Madam Ines

From my vantage point, I can see through the windows on the first and second floors opposite me. Three  screens. In each of them, women, single or in the company of other women.

I am playing ‘bluff’ with my companions in an Indonesian restaurant on the first floor on the other side of the street. The apartments are well lit, the night clear, we are above street level, and I sit facing a window that looks into theirs. It’s an open invitation that I will not refuse. A choreography of simultaneous movements meets my eyes… she’s opening a packet of chips, settling on a sofa, collecting a handful, showing a companion something on a mobile phone and laughing, getting ice out of a refrigerator. Soundless visuals to which I add a voice over in my head ….. “she’s just returned form a hard day’s work, wonder how much it cost to buy that property in the centre of this city…where is the car park… a full length mirror in the living room hmmmm curious …. I hope she’s not lonely…wonder if anyone else lives with her.” My voice over makes them out to be women who are paid for their work and take decisions about how and where they want to live. Mistresses of their own fate.

Earlier that day, I visited the ‘Open Air Museum’ in Arnhem. Whole neighbourhoods, houses and buildings have been dismantled from their previous locations and rebuilt here. In some of them, people in costume ‘dwell’ amongst the real objects and machines and communicate with visitors. This is how I could revise the workings of a steam engine and a windmill with some help. In other buildings, stories are told on televisions screens, like the one of Mr. Lau, immigrant from Hong Kong who started the first Chinese restaurant in Maastricht. The restaurant is there with its larder intact.










With so much to see and experience, one might have missed Madam Ines completely amongst objects that fit in the world of men of those times. A huge warehouse – a reconstruction of ‘Van Gend en Loos’ showcases the firm in the business of the transportation of goods to and from railway stations. From the time of horse run carriages to vans and trucks. Underneath the wheels of a carriage is a declaration: beautiful horses and beautiful women cost money to maintain. It is in this warehouse that Madam Ines is to be found on a little screen beside a full-length display of a male uniform and boxes and crates.







Madam Ines is in uniform too, and one has to strain a bit to hear her on the screen. The interviewer asks her why she decided to be a chauffer, the first in the Netherlands. There were personal reasons, she replies almost shyly. Yes, she had to follow a course, where she learned about loading and unloading cargo. Yes, she laughs, sometimes it is heavy work. We see her carrying a bunch of uniforms on a hanger, delivering them, getting a signature and driving her truck.







A subsequent search on the internet reveals little about Madam Ines. Did I hear her name properly, I wonder. Does it matter? She’s another ancestor of mine, who for reasons she didn’t share, stepped from one role into another, woke up in the mornings put on her uniform, and left home to earn her bread.

And now I see her through a glass, not in uniform, getting her dinner plate, and settling into a chair. Just another moment in the day’s routine. Only in another age.

I amsterdam

Here is an example of a recent exchange on What’s App with a family member planning to visit me:

x : “ I’ll be in Amsterdam from 11th to the 17th” .

Me: “You mean in Oegstgeest. I don’t live in Amsterdam”.

x: “Same thing”.

X has been to visit me before and knows I don’t live in the capital city any more, but in a gezellig village in the south-westerly direction of Amsterdam. No matter how many times I try to change the equation, it always comes back to this: 4 x: Amsterdam = The Netherlands.

And I’ve begun to wonder if the responsibility for the confusion lies with the slogan I amsterdam.

I amsterdam conveys its meaning through English, not Dutch. It’s there for eyes beyond Dutch borders, and has become synonymous with tourism. A 6.5 feet high display at the back of the Rijksmuseum testifies to this. Although it’s forbidden to climb onto the letters, an average of 6000 people a day do so to make selfies. I amsterdam is the name of the travel card and of the official website for visitors.

