Friday, October 15, 2010

Another Dutch reading blog.

Off to Belgium!

This time, I'm blogging my way through Kaas, by Willem Elsschot. I'm reading the graphic novel adaptation by Dick Matena. I got a copy thanks to Willem Bongers at deBuren. Dutch language material is very rare in Southern California.

Anyway, here is A Slice of Kaas!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Het Einde

Here are some final thoughts about this project.

The Most Important Thing I Learned: That in every human circumstance, pettiness reigns supreme. In the camps on the Burma Railway, Catrinus Mak tallied the casualties of death and disease, but went so far as to complain about gossip and backbiting.

My Favorite Part: The description of the air race.

What The Book Made Me Want to Do: I would like to visit Schiedam and Medan. In both cases, I would like to look at whatever old buildings are left. I think it would be interesting to see what's left of colonial days in Indonesia.

The "Whatever Happened To" Moment: In the 60s, the Mak's sailmaking business had another brief life as a sporting goods store. They sold to recreational boaters.

I have another blog starting on June 5th. It's a corporate complaint site. You can find it here. It will last for a year.

Read it if: You want to see more from the same author.

Skip it if: You want to see more of the same subject matter.

Thank you everyone. I'm grateful that so many of you read it. You can write to me at my yahoo address. It begins with mextravlr.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My Linguistic Progress and Advice to Language Learners

I had a short conversation in Dutch at work recently. I can't really speak Dutch, but I'm well prepared for it. I can understand a lot of what I hear on podcasts.

Reading is easier than it was at the beginning, but it's still daunting. I read Chapter 14 Xavier's way. That is, I read it straight through, then read it again. It worked well, but I went back to the dictionary for the rest of the book. It was good I finished that way, because the last chapters had some dense discussions of Reformed politics.

I looked at the Dutch to English test on TSF, but I decided not to take it. For now, Dutch will remain a hobby. I will keep going back to it and improve over time. I took their test in French because there was an urgent need right after the earthquake. Also, I'm good at high register material, which is most of what TSF appears to deal with.

My approach to learning languages has varied. In Spanish I talked a lot at the outset. In Portuguese, I did a lot of listening first, mainly to news programs. I talked to my relatives about current events, but I remember the blank look on their faces when my great-uncle asked me for a pen, and I didn't know what he was talking about. Before the trip to Portugal, I had also been to church in that language. Back in the 80s, I studied it and had some short conversations with old relatives here.

I have thought of improving at French and actually learning to speak it, but 3 closely related languages starts to become irritating. It's easy to see why scholars ignored Romance languages for so long and stuck to Latin.

If I were ever faced with a trip to Holland, I would watch a lot more TV to understand what people say to each other.

If you're wondering about how to learn Dutch, think of your goals first. If you want to speak the language, emphasize watching TV and listening to the radio. Try to avoid the news and listen to programs that feature people talking to each other. I read that the gulf between written and spoken language in Dutch is greater than it is in English. Even so, reading works such as plays, along with works featuring dialog can help. If you're interested in a book, get a dictionary and start reading. Reading helps a lot in learning a language, but bear in mind that it is not central to speaking. If reading is your goal, start with a few lessons, then read whatever material you find of interest. From there, the possibilities are limitless.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Notes for the Marketing Department

As you get ready to sell My Father's Century, bear in mind that there are two sets of messages to go out. They will tell people why they should read it and why they would want want to read it. Of course, there will be some overlap.

Why You Should Read My Father's Century

1. It has a lot of European history that is not well known here. The history of the Dutch East Indies is even less well known.

2. Maybe you have Dutch ancestry. You could reconnect with your roots and learn about what's happened since your ancestors left.

3. It portrays WWII as it was for most of the people who were there. It was a hideous defeat for nearly everyone. Most places were occupied at one time. Those that weren't were bombed. Here in America, the war is viewed as a great spark for upward mobility and an improved economy. The stories of our dead and wounded are lost. I remember thinking about this a few months ago at Ft. Rosecrans. A huge wave of WWII vets was buried there in 1960. They were about 40 years old. I wonder what they went through and why they didn't live very long.

4. This book will help Americans break through old polemics and think of things differently. For example, not every war is about stopping the next Hitler, as conservatives tend to think. Similarly, not every war is Vietnam, as liberals tend to think.

5. This book makes Europe a real place with real problems. The majority here views Europe through very distorted lenses. Snarky liberals, led by Bill Maher, want to do everything, "That makes sense, just like Europe." While America and Europe can learn from each other, adopting everything from there wholesale is a bad idea. For liberals, Europe begins and ends in France. They love it there, but while they sit in cafes and solve the world's problems, they never wonder about those who pour their coffee. For conservatives, Europe is another country: the old Soviet Union. Therefore, everything from there is bad. Mak's view of the Dutch experience is nuanced and balanced. It is needed here.

Why You Would Want to read My Father's Century

1. It's an interesting memoir centered on others. It is not self-centered at all. Too much of the memoir genre is navel gazing.

2. Numbers. Anyone in business would want to know about the Netherlands. It is ranked 16th in nominal GDP in the world.

3. Now is a good time to look again at the 20th Century. The nostalgia pieces have come and gone, and we have some distance.

4. The Netherlands and Indonesia are interesting places.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Notes for the Translator

You've got what looks like a great assignment. You'll probably be part of a team. I hope that in this case, the word "Team" isn't what it often is in business: A euphemism for "Hornet's nest." If you're working alone, I hope you get to go back and forth with Big Mak. I don't know his comfort level with speaking English, but he appears to understand it very well. He quotes from many excellent sources, including Barbara Ehrenreich's then ten year-old commentaries about the yuppies' tenuous place in the economy.

I hope you're able to do a good translation. Translations are often marketing. Books can have different tones in different languages. I wonder about Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd, which I think is best rendered as, "How God Disappeared from Jorwerd." Instead, the English title is watered down to Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe. The original angry title is now very academic. I think it's fine if the author didn't have a title at the beginning, but if the first one was his title, his point of view has been changed to increase sales.

For the British edition, it might be ok to leave the everything alone. British audiences are familiar with European politics. They have proximity to the Netherlands, and they should have a fair amount of prior knowledge.

For American audiences, be sure to include maps, timelines, and plenty of footnotes explaining acronyms and other things that are not well known here. I remember searching for something that turned out to be a reference to a brand of cookies. Although it's a serious book, memoirs usually have more pictures. A couple of picture sections would make it more accessible to those thumbing through it in the bookstore. Also, you might have to explain Catrinus Mak's postcard in English. An American audience is likely to assume that the original card was in Dutch and written over with Photoshop.

Finally, you should be part of the book's promotional efforts in the US, even if the author speaks English well. I remember catching Octavio Paz and his translator Eliot Weinberger on tour in 1987. I enjoyed watching their interaction. Both translators and authors have stories to tell, and it would be worthwhile to hear about the process.

Saturday, May 1, 2010



I just finished reading De eeuw van mijn vader aka My Father's Century by Geert "Big" Mak. What a ride.

Normally, you can judge a book by its cover. It's called marketing. They're designed that way. In a language other than your own, it's different. It's unlikely that you will have the background knowledge to know what you're getting into. The less you know, the more surprises you get. This also means you're taken places you didn't want to go. It goes beyond new and interesting points of view. Still, I'm in favor of exploring.

I leave this book with Geert Mak looking back at the last century in Spring 1999. At the time, the Balkan wars were raging. Although there was a lot of heated rhetoric at the time, he points out that the last century meant the early death of some 115 million Europeans, 54 million of whom were Russians who died due to internal persecution and famine. He compares the collapse of the Soviet Union to the collapse of Czarist Russia and the Kaiser's Germany, saying that it all happened from within.

He uses statistics to point out that the Dutch in 1999 lived like kings compared to 1899, when his father was born.

Of course, the closing chapter, like many of the others, includes a lot about politics within the Dutch Reformed Church. He spotlights the more liberal groups in the fragmentation process. A lot of what other Christian groups would consider to be basic doctrine was called into question or thrown out. Still, some social activism kept going.

At a one to nine week temporary job I just started, I met a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. I asked him about what I have read and my conclusions. He agreed that there is a Reformed identity that goes beyond the splinter groups, but mentioned that his own branch of the faith is yet another new one.

