Den Haag, October 21st, 2010When we think of Van Gogh we think of starry nights and sunflowers in the South of France, but it’s also true that he is closely associated with Den Haag (“The Hague”) in Holland. It was here that he went from being a failed art salesman to becoming a full-fledged failed artist, associating himself with the painters of “The Hague School”, an intense and innovative hive of hungry-eyed art zealots tilling the then-fresh soil of realism, intrigued by, and therefore focused on, as subjects, the hard lives of the local laborers and fishermen. It was here that Van Gogh established the skills and the inchoate vision that would serve as the foundation for the rest of his career, unrewarded during his lifetime though it was.
So it’s nice to be here, staying at sister Geneviève’s lovely three-story brownstone house in one of the more fashionable districts, enjoying time with her and her fine and smart and engaging son Fréderick.
There are bicycles everywhere, of course— this is Holland—lovely little restaurants just around the corner and nearby transportation that we’ll be taking advantage of on our upcoming trips to Delft and Amsterdam. And, too, day by day, as we gain our equilibrium on European terra firma (or, in Alice’s case, regain), soothed somehow by the constant background music of European tongues, so smooth and different from American glottals, I sense Alice re-absorbing the nuances of a familiar world, one that even she didn’t realize how much she had been missing, sort of like
a vitamin deficiency (call it “vitamin homeland”) that sneaks up on you so slowly that you‘re unaware of its systemic effect. Or, to mix the metaphor, like a pearl diver so accustomed to long periods without oxygen that they almost forget to surface, but who then fully enjoy the sweetness of the first breaths they take.
So, yes, it’s good to be here, but getting here was a different matter. The five hour, 374 Kilometer (233 mile) trip from Bertrange, Luxembourg to Den Haag, Holland was a nightmare, a rainy, traffic clogged, winding trek up one of the busiest industrial coasts ever created, first through rush hour Brussels, then skirting Antwerp and Rotterdam, two dense and muscular and sprawling ports. (Indeed, Rotterdam is, quite literally, the largest port in the world.)
I’ve never been to Antwerp, but anyone with even a passing interest in the military events of WWII is intimately familiar with its location and its role in those tense and implication-freighted days. You’ll recall that the port of Antwerp was Hitler’s desperately sought target when he launched the Battle of the Bulge. Reeling badly, with the homeland being obliterated daily and little remaining hope of survival, he knew that if he could muster a last ditch attempt to push towards that huge, strategically critical European port, and if he could make Antwerp his own, denying it to the Allies, he would have accomplished a kind of wrestler’s reversal going from near pin to having the upper position, in a virtual instant. It would make all the difference, alter the trajectory of the entire conflict. Had ne been successful, our world would probably be very different, even to this day.
So, yes, most historians concur that his vision was accurate: Had he grasped Antwerp, he would have attained not only the strategic lever that his military men lusted after (and knew precisely what to do with), the very fact of having gotten off the canvas mid-way through what everyone had expected to be the final count might have so dispirited the Allies that those who sought compromise, a kind of capitulation even at that late date, might have prevailed, which was, in fact, the dirty little secret Hitler was hoping for.
Fortunately, thanks to a storied and magnificent battlefield performance by a stunned Allied Army caught nearly as unaware
as Hooker’s Yankees at Chancellorsville (and, let’s face it, no army has ever been caught more unaware than that, before or since, thank you very much Stonewall Jackson) the onslaught was stemmed and then turned, and General Anthony McAuliffe’s “nuts” response to Von Lüttwitz’s demand for surrender at Bastogne became the stuff of legend. As it happens, my friend Norm Sweeters Jr.’s father is credited as being one of the last two soldiers out of Bastogne just before the German’s encirclement manoeuver closed the gap. He, Norm Sr., was the aide to a fellow by the name of Chet Hanson, who was Omar Bradley’s Aide-de-Camp. Hanson would later figure prominently in Bradley’s biography, A Soldier’s Story, and much later still, would deliver a moving and heartfelt eulogy at the funeral of his great friend and wartime aide, Norm Sr., my friend Norm Jr’s father, a strong and kind and decent man who had been, among many other things, exceedingly kind to me during a time of my youth when that kindness meant everything.
