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Dec 8 14

A Quiet Weekend in Amsterdam

by admin

I’m back in the UK at U. Warwick, having spent another quiet weekend in Amsterdam. Things were quite pretty at night, when the streets were all lit up for Christmas.

The Utrechtstraat at night

The Utrechtstraat at night

But Saturday was my day for gift shopping, which included a trip out to the Beethovenstraat; I remember the Lissauers lived nearby (Richard Wagner straat? Chopinstraat?) But then it was back downtown looking for a candy store that didn’t exist anymore apparently. Which left me wandering up the Spuistraat in the direction of Café Luxembourg, when I came across an interesting scene.

Spuistraat - Frankreik

Spuistraat – Vrankryk

Now, these two buildings face one another.

Spuistraat - the Snake

Spuistraat – the SnakeHouse

As far as I could tell, the latter was a squat – it seemed to be a “repurposed” parking garage. The alleyway next to it (which I guess was the entrace to the garage) was even more decorative.

Spuistraat Alleyway #1

Spuistraat Alleyway #1

Spuistraat Alleyway #2

Spuistraat Alleyway #2

Spuistraat Alleyway #3

Spuistraat Alleyway #3

All of these were cheek-by-jowl, within inches of one another. I guess the hippie spirit in Amsterdam is not quite dead yet…..

I’d also found a terrific bakery with great coffee near the guest house, just off the Weesperplein on the other side of the Amstel. Made me think of Brooklyn, with the repurposed industrial building….and that’s the main baking oven you see in the background on the right….the whole kitchen area is open and very, very visible. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in Amsterdam in the near future.

Bak Huys - Interior

Bak Huys – Interior

And they had this curious sign just up the street

Note the small print at the bottom.

Note the small print at the bottom.

 

The main other thing I did was finally visit the Scheepfartsmuseum – recently opened after extensive renovations in the old VOC headquarters. The architecture is pretty much worth the price of admission.

Old VOC Headquarters - exterior

Old VOC Headquarters – exterior

Old VOC headquarers – main courtyard

Another view with The Amsterdam at the side.

Another view with The Amsterdam at the side.

At the dock in the rear (the building was constructed on pilings in the harbour and dates to the 1600s) they have a replica of a Dutch East Indies VOC ship, the Amsterdam (the original seems to have made it as far as England before it sunk; I’m not sure that the replica as been even as far as that.) The ship seems v. authentic and the exhibits were great.

The Amsterdam

The Amsterdam

A well-defended ship!

A well-defended ship!

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How did they cook on board a wooden ship? With a brick kitchen!

Hammocks! My favourite!

Hammocks! My favourite!

Jack Sparrow would be proud - I found the rum!

Jack Sparrow would be proud – I found the rum!

Dec 2 14

Oxford

by admin

 

Balliol College, inner court

Balliol College, inner court

Now, the day before I left for Amsterdam, Shaun decided that there was no point in going into campus (no one shows up on Fridays it seems) and that we should go to Oxford instead. He tried hard to sell it as a “Brideshead Revisited” sort of thing, which became the running joke of the day. (He decided that I was Charles Ryder and he was Lord Sebastian Flyte.) So it was that we set out at the crack of noon and hopped a train for Oxford. Now, this was not particularly planned and we’d done no research, but Shaun was confident that he’d be able to find his way around because he’d spent part of a day there a few decades ago. (It was the day he went to be interviewed for admission into their PhD program. He got in, but went to Cambridge instead.)

Upon arrival, we wandered past the modern Saud Business School towards the historic town centre. First stop: Tourist Info. Now, I don’t think I saw a single tour bus the whole time we were there, but the tourist industry thereabout is certainly industrial strength. They offered many alternative packagings of Oxford souvenirs. Want Harry Potter (they filmed many of the interiors here)? They’ve got stuffed owls, souvenir wooden wands and a talking (literally) hat. Want Downton Abbey? They have guides to where it was filmed, season by season. Which murder mystery series do you want? Inspector Morse? Endevour? Misomer Murders? They’ve got them all. We settled for a 50p street map and headed off to see the colleges.

Balliol College (above) was the first stop.  2 GBP for visitors to walk inside, collected by the porters, who function as gatekeepers. The place was pretty historic-looking, right down to the chapel that smelled of wood and students.

