Monthly Archives: December 2011

Traveling in Europe: Den Bosch Part II–Cathedrals and Culture

Europe 2011: Den Bosch

Click on the top picture if you wish to see more of Den Bosch.

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The interior has many sculptures of the saints.

I spent two days hanging around Den Bosch, and really I could have spent longer. It’s a beautiful pastoral town with many interesting shops, a town market square and the best gothic cathedral (in Brabantian style) I saw in Holland. St. John’s Cathedral (Sint Jan’s Kathedraal) began its life in 1220, and unlike the churches of northern Holland, it never fell under the hand of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it is covered in statuary on the exterior, as well as a plethora of saints on the inside.

I was told I was lucky because the church had been under scaffolding for the last ten years as they did major repairs. There was an educational display inside that depicted some of the restoration techniques used to preserve and shore up the water porous stone. These endeavors are extremely expensive, can take years of work and will be needed again in decades to come. I’m sure it’s not the biggest cathedral in Europe by St. John’s was picturesque.

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Angel with a cell phone

The exterior is festooned in angels, gargoyles and workers. Each flying buttress has  craftsmen sitting on the struts all the way up. Every pinnacle has a saint or an angel and one angel, replacing one of a few that fell to disrepair, is, when you look closely, standing in pants with a pouch/purse on her hip. She is holding something to her ear and I was told that they asked permission of the bishop to put up a modern angel. She holds a cell phone, but there is only one number because it’s a direct line to heaven.

The interior has some very good triptychs, and some are unusual in that they are part panel paintings and part carved panels. The stained glass sheds rainbows of light on the interior walls and many of those are still painted in frescos. Others have been renovated to bear the painting of centuries past and the use of color on the stone walls is something I had never considered in a cathedral before. The effect is quite stunning.

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A Boschian delight on the canal

Besides the cathedral, which is well worth a few visits, I went to the Hieronymus Bosch museum. it’s in a church that I think was designed in the 1800s but was never completed due to lack of funding. It was taken over to house information and displays on Den Bosch’s most famous son. His “Garden of Earthly Delights” is probably one of the more bizarre paintings of the Middle Ages. Bosch was fervently religious but his creatures and depictions of events and sins were right out of a drugged up fever dream. What an imagination. Interestingly, there is not one Bosch painting in Holland. They all reside in Spain. At the time Holland (or that part that has Bosch’s paintings) was under Spanish occupation and the Spanish loved his works well enough to transport them back to the homeland. Therefore there are replicas of his paintings but with informative displays as well as the sculptures.

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Inside the Hieronymus Bosch museum

I also realize now that I lost some pictures because there was an art show on the main floor by a contemporary artist inspired by Bosch. In the basement was a setup of what the artist’s life might have been like, along with displays and mannequins. There were interesting shops and lovely cobblestoned streets. The market on the weekend was jam packed with goods to buy from food to clothing. It was hard to walk through because there were so many people and it was a lovely day. I can see why people would get away to Den Bosch and if I’m in Holland again, I’m definitely coming back.

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Traveling in Europe: Den Bosch Part I–Canals & Countryside

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Den Bosch's ramparts and river served as a nearly impregnable fortress.

My last stop of four cities in Holland was Den Bosch. The full name is ‘s-Hertogenbosch and I think you have to be Dutch to pronounce it. Most people call it Den Bosch now and pronunciation seemed to differ between “den bos” and “den bosh”. Den Bosch is south of Utrecht and north of Eindhoven. It’s not large but considered a place to get away “to”. I probably would have missed it completely if it wasn’t that speculative writer and editor Jetse de Vries lives there and I emailed him to meet up.

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Boschenballen; worthy of making a stop in Den Bosch

Once I started reading about Den Bosch it sounded interesting enough that I stayed for two nights, couch surfing with Will. Jetse and I played a bit of tag at the train station, trying to find each other. Once we met I put my luggage in a locker and off we went to a cafe where Jetse introduced me to Den Bosch’s own claim to fame, the Boschenballen. If you’ve ever seen a profiterole (cream puff), imagine one bigger than your fist, covered in yummy dark chocolate and inflated with creamy goodness.  I wasn’t sure I could eat the whole thing (and shhh, but I’m allergic to dairy) but I took a bite and another and somehow managed to polish it off. I certainly didn’t need lunch till much later.

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A very larg cannon is housed in the structure atop the walls built in the 15th century.

By the 1500s it turns out Den Bosch was once the true mercantile center of Holland, with three rivers (Dommel, Aa and Maas) converging nearby. The Dutch are also masters of the water ways and trade came and went by land and water. It was second in population only to Utrecht. ‘S-Hertogenbosch means Duke’s Forest and the original Duke was Henry I, Duke of Brabant. Over the centuries, with fortifications increasing, Den Bosch was considered impregnable and nicknamed the Marsh Dragon. They had built a moat from the rivers and water ways; if invading forces came near, they flooded the lands around. Too deep to walk through and too shallow to put a ship on, the city’s defense’s held strong.