That day they were careening around Bastogne in a jeep, freezing cold, trying to get a sense of what was going on so that they could report their first-hand knowledge back to Bradley who was at headquarters behind the lines. For his part, Bradley was receiving reports of things that Hanson and Sweeters couldn’t be aware of, which was that Bastogne was about to be completely cut off. Somehow, with difficulty, Bradley managed to reach Hanson by radio and told him in no uncertain terms that the last thing he needed was for his aide-de-camp to be trapped in Bastogne for god knows how long, and he was to make a beeline for the last remaining opening towards the rear and get their butts out of there, pronto.
A wild, bouncing, roller coaster ride followed, but they got out, just barely.
Norm’s Dad would go on to land at Utah Beach and get shot a couple of days later, but survive. A few years ago, after Norm Sr.’s death, Alice and I met up in Brussels with Norm and his son Jake and we all made the trip together to the battlefields of Normandy. Norm brought with him a vintage coke bottle to fill with sand from Utah beach, in memory of his father’s courage that day.
Our guide was a nice young Frenchman, the grandson of folks who lived in Normandy during the invasion and who lived there still. When we got to Utah beach, there were signs everywhere forbidding, absolutely forbidding, the taking of ANY sand off the beach.
The young Frenchman came up to Norm and said, “Do I understand correctly that your father landed here on D-Day?”
“Yes,” Norm replied, quietly.
“On behalf of the French People, may I invite you to take as much sand from this beach as you would like.”
The wonderful writer Stephen Ambrose once made an interesting observation about the Battle of the Bulge. He feels that the battle was won—and it could have gone either way, easily—as a direct result of the differing characters of the German and American soldiers. The storied German propensity towards order and discipline produced in WWII one of the most formidable fighting machines the world has ever known, made up of supremely trained individuals who could be counted on to do exactly as they were told, no matter what—so long as they were told what to do. America, on the other hand, with “rugged individualism” and a healthy disrespect for authority built into its very foundations, had a much harder time generating the kind of absolute fealty to orders that the Germans so counted on. In the Battle of the Bulge, that intractability, that “Yankee ingenuity”, if you will, turned out to be a tremendous asset, as lines of battle disintegrated and communication lines were broken, so that small pockets of individuals had to figure out what to do, and then do it.
That played completely into the character of the American soldier, but was anathema to the German soldier, and in the end, according to Ambrose, that was the slim thread that ultimately made the difference and caused the Americans to prevail, by the skin of their chinny-chin-chins.
True? Maybe. But for whatever reason, and by whatever fortuitous methodology, Antwerp was saved to remain a critical strategic supply port for the move Eisenhower and Montgomery orchestrated on Berlin, and, then, after the war, and to this day, remain a bustling, sprawling, industrial powerhouse, and a big pain in the butt when it comes to getting around on the way to Den Haag, since, after all, it’s all about me.
Getting around Rotterdam was just about as bad, maybe even worse, because the trajectory to Den Haag took us even closer to that city than we had been to Antwerp, and, in addition (as we were clued in on the next day), some mode of railroad strike (and in Europe, there are as many kinds of railroad strikes as there are railroad workers with a sharp eye for a beef, perceived or real) caused the highways to be all the more overburdened, and did I mention the construction zones every few miles and the fact that we had to contend all the while with a rain of that annoying type that can’t decide what it wants to do, never settling on a steady pace and therefore demanding that you constantly readjust the rhythm of your wipers every two seconds THE WHOLE DAMN WAY while, at the same time, you have to monitor complicated multi-lane mergers, first left and then right and then, okay, you go straight while everybody else comes in from both sides? Fortunately, we had a nice car to do all this in, provided by Alice’s older brother, Henri.