Chapel at Balliol College

Chapel at Balliol College

But I wasn’t ready for the Mulberry Tree. Now, I should say that the gardens were pretty much immaculate (and we saw a gardener on his hands and knees working as we walked past) so this tree seemed out of place.

The 400-year old Mulberry tree.

The 400-year old Mulberry tree.

As you can see, it looks like its on its last legs (limbs?), having clearly pretty much collapsed under its own weight eons ago, but somehow not quite died. So, the story goes, this mulberry tree is historic because …. well … someone did something famous next to it or something. The point is, it is cherished and nutured and, despite appearances, it produces a substantial quantity of ….uh….mulberries every year. Which they make into jam. And every student in Balliol gets a few jars.  And they give it to their mums, because  students don’t eat mulberry jam these days. Or so I’m told….

Dining Hall, Balliol College

Dining Hall, Balliol College

Of course, not everything is historic. Just across from the Mulberry Tree was the dining hall (ungoing extensive renovations, perhaps to bring hygiene up to 19th century standards) with a very modern-looking dorm growing out the side of it. And what’s that in the window of the top floor of the dorm? Pac-man!

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Bodleian Library, exterior

But we weren’t done with history, not by a long shot! Next stop was the Bodleian Library, home of ….books…really old books. And historic bricks. (Pretty nice looking-ones too.) The interior courtyard was perhaps the noisiest university building we visited, probably due to all the tourists taking pictures, chatting, and happily ignoring the dozens of “Silence, Please!” signs librarians had plastered everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. Here’s a spot they missed.

Bodleian Library, inner courtyard

Bodleian Library, inner courtyard

After a tour of the Gift shop (where I bought something irresistable for Clare), we headed to a church (University Church of St. Mary the Virgin?) to check out the tea room (too full) and climb the stairs to the tower (5 GBP) for the view. It was worth it.

The view from the church tower. Nice, unless you think the buildings block the view.

The view from the church tower. Nice, unless you think the buildings block the view.

Same church tower, looking off to another side.

View from same church tower, looking off to another side.

Gargoyle seen from church tower....with a striking resemblance to Shaun Vahey.

Gargoyle seen from church tower….with a striking resemblance to Shaun Vahey.

Chapel at All Souls College

Chapel at All Souls College

Next stop was All Souls College (2 GBP admission, visitors only from 2-4 pm.) According to Lord Sebastian, this is the most exclusive college at Oxford. The chapel looked suitable for a coronation and seemed to smell of money. But, seriously, it was one of the most impressive chapels I’ve seen….period.

At that point, we badly needed refreshment, so we skipped across the high street to the local tea rooms, only to find The Grand Cafe, which claimed to be the oldest coffee house in England.

Now *that* hit the spot.

Now *that* hit the spot.

By this point, dusk was not far off, but we needed a break, so we strolled through the botanical gardens (I think inspector morse investigated a murder here….Shaun claimed that the head gardener had done it.) and strolled along the river.

A Silver Narcissus

A Silver Narcissus. Really.

Now, real estate here abouts costs the earth (okay, a terrible metaphor) and its old and space is scarce so what does Christ Church College do? They use their spare land for pasture and graze heirloom long-horned Angus cattle on it. But this meant that as dusk was falling, we walked back to the colleges across the empty fields.

Christ Church College, seen from across their fields.

Christ Church College, seen from across their fields.

And that’s where we ended our tour, with dusk falling around the light of a Christmas tree in their courtyard.

Christ Church courtyard.

Christ Church courtyard.

Dec 1 14

The Cemetery at Muiderberg

by admin

I’d planned a couple of months ago to visit the Ashkenazi cemetery at Muiderberg with Henri Biron when I visited Amsterdam. I remember hearing Dad talk about how old it was and how our family could trace its roots back to the cemetery’s founders. I also knew that Dad’s father, Simon van Norden, was buried there and was interested in seeing the grave.

The beginning of the visit was not auspicious. I was in the Birmingham airport for my flight to Amsterdam at 8am Saturday morning when I get a message from Henri. The plan was for him to meet me at Schiphol and spent the afternoon visiting the cemetery. Of course, he’d only just realized that visiting the cemetery on the Jewish sabbath might not be a good idea: they might be closed! Needless to say, neither of us had thought of this before…. (because we’re so smart.) At this point, rescheduling was not an option, so we pressed on regardless.

View of the cemetery from the road.