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To get over one of the many bodies of water, there is a hand crank raft to take people across.

That is, until 1629 when Frederik Hendrik of Orange, using Dutch ingenuity and a goodly portion of purloined coins from a Spanish armada, built a dyke around the city with windmills and then pumped out all of the water. He managed to break through the one weak spot in the wall’s defenses and then rebuilt that section making it stronger. The ramparts still stand and are integral to holding back the waters. Den Bosch is considered one of the better fortress cities in Holland. A nature reserve now borders one side of the town, giving great pastoral views and nature walks.

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The underground canal tours are lovely and a great way to see the city.

Jetse had booked a canal tour and Den Bosch’s canals are unique in Holland because they’re mostly covered, unlike the open canals elsewhere. While the tour was in Dutch, Jetse was able to tell me much about the rich history of this small town. It seems people were not allowed to build outside the wall and as the city became more crowded they actually built over the canals. At one point the city was going to pave over the canals but instead the government made it a protected townscape, preserving the historical ramparts and the canals.

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Boschian fun on the canal.

The weather was perfect in late September, around 25-27 degrees Celsius. The tour went under the city and then outside around the ramparts. It ended with ducking into a darkened alcove where they showed a short film on Hieronymus Bosch, the city’s most famous painted. The water level was relatively high so we really did have to duck. And along the canals were large sculptures of some of Bosch’s strange creations.

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Den Bosch's canals were very beautiful.

Even without understanding Dutch the tour was worth it for the sheer beauty and scenery. The following day I took a walk outside the city walls and got to see Den Bosch from afar. Of the cities I visited Den Bosch definitely felt the most pastoral, because of the flat fields and the winding river around it. In my next post I’ll talk more about the cathedral and other aspects but it was definitely worth the visit. I’ll also have the full album posted once Picassa stops being persnickety.

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Brushes With Poverty

Creative Commons: psd via Flickr

Because CBC recently continued its program about poverty in Canada, or those of low income, I thought I would also continue to talk about how poverty has affected me in the past. I’m also extremely busy at the time with several freelance projects so this will be in point form.

There are single parents, single people and even couples with children who struggle to survive and keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. I’ve never been dirt poor but I have often lived one paycheck away from being on the street. That’s scary enough, and with the rising costs of everything from rent to gas, the future is a place of scary possibilities of which I hope I won’t have to visit.

  • As a child I never had a bike. I’m not sure if it was for some other reason or that around the time I would have got one my parents divorced. All of my other siblings had one. So I can barely ride one to this day.
  • With the divorce, my vindictive father cut my mother off from all medical, which meant the kids as well. I should have had braces and now have a few resultant and expensive problems because of it.
  • When  there were field trips or trips for skiing in school, I and only a few others could never go nor afford to learn how to ski. It helped make us outcasts.
  • While my friends had cars (albeit used ones) that their parents had bought them, I eventually bought a very used one from my friend’s parents for art college.
  • I put myself through college as there were no savings that my single parent mom could give.
  • I paid off a rather small student loan over an exceedingly long time because I ended up on unemployment and welfare in the first recession.
  • Welfare was a demeaning situation and I only survived because I shared a house with three other people.
  • Food banks are not nutritionally balanced. You are lucky to get any vegetables, which would be limp at the best of times. At one point all of us in the house were on welfare because there were no jobs (50 applications a month).
  • The most income tax I ever paid was when I was on welfare. The second most I ever paid was when I was on unemployment, which coincidentally is taxed, as if you’re getting a huge income.
  • I stopped buying food so I could pay my income tax while on welfare.
  • I worked under the table, as a means to make enough to survive upon because welfare wanted to deduct everything from what they gave, which does not encourage people to even work a few hours or more and get established.
  • As I wrote about before, I was expected to turn in my $3,000 RRSPs before getting $300 from welfare, so that in the end I could tax the system more when I was elderly.
  • I seriously had to consider prostitution to make ends meet, which no one should have to do. Of course, stealing things could be an option as well.
  • I have lived in pain for months on end because I could not afford the extended healthcare to get the problem looked at.
  • I have lived with broken teeth and cavities because I could not afford dentistry.
  • I have watched friends go on vacations while I had a staycation.
  • I have literally, sold my secondhand goods on a street corner so that I could go to India, borrowing money from a friend for a flight and paying her back over a year. That’s ingenuity and not everyone can travel but it meant scrimping because of low wages.

I mention this last because while I have been poor I have always managed, sometimes just. I have not yet had to live on the streets, or forego eating for long, or go cold. Many people in India live in dire destitution, as do some people here. But I mention these things because I have experienced aspects of poverty and doing without. I’m doing okay now but the realities of such a future are so close it takes my breath away with fear at times. And don’t think I’m not trying to find ways to cushion the future. I work more than one job. I make my own lunch, I save frugally so I can have some nice things, and as my brother once said, I could get money from a stone. I’ve learned ways to conserve and use everything. If I cook a chicken I always make chicken stock. If I buy lipstick, I use a brush to get to the last of the tube. I don’t change my clothes with every season’s fashion picks. There are ways to survive but still, there are those who do not have those ways.

