by J.M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
September 8, 2009
AMID HOLLAND'S BEAUTY, QUESTIONS FOR AMERICA
AMSTERDAM -- Driving by farms with their brick barns and red tile roofs as opera played on the car radio was like being on a movie set. Was I really seeing windmills both modern and old, and a landscape dotted with cathedrals, and colorful wash on clotheslines? Yes! Pinch, pinch - I'm really here in Holland.
Signs of Fall are in the air: leaves flying off the elegant trees, blown by the north wind, sudden rain squalls as fields are harvested, and hay being rolled into giant wheels, as I traveled three hours to Amsterdam.
I can see why Van Gogh wanted to get the beauty of it all in oils on canvas. It is so naturally lovely, the light here. Is it brighter? Purer and cleaner? Is it the clouds that have different shapes than I'm used to? They move so quickly, changing rapidly with the weather through out the day. I'm not sure what it is, but the effect is intense and enlivening.
I stayed in the coastal town of Vijk Aan Zee, Netherlands. It's a wind-surfer's paradise, nestled on the cold North Sea. I took a room at a very sweet and warm B&B whose owners are on their way to New York City in two weeks. I was treated like royalty, ate scrumptious food, and got excellent suggestions for viewing sculptures hidden in the sand dunes and hearing the music at the local hotel on the hill in the evenings.
Shortly after settling in, I took my car on a five-minute ferry ride across the channel. There I parked the car and got on a Fast Flying Ferry to Amsterdam. The hydroplane goes 65 kmph rather than the usual 15. Within a half hour, we were dropped off at the main train station in Amsterdam. There I took a canal bus (another boat) to the Van Gogh Museum. I was born under the sign of Cancer with five more signs in Cancer as well. Cancer, "the Crab," is a water sign, which may be why I felt happy and content around all these boats and waterways.
Returning to the Van Gogh Museum after 30 years was a moving experience. When I was there before, it wasn't crowded at all and I practically had the place to myself. This time it was Sunday and packed with people from around the world. I felt choked up most of the time as I took an audio tour and learned more about Van Gogh's struggles with mental illness. After a difficult childhood, and an attempt at being a minister like his dad, he became a painter. This incredibly talented man was supported by his brother and therefore was able to have 10 very productive years before his illness drove him to suicide.
I left there feeling very elated for being surrounded by the beauty of his paintings, but also extremely sad after hearing the story of his pain, torment and suffering.
I roamed around the canals and peeked into art galleries, observed people on their bikes and in cafés. My exploring brought me to a fun, handmade toy store that I visited 30 years ago. That was an uplifting treat! I enjoyed the way the Dutch decorate the front of their homes with sculpture, lace curtains and flowers. What a wonder-full, old, magical city Amsterdam is.
The Dutch people are fascinating to me. The man who built and ran the long-term-stay hotel that I'm living in stopped by one night shortly after I arrived to tell some stories about being born and raised in Brunssum, Netherlands. "Mr. T" is now almost 82 but still quite involved with governmental and civic committees to improve his town.
The stories he told were about the people of his town hiding Jewish people when the Germans invaded. Brunssum is an old coal-mining town with many large buildings that held machinery for the mining operations. There is a park on my way to work with a huge beautiful brick building, now empty. When I asked him about it he said that's where they hid Jewish families during WWII. He had tears in his eyes as he remembered that terrifying time. He also became emotional when he recalled the Canadians coming to liberate the Dutch from the Germans.
When I asked him how he felt about living close to Germany (10 minutes away), Mr. T went on to say that he didn't hate the Germans because their government was mistreating them, just as the government of the USSR was terrorizing the Russians as well.
I have had the good fortune many more talks with Mr. T over breakfast. I feel lucky to hear a European perspective about America. His hotel is a place were officers who are coming to work at NATO stay with their families while looking for permanent housing in the villages surrounding the four bases that are nearby. Most are American.
We covered a lot of topics, including the collapse of Wall Street, health care for all, American values, our problems with drugs and alcohol, harsh conservative politics, and retirement income in the USA and Europe.
Mr. T asked many good questions about our American way of life. He wondered if our rugged individualism, self-orientation and unimpeded free market mentality got us into the financial meltdown in which we find ourselves now. He asked, is getting rich and amassing great wealth an obsession with Americans?
