Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Netherlands, Part Three

Albo Helm, standing before the 17th century
main building of Utrecht University

As we walked to Albo Helm’s home in the central part of Utrecht, he said, “I live in the neighborhood with the most criminals.”

This was a completely true statement. A stone’s throw from Albo's front door is a prison, built by Napoleon and still in use. Albo’s home is a row house built in the 1850s to house prison guards and their families.

Back home in Texas, anything built in the 1850s is an object of great curiosity and significant historical value—the Neill-Cochran house in Austin, for instance. In Albo’s neighborhood, however, this barely rates as old. For this is the medieval quarter of Utrecht.

Albo took me on a tour of the area. We started our walk by following the original moat that still partially surrounds the area ...

Nearby was a remnant of the old city wall ...

A medieval courtyard ...

An observatory built in the 1500s ...

Approaching the Dom Church, built in the 1200s ...

In the seventeenth century, the nave of the church was destroyed by a tornado, leaving the graves in the floor exposed to the sky ...

One of the newer buildings, built in 1775 ...

Albo draws inspiration from medieval Utrecht. On Sunday mornings when the streets are empty, he says, the place feels timeless, haunted by the many souls who have lived here through the centuries.

In addition to his many other projects, Albo produces a comic magazine, De Inktpot, that showcases the work of Utrecht's cartoonists. Utrecht, of course, is the setting for these comic strips, and in a very real sense might be said to be the central character.

We finished our walk, then rendezvoused with Albo's woman friend Thea and their daughter Kina at a very fine restaurant. They treated me to a wonderful meal and lively conversation. Kina's boyfriend joined us briefly, then they went their own way, while Thea, Albo, and I took a leisurely stroll past the night spots of central Utrecht. Thea headed home, while Albo stopped for one more round of beer and talked till my eyes began to cross from beer and sleepiness.

We headed home. Thea had made a comfortable pallet for me on the floor of Albo's studio. I sank into it and slept like a baby, then in the morning joined Albo and Thea for breakfast. In a little while, it was time to go. Albo walked me to the train station. "Be safe in Amsterdam, Mack," he said ...

(to be continued)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Netherlands, Part Two

Marcel Ruijters (with one of his sculptures)

Marcel and I boarded a tram and rode it down a multi-ethnic street of shops and restaurants—Chinese, Turkish, Indian. A large picture of Krishna looked down from the top of one of the taller buildings. It is a neighborhood also favored by artists, such as Marcel, for its affordability.

Marcel led me to his apartment over one of the shops. I left my luggage there, then we walked to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen where a painter friend and neighbor of Marcel’s, Ewoud van Rijn, was exhibiting his work. The installation, “Through Hell and High Water,” was very impressive—swirling, surrealist waterscapes, cartoonish skeletons, bats, and nymphs, in a style reminiscent of Rick Griffin. I spent considerable time with these paintings and made a mental note to look up this artist on the Internet when I got home.

We also looked at the museum’s collection of fifteenth century Dutch paintings. The work of Geertgen tot Sint Jans particularly caught my attention, my favorite being De verheerlijking van Maria.

Afterwards, we had dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant, then started hitting the pubs for a night of beer drinking and conversation. We talked politics and art mostly. Our last pub of the evening was in one of the few sections of Rotterdam where older buildings still stand, most of the original city having been destroyed by the Nazi bombs during World War II. On the way back home, Marcel pointed out a traditional Dutch windmill down the street. We walked along a canal. Just as we were about to cross it on the drawbridge, bells began clanging and traffic came to a stop. We, too, came to a stop. The drawbridge was opening to let a barge pass.

Back at Marcel's apartment, he presented me with a copy of his new book, a graphic novelization of Dante's Inferno. It might be more accurate to call it Marcel Ruijter's Inferno, as this is a free adaptation stamped with Marcel's own vision. Visually, it is unique as well, a real treat for the eyeballs. Marcel's style is strongly influenced by medieval art. Which, as he puts it, makes him more retro than any other comic artist.

To get a glimpse of Marcel's Inferno, check out this video of the book's release party, where the original artwork was displayed, all 119 pages. At present, the work is available only in Dutch (Marcel gave me an English translation of the text, so I am able to read it). However, an official English edition should be published soon.

I slept well at Marcel's place. In the morning, I could hear the trams moving outside on the street. Rotterdam was awake. It was time for me to wake up as well and begin the next phase of my trip.

Marcel walked me to the train station. On the way we stopped by the home of Tonio van Vugt and Helmi Scheepers. Tonio is one of the founders of the Dutch comics and culture magazine Zone 5300 that regularly features work by Marcel and has on occasion published my work (translated by Marcel). A few years ago the future of the magazine was uncertain, but it has survived and is better than ever.

I greatly enjoyed my visit with Tonio and Helmi. Before I left, they took me up to the rooftop of their apartment to see the view of Rotterdam ...

Helmi, Marcel, and Tonio

Marcel walked me to the train station. We said goodbye. Our visit had been all too brief, but a lot of fun and rewarding. I am very glad that, after ten years' correspondence, not to mention working with each other on The Bush Junta, we finally met face to face.

