A castle in my neighbourhood

Long ago, a few very wealthy people luxuriated in this castle and a disproportionate number of others made sure that they did. And still others toiled to ensure continuity. In this castle, after the materially wealthy ones and the intellectually wealthy one (Descartes) had moved out, folks not unlike you and me moved in.

People on bicycles, or perhaps in cars arrived and parked between the splendid green lawns and the castle walls. They went in, hung up their coats, placed their wet umbrellas in a bucket, greeted their colleagues to then sit behind desks in tapestry-covered rooms. Workers with a regular 9 to 5 job, they got down to administrative work, typewriters and later computers tick tick- a ticking. The castle’s maintenance, and that of the buildings around it, the salaries of the administrative staff, and the upkeep of 80,000 meters of land were paid for by folks – not unlike you and me.





But that too changed, and the castle’s doors were closed to all. I had wandered around it sometimes and around the buildings skirting the luminous green grass and into the forested patches that separated them. I never saw any people.  But they live in those buildings that surround the castle, even to this day. They are autistic and mentally challenged people. And the administrators who have now left were the ones who had worked for the care of these people, from inside the castle’s walls.

And the toil that had made this possible was of folks – not unlike you and me.

And today the castle doors are open again.

For folks not unlike you and me.




In the ‘Descartes Hall’ of the castle, stories come alive. There was a time when the property was fenced and there was a time when psychiatric patients left the grounds, sometimes accompanied by a chaperone, to go shopping in the vicinity. They made music, had pets, and worked in the garden. They played games and had parties. They went for walks, and felt, like I do today, the sun filtering through the trees. They saw the artworks that nature makes, and breathed the air of changing seasons.




Tomorrow the castle’s doors will be closed again. It’s been sold by the state to a property developer, who has hired architects. The architects say that the developer has great respect for monuments. Once a castle, always a castle. And it, and the buildings and the grounds around it will only grow in status as a ‘medical-social-park’: a magnet for innovation as homes for living ‘vitally, independently -in-care’,  and protected homes for those re-integrating after hospitalization will flourish on its grounds. There will also be homes for the elderly in close proximity to health care, and for those who believe in holistic living. There is no special mention of the autistic and the mentally challenged in the plans presented.

And perhaps folks, not unlike you and me, will arrive on bicycles and in cars and park between a splendid green lawn and the castle walls and go in, hang up their coats, place their wet umbrellas in a bucket, greet their colleagues to then sit in rooms with tapestry covered walls and tick tick tick away.

And perhaps all this will be made possible through the toil of folks – not unlike you and me.

This is the story of Endegeest, a castle in my neighbourhood.







We…on the road (must have a code)

When I give an intercultural training to people born and brought up in the Netherlands who are going to India to work or live, I begin with this slide. I found it on the internet. It’s even more pixelated when projected, but I haven’t yet managed to take myself one that conveys what I want to say better.






I point to the car with its rear end sticking out as it makes a horizontal line attempting to get into another lane, where it can; to some people crossing the road, where they can and a creature with four legs moving, when it can.

I often hear guffaws.

I tell them about how big is power, (the bus) and has right of way anyway, and small (the car) does what it can, and what it can get away with when it can. And loud is not enough, you have to be louder, loudest (everything) and a cow may criss-cross a road like any (one) else.

I tell them that soon after they land in India, they are quite likely to find themselves on a comparable road. Sometimes for what feels like eternity. To then, not tear their hair out, or cry, or try to escape (they can’t anyway) but to stay sitting and to gaze. Just gaze. Because much of what they will see and experience in the days to come can be learnt from those first experiences of gazing, and asking themselves some what, where, who, how, why questions.

For instance, “how is it that the pedestrians who are about to be run over by the car I am sitting in are still alive”?

The driver swerved an inch away from the pedestrians. Some people like to call it getting the job done at the last minute, others call it ‘jugaad’ and still others call it SHIT management (SomeHowInTime management)

Or… why does it feel like everything that moves (and doesn’t) is not following the rules?

