Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"There Ain't No Centre Clause"

The Dutch don't tend to overdo many things, so one wonders why they have two Christmases.

Last weekend, a bearded bishop came to Amsterdam attended by a huge parade of grinning Dutchmen in black face-paint. This was the arrival of Sinterklaas, a manifestation of Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of pretty much anyone and anywhere.

Every year, Sinterklaas arrives on a steam boat from Spain with his Moorish servant (called Piet). Because Piet is never actually portrayed by anyone with any Moorish blood, he always looks like a Dutchman who has been playing in the coal cellar where he found a very cheap wig. In fact he alarmingly resembles a character from a very cheap and offensive sketch show from 1972.

Sint en PietRight now, "Sint" and "Piet" (he's singular in the stories but appears manifold at parades, etc) are in the country, and getting ready for the big day. December 5th, also known as Sinterklaas, is when kids wake up to find gifts in their shoes left by the dynamic duo. There's also a ritual of wrapped presents accompanied by a small poem somewhat dissing the recipient. The presents, the foot-related receptacle, the old man with long, white beard is all very reminiscent of "our own" Christmas. Which is no accident. This is one seed of what we know as Christmas. Sinterklaas went to the US and got fat on Coca Cola; the shoe became a stocking; and the blacked-up Dutchmen became reindeers and elves. And these got added to the fir tree, holly and mistletoe from the original pagan Winter Solstice festival, bundled in with a wild stab at the birth-date of one famous errant rabbi to create the glorious celebration of consumerism that we today call "Christmas." And over the last few years, the Dutch have been increasingly celebrating Christmas (in the presents-and-overeating fashion of the movies) as well as their own earlier, modest festival.

This is, of course, yet another example of the world's culture being thrown into the American melting pot and reserved back to the rest of the world and ultimately its original culture. Pizza is another great example. It's a highly interesting phenomenon that is almost certainly propagated by the medium of film.

So the question I guess we all want to ask is this: who would win in a fight, Sinterklaas or Santa Claus?
• Well, Santa Claus is old, but Sinterklaas appears much older and frailer.
• However, Sinterklaas is quite lean and Santa Claus has been pouring in the Coca Cola for quite some years and is, well, a bit tubby.
• Santa Claus has a well-trained team of reindeer with the kinds of hooves that could kick a man all the way into the New Year; Whereas Sinterklaas has a huge army of Piets, who have large bags of stone-like sweets to throw at children.

There is no obvious winner on paper, but in my head the battle would be fierce and Manga-like. It will probably end with both parties being mortally wounded, leaving the way for a sequel. The real battle between Christmas and Winter Solstice: Jesus vs Sol. A heavyweight bout between the Son of God and the God of Sun. The so-called Rumble in the Wrapping Paper. I for one am looking forward to this.

Your Sinterklaas Correspondent, Piet Moor.

PS Here is what a Manga Christmas would look like (from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa and Noizi Ito). Happy Sinterklaas.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Travel 3/9/08: France: Le Bugue pt 2

Around Le BugueLe Domaine de la Barde is a 3-star hotel in 5-star setting at 4-star prices. The breakfast was a little pricey, but respectable if little cold. It also has the decency to be available until 11. Most hotels think their guests are the sort of people who like to be up and out with the crowing of the cock. Decent hotels know that civilised people don't go in for eating breakfast at 8 am when they're on holiday. To accompany your food Brahms is piped in. All very civilised.

We walked around town, took in the tourist office and regarded the River Vézère. There is not a great deal to the village – it is, after all, only a village. It has 3000 people but a disproportionate number of hairdressers. To put it in perspective, we only saw 1 shoe shop, 1 clothes shop and 1 Irish pub on this wander yet 3 hairdressers.

Around Le BugueHigh Tea (pain au chocolates, tea and orange juice) was consumed on the hotel terrace to the sounds of birds, running water and traffic. Most of the grounds are away from the traffic noises, but the terrace at that time, was not one of them. It was after all, a work day for those people who do that sort of thing.

Time Out Amsterdam called and asked if I wanted to interview a comedian the next day. Sounds glamorous, but it's the only time they ever called me. Probably because the first time they ever did call me, I gave the oldest excuse in the book: I'm in an old chateau in France.

River Vézère at Le Bugue
Our room came with a basket of books in a couple of languages. One particularly excited me, La Grande Fenêtre. I'd only recently finished the original, The High Window, by a chap called Raymond Chandler. Of course in French, it's pronounced Raymon Sharndley. I never managed to finish the French version, as we'd have needed a week or two longer for that. But it felt good to do something to knock my French up a knot or two.