Let me tell you about Henri and cars: Have you ever been to an auto parts store and seen those big catalogs on the counter with the very thin pages and the tiny listings of just about every car part ever created, with sometimes an small picture of each obscure little nut, bolt, screw, piston, fender or brake bulb and maybe a line drawing and a “part number” so you can order it? Usually there are twenty to fifty parts per page, and several hundred pages. You do the math.
Well, Henri is a guy who can lie in a hammock and read one of those catalogs for fun. A few years ago Alice came to me and said Henri had called from Luxembourg and was requesting some assistance buying an item on EBay. It seems the seller wouldn’t commit to a transaction with someone from overseas unless they had an American financial presence, so, an American intermediary was necessary, and might I be that intermediary?
Sure, no problem. Henri is a great guy, absolutely trustworthy and responsible; no problem, what is it he’s buying?
It turns out it was an antique Corvette. Now, I’m not referring to an antique Corvette toy, the sort of collectible that makes up so much of the eBay lore (let’s not forget that the first item sold on eBay was a Pez dispenser…), I’m talking about an actual Corvette car, one that he intended to have shipped to Luxembourg.
My initial reaction to Alice was to say, “Who buys a car on eBay?”
“Henri, I guess…”
“Is this even possible?”
Newsflash: Yes, it’s possible. Extremely odd, maybe even goofy, but definitely do-able, and, sure enough, a couple of months later Henri picked up his first Corvette in, I think, Rotterdam, or maybe Hamburg, no matter, he got it: One Corvette, a real-world Corvette, from one continent to another, money changing hands (or, more accurately, wire transfers blinking their way through the system) all accomplished sitting at a computer.
What a world we live in.
You’ll notice that, above, I referred to this as Henri’s “first” Corvette.
Yes, there was a second. Same process.
So far, there is no third, but occasionally Henri gets that look in his eye, like Napoleon gazing across the Mediterranean with a lean and hungry look, dreaming of conquests to come along the Upper Nile, and so, never say never…
I mention all this simply to lay the groundwork for an appreciation of Henri’s obvious love of automobiles, which is necessary to fully understand what an enormous act of generosity it has been for him to offer us the use of one of his cars for the duration of our sojourn in Europe. And it’s not some old clunker; it’s a really nice 2006 Audi A6 station wagon. For a while I drove an A6 sedan and loved it, eventually giving it up in favor of an SUV which was more utile when we moved to Florida, but I always enjoyed driving it, and the station wagon Henri has loaned us is equally a pleasure to drive, and, as is most common in Europe, it’s a manual shift with six forward gears. Nifty.
So we packed bags for a three day visit to Den Haag, coaxed in the dogs, and made our way, arriving late in the evening to this ancient city, rich in history and tradition, but known around the world these days predominantly for its “World Court”, which is actually widely misunderstood.
To some extent if you are a European, and to a very large extent if you are an American, when you think of “The Hague” you think of “The World Court”, as in, “Today, at The World Court in The Hague, proceedings opened to adjudicate the most abstruse, arcane, mind-numbingly dull, probably massively important (but who cares?) issue involving the ongoing dispute between East NoDopia and Lower Upper Edgewise. The proceedings are expected to last no less than one hundred years and to end in no discernable resolution, which will be enforced by a non-existent enforcement mechanism and two draft choices to be named later.”
Either that, or, “The trial commenced today of Valhaily Mikelsikcjklmoviakjianstanjcrzk for crimes against humanity consisting of some hideously gruesome piece of human barbarity, acts so grisly and repugnant that everyone in the world except two or three of his cohorts want him to die, die slowly, and to rot in hell for eternity and maybe even longer, or perhaps bring him back and kill him again, and there’s not a single person, excepting the aforementioned cohorts, who would object. The trial is predicted to last several years, during which Mkelsikcjklmoviakjiamstanjcrzk is expected to die of natural causes and have monuments erected in his honor in his home country, which is unpronounceable and may not even exist anymore at that time.”
Am I lyin’?
