London: Happy birthday Alex!

It was nice to be back for a little longer after my time in Amsterdam had come to an end. But it was busy. Alex’ 8th birthday, Champions league final, DIY job at Alex house (terrace done … yeah) and lots of tutoring in Russian, Spanish & Dutch and history classes (first up the Saxon’s history in England between 5AD and 9AD). So I managed just a few catch-ups with the local Maida Vale crowd and some friends. Now it’s time for Berlin, Barcelona, Ibiza and St. Petersburg before London has me back early July. 

Happy birthday Alexander: He was counting down the days to this important day and would tell me every morning how many days were left (literally the first thing he said when he woke up). He was also not shy to remind me how much he wanted to have a Nintendo Switch including writing messages into my language class book (just to make sure ;o). Well, he got one and was mega happy (less so the case for his mum). It’s a cool device and very practical for travelling and playing at home / via TV alike. An app lets you further control how much he plays. I also got him a life vest ahead of my Elbe river tour in summer, for which Alex would like to join for a few days. In the evening of his day I fulfilled another of his wishes – racket with mum & dad. He has truly become a racket lover. The party with his friends took place later, but was megacool. We visited the trampoline park Flip Out in Brent CrossFlip Out in Brent Cross with  13 other kids and let it bounce. Pizza & an excellent birthday cake as well as the mandatory party bags made for a great event. Thanks go to Rob for hosting us free of charge! 

DIY – terrace done: I left it a little late to order all the material I needed for the job and delays came on top. Still, I managed to build the new terrace in just two days and think it looks really neat. Alex loved to help out here and there and is really glad to have his outside playing area back. Same goes for his dog Charlie – who did’t hold off to baptise it with a good pee. Sadly, the plastering job inside has to wait for the special plaster to arrive … useless company, but then restoration plaster to avoid damp issues in the future is not so easy to come by here in England. Well, they can do it while i am away and then painting is next. 

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Maastricht: Not just a treaty city

The city of Maastricht has been present throughout my finance career as the birthplace of the European project in its latest episode. Those that know me well know that I have a pretty split opinion about this ‘project’ and both the prolonged peace period, but also the economic North/South divide speak volumes as to its success. But let’s not dwell on this. There is more to Maastricht than being the location where the European treaties were signed in 1992, as a quiet and clean city boasting impressive architecture going back to the middle ages. 

 

Being located in the Limburg region close to the triple point of Holland / Belgium / Germany, it also offers great culinary options (including wine). My asparagus soup for lunch together with a tasty Belgian beer pays tribute to that. Some 120,000 people live in Maastricht and c20,000 are students (chiefly from bordering Germany I am told) in what is Holland’s youngest university town (1976) despite being a city since 1204. The students give the city a pretty lively touch (reminded me of Ghent a little) and some great live music on the streets by four string instrument players was simply fun to listen to (be it classics or modern songs on classic instruments). As concerns industry, it is one of the oldest locations in Holland known for pottery (Société Céramique factory).

 

Maastricht: The name originates from the river Maas (comes from France) that bisects the city and the Dutch word ‘tricht’ that means crossing. So the crossing place of the Maas. You find a similar naming in other Dutch cities like Utrecht. The city has indeed been a ford historically when the Romans presumably founded the place in 1st century AD and build a first bridge – strategically super important for military & trade.

 

Under fire: Maastricht has been center of many conflicts and was attacked 21 times according to our tour guide. After WW2, it was the first town of Holland to be liberated. This turbulent past is still visible today in the remains of the city walls (one 11m high). In fact, even Peter the great came to visit the city’s fortifications back in his days.

Stinking rich people: You probably heard of the phrase. I did, but never thought about why. In most cities, you’ll find the rich people buried inside the churches. Often covered with large and decorated stones. Peasants instead, were buried outside. Now, these stones didn’t always close the grave properly so that the rotting smell of corpses escaped. It stank in the church (one more reason to use incense to cover up … not just for smelling pilgrims as is still the case today ;o). 

 

Limburgse Vlaai: Basically a pie with a filling originally thought to come from Germany (you can also get it in Aachen). Typically that is mainly fruit, but some forms with rice exist (originally to please the Spanish occupiers who were here longer than in other Dutch parts, which also explains why Catholicism is still the main religion). Vlaais are often eaten on life events, such as birthdays and funerals. 