I can identify the Reformed paradox, but I can't explain why it exists. Everyone looks back to Abraham Kuyper, the great unifier, but new divisions arise all the time. It seems even more strange when you consider that the denomination was never very big to begin with.

My colleague laments that many Reformed people here have moved into megachurches that are, "Just entertainment."

Mak uses his own family to show that the Reformed in the Netherlands are moving away from religion entirely. Each generation moved further away from the whole idea, though in 1999, one person was a Moslem.

The section about Dutch identity was thrilling. I have no stake in the matter, but part of the joy of another language is reading and hearing what's intended for other audiences. After pointing out the decline of religion and other things, he said that, "Civic Religion," was the way to go. He used the American term in English.

I was surprised. Civic religion has declined in the United States to the point where some groups are at the point of deassimilating. Education spending has steadily declined for many years, and consequently, fringe groups who, "Don't believe," in science and other things proven as fact are now more mainstream. Home schooling exacerbates the trend. After news articles about immigration, one often finds hysterical comments about the need to defend our language. Often, they are shot through with spelling errors.

Civic religion has had its measure of success in the US, because it was well thought out at the beginning. While revisionists deride early America as overwhelmingly WASPish, it was diverse for its day. Also, as the percentage of WASPs becomes smaller, comemmorating their contributions may become necessary to carry them forward. They, after all, gave us our civic religion, leaving a framework so that others could be included over time.

The main challenge for the success of civic religion anywhere is transmittal. It still happens in some school settings and in the military, but it does not happen nearly enough.

The book ends on a personal note. Mak looks back at his parents' wedding picture, standing on the steps in 1924. He talks about how he can still see his fathers hands, spotted and veiny, "Like a landscape."

This blog will have two more posts. Next week, I'll take the Dutch to English test for TSF and report where I am linguistically. After that, I'll take a last look at this whole project.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A New Dictionary

On February 14th, Wahrenbrock's Books in San Diego had its last day of business.

I bought this dictionary from them for a dollar. It is a twelfth edition, printed in 1975. The first edition was printed 20 years earlier. It is rare, in that it is a one-way dictionary, from Dutch to English. The only other one-way dictionaries I have seen are part of two-volume sets. It is much better made than the dictionary I have been using.

It turns out that the bookstore where it was originally sold is still in business.

This is a great dictionary for what I'm reading. Because it was printed in 1975, it doesn't have anything about computers, the internet or cell phones. That means that more archaic terms are still there, which helps a lot for a work about history.

The type is smaller than on the Routledge, but the guidewords are bigger. Someone at either Routledge or Van Dale (Who published earlier editions) was unclear on the concept of guide words. In my copy, they're the same size as the text.

More importantly, the 1975 dictionary was bound far better. It is much less likely to fall apart than the other one.

Both dictionaries are pretty good, but neither one is big enough for what I'm doing. I scramble around the internet a lot. They are the best I could find. If only there were a big LaRousse.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Klare Taal

I have seen and heard shows about good grammar in Portugal, but nowhere else. Recently, I found Klare Taal from RNW. Hosted by the congenial Arie Bas, the program talks about how different words are used. He also talks about Afrikaans.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Harroes genietsalon

Herod's Pleasure Palace. Chapter 15 gets its name from the wave of increasing prosperity that ran from the end of the war to about 1974. European historians agree that those were the good times.

In this chapter, Geert Mak writes of his own generation, their new ideas, and how things changed. He finds that the Baby Boomers were not as conformist as their elders. Having grown up just behind them, I disagree. I remember the Boomers as extreme conformists, and find that they're often that way today. Today's tea partiers are yesterday's hippies. In any case, Mak's main point is that the biggest change for his generation was increasing consumption. The real revolution was in the increasing numbers of cars, appliances and televisions.

This chapter brought to mind my meetings with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in 1987. I met Rubin on a tour of ad agencies with my school's advertising club. He was a suit by then, very polished and congenial. There was some buzz about him because of the past, but in person, he was very corporate and definitely in his element. Abbie Hoffman was on campus for some demonstrations. Hoffman had grown since the 60s, arguing for simple majority votes instead of consensus in community groups, which had been in fashion up to that time. He was still very political. There was something desperate about him. Although he had his audience, he was a man out of time. His generation had turned right, and younger people weren't as interested in changing the world. Abbie Hoffman represents what people think of when recalling the 60s. Jerry Rubin's trajectory represents what mainly happened back then.

In the Netherlands, the expanding economy got a big boost from a major natural gas discovery in 1960.

Since I started doing this, I have read a little bit about Mak. Some have commented that he is a naive leftist. I have not found this to be true. I did not expect someone derided as such to write about immigration and say the Dutch government pursued an, "Ostrich policy."

He contrasts the Paris Worlds Fair in 1900 with the National Fair in 1957 at Shiphol. The fair in 1900 had flying taxis and all sorts of fun stuff. The 1957 event was mainly centered on appliances. Mak points out that while everyone eagerly anticipated the future, nobody predicted the rise of computing, nor what that would mean.

1957 was also the year the European Economic Community got started. That's one of the details that makes this book interesting from my perspective. I have read about European integration before, but this isn't something you see when American media takes a look back.

Similarly, the 1981 demonstrations in Amsterdam were just a footnote here.

The chapter draws to a close with Mak reminiscing about his family and how they coped with bad news as time went on. Geert was the first in his family to get divorced. In 1979, his brother Cas, the only one to have followed Catrinus into the ministry, got cancer. Both of their parents were still alive, and it was heartbreaking for them. He died in 1980. Late in 1982, Catrinus was sick and in bed. He would talk in his sleep at times, speaking in Australian army slang. He died in 1983. Oddly, the century from which this book draws its title seems to come to an end with the death of Geert Mak's mother in 1987.

Seventeen pages to go.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Finished with Chapter 15

The summary will come later.

While reading this, I was thinking of Geert Mak's identity. Maybe I'm seeing too much through the lenses of American tribalism, but I believe I have it figured out.

He's Reformed. Although he might rarely set foot in a Dutch Reformed Church, I think that informs who he is to a great extent. The Reformed are his people. He writes about his family and friends with great affection. The Reformed world and its increasingly byzantine politics was too small, too narrow minded at times, even ridiculous, but it was and remains his own.

Looking back on the book, it's clearer now. Each time the Dutch Reformed Church split, part of the Mak family identity went with it. I think at the core, there is a Reformed identity that supersedes the past century and longs for the unity that Abraham Kuyper preserved.

Friday, April 16, 2010

What might have been

I was cleaning out my papers a month ago, and I found a piece of paper with the list of Dutch authors I made to find something to read. I got it from searching for Dutch authors, then narrowing it down to modern ones. From this list, I narrowed it down to Mak and the book I'm reading now. Here is the list:

Hendrik Marsman

Ferdinand Bordewijk

Willem Elsschot


Remco Campert

Geert Mak

Hella Haase

If you have an opinion about any of these authors, please comment.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

De snelheid van leven

Life speeds up. It's a loose translation, but I think it's appropriate. The title of Chapter 14 comes from reflection on contemporary writing by journalist H. J. A. Hofland. He wrote about how the pace of life was getting faster and how cars and phones were much more widely used.

The chapter concentrates on political and cultural issues in the 1950s.

It opens in 1953. In February, it started raining, and great floods followed. Once again, the Dutch elite was not up to the challenge. The fall of authority happens again and again in this book. It does not fall as a result of rebellion, but rather, as a result of its own ineptitude. In this case, Geert Mak writes of Dutch people pulling together across all sorts of societal boundaries and helping each other. By contrast, the political class was caught flat-footed, wondering what to do.

There was more military action, as Indonesia sought to annex New Guinea, part of which had also been under Dutch control.

Also, the Cold War got more intense. Mak writes that politically, the high point of tension was in 1956, the year of the Hungarian uprising. After Kruschev's denouncing Stalin, other Communists thought they might go a different way. Imre Nagy had several non-Communists in his cabinet. Nagy and thousands of others were killed. The last broadcasts of Hungarian radio reminded some Dutch people of the German occupation. One can only wonder if Communism might still be viable in Europe if experimentation and adaptation had been allowed. One important Russian in Budapest was Ambassador Yuri Andropov, who would go on to mentor Gorbachev.

