ShockHaving spent more than half of my life living in a foreign country, I have almost forgotten which of the differences between my native Holland and my adoptive Ireland struck me most when I first arrived on these shores. Of course we can’t really speak of “Culture Shock” when moving between two Western European countries (so much for the title). On the other hand, sometimes it’s the subtle distinctions between largely similar cultures that can cause more frustration and misunderstanding than one would expect. Most of the time however, we just feel that the other nationality displays some odd but harmless behaviour.

I’ll forget about the obvious oddities of driving on the wrong side of the road and speaking an inferior language — and I’m not telling which nationality’s hat I’m wearing when I say that. I’m also ignoring the fact that some of the anomalies I have come across over the years are not necessarily typically Irish – they may just as well apply to nationalities closely affiliated with the Irish (you know who you are).

In Ireland, you may see women walking down the road with their arms folded across their chest. I had never seen anyone walk like that in Holland. You swing your arms by your side, or you carry a bag, or whatever – but folding your arms is something you do when you’re standing still, not when you’re walking. Even stranger is that the behaviour is displayed only by women.

In Holland, many homes have toilets where the bowl is of a design that will freak out Irish people. Instead of being funnel shaped with a puddle of water at the bottom, they have a flat surface some distance below the rim with a drain to the front – so whatever is deposited here will stare back at you until you flush the toilet when the water pushes the lot off the surface and into the drain from back to front. As one of my Irish friends puts it, the Dutch “shit on a plate”.

In Ireland, another toilet experience may freak out Dutch men – but this time it concerns urinals in public toilets. The nice semi-private Dutch variety has little partitions between separate wall mounted bowls. The Irish style may involve just a wall. OK, it has a sprinkler tube running across the top and a shore at the bottom, but on a busy night you’re guaranteed an intimately shared experience when splashing your boots.

In Holland, if you have a mug of tea or coffee and stir it with a teaspoon, you leave the spoon in it, since taking it out will leave you with nowhere to put it without dripping some of the liquid onto the table. An Irishman will take the spoon out because you could stab yourself in the eye with it.

In Ireland, people go to someone’s birthday party and then hand that person a birthday card. “What’s the point?” asks the Dutchman, “Can’t you just wish them a happy birthday since you’re there?” – Dutch people will only send birthday cards if they can’t be there in person.

In Holland, you start a tab when you’re having a few drinks in the pub. At the end of the night you then split the bill between the members of the party. In Ireland, no self-respecting barman will trust you to actually pay the bill at the end of the night, and no self-respecting punter will trust himself to remember to pay it – so they work a rounds system. This gets interesting when there’s a mixed company of Dutch and Irish having a few drinks together. Regardless of who bought the first round, an Irishman is likely to say “I’ll get this”. A Dutchman’s reaction to this is invariably “OK” – but that’s like failing to haggle in an Arab market. The correct response to the Irish statement is “No, I’ll get this”. This should then be returned with “No, no, you got the last one”, followed by “No it’s OK I have it here” and so on, until the end result is that everyone pays at least one round. “Going Dutch” is obviously not an option here.

In Ireland, you have to strain to hear the music in a pub (if there is any to begin with) because there is so much talking going on. In a Dutch pub you have to shout to make yourself heard over the blaring music.

In Holland, many people don’t know the difference between the North and the South of Ireland and may assume it’s only a geographical denominator. In the days of the Troubles, the Dutch knew to avoid Ireland because of bombs (ignoring the fact that this applied mainly to the North), nowadays they know its economy is in shreds. In Ireland, people know about the Zuiderzee and the IJsselmeer, the dykes and the Randstad, the industry and agriculture and enough other things to put the Dutch knowledge of Ireland to shame.

In Ireland, they are very fond of salt in their diet. So much so, that I often see people grab the salt shaker and liberally apply the stuff to their dinner before they have even tasted it. Interestingly enough, Irish salt shakers have a single hole in the top, and the shaker with multiple holes is reserved for pepper. In Holland – you’ve guessed it – it’s the other way around.

In Holland and most of the rest of the world, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. In Ireland it’s on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and you’ll need a degree in astronomy to work out which date that will be in any given year. A mother however, will just know. You have been warned.

In Ireland, you may still experience an outburst of patriotic fervour at the end of a night out. As the bar closes, the band will play the national anthem and everybody will stand up and sing along. Many will have parents or grandparents with a living memory of gaining independence. It’s easy to forget that the Republic of Ireland is still only a young nation.

In Holland, whipped cream is sweet because they add lots of sugar by default. In Ireland, the idea of putting sugar in cream is revolting.

In Ireland, the first time I went to get a bag of chips, I was surprised by the now familiar question, “salt ‘n’ vinegar?”. Even after 20-odd years, I will not accept that chips could or should be served with something that belongs in a salad. In Holland, chips (patat, not to be confused with the Dutch chips, which are crisps, and in Ireland come in the horrid salt ‘n’ vinegar flavour also) are either served plain or “met” (with) — which is short for “met mayonnaise”. Proper order.

