Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Delft: The Old Church and the New Church

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now we’re in Holland.

We didn’t eat very much in Delft. 
            Delft is picture-book pretty, with a very quiet center  - no cars, just bicycles, and the canals there are not working canals, but filled up with duckweed, water-birds, lost bicycles and small children shouting and paddling inflatable rafts.  

Delft certainly caters to the tourist economy – the town square is rimmed with shops selling delft-ware and painted wooden tulips, and there is a fair sprinkling of really great chocolate shops about the old town (which the townspeople must be really bent out of shape about), but we felt like visitors there, rather than a horde.

And there are two lovely churches.  The Old Church, and the New Church. 
            In the year 1351, a parish beggar named Symon became plagued by visions of the Virgin Mary. She had appeared to him, he said, and while she wasn't terribly specific, it seemed clear – to Symon at least – that she was asking for a church to be built right there on the very spot where she stood in the town square.  Delft already had a church – a modern and up-to-date church, less than a century old, expensively turned out, patronized by the very best people and only three streets away – did the city really need another one?
            “Marsh gas.” The best people insisted, and they did their best to turn their backs on Symon, but there turned out to have been a witness – one Jan Cole, who claimed to have Been There and Seen It  All Himself.  And when Symon died, the visions transferred to Jan Cole.  He became quite a local celebrity, with people travelling from cities miles away to see the man who had Been Right There. The New Church project became a trendy sort of project, and in 1381, Delft began to build.  
            Feelings were bent in the hearts of the people in the parish of the other church –  and they remained that way for quite some time. Feelings were still bent in 1609 when Prince William of Orange, the great hero of the liberation of the Netherlands, was laid to rest in crypt of the New Church, with a socking great monumental sepulcher right above.  With this royal burial,  the crypt of the New Church became the official funerary vessel of the Dutch Royal Family, and there there didn’t seem to be any real point continuing the grudge.  Today both churches are administered by the same conservation board, and everything is happy tea and crumpets (or almond bread and stroepwaffels) but one is tempted to wonder...
            They are both beautiful churches.  Dutch ecclesiastical architecture has a spare, serene grace, and mostly, there's an entirely un-roman absence of frippery and do-dads to hide the building's beautiful bones.  For this you can thank the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century religious reformation, where protestant mobs tore through the churches of Holland, ripping out any decoration that smacked of extravagance or popery. (At the time of the Reformation, the Church Interior was a popular artistic genre – period paintings show how the churches had been emptied out and left clean-lined and almost austere.)
            This part of Holland is sand-dune, not stone country.  Church walls are built of brick, and only the columns are built of stone, and today the contrast of those two elements lends the churches an elegance that appears peculiarly modern.  

Ceiling of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam

Of course, in Delft, the spare reformation-styling of the Old and New Church has undergone a few alterations since the day.  Things seem to happen in Delft.

Nave of the Pieterkerk in Leiden

There was the fifteenth century fire that wiped out two thirds of the town and a large percentage of the brand new New Church.  Then there was that unfortunate incident in 1654 – the Delft Thunderclap – when the keeper of Holland’s gunpowder magazine, all of which was stored in the same cellar, went on a tour of inspection and wasn't quite careful enough with his torch, and 68,134 pounds of gunpowder went off at once and flattened a fair bit of the town and took out a large part of the re-built re-built New Church.

Nave of the New Church in Delft

There was also the year where the New Church was hit by lightning and lost its steeple, and the year when the really cold winter exploded the stained glass windows and.....
You may be getting the picture.
Perhaps it really was marsh gas after all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

We eat most of Leiden

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now we’re in Holland.

Our plans to return to Amsterdam and visit the Rijksmuseum were scuppered when, Anneke and Pieter mentioned over breakfast that the nearby city of Leyden (or Leiden, as it is properly said) was holding its weekly market.  Mr Tabubil revised the itinerary.  There was still a very long list of Dutch foods that I hadn’t tried yet, and Leiden was only half an hour away by the local bus –
            So we rode the bus to Leiden, through green fields and fields of glass-houses, and canals filled with sailboats and over bridges that open up to let boats pass underneath and soon, we were driving down tree-lined avenues past schools with hundreds of bicycles parked in the schoolyard and old church steeples dotting the sky between the trees, and then we were on the high street of Leiden.
            Leiden is as Amsterdam, but built to a domestic scale.  

