On Rembrandtplein

I returned to Amsterdam for a couple of days after the rest of the students and my colleague headed for home. I wanted to follow through on several contacts I’d made earlier in the trip for a story on tobacco control in the Netherlands that I’m writing for Cancer Today.

As I often do when I’m traveling to a place I’ve never been before, I located a hotel online that appeared to be well-priced and centrally located. Turns out, the NH Schiller Hotel was better than I could have imagined, located right on Rembrandtplein, a beautiful green square named for Rembrandt and just a couple of blocks from the house/now-museum where the famous artist lived for much of his life.

My hotel room faced Rembrandtplein, so when I opened my window I could hear the street musicians playing and see people lounging on the lawn–I was lucky enough to experience a relatively warm and sunny Holland during my stay. I also had a clear view of the statue of Rembrandt in the middle of the square, in front of which stood an assortment of sculptures depicting the Naucht Wacht (“Night Watch”), one of Rembrandt’s most celebrated works.

The Naucht Wacht painting is housed in the Rijksmusuem in Amsterdam, where it hangs prominently on a wide wall. The piece, completed in 1642, is essentially a military portrait (a common subject for paintings in the Golden Age of Dutch paintings), but it is unusually large and reveals uses of light and dark that contribute to a sense of movement among the individuals pictured. It is stunning.

With UAB students in front of the Rijksmuseum posing by the famous I Amsterdam sign

With UAB students in front of the Rijksmuseum posing by the famous I Amsterdam sign

Rembrandt and some of the Nacht Wacht soldiers standing guard

Rembrandt and some of the Nacht Wacht soldiers standing guard

The plight of farmers in Romania

One of the best things about traveling to Amsterdam was the opportunity to work with two very bright, energetic women from Sustainable Amsterdam: Cornelia Dinca and Anna Hajdu. Both are from Romania, and they have discovered a home in the Netherlands and an outlet for their passions:  http://sustainableamsterdam.com/

Anna is completing her Ph.D. and shared with me some of the research that she is currently conducting back in her home country. While I’ll avoid going into the details of Anna’s research–since the work is, after all, hers to tell–she did offer an interesting perspective on farming in Romania when we sat down to dinner at Cornelia’s home Sunday evening.

Like small farmers in the Midwest, where I lived the first 17 years of my life and my dad continues to live on the land as a fourth generation farmer, farm families in Romania are steadily losing their ground to corporations. Commercial stakeholders interested in acquiring land and turning over a quick investment–by working the soil aggressively until it can no longer produce anything of value–are strategically tricking older farmers into selling their property cheaply while corporate profits remain high.

Anna told me that corporations set up shop in an area and post signs indicating that farmers should show up on a certain day and time to find out what their land is worth. To a generation raised on Communist dictates, these notifications, Anna said, appear mandatory. Farmers come to the meetings, and before you know it, their property has been sold to a corporate representative for far less than the land is worth.

In addition to the backdrop of Communism influencing how Romanian farmers perceive their right to refuse to sell, or at the very least, to negotiate a fair price for their land, Anna noted that most of these farmers lack a sense of pride in what they have accomplished as caretakers of the soil.

“In Romania,” Anna said, “the young people are leaving to get an education and to find other kinds of work. Once they leave the farm. they are no longer interested in it.”

There is a sense that what these younger generations are leaving for is a step up to a better life.

While my cousins and I have all gone to college and entered careers away from the farm, I wouldn’t say that any of us think of these choices as necessarily “better.” In some ways, leaving the farming life is a necessity, as land prices and equipment costs continue to soar making the continuation of another generation of family farmers increasingly difficult.

But we all maintain a sense of pride in what our parents have accomplished on the land and intend to remain involved in the workings of our family farms wherever our lives may lead us–Chicago, Kansas City, Birmingham.

It made me sad to think of an older generation of Romanian farmers being forced from their land, at the same time they doubt the worth of their labor.

Rotterdam, past and present

When commuters and visitors come out of Central Station in Rotterdam, they are greeted by a video billboard just a few feet away. That billboard has been quite a topic of conversation among our group, who’s noticed its odd juxtapositioning between the city’s tragic past as a war-torn area and its current status as one of the Netherland’s commercial hubs.

Images of Rotterdam in 1940, when Jews were transported from local neighborhoods to concentration camps and the city itself was bombed, appear between advertisements for H & M, a hip clothing store for young women in Europe and the United States. The black and white photos of war are in sharp contrast to images of bikini-clad women sauntering towards the passerby.

A picture of war-torn Rotterdam outside Central Station

A picture of war-torn Rotterdam outside Central Station

Tuesday of this week (May 5) was National Liberation Day in the Netherlands, the day on which the Dutch celebrate the end of occupation by Nazi Germany. At 8 p.m., the city goes silent, as citizens pay respect to the many who lost their lives during the war and remember years of horror and destruction in their homeland.