 

Limburish: Is the own language spoken in  the region by some 1.6m people. It sounds much more geared to German than Dutch itself (people in Aachen or Cologne understand it well), but without Dutch knowledge is hard to understand for the average German.

 

Andre Rieu – the city’s famous child: Weather you are into classical music or not, his name should ring a bell. Andre and his Johann Strauss orchestra (turning classical waltz into a concert act) has been a global superstar since the 80’s making million’s each year. While most of his performances are abroad, he runs 10+ concerts in Maastricht each year in July (this year’s tour dates) – all announced dates are sold out (BUT he will add a few I am told … so watch the space). 

andre-rieu-concert-cinema-720x379

Year

Rank

# Shows

Revenue

2017

#42

89 shows

$47,700,000

2016

#23

71 shows

$40,169,471

2015

#20

101 shows

$51,151,367

2014

#17

70 shows

$42,983,266

2013

#20

70 shows

$49,881,605

2012

#10

99 shows

$46,785,71

2011

# 9

102 shows

$67,104,756

2010

#16

86 shows

$39,992,285

2009

# 6

112 shows

$95,854,338

2008

# 8

71 shows

$76.9 mll

Steinreich: Another word play, this time in German, translating into “stone rich”. I already mentioned in a previous posts (Amsterdam walking tour: Fun facts) that Dutch houses are narrow due to the taxation of the street facing width of the houses, there are also differences in building materials used. In Maastricht you can find bricks (cheapest), limestone (of which you’ll find a lot all over Maastricht) and a grey-ish stone being the most expensive. Buildings of richer people tend to be built with more or all of the latter. Hence the name.

Bonnefantenmuseum: A somewhat strange-looking museum designed by an Italian architect Aldo Rossi deriving its name from French ‘bons enfants’ (‘good children’). Inside, you can find a mix of contemporary art and classics. The museum offers restoration services as well and during work week you can watch how they do their job through glass doors. Not a must-visit museum for me, but neither the worst I have seen.

 

Vincent van Gogh: A fascinating story

It was a rather sunny afternoon in Amsterdam yet a fresh breeze was blowing through the streets making it quite chilly at times. Today I finally made it to the van Gogh museum. The museum itself, right on Museumsplein, looks pretty modern and is an inviting gate into one of the best museums I have ever visited. Read on to join me for a tour through Vincent’s life story. Certainly not much more than my personal impressions, but truely fascinating. 

Brief timeline of events

1853: Vincent was born in Zundert (between Rotterdam & Antwerp) on the 30th March | 1869/76: Den Haag, London & Paris working for art dealer Goupil |1878/80: Borinage (Belgium) VcG works as lay preacher (e.g. not formally a cleric, his father was pastor) amongst miners. After hard time he decides to become full-time artist | 1881:  Etten (NL) where he mainly draws | 1881 Den Haag taking lessons from Anton Mauve (Dutch realist painter, leading member of The Hague school) | 1883/85: Nuenen (NL) moving temporarily back with parents. Peasant & countryside focus| 1885 Antwerp studying briefly at the art academy to improve his style (continued later in studio of F. Cormon, Paris) |1886/88 Paris living with brother Theo (successful art dealer). Acquaintance with (neo) Impressionists Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec (sample), Emile Bernard (sample), Paul Gaugin (sample); they worked together displaying art at Montmartre cafes | 1888 Arles where he briefly lives with Gaugin and cuts his ear | 1889 Self-admittal to mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence|1889 Auvers-sur-Oise (FR) producing one painting per day until his suicide 29 July.

I was nothing short of impressed about the museum and van Gogh’s story. I think the museum & gallery experience was so good because its more than a bunch of pictures. It’s a journey through a tragic yet fascinating life underpinned by hundreds of personal letters providing deep insights into him and the his relationships, dreams, feelings and desires (I listened to this while walking about). The output he created art-wise comes on top. I guess I also like his focus on and appreciation for simple people (peasants) as well as nature – both traits I share & cherish.

