Daily Diary – Den Haag

by practicallymax on 31 July 2010

The time has come. My Daily Diary. Though fear and apprehension grip me to the bones, I shall plug onward, ignoring the close scrutiny that will pass over every character I type, ignoring the humorless critics who will boil off all of my words till only the important remain,hanging like scraps of meat off of yellowing bones. My bones.

Rob rallies the rambunctious rascals

It was an early morning – too early for everyone but Ben. At eight-thirtyish, most were semi-gathered in the courtyard, waiting for one of Rob’s signature debriefings till we would be let loose and herded toward A’dam Centraal. Rob did not disappoint, and with our groggy heads flopping around the ideas of a capital that is not the capital and a rich city around the poor, we set off, taking the waterfront route to our beloved Station.

Wanderers walk the waterfront

The walk was one that I had not taken before, and many echoed this sentiment. Though Amsterdam was already beginning to feel like home, discovering such a “hidden” — though obviously well-used — route reminded me of the importance of exploring and questioning a city such as this. With such an old and intricate urban landscape there are enough secrets for years of exploration, and maintaining that sense of mystery and inquisition that I felt upon arrival would be vital to continue discovering them.

Riders receive their rights from Rob

After some brief chatting at ever-busy Centraal, it was our turn to leave. (As Rob handed out the 19,70 Euro train tickets, I was again thankful that we had pre-paid for the program – it somewhat lessens the reality of spending handfuls of cash.) The train was fast and mostly smooth, the ride made quicker by dozing yet longer through wakeful anticipation. As many of the group have discovered through biking, it doesn’t take long to get from the packed, gritty metropolis to endless fields of maize, sap, and azure. Schiphol and several other stops behind us, we were in Den Haag.

Dutch dude discontinues dastardly dike's drainage

One tram to Madurodam, the miniature Holland. As we waited for Rob to negotiate our terms of entry, I noticed a man leaning up against a wall of turf. “What is he doing?” I said. When no one answered, I persisted: “Seriously, is he just standing there? What a weirdo!” Of course, this was a statute. But more than that, it was a boy sticking out his finger to plug a leak that had burst in a dike. Greg remembered the story: “he stood there for a long time, days I think, and never let his finger out of that hole. He kept plugging it, and saved them all. I think afterwards he was rewarded for his bravery.” Greg’s memory served him correctly, for in “The Hero of Haarlem,” a story in Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates (1865) by American author Mary Mapes Dodge, the nameless Dutch boy saves his country by plugging the hole, staying there all night until adults find him (source: Wikipedia).

Miniature models make my mind merry

Once inside, a land of marvels awaited. An airport, skyscrapers, docks, a carnival, and every type of building, new and old, was arranged in districts for one to wander among. Trains puttered along, cars passed slower trucks, airplanes taxied, boats sloshed, roller-coasters zoomed, and monorails took hairpin turns at improbable speed. This wasn’t just a museum – things were moving! It was good that the excursion lasted only an hour, for I don’t know how entertaining everything would have been beyond that, but those fifty-ish minutes were fun. I distinctly remember exclaiming every few minutes, “oh, holy crap, what’s that?” and rushing over to see flood gates opening, window-washers descending a gleaming black tower, or miniatures play bumper-cars at an alarming speed. It stirred the Lego-builder in me that hadn’t been awoke in years.

A behemoth black building

After migrating cafes, the group sat down for a little discussion, based around a question that Rob posed: what do we see here that we wouldn’t see in the U.S.? Beyond being cool, what is it here that is definitely “Dutch”? Many had something unique to share: amazement at the accuracy and detail of the representations; approval at the “junk” that was present, rather than a “sanitized, Disney version” that we might see in the States; and thoughts that the Dutch had one-upped what we would do in the U.S. because of how interactive everything was. Clifford mused that he was most surprised how much of an attraction this was.

A compact complex of clay (concrete)

Following a brief mention by a student, Rob spoke at length about the trend that has arisen in the last century or so of giving importance to all aspects of architecture and design, not just what was previously considered great. A factory and a candy store will be given the same place as an 800 year-old cathedral in this “infrastructural zoo,” and it reflects the fact that high quality planners and architects are now proactive in the design of much more than the church or the city center. I had wondered if it wasn’t also the result of the world’s human population exploding with such great ferocity while the earth itself has stayed the same size: with so many more architects and infrastructure professionals out there, it only makes sense that they would accept work in a wider range of projects.

Godzilla growls, a goofy grin growing

We also spoke a bit at how this is such an attraction for kids. Some offered thoughts on why this may be: a sense of national pride  at what the Dutch have accomplished, an interest in seeing structures they might have only heard of but haven’t traveled to visit, or, conversely, seeing the full scope of buildings that they are familiar with. One thing that I don’t remember being mentioned is that kids might enjoy this place because it’s just cool and fun to feel big. Right as we entered I remember John running by screaming “wheeeee!” and not soon afterwards I got a strong urge to pretend I was Godzilla. The great works of man (and woman) become something you could conquer in a moment if you so desired, sweeping away all of the insignificant people below and asserting your dominance over such a vast land of treasures. That the buildings are actually what you might see in real life helps the feeling, as does the fact that there aren’t any burly security guards walking around as they would in a museum. I somewhat doubt that children really worry much about their Dutch pride and national identity – they want to have fun, and really, so do we.

Politie patrols prevented photographing paintings - presented is Maurishuis's posterior

After making our way near the parliament building with its glorious pond and fountain, Rob urged us to enter into the Mauritshuis (which everyone did), but afterwards we would be on our own. For me, the Mauristhuis was continually surprising. At first, I considered it another dusty art museum that would house works that I knew I should appreciate but never really connected to. My taste for art has been strongly influenced by the modern trends of downtown Seattle’s numerous art galleries, as well as from an artist or two I met during my escapade into art in high school (such as Matt Lu), and I have found that sometimes old galleries such as these just don’t do it for me.