Image result for I Amsterdam

Ten years ago, as an Amsterdammer, I shared something of that of an I amsterdam’ feeling. I belonged to Amsterdam, and it belonged to me. Amsterdam was my village. I could get anywhere within the hour on my bicycle. It was my global village, accessible on two wheels. When I heard people complain of the ‘business’ in Amsterdam, I shook my head from side to side and smiled inwardly. They needed to visit Mumbai, my previous place of residence. By these standards, Amsterdam is far from busy even today, although the number of tourists swells by the minute, and the number of locals by the day. And I amsterdam welcomes everyone.

Image result for Amsterdam streets

Image result for Amsterdam cafes

Image result for Amsterdam cafes


The proposition to give up the marketing miracle I amsterdam has recently become a point of discussion in the municipality. At what point does the city where your home is, where you work, and where your children grow up begin to feel like it’s not there for you? Just a couple of weeks ago, a friend who lives there said he had no reason to go into the city centre. That was for tourists. As for his 17 year old son, just finishing high school, there was every reason for him to go into the city centre. Youngsters find jobs at the drop of a hat. Doing what? Serving tourists.

The success of I amsterdam in drawing tourists by the millions has certainly spurred me to think about myself when I travel. More often than not, on the streets and cafes of Venice, or in the city centre of Copenhagen, or gazing at the Berlin Wall, I am not any different from the uncertain figure on his or her rented bicycle, enjoying the ride on the Singel in Amsterdam, while I try to make my way to work. In those exotic European cities, I am the tourist. In Amsterdam I now occupy a space that isn’t covered by I amsterdam. I’m not a resident and I don’t visit it as a tourist. Both types of I amsterdammers can stress me out when I’m on a bicycle in Amsterdam these days: the one swerving left and right uncertainly on a rented bike, or full swing with a bunch of friends in party mood on the bicycle track and totally unaware of my looming arrival on my rented bike; the other cursing and swearing while he or she whizzes by at top speed, half crashing into me – late no doubt because of all these ‘others’ on the bicycle track.

The way to do it, I’ve decided is to take the time, and cautiously make my way through this stunning city, which, I can honestly see exactly why millions would want to live in and other millions would want to visit. I’m not sure that the success of Amsterdam as a tourist paradise is to do with I amsterdam alone. That seems to be a simple way of putting the blame on two words with a strong message and incredible design.

Image result for Amsterdam cafes

Image result for Amsterdam cafes



The Shoemakers and the Elves

On a recent autumn day, while water-laden clouds and sunshine displayed behaviour as erratic as a cardiogram of a person in grave danger, I found myself following my nose. For no particular reason. And my nose led me to a place I had been to several times in the not so distant past.

I heard my heart hammer, even as the memories of hammering came back to me. Here, deserted today, on a school day, my children and their friends, then aged between seven and twelve, had built castles in the air. They’d imagined themselves to be adept at the task, and we had encouraged them in the enjoyment of their fantasies. The structures stand to this day as evidence of a particularly relaxed approach to lending out hammers and nails to young kids to have a go at building. Signs warning of loose nails and planks are around, as well as the clear message that building here is at one’s own risk.












This is Amsterdam, and the place I am referring to has a name – ‘land of the young’. Over the years it’s been spruced up and the playground facilities have been vastly expanded, but some years ago, it had a fairly wild and untamed look and I loved going there with my children because of that. Building is just one of the many possibilities to occupy its target group. Others are swimming in open water on warm days, baking bread, shooting with bows and arrows, zip lining over water, observing farm animals, or ‘normally’ playing on swings, slides, monkey bars, climbing equipment and the like. All of this at no cost.

In a time when the X box, the Wii and the Play Station have pretty much conquered the hearts and minds of young and not so young alike, I begin to feel a wave of nostalgia for the land of the young. Obviously, some part of me tells me, it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. It can be ‘ and – and’. The Play Station and building castles in the air do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive to each other.

Because, here in Amsterdam we can have it all.