We had a good, well-priced dinner at the Hotel Le Cygne where the waiter even recognised me as the guy who asked for directions to a different hotel the day before. It was almost like a little jab to say, "I bet the people in your hotel don't remember who you are." I'm sure we tipped him well.

Around Le Bugue

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel 2/9/08: France: Le Bugue pt 1

Since retiring, my parents have become much harder to track down. It doesn't help that some years ago they bought a run-down little farm in the under-populated part of France (i.e. that bit which isn't Paris). So a couple of months of the year they are there, making the place habitable. Which two months of the year is anybody's guess. You never really know until the last minute whether they'll be there or not, because they answer to no one. No one, that is, except the bowls club in their local village.

So it happened that Cath and I who, at the time, were still answerable to the man, or I suppose more accurately, the men, booked our wee trip in advance only to find my parents couldn't be in France then and had to ship back to the UK. We could have gone to my parent's place without them being there, but it was quite a long way to go to end up surrounded by nothing but sheep. So we decided to not stray quite so far from the airport as all that. To this end we selected the village of Le Bugue in the Dordogne.

We flew on Transavia, which is the Dutch equivalent of easyjet. There is a Dutch equivalent of Ryan Air which is locking yourself in a car boot (trunk) and being driven there.

Domaine de la BardeBergerac airport is one of these tiny airstrips or air fields that have been hurriedly turned into an airport because of the increase in cheap flights. The list of airlines who use it is small and a summary of bargain-basement airlines. Most of which are British. Bergerac as you know was named after an ex alcoholic policeman based on the channel islands (or Les Malvinas as the French call them). A line of portacabins outside the shed where you collect your luggage represent all of the budget car rental companies. The portacabin for our particular firm was populated by a lone Englishman. A small queue formed but it didn't seem to bother him any more than he already was. It was not a great job, but in a country with so many English people with only adequate French, it's a rare "proper" job.

By the time we had our car it was dark. We had a couple of hours' drive along generally pretty good roads and through some great-looking villages before we arrived at Le Bugue. We drove around the village a few times and eventually had to stop and ask in Hotel Le Cygne where OUR hotel was. It seemed very insulting to do that. "Say you, man with a perfectly good hotel, where is the less conveniently-placed one that we picked instead of yours?" But the man was very friendly (and helpful) about it.

CribOur hotel for the next few days was the Domaine de la Barde, which we picked partly for the name, but mainly for it being a beautiful old place in plush grounds. The receptionist very kindly waited late for us and 'upgraded' us to a very large room in the loft with some curious furniture including a tiny rocking crib. The downside of the room was that the windows were very small but did offer a great view of one of the staff's motorbikes. A tree blocked the sumptuous gardens. On the plus side the bed was solid and firm and the room quiet and dark. We slept like two snug logs in a large ipod.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Travel: 14/6/09, Sunday: US-NL

The Audacity of SoapSomewhat refreshed from a few hours' sleep, I grabbed some breakfast and wrote a note to the cleaner to explain the damp toilet roll in the bin was not the actions of hedonistic rock'n'roll stars hell-bent on trashing the place. I think the fact that otherwise the place was pristine should have made that clear.

The toilet roll incident was caused by a dodgy toilet roll holder that upon first touch sent the brand-new toilet roll flying into the toilet bowl. It was such a perfect action that I wondered if I was on Candid Camera. Had the toilet roll started rapping round me and dragging me into the toilet, I would have wondered if I was on a Japanese hidden camera show.

Our cab driver was from somewhere in the middle of the 21st Century. He had a futuristic Bluetooth ear piece with which to make calls. When we asked if we could swing by an open Borders, he used his GPS system to find one and also get the number to call up it. When he got no answer he called a nearby Barstucks to see if they knew when it was opened. It seemed the numbers could be automatically transferred from the GPS to the phone. There was even a webcam which was presumably for video surveillance. The guy was clearly some kind of spy. Probably working for the Indian security services. He was far too helpful and efficient which had to be a cover for some sort of shenanigans. It was certainly a lot of technology to use to replace our lost copy of Bitch magazine.

Like spies posing as taxi drivers, some airports are amazing centres of efficiency and organisation. Seattle is state-sponsored chaos. But it did have a "family washroom." I'm not sure what a "family washroom" is and how it differs from a regular washroom. I guess it means the graffiti is clean. It’s clearly another example of wholesome American values. The family that pees together...