I boarded my train for Utrecht. Now it was time to meet Albo Helm ...

(to be continued)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Back Home in Texas, Tonight's PsiOp Radio

For the past couple of weeks while I've been in Europe, guest co-hosts have been filling in for me on PsiOp Radio . But tonight I return to the show. SMiles Lewis and I will be broadcasting live for two hours starting at 8 pm EST / 7 pm CST / 6 MST / 5 PST/ 0100 UTC. As always, you can hear the show on line at either of these two networks: Revere Radio or Anomaly Radio. Our call-in number is (347) 996-3510. Be sure to tune in ...

The Netherlands, Part One

Chandra and I got up early to catch our flight to Amsterdam. Melanie's flight would not leave for another couple of hours, so she was still asleep when we left the flat and began rolling our suitcases around the corner to the Sloane Square tube station. We took the tube to Victoria Station, then caught the train to Gatwick airport, south of London.

At the airport we went through the same security routine as in Dallas—hat, coat, belt, shoes, laptop, small change, carry-on bag, all were placed in bins and sent through the x-ray machine. I went through the metal detector and didn't beep. Chandra went through and beeped. She received a pat-down search.

Then, as I was collecting my things from the x-ray machine, I noticed my carry-on bag was missing. I looked up. Here came a female security officer with the bag. She set it on the metal table in front of me and opened it. Out came everything. Battery chargers, camera, mobile phone, books, postcards, my sketchbook and pens, everything was scrutinized as a possible weapon.

While this was going on, a male officer strode up to me, stiff and military in bearing, holding an empty bin, and said sternly, "Your hand."

My hand? What about my hand? Was I supposed to put my hand in the bin and send it through the x-ray machine? Was my hand being confiscated? Was my hand not regulation size? Would it have to be checked? Or was he suggesting something else? Did he want to hold my hand? Kiss my hand? Did he want my hand in marriage? I stared at him blankly.

"Your hand!" he barked in his British accent. But barking got him nowhere. I still didn't understand. Grimacing with irritation, he held his hand out palm upwards, indicating I should do the same. But why? Was he going to give me a high-five? Only one way to find out. I held out my hand. Whereupon he lifted the bin and poured my change—my pounds, half-pounds, twopence, etc.—right into ... my hand! So that's what he meant! How foolish of me not to realize that in British airport security, they don't just say "Here's your change" when they want to give you your change. No, they bark an incomprehensible order: "Your hand!" Apparently they have decided this is the most effective way to communicate, especially with foreign travelers, people who speak other languages, Chinese, Swahili, and in my case Texan.

He spun around stiffly and strode away to find someone else to bark at. Meanwhile, the search of my bag had produced something: a souvenir corkscrew I had bought the day before. The woman held it up and looked at me. Oh my god! It's a corkscrew! What was I thinking? Somehow, in my haste to pack, I had failed to consider that a corkscrew has a sharp metal point and anything with a sharp metal points is a no-no in airport security. Why, I might as well have pitched a box cutter into my bag. "This will have to stay here," she said, pitching the corkscrew into a box full of other confiscated deadly weapons.

The woman kindly offered to help me repack my previously neatly-packed bag, but of course it was a one-person job and nothing she could do. "No, thank you," I said, "I've got it." I crammed everything back into my bag and we hurried to our gate.

The flight took about an hour. At Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, I changed my pounds into Euros, then Chandra walked me downstairs to the train station where I bought my ticket to Rotterdam. We said goodbye and she went back upstairs to wait for Melanie's flight. I found the platform where my train was supposed to arrive in 15 minutes, but the destination marquee was blank. Was this really the right place, I wondered. Nearby, I heard someone say the word Rotterdam. A Dutch woman was speaking in English to a family of three who had asked her for help. I walked over to them. "Did someone say Rotterdam?"

The family was from Canada. They asked where I was from. I told them Austin and they said they had recently attended the Austin City Limits music festival. They greatly liked Austin. We talked for a few minutes, then "Rotterdam" appeared on the marquee and here came the train.

I boarded. There were very few other passengers. I took a seat by a window and called Marcel Ruijters on my mobile phone to let him know I was heading his way. He said he would meet me at the station. Then I settled back into my big, comfortable seat for the hour's train ride.

And oh, what a pleasant ride it was. It was fast, smooth, quiet. I wish we had trains like it in the US. But no, what we have is the notoriously inefficient, unreliable, unpleasant Amtrak that might get you to your destination eight hours late, if you're lucky.

We slid through the flat Dutch countryside, green and wet under a grey sky. Irrigation ditches cut through the farms. I saw sheep and wild geese in the fields. Here and there, communal gardens were clustered near the railroad tracks. We crossed the occasional four-lane freeway. We passed through a few cities.

Then we pulled into Rotterdam. I walked through the station, and at the entrance saw Marcel. We smiled, recognizing each other from our photos on the Web, and shook hands ...

(to be continued)