Because here in Amsterdam, we can also pretend to be the shoemaker and go to bed, leaving the castles in the air behind. The inspectors, like the elves will appear at some point while we are at rest. They’ll get out their tools, climb and trod carefully, hammer nails here, and wrench them there, and, without messing about too much with the children’s fantasies, they’ll make sure those structures stand, and that no untoward sharp bits stick out. So that when the same little shoemakers or other ones are back, they can once more marvel at the workmanship, and choose either to improve or to build from scratch.








In the fairy tale, the shoemaker and his wife, poor people, won the sympathy of the elves who wanted to help them get rich and they did. When Mr. and Mrs. Shoemaker secretly discovered that their benefactors had no clothes or shoes, they decided to make these as Christmas presents and hid to watch what the elves would do. The elves, now suited and booted sang and danced: “Now we are boys so fine to see, why should we longer cobblers be?” But their help was not needed by then.

And here in the land of the young, the elves keep coming and the shoemakers should never get to see them.

The elves are there for folks like me, who want their children to enjoy building castles in the air.

Link to ‘Jeugdland’ (Land of the Young)


As If

What will happen in the still of night?

There will still be light

When voices are out of sight

The song is sung and the sitar strung

Isn’t even present any more

The images on the walls – ‘Surface Tension’ – Sujata Majumdar’s – herself as scientist, herself as artist -have stayed in the gallery.

All the rest of us, as I said, have left.

Earlier today, I needed to run out while I was viewing Sujata’s works of photography presently at display at the Amsterdam Medical Centre. The one of a mountainside that has a velvety texture in apparent three dimension alongside a sandy texture has caught my eye. Surface Tension. A curious emotion that I can barely recognize at first overcomes me as I gaze at the images, and the temperature (cold) and the smell (spirit) and the sound (clogs) make me want to flee.

But I have been invited here to tell a story on the theme of ‘resonance’ in the gallery exhibiting Sujata’s images, and so I stay. Storyteller Krishna of Fifth Friday Sisterhood sent me the invitation: “RESONANCE can mean a number of things to different people…like the echo of sounds or musical instrument…or reverberation of sounds from surfaces…or the memory of a distant voice in the minds of a person…

Or the stories from the inner thoughts and emotions of an artist as they explore their practise, and then expose those explorations, and share that RESONANCE with others. So think on the theme…it can mean anything to each individual…”

When the ‘audience’ arrives and assembles, and it’s my turn to ‘tell a story’, they get from me a poem in the making. To be completed by us. Handwritten on recycled paper and called ‘As If’.

Each verse, incomplete, ends with ‘as if………….as if………………….’ After every ‘as if’ in the poem, they are invited to add words and write them down.







But first I read the incomplete poem.

Then ask for volunteers to write. There are more than the verses on paper.

I tell them not to think too much. To just write based on what resonates with them.

After 5 minutes, I ask who would like to read a verse. Enough volunteers again. They read aloud – taking turns with each verse in chronological order, and ending each verse with their words after ‘as if’. Accents from here there and everywhere. Voices that resonate.

While they read, the rest of us fill in our incomplete poem.

Then we all read the all the verses with the words added by the volunteers. A collaborative poem.





And here it is:

As If

Won’t step on snail

Stop, go, stop and go

Say hello

Wag of a tail

As if, as if I have a dog


Lead me on

Don’t got a clue

Depends on me, depends on you

Winding ways

As if, as if I followed the yellow brick road


Feathers fluffed

Tongue stuck out, white, white bird

Don’t say a word

Just fill up space

As if, as if the music will take you home


Pink cloud all dressed

Says it wants to flow

And with the water go

And I …ripple along?

As if, as if the pick up plays my song


Flash of light

In plastic flies

Silver wings, it tries, it tries

Now to chase

As if, as if it had a choice


Ah so little

So full, so sweet

Twitter, twitter, tweet

Eyes and thoughts, thumbs

As if I wasn’t here

As if I never speak

Video on Fifth Friday Sisterhood’s FB site

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.