Eco-luxury, wellbeing, relaxation and nature in the heart of the city.
Eco-luxury, wellbeing, relaxation and nature in the heart of the city.
Summer vacation is over, it’s back to work on Monday and a return to the pressing challenges of society here in Europe (and the Western world.) As I stand in my kitchen this Friday evening making pizza dough from scratch and sipping a kir royale cocktail, I’m listening to an edifying discussion on Youtube. I wanted to share it with you (because it concerns us all.) Links are below.
For those of you who don’t know of Ayaan Hirsi Ali – and you should – here’s a brief bio:
An activist who was once a victim of genital mutilation as a young girl in Somalia, Hirsi Ali is now an outspoken critic of Islamic extremism. Demanding reform “in cultures and religious doctrines that continue to oppress women”, she continues to speak out against political violence despite the danger it puts her in. Somali-born and a Dutch-American activist, feminist, author, scholar, and former Dutch politician, she now lives in the U.S.A. with her Scottish husband, Niall Campbell Ferguson, a professor of History at Harvard University.
Because she has been critical of Islam, Hirsi Ali lives under a fatwa. (Formerly a devout Muslim, she abandoned her faith and became an atheist.)
FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION SOARS IN THE USA WITH MUSLIM IMMIGRATION
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the horrifying case in Detroit where a Muslim doctor was arrested for practicing FGM (female genital mutilation), was just the tip of the iceberg in this country: the CDC states that as many as 513,000 girls and women, primarily in New York, Washington D.C. and Minneapolis, are at risk as the girls and women hail from Muslim countries.
In Toronto, Canada, doctors at St. Joseph’s Health Centre perform a type of surgery to reverse FGM: 308 times in the past five years in Ontario, though it may be done more often and billed under a different code.
And the reasoning behind the genital mutilation of Muslim pubescent girls? “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges. They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.”
So, this barbaric and life-threatening practice still exists in 2017. Not only in backward African villages, but within some immigrant communities in Europe, North America and Australia.
Here in Europe, our number one safety concern is Islamist extremism and radicalization. As I sit here typing this blog post, two thwarted terrorist attacks have just occurred – one in Brussels (where I was exactly one week ago): a 30-year old machete-wielding Muslim shouting “Allahu Akbar!” attacked a group of soldiers in the street. And one in London (where I was two months ago): outside of Buckingham Palace three police officers were injured as a man in a car reached for a 4ft sword while shouting “Allahu Akbar!”
In the wake of the August 17 Barcelona attack in which a van drove into pedestrians on La Rambla promenade, killing 13 and injuring at least 130, we learned that a terrorist cell of twelve members, all Moroccan, including the ringleader, a Moroccan imam, was responsible.
2.5 to 3 million Moroccans live in France.
A Muslim Moroccan woman close to the attackers heard the imam’s sermons. She said he repeatedly preached about jihad and killing “infidels.” She spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing she would be attacked for speaking out.
“I feel like I could have done something. I feel a little bit guilty now,” she said. “Everybody knew it. It was an open secret. But we didn’t say anything because these people are dangerous and they would come after us.”
The most chilling clue to one of the terrorists from Ripoll, a small town north of Barcelona in the foothills of the Pyrenees and not far from the French border, is a message left by him on an online forum two years ago – “If I were king, I would kill all infidels and only leave Muslims who follow the religion.”
A 2007 cable from the US State Department warned of the risk of radicalisation in Catalonia, Spain and called for a regional counter-terror hub to be set up in Barcelona.
The State Department cited men with a North African background at particular risk for radicalisation in “circumstances that would provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment”, adding: “The threat is clear.”
I say, forewarned is forearmed. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is telling us something important. Are we listening?
I think I’m a wanderer at heart, a gypsy-spirit … no, I know I am. Truly happiest with a knapsack on my back and a camera slung around my neck, I could travel forever. Here’s a confession: do you want to know the number one reason why I live and work in France? The seven (7) paid vacation weeks a year was and still is the deal-clincher. Seven weeks = five (mandatory) weeks plus public/statutory holidays plus RTT days (don’t ask what RTT days are, too long and complicated to explain.)
Strolling around the neighborhood near my hotel one sunny Sunday morning, I came across an inviting café-bookstore. Music-filled, lots of wood and divided into different sections, you could buy and read books, drink coffee and eat little cakes all day long. The place had such a pleasant laidback vibe, I returned every day for the rest of my stay in The Hague.
I sat in this cozy corner and read these two books (after purchasing them.) Cappuccino was brought to me on a little wooden platter.
What was funny was this name directly above my head (watching over me?)
Jongbloed in English is Youngblood. The name my father gave to his publishing company in Toronto. He would have been tickled pink to see this.
THE HAGUE – Just down the road from my hotel was a large-windowed store with people going in and out all day long. Sometimes there was a long queue of people waiting to get inside. At some point I learned it was a store selling hash, marijuana and other cannabis products. I was intrigued. In this small permissive country, you could legally buy pot. Rather than skulking about in dark alleys, trading is carried out in broad daylight. Even on Sunday morning!