“And I think it by no means unlikely that I’ll stay here for the rest of my life, too. After all, I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life. I feel that I can create a place for myself here, and so I’ll quietly keep my hand to my plough and cut my furrow. I believe that you thought differently about it, and that you would perhaps rather see me take another course as regards where I live. But I sometimes think that you have more idea of what people can do in the city, yet on the other hand I feel more at home in the country.
the potato eaters.jpg

The Potato Eaters

The Japanese influence

Japanese art was an enormously important influence for van Gogh and in fact the entire Paris artist scene. Thankfully, at the time of my visit to the museum there was a temporary exhibition on focussing on just that. Both Paris and van Gogh fell for japanese art when trade started – around the time of Japan in general opening up to the world. That was around 1853, when US vessels (dominant in technology) basically forced Japan to open ports to trade. The Japanese, however, also had a self-interest in ‘complying & adjusting’ fearing to end up dominated like China – see Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history). 

Van Gogh bought 600 Japanese prints and carried them around as inspiration and, in the case of three of them, used them directly as a basis for his paintings. So what was so inspiring? Well, he loved the vivid colours and simple approach to perspective (division of picture plane into line & colour areas). Have a look at prints like from the likes of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai for a sample.

“After some time your vision changes, you see more with a japanese eye, you feel colour differently.” – Theo van Gogh (1888)

The Paris influence

More or less ordered by his brother to join him in Paris and a little tired of country life, Vincent moved to Paris in 1886. It is important to understand the close bond Vincent and his brother Theo had. He also funded Vincent’s lifestyle – in exchange for a monthly allowance over 10y, Theo (the Paris art dealer) became the owner of the paintings and drawings that Vincent sent him. His brother’s wife made them eventually famous.

Apart from the general excitement about Japanese art, it was here that he got immersed in the impressionist style of the Paris art scene. The style was pretty revolutionary at the time depicting scenes of everyday life, trying to capture the emotions of the motive with every stroke of the brush. The everyday theme suited van Gogh’s own style just perfect I would say. 

Further to the impressionist style, van Gogh learned a great deal about colour schemes in Paris as laid out by Charles Blanc. Complimentary colours (shown on opposite sides in the scheme below) optically intensify each other – something van Gogh took a great inspiration from.

colour scheme

A few numbers about van Gogh’s work

  • PAINTED 900c paintings (c200 in vG museum)
  • DREW 1,100+ drawings (about half of which in vG museum on rotating display)
  • WROTE 820 (known) letters (most of which are held by the van Gogh museum)
  • SOLD just one painting in his lifetime (Red Vineyard at Arles, Pushkin Museum Moscow)
  • VALUE of all his paintings is a tough one. Given double-digit USD values for even less well-known paintings and give there are 900 of them I would estimate the total value of his work north of USD20bn (USD22m each)

Arles: Severed ear & wheat fields

Vincent gained his early influences in Nuenen where he found his ‘true calling’ only at 27 (he died at 37). There he spent a lot of time in the countryside amidst, as he phrased it, the honest and humble life of basically peasants. It was here where he painted one of his most famous paintings – “The potato eaters” (1885) – putting all of the above on canvas. 

“If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam — fine — that’s not unhealthy — if a stable smells of manure — very well, that’s what a stable’s for — if the field has an odour of ripe wheat or potatoes or — of guano and manure — that’s really healthy — particularly for city folk

Letter to brother Theo, Nuenen, Thursday 30 April 1885

He ended moving to southern France in 1888 (with two years of his life to spare) to get some sun, recover and in search of colours being exhausted after 2y in Paris. It was one of his most productive periods. His intention was further to establish an artist community akin to the Paris one in Arles. This was yet again inspired by the Japanese, who in his view worked in harmony like monks. Sadly, the idea didn’t work out even though Gaugin made it to Arles for a brief visit at the end of which Gaugin headed back to Paris and Vincent had cut off his ear – a mysterious story to date.

As the story goes, he cut the ear (documented by detailed doctor records) with a razor and headed it to what was long presumed to be a prostitute (a metier well-known to Vincent). Most recent research actually suggests she was just a cleaning lady and they might have met in Paris prior to his journey to Arles (or some day … she was ultimately the reason for his relocation).