View of the cemetery from the road.

We arrive at the cemetery with Rénée (Henri’s wife) in the early afternoon; sure enough, they’re closed and the gates are locked with chains. We can look from the road and peer thought the front gate, but there’s not much to see. So we turn around and head back to Amsterdam, catch an hour of the Rijkmuseum before it closes and go to dinner.

This was posted outside the cemetery gate, if you want to try to access it.

This was posted outside the cemetery gate, if you want to try to access it.

The next day, Henri and Rénée are back in Brussels and I’m finishing off a grant application due the same day, so I get a late start to Muiderberg. The hazy sun we had the day before had also been replaced by heavy overcast (with a few raindrops on the taxi taking me back to Muiderberg.) Don’t let the colours in the photos fool you — I’d boosted the saturation a bit on the camera — things were pretty grey. With a temperature hovering around 4 C, I was fighting to stay warm most of the time.

The cemetery entrance

The cemetery entrance from the day before. Notice the slightly overgrown headstones in the background.

Entering the cemetery at Muiderberg, you are greeted by this sign....and I don't know what it means.

Entering the cemetery at Muiderberg, you are greeted by this sign. As Henri later told me, the upper part says that if it has been more than 30 days since your last visit, you should say the following prayer in Hebrew; the lower part says that upon leaving you should say the prayer in the lower part.

The gates were open, but the place was deserted, the two main building locked tight and no one around. In the hour and a half I was there, I saw one lady walking with a young boy and a dog walker. There was also no way to look up graves, no maps, no indices, etc., which I was not expecting. Fortunately, I managed to look up a few names online as I went and got lucky, realizing that the cryptic “source” code they give online is also the location of the grave.

The cemetery is divided into a number of rectangular sections, with tightly-packed graves in neat rows. Most of the headstones are similar and quite plain, with Hebrew text and dates above and Dutch below. The cemetery is still in use with new graves still being added in the latest section, but most sections are much older and the environment varies from area to area.

An older section of the cemetery, with trees and holly bushes.

An older section of the cemetery, with trees and holly bushes. Note the lichens on the headstones.

Mostly things are orderly; you’ll see some repaired or reinforced headstones and practically none leaning or fallen. On the other hand, the older sections are clearly “low maintenance”: the ground is uneven, grass is never cut, leaves are never removed, etc. It is also clear that many older headstones are missing (more on that below.) In one part, the graves are being reclaimed by the forest; huge holly bushes hide gravestones inside their branches, vines smother the headstones and clearly no one has passed that way for very very long time.

A smaller part of the cemetery has been reclaimed by woods, including huge holly bushes. Here you see the edges....

A smaller part of the cemetery has been reclaimed by woods, including huge holly bushes. Here you see the edges….

My first objective when I arrived was to try to find my grandfather’s grave. It took a few tries, but I found it in a more orderly but little-visted section of the cemetery.

R.I.P. Simon van Norden (or "Rust in Vrede")

R.I.P. Simon van Norden (or “Rust in Vrede”)

IMAG1260[1]

The view from Simon van Norden’s grave (that’s his headstone in the foreground. Note the big tree in the background on the extreme right….more on that in a moment.)

The view from Simon van Norden's grave: looking the other way.

The view from Simon van Norden’s grave: looking the other way. That’s lichen on the top edge of the headstones, not sunlight.

Now, there are at least two Simon van Norden’s buried at Muiderberg. The other one listed died 23 September 1849 of “verval” (decay.) I wondered whether he might be a relative, so I tried to find his grave next. Although he was in the same section, the area indicated in the records seemed to be in worse repair, with more missing graves and missing row numbers. As far as I could tell, the only thing that stood where his grave (and those of his neighbours) should have been, was this tree.

The tree on the grave of Simon van Norden the Elder.

The tree on the grave of Simon van Norden the Elder.

You can see that, having moved back in time by 70 years or so, the headstones are worse for wear hereabouts. As you go further back, you see more of the same.

Weathered and split headstones

Weathered and split headstones. Note some have been held together with iron bands (e.g. extreme right.) No, it is not snowing….that’s just lichen on the headstones.

