Oct 31, 2012

St Martin's treat

GABROEN never went trick n treating in their childhood, because there was no such thing as All Hallow's Eve in Holland. In the more roman catholic South of the country, where Gabri grew up, there was some celebration of All Hallows/Saints and All Souls on November 1st and 2nd, although nothing as elaborate as the Day of the Dead she involved so intricately in her work over the last months (see for example the earlier posts In memoriam and Dia de los Muertos). The middle of the country, where Jeroen was born, is more hardcore protestant, so there were no such thing as saints. In that part of the world, October 31st actually is Reformation Day, to commemorate Martin Luther rebelling against all what the Roman Catholic Church stood for.

Interestingly, the North of the country has a tradition similar to Halloween on November 11. This is the feast day of St Martin of Tours, and thus called Sint Maarten in Holland; yes, the same as the Caribbean island that is half Dutch. The same Martin Luther was actually named after St. Martin, as he was baptized on November 11 way back when. So on November 11, kids in Northern Holland walk from door to door with little self-made lanterns, singing songs to collect candy.

Jip and Janneke on St Martin - from a famous Dutch children's book series
What's the song these kids sing? It may be a little shocking for politically correct American readers, but remember this comes from the country where Santa has black 'servants' rather than green elves, the country that takes pride in its bluntness. Here we go:

Sinte Maarten mik-mak
mijn moeder is een dikzak
mijn vader is een dunnetje
geef me een pepermunnetje

Which translates more or less as:

Saint Martin mac-matty
my mother is a fatty
my dad is thin like flint
now give me a peppermint

So no matter where you come from: Happy Reformation Day, St. Martin, or All Hallow's Eve!

Oct 30, 2012

District of Columbia (3)

Now that we talked about the connection between a big cigarette brand, a shaded boulevard and two Italian dudes (see the earlier posts District of Columbia (1) by clicking here, and (2) by clicking here), we can finally get to what we did on the Saturday evening of our weekend trip to America's capital. GABROEN was there together with Atlanta friends Joanne and Jeff, and Joanne was very happy to show us around her home town. Thinking she had planned the perfect weekend schedule for us, it was Jeff who actually had a close-to-heartattack surprise birthday for her up his sleeve. This party had been in the works already for weeks, and although there had been some close calls of someone blowing the surprise, Joanne was not even remotely suspecting anything. The only detail not worked out ahead of time was how we were going to get Joanne out of Son and Richard's home for about 2 hours on late Saturday afternoon, for all prep-work to be done and all surprise friends to arrive.

We had walked the whole day, first from Son&Richard's to the Mall and along most memorials on the Mall's west side, and then at Trucktoberfest, a festival with dozens of food-trucks at Union Market on the city's northeast side. So we were getting pretty beat by mid afternoon, and picked up a bunch of hairy balls at the Union Market florist before heading back. Yep, you heard that right: a bunch of hairy balls.

A word of advice: some say to get a puppy if you want people to speak to you in the street, but hairy balls work equally well. The florist insisted their official name is 'bulrush', the biblical plant used to make a basket in which Baby Moses floated on the River Nile.  So the dozens of people who spoke to us on the way from Union Market to the metro station, in the metro, and on the way from the Dupont Circle metro station back home now think they witnessed the passage of the biblical bulrush.

But after doing the research for GABROEN's posts on the origin of "the Mall", of the "District of Columbia", and on "bulrush", the florist was terribly inaccurate. Nothing biblical about the bunch we bought. Their latin name is Gomphocarpus physocarpus, their South African name balbossie, which translates to ball-bush,  not bulrush. And their English name? Balloon wild cotton (as the balls appeared to be filled with fluffy seeds that now adorn a certain D.C. metro car as well as the house that was soon to be the place of a surprise party), or - who would ever guess - hairy balls.

Anyway, we were pretty beat returning home with the hairy balls. But the strategy to get Joanne out of the house within an hour of arriving was developed throughout the day. "Joanne, we really want to go to the Hotel W rooftop terrace for a cocktail, watching the sunset". And that worked out beautifully.

