Monday, March 19, 2007

Holland days sauce

I'm back from a trip to Amsterdam and The Hague. That is, very near the heart of transnational progressive Europe.

Not to worry, this won't be a typical travel post. It's about me only incidentally, but rather what I observed. And while some of what I saw was disturbing, it's not a Europe-bashing post.

I left admiring the Dutch. They are some of the most pleasant and helpful people I've met. Generous with help and advice, and even under pressure calm and self-contained. True, most of those I encountered were on business or in trade, so they had some motivation to behave well, but as we all know that hardly guarantees courtesy in many places. The concept of "attitude" seems unknown in Holland, and there was none of that brusque behavior that's all too common in New York and London. I had no call to keep a lid on my temper, unlike at New York's Newark Airport where I spent three and a half hours (partly because of the now-standard delay in connecting flights). People with any sensitivity to manners should avoid New York in general and its airports in particular.

The other thing that knocked me out about the old central parts of Amsterdam and The Hague was the architecture. This was my first visit to either place, and I'd assumed that there would be a few streets in the rich areas along the canals with picture-book buildings, and the rest of the city glass, steel, and concrete ugliness. Wrong. For miles and miles in the district dating from the harbor to the 19th century developments, the grace and charm of most building is a constant source of delight, on the side streets as well as on the old canal-side merchants' houses (now, needless to say, occupied mainly by lawyers' offices, foundations, and I presume the very rich). Most are in the traditional gabled style, and even the relatively new 19th century construction harmonizes with tradition. In addition you get neo-Gothic, neoclassical, straight Victorian-era, and quite a few art nouveau and art deco houses and commercial buildings. A great city for walking and perhaps bike riding, unless you are Theo van Gogh and you have offended the delicate sensibilities of the Muslim jihadists.

The area just described, though large, is only the old part of Amsterdam (and it looks like the same story in The Hague from what I saw on a day trip). Outside the historic area, you see modern suburbs of commercial and bureaucratic blight. Spectacular eyesores of housing developments in the style American urban planners went through in the '50s, boxy highrises planted in empty, windswept plazas. Office and commercial buildings of unrelieved sterility.

You may be wondering about the Muslim situation. Well, the ritzy and touristy parts of the city don't seem to have changed much sociologically due to the Muslim influx, and it's understandable that many of the business suits, government workers, and heads of institutions don't comprehend what all the fuss is about. They don't go where the immigrants gather, in the dreary suburbs that you see a little of from the train and on the way from Schiphol airport, and I have no doubt there are much worse. It seems to be the emerging pattern in European cities: a traditional core for business, government, and tourism, and seedy or dangerous suburbs where the migrants, legal or not, congregate -- just far enough out of view that you can ignore them, until the day comes when there are so many of Muhammed's civilian and jihadist army that they must be appeased and ultimately surrendered to.

A possibly even more significant surrender has already taken place. The Dutch no longer believe in or care about God. In Amsterdam, the churches -- several dating back to the middle ages, and others of great architectural appeal -- have been transformed into spaces relevant to contemporary European interests. They are now museums; art galleries; music venues for classical, jazz, rock, and hip-hop; conference spaces; and, in once case (the Grote Kirk in The Hague), commercial meeting sites. The Grote Kirk (dating from Holland's Golden Age, the 17th century, with an amazing carved wooden pulpit) has a sign that says, "Open for special occasions only."

There was a special occasion the day I was there, an Irish tourism festival timed to coincide with St. Patrick's Day. Irishmen and -women
in separate booths pitching north, south, east, west, northwest, southwest, southeast Ireland (not to mention Irish fishing, golfing, castles, Aer Lingus, etc.) , the inevitable crafts, the inevitable inevitables. The capitals of the columns in the nave, hundreds of years old, had been spray painted Day-Glo green. Removable, you hope.

Otherwise, the fine old Protestant churches are locked, when not hosting an event or milking tourists of a few Euros to get in.

The areas of Holland I saw, perhaps not entirely typical of the rest of the country, are every "progressive's" dream. Completely rational and planned (not entirely a bad thing, as the architectural preservation attests). Commercialism as pervasive and crass as anything in the U.S. An overwhelming youth culture: kids from all over the world, in the requisite rebellious dress code of blue jeans and black jackets, queueing up for an hour to get in Madame Tussaud's wax museum. The backpackers shuffle along the streets, vacant eyed (stoned on dope from the coffee shops, I guess), wondering where the next thrill will come from now they've checked off their 14th Hard Rock Cafe and got the T-shirt, and gone window shopping in the Red Light District (very few, I suspect, have the dough to actually partake of what's on offer).

To get back to the progressive's dream: here it is -- bicycle lanes in the middle of the sidewalk (and you'd better learn to watch out), commercial galleries full of "transgressive art," but most of all, the brains saturated with money and the pleasures of the senses, obsessed with global warming, placidly obedient to the EU oligarchs. (The slick, colorful tourist guides in the hotel rooms have ads for prostitutes, very tasteful, but there's no doubt what is being touted.) Spirit? "The God Delusion."

I wonder how they think those radiant tulips, red and yellow and purple and red-veined white, occurred. Just an accident, no doubt.

Meet homo economicus, for whom only money and politics are real. Amsterdam and The Hague retain enough old world charm and graciousness that being locked in time and space, with spiritual transformation sandblasted out of sight, may be the new post-theistic Western Europe at its most seductive.

Because it's not only Holland, of course. I read in an English newspaper that one of their currency notes, the 20-pound bill I think, will no longer have a picture of Sir Edward Elgar, England's greatest composer. He is being turfed out to be replaced by Adam Smith. I have nothing against Adam Smith, but the change is symbolic: Britain is now a nation of money spinning go-getters, most of whom have no trace of Elgar in their cultural bloodstream, and the currency of "cool" Britannia needs to reflect that, at least until the design is changed again to feature a mosque. Of course, the old French franc notes with engravings of Berlioz, writers and other artists has been replaced by the bland and forgettable Euro bills.

Holland is an admirable country in many ways, but I think I'll stay an unreconstructed Yank.


Anonymous said...

Hi ..

Just to let you know the green on the columns was a light projection.. they were not spray painted.

Hope you enjoyed the event.

John Walsh
Tourism Ireland

David Foster said...

Welcome back. Yeah, I enjoyed the diverse people on the old French currency. Surely there are enough kinds of bills in Britain that they could do Elgar *and* Smith.

Rick Darby said...


I am astonished that you found and replied to my blog posting within hours. It was obvious that the columns themselves were lit by green floodlights, but the sculpted Corinthian capitals sure looked like they had been painted. My congratulations to your lighting technician for an impressive job!

You understand that I was not criticizing the tourism fair, but that the authorities have turned a historic house of God into a commercial setting, and even closed it to visitors when it isn't being hired out!

Dave, thanks for the welcome home. As the saying goes, it's good to get away, but good to be back.

I guess we should be grateful the Brits haven't put David Beckham on their currency and replaced the Queen's picture with one of Posh Spice. Not yet.