After the silence, everything returns to normal–chatter and music in the pubs, laughing on the city streets, and the familiar noises from trams and bicyclists.

I have to wonder if there’s a reason for the layering of past and present in the images outside Central Station. In Rotterdam, memories of the past remain strong. The city thrives, though, on the path it is forging today.

We are spoiled.

Today, we visited the Fenix Food Factory in Rotterdam, a market-like atmosphere in an old warehouse on the outskirts of the city. At Fenix, visitors discover a bakery, coffee shop, cheese shop, butcher, craft beer pub, a cider shop, fresh produce vendor, and the odd assortment of arts and crafts stands.

A couple of things make the place unique:
* The vendors in the facility rely on one another. So at lunchtime, the baker might head over to the cheese seller to ask for some fresh slices and to the butcher for the smoked meat of the day. As a result, she’s able to offer a sandwich for sale to the passerby.

I thought this strategy was fairly unusual by American standards, since vendors in markets in Seattle or Philly, for instance, often compete for business. There’s rarely anything cooperative about the way they market their goods.

* This warehouse, like many we’ve visited in the Netherlands, is located in a traditionally undesirable neighborhood–a place where folks don’t necessarily want to find themselves after dark. The innovative work of the vendors and the concept of the Fenix Food Market, though, have transformed this space into a hospitable, rather upper-scale destination.

One thing our guide/resident entrepreneur, Wooter, told us was that the place offers something special–yet altogether reminiscent of a more traditional Holland.

“We offer what we have that day,” he said. “Sometimes people come in and they ask for something, and we have to tell them we don’t have what they are looking for on that particular day. Instead of pork, we have beef or lamb.”

Wooter added that customers are occasionally disappointed.

This disappointment, he thinks, has to do with the fact that “we are spoiled” by the modern supermarket. By its promise of convenience, consumers expect that any product will be available at any time.

“It’s not normal,” Wooter told us. I tend to think that’s true.

Uitvaart, or Museum of Exit

Several of the students and I headed to a rather unusual tourist spot in Amsterdam, Tot Zover: The Netherlands Uitvaart Museum, or Museum of Exit. The facility is devoted to death and funeral traditions in Holland and was of interest because of our group’s focus on sustainability practices. The development of more sustainable burials and cremations is one outcome of the green movement, so I wanted a glimpse of how the Dutch have traditionally addressed the passing on of a life.

Unsurprisingly, Uitvaart is located just inside the gates of a cemetery in a quiet neighborhood. The museum is filled with an array, albeit somewhat disconnected, of emblems of the funeral experience. The first room was filled with photographs of hearses from various eras, followed by miniature toy models in the next room (some models being available for purchase in the lobby).

Visitors are then presented with a display of five wooden coffins, each providing details about various funeral traditions: the personal funeral (planned in advance by the deceased), and then rituals of the Surinamese Hindu, Chinese Buddhist, Muslim, and Dutch Roman Catholic traditions. Mortician apparel and tools round out the second room. On special display throughout the hallways was a series of photos called “Images of Death,” which included the photos of famous (for instance, Steve Jobs and Princess Diana) and everyday people taken shortly before their deaths. The idea behind the exhibit was the transience of life, especially revealing in photos of people smiling and laughing without any idea that within seconds (in some instances) their lives would end.

A final room in the museum was perhaps the most eerie. On display were death masks, photographs of the deceased (part of a tradition during the Victorian era known as memorial portraiture or mourning portraits), mourning apparel (black dresses and veils), and trinkets that could be worn or displayed to honor the passing of a loved one.

As we left the museum, the woman who had given us our tickets at the start of the tour (and who, quite frankly, was a tad creepy and dressed head to toe in black with just a hint of red) pulled me aside to tell me about a new feature available in the chapel to the right of the museum.

“If families wish, and for an extra fee,” she told me, “at the end of the service the casket can be raised off the podium and will rise into the ceiling which is opened. That way, they can see their loved one going up there instead of down there.” She pointed her finger up and down for emphasis as she explained.

Placing her hand beside her mouth, she added in a whisper: “Of course, the ovens are up there, but still it is a nice option.”

Um, thanks?

Tulips, windmills, and bikes

We rode bikes through the Dutch countryside today, a landscape filled with windmills and tulips. One stop was at Kuekenhof, the gardens of flowers in every color and variety that bloom for six weeks every year. We were fortunate to be in Holland during that narrow window.

Tonight, my legs are sore from circling around and around. I’ll go to sleep on the barge we’re staying on dreaming of fields of pink, yellow, red, purple, and white.