The other important political event of 1956 was the Suez crisis, which Mak calls a 19th Century action.

The subject of reparations was a painful one for the Mak family. Governments went back and forth about how much should be paid to those working in the camps. It was a bitter experience. Catrinus Mak was finally paid 7500 Guilders in 1981, when he was dying in the hospital.

Culturally, Geert Mak writes of his whole world being Reformed. I am surprised he found it so repressive. Here in the US, one assumes that all Europeans belonged to their respective national churches. He found some relief in a world portrayed as neutral, where nobody was Catholic or Reformed or anything else. This world was in Donald Duck comics.

Though technology was on the march, radio remained king. Catrinus Mak exercised to the radio, and he was listening to it for news of the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962. The coming of stereo to the Netherlands was fascinating. Here in the US, it was on FM, whose bandwidth was allotted and moved around before finally settling in the area formerly allotted to TV channel 1. In the Netherlands, stereo came through AM. In 1952, a concert was broadcast. One channel was on Hilversum 1, while the other was on Hilversum 2.

Emigration was also a big issue at this time. Some left because of the elite's ineptitude, while others left due to the Cold War. It was said that the occupying Germans were somewhat Christian, while the Russians were completely godless. Emigrants left mainly for Canada, the US and South Africa.

Culturally, Mak says that the 19th Century finally ended.

1956 was a big year for youth rebellion. Elvis broke, and the movie Rock Around the Clock was important. In the US, it was seen as so much fluff. Mak also writes of cigarettes and existentialism as having been strong currents in young life. Even with a background in advertising, it amazes me how the tobacco companies appealed both to rebellious youth and their elders during the Fifties and Sixties.

During the Fifties, the Mak siblings got married, and his grandparents died. He writes of the weddings and funerals. During that time, standards of living went up, and the food at special occasions got better.

The chapter ends with Geert Mak and his parents standing by the Westersingel in their pajamas and coats looking up at the stars in November 1957, looking for Sputnik.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A rave review

Canta America once again had a great show today. Download it. Harold Biervliet puts everything in context. Featured music by LITTLE RICHARD!! Also, Biervliet wins the award as the easiest to understand on the radio. His calm delivery and enthusiasm for the music is comparable to Juan Claudio Cifuentes' A Todo Jazz.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Erger dan dood kan toch niet

Chapter 13 is a long chapter about a short period of time, from 1945-1950. The title comes from a discussion about death being a taboo subject for some, but a daily reality of life in the camps. The quote comes from Gjalt Mak, one of the siblings. "You can't get worse than dead."

During the war, the Mak children lost a lot of respect for grown-ups. Like their father, they had seen the pettiness of camp life and didn't like it.

What happened to them started me wondering about the nature of war. Other than Pearl Harbor, America went to war. Everyone who came back was a hero. The heroic homefront and the heroic troops accepted each other's stories. By contrast, the Netherlands and the Indies were overrun. All were overtaken together. People of all different social standings saw each other crack under pressure. Mistakes and heroism cut across all lines. Unlike the American situation, there was no chance to regroup and iron things out before celebrating victory.

Adjustment was hard for the Maks, as they went from the Indies to the Netherlands. When they arrived, someone said, "You're from the Indies, but you're not brown!" They were restless in a way, and what they had lived through had overwhelmed many of the standard answers that society gives. Some problems were just too big. What is described has the feel of descriptions I have read of Stig Dagerman's work, where people are struggling to make sense of what happened in their own terms, because the old standard terms have failed.

The experience of camp life stalked the Maks in terms of illness also. Their mother got very sick in 1948. Hans was sick for most of the voyage to the Netherlands, and he was ill afterwards. It turned out he had a kidney ailment. Antibiotics, which were then new, helped. Years later, he got a transplant from his brother, Cas.

For Catrinus Mak, readjusting to the Netherlands was also hard. He put his whole being into his ministry. It seems that the war was a high point for him. He not only preached the Gospel, but lived it. Back in the Netherlands, he came home to a schism within his own church. Two factions defined by optimism, pessimism, and different positions regarding baptism were at each other's throats. They had been patched together by Abraham Kuyper decades earlier, but this was it. What is even more appalling is that the schism started in 1944 of all years. It sounds very disheartening.

Still, Catrinus kept working too hard and let his family life slip out from under him. His only drive was to preach, and he was oblivious to his wife's overwork.

These were also the years of decolonization. Although there were treaties with Indonesia starting in 1947, there was a police action aimed at Communist factions. The Mak children listened intently to reports of the war.

At the time, the Netherlands had a strong emotional connection to the Indies, but really didn't know much about it. Churches sent their missionaries and so on. It was ons Indië in many ways. The special forces ran amok. It made me wonder how much of special forces is a high level of training and competency and how much is fighting wars the old way of no quarter. Geert Mak points out that the government was able to make their story look good back home.

Finally, technology was coming in. In the late 40s, the phone was for local calls. Long distance was possible, but rarely used. When their grandmother Van der Molen got sick for the last time, their grandfather wrote everyone a letter.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Two milestones tonight: I made it past page 400 and finished chapter 13. It was 40 pages long, which is 8% of the book. Chapter 15 is even longer. Chapter 14 and the Epilog are much shorter.

I will post my thoughts on Chapter 13 later.

On to the end!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Special Guest Star!

"Why a Dutch" has been picked up by Lexiophiles! Take a look.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Another Virtual Birthday Party

Have some cake! Today we're celebrating the birthday of Fr. Roderick Vonhögen, Facebook friend and new media mogul. He also does a lot of work in English.

It amazes me that anyone would go to church, much less become a priest in the Netherlands. When I was there on my only visit, it seemed that Western Europe had attained the Communist ideal of churches as museums. I toured a number of them, but only saw a service of any kind at the Vatican. Back then, the churches of all denominations that I saw functioned as tourist attractions. I saw a few schedules posted, but that was it.

Fr. Roderick is also from my generation. What's slightly shocking is that there have been so few vocations, that he's one of the jonge priesters, even at 42.

Anyway, I've got to sign off. The Learning Dutch with Geert Mak Building is filling up with well-wishers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Rembrandt's Recession

Happy Easter everyone.

Yesterday, I saw some prints at the Timken. The above titled exhibit featured Rembrandt's prints from the period near the end of his life that surrounded his bankruptcy.

Although they have been there for several months, it was great to see them on a day like yesterday. All of them were about the Passion of Jesus.

The signs explained that although the Netherlands was decidedly Protestant, Rembrandt was doing art that would sell better to Catholics. They added that he was something of a "Free thinker." I was amazed. He had the temerity to produce art unlikely to sell. He was a true iconoclast, even if icons themselves were the subject matter.

One can contrast Rembrandt's willingness to follow his internal compass with the dull, extremely rigid, Anti-Christian orthodoxy of the American art world. For example, Andy Warhol remained in the closet his entire life, in terms of his religious views. He was even careful to hide his charitable works.

Even when making prints, Rembrandt kept his quality high. Stripped of color, he only used one tool, etching away at metal. The play of light and dark is as incredible as it is in his paintings.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Word from a classicist

This morning I was complaining to the GF about my slow progress. I spent a lot of time yesterday reading two pages.

"Now can you see why I say I don't really know Latin and Greek?" she asked. She explained once again that she was told that you needed a PhD to be really fluent. At that, one only becomes a fluent reader. She has a BA in classics. She also explained that studying both languages meant she couldn't be as good at one or the other. She can read a fair amount of what's posted at the Greek Orthodox church where her sons are in the scouts.

While I doubt I'll be a fluent reader of De eeuw van mijn vader I'm sure I can become a fluent reader of Dutch for the following reasons:

1. Unlike classicists, I can listen. There are lots of broadcasts of various types.

2. As a living language, I can find everything in Dutch, in terms of register. Mainly pompous high-register prose survives in the classics. In Dutch, I can now read a fair amount of ordinary news stories.