Oh, sure, “The World Court”. Who can figure it all out? Well, as it turns out, there are a couple of things that help clarify things just a bit:
First of all, you need to know, if you don’t already (and I didn’t), that there are actually two entities, completely separate, that get erroneously lumped together under the rubric “World Court”.
The first, the organization that actually does possess, correctly, the term “World Court” is the ICJ—the “International Court of Justice”, which is housed in the lovely and quite old Palace of Peace and has been functional since the early part of the 20th century. Actually, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s been operating since that time, because it’s a matter of argument how “functional” it’s been. The key thing to know about the ICJ is that its purpose is to settle legal disputes submitted to it by states, which is to say, governments, not individuals, and to give advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by duly authorized international organs, agencies and the UN General Assembly (and we’ll get to that last one in a minute…)
The dispute mentioned above, between East NoDopia and Upper Lower Edgewise would land in that court, assuming of course, that each of those entities was determined by the court to be, indeed, a legitimate state, and that determination is often a lot more precarious and arbitrary—to say nothing of ferociously disputed—than you might imagine.
The second entity is the ICC—the “International Criminal Court”, and that’s the one set up to hammer individuals like our friend Mr. Mkelsikcjklmoviakjiamstanjcrzk. It’s a lot newer, housed in a gleaming new building, and has all kinds of problems, many of them “definitional” in nature. How so? Well, okay, if you’ve got a genocide beef against some politician, you can bring it here: Everybody pretty much knows what genocide looks like (See “Darfur”). They also will review “crimes against humanity” and that, too, is something that, well, “you know it when you see it.” But now it gets trickier because the other things they are authorized to delve into are “War Crimes” and “Crimes of Aggression”, and the largest number of complaints that are brought to them fall under those categories, from people desperately hoping for meaningful assistance and recompense resulting from acts of “terrorism” and we now walk smack dab into the “One man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom fighting” issue.
In other words, in a nasty tautological loop, the first thing the Court has to do is figure out if it has any jurisdiction at all, by deciding whether, okay,
this situation that has been brought before them is correctly being characterized as (and therefore prosecutable as) “terrorism”, as opposed to it being more accurately described as some folks simply sticking up for their rights, like, say, Paul Revere. Which is to say, the first thing the Court has to do is make a determination about the very thing the people were fighting about in the first place: Who’s got the legitimate beef and who doesn’t?
Overwhelmingly, and as a big ol’ canvas tarp that gets thrown over the whole deal is this: The way you feel about these courts is going to parallel the way you feel about the UN.
If you feel the UN is the planet’s last, best hope to inject some sanity, order and basic decency into the long, sorry saga of man’s inhumanity to man; that it is populated by virtuous, well-meaning humanitarians fueled by a deep-seated and noble belief in the fundamental goodness of man and the perfectibility of the human character; and that a global platform of human comity can emerge from an organizational architecture that will be conceived and erected by these, the best and brightest minds we have, who will take advantage of and incorporate the accumulated wisdom of centuries; if you believe that if you do all that then people will be good to each other, find ways to work things out without resorting to violence and savagery—then you probably think the whole “World Court” thing is not only a good idea but one that is an absolutely vital step in the right direction, one that should be supported fervently and at all costs.
If, on the other hand, you see the UN as a nasty consortium of grasping tin-pot grub worms who want to redistribute the world’s wealth from the nations who created it to loser, primitive nations who are mired in that condition as a result of their own national choices and who, among other things, want to kill us, and who are led by bottomlessly corrupt genocidal dictators who siphon off great gobs of whatever misguided goodwill foriegn aid comes their way and spirit it off to overstuffed Swiss bank accounts so they can buy Chalet’s in the Alps or compounds in Dominica for themselves and their scantily clad paramours; if you believe the UN is a feckless, doomed exercise in wishful thinking that completely misreads the fundamental nature of human character in the most Pollyannaish, perilous way; and if you view the UN diplomats, overwhelmingly, as arrogant, pampered, illegally parking panty-waists who want to, among other things, drag Henry Kissinger’s sorry ass into court for war crimes (as defined by them, certainly not as defined by Henry Kissinger) committed during the Vietnam era and to do this for no other reason than to embarrass the United States, AKA The Great Satan, and beat it into coughing up some more of those (increasingly valueless) greenbacks, well, then you are no fan of the “World Court” and view it as nothing more than an attempt to put a legitimate face over what is actually a self-serving, money-grubbing, utterly benighted aggregation of nitwits.
