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