Bareback ringriding

We were woken by the sound of horse hooves early this morning, as ring riders from the surrounding villages brought their horses to town for the second Folkloric Day of the year: the Regional Ringriding Championship.

Competitors ride bareback on huge draft horses at full gallop, while attempting to spear a tiny ring suspended above the sand track. There are 30 rounds, with the size of the ring decreasing progressively, down to only 2 cm diameter at the end of the day.


Delving A’dam, espying Eve

After a series of workshops at the University of Amsterdam, we retired to Café Van Zuylen for beer and soup, waiting out the Friday evening traffic before heading south on a three-hour drive done in 2 hrs 10″, thanks to my driver’s belief that speed radars don’t work at night.

Café Van Zuylen
Mobile photo, edited in-camera with Pixlr-o-matic

In the lower bar, I saw a familiar head — grey flattop, hangdog features — red party tie and sobre overcoat. I only put the name to the face a few hours later (Ronald Plasterk, former education minister), and later still, realized that he must have just come from the election for the Labour Party leadership, which he lost.


A very Dutch death

The new year had barely begun when I learned of the death of a colleague who worked in the office opposite mine. A very Dutch death, he was out cycling on New Year’s Eve, probably going home to celebrate with his wife and four kids, when he had a heart attack and ended up in the sloot, or water-filled ditch that line many country roads here. His body was later found in the water.

The wind has been very strong these last few days, gusting up to Force 9, so maybe the exertion of cycling was too much for his heart. I don’t remember him as being especially unhealthy, and maybe he wasn’t — he was only 45.

No comment

His death has been on my mind since I heard about it. After all, I have four kids too, and next week … I’m turning 45.

The limits of tolerance

Accept or tolerate?The Dutch like to think of themselves as an exceptionally, even uniquely, tolerant people. The precedent is often cited as Amsterdam’s reception of refugees fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century, although London too hosted Huguenots and Jews, in perhaps greater numbers than Amsterdam. And to the outsider today, the Netherlands is not obviously more tolerant than other northern European countries such as Denmark or Sweden; yet to a Dutch person, whenever conversation turns to identity and what it means to be Dutch, it is the notion of special tolerance of others that comes to the fore, and discussions about immigration, for example, often provoke an indignant response and a feeling of a personal affront.

Maybe a failure of the “MultiKulti” society (Angela Merkel) is also due in part to merely tolerating others rather than accepting them:

If you accept others as equals, you embrace them unconditionally, now and forever. But if you let them know that you tolerate them, you suggest in the same breath that they are actually an inconvenience, like a nagging pain or an unpleasant odour you are willing to disregard.
Source: Arthur Japin

The devotion of the Dutch to an ideal of tolerance sometimes produces tortuous compromises and inconsistencies. Take, for example, the famous tolerance policy on soft drugs: According to the government website, “Weed, marijuana and hash are less harmful than hard drugs (XTC, Cocaine), but they are just as illegal.” In practice, possession of less than five grams of cannabis for personal use will not be prosecuted. You can also grow up to five cannabis plants without prosecution … although “they have to be handed over upon discovery” (?!).

Coffeeshops find themselves in the middle of this bizarre form of tolerance: they are authorized to sell small quantities of weed under very strict conditions, including an interdiction to buy weed. That would encourage trade in drugs rather than personal consumption, goes the reasoning. The result is that the supplies come from illegal cannabis plantations run by criminals with no regard to quality or safety. Just today, the Utrecht city council proposed setting up legal plantations, formed of members each with five plants, in order to reduce health risks and cut out the criminal middleman.

Elsewhere in politics, we currently have a coalition government propped up by a “tolerance” of a third party, Geert Wilders’ PVV. His party (of which he is the only member …) is so repulsive to other members of the rightist coalition that they cannot accept him as a member of the government, but will only tolerate his presence provided he backs them on key issues.

Being "tolerated" sucksThe influence of tolerance stretches down to local community relations too. For example, in our communal garden, a number of house owners have placed plant pots on the paving stones around the garden, effectively extending their garden into the common ground by an extra one or two metres. The reason is that these house owners had understood that the original building plans gave them much longer gardens; when the final product was delivered, with much less land, the owners decided unilaterally to take back their land. As latecomers to the block, we were unaware of the history, but the result was clear: big concrete plant pots in the middle of the path, with plants stretching over the rest of the path, meant that it was almost impossible to walk round the garden without getting smacked in the mouth by bamboo or dune grass. After years of wrangling, the residents’ association produced a tolerance policy whereby owners were allowed to cover one of the three tiles, but that their plants could not extend any further than that single tile. So far nothing has changed; we’ll have to wait until the weather gets warmer before people start using the garden again, and the plants start growing.

And now the final example of the limits of Dutch tolerance, and the story that first motivated me to write this post six months ago: in the regional newspaper on 3 September 2010, I noticed a short article on the front page about three members of a cycling club who had been reprimanded by the club executive because they had stopped for a coffee during a bike ride. The rest of the club members had no problem with it, but the board insisted on the club principle of “Out together, home together”, and the rule that members are not allowed to stop during a club ride. The story continued on the inside pages, with a photo of dissident member, Adri de Schipper stirring a cup of coffee, in his cycle kit, with his bike parked behind him. The practice of stopping for coffee had always been tolerated, he explained, and it was now a pity that the club executive had suddenly changed its mind, threatening to kick the dissident coffee drinkers out of the club if they didn’t conform to the club rules.

As Japin says, “Tolerance is cloaked menace: the mood can change at any moment.”

Moving house, by bike

Moving house, by bike
Have bike will travel

Students are beginning to drift back into town, clogging the bookshops with their reading lists for Art History and Unemployability (Comb. Hons.)

Proving the Dutch can do anything with a bike, I spotted these intrepid housemovers while cycling back from the crèche. With a child perched on front and another seated behind, I snapped off this shot while straddling my own bicycle.

4 wheels bad,
2 wheels good!