What he certainly did discover in Arles were the wide plains of the provincial countryside and his beloved wheat fields. I copy here from wikipedia: “The close association of peasants and the cycles of nature particularly interested Van Gogh, such as the sowing of seeds, harvest and sheaves of wheat in the fields. Van Gogh saw plowing, sowing and harvesting symbolic to man’s efforts to overwhelm the cycles of nature: “the sower and the wheat sheaf stood for eternity, and the reaper and his scythe for irrevocable death.”  […]  In 1889 Van Gogh wrote of the way in which wheat was symbolic to him: “What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat… We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat… to be reaped when we are ripe.”

“I’m wholly absorbed in the vast experience of wheat fields, large as a sea”

– Vincent van Gogh

Insanity & maximum output

Plagued by depression, van Gogh ended up admitting himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. He painted a lot through the window but was also let outside. After a year or so he moved on to Auvers-sur-Oise – just north of Paris. He now stayed with a doctor who was also a keen art fan. Vincent went into overdrive and painted (literally) one painting per day (so roughly 60 in total). 

Sadly, he felt he couldn’t carry his burden any longer and committed suicide in July 1889 – through a shot into his chest in a nearby wheat field. Research shows that his (very supporting) brother’s marriage might have catalysed his decision (as he felt that his attention would now have to shift to family matters making him feel like ballast).

His funeral was themed yellow colours on his coffin and several of his paintings in presence. Some of his artist friends such as Emile Bernard attended, as did his brother who spent his last moments on his side (the shot didn’t kill him instantly). Official church service was denied due to the suicidal nature of his death. 

“A great and desperate genius”

– Albert Aurier 

As tragedy has it, his (younger) brother died six month later. Theo had a son by then. His name is Vincent WillemHe was the driving force behind the van Gogh foundation and this museum where the collection found a permanent home in 1973.

van gogh deathbed.jpg

Texel island bike tour: Better check the wind forecast next time!

North of Holland you have several islands. Locals told me that Texel is not necessarily the best one of them, but its the one easiest reached from Amsterdam. The welcome weather was nothing short of spectacular when I got there and the atmosphere relaxed as you would expect. I explored Den Burg (largest settlement) before taking a tour round the island next day under pretty windy conditions. Great time.

Getting there: Just hop on one of the direct, half hourly services from Amsterdam to Den Helder (1:15min) and then take a short ferry ride over to Texel. From the ferry terminal it’s just under 7km walk, which i found pretty enjoyable (also, the cafe at the terminal has great bitterballen … by far my favorite Dutch dish & highly addictive judging by guests). 

Where to stay: Plenty of options on this holiday island (full with German tourists) that makes 70% of its money from tourism in some form or shape that are attracted by more than 2,000 hours of sunshine per year (on par with Uganda, Philippines and well ahead of London’s 1,600h). I opted for the stayokay hostel in den burg. Sadly there was only a german school class on excursion and so no-one to hang out with in my age category. But its a nice hostel minutes from the center, the staff is friendly and they rent bikes (well, probably everyone does in Texel).

Texel basics: It is the largest of the Frisian islands though still has just c14k population. Den Burg is the largest settlement (7k inhabitants). It was created by the All Saints Floods in 1170 – a massive flooding of Northern Netherlands & Holland territories (if you look at the Texel using google maps satellite it is still looks like land). It is pronounced ‘Tessel’ by the way. Historically it has been an important port (offering protection from the strong prevailing winds) and gained fame as the only place in history where a navy was defeated on horseback (as the french in 1795 used the frozen state of the of ice to attack the fleet. The dutch surrendered without a single shot fired).

Island tour: My bike tour took me some 47km around the middle & upper part of the island and some of its villages. From Den Burg I headed beach/dike bound to Oudeschild and made a first stop at the local museum Kaap Skil. It gives you a great overview of how old fishing villages/housing used to look like, a lot of the islands maritime history, modern ways of dike construction and all sorts of objects found on the sea floor or flushed up on the shores of the island. 

From Oudeschild I continued via Oostered north-east along the dike and thus straight into the SW wind. The fact that my high point was +9m and my low point -9m would suggest an easy ride, but not with 30-35km/h winds (1kts = 1.85 km/h) & gusts of up to 50 km/h+ blowing right in your face. The wind was about 10km/h more than normal for May. In  fact, those painful miles towards the lighthouse on the NE tip of Texel were as slow as walking speed at times and reminded more of a mountain stage on the tour France. That would explain why apart from two guys on e-bikes (leisurely overtaking me) I was the only fool going that direction (all the others went “downhill”) – I better do some research next time.