Take your pick.
I have my own opinion and it tracks with Mayor Giuliani’s “broken window” theory of cleaning up crime in New York City. You’ll recall that this theory posits that instead of trying to deal with the big issues, which are always intractable, you should address the small ones, nip them in the bud, so to speak, and the rest will follow. If you let a building sit with broken windows, it begins to “send a message” that attracts crime and pretty soon the building is housing genocide. Okay, maybe just a gnarly crack den, but still…
In accordance with this theory, I believe that if you took every one of those diplomatic bastards who double park in New York City and who then scoffingly tear up the ticket because they know they don’t have to pay it, if you summarily executed them, preferably immediately and on the spot (granted, this would require a somewhat broader scope of authority for our already over-taxed and under pensioned meter maids, but, hey…) then things all over the world would start to get better, but quick.
I’m just sayin’…
Upon approaching, Den Haag, after the long and unnerving drive mentioned above, we began the final navigation through a bustling city at rush hour, never fun in any city, especially because, inevitably, you sense that everyone else knows exactly what they are doing and where they are going, which they are proceeding to in fact do with alarming alacrity as well as a confidence and sureness that you lack utterly, since, instead, you are racked with indecision, confusion, disorientation and trepidation. There are critical decision-making imperatives that must be made with the time allotted for their execution measured in milliseconds.
Now add trolleys to the mix, which, if you’re American but not from San Francisco, you not only have no familiarity with but don’t even have any reason to know they are something you need to take into consideration, and what you have is a recipe for saddle bagging.
(Those of you who have read Tom Wolfe’s wonderful book “A Man in Full” know that “saddle bagging” is a process whereby a person is placed under such enormous stress that the armpit sweat begins to flow so steadily and profusely that in a short amount of time two large, embarrassing, tell-tale, sweat stained “saddlebags” grow on your shirt.)
For someone who has lived and driven for many years in New York City, this becomes especially daunting because you have come to know exactly what to expect from your fellow city dwellers:
In New York, if another driver senses indecision or uncertainty on your part, an atavistic kill response is triggered and, as its first and universally applied manifestation, they will instantly and for an extended period lean on their horn.
This is true whether you are traveling at three miles an hour through the intersection at Herald Square (not for the faint of heart) or traveling at 70 miles an hour keeping up with heavy, irritated (always irritated) traffic on the Long Island Expressway. (This would probably be at 2am since at all other times, on all days, holidays especially, the traffic on the Long Island Express has exactly three speeds: Slow, stopped dead and detour.)
When in doubt, lean on your horn; that’s the ticket. When not in doubt, lean on your horn.
A few years ago, for a reason lost to my memory, although I guess it was because some jerkwad had just honked at me, I began to pay attention, in a clinical, analytical sort of way, to when and in what circumstances people honked their horns, and whether doing so seemed to improve matters, ever.
Here are the official results of my admittedly non-comprehensive but personally empirical survey: I have never witnessed, or been in, or heard about a traffic situation so bad or so dangerous that honking your horn couldn’t make it worse, and, in many circumstances, did.
One typical example I recall involved what looked to be a very nice, middle aged woman who was traveling along the middle lane (of three) on the Long Island Expressway, going the speed limit, at which point someone in a
Porsche Carrera sped past on her left and then immediately swerved right, back in front of her, pulling away, and then swerved again into the rightmost lane in order to be able to maintain his high rate of speed while passing a truck on the right. The woman in front of me, startled by the Porsche as it whizzed by, made a slight involuntary twitch of the wheel to her right, which placed her right wheel on the line—but not over it—demarking the right hand lane. In that lane, parallel to me, and therefore well out of danger from this woman even if she had crossed the line into his lane, which she didn’t, was one of those guys so short that his hands on the wheel are actually higher than his head, so he sticks his nose in the air and peers over the dashboard at a world he no doubt resents for requiring that he proceed through it in a condition of such short stature.