The houses stand only two or three stories tall below their pitched roofs, and there is a tremendous variety of styles among ‘em -  we saw the year ‘1540’ written over the lintel of a little brick house in the close of the Pieterskerk, and we saw much baroque froofery and Victorian gingerbread, quite a bit of the richly simple expressionist stonework (that you rarely see in Australia or the Americas).  

We even some lovely bits of art nouveau  - little houses tiled and gilded like jewellery boxes,  and all of it mixed in with stuff that the painter Rembrandt would have found familiar in the sixteen-hundred years. (Leiden is his town.)

Leiden’s market ran up and down both sides of a canal.  A proper mid-week market, it sold everything – shoes and clothing, bolts of cloth, reels of cotton, scissors and razor blades, bread and meat and fish, fruit and vegetables and flowers - 

Leiden's market on the Aalmarkt.

Mr Tabubil steered me to a stall selling breads and pastries, and bought me a roll filled with almond paste.  And then bread filled with apples and cinnamon, and then bread baked with cheese, bread baked with raisins, bread filled with egg yolk, bread filled with apricot paste –
            He was on first name basis with the blonde Dutchwoman running the stall before we were half-way done.
            He’d buy, I’d eat, he’d return to the stall –
            “And did she like that one?”
            “Loved it.  What else do you have?”
            “I’d try her on this next – “
When I could no longer stand, he rolled me to the edge of the canal and we sat with our feet over the water and resolutely refused to feed the ducks quacking optimistically underneath us, and when I could get up again, he fed me cheese, and fresh farmed raspberries, and picked herring, and kibbling – and here, filled brim-full as I was, I went into orbit, because just like with the French fries in Amsterdam, I’d found the One True Thing –
            Kibbling is battered fish.  That’s all.  But it’s battered fish done with style and seasoning and that special Dutch facility with the deep-fryer –it knocks Australian beer-battered fish into a cocked hat.
Australians (like the British) think a great deal about their fish and chips.  We Aussies think we’re especially fancy and gourmet because we do our fresh fish in a beer batter. (Yes, I am aware of just how much this says about the level of haute cuisine in my country.)  There’s a particularly good fish and chips shop not far from my family home on the Gold Coast in Queensland, and I’ve had conversations with Australians all over the world who remember Peter’s Fish and Chips with fondness and a longing for his beer batter, but whenever I’ve taken Mr Tabubil there, he’s never been all that impressed.  One evening I remember that he yawned.
            Having tasted kibbling, just as when I tasted mi suegro’s beloved dutch fries, I now understand.   There are degrees and there are degrees of fast food, and some nations have lifted it to the level of art.

More Art.

To soothe our digestion, we took a boat tour on Leiden’s canals in a canal-boat with a very dour boat driver.  He steered the boat about the water in silence, with the glummest of glum faces, and only smiled once, when a wave came over the bow of our little boat and swamped one of the guests.   

We spent a very pleasant hour on the water, puttering up and down the canals between parks and shopping streets and university campus buildings and little water-borne residential neighborhoods. 
There were masses of blooming flowers everywhere.

The canals were water as back alley, water as main street, water as garden and horizon – it was when we reached water as ‘swimming pool’ that I revolted.  It was city water - thick and turbid.  We passed by a row of houseboats, and from one of them, a gang of children was merrily cannon-balling into the water - 
            Mr Tabubil tapped my shoulder. “I know.”  He grinned.  “The tropical girl only goes swimming in clear and swift-running water.  Anything else makes her curl up and die inside.  Did I tell you about the time my cousins took me kayaking in the polder canals? Those canals are pure runoff – organic and goose-turd, but they all went swimming!”
            “I’ve seen the photos.”  I said, shuddering.  “Especially the one where they pushed you in, and your face was open-mouthed with surprise-”
            “And I survived, didn’t I?  Not even a head-cold.  This is a temperate climate - nothing is going to grow in our water!”  

Back on shore we ate more kibbling, and Mr Tabubil found the stroopwafels. Stroopwafels are  waffle-wafers the size of soup plates glued together by sticky golden syrup.  They are incredibly sweet - five bites and I found myself leaning against a tree, trying to screw my head back on and feeling as if I were lying at the bottom of a canal filled with molasses.  Only afterward I noticed that every person queuing at the stroopwafel stand was a silly foreign tourist, like me, or a Dutch child under the age of six.