Nonetheless it was spectacular scenery – be it the wild sea, sailing boats, shipyards, loads of birds and pretty villages. I stopped for fries & herring in De Cocksdorp before checking out the beach nearby. Sadly the cycle route runs on the wrong side of the dam. So no more sea views for my, but heh. At least it was a lot faster. Once back at the hostel I headed straight for the net ferry and after a Heineken & 12 bitterballen I was on my way back to Amsterdam feeling somewhat exhausted, but happy.

Den Haag: Some facts & Escher museum

Den Haag was the next stop on my little Holland tour. It is a somewhat unusual Dutch city so far as it has no canals (but a lake in front of the parliament). I thought the city free tour was only average, but the Esher museum and the seafront were worthwhile visiting. After the tour I had a fun afternoon with Julia (from Darmstadt, but now in Berlin) enjoying the local food festival and, given she also blogs (see here), I got some handy tips.

What I learned about Den Haag

  • The Hague is the 3rd largest city in Holland with c1m population in the metropolitan area. It is home to the parliament and the royal palace though Amsterdam remains the constitutional capital.

 

  • Haagse Harry statue: It looks right out of a comic book and was designed by an artist who lived in the more artistic area of Den Haag (for locals there is a distinct separation of richer & not so rich people in the city).

 

  • There was a V1/2 base (German flying bomb) very close to the Hague in the Haagse Bos (the Hague forest). When the English tried to bomb the base, they got the target wrong and killed 600 people. The Hague was one of the most bombed places in WW2. This explains some of the more modern architecture in the city (similar to Rotterdam).
  • There was originally a synagogue in the city, but the few remaining jews couldn’t support it anymore. Then Turks squatted this synagogue in 70s and made it their building. Now two minarets have been added and its a mosque.
  • Seagull mania: Being close to the seaside, there are plenty of seagulls about. They are pretty aggressive in their endeavour for food and take apart rubbish bags (apparently not red/yellow bags) and steal food right out of people’s hands/mouths – so watch out when you snack here.

  • Across the city you’ll find many storks – a symbol of Den Haag that stands for prosperity (and children).
  • Stay normal rule: apparently very important for locals is to stay normal. Hence, it is not difficult to spot people like the PM having a coffee in an ordinary cafe.
  • Language: With 60% foreign students and mot people well versed in English, there is a growing debate about what happens with the Dutch language. I have to add here, that Dutch people all too easily switch to english even for foreigners that are trying to learn their language – so give us a chance & be patient.
  • The Hague is home to the first mall in Europe, which looks similar to the one in Milan & Brussels. The origin is closely related to the chaperone rule whereby young ladies required supervision when they leave their house. Having everything under one roof provided a certain freedom for those upper class chicks.

 

  • Bike orphans & battle with drivers: As in any Dutch city there are loads of bikes. Currently there is a big debate raging between bikers and car drivers. The former provide for 65% of the city’s movement yet the cars get 10x the space. Bike parking is pretty organised and should you leave your bike in an area not being a dedicated parking space it might get picked up. There are in total c100,000 bike orphans in the city – picked up bikes that are not claimed by their owners.
  • The Hague has arguably the smallest city park I have ever seen ;o) In total less than 1sqm. Locals would love to have a bigger one, as the stone that heavily features in construction here heats up in summer adding 10 degrees extra at times. Well, you can always head to the beach though – something most other cities don’t offer.

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  • Pharmacy anecdote: We stopped by an old pharmacy that retains much of its antique past. There is a joker figure above the entrance. This  symbols ‘de jaaper’ (the jawner). He would travel with the doctor and if you don’t trust your medicine, he would try it for you so as to proof it doesn’t kill you.

 

  • Fahrenheit (1686-1736) is buried here in the Kloosterkerk.
  • Polderen: A term that I first came across in my waterland tour (see here). It basically means to debate a problem with all parties involved to find a solution. The origin is from the polder/water management where people realised that only if decisions are taken together a good outcome can be achieved since drainage of fields is interconnected.

 

Esher museum – graphic & twisted art

Esher was a Dutch graphic artist that made mathematically inspired woodcuts & lithographs including many ‘impossible’ pictures (like illusions). A few samples below. The museum was EUR10 to get in and is not covered by the museums card, but worth it.