Monday, April 26, 2010

10 Years Old Again

For such a small country the Danes certainly punch above their weight when it comes to contributions to world culture. Even as a child I was surrounded by a cavalcade of Danish imports: Hans Christian Anderson and his stories; Thor and his Viking hordes; Brian Laudrup and his magic right foot; sizzling bacon in a full English breakfast; and Sandi Toksvig on childrens' TV (OK, scraping the bottom of the barrel with that last one). But no Danish invention has made a bigger impression on the world than a collection of coloured, moulded plastic. Welcome to the home of Lego.

A Lego model of an oil platform (sponsored by the Danish energy company DONG) for my old colleagues in London.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Viking Wisdom

As you head north from Lübeck you start travelling through the Jutland Peninsula. Had you been wandering around this area some 1200 years ago you might not have survived for very long as it was the heart of the kingdom of the Danes, who liked to go viking (apparently, the word viking, as indicated by its gerund ending, is actually a verb, and refers to the act of piracy and plundering that was carried out by various Norse peoples, and not to the people themselves - but seeing as that's not how people know them let's just call them Vikings and be done with it). Even though their pillaging days are over you can see their legacy in place names: the further north you venture the greater the number of towns that end in -by or -lund.

The two greatest Viking cities of the time, Haithabu and Ribe, were both situated on strategic crossing points of the peninsula and controlled the burgeoning trade between the North and Baltic Seas (much like Lübeck was to several centuries later). Their halcyon days, sadly, are long gone. Haithabu was sacked by some marauding Slavic tribes, and, although it reformed as the Germanic town of Schleswig and enjoyed moderate prosperity, it was never to regain its former glory when it was the largest city north of the Alps; and Ribe? well it never lived up to expectations and remained on the periphery of Danish affairs, especially once the capital left Jutland and moved to Copenhagen.

The Viking past does, however, live on in other ways (and not just the museums that try and cash-in on the Viking popularity with dress-up actors with long hair, stick-on beards and uncomfortable looking woollen shirts) - not so much in military terms, but in the towns' mercantile natures and openness to the world, mirroring the days when Norse traders roamed as far afield as Baghdad and Iceland and even the shores of the New World. Both towns were centres of learning, punching above their weight in terms of literary sons, and both were home to many sailors and merchants as I discovered when ambling through the old streets of Schleswig, taking pictures of picturesque old buildings.

"So you like old knick-knacks?" demanded an older, heavy-set man with a pail as I was kneeling down to get the right angle for my composition. "You're not Chinese are you?"
When I told him that I thought the old town was very pretty and that no, I wasn't Chinese, but Scottish, he brightened up and launched, unbid, into a reminiscence of his seafaring days.
"Ah, I was in Scotland once. In Lewis. Didn't like it though - I got fined £25 for wolf-whistling this lady there. £25 was a lot of money in those days."
"Indeed," I agreed, as I thought it was better to just nod sympathetically.
"But at least you got somewhere with them, mind you, not like those French Canadian lasses; there was one nice one in Montreal but you couldn't get (and at this point he made a gesture with his fist where he held his thumb between his second and third fingers - I had never come across it before but the meaning was pretty evident). No sir. Not without a ring on her finger, being Catholic and all. No ring, no - (and once again the sign)"
Again I thought it best to nod and make a few acquiescing "mmmm" sounds, as I didn't quite know what the appropriate reply was.
"Do you like fish?" he asked, changing the subject (or at least I hoped he was changing the subject). "I'm off to get some herrings," he said, pointing at his bucket.
Sensing a possible escape route I truthfully said, "Sorry, I'm allergic."
"Too bad," he muttered, before trundling off to the quayside.

And as quickly as he came he was gone again, ready to bestow his worldly wisdom upon other needy youngsters.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


The low, flat landscape of the northern Netherlands imperceptibly gives way to the low, flat landscape of northern Germany. Having spent a year at school here I always feel comfortable travelling through Germany, both from my ease with the language but also from a sense of familiarity. During that year our history lessons spanned the 14th to 16th centuries. At the time Western Europe, and especially Germany, was split into many little fiefdoms and kingdoms. One of the most important, and breaking the whole feudal trend, was the Hansa, or Hanseatic League. The League was comprised of (semi-)independent trading towns around the North and Baltic Seas, stretching from Scotland and Norway all the way to Russia in the east and Belgium in the south, interested in freeing and facilitating trade. In many ways the Hansa was ahead of its time, an early forerunner of the EU, with its emphasis on the rule of law and free trade to maintain stability in what were, for the rest of Europe, tormented times. The Hansa became so powerful that it even took up arms against countries, managing to sack Copenhagen and earn a draw with England. The Hansa have stuck in my memory probably because our class managed to persuade our (very easy-going) teacher to play a computer game, called Patricians, which aims to simulate the Hanseatic trade, as part of our lessons. (Which just goes to show how useful computers are as an aid to learning.)