But enough of the van Nordens. Henri had asked that I also have a look for his grandfather’s side of the family, who were named Kellerman. Sure enough, I found a couple of them. Kellerman #1IMAG1272[1]

And when I looked up fromEsther’s grave, who do I see just a few feet away? The Lissauers…..IMAG1273[1]

Nov 24 14

A Sunday Ramble in Leamington Spa and Birmingham

by admin

My last free weekend in England (next two are in the Netherlands) so I tried to make the best of it.

I started with a stroll down the high street here in Leamington Spa as the Sunday christmas street market set up. Nothing starts a drizzly Sunday better than Harissa Lamb on a bun from a street vendor. (I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – I love the food in England.) I think that bun kept me warm for hours. After also buying some fine aged cheese (resisting the urge to channel Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch) plus crackers and bickies, I set off for an extended stroll through the Jephson Gardens.

The trees in the Jephson Gardens probably date back to its creation in the early 1800s.

The trees in the Jephson Gardens probably date back to its creation in the early 1800s.

The Jephson Gardens are right in the heart of the town and they’re big, stretching along the river Leam for a half-mile or so. They were also private when they opened for patrons of the fancy Spa across the street, but were opened to the public once the Spa business started to hit the skids. They’ve had their ups and downs, but are pretty lovingly refurbished now. Pity I had to tour them in a November drizzle….at least they were green.

This is the big tree in the previous picture, seen from under its canopy.

This is the big tree in the previous picture, seen from under its canopy.

Passageway through Jephson Gardens

Passageway through Jephson Gardens

Fall colours in the passageway through the Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa.

Fall colours in the passageway through the Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa.

After I exhausted the walking possibilities along the river, I hopped the train to Warwick (one stop, travel time about 4 minutes) to visit an interesting looking tea shop I passed the previous weekend. Had a nice chat with the shopkeeper, who was from eastern Germany by way of Edmonton(!) but settled down in Warwick with a local lad. Bought some scruptious smelling single-estate Assam and some “Golden Monkey” Chinese tea (so good, she said she named the shop after it.) She also gave me directions to a great local brew-pub with great craft ales (I had a pint of the Winter Ale because buying tea always makes your throat so dry, you know?) and old men playing dominos. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – I love the drink in England.

From Warwick, it was another train on a short hop to Birmingham, where I thought I’d see the shops and the “Frankfurt” Christmas fair, billed as the largest German-styled Christmas fair in England. Yes, the English l-o-v-e German themed christmas traditions, and you can practically see Basil Fawlty hissing “Don’t Mention the War!” behind every Gluhwein stand. Birmingham, btw, has done some pretty nice re-inventing of itself since manufacturing and heavy industry collapsed, and it has a pretty interesting mix of prestige architecture in the city centre. The chrome-plated Harvey Nichols is still under construction, but Selfridges is finished.

Birmingham has some pretty modern buildings -- this is Selfridges.

Birmingham has some pretty modern buildings — this is Selfridges.

The Christmas market was centered on Victoria and Chamberlain Squares, close by the city hall and the Birmingham Museum.

Birmingham City Hall, at night (well.....5pm on a November afternoon.) The Frankfurt Christmas market, in the foreground, was in full swing.

Birmingham City Hall, at night (well…..5pm on a November afternoon.) The Frankfurt Christmas market, in the foreground, was in full swing.

Ersatz German Christmas decorations on New Street in Birmingham.

Ersatz German Christmas decorations on New Street in Birmingham.

Christmas decorations in one of the old shopping arcades just off New Street, Birmingham

Christmas decorations in one of the old shopping arcades just off New Street, Birmingham

Now, I wandered around the market and then ducked into the Birmingham Museum for about an hour. That gave me a chance to walk right past the many galleries of Pre-Raphaelite painting (Burne-Jones was a local boy and they have rooms full of his stuff) to see the Staffordshire Hoard. The Hoard was only discovered in 2009 and was first put on public display last month here at the museum. It is the biggest single find of stuff from the Dark Ages of Britian ever. Much is still be interpreted. But the story so far seems to be

  • It dates from 640-660 AD when the area was called Mercia (before the Danes/Viking beat them into submission.)
  • It is not a ceremonial burial or tomb or anything. In fact, they really don’t know why this stuff was buried.
  • There are literally thousands of items, including lots of garnets, gold (11 lbs) and silver (3 lbs), intricately worked.
  • Much of the stuff on display seem to be the remains of ornaments of war helmets and swords, including silver foils with battle motifs and intricate cloisonné goldwork inlaid with garnets from swords hilts.
  • All the indications are this was not just ceremonial gear — the wear on the materials shows it saw active duty.