Naturally, and, alas, predictably, as soon as the woman’s wheel headed towards the line demarking “his” lane, he leaned on the horn.
The woman, already startled by the Porsche, was now doubly startled by the horn, assumed, no doubt, that someone behind her was in actual danger from her unintended reflex action, and now, as a result of the sharp blast of Mr. Shorty’s horn, had an even more pronounced reflex to turn the other way, did so, sharply, too sharply, and began to lose traction as her car lurched left.
Had there been another car in that leftmost lane where the Porsche had just passed, there would undoubtedly have been an accident, probably a very bad one. Fortunately the woman managed to right the skid and get back on a steady course in the middle lane. I noticed that she edged over and got off the next exit, obviously terribly shaken. The guy who had honked at her proceeded along on his merry way, nose still in the air, probably oblivious to the catastrophe his mindless honking almost precipitated.
And I began to ask myself, why, exactly, had that guy felt compelled to honk his horn in that situation? He was in no real danger and surely he couldn’t have thought that absent his honk the woman wouldn’t know he was there, or someone was there.
No, the purpose of his honking was to announce his displeasure and to assert that, hey, your problem is not my problem, and, in fact, your problem is my opportunity to manifest some sweet righteous indignation, so satisfying, by honking at you.
And that, in turn, got me to thinking about car horns in general, and what the heck was their original purpose, and why and how have they involved into what they now are, which seems to me to be perhaps unnecessary bullhorns used to bully people with relative anonymity and impunity? I mean, what’s up with car horns?
And what I found out is actually sort of interesting:
These days, when you see a road, you naturally expect to see cars; I mean, that’s what they’re for: Cars. You might see a bicyclist, but you don’t actually expect to see one (which is why so many of them, unfortunately, get killed, often in broad daylight on open stretches). And you definitely don’t expect to see a water buffalo or a herd of sheep.
But to “get” car horns, you have to go back to the very early days of automobiles and consider what the world was like then.
In those days, when you saw a road, a water buffalo or a herd of sheep was exactly what you did expect to see. (Of course, the water buffalo is continent specific, but I’m mentioning it for a reason, which get to in a future chapter.) What you didn’t expect to see back then, in fact the last thing that it would have occurred to you that you might encounter– was a car, an “automobile”.
The roads “belonged” to the sheep and the cows and the pedestrians, both in reality and in your anticipatory imagination. Therefore, since nobody had any expectation of encountering an automobile, it was necessary for the automobile to have a means of signaling its presence. Believe it or not, in the very early days, this was done by sending someone out to walk in front of the car, waving a red flag and blasting out some kind of noise, be it a ringer or a whistle or a horn, with the idea being to have it be as intrusive a sound as possible, not simply to jack up the annoyance factor, but as a matter of safety, of making sure it was heard. Nobody likes road-kill mutton, after all.
But there is an important core component to this relating to the nature of this exchange of information between the driver of the car and, say, the herder of the sheep: Yes, the automobile was signaling its presence, but the sheepherder, having been so notified, might move aside to make passage for the automobile as a favor, not as an obligation.
Therefore, if we can put a “translation” to the message provided by the automobile’s horn (although, initially it was one of those “bubble” blowers that people now sometimes put on bicycles) it would be something like, “Hello, Mr. Sheep Herder, pardon me for the intrusion on your road, but I’d like to pass through in this preposterous contraption and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you to move aside and make a little way for me so that I can do so, I would very much appreciate it.”
Compare that to the “message” being delivered by the more modern horn-blower, which might be something like: “I don’t like what you’re doing you cretinous worm, you worthless annoyance, you should be vaporized by a vengeful traffic god.”