I'm wondering if my struggles to read Dutch will be similar to what happened when I started reading Spanish. After failing to read 100 Years of Solitude I got Love in the Time of Cholera. From there, I looked up authors I should read. I read books by Guatemala's Nobel Laureate, Miguel Asturias. Eventually, I got around to Carlos Fuentes. Although he's a great author, he's not Mr. Vocabulary like the others. The experience was amazing. I read his books straight through.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Another milestone

I am on page 370, winding my way through Chapter 13.

The big milestone is Big Mak's first mention of his own experiences as something other than an older person looking at yellowed letters and other archival material. He talks about what he learned about the war at school and how Jews and their actions were largely overlooked in favor of the heroic resistance. Jews were simply victims in that version.

He avoids three major traps:

1. He doesn't yammer on about himself. Too many writers turn everything into an autobiography. An article about the North Pole might devolve into a reflection on last weekend's drinks. In fiction, the writer is always a sympathetic hero, never a villain.

2. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn't overestimate the importance of his own generation. Instead, he correctly places such trends as loosening sexual morality as starting much earlier than the 1950s. Such things happened in a similar way in the US, but Boomers who write the narratives often think that their generation either discovered or invented everything.

3. He looks at his parental generation more accurately than American Boomers ever have. I remember when they were young hippies, cursing their elders as incompetent, unfeeling robots. They aged and went on to write a lot of nonsense about "The Greatest Generation." Mak avoids both useless stereotypes and looks at them as human beings who faced difficult times. Some were heroic and some were not, but all were individuals, not part of a category.

Although this book is very difficult, a lot of it is amazing. I hope there is an English translation. It might stand out now that commemorative "Looking back at the century," books have come and gone. Americans could learn a lot from it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My interactions with TSF

I tried to volunteer as an interpreter for Doctors Without Borders before the companion organization existed. Translators Without Borders, known by its French acronym, TSF, has been looking for people for a couple of months now. I first heard about them after the Haitian earthquake.

I wrote to them and asked for the test. I explained my strengths and what I could do. I thought I would take their Spanish test and be ready to help during the next disaster in the Spanish speaking world. They wrote back and asked me to comment on the process, as it was in the beta stages.

The link came for the Spanish test, but only French tests were available. After a few days of vacillating, I went to the library, got some dictionaries and went for it. Two weeks of nothing went by. Finally, I got a response on the screening platform that said basically, "Thank you, and we will call if we need you."

I wrote to them 3 times for clarification asking if I was now a member, but I never heard from them again. After the Chilean quake, I took one of their Spanish tests. I suppose they rate everyone's exam, then rank them, keeping everybody available in case something happens that necessitates going all the way to the bottom of the list.

The test taking will continue. It's a good way to stay in practice. Also, the opportunity may arise to help out. As translators and interpreters, we are supposed to serve others and help them communicate. I had hoped for the additional bonus of being able to list membership on my resume.

Now, there are even Dutch tests. I looked over beginnings of these texts. I'm not there yet, but I might try a Dutch to English test when I'm done with the book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading Transition

When I was learning Spanish, my friend Xavier made a suggestion. He said I should try reading a book without the dictionary. He suggested that I just read a book straight through, then read it again. He said that the second time through, I would pick up a lot of words from context.

He was right.

For De eeuw van mijn vader, his idea was out of the question. Before I started reading it, I had watched some Dutch TV and studied 5 chapters in a Dutch language text book that was old enough for a tourist's arrival to be described as what happens when you get off the boat. As it happened, it was more useful than I thought. De eeuw starts with a description of the harbor and the sailmaking business.

Reading this book was all dictionary work for a long time. I also listened to a lot of Dutch but understood almost nothing.

Still, I'm planning to try Xavier's idea on this book. I read a few pages of Chapter 8 doing that, but I went back again with the dictionary. I'll try it with one chapter.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Chapter 12 brought a lot of my frustration to the surface. It's one of the longest chapters at over 40 pages. There are parts of it I didn't understand very well, which is something I hate to admit after this long.

The name of the chapter means literally, "Little powder box." An image search yields pictures of compacts. It comes from the reunification of Catrinus Mak and his daughter, Tineke. He says, "Jij bent poederdoosje, de nieuwe jongste dochter van Job na alle ellende." I can't quite figure out what he meant by that. "You've been... using makeup, in a little box (Referring to the small spaces of camp life), ground down, You look nice, the new youngest daughter of Job after all the misery." Maybe the first part is an idiom, where the three words mean something apart from what they mean literally. If you're a Dutch speaker, please clarify this in the comments.

As I mentioned before, I'm always looking for another job. There are three that I'm up for now, and I'll tell about two of them. One is being a trilingual salesman for machinery company. The other is translating car repair manuals into Spanish. Any of them would be fine, but potential employers have a way of getting hot, then evaporating. Also, many outsource their recruiting functions to other companies, and the links aren't always connected. More frustration came from New Mexico. I had been scheduled to interpret a trial next week, but a plea agreement was reached. I really wanted the trial, but was dreading it a bit, because my part was to interpret for a key witness. Such assignments can be difficult.

Anyway, this past week was frustrating. It bothers me that I don't understand the title of this chapter. It is also bothersome that this post is like posts I don't like on other blogs, in that it is too long.

This chapter is the last one that describes the war years. The thirties and the war take up almost half of the book.

Geert Mak looks at turning points in the war. For the Axis, it was one victory after another. In June of 1942, there was Midway. Then, in November of 1942, Rommel was stopped at El Alamein. Guadalcanal was in the same year. From there, Mak goes back to the weekend of Dec. 6 and 7, 1941. Hitler's armies were stopped in Russia, and it started to become apparent that this was it for the Germans.

What Mak pointed out next cleared up something I have sort of wondered about for a long time. In his presentation on the Holocaust, Barry Spanjaard said something he still couldn't believe after 40 years: The Nazi train system placed a higher priority on Jews going to concentration camps than on soldiers going to the front. Mak points out that the Final Solution meeting, held just after the reversal in the Soviet Union, meant that Hitler was exchanging one dream for another. He knew the war was over for the Germans, but he would live out the dream of extermination instead.

Mak draws a contrast between the German leadership in both World Wars. In the first, the generals saw what had changed and started looking for peace. In the second, Hitler condemned Germany to a fight to the very end.

After a long analysis of the German situation, Mak moves on to his family. His father was in Burma, building the death railway. As a minister, that meant one funeral after another. He kept a notebook that survives. It has columns for the name, cause of death, date, burial site, etc. When the war ended, the situation was chaotic, more so for the Dutch. While the other prisoners left right away, the last Dutch prisoners didn't leave until October, 1946.

Catrinus Mak made his way back to his family, but everything was different. After the war, the independence movement shifted into high gear. The Japanese troops were placed under new management, and protected the former prisoners. They also released medicine to the prisoners, which they had been hoarding during the war. One of the Mak children snuck back to their old house and found it trashed, with a bunch of Japanese pin-ups on the walls.

The children had grown up a lot and changed. They went from being sheltered rich kids to self-reliant people who had been through war. While rebellion among the Mak siblings isn't mentioned, Catrinus wrote that he was bothered by adolescents in the camp standing around and smoking. Also, many of them hadn't been to school during the war, and they were free in many ways. The Mak family remained close, in spite of the fact that they were apart for so many years.

From reading this, I would surmise that a major dilemma for the Dutch was authority without power. Their military had been steamrolled at home and in the colony. Naive postwar rulers at home thought that old possessions could be retaken easily. Whether those in charge looked silly at the time was subjective, but their impotence and incompetence had been brutally proven as fact. The Dutch were not protected by Dutch troops. After the Japanese left, that fell to British units, particularly Ghurkas.

Some of Geert Mak's bias comes through as he describes his father's trip to, "The dim, Reformed Netherlands." While stuck in Burma, Catrinus Mak had become something of a third culture kid. At the first Reformed Synod in Batavia, he met with his friend and colleague, Jo Verkuyl, who explained Indonesian nationalism. Catrinus went on to write a series of articles for a church related paper in the Netherlands. Once he arrived there, he thought people really didn't get it, though he liked visiting the family.

The chapter ends with two trips. Almost 50 years later his siblings went back to Medan, and looked around at the old church and their camp. They felt triumphant for having survived it. The camp was still there, with even the wall intact. It was lived in by Indonesian families.