When Mr Tabubil had run out of foods for me to try, we rolled ourselves back to the bus stop and  went home to have dinner with Mina – an old friend of the family, and her new gentleman friend.  We weren’t nearly close to hungry, but she fed us as one feeds friends who have traveled ten thousand miles to see her, without stopping for a snack along the way.  We nearly exploded. 

A the end of the meal she served up yogurt, which is a very Holland-ish way of ending a meal, but she served it up on big flat dinner plates, which isn’t.
And the yogurt was an unexpected flavor – coffee (locally known as hopjes vla) which was also a novelty.

So when Mina passed me an enormous crock of granola and made expansive spooning motions and said “EAT!” I shrugged and braced myself and poured myself a plate of cereal, topped it with a little more yogurt and dug in. 
I’m a good guest. 
After a time I noticed that I was eating amid a silence and looked up to see Mina and her gentleman friend looking accusingly at Mr Tabubil, and with deep sympathy at me.
It was all Mr Tabubil’s fault, apparently, for not letting me know that the dessert is the yogurt and the granola is a garnish.  One or two teaspoons are sufficient.  To add a crunchy touch.

We were offered a ride home after dinner, but we insisted on walking.  We needed it.

(Ed note.  12/1/12 - Mr Tabubil has just read this and made an enormous fuss. "Hopjes vla is PUDDING, not yogurt.  Potato, potato...  Looks like a duck... etc etc - it tastes same like yogurt down to the yeasty tang.  I'm sticking to call it yogurt.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Amsterdam: Hipsters, Houses and Horrible Salted Fish

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now we’re in Holland.

Mr Tabubil and I had intended to be real tourists and do Amsterdam PROPERLY -  to take a canal boat out to the Rijksmuseum (but tragically not to the van Gogh museum – that collection was on loan to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Poot.) but it was such a lovely sunny day that we found ourselves simply wandering.  

Old Amsterdam is a lovely town – canals run back and forth across it, with narrow cobbled streets on either side.

We wandered along the streets of the old town, reading dates over the lintels of old brick houses, sitting in the sun on the edges of the canals with our feet dangling over the water, and when the sun moved on, getting up and wandering again. 

The houses are narrow, three and four and five stories tall, with baroque and neoclassical twiddlery on their pointed tops, and four centuries of slump and subsistence warping their frontages so that doors and windows run downhill and sideways - one house will start the slump, the next will deepen it, then the third will start to rise by leaning up the other way and by the fourth house along, things are almost straight again.

Sometimes houses lean out into the street instead of sideways parallel, and the forth story might be almost a meter out from its neighbors. When you see a slumpy house with 1609 written over the lintel you KNOW that you are looking at history!

Okay, not 1609.  We failed to get a photo of that one.

And so we wandered, all afternoon. These old streets are a bouncing, deeply artsy neighborhood – the smell of it part marijuana, part incense and part really good Indonesian food.   The ground floors of the old buildings have been turned into art galleries, travel agencies and small boutiques, with deeply hip -and occasionally wearable - hand-turned and limited-edition clothing on the racks.  

We watched the people on the streets around us, in their pencil-legged trousers and striped sailors jerseys, the boys in their loafers, without socks, and the girls in vintage blazers and necklaces made of buttons, and all of them with carefully undone hair and sunglasses with lenses like tinted wagon wheels -   
My goodness!  We’ve never lived among real live hipsters before. 
We felt deeply privileged to be among them.

Hipster Graffiti

But we were tourists, and tourists have no natural coolth-factor whatsoever. (Unless you’re on an architectural pilgrimage with a vintage Hasselblad camera in your pocket and vintage converse sneakers on your feet, and while wepassed on the first count, we failed the second and third with our pocket canon digital happy-snap and summer flip-flops) so Mr Tabubil took me away from there, and fed me Heering  (Holland’s Very Traditional and Very Famous Salt Herring) at a street stall. 

The mighty Heering.

You eat Heering with spoons of chopped onion and pickles.  The fish itself is very unappealing - fatty and pink and glistening with grease, rather like it has been rubbed all over with lanolin. But the chopped onion is a weirdly pleasing accompaniment (in all fairness, relative to that herring, ANYTHING is going to taste like roses and sunshine) and the pickles are sweet and tangy and while I didn’t enjoy it at all going down, the combination was surprisingly more-ish, and five minutes later i wanted another one.

But i restrained myself and we went and found more French fries instead.