Speaker by Various Artists


by Brenda Leeuwenberg

One thing that is so much more noticeable in the Netherlands than in NZ is the changing seasons. Every day I bike to work through the Vondelpark in central Amsterdam and the impact of the season is overwhelming. It's autumn right now, the trees are golden yellows, startling oranges, intense reds and glistening browns. They're big trees, majestic even, and the leaves coat the ground in a scrunchy wet mass that is satisfying to bike through. The light too has a different quality - maybe it's the trees filtering it, or the air pollution - personally I'd like to take more romantic view - but especially at the end of the day the grass glows an iridescent green and the sky has a dreamy quality to it. And no, I'm not on drugs.

Of course this is all wonderful when it's not raining - which you'll be pleased to know happens quite a lot as well. I say that because people seem to enjoy the comparison of how much it rains in one place or another. It seems to be one of those universally shared miseries - how much rain we've had lately. Personally the only time it really bothers me too much is if I have to bike in it - but that can even be rendered bearable by the beautiful trees (although to get the buzz at that time, drugs certainly help).

I'm more of a cold person though. I like being bundled up in layers of warmth. I swelter in the hot muggy summers when it's 30 degrees and just moving your arm to raise your glass to your lips brings you out in a sweat. But I do wish we had a fire or some direct source of heat to sit in front of at home - while I am a new fan of central heating and not having to run through the house freezing my tits off in the morning until the heater is turned on - I do quite like sitting by a heater.

I certainly could've used a heater a few weeks ago when I went on a little school trip with my daughter's class. She's 4 - and at this tender age is required to go to school - and the class went to KabouterPad (loosely translated as "gnome land") for a morning visit. Sounded exciting so I volunteered. I was not prepared for a 30 minute walk with a class full of 4-5 year olds in the pouring rain. Trying to make those kids walk at the best of times is a mission, walking for 30 minutes in the rain was unpleasant to say the least.

Gnomeland turned out to be rather disappointing. I guess there's a big difference between what you expect from an outdoor adventure in NZ, and what you get in Amsterdam. It was a little garden with little paths and little concrete gnomes scattered around and the kids had to do a few activities. Maybe it's not NZ/NL as a comparison so much as city/country expectations and opportunities. I guess for my citified European 4 year old, it was still an adventure. Can't wait til she gets to play on the beach in Island Bay on a daily basis!

The bit that gobsmacked me the most though, was that after the little adventure, all the kids gathered in a little classroom to wrap up. The teacher started handing out drinks - plastic cups of something warm. It was tea! Cups of warm black tea! Ok, I could live with that, just - but then she was putting 2-3 spoons of sugar in each one! No one else seemed to think this was strange and my daughter calmly informed me that they get this every Friday afternoon. To her credit she requested water as she doesn't like tea - brownie points for her in my book. But I'm still amazed, I still tell the story, I find it incredible that in a relatively well educated and healthy society they consider it ok to give 4 year olds a big caffeine and sugar hit on a regular basis - at school!

Anyway moving on to more relevant things ... big in the news in the Netherlands recently was the brutal murder of Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was a director, and had recently made a film which among other things, portrayed Islamic violence against women, which was aired on dutch TV. He was shot while riding his bike through Amsterdam, then stabbed several times and left lying in the street with a message stabbed through his chest. The message was a "you're going to die" (my paraphrasing) letter to a politician who had worked with Van Gogh on the film.

Radical fundamental muslims have not really had their cause helped by this latest event. 20000 people gathered in Dam Square to protest his death. Another hero has been created in the Netherlands. Racism is nasty here (well I suppose it is anywhere). Here's it's directed at Turkish and Moroccan people mostly - and the difference I see here (as opposed to everywhere else where racism is) is that these people who are the 'victims' of racism, are fighting back. Hard.

I was just talking with a taxi driver about the recent murder- he said it's just the beginning, he showed me today's paper, where the next 6 targets have been identified in advance - all prominent people in the Netherlands, and all people who have made public their opinions about muslim fundamentalism in one way or another (and all people who must be shitting themselves about now). He thinks the problem is that the Netherlands is too 'soft', that going to prison is an easy ride here - "they even get cable TV!" - and that it's going to get a whole lot worse.

If they think this is an easy ride, let's hope they never discover the cushy life to be had in NZ.

Thanks for your feedback last time ... keep it coming :)