Geert Mak went to Thailand, where he was dismayed to find that the atmosphere was much too festive. "Board the original Death Railway Train, for a one hour journey to Nam Tok. Don't hesitate! Join our Death Railway Tour!"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

100 Years of Stylitude

When you're learning a new language, a new author or speaker is jarring. One thing that makes De eeuw van mijn vader so difficult is the abundance of authors. Geert "Big" Mak quotes extensively from various family members, other historians, and contemporary news accounts. The sources he quotes from vary in style due to the fact that they are from different people in different eras. He also varies his own style. When writing about events, the sentences are short and clear. When writing about ideas, his sentences get extremely long, and his vocabulary becomes very dense.

In terms of content, a couple of loose ends come to mind that didn't quite fit in my chapter summaries. First, Mak describes the death of Hendrikus Colijn in the rudest terms. He was forever the accomodator, even after the occupation was under way. He wrote against resistance and died in Germany in 1944. Also, I would like to have seen the death of Kaiser Wilhelm mentioned. He died in June of 1940, in the recently occupied Netherlands. I wonder how the Germans handled it and what effect it had on the Dutch.

I am now on page 337, in the middle of a long chapter.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Dutch Pancake, California Style

When I bake, I like to make things healthy. At the GF's house, we used a traditional recipe for a Dutch pancake in an iron skillet. We used whole wheat pastry flour instead of white flour. Whole wheat flour is often too thick, but whole wheat pastry flour is finer and approximates the texture of the white stuff.

Instead of powdered sugar, we cooked organic turbinado sugar with chopped pears and walnuts. Then the topping was poured over it. Sugar that isn't so refined has more flavor, and you can use less.

There was some disagreement over the butter. She preferred the salted butter we used, but I think it would have been better with unsalted butter.

If you make this pancake, give credit where credit is due. Also, call it by its proper name: Henry Hudson Goes to Hollywood.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gewoon tabee en wegwezen

Chapter 11 gets its title from an interview with an old camp inmate, remembering many years later how things were. "It was the usual farewell and gone away," he said. The deaths went on and on. In this short chapter, Geert Mak looks at a number of social trends and camp life. It is the last chapter that ends with commentary by his brother, Hans. Rather than treat this chapter chronologically, I'll look at it in terms of issues that stick out.


In the Dutch context, there were incredible efforts made to avoid assimilation. That is why two of the Mak siblings were parked in Holland in 1939. The Indische jongens were considered a problem. They needed to be more European, whether they had ever been to Europe or not.

The camps stripped away the urban European context, which had been transplanted to Asia. Those who did the best at survival were the ones who knew the land the best. Mak recounts the story of one person who escaped a camp and sat out the war as a hermit who ate well. Most escapes ended in capture and death.

Having been to Dutch festivals, I wonder how much assimilation took place. So far, I haven't seen a Dutch festival without a majority of food stalls serving Indonesian food. There are lots of Indos who speak Dutch. There are many forlorn Dutch people dressed in tropical garb. The Dutch language is home for all Dutch speakers, but the Netherlands is not.

Still, everyone at the Dutch festivals gets along. There are visitors from Europe, people who came in the war years, and various Dutch speaking ethnicities. There are also many Americans of Dutch descent, whose ancestors came here before 1900 and Abraham Kuyper, and even long before 1800, when the Dutch East Indies were colonized.

Camp Life

I always thought that among the prisoners, there was a lot of solidarity. I was surprised that Catrinus Mak's notebook said that he was, "Tired of the gossip, tired of backbiting..." Although there were deaths left and right, the pettiness of day to day living went on.


Apparently, there are plenty of Atheists in foxholes and similar places. Not a very high percentage of people went to church in the camps. Catrinus Mak spent more time preaching to the English and Australians than the Dutch, as secularization in the Netherlands was well under way.

He most likely survived camp life, because he kept his old job as a minister. In other words, unlike the businessmen, he kept his identity. He teamed up with a Catholic priest, and they went around doing funerals and services.

The majority of their audience brings us to the next issue.


The chapter opens with a preprinted postcard, made by the Imperial Japanese Army. It tells about how nice camp life is in English. Below the printed text, Catrinus has written a note, also in English. The card is apparently intended for people in the Netherlands. All of this makes me wonder: How and when did he learn English? As those who have studied and learned languages know, there are big differences between studying a language, understanding it, and being able to express yourself in it, which he does well. Also, why would he write in English to Dutch speaking people?

Japanese Management

In going over the death toll, Geert Mak takes up the question of whether or not the Japanese intentionally killed off their prisoners. He comes down on the side that they did not. From reading this however, one cannot conclude that the Japanese were interested in anyone's health, even their own. Although there were notes on the Japanese side about excessive camp deaths, neither food rations nor rest times went up.

The Japanese were not the Germans, but their prison camps were still prison camps. It appears as though the Japanese were mainly interested in keeping the Bangkok-Rangoon rail line open, and things just got out of hand, as they often do in wars.

The War's End

Hans Mak recounts how the war ended. It seemed like it would never end, then it did. The Indos were the first to know. Jubilation started, then the red and white flags. Then the Dutch flag came out, and the Japanese were just standing around. The war was over.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Review of Another Book

A good summary of what happened to the Dutch Indos, also known as the Indo Europeans, can be found here.

When the trailer for the movie from the Dutch East Indies Heritage Project is ready, it will be on this blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pagina driehonderd!

I just made to page 300! Wow!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reality sets in.

Reading history on your own makes you draw many parallels.

For example, many American commentators liken this time to the 1930s. They look ahead to another time like the prosperous 1950s. None of them recall that the 1940s were ten years long and somewhat problematic.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Chapter X of De eeuw van mijn vader.

The title of this chapter refers to the period in the Netherlands between the invasion in May 1940 and some protests that took place at the end of February 1941. This is the first time I have seen Nazi occupation referred to in such terms.

While the Holocaust got going, the German occupiers apparently kept daily life intact for the non-Jewish population. Kids went to school, and shops opened and closed. In reading this, I was reminded of some recently released color footage of occupied Paris. It was criticized because it showed people going about their business, instead of showing oppression. I have never lived under an occupation, but I suppose that while resistance is necessary, one must also work and eat and so on.

Geert Mak also takes a hard look at the Dutch Paradox, that is, why the tolerant Netherlands had a rate of extermination close to traditionally anti-Semetic places like Poland. The reasons are geographical and cultural. He points out that the Netherlands only has borders with Germany. Culturally, there is a lot of kinship among the Germanic peoples. Also, the Dutch have traditionally trusted their governments, unlike others, such as the Spanish, Russians and Italians. The Dutch culture lent itself to conforming with the modern efficient Nazi bureaucracy, one of the first.

Although Mak looks to other historians to explain what happened, he misses what I heard from Barry Spaanjard at his presentation. He said that the Nazis weren't the villains portrayed in the movies. They were extremely congenial. Spanjaard went on to explain that the Nazis were always smiling. They would say that the next camp would be really great. They would apologize for the bad train ride and offer showers. It was only after the showers turned on that people realized what was happening. In short, the Nazis went out of their way to hide their villainy. What made them so efficient at oppression was that they were often on their best behavior in public, especially early on.

Where the family is concerned, Big Mak concentrates on his sister, Anna. She was parked in the Netherlands with another family for her education. In 1940, her class picture shows the girls on the verge of becoming women, dressed in nice, neat dresses. By 1944, they are women, but they're dressed in rough men's clothing. During the war, she got engaged and worked with the resistance. Her fiance was caught and taken away, never to be heard from again.

What makes Big Mak a great writer is that he is able to separate things and look at them from different perspectives. Much of the resistance was carried out through the Dutch Reformed Church, which he describes as severe, but respectful of foreigners and minorities. Ministers always had a reason to be out, and they served to coordinate hiding Jews and getting them food. Earlier in the book, he shows his dislike for the Dutch Reformed Church, but he is clearly able to set aside his own sentiment to show them at their best. Most writers, especially American ones, would have tried to rationalize things to their point of view.

Big Mak is also unafraid of writing about the Dutch who fought for the Germans, many of whom went so far as to join the SS.