Everyone should probably experience poverty (and third world countries) so they come to appreciate and understand the freedoms they do have. But being impoverished wears the soul down and there are too many people worrying themselves into stress-related illnesses because they’re not sure how they’re going to make ends meet. Every civilization falls and if we’re not careful, ours could just be around the corner.

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The Apocalypse Diet

In recent weeks, there has been some focus on poverty and CBC Radio One has a special on today about it: We are the 10%. I have been there more than once and grew up in a lower middle class home, which meant I had clothes, a roof over my head and food, but there are many who don’t even have those essentials. Last week I posted a piece titled How I Almost Became a Prostitute where I talked about the terrible state of our welfare system. It degrades and humiliates; and the general public has this perception that only drug addicts, lazy and stupid people become welfare bums, when really, the system perpetuates the problem. In my article I talked about spending no money on my food and living off of what I had in the house.

It got me thinking. If the world ended tomorrow, the zombie virus took hold, the axis shifted, the bombs dropped or some other worldly apocalypse happened to cut supply lines, how long could I really survive on what I have in my home?

So, I’ve decided to start an experiment on January 1. I won’t say it’s a diet to lose weight but January is the month to tighten the belt, trim the fact, pay off the bills and think frugal. So what better way than trying to see how long can I survive on the food in my kitchen before I I have to resort to drinking alcohol and eating condiments?

If I really had no way of buying food, how long would I go before having to eat my fellow human, my cute and pudgy cat or hunt wild rutabagas? Because this is an experiment, I won’t stock up before the planned date. I’ll just go with whatever is in my place. My cat will not have to follow this regime (in case she decides to eat me). And should I go out, well, I won’t quite keep myself to this regimen in a restaurant, slavering all over my friends as they eat.  However, for lunch at work, I can only bring food from home. I’ll take supplements if I need to and record it, since I really don’t want to get scurvy.

Now, I’m predicting I’ll be fine for at least the first month. Then the veggies will run out and I’ll resort to the frozen foods. I have a fridge but no separate body-sized freezer packed with a full deer. I imagine I’ll start to get bored in the second month and by the third month I’ll be creative, and maybe crazy. But maybe I won’t last that long, because really, the apocalypse hasn’t happened and I can step outside without fear of zombies munching my toes.

I will post my results here as a diary, but I’ll probably do it on a weekly basis so as not to fill up the blog with short but inane food comments. 😉 Be prepared, the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. Perhaps I’m just foreshadowing the doom around the corner when the world ends. Stay tuned…if you can.

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Traveling in Europe: Den Haag

Europe 2011: Den Haag

Known as The Hague to us Westerners, I prefer the Dutch version of Den Haag. While staying in Delft, I decided to go to Den Haag, thinking I’d need to catch a train but from my B&B in Delft it was an easy 20-minute tram ride. Very convenient. The weather, for late September, was off and on rainy but overall very nice and warm. I arrived close enough to the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch parliament to walk around the central area.

I’m not sure how interested I would have been in the Binnenhof’s interior but as it was there were no tours that day.

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The Binnenhof neogothic fountain

There was a lovely and ornately wrought iron and gilt fountain and the details on the buildings, some of the dating to the 15th century. Mauritshuis was close by and I took it in. Here is where you would see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring among others. In fact the building was full of paintings in various rooms. Once the home of Prince John-Maurice, there are four major rooms on two floors and each has a fireplace and paintings on all walls, There are works by Holbein, Potter, Brueghal, Rembrandt, Steen , Hals and many others. Of course in all the best galleries you can’t take pictures so you absorb as much as you can and hope you can retain some of it. The benefit of seeing the actual painting as opposed to a picture in a book is that you can appreciate how the light actually works with the paint, as well as its thickness, the texture and the details. The Dutch were masters of shipping and masters of the painted canvas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Besides wandering around the Binnenhof’s courtyard, staring at the buildings and going to Mauritshuis, I had time to go to the Prison Gate (just) called Gevangenpoort. This is the jail, which was in use for over 400 years before it became a museum in the 1400s. It was dark and thick-walled, and thick barred. I couldn’t use a flash and the tour was in Dutch so I only gleaned a bit. Though the guide was willing to answer some of my questions in English I didn’t want to ask during his descriptions in case I asked

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The Binnenhof and the Court Pond

for something he had just said. It seems that there were different types of torture and only some of it was actually considered torture. This was done in the lower cells, where as the room depicted in my pictures was for those who were either to be executed or have information extricated from them. There was a gallery of art too so it was a rather full day of paintings.

This took up my day in The Hague and I went back to Delft for dinner and to wander along the pretty canals. So in truth I saw a very small section of Den Haag, which only took up a few blocks. Still, that was rather enough for one day.

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