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Karen Mickleson | all galleries >> Galleries >> Joy In Beauty Travelogue: One Response to a Terminal Cancer Diagnosis >
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August 2000

Amsterdam Canal
More photos HERE.
Netherlands: Brugge, Haarlem and Amsterdam

22 May 2000

My return to Paris was greatly eased by my friend Kathy's angelic agreement to pick me up at Charles de Gaulle. When I called Ginette to confirm our daytrip to Normandy on the 17th, she said she couldn't go with me as other plans had come up to go there with some friends of hers, and could I go another day? This was disappointing, as I'd reorganized my schedule to make room for this plan, but Kathy says, "That's how the French are--they're Latins, you know. Americans make plans and they're set in stone. With Latins, 'things change' and you go with the flow." Hmmm. Anyhow, Kathy and I had three enjoyable, peaceful days to visit together while I reorganized my proverbial stuff for the next car leg.

Brugge, Haarlem and Amsterdam are each one or another version of northern Europe's Venice, the grandma of canal cities, except with different architecture and lifestyles built around them. I broach writing about them as my trip comes to a close, and I'm running out of descriptive steam for yet another spate of charming, quaint, towns. But each has enchanted me despite my exhaustion.

Brugge is perhaps the most beautiful--a remarkably unchanged medieval city with magnificent grand palaces around a central square, many small canals with picturesque bridges, and grand churches everywhere, often with chamber musicians set up outside playing classical music under the dappled shade of massive trees. Brugge is lacemaking central and one day there were many women sitting out making lace in public to show the remarkable dexterity required.

I've used the small city of Haarlem as my base for visiting Amsterdam by train, but I actually like it more than the bigger city itself. It's sort of a quieter, calmer, more manageable version of Amsterdam. There is St. Bavo, a Grand Church (Grote Kerk) here in Haarlem on the customary Dutch "market square" which I'm looking at from my bed here on the 4th floor of a building with great rooftop views. This gothic peach of a church ding-dongs tunes willy-nilly from it's belfry every so often each hour--sometimes just three notes, or perhaps a whole melody, chiming out charmingly over town, with another church nearby doing the same thing at different intervals, so it sounds like I'm living in a virtual music box. Except for how each nite at precisely 9:07, the thing gets stuck on a 3 note groove for 34 minutes, ding-DONG-dong, DING-dong-dong, endlessly the same three notes repeat themselves like a scratched old vinyl record. Drives me nuts as I wonder why on earth somebody out there doesn't go to the bell master and get them to fix this problem. When I asked the young Dutch man who helped me to my car with my luggage about this, he simply shrugged. "I guess folks just get used to it, eh?" "Yeah...after awhile you don't pay any attention anymore." He obviously isn't a Virgo.

Grote Kerk also houses the remarkable Muller organ, built in 1738 by Christian Muller and lovingly maintained since the days when both Handel and a ten year old Mozart played it. It has long been known as the finest church organ in all of Europe, and I attended a free concert there Tuesday night which carried me to heaven, hell and back again on the deeply moving chords of this majestic pipe organ. I bought two CD's to bring home for sharing and to fill my house with the intense feelings it evokes.

As you may recall from my earlier ramblings, I've been looking forward to continuing my study of Van Gogh (pronounced, I've been corrected, Van GoCK with an odd, back of throat emphasis) in Amsterdam and Holland. For years I've seen prints in books of paintings of his which are said to live in "Otterloo", a place which I was hard pressed to find on any map. Well, Tuesday, I took an hour drive southwest of Amsterdam to the Kroller-Muller Museum which is nestled way out in the middle of a massive, lacy wooded nature preserve, a few kilometers from the tiny little townlet of Otterlo. The parklands surrounding the museum are filled with bicyclers of every age, size and shape, biking shady trails to the museum from distant picnic spots or parking lots.

The museum itself was built by Helene Kroller, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, (Mr. Muller, presumably--but not of course Christian Muller who built the pipe organ of 1738!), who had good art taste. Her first purchased Van Gogh was Sunflowers, and her collection grew to include 277 other paintings by Van Gogh, along with works of Seurat, early Picasso, Redon, Renoir, Braque and Mondrian; older dutch paintings, ceramics, ancient Asian porcelain, and many sculptures one views in the airily wooded, grassy gardens through massive glass walls. The architecture is reminiscent of my old Eichler in Sunnyvale. Among VG's works there, besides the "original" Sunflowers, are the Cafe-terrace at Night, (a fair copy of which I have at home which I inherited from my mom, whose friend painted years ago), The Bridge at Arles, and several early floral still lifes....oh, way too many to list. But I was in heaven. And, it continued the next day when I went in to Amsterdam and spent virtually the whole day in the Van Gogh Museum there. Combining what works of his I've seen in other places and exhibits with those from the Martigny Exhibit, the Kroller & Van Gogh Museums, I figure I've seen the vast majority of his paintings which is a way satisfying feeling of privilege.

Then yesterday, I visited the Ann Frank Museum and the famous Reikmuseum (full of old Dutch masters' realistic works, including 'The Night Watchman' by Rembrandt). The Ann Frank house was an emotional visit which stirred deep sadness and anger in me--sadness for the brief life of one who gave so much; and anger that we were cheated of her promise by the nasty fear underlying nationalism, which I continue to view as a basely primitive state of mind, despite what Jewish friends have said to me over the years about that opinion.