Finally, the pen is again turned over to Hans. He describes life in the camp in the colony. His older brother Gjalt is taken away, because any male over 10 must be in a men's camp. He writes about the women serving corn and calling out items such as veal, making up wild "Fantasy dinners." As time went on, they were more and more hungry. The children also killed flies and built up collections of over a thousand. He closes with a view of an Allied plane, saying that marked the beginning of the occupation's third phase.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Clarification of the Feb. 18 Post

The GF read my take on translating and thought it might be taken as a slam against Geert Mak, because I am struggling through his work. She brought up that I needed to clarify, and mention my paid translations.

Most people take care of their language the way they take care of their cars, which is hardly at all. They drive around badly and have no idea of how things work. Consequently, it is the lot of translators to wade through inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, and cute flourishes put in for emphasis. Interpreters, who work with spoken language, enjoy what is best defined by the great self explanatory Spanish word, verborrea.

The post on Feb. 18th was an expression of envy of literary translators. It would be fantastic to translate for Geert Mak or anyone who writes as well as he does.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Pearl Harbor.

Chapter 9 is the shortest in the book.

The action is all in the Dutch East Indies. The way Big Mak describes it, it seems like Indië fell in slow motion. Over time, apparently, the brutal colonizing machine that was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) grew to depend on inertia, with everything continuing because it had always been that way. As it became clear that the local army wasn't nearly enough to fight off Imperial Japan, vague hopes developed. It was thought that help would either come from Americans in Hawaii or the British in Singapore. These hopes evaporated as various places in Asia fell like dominoes: Hong Kong, Guam and Singapore. While Hawaii was never occupied, the Pearl Harbor attack meant that the Americans weren't going anywhere for a while.

From there, Japanese occupiers came into Medan on bicycles. His sister Tineke saw them and thought, "Is that an army?" The parents were separated. Their father was sent to Burma, diverted from a hard camp because he was a minister. He mentioned feeling guilty years later. The innocent often feel guilty. Those who built the camps were guilty. The Mak children remaining in the colony and their mother went to a camp.

At the end of each chapter about the war years, Geert Mak turns over the pen to his brother, Hans, whose work appears in italics. It seems that the Japanese put everyone in camps, without really knowing what they would do. This contrasts with German camps, which had the machinery of death installed ahead of time. Hans remembers teachers starting school again and writing in sand when they ran out of paper. He also remembers having good times. The women grouped together, based on their husband's associaciations. Mrs. Mak hung out with another minister's wife, and they had something on Sundays that approximated a church service.

As I described earlier, this chapter was hard to read.

I have been listening to Dutch also. At times, I can put together what's happening, stringing words together, getting the gist of what's going on. Yesterday, I watched TV and listened to the news.

The problem with learning any language, is that a language is so large that there are many parts which seem unrelated. For example, I can listen to the news and figure out what is going on, but sitcoms where people are talking to each other and speaking differently are more difficult.

Yesterday, I had some improvement, in that I could listen, read captions for the deaf, and know what everyone was saying. Still, the effort was so intense, that I couldn't make the leap to comprehension and put together the story.

The experience was similar to the way I listen when interpreting. I get out what was said, and try to predict what logically would follow. I don't always remember who said what after a few minutes have gone by.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I think it would be great to support myself as a literary translator. I can't imagine what it would be like to translate for someone who knew how to write.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dutch Cinema

I read the Wikipedia article on the subject, and looked up some Dutch movies. Many notable films should be forgotten. I looked at many trailers on the internet. It appears that the Netherlands was hit harder by the 1970s than most places. Those who didn't wear ugly clothes were in pointless nude scenes.

Dutch documentaries, however, are great. They cover a wide variety of subjects.

Friday, February 12, 2010

As slow as ever

I'm reading the shortest chapter in the book. The only problem is, I'm bogged down in very difficult vocabulary again as Mak describes the horrors of war and has lengthy passages from his father's notes from the period. There is a lot of word researching, from the dictionary, to the computer and back to the dictionary.

For a while, I was starting to read whole paragraphs. This is almost like the beginning of the book.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why a Dutch?

There are two reasons for learning a language. One is practicality. The other is enjoyment. Even though I've been through the process, I wonder what makes enjoyment. Why one language and not another?

The first time I set out to learn a language, I wanted to learn any language. I envied code switchers. Spanish was the choice, because it was the number two language in the area. The whole process was exhilerating.

Now, I'm on my 5th language. I want to read and listen to more Dutch. As with Spanish, I fell in love with it, but that did not happen with other languages, French for example.

Although it is unlikely I will ever speak Dutch, I really want to know it. I would like to read more. Max Havelaar comes to mind. It is in the public domain, and I have bookmarked it. I would also like to watch more Dutch documentaries. Although I have run across the trashy elements of Dutch culture, I still want to read and hear more of the good stuff. I will most likely continue to listen to the nieuws.

There are other reasons for learning Dutch. It lacks the infrastructure of more popular languages. Sometimes, such things get in the way. It's written up as the best jumping off point for other languages in the Germanic group. The bonus is similar to what one gets by learning a Romance language. Learn one, and you get comprehension of several. Being far away from Dutch speakers, it's an internal learning process. There is nobody to impress. It's more relaxed. If I miss something on a tv show, there is no pressure to know exactly what was said. I can read and listen at my own pace. Finally, there is the underrated food. Try a large Dutch pancake made in an iron skillet with lemon juice and powdered sugar over it. Incredible.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I just passed the halfway point in De eeuw van mijn vader! That's the lower part of p. 249 for anyone who is following along.

Friday, February 5, 2010

De tussenoorlog

Chapter 8 opens with a tragically optimistic front page from the May 13, 1940 Sumatra Post, "In spite of intensive airborne tactics, the Netherlands is the master of the situation."

The title of this chapter might be best rendered as, "The Interim War." It covers the posturing and intrigue leading up to and including Germany's invasion of Holland in 1940. It had been planned for 1939, but weather and other difficulties for the Germans intervened. The invasion was delayed many times.

In American texts, the war starts in 1939, with Hitler sweeping across Europe after double-crossing Stalin. Mak writes the Dutch view, with hopes of neutrality there. In the rest of Europe, there were monuments to the legions who died just over 20 years earlier. Nobody could quite believe it was happening again. There was some time between the pact with Stalin and its betrayal. Poland was crushed by both Germany and the Soviet Union. It was ground down for quite a while.

The interim time has also been written up as "The Phoney War." All sorts of plans were being made. Dutch intelligence knew that an occupation was coming. Plans were made to get the Royal Family out. Gold deposits were moved to London and New York. Still, people clung to the idea of neutrality. Minister-President Dirk-Jan de Geer gave a stirring speech anyway.

In 1939, the Maks travelled to the Netherlands from the colony. They left a couple of the older kids behind before going back to the Dutch East Indies. There was more heartbreak, as their vacation went through Switzerland. It made me wonder what might have been if they had decided to stay and sit out the war. They made their way back at the beginning of 1940, stopping in Italy. They could see soldiers everywhere, and the war was definitely on.

One issue that Geert Mak doesn't tackle is the ridiculous position some of the kids were in on that trip. They were going home to the Netherlands, a place where they had never been before. Such things often happen with expats and colonists.

The chapter closes with words from his brother Hans about events closing in. Incredibly, their last vacation was in 1941. Everyone talked of the war, and there was talk of capitulation. Although money was going to buy Spitfires, it was too little, way too late. Like the Netherlands itself, the Dutch East Indies was waiting to be picked off.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Entertainment value.

If you're looking for cheap entertainment, learn a language by reading a book. You could also read in a language you don't know very well. It takes forever. When measured in dollars per minute of entertainment, there is no greater value.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rockers from Eindhoven

What is it about covers? Some people hate them. I can't get enough. I just discovered The Phantoms. I don't know if they were a good band, but their cover of James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy" is fantastic.

It's strange, but without Europe, American music would be terrible. Why? Because Americans have no taste. For whatever reason, we have the conditions necessary to produce many great artists. They are held back by the American public, which either doesn't listen at all or gives them a very short shelf life.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Every so often, I'll wake up in the middle of the night, and a Dutch word I have had to look up many times will suddenly pop into my head with the definition. This happens with words that Geert Mak frequently uses. For example, I now have it firmly in my head that belangrijk means important and bijvoorbeeld means for example.