We had a little time to check out the gift stores and chuckle at the latest novelty gifts such as Titanic ice-cube moulds and a Barack Obama cleaning bar called "The Audacity of Soap."

Having gone through the several layers of security, we were in the tunnel going to the plane and here found yet another layer. Customs officers were randomly stopping people to check if they had $10,000 or more on them. I think I've explained before that US Customs has a huge budget to justify.


DeltalinaThe Delta safety rigmarole is still my personal favourite of all the safety rigmaroles I've seen. It starts with a casual pilot telling you to pay attention and it is filmed in the style of a movie trailer. It features an Angelina Jolie clone in full close-up and a comedy, bald, bearded, fat man. At one point the comedy fat man smiles and his teeth ping. During the video, the captain has time for a sex change. You can see it here.

The choice for in-flight food was the same as it always is now: Chicken or pasta. This still bugs me as they are far from mutually exclusive. Next time I'm asked, "Chicken or pasta?", I'm saying, "Yes."

On the long, flight, I managed to watch some previously unseen (by me) sitcoms, Big Bang Theory (which I enjoyed*), and Chuck (which I barely remember*); I got some writing in, did a crossword and possibly snatched a five minute nap. Not quite the best method for beating jetlag, but it's slightly better than the rockstar method of drinking way too much and urinating in the aisle.

(* - that's the extent to which I'm reviewing them.)

The one thing I didn't find space to mention was Cath's underlying fear for this whole trip regarding Swine Flu, or as they still call it in the Netherlands, Mexican Flu. People have been encouraged to drop the name Mexican Flu because it somehow associates the disease with Mexicans. Instead the preferred name is Swine Flu, despite associating the disease with the golden animal that gave us ham, bacon, gammon and pork scratchings. So basically, for the entire trip, Cath had in the back of her mind a fear of coming into contact with Mexican Flu. A fear, that right up until the end seemed thankfully unfounded. That was until we got on the plane. As Cath sat there hoping the seat beside her would not be filled, it became filled by a man who boarded the plane carrying a huge sombrero and who proceeded to sniffle the entire flight. This is not a joke. If you had to draw a cartoon of "Mexican Flu" it would be a man with a sombrero and a runny nose. This is exactly who sat next to Cath for 9 hours. It only could have been worse had he had a pig under one arm and a Chinese bird under the other.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Travel: 13/6/09, Saturday pt2: US

Much of the US was "discovered" and named by Europeans whose career plan was "to find gold." Today, the equivalent would be a career based on winning the lottery. Many other names come from Native American tongues which are quite different to European ones. It means American names often have an innate comedy value. We passed Whatcom Community College, Nooksack Indian Reservation and Skagit. Skagit sounds exactly the sort of place a Coen Brothers movie would be set. We even sailed past a Free Unitarian Church, a name I always enjoy.

Everything was well and good until shortly after we popped into Barstucks for a pee, coffee and cookies. Driving along, we found we had lost a bag.

We had definitely had it upon arriving at the border and so we either lost it there or at the Barstucks. Cath had a vague thought she had taken it with her into the "Welcome" centre. This was a couple of hours back up the road and knowing how draconian they had been there, if the bag had been left there, it seemed likely one of the guys with all of their charisma in a holster would have had it destroyed as a terrorist device. Calling and claiming it could be a one-way ticket to the dark side of Cuba. Despite this, we found a number for the customs area, but got no answer. So we evaluated our options and likely outcomes and decided it wasn't so irreplaceable that we had to drive 4 hours extra and have a stressed, sleep-deprived evening for the chance we may get it back. It was only a bag of stuff, after all, and not a child. The only painful things to lose were a small notebook of Cath's and several weeks' worth of knitting (also Cath's).

We arrived in Seattle and joined the many, many other vehicles trying to drive through it. We eventually got off the free/high/expressway and found our hotel but not before going round the block a few times. This was because of one-way systems and the fact that Google maps is not so good when it comes to distances. We returned the car and headed for food. Lack of options in the immediate area lead us to The Daily Grill, which is not a talk show but a restaurant. Here I was seized by a whim to have pork chops with, my notes tell me, blackberries. They were on or near it as I recall in some sort of appetising mush. No froth was involved.

We were already missing the gentle accent of Canadians. City dwelling Americans seem to want to stab you in the chest with their words whereas Canadians tend to caress your limbs with theirs.