So every day I passed this shop and every day I became “curioser and curioser”, to quote Lewis Carroll. One warm, sunny evening – my last evening in Holland – I stopped for a burger, beer and fries at a place near the hotel.
Sharing an outside table with a local Dutchwoman, we chatted. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, the Dutch speak perfect English.) I asked her about coffeeshops. She blithely said that she goes regularly (as if she were going to the corner store for milk!)
On my way back to the hotel I walked past the cannabis shop. My curiosity piqued, I stepped inside.
Here’s how the conversation went –
“So how does it work here?”
“You tell me what you want and we give it to you. Are you looking to buy hash or grass?”
“Errr … grass, I guess, but what’s the quality of it and where does it come from?” There was a really strong, funky, fuggy smell in the shop.
“We don’t know where it’s from, exactly, but the quality is good.”
I paused and looked hesitantly at the glass case behind the salesperson. He saw me wavering.
“Do you want to try just a single joint for starters?”
“Loose or pre-rolled?”
“With or without tobacco?”
I wimped out. “With tobacco.”
“And what effect are you looking for?”
“Oh, definitely mellow.”
“OK, well I recommend one of our best-sellers. It’s called Strawberry Kush and if you smoke half of it, the effect is the equivalent to drinking two glasses of really good wine.”
“Sounds good. But say, can I travel with this? Because I’m leaving Holland tomorrow.”
“Where are you going, back to the States? In that case, the answer is no.”
“I’m not American.”
“You sure sound American. Where are you from?”
“Oh, well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Same thing.”
Bristling, I replied – “Is Holland the same thing as Germany?”
“No, but Canada and the States is the same land mass …”
“The U.S.A. and Canada are two distinctly different countries.”
“Oh, yeah? How are they different?”
“Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t vote for a dickhead like Trump. But changing the subject, I’m leaving tomorrow for Belgium and then back to France where I live. So, can I travel with this?”
“To Belgium, yes. You can legally carry 3 grams in that country, in Holland 5 grams. But in France, I don’t know.”
So I bought a spliff of Strawberry Kush. It cost six euros, 50 cents and comes in a neat, plastic case.
Packing in my hotel room the next morning, I must have put that spliff in five different places – first in my cosmetic bag, then in the inside pocket of my travel bag, then in my knapsack, then in my eyeglasses case. I didn’t know what to do with it, other than smoke the damn thing, but it was 10 am on a Wednesday morning.
My concern was that my bags would pass through a scanner on my way back to France, and it would show up on the X-ray machine. I imagined sniffer dogs, an alarm going off, border police frogmarching me into a little room where I’d be strip-searched and humiliated. And the worst, I’d end up with a casier judiciaire (criminal record.) You can’t be employed with one. I’d lose my job, I’d have to go on welfare, I’d end up on the streets, all my worldly possessions in a storage unit …
Stop! For god’s sake, Juliet, get a grip! I pulled myself together. I think I’ve seen too many movies. We’re talking about a single joint mixed with tobacco and two grams … two grams of marijuana! Surely the police have more important things to look for … like, uh, terrorists???
Down in the lobby of the hotel, I googled “Legality of cannabis in France” and what came up was ILLEGAL ILLEGAL ILLEGAL. I was surprised. Wow. Chill out, France, what’s the problem?
Here’s what I learned – Possession of cannabis is illegal in France and can lead to severe punishments. In French law, there is no difference between cannabis and any other drug. Drug-related offences are taken very seriously and France is known for having one of the harshest drug policies in Europe.
Depending on the amount and the circumstances, you could be lucky to get away with just a slap on the wrist. But chances are, you’ll end up receiving a substantial fine, or even a prison sentence.
This was becoming far too Sturm und Drang. I could either go into the garden of the hotel and smoke the thing right then and there, or flush it down the toilet. Coz the thing was this: I had bought the joint to smoke with my friend back in France, not on my own, alone in Holland. I headed for the lavatory.
A jewel in the heart of the city. The Mauritshuis is one of the reasons I travelled to The Hague.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. A girl wearing an oriental turban and a large pearl earring. Johannes Vermeer was a master of light. This extraordinary work of art was painted 352 years ago in 1665.
The collection inside the Mauritshuis is made up of paintings dating from around 1400 to 1800. There are Flemish, German and French works, but the vast majority are Dutch dating from the seventeenth century. This was the Dutch Golden Age, a period of great prosperity boasting famous painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Vermeer.
Fans of Donna Tartt will enjoy this painting of the chained bird on its perch. Tartt wrote her last novel, The Goldfinch, around this little masterpiece. In 2013, on loan from the Mauritshuis and as part of a travelling exhibition, this painting and others travelled to the Frick Collection in New York City. Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, created in 1654, is a small but potent painting.
Well, they say that Vermeer was a master of light, but look at this splendid panel of artwork entitled Old Woman and Boy with Candles, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1616.
This one I especially loved –
Luminous! (It’s actually brighter in real life than it appears here.) As if lit from within. Entitled View of Delft and painted by Vermeer, this is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. Looking at Delft from the south, the city has an air of tranquillity. Reflecting this in his composition, Vermeer made three horizontal stripes: water, city and sky. Look at the interplay of light and shade and the clouds, as well as the reflections in the water and the two women standing in the forefront. This painting, 357 years old, is a masterpiece.