I understand more and more of the podcasts I listen to, but comprehension is still a slow process. It's like tuning an old radio that doesn't work very well and trying to listen to a radio station that's too far away. Over time it becomes clearer. The better you learn a language, the closer it comes to sounding as clear as your own.

Recently, I added the podcast Laura Speaks Dutch to my list of things to listen to. I am about halfway through it. I am amazed at how having things explained in English has helped my listening and reading. What people say is much clearer now, even though much of it is a bunch of syllables puncuated by the occasional word I know.

Laura is also a good capsule of Dutch life. It includes everything from comments on Dutch food to information about a government falling during the time the podcasts were made. There are many short lessons, which appear to be made to be repeated a lot by the listener.

If there are any language acquisition researchers or language learners reading this who find it useful, I am open to questions. You can post them as comments.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Naked At the Walmart of Europe

Sometimes, knowing another language startles you. Recently, I was at Ikea in Costa Mesa with the GF and her kids. While walking around the store, we saw a display of Näckten Towels. I knew that the Dutch word "Naakt," for naked was similar, and that's probably what it meant. A little googling, and I found that "Nackten," is the plural in German. With the accent, it means nothing, and a search yields towel displays.

The whole thing seemed strange for Orange County, California's premier mindless region. It produced Richard Nixon. Politicians from there are jowly know-it-alls who have been giving the same speech since at least 1890. It's the kind of place where people would be offended, if they could get something out of it. Luckily for Ikea, those in Orange County who can read the signs aren't likely to be offended. Those who would get offended can't read them and aren't interested in learning. They can usually read English but try to avoid it.

All that being said, Näckten Towels are some of the worst I have ever seen. They would usually be sold as shop towels. I think someone on the board saw them and said, "Hey! Let's give them a racy name and dye them hot pink and orange!"

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nickname Conundrum

Maybe it's a measure of how long I've been gone from the homeworld,
but it's only now that I realise that 'Big Mak' is probably not going
to fly in Holland, unfortunately. But it's only a small part of your

'Big' is 'pig' in Dutch. Now no Dutch teenager ordering at McDonald's
is going to think of that, but adding the clearly Dutch 'Mak' (which
means 'tamed') people may think 'pig.'

The common word for 'pig' is '(het) varken' (probably related to
'pork'), 'big' is specifically a young pig - the common word for a
really young, small pig (piglet?) is '(het) biggetje.'

Now that leaves a dilemma. Possible courses of action:

1. Forget the whole nickname thing.

Reading is under siege the world over. Publishers are going broke at alarming rates. Those in the literary world need a higher profile. Snappy nicknames help.

2. A Canadian solution. Find a nickname that works in both languages.

It doesn't work. Official Canadian English is a disaster. The names of government agencies are designed to be bilingual, which makes fluency impossible for Canadian newscasters. For example, a British newscaster can talk about DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. An American might talk about the Department of Agriculture. Mention Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and you'll sound like you learned English with Borat.

3. Leave the nickname in place.

I only intend the best with the nickname. Such things always come from a specific place and time. It's for the English speaking world. Now, he's in the proud company of Big Bill Broonzy, Big George Foreman, the song "Big Bad John," and my late distant cousin, Big Dominic. Eventually, the translation is coming: My Father's Century by Geert "Big" Mak.

Friday, January 22, 2010

De tweede wereld waarin wij leven

The Second World in which We Live

Chapter 7 is about religion. Faith is the other world referred to. Catrinus Mak's ministry took a bizarre left turn in the late 1930s. The Oxford Movement held sway. Suddenly, everyone was going to freewheeling group discussions, said to be, "Not unlike group therapy in the 1970s." Meditation was also practiced.

From there, Big Mak moves on to the question of colonization. When would the colony be ready for independence? Many people thought it would take 300 years. Soekarno's progress from young engineer being mentored by Douwes Dekker to leader of a mass movement is traced. In this portrayal, he comes off as a young Fidel Castro, trying to make his cause all things to all people.

It looks as though without WWII, the forties would have been like the fifties, with all sorts of independence movements going full steam.

In this chapter, Big Mak also looks at the other side of the story. Although he is in favor of independence, he points out how nationalism led to neglect. Decades and decades went by, and in spite of Jakarta's name bestowed by the revolution, the water and sewage system was still Batavia.

This brings to mind what I have observed. That is, Third World elites tend not to live in their countries. I suspect that many Third World passport holders have never been "Home." Rich Latin Americans abound in the US, and I have seen many rich Africans in Europe. I do not know if Indonesia has this problem of an absentee ruling class. It appears, however, that they put far less effort into governing than they put into taking power.

Independence might have been a lot different had the Soetarjo Petition been implemented. It called for a 10 year transition period, ending in a dominion status, as one finds in former British colonies. This was put forward in 1936. In any case, war intervened, and the transition could not have gone as planned. The petition was sunk by Dutch politics. Still, it made me wonder if things could have been amicable.

Mak goes on to family politics and the birth of his brother, Hans. The Maks had a large family born over a number of years. The first children were traditionally named, after members of both sides of the family who were in line for that sort of thing. They became less traditional, and this made some people angry.

In the background, there is the rise of Hitler and the beginning of the war. Even in 1938, Hitler had some prestige. Looking at old newsreels where he is respectfully referred to as, "Chancellor Hitler," is jarring. At the time, many thought his demands were a reasonable way of remedying Versailles. Only Winston Churchill and a few others knew what they would be up against.

Mak's mother thought the children had been in the tropics for too long. She thought they should have some time in the Netherlands. At the time, colonial children would often be sent to boarding schools in the mother country. The family set sail in June, 1939. It's hard to read, because both the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands itself would shortly be occupied.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Trashy Dutch Family

I just saw two Dutch movies.

Flodder in Amerika is about a trashy Dutch family sent to New York as part of an international exchange program. They are chosen so that Holland can get rid of them. Mistaken for a Russian medical delegation, they are taken to The Plaza and wreak havoc all over New York. It's an ok mindless comedy. I could read the Dutch subtitles over English dialog but didn't pick up very much when I was listening. Stereotypes abound. The funniest was about American geographical ignorance, which came up again and again. "Yes, I know where it is. I was in Copenhagen last year!" The Dutch stereotype that went out the window was the one that all are polyglots. Only one character spoke English.

Het Schnitzelparadijs is about a Moroccan guy who's a dishwasher at a restaurant. His father thinks he works at a library. His brother is a hip-hopper who lays around on the couch. He gets the girl. Dutch stereotypes called into question in this movie include the one for cleanliness. The restaurant kitchen is the scene of food fights and all kinds of mayhem. Also, pot is not just for tourists, as joints are passed from mouth to hands to mouth and on again. It seems odd for a place where the swine flu is constantly in the headlines.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dreams of Grandeur

Every writer wants to be read. I have published in a few places and written plays that were in community theaters. Here are some scenarios for what could happen as a result of this blog, from worst to best.

  • The number of followers drops to zero, with zero views for two months straight at times.
  • The number of followers and views goes up, with more comments. At the end, I chat with the readers online.
  • Someone with more money than brains decides they like the blog and flies me to the Netherlands. We meet in Schiedam at the old Dutch Reformed cathedral, where Catrinus Mak would have gone. From there, we go eat, then head to the waterfront, conjecturing about where the sailmaker's shop would have been.
  • Radio Nederland interviews me.
  • I get 3 guest shots on a Dutch sitcom. Each time the scene is the same. I'm reading the paper at a cafe, and the stars of the show walk by: M: Isn't he the... Brit who had the country-rap hit with T-Pain in Japan a couple of years ago, "My Sexy Body Is Available (In Your Dreams)?" You could only get it as an import on yellow vinyl, and it sold a million copies, but then OK magazine revealed that he was actually quite dumpy, and his career was ruined.... Canadian guy you thought would never amount to anything, who went on to design Armani's line of nerd glasses in the dot com years?... Guy who nearly got punched out in Burbank by Oliver Stone after telling him to stop dressing like Valery Giscard D'Estaing? F: No, it's the American blogger. (Laugh track.) There would be a fourth scene in the season's closing episode, with a guy who looks like me. M: Isn't he the American blogger? F: No, he owns the world's largest collection of self-help books. M: Now I'm really confused. (Laugh track.) F: You were born confused. (Laugh track.)
  • Fr. Roderick Vonhögen interviews me for The Daily Breakfast and Katholiek Nederland.
  • I get hired by Dutch publishing companies to help them promote and sell their output in the US. I work with their translators and marketing departments.
  • Dutch and English editions of De eeuw van mijn vader come out with my blog entries as comments facing the pages they're about. It sells 20,000 copies each in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Canada. 30 copies sell in the US, including the 10 for my family and friends.
  • Geert Mak gets interviewed on Book TV, one of my favorite shows. When he is on camera, the caption appears: Geert "Big" Mak.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I'm getting when I listen.