Back at the hotel we started listing lost things whilst I dug around the ubernet to get the right number for the customs point we came through. A very friendly person answered and yes, they had our bag. It had not been blown up and we were not on the most wanted list with a free pass to Guantanowitz Bay. However, we would only have just had time to get it and go straight to the airport the next morning. And we were already tired. Driving all night was probably not a good idea. We'd prefer to die defending democracy or resting contentedly, and not picking up knitting. The guy said he'd let us know if it could be shipped within the US, and we gave them Cath's parents' address in Texas. I thanked him profusely in as English an accent as I could muster. That stuff usually works.

This was a big relief, although there was no guarantee we would actually get it back, it seemed probable. US border patrol needs to justify its huge budget and we were certainly helping with that. So as to not keep you in suspense, I should tell you the bag has since been received safely, knitting included. It would have been most amusing had she been knitting a weapon of mass destruction, but actually it was a sweater.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Travel: 13/6/09, Saturday: From Canada to the US Border

It was time to leave this sleepy paradise and begin our journey back towards civilisation (via the US). We said goodbye to our temporary landlords, from whom we bought a couple of great wildlife pictures, and then drove across the island towards the ferry.

We followed the windy, windy roads, through the mountains and past rain forest and lakes. Shortly after starting out, we got to cross off the last big thing on our holiday to-do list. There in the morning mist, by the side of the road, a mother and baby bear were chewing grass. It was a better sighting than we could have hoped for. Pity we were not able to stop and take a picture, but that's life.

Bear Security LevelAlthough there were several bear spotting trips organised in the area we stayed, they all started at about 6 am or before. We were too much on holiday to get up and be active at such a time. Not even for bears. Many of the reasons I am not a religious icon are the tenets by which I live. These would translate religiously as, "If the mountain won't come to Morehammett, then, quite frankly, I'm not going skiing;" and "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. And even then, you try sewing a button on with a camel."

Not long after the bears, we passed another deer. This one was dead. I think we managed 2 dead and one living on the deer front. I never saw this deer; Cath did and uttered, "Oh. Deer," which I heard as "Oh, dear," and didn't relate to the presence of any horned, woodland creatures. Ah homonyms.

One of the interesting things we noticed about signs in this area ("go on," I hear you say) was that the French names for places were usually exactly the same as the English ones. The only exception we saw was Green Point, which, as you guessed, had been translated. To Pointe-Green. Even I can do a better translation than that.

We eventually found our way to Nanaimo and Duke Point ferry terminal. Here we waited for the next boat off the island and had some of the worst coffee ever made. It was hard to say exactly what was wrong with it, but at a guess I'd say: the milk was off, the coffee decaffeinated and it had been stirred with a festering rat foot.

On the island, tannoy (PA) announcements are much more sensitive than those on the mainland. No "ha ha, someone stalled on discharge" here. In fact all the announcements were for the "craft fair." We had time and the tent containing the dozen tables of jewellery, cards and dog-related products was on our way back to the car. Somehow even the term "craft fair" was bigging it up a little.

The ferry trip took 2 hours and I passed some of the time with a soup and a roll which nicely used up our Canadian coins. Then, we discharged without embarrassment and headed south.

Van with crucifix on it.After the normality of the island, the mainland seemed weird. We passed llamas and signs telling people not to drive on the central reservation (the way they did in The Blues Brothers). I suppose that's the danger of half the population driving off road vehicles.

The mainland is also not nearly as beautiful as the island. At least that bit wasn't. I think if we'd headed north, it might have been a different story. We passed through a grassy savannah called Prairieland. It was exactly how you picture somewhere called Prairieland. At one point, we even passed two old men sitting on the veranda of an old, wooden house. They were just sitting there watching the cars go by, and, one imagines, spitting into spittoons and muttering that if one of those cars heads this way, they'll reach for the Winchester. This was almost as great as seeing the bears.

Eventually Canada ran out and we joined the line of cars for US customs. The US border patrol has to justify the employment of thousands of men and women who otherwise would clog up the army or mail service. One way they keep them busy is a computer randomly selects people for a search. This is called a "compex" search because the piece of paper they give you says "compex" on it. It all sounds sinister, but the computer side of it, it seems, is not some clever algorithm to find likely people to search, it’s completely random. The computer side of this system would have taken about an hour to develop including testing. Although I suspect the US Government was charged for several months.