Again, the original purpose of the car horn was to perform the legitimate and worthwhile function of alerting unsuspecting innocents to the presence of possible danger, in the form of the intrusive car itself; this has evolved into its almost exclusive use as a trumpeter of one’s annoyance. As such, it exists as a mechanism that allows people to announce to the world what their particular state of mind is, in the most offensive and annoying way imaginable, and the fact is that I couldn’t care less what their state of mind is and would very much appreciate being relieved of the obligation to be made aware of it, at all times against my will.
Therefore, I think they should rip them out and not allow them in any new cars. Either that, or there should be a law that says if you’re caught blowing your horn in any circumstance other than one that is deemed to be not only absolutely necessary, but as being one where accomplishing the desired result could have been achieved in no other way, with all this being assessed by a jury of one’s peers, then you receive the death penalty, preferably by lethal injection while people blow car horns in your ear so that it’s the last damn sound you ever experience.
Or perhaps something slightly less Draconian than that, but not too.
(Yes, I realize that between the UN double parkers and these horn-blowers, I’m on a bit of a capital punishment binge, so maybe I’ll do a re-think on some of this but, for now, kill ‘em…)
This horn-blowing law should be in effect everywhere but Holland, since they don’t need it, and it’s one of the reasons I like them so much.
Because, indeed, as we approached the final turn into Genevieve’s neighborhood, a treacherous pivot to the right across two lanes of traffic facing and one in the rear, plus a trolley track in the middle of it all, as I hesitated and balked and wound up paralyzed in the dead center of the vortex of this rush hour bear trap, I fully expected to receive exactly what I would have in New york City: A symphony of horns and irate fists waving in the air, and people seeking to weave around me if not over me, each determined to neutralize the negative effects on themselves of my sorry ineptitude, and if that meant that I would be sacrificed on the altar of “you snooze you lose” comeuppance, well, it would be nothing less than I deserve.
Instead, everybody stopped, from all directions, aware of my distress, and patiently waited for me to figure out what I needed to do and then do it, clearing the intersection, at which point they took turns continuing on their way.
Not one single horn was honked.
“Good grief”, I said to Alice, “You gotta love these people”.
She turned to me, and said, in a way that should have been unnecessary, but, unfortunately, wasn’t, “My mother was Dutch.”
“Exactly,” I said, remedially.
Dutch Design — How to make a store
Early evening, we catch the convenient trolley to downtown Den Haag, a pleasant, centuries-old berg consisting of narrow bike lined streets and alleys, stores and restaurants everywhere, and a bustling street life.
As Alice and Geneviève browse their way through a succession of stores, I find myself becoming aware, gently at first and then more forcefully, of the enormously pleasing visual and spatial environment we have entered, and I begin to realize that no part of it is random or unintended. The arrangement of stores, either in small squares or along winding streets, seems perfectly inviting, precisely configured to encourage us to meander through each venue, with pleasing shapes and patterns in all directions and then to be softly lured to the next store which will be different enough to provide variety, but equally pleasing to inhabit and explore—all this despite the fact that I have no interest at all in any of the things they are actually selling.
I realize that I am now immersed utterly in the glories of world famous Dutch industrial design.
Go into a store devoted to kitchen implements and supplies and really look– not at the items, but at the patterns, the ways they use simple industrial racks– something that would draw no notice at all in its more normal environment– to provide the sub-structure for, say, a beautiful and functional display of frying pans.
Then look at one of the pans. It, too, in and of itself, is subtly contoured, balanced, lovely.
Spatulas? No, not thrown willy-nilly into some tub, but arranged in a pattern that is dictated by the individual shapes, in a way that, in aggregate, also injects three dimensionality to their display.
Yes, it’s hard to describe, and therefore to imagine, but it is distinct and it is definitely noticeable, if only because even if you do not become consciously aware of it, you find yourself feeling as if you are becoming a part of the store and a part of whatever process it has been designed to facilitate, rather than simply moving through it and looking at “things”.