Nice notes

However, after a few minutes, I was compelled to go downstairs and pick up an audio guide (that I usually forgo), and started learning more about the history and ideas of the artists. A few minutes later, I was too interested to forget everything, so I talked to guards until they let me into our storage room to retrieve my notebook. From this, I am able to remember much more:

The Mauritshuis houses many great works from the Dutch Golden Age: art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals; 17th century Flemish painters like Rubens and van Dyck; and 15th and 16th century masters like van der Weyden and Holbein (and many more from all categories, of course). Of these artists and their art, I learned several things:

  • Still Life with a Lighted Candle

    a favorite: "Still Life with a Lighted Candle, 1627" by Pieter Claesz

    in the 17th century, the emphasis in art was on creating a perfect representation of the scene. Thus, in a still life, for example, artists would often put specific items into their arrangement to insert “double meanings” into their art. Often this would be humorous, though for some pieces it’s awfully hard to tell these days because we don’t have a clear enough picture of what people would have found funny back then.

  • How many painters painted from compiled studies rather than of real life. For example, Vase With Flowers (c. 1670) by Jan Davidsz. de Heem contains many specimens that would never bloom or grow at the same time of year.
    Vase with Flowers

    "Vase with Flowers, c. 1670" by Jan Davidsz. de Heem

    Also, The Bull (1647) by Paulus Potter contains a very vivid bull, but modern analysts can tell that the teeth are too old for the horns, and the rump is not as muscular as it should be to match the front, so the bull must have been fictional.

  • That the portraits of a man and woman should be placed with the man to the left of the woman (when viewed), and the way they looked at each other conveyed specific meanings. Thus, it was a tough decision for Anthony van Dyck to paint portraits of Anna Wake and Peter Stevens in 1628 because he had painted Peter first, before he was married, looking to his right, and so it would not do to have his wife painted on his right, as is traditional, otherwise he would have his back to her!
The Bull

"The Bull, 1647" by Paulus Potter

I could go on and on, but I suspect a lot of these things are interesting only to a small percentage of people, and even then it is much better when you’re there with the art. But I have a newfound appreciation for the art of the Netherlands of the 14th – 17th century, and for audio guides, for many secrets of paintings reveled themselves that I could have never deduced on my own.

By the time I left it was already 15:30, hours after everyone else had gone, so I decided to wander the city and look for food.

Awesome bird photo

Pinnacle of perfect photography - pouncing on prey

I came across breathtaking pictures of wildlife that had been set up in a large exhibit outside of the parliament pond, celebrating the beauty of nature in Europe. I felt silly taking picture of pictures, but I wanted to remember them because many were so good they could make the cover of National Geographic.

Burger Kind Sign

Business burgers bad

Heading into downtown I saw several dreadfully familiar sights (McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC), so I kept travelling until I saw a less dreadful albeit equally familiar one (Albert Heijn’s). I headed into a large staircase around the city center to eat and watch people interacting on the vast concrete expanse that lay before me. In doing so,I reflected on what I had witnessed (and was still seeing) in Den Haag.

Concrete expanse

Stale stairway

The city seemed to lack Amsterdam’s vigor and charm. Like Amsterdam, there were many old-looking buildings and several new high-rises visible in the surrounding area, but the atmosphere of the city was different. People didn’t have as many places to go or things to do: a large percentage of the population were old and rather stagnant tourists, and another large percentage were city dwellers who seemed prone to sit and reminisce with a cigarette. (I can’t of course be sure that they were reminiscing, but you get the picture.) There were less bikes, less traffic, less greenery, and less interesting things to see and do. The area I was in, at least, seemed to be an uninterested city center: come if you wish, but the blank stares of the buildings and concrete would not miss you were you to leave. It was not welcoming.

However, there were pockets of hope. As I sat and munched on my bread, cheese, and pasta, I noticed a group of young skateboarding locals chatting and trying out their tricks in a menacing way that only thirteen-year-olds can achieve. But they were friendly, I could tell. They were courteous to those who passed, never made rude comments or gestures, and clearly enjoyed being watched. Once, a Politie drove up on his motorcycle, and purposely swerved very close to where the youngens were, but he made no motion to stop or warn them, and drove off as they continued to kickflip and 50-50 (a few were actually quite good).

Bumpin' b-boy breakdance battle below

Taking a swig of strawberry juice, I looked out across the square: a group of older younguns were throwing down beats and b-boying (breakdancing) in a circle. Granted, after seeing Massive Monkeys, they weren’t anything special, but this act of public adolescent behavior was totally accepted by the Politie and all who passed. The tolerance that I felt in Amsterdam I felt here, too, and the more I looked, the more mellow the interactions I saw seemed.

Rumbling rail-way return

Den Haag may not be the most fun place to spend a long time, but it was certainly interesting to see. Most of all, it gave me the perspective of the Dutch while not being in Amsterdam, which is an important distinction I can now make.

(The conclusion of my day, including a frantic trip to the train station for reasons I will not mention, was not important nor relevant enough to describe here, in my “official” daily diary entry. However, if you stay tuned, it might appear in another medium or location.)

Finally, an important announcement: my netbook does not have the power to do video editing – it struggles with mere text editing, and I know from experience of creating dozens of movies with Windows machines that this would not hold up. However, I am more than happy to use UVA computers to produce a short video that I will post here, I just need some time when they are open (during the week) in order to do so. So, Rob, Clifford, your patience permitting, I will have to hold off on my video blog till I have substantial enough access to good technology. Thank you! I will be busy with it this week.

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