When we returned, the surprise seemed to give Joanne a near heart attack, and the party was ready to rock 'n roll.

GABROEN's trip to D.C. is now a month ago, and a lot can happen in a month. Actually a lot did happen over the last month. Rather than getting a heart attack at her surprise party, Joanne got a new job, put their Atlanta house on the market, and moved to San Francisco. So we went to D.C. with our ATL-turned-SFO-based friends. Very relevant to Son&Richard's neighbors down 16th Avenue, we had three presidential debates in the last month, each one a testament to the mind-boggingly crazy  circus the 2012 election turned into. And unlike New York City and the Jersey Shore, D.C. turned out to be on the good side of superstorm Sandy yesterday. Case in point: GABROEN needs to pick up pace in posting blogs. Keep reading - it's nice to see the number of page views, and a nice incentive to pick up the pace.

Oct 23, 2012

District of Columbia (2)

So there were two outstanding items in the first post on GABROEN's weekend trip to Washington D.C. (click here for that first post):
1. the origin of the term 'District of Columbia', or the story of two Italian dudes
2. what we did on Saturday night

Starting with the origin of 'D.C.' means starting with the U.S. constitution. This much revered document also lists, somewhat to my surprise, a clause to create a "District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States". Interestingly, at least to a down-to-earth Dutchman, is how frequently the constitution and constitutionality of ideas and legislation are debated in U.S. politics, in court, in the media. In stark contrast, I don't think the Dutch language has a word for 'unconstitutional', and the Dutch constitution expressly prohibits the courts to rule on constitutionality of legislation. Another thing the down-to-earth Dutchman quickly observed, is that in these debates Americans do a lot of interpreting of their constitution to make it fit their own cause, but they do not mess with it. So an exactly square area on both sides of the Potomac River was reassigned from Maryland and Virginia to become a federal district, the only area in the U.S. that is not part of a state. This exact square measured exactly 10 by 10 miles, or 100 square miles - I assume that is not too loose of an interpretation of the original text 'ten miles square', as only 3 years passed between the adoption of the constitution and Congress passing the act that created the federal district and new capital city. Although, the 2012 election circus has shown how much can change in the minds of certain politicians in a couple of months, let alone 3 years.........

The current size of the district is smaller than the original 10 by 10 mile square, as the Alexandrian part south of the Potomac River was handed back to Virginia as an early prelude to the clash between North and South during the civil war. That put the federal capital right on the border of North and South, and more or less in the heat of battle. The shape of today's D.C. looks more or less like a paper square torn in half - perhaps a fitting metaphor for that civil war.

Anyway, back to the origin of the name. That brings us to a tale of the two Italian dudes. To clearly identify the district as a federal territory separate of any state, it was decided to use what at the time was a poetic patriotic name for America: Columbia. Some people had argued that when a name for the new country was coined 14 years earlier with the Declaration of Independence, it should have been the United States of Columbia. That would have created Columbians rather than Americans, not to be mistaken with Colombians. Perhaps too much credit for the first Italian dude Columbus, granted a brave explorer, who named the natives (those with a feather) 'Indians', not to be mistaken with Indians (with a dot). On the other hand, people apparently did not want to credit the other dude Amerigo Vespucci too much either - granted he was the first to realize that Columbus made a mistake when thinking he had arrived in India, Amerigo never set foot on North American soil.

The city was modeled after cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Milan, and GABROEN walked through different neighborhoods that reminded us of those cities. Although Boston is often called the most European city of the U.S., GABROEN would argue this title should go to Washington. We had a nice time in this walkable city, and I'll dedicate a third post to what we did on Saturday night.


Oct 17, 2012

District of Columbia

Already a couple of weeks ago, GABROEN spent a weekend with Atlanta friends Jo and Jeff in Jo's hometown of Washington D.C.  We had a great time in this very nice and walkable city. And walking we sure did. We stayed at Jo's friends Son and Richard, who live on 16th Avenue that runs straight from the backside of the White House north. So we could say we stayed in the backyard of the Obamas, albeit about a mile away. We walked that mile, plus many more, exploring the east side of the National Mall with all its museums on the first day, and the west side with all the memorials on the second day.