The most mind-boggling thing to me about the hoard was the swords. As they pointed out, back in those days, making a sword was very hard work and swords were rare. They passed down through generations and had individual names. The will of one King of England from around that time specified who was to get each of the ten swords that he owned. But based on the remains they’ve found, they figure that it represents the buried remains of over 150 swords! And no one has a clue yet why they buried them.

So after seeing the hoard (and pausing for a lovely pot of tea in the Museum’s tea room — I really do like the food and drink in England!) I left the museum at 5pm only to find that it had gotten dark already. But that really changed the feel of the place, as the before and after pics below should help you see.

Birmingham, with the city hall on the right (the "Parthanon") and the Museum in the center-rear (with Greek columns now managing to look Victorian.) Around the base of the tower in the foreground, you can see the "Frankfurt" Christmas market.

Birmingham, with the city hall on the right (the “Parthanon”) and the Museum in the center-rear (with Greek columns now managing to look Victorian.) Around the base of the tower in the foreground, you can see the “Frankfurt” Christmas market.

This panorama was taken only about an hour after the previous one.

This panorama was taken only about an hour after the previous one.

Nov 23 14

Royal Leamington Spa and Stratford Upon Avon

by admin

So I’ve spent my first week visiting U. Warwick and I’m getting to know Leamington Spa a bit better. (Note: Locals pronounce it lemmington spa.) The place had a pulse from about 1820 until 1860, but many of the corpses are well-preserved and bits are again being gentrified. As befits something from that era, Victoriana is everywhere, including her statue in front of the Guild Hall on the high street. There’s also some nice formal gardens and green space lining the river through town.

The public gardens along the river Leam.

The public gardens along the river Leam.

They also dress up the high street nicely for Christmas.

The main shopping street in Leamington, dressed up for Chistmas

The main shopping street in Leamington, dressed up for Chistmas

I’ve been pretty busy during the week, but spent today going to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company (“The White Devil” by Webster, another Jacobean playwrite.) The acting and the production were great….as good as anything I’ve seen. Before the show, Shaun Vahey showed me a bit of the town, which is also where he lives. Of course, the place falls over itself venerating its favourite son, William Shagspere (seems his family name is spelled many different ways in documents from that era — that’s the spelling on his marriage bond to Ann Hathaway.) That’s awkward, since he lived most of his life in London, and when he moved back to S-U-A, he built a new house which was torn down centuries ago…..so they venerate his parents house, where he lived as a child.

The house where William Shakespeare was born -- A National Monument

The house where William Shakespeare was born — A National Monument

The Gift Shop Adjoining the House Where William Shakespeare was born. (Please exit through the gift shop.)

The Gift Shop Adjoining the House Where William Shakespeare was born. (Please exit through the gift shop.)

A preserved window pane from the House Where William Shakespeare was Born.

A preserved window pane from the House Where William Shakespeare was Born.

Get the idea? They really, really venerate him. The window pane (now lovingly preserved in a glass case) is a case in point. 19th century tourists would scratch their names into the glass in the upstairs bedrooms. This graffiti is now part of the historical exhibit. (They say you can see Henry Irving’s name in one of these panes.)

The Oldest Pub, being now named after one of Wiliam Shikspiers' favourite actors.

The Oldest Pub, being now named after one of Wiliam Shikspiers’ favourite actors.

But enough of the cynicism. Okay, they’re going overboard celebrating their connection to The Bard. (Did I mention that the Mercure Hotel opposite the above pub is called the Shakespeare Hostelerie and boasts a full reproduction-Tudor-beamed front?) But somehow despite this, there’s lots of quite nicely preserved 200, 300, 400 and even 500-yr old buildings, narrow streets and no tall buildings or multi-story carparks or highways or tourbuses. The place is green and walkable and has a human scale. I found myself liking it.

The house next to the spot where they torn down Shakespear's new house a very long time ago.

The house next to the spot where they torn down Shakespear’s new house a very long time ago.

And then I came out of the play, which I very much enjoyed, and dusk was falling, fog was rising in the fields across the river and the ducks were flying home for the night.

Dusk in Stratford-Upon-Avon

Dusk in Stratford-Upon-Avon

Yes, that’s the view from the stage door of the Royal Shakespeare Company.