Lübeck's iconic Holstentor and a couple of the city's churches with their spiky spires (Lübeck is also known as the City of 7 Towers because of them).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fietsen In Friesland

Along with tulips, clogs, windmills and cheese the Netherlands is famous for being both the most densely populated country (of any consequence) in Europe, as well as the most intensively cultivated. Given these two pressures on space I imagined the country to be a duotony of cities and fields. The towns of the Randstand - the super-conurbation where two thirds of the population live and that spreads in a crescent from Utrecht in the northeast via Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam to Dordrecht in the southeast - are certainly visually rather samey: sober brick buildings with a historic core both surrounded and bisected by canals. And for most visitors this is the only image they will get of the Netherlands. I wanted to see the other half too; the polders reclaimed from the clutches of the North Sea, the unending flat lands, the most productive farming area in the world. It's amazing to think that such a small country could be the world's third-largest agricultural exporter (by value). I pictured it to be some grim, soulless, bio-factory.

Typical dutch country house with its own, ultra-green patch of garden and bijou canal.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Shiny Happy People

Travelling in the Netherlands is a dawdle: distances are small, the public transport infrastructure is extensive, and you don't even have to wait long to hitch a ride. But above all the vast majority of people speak English. This not only helps when buying bus tickets, but also allows you to have more complex discussions, about politics, religion and family life; things that make people tick.

I've always had a soft spot for the Dutch: their live-and-let-live liberalism; their openness to foreigners; their modest, hard-working Calvinism; and their appreciation of British humour. The few Dutch people I have spoken to, however, are worried that their country may be seen to be losing its tolerant ways to the wave of protectionism and xenophobia that has been sweeping through Western countries (epitomised by, but not restricted to, anti-Islamic sentiments and pronouncements) and that has found its voice here in the form of the controversial politician Geert Wilders with his loopy views on Islam and immigration. There is a growing sense of impending doom as the national elections approach that his party might become a dominant force. Sitting side by side with the stereotype of liberalism is that of being dour, serious and humourless. This stems from their Calvinist history which frowns on ostentation and demands that people be honest with each other. To outsiders who may be more used to elaborate formalities when dealing with people this may come across as rudeness, but instead it is an effort to be as clear and precise as possible and to talk openly about things which are often swept under the carpet. In fact the Dutch abhor confrontation and work through consensus whenever possible (on two separate occasions I was introduced to the idea of the polder model, something the Dutch are quite proud of, and quite rightly so in my view).

A typically stereotypical (although actually not that common) Dutch countryside scene, complete with your obligatory windmills. Kinderdijk.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Philosophers And Enclaves

One of the best things about travelling is the people you meet. In your everyday life you generally see the same people day in day out or people from within your "circle". Travelling allows you to break out of your milieu and connect with people you would never normally encounter.

I met Saïd in a community centre in Antwerp where I was watching an "African dance" class and a practice session of a Brazilian percussion band (the players were Belgian, but the music and instruments were Brazilian) where my host, Saartje, is a member. Saïd was working behind the bar. He was born in Antwerp, but as his name (and features) suggests, he is of Moroccan descent. As well as working as a barman Saïd dabbles as a raï singer and is available for hire for marriages and other social occasions. He is one of those rare things (although more common amongst the bartending classes): a street philosopher. When he heard about my travel plans he began to expound, in broken English and thick, east Flemish, his philosophy on travelling.

"Some people travel to forget," he explained, adding a wide, backwards sweeping gesture with his arm for emphasis, "but some people travel to learn," tapping on the bar on the last word. "To learn is important when travelling." I had never heard it put that way but I liked the sound of it and it made sense to me. I got on well with Saïd - he gave me a bolleke on the house.

From Antwerp I headed north out of Belgium and into the Netherlands, and back into Belgium, and then back into the Netherlands, and then into Belgium again. I wasn't going round in circles, instead I was just passing through Baarle Hertog-Nassau, a small town that can perhaps lay claim to be Europe's oddest. Baarle's weird history dates back to various treaties signed between the Lords of Breda and Dukes of Brabant who divided up the land between them rather haphazardly. When Belgium and the Netherlands separated in 1848 the Duchy of Brabant became Belgian whereas Breda remained in the Netherlands. If you were to look closely at a map of the border area between the towns of Turnhout and Breda you would see a little blob of border a few kilometres into the Dutch side. Ah, you would say, a Belgian enclave. Enclaves are quite common around the world and so are not that special, but if you were to look even more closely, you would see that some of the Belgian enclaves within the Netherlands themselves contain further Dutch enclaves within them - see the map below to get a better idea (after a certain amount of research I've discovered that there are only 2 other places in the world that have similar counter-enclaves: India-Bangladesh and Oman-UAE). The town itself is pretty ordinary and apart from the joint Belgian and Dutch flags that fly from many buildings, as well as the border markings on the pavements, you wouldn't tell that you were crossing from one country to another. Although I expect the residents of Baarle were amongst the most content with the Schengen border treaty and the introduction of the euro.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Girl's Favourite City

I knew as soon as I got off the train in Antwerp (I took the train from Brussels as hitching out of a big city is always difficult and I couldn't justify the hassle for such a short distance) that I would like the city. Not only is it a beautiful lend of old and new, but instead of spreading out to accommodate its many tracks and platforms the station has delved deep and is layered over 4 floors with trains running above and below each other. My geeky half was more than impressed.

Antwerp's magnificent railway station.