Jeff has discovered the exciting fish-eye view of the Mall

I always wondered where the word mall came from, either as in shopping mall or in The National Mall. Thank heavens we now have the internet  - whom did we ask all the questions in the years B.G.*? So here we go: it starts with the Italian game pallamaglia, from palla "ball" + maglia "mallet", something like croquet where you had to hit a ball with a mallet through a ring. The game made it into English as pall-mall, which was regularly played at an open alley in St. James Park in London. This alley was later turned into a broad, tree-lined promenade called The Mall, lending the meaning to the word of a "shaded walk serving as a promenade", as well as inspiring a well-known cigarette brand. I may be one of only a few that wonders about these things, but next to the origin of the Mall I also looked up why the heck this city is in the District of Columbia, but I'll save that for the second blog post about our D.C. trip - see below.

(* Before Google)

Anyway, if you could just continue walking straight down 16th Avenue through the White House, you come on the short axis of the National Mall and walk straight up to Washington Monument, the city's tallest structure by ordinance. It also serves as the central landmark of the city and National Mall, as it stands exactly on the intersection of the Mall's short and long axis.  The long axis is pretty impressive, stretching 3.0 km (1.9 miles) from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It's all open space, so there's nothing to obstruct the view of the full 3 km. What our lovely host Richard mentioned rather late is that the day we were there was the autumn equinox, meaning that if the picture below would have been taken a few hours earlier, it would have shown the sun rise exactly behind the Capitol and Washington Monument. Pretty neat, but perhaps not worth getting up at 5AM for.

Washington Monument and reflecting pool as seen from the Lincoln Memorial
Speaking of great views, the rooftop lounge on the 7th floor of Hotel W right next to the White House and Executive Office Buildings is not bad either. A great place to enjoy the sunset, good cocktails and friendship.

Hotel W's rooftop lounge

Although not exactly the Obamas' backyard, our hosts Son and Richard surely live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, with good restaurants and nightlife only a 10 minutes walk away. Such as the Pearl Dive oyster palace and Black Jack bar, an awesome seafood place we explored on Friday night. What we did Saturday night deserves a separate blog post, so stay tuned.

Thanks Son and Richard for opening up your D.C. home to us. We had a great weekend celebrating friendship, both old and newly found.
Son and Richard

Oct 1, 2012

R is back

The signs are clear. The leaves are turning, flocks of Canadian geese are flocking our front yard for their winter break, night temperatures are dipping into the 40s and even 30s with crisp morning frost on the ground. Yep, the boys of summer are gone. Fall has come, and it came quickly.

But hey, it's already a month since the R is back. As in back in the month. An old grandmother's wisdom from Northern Europe, that is still frequently used in Holland to indicate that summer is gone, that it's time to start taking your daily multivitamins (or cod liver oil in earlier days). To indicate that the oysters and mussels are back in season. Apparently it was used for similar reasons in ancient England, with a 1599 quote from Dyets drie dinner: "The oyster is unseasonable and unwholesome in all months that have not the letter R in their name".

These oyster rules do not seem to rule the US season, because you can get awesome oysters pretty much all year round, even in a landlocked state like Illinois. However, some of the mussels we had in summer were tiny and tough, but luckily for us not too unwholesome.

I'm not sure how common or uncommon the saying of the R in the month is in the United States, but the fall theme certainly is all over. Even in that good American tradition of theme decorating everything. Today actually was a theme celebration for me: I have 15 years of service with my company. It doesn't feel like it, as I only joined this good old Illinois pharma company two years ago when it acquired the good old Belgian pharma company I worked at for 9 years in Holland and 4 years in Atlanta. But my 13 years count towards several benefits, not in the least fall theme decorated cookies. Here's to 15 years..............