Here's an exercise I did today (Jan 12, set to post on the 13th.) I listened to a video by Fr. Roderick and did my best to write down what I got. If you're a Dutch speaker, you can check my progress. for the new episode from Katholiek NL TV... in the background, you can see the ... church, you can see the trees in the way... We have a very interesting episode this week, We have a number of items... for example the Church in the NL, reports on.. what the Church is doing, and we have the second episode on the seminary. We'll talk with three students at the seminary in Tildenberg. It's naturally being filmed. Have a look at Katholiek Nederland TV, and you can also check out our films on the website, Thank you.

He also said something about recent celebrations in the NL, towards the beginning. I think he was referring to Xmas as he pointed out the snow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Goodbye, Miep.

Just reading the obituaries for Miep Gies. Like many people, I have read the diary, her book, and seen the play. Everyone but her thought she was a great humanitarian. I think she was.

In high school I met Barry Spaanjard, the only American citizen interned in the concentration camps. He met Anne Frank briefly there. On hearing that he was an American, she wanted to know if he had met any of her favorite movie stars. He hadn't.

At his presentation, Spaanjard showed his old camp uniform, yellow stars, and a bar of soap made from human flesh. He silenced the room when he described the mentality of the times. "It would be like people here saying, 'Let's go kill a bunch of Mexicans.'" After that, he said, "Well, it's not as if anyone around here is mad at the Czechoslovakians."

In reading De eeuw van mijn vader, it's clear that nobody anywhere on the spectrum in the NL had any idea what was coming. In debating Hitler and eventually coming down against him, they didn't realize that it would be the end of millions of lives, including many of their own.

When it was time to act, Miep Gies risked her life and helped the Franks live a few more years than they would have. Otto Frank lived to a normal life span, and again thanks to her efforts, we have the diary which lives for all time.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I am now back to reading and listening at the same time. Yesterday, I started listening to podcasts again. I can still hear a bit more than I did before, but reading is hard. I'm researching words with the Van Dale now that I'm back on my own computer. Some of my assumptions were confirmed, some not. Also, this last section has been difficult.

Mak's parents started to slowly grow away from the Dutch Reformed Church in the 1930s, though I suspect they didn't know it. Also, his mother's brother came to visit and hung out with his father. His mother liked the movie, The House of Rothschild and thought it was valuable.

Still, my reading leaves more questions and points to my limitations. Why did the uncle come to visit the Dutch East Indies? I can infer that Catrinus Mak's differences with his church had to do with the Depression, but why exactly?

Seeing the words, reading, and still finding such gaps is frustrating. I can't always untangle Dutch syntax.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Het leven van baboe Clown

I finished Chapter 6 yesterday. It begins as Chapter 5 ends, with a discussion of how the Dutch related to each other. There were many taboo subjects, including rather surprisingly, politics. I wish there had been more about why Catrinus Mak and his family were that way. Had the Netherlands been a peasant society, in which every generation was the same as the last? Had it always been that way? Alternatively, were the older Mak's reacting to an earlier generation, similar to the Baby Boomers? That is, were they rebelling against a generation incapable of keeping its private life private?

The Mak family was well off during the Depression. For his ministry, Catrinus took planes all over the colony. He loved it.

A "Baboe," was a nanny in Indië. Clown is remembered but forgotten. While the busy Mak household needed her to raise the children, nobody remembered her name. Still, she has a chapter named after her, in which she appears more than briefly, but not throughout. Some regret was expressed by Catrinus years later, as he said he didn't understand the colonial dynamic and what was wrong with it at the time. Baboes made more money than plantation workers, but it was still a bad set-up.

Big Mak also writes about how the Dutch and Indos related. There was a duality between ideas of the "Mystic East" and the search for cheap labor.

His prose brought to mind some Indonesians I knew at church. They said that Indonesia was a place where you could hire a houseboy and a maid for next to nothing. This got me to wondering why most 20th Century revolutions could be viewed as failures on some level. While we're still stuck with the narratives of fighting for freedom, that's not quite how things turned out. I doubt any rebel fighters in the 1950s imagined a future in which their grandchildren could grow up to be houseboys and maids for local, instead of foreign elites.

From there, the chapter shifts into a discussion of politics. Big Mak's earlier treatment of the subject as a taboo brought to mind Europeans described by Eduardo Mallea in Bahia de Silencio. In that book, the main character travels to Europe from Argentina in 1938. Everyone he meets is very passive, waiting for the war. They are just hanging out at the same cafes. Nobody has any plans to emigrate or do anything at all.

Mak moves the story forward to show a gradual, thoughtful, awakening with some flaws. He traces how Catholics and Protestants came to oppose Hitler. There was some variation within the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, but opposition crystallized after Archbishop of Utrecht Johannes de Jong banned NSB members (NL Nazis) from receiving Communion. On the Protestant side, Johannes de Heer wrote against anti-Semitism in 1919. Although Professor H.H. Kuyper, Abraham's son, admired Hitler, Protestant sentiments kept going against him.

Mak describes how Germany and the Lutherans had some sympathy in the Netherlands. Orderly Germany looked better than England, or decadent France. Also, he quotes many people from all sides of society saying that while Hitler was wrong, they didn't care for Jews either.

He also talks about the visit to Medan of an NSBer. Catrinus Mak didn't like it. He found him to be a demagogue and got more involved in politics and speaking out.

In this chapter, one can also see how Hitler's actions ended any sympathy for his cause. Initially, Nazism was taken seriously as a theory. The Night of the Long Knives made it clear that it was just about power. While he consolidated power in Germany, Hitler alienated fence sitters and sympathizers abroad. By the time the NSBer came to Medan, people were changing their minds.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


After reading the post about other big books I've read, the GF pointed out that it didn't seem like I enjoyed any of it. While much of it was a grind to the end, there were some I enjoyed.

War and Peace: This book really is good. It takes a long time, but the story moves fast all the way through.

The Bible: For entertainment, it's uneven. I'm glad I read it from cover to cover, but I'll never read the "Begats" again. I suppose someone finds them of interest. In the Old Testament I really liked Proverbs. Some of it is hilarious. In the New Testament, I really liked Matthew, which portrays Jesus as a man of action.

Don Quijote: This book is hard because it is so old. Spanish hasn't changed as much as English, but it has changed more than Portuguese. Still, it's entertaining, though uneven.

De eeuw van mijn vader: This is my introduction to Dutch life. In spite of Geert "Big" Mak's large vocabulary and long sentences, it is exhilerating every time I look at the bookmark. Each time, it's closer to the end. Learning a language is usually a great joy. It's like opening a door where you didn't know there was one. You walk in and just keep going. Sometimes it feels like you're falling forever, the way parachutists must feel at the beginning of a jump I suppose.

This is the first time I have started a language from scratch since I first set out to become bilingual in Spanish. The thrills are different. In Spanish I could ask directions right away. In Dutch there is no-one to talk to, but it is exciting to hear things on the radio and TV. Also, the book is kind of an alternate universe. Radio came to the Netherlands in a different way than it did in the US. The 1934 air race that Mak writes about was likely reported in the US, but I doubt if it captured imaginations the way it did in the Netherlands. The book is very interesting, and I always look forward to the chance to read it. It also generates many questions.

My next post will be about the book specifically. I am closing in on the end of Chapter 6.

Friday, January 1, 2010