He questioned: Don't we realize that there are many other ways to be truly happy? Don't we know that the freedom to make money without restraints is not the only freedom that is important? He wanted to know what has happened to our common sense or ethics? How could those smart people in charge have failed us so miserably? I didn't have answers for him but it got me thinking more about these things and my part in all of it. We bounced around many theories about the consumer society that American became.
He is puzzled by the many contradictions between what we say and how we act, especially our lack of compassion and awareness of how we affect others. He also remarked that we don't seem to be aware of how we are losing our democracy nor that we are wrecking the harmony and balance of the earth with our waste, fraud and abuse.
He has observed that it seems to him, the more money Americans have the less they want to share it. He pointed out that there is more economic inequality and less upward mobility in America than in Europe. The unfairness of a CEO walking away with a $2.5-million pension while his employees see their pensions hollowed out or lost altogether when the company goes under would not be tolerated in his country. Such manipulations and fancy accounting practices are not being allowed in his country. There is oversight and guidelines that the countries of the European Union agree to in order to maintain social order.
Mr. T observed that Americans don't seem to understand that we are no longer upwardly mobile, but still spend as if we are. He reminded me that our personal debt is the same as our GDP. Most families owe more each month than they earn. According to him, our overspending, urban sprawl, huge vehicles, expensive toys and pastimes, and overeating, are not making us happy, healthy or safe. He believes that they contribute to making us emotionally and physically sick. The stress of keeping up with the Joneses is also a factor in people feeling anxious and depressed. I have to agree with him on that.
He also senses a level of meanness, greed, dishonesty and exclusivity among Americans that is not found here. He wonders if our problems with addiction to drugs, alcohol and prescription medicines have something to do with some of it - both as cause and effect.
Mr. T commented that here there is a basic understanding that everyone in the Dutch culture shares and that is responsible for the culture's way of life. People understand that one person can't be successful without the network of public services, systems and agencies that allow him/her to thrive; therefore, they are willing to pay for them.
He is well aware that the cultures of Europe struggle financially, too, and that there is always room for improvement. But the people in Holland don't worry about their retirement being lost to Wall Street robber barons; they have a system that ensures them a comfortable paid retirement. Senior housing here is unbelievable.
The Dutch don't have health insurance executives who make $30 million a year and have to answer to wealthy investors before they think about meeting the health care needs of those they insure. Health care is not something that is being traded for profit in his country. They have nondiscriminatory health care and because of this, they have a level of security that is missing for us. He and his people have peace of mind when they enjoy their later years. Maybe that's why they abuse drugs and alcohol much less than we do.
For the most part, the Dutch don't have huge cars, homes, and refrigerators. They enjoy themselves and get good exercise by riding their bikes everywhere, visiting with friends in their cafés, having intimate social experiences often. They play basketball in the parks, pay for playgrounds workers to provide activities for the children in the summer, and work in community gardens. Parents send their children to community co-op child care, each town has a farmer's market once or twice a week; they have big libraries, many with cafés and huge computer rooms. Citizens enjoy and care for the rivers and streams. They manage their resources so that the air and earth remain unpolluted. We do those things, too, but not to the degree and depth that they do. You should see the bike racks that are piled with bicycles all around town, on boats and buses. The infrastructure for these things has been in place for a very long time.
He asks me what happened (or what hasn't happened) to our country. He remembers when we used to be much more altruistic and empathetic, and seemed more connected to each other. He wondered if each one of us hasn't felt the pain of neglect or abuse - don't we remember the Great Depression and World War II? Have we lost touch with one another because of technology and corporate media that feeds us a steady diet of fear and an awful lot of hatred? Yes, probably some of both, I think.
He wonders how we allow 20,000 people a year to die because they lack health insurance or are underinsured, even after paying exorbitant co-pays and premiums? What exactly is the roadblock to getting the reforms we need to improve our communities? All these questions offer more foods for thought for me! I just told him I don't know anymore. I am just as confused as he is, but probably angrier. Maybe we should both sit down and watch a little Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.
Mr. T mentioned that the people he has met through his hotel are individually very good, kind people, and wonders what happens to us when we get in a group. We seem to become that classic "Ugly American": self-centered, bossy, entitled and ignorant.
One example of ignorance he mentioned is that "too big to fail" banks are more humongous after buying each other out, and still in business after robbing us blind. Why? Will they now have to play by strict rules or will we be the