The old Dutch realist painters, while truly remarkable in their patience, skill and exactitude, don't do it for me like the impressionists, of course, given my preference for color. Perhaps too, the subject matter of old fat rich burgers, mean looking women of the hospital boards, crossbow guild members, and male orphanage directors who'd scare me to death if I were a kid, leaves me cold, much as I had trouble being in love with the endless depictions of the Madonna, Baby and Pieta all over Italy. But I do appreciate the history of it all, and feel enriched by the experience of seeing it.

Today I'll go out to the Frans Hals Museum here in Haarlem, and then prepare for my departure tomorrow to my LAST destination, Brussels. Perhaps you can detect from the relatively boring nature of this travelogue that I'm getting pooped with the whole thing. My brain feels overwhelmed with all I've seen and done, and I so long to see my girls. I had a blessed meeting a couple of nights ago with a DARLING brown and white Beardie boy named Ginky on my way home to my hotel studio...The minute I approached him, sitting outside his owner's dress shop, in true Beardie fashion, he rolled over onto his back for a belly rub the minute I scratched his head. Then last night I had a terrible nightmare that Murphy was missing when I got home, and I was screaming my head off in endless grief.
Ah, well. Goodbye for now, perhaps for the last time. Perhaps a last note from Brussels if I'm so moved.

Love, Karen

Saturday August 26, 2000
Netherlands Notes

In Dutch canal towns, bicycles rule cars, and folks live in all manner of charming water lodgings, from small old boats with tarps over the rear, half presumably hiding sleeping and eating quarters, to magnificently decked out boats in great colors with flowers draped all over and flags whisping in the breeze.

Bicycles here are all the plain old funky peddlers from our childhoods with NO speeds nor curvy handlebars which require you to lean into the awkward but aerodynamically sound position for speed. I wandered into a bike shop to inquire about rentals and asked the guy, “Are these 3 speeds?”, to which he smiled and replied, “Nope. No gears”. I laughed and said, “Oy. In California nobody’d be caught dead on a bike with fewer than 10!” “Or 28!”, he chuckled.

This world of bicycling is delightfully flat, pragmatic, unathletic and classless. Nobody’s particularly proud of their bikes nor the attire they wear while riding them--nary a piece of spandex to be seen! Fat old couples in their sixties wearing polyester putter along taking in the sights next to focused young women dressed to the nines with clunky high heels hurrying to work or the train station along with varied local matronly ladies and charming ancient gentlemen or hip adults filling their uncool saddlebags with fresh daily provisions. The Haarlem and Amsterdam train stations are surrounded by endlessly long lines of bikes several rows deep, crammed practically on top of each other to access the things you can lock onto. Businessmen in suits jump off the train and struggle to disentangle their bikes from a messy pile without anxiously checking for damage like an American would, and simply take off towards home or work at a leisurely pace with a briefcase hanging from one arm.

This is no doubt a function of living in canal towns with many pedestrian-bicycle streets where cars are more trouble than they’re worth, drivers and even pedestrians are expected to defer to bicyclers, and space for parking lots is nonexistent. And, of course, the train service renders cars dumb. One gets the impression that it’s been this way for so long there’s no particular politics connected to it like there is back home, where people demonstrate on bikes to make it more like this there. But what’s so endearingly different here is the refreshing lack of ego bonding with bikes or the self-righteous arrogance of some bicyclers at home who seem to regard you like an ant when they ride past you--whether you’re on foot or in a car.

In Amsterdam, I’d see this odd subgroup of young, fat females with messy bleached hair verging on dreadlockdom, dressed in overtight white pants and white boob-stuffed tops with heavy eyemakeup and their full lips peculiarly outlined in black pencil but with no lipstick, riding their bikes in those strange six-inch platform tennis shoes with the laces purposely left undone. Whatever it is they’re up to, it must be cool despite how ridiculous they look to me, because I’d often see them resting at cafes over pastry and coffee with guys surrounding them, apparently interested. As one who’s spent her whole life dressing to hide "fat" thighs so I can rob men of the opportunity to evaluate my body, and who would not be caught dead wearing white pants, this was a truly enlightening phenomenon. I found myself thinking wistfully that maybe they’re a new breed of up and coming red-lighters who herald the long overdue reprise of Rubenesque beauty. Ah, well.

Indeed, Amsterdam appears on the surface to be a city of, by and for a population of dishovelled youth--some competing self-consciously to win grunge awards, others just coming by it from a natural preference to disregard superficial matters of appearance, but somehow doing it in an overly purposeful way. It aroused mixed feelings in me, as I’d be wondering one minute when the last time this one washed his or her hair, and the next I’d feel comfortable because my own disinterest in dressing up let me melt into the crowd without feeling as self conscious as I had in Paris or Florence. I’ve appreciated the casual way of life here and what seems like a lesser degree of self-consciousness amongst the people, but then, I’ve not been on the symphony-opera-theatre-haute-cuisine circuit, either, so my view is probably very biased.

Bye for now. And I'm happy to close out tonight saying, "See y'all soon."


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