In Holland, when arranging to meet someone for the first time, this is likely to take place in the home. Only when you get to know someone better might you venture out and go for a drink. In Ireland, first (and subsequent) meetings are on neutral ground and involve going out somewhere, usually a pub — visiting someone at home is usually reserved for family.

In Ireland, people use clocks to find out what time it is, which is then rounded to the nearest half hour. “I wonder what time the train is due?” In Holland, people use clocks to find out what they or someone else are or should be doing and how long it is overdue or will take — rounded to the nearest minute. “The train is 3 minutes late”.

In Holland, when they invite someone to drop by sometime, they are surprised when that person never shows up. In Ireland, they are when he does.

In Ireland, when people become more familiar or at ease with the company they’re in (usually after about 20 minutes), they may engage in some good-natured teasing, making fun of a person’s background, beliefs, or anything associated with that person. The practise is known as “slagging” and the Dutch don’t really get it at all.

In Ireland, the hot tap is indicated by the colour red. In Holland, the cold tap is identified by the colour blue.

Media Archeology

In his excellent post “The Great CCTV Camera of History” on First Advertising’s blog, Jamie Stanton writes eloquently about the ever increasing mountain of digital data that follows and records our every move. Most of us will be painfully aware of how the roll of 36 snaps that was sufficient to record an entire 2 weeks holidays 15 years ago, has today been replaced by umpteen hours of digital video and hundreds of pictures taken on a variety of mobile phones and digital cameras.

Roll of Film
Found this. Now what?

In spite of this enormous increase in visual mementoes of our annual trip, it seems that the handful of snaps from yesteryear had a better chance of survival than their multitudinous digital counterparts of today. At least the old fashioned photographs were awarded the ritual of an unveiling, some time after the holidays were over, when the local chemist had worked his magic on the roll of film. After having been handed around to share the memories one more time, they more than likely ended up in a shoebox in the attic — some of the lucky ones may even have brought it as far as a scrapbook. There they remain to this day, with the potential to be rediscovered at any time.

My brother in law has been carrying around the same digital camera for the last five years. When the memory card fills up, he deletes some of the older pictures to make room for new ones. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the images outside of their little screen on the back of the camera. No shoebox in the attic for these memories. Although there are those who will diligently select, print, archive, backup and sync their digital collections, I get the feeling that my brother in law is far more representative of today’s happy snapper.

That doesn’t mean that I disagree with the point that Jamie makes — there is without a doubt an enormous amount of information available on today’s individual compared to the sparse details we have on those of our parents’ generation. In fact, our friends at Google have already gone as far as working on ways to use information gathering to predict the future (yes, really). But in the meantime, the long term survival of all this data depends largely on the availability of the technology required to view, read or hear what’s hidden on the different types of media.

I challenge anyone to tell me what to do with a tape reel — assuming they’re old enough to recognise what it is and that it’s a reel-to-reel tape machine they should be looking for. Cassette tapes and VHS are also fast becoming extinct, not helped by the fact that magnetic media apparently have a lifespan of no more than 30 years. Those of us who have children will be aware of their astounding unfamiliarity with seemingly timeless objects such as the vinyl record. Similarly, Jason Huck writes on Facebook that his daughter “is playing with My First Camera, which is a real (film) camera, but I just told her it was pretend because it was easier than explaining why there’s no screen on the back that shows you the picture you just took”.

When a worker on an Irish bog discovers something unusual in July of 2006, he quickly realizes that it’s a book, and probably a very old one. Archaeologists later confirm that the book is a collection of psalms, dated between 800 and 1000 A.D. On hearing the news, I wondered what would happen if a distant descendent of the same worker were digging the bog 1000 years from now and came across a VHS tape. The bog itself would first have to have re-formed after its disappearance in the 21st century of course, but I digress. The point is, that our future digger would need the help of an archaeologist to establish what type of artefact he has just found. Even if they are then able to tell that they are looking at an object that was used to store images or sounds, they will sadly be unable to find out what exactly those images or sounds were. Compare that to the bog psalter of 1000 A.D. and the preservation of our recorded history for future generations is beginning to look bleak in comparison.

At 87, my mother has embraced modern technology, keeping in touch with friends and family via email. However, she still insists on printing off a copy of every email so that she can store them away for posterity, in a –physical– folder alongside letters from a bygone era — such as the one quoted in my first blog post. She may have a point. Letters and postcards have been replaced by emails and text messages, in the same way that vinyl was first replaced by CD and now download, thereby losing all of its tangibility (even though there appears to be a vinyl revival of sorts).

I wonder if archaeologists a thousand years from now will draw the conclusion that our civilization came to an end sometime around the start of the 21st century, based on the evidence that written and visual documentation all but disappears around this time. Interestingly enough, my sister-in-law tells me that “Media Archaeology” is a course subject at the University of Amsterdam. Isn’t it intriguing that technology has begun to develop so fast that what was cutting-edge only half a generation ago is now considered archaic?

Maybe if I print out this blog and bury it in the back garden, it will survive the test of time. For now, it will remain in this uncertain space where no turf cutter’s spade is likely to disturb it.

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 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!