They might learn that the rules can have a nasty habit of rules that change with time and place. What is a rule for one, is a rule by another name for another. Like big has the right of way. And roads are for four wheels, four legs and two wheels and two legs. Besides, rules may be more about relationships and less about rules.

“Why, even if the light turns green, does my driver look left and right before he moves on”?

Well – because of the other two above.

And so on.

And then I mention all the signs, straight and curved lines, the colours and stripes and arrows, the speed limits announced and (mostly) adhered to and the lack of four legged creatures here in their neatly ordered universe of land, water and polders.

Of course, they’re already missing it, as they are transported to a road in India.






Catch of the day

‘Zwerver’! It means tramp, and that’s what my son said to me when I came home with my catch of the day. Call it another manifestation of middle age crisis, if you like, but I’ve begun to find it difficult to pass by garbage that I happen to catch out of the corner of my eye, without stepping off my bike. Middle-aged yes– but still quite able to bend, lean, sit on my haunches, balance, stretch to get my catch of the day.

That’s when one or the other member of my family comments. Or gets downright upset, while I try to separate plastic from tin, paper, cartons and silver foil in our back yard.

Plastic. Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Crawling along, or embedded in the earth in the company of trees. On the forest floor, hugging reeds on edge of a lake. Glittering. Rolling along in silent midnight’s wake. Sticking out of earth, as if growing there. Bits and pieces everywhere. Flap flap flapping in rhythmic beat. Red. White. As black as peat. Plastic calling out to me. Like no other in the garbage family. Ducks cluck cluck clucking in the vicinity.

So I heed the call of plastic and stop in my tracks.

today’s catch

On one such collection spree, when I was trying to precariously balance myself on a slope leading to a canal, a twelve year old student of mine bicycled by, a bemused look on her face. I’ve seen different reactions, especially when on a walk, I hold my catch of the day in my hand. One lady recently, looked, smiled a bit, then suddenly bent down and picked up and discarded something she saw on the street in a bin. A wordless connection bound us together.



yesterday’s catch

What do I do with this catch of the day? Most often I dispose it with our private plastic collection, gathering day after day in an oversized bin in the kitchen. I lack the brilliance of Marius Smit – who came up with a foundation called ‘Plastic Whale’. This is what they do:

  1. They fish for plastic in the canals of Amsterdam and in Rotterdam
  2. They manufacture boats with the catch of several days
  3. They use the boats to fish out some more plastic from the canals of Amsterdam and in Rotterdam
  4. They also use the recycled plastic to make office furniture

And here’s the thing. We can all join them. We can row through Amsterdam or Rotterdam fishing for plastic. It’s a new concept in tourism, and its works.

You can find more information about ‘Plastic Whale’ here:

1. article in The Guardian

2. video plastic fishing

3. volunteers fishing plastic in amsterdam canals

No more chicken curry, daddy

On 23rd August, my friend Mayura hosted a dinner in memory of her father. It was his birthday, and he would have been 75 years of age, had he survived the stroke that took his life away a few years ago in Mumbai. She misses her father.







The guests were invited to bring along something that their fathers loved to eat or drink. I brought Old Monk Rum – a drink my father consumed every evening if he could help it. Followed by a good curry or mince. He was an inveterate meat eater. He was convinced that vegetarianism would have killed him. Right away.

A heart attack did. At the age of sixty. He was quite overweight.

Mayura hardly ever eats red meat and she doesn’t miss it either. But her father loved ‘mutton curry’ (made of goat meat) and so she made it. Our conversation gravitated to the relationship we share with animals we eat (or don’t).

I mentioned how in recent days, I’ve glanced at newspaper reports about the cruelty of halaal and the efforts to ‘humanize’ the practice, here in the Netherlands. Slitting the throat of an animal and letting it bleed to death does feel crude. As Mayura remembers, the streets of a particular part of Mumbai (Bombay then) would almost be flooded with blood, and, she adds, ‘more than the sight of it, it is the smell that has always remained with me. It was so visceral’. That matches my experience too.