Having been involved in the photography and graphic design business for many years, I can tell you this is no accident: The Dutch are widely respected for these things, whether they be the kinds of stores I’m describing, or typefaces (fonts) they design, architecture of handsome simplicity or even… a chair.
Indeed, in 1917 a fellow from Utrecht by the name of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld designed what some have described as being the most influential chair of the 20th century. That’s a lot of bravura for a simple chair to be asked to shoulder, but there’s more than that: This chair, this “Rietveld Chair”, was also asked to embody the tenets of an entire philosophy of “being”, and some say accomplished just that, so maybe it holds a clue as to why Dutch design is so pleasing and, in its way, powerful.
Now I, like you, having a look at this chair, would immediately think to myself, hey, you can have that one for watching the Superbowl, I’ll sit right over here in this big fat easy chair with the pop-out foot rest and the nacho stains and sleep drool on it, thank you very much.
And that’s sort of the point: It’s not about comfort. “Sitting” is a verb, asserted the proponents of the school of which Rietveld was a member (along with Mondrian, its most celebrated adherent). Sitting is something you do. Hence, as with all things when properly executed (as opposed to improperly executed, which is, according to them, pretty much the way you and I do everything) it incorporates a balance been action and inaction, between repose and energy. Therefore, the inaction of sitting should be accomplished in such a way that it promotes the action of thinking, or, “being”.
Get it? It’s about balance. A great chair will improve your ability to listen to, say, Mozart, not put you to sleep. Maybe a little discomfort, okay, well, not exactly that, let’s just call it an absence of comfort per se, is entirely necessary for a chair to achieve greatness in its functionality as a chair, which is to aide you in the action of sitting.
That big overstuffed piece of crap in your living room that you love so much is just that, a piece of… well, let’s just say that unlike the Rietveld Chair, it’s not going to wind up in the Museum of Modern Art worth about a bazillion dollars.
It is true, of course, that contrarians and free thinkers of various ilks would arise to posit that perhaps sitting is not, after all, an action, but, rather, a state of being, one aided immeasurably by attention to such things as comfort, and these issues would provide fertile terrain for endless ratiocination, then and now, about the proper design of a chair and the implications of chairs in general. (In the design world, never underestimate the obsession with chairs: Can you say “Eames”?) But the Rietveld chair, like all “important” chairs, in addition to providing, for good or ill, a functional place to rest your butt, and in addition to holding all that philosophical baggage—is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Look at it from any angle, or, in a picture, turn the picture upside down or sideways, and no matter what, it is incredibly pleasing in composition, color, shape and form. It just is, and knowing why isn’t all that important.
And in that, it is quintessentially Dutch, and if you come here, make a point to notice all this, everywhere you look, and enjoy it thoroughly.
Which makes me wonder: Where does the word “quintessential” come from, anyway? We all know that it means “the most”, if you inject those words with steroids, but what’s a “quint”, and what’s “essential” about it?
Not surprisingly, the “quint” part refers to “five”, not unlike the French word for five, “quinze” or, of course, the Latin “quinque”.
The “essential” part is really “essence” referring, more specifically, to an “element”, or, even more specifically to the four elements or “essences”—earth, wind, rain and fire—which were in ancient times thought to be the only things that existed. The thinking was that anything you can come up with, anything at all, would be made up of one of those four elements, or a combination of them, and only them, because, after all, there wasn’t anything else.
If something was so extraordinary that it was beyond that, actually beyond what we already know to be the limitation on the composition of absolutely anything, well, then it must be made of something even beyond those known four elements, some “fifth” element, and who knows what the heck that might be, but it must be good.
Therefore, if something is that excellent, that sublime, that indescribably (literally) fantastic, then it must be made up of that fifth (quinque, quinze, quint) element (or “essence”) and can, therefore, be described as being literally “not of this world” but, rather, part of that fantastic, otherworldly fifth element, or, “quintessential”.
Hey, hang around me and you learn stuff…
Tomorrow we visit Delft.