Right beside the museum is a lovely restaurant and gift shop. Looking at all that art makes you hungry and thirsty!
Of course you have the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with its own important collection of the Dutch masters. But what makes the Mauritshuis special is its smallness and intimacy (and of course those exquisite paintings.)
Note: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also has a fine collection of Dutch paintings from the age of Rembrandt.
More to come …
These days, boarding a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord train station involves passing through a phalanx of machine gun-wielding policemen, sniffer dogs, scanners and metal detectors similar to those used in airports. However, in my line-up the scanner wasn’t working, so they just waved us through. And I thought, “What’s the point in having a luggage scanner if it doesn’t work?”
The reason for this heightened surveillance is primarily to dissuade potential terrorists from climbing aboard a train armed to the teeth with weapons, which is exactly what happened two years ago (the horror!)
In August 2015, a deranged 25-year-old Moroccan Islamist called Ayoub El Khazzani nearly opened fire on passengers inside a Thalys train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris. Thanks to the courage, strength and alacrity of three American men, two who were off-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, they tackled the terrorist and managed to subdue him. Later, these heros were awarded France’s highest decoration for bravery, the Legion of Honor, by then-president François Holland. This is worth mentioning because these brave men averted a possible bloodbath. Again, the horror! To think that you could be sitting on a European train, or a train anywhere for that matter, calmly flipping through a magazine or chatting with your companion when suddenly a crazed lunatic shouting “Allah Akbar!” and wielding an assault rifle bursts into your compartment is beyond terrifying. But this is what is happening today. Islamic terrorism in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) is defining the beginning of the 21st century. And it is tragic. Governments need to work harder to eradicate this phenomenon.
Seat prices are cheaper if you book months in advance. I booked myself a First Class ticket, Paris to Rotterdam, for 62 euros. Travel time is two hours and 37 minutes. A snack and lunch are included in the price of the ticket. If you’re travelling solo, ask for a “place isolée” or “place solo” (same thing) which means a single, window seat.
Below is a photo of the mid-morning snack I received. As I was drinking coffee and reading my book, I was listening with one ear to the four New Yorkers sitting across the aisle from me. In their late sixties or early seventies, one of them was telling the others that during her visit to the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City, Utah, she had been researching her family history. “My maternal grandparents came from Minsk,” I heard her say. Funnily enough, the book I was reading – East West Street – covers precisely that region and era.
“Have you read this book?” I said to them, explaining that I had overheard their conversation. Naturally, a discussion ensued and we chatted amicably for the rest of the journey. (As an aside, I only barge into other peoples’ conversations when I hear they’re North American (or Australian.) Europeans, including the British, tend to be more private and probably resent the intrusion.)
From Rotterdam I took a local train to The Hague (Den Haag), only a 20-minute ride. As I sat amongst the locals listening to the guttural Dutch language, I did a double-take. A man sitting across from me was wearing wooden clogs. Real, farmer-type clogs with a leather strap across the top of his foot. I had (mistakenly) thought that wooden clogs were a thing of the past. I wanted to laugh and take a photo, but that would have been too rude.
At Den Haag train station, I picked up a street map and meandered the narrow streets (dragging my suitcase behind me) in search of my hotel, the Parkhotel Den Haag. A 4-star hotel, it was perfection; better than I had expected. My room overlooked the inner garden and the only sound was the cawing of sea gulls overhead. Baffled at first why there would be sea gulls, I then remembered that Den Haag is a seaside town located on the North Sea coast. Those gulls were constant and at one point, days later, I imagined myself in that famous Hitchcock film. (I’m not a fan of large, uncaged birds.)
Here’s the hotel garden where I spent a few hours each morning (with coffee) and each evening (with a glass of wine) working on my memoir (rewriting some segments.) I have a new editor in Vancouver and he’s a taskmaster.
Be forewarned that Holland is a nation of bikes, and at certain times of the day crossing the road can be perilous. So stressed was I by the flotilla of bikes bearing down on me at breakneck speed, not to mention the clanging of oncoming trams, I was a nervous wreck on my first day.
Stay tuned for Part Two: the magnificent Mauritshuis art museum and the buying of cannabis in a legalized coffeeshop.
So I’m off to Holland and Belgium early tomorrow morning; well, Holland first and then stopping off in Brussels for a few days on my way back to Paris. I booked my train ticket months ago, a First Class seat on the Thalys fast-speed train. I love train travel, I find it very relaxing. I’ve got my brand new JBL wireless, noise-cancelling headphones for the train trip allowing me to read my book undisturbed. Haven’t finished that great book I picked up in London in June: East West Street by Philippe Sands. It’s funny, but I don’t read when I’m at home (too many other things to do), only when I travel. I’ve also got my ticket, pre-purchased online, to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, an art museum which houses mostly Dutch Golden Age paintings.
The other night I took some photos while walking up the rue de Rivoli at 10:30 pm. Here they are below. Stay tuned for my blog posts after my return from The Netherlands. Bye for now.