That’s the thing with India. It’s all so in your face. The extremes of cruelty and of kindness – everything is right there to live with and live through, if you can.

In contrast, as one of us pointed out, it’s not possible to approach an abattoir here in the Netherlands. While attributing the reason for this to hygiene, there are others too. What goes on inside the walls of an abattoir here are no less crude. Just out of sight and smell range. And yes, clean. Squeaky clean. I’ve experienced industrial meat production in Europe through a documentary film at IDFA. And it was pretty much no more chicken curry for me daddy after that.

So we talked about some of these issues around the domestication and eating of animals and animal products that night and what we do and feel about it. We – with all the choices before us in supermarkets and shops laden with every kind of food from every part of the earth. And I do believe that many more people around me are questioning why they eat the flesh of animals, or at least looking at what kind of a life the animal may have lived, before they landed on a dinner plate, or between two slices of bread. As our newspaper of 20th August this year shows, the plofkip (a broiler chicken that is on a short track for maximum growth in the least amount of time) has almost been worked out of Dutch supermarkets, thanks to a very effective campaign started in 2011. This campaign, begun by an activist group called ‘Wakker Dier’ made it impossible for us to ignore the extreme suffering of broiler chickens because of the cruel practices surrounding their production. I remember what an impact it had on me.




I see why it’s necessary to dialogue about halaal. But it’s not just how animals die that I want to think more deeply about. It’s how they live. Under our guardianship. And this is why ‘Wakker Dier’s’ campaign is interesting. They’re watching out for those creatures while they have life in them, and adding quality to their existence because they think they have a right to it.






August Times

It’s summertime, and if you’re not a tourist yourself, you could be bumping into one.

Unlikely in Oegstgeest though.

Countryside walks in and around this village are one way to take in the tourist experience without feeling hemmed in by thousands more. This is what I offer friends and family who visit.

While I am giving a running commentary of what I think might interest them, the visitors sometimes say and do things that make me stop in my tracks.

“Now we’ll see ducks, and the windmill will come into view”, I say. “Here it is – built in 1789 to pump water out of this land. Today it’s not turning, but it does sometimes”.

“But there aren’t any sails” says my friend Angela.

“What sails?” I ask, and think to myself ….windmills and sails??? What exactly is she talking about.

Yes windmills do have sails. I saw them the next day on another one that did happen to be turning. True I don’t exactly have the head of an engineer, but to think of it, it’s not rocket science. It’s as simple as Angela put it:

“The sails catch the wind and help the blades to turn.”

Of course. Yes of course. I’d just never noticed them before.

And Angela’s gaze was not just upwards. She bent down to pluck a leaf. “Mint”, she said, crushing it. “Mmmm I love the smell.”


Indeed – mint. Lots and lots and lots of it along this path I have tread a thousand times.




Later that evening, in a quiet and private moment, Angela’s eyes fall upon a picture on the birthday calendar hanging on the door of the toilet at home. She shows me later. ‘Water munt’ (water mint) says the caption under the picture of the plant. It was what we’d just seen on our walk. The month on the calendar is, of course, August.


Every now and then, I get a message via Facebook, email or App from a friend or acquaintance – sometimes from a classmate of so long ago that I can barely remember anything about them. They tell me that they plan to visit the Netherlands (Amsterdam is sort of synonymous with the Netherlands for some), and they ask me what they can do in the four or five days that they plan to visit. And each time, I ask the same question:

“What is that you like to do, see, experience when you travel?”

So far nobody has replied that they want to go on a countryside walk in and around Oegstgeest.

If they manage to tear themselves away from the myriad things to do, see and experience in Amsterdam, I take them on a countryside walk, a bicycle ride to the beach or a boat ride on quiet waters near home.

And it happens that the traveler, who meets every day with a welcoming spirit, whose senses are open; who lets the experience of being out of home overcome her, brings another perspective to the ones for whom the everydayness of trodden paths has taken over.