How it works is: a man in a Perspex box is told by the computer to direct you over to where a surly man with more gun than charisma tells you to park the car and sends you to an office where someone with no gun but an ability to deal with people makes you wait while he has a quick look over the car for things he knows he won't find because the car has not been selected as a likely source of problems, but randomly by a computer. Many of these people are so hopped up on the thought they are defending their country, they forget that most people coming in are not actually the enemy.

Once the guy with people skills finds nothing amiss, you are free to continue, feeling you've experienced some of that good old-fashioned American hospitality you hear about.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

My Own Personal Montana

At the beginning of last month we got a little booklet announcing a new TV channel here in the Netherlands. From the pictures it was clear we would see a lot of air-brushed teens wearing too much make-up and often dressed somewhat sexily. All, right! Except, of course, that it's actually the Disney channel.

Time was that The Disney channel would be filled with cartoon dogs, ducks and mice. Now, the schedule seems to be clogged up with something called, Hannah Montana. Which is something of a porn-star name, you have to admit. I do know who Hannah Montana is. At least I know every toy store I go into has a tall section filled with pink crap with her face on it. For those of you in blissful ignorance, allow me to shatter that. Hannah Montana is the pop-star alter-ego of an ordinary, American school girl in a hugely successful US TV show. I also learnt from Cath, who is in charge of celebrity gossip in the house, that the girl playing her is not some nobody plucked from obscurity, but the daughter of the man who recorded "Achy Breaky Heart." Yes, that man was allowed to procreate! Five times according to Wikipedia.

It's shocking how airbrushed the young, white leads are in all these shows. (The black characters only seem to peer out from behind the white ones so it's hard to see how airbrushed they are.) I guess Disney has always been peddling fantasy, but when the fantasy was a mouse surrounded by dancing brooms or a cartoon princess adapted from a fairy tale, it seemed harmless. But when the canvas is a teenage girl onto which some cartoon vision of beauty is painted, it becomes a little disturbing.

What's even more disturbing is that this is a complete rip-off of my own idea, that I tried to peddle to Disney and they turned down. It was called Hannah's Montanas and was about an ordinary school girl who by night was a hugely successful porn actress. More news once my court case has finished, More vs The Frozen Remains of Walt Disney.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Travel: 12/6/09, Friday: Tofino, Vancouver Island

As the trip was drawing to a sad close, it was time to buy gifts. We spent a small fortune at an Aboriginal store / gallery and then went to a Hitchcockian bakery for lunch. Hitchcockian because here we noticed for the first time that in this town, ravens outnumber gulls. They strut around like they own the place, and quite possibly they do. It's unusual to be in a seaside town with hardly any gulls. It's clear the ravens had taken over.Struttin' crow

We had another "slice of life" moment with a lawyer talking to a father and new wife about a child-custody issue with lurid allegations flying from both the father and the absent wife. Do all lawyers in the Americas conduct private meetings in public places? Maybe they all think they're on TV and need an audience. I'm not complaining, but it means that the writer in me needs to hang out in more American cafés. It means that my new legal soap opera, The Bar, set in a bar near law courts, will practically write itself.

That evening we chose the Spotted Bear Bistro to be our place du mange, as the French probably don't put it. We didn't book, but were early enough that we could nab the last non-reserved table. It's a small place that does tasty, well-sculpted food. I had some great duck and Cath some holy butt. Every meal was served with froth. Now before you start asking what is this froth? Is it some crazy American side dish like grits or fries? No, it's basically vegetable (or other) juice whipped up into a frothy pile. Intriguing and very molecularly gastronomic. The name of the place is very molecularly gastronomic as well: they all seem to have names that are .Beach at eveningIt was clear after tonight that all Tofino restaurants play reggae music while you are eating. The odd thing is that all the local radio stations play exclusively classic rock. I get the remote North American town / classic rock thing. The remote Canadian town restaurant / reggae connection is not so clear. It's probably so they can do all the old jokes when a customer asks things like, "what's this pudding got?" "Jam in."

Despite what is depicted in the literature, the bear illustrations and many totem poles, the local fish of choice is not actually the salmon, but the halibut. The halibut, or holy butt (I kid you not), or hippoglossus (I kid you not), which literally means horse tongue (I'm not sure if I'm kidding you here), is one of the world's favourite flat fishes. But it doesn't have the glamour of the salmon with its quintessential fish shape and heart-warming and -rending struggle upstream to have kids and die. The salmon is the self-sacrificing parent of the piscine world. The halibut is the bottom-lying loafer.

Buoy in treeAfter dinner we took a strole on the beach and watched a large band of kids light a bonfire. It was Friday night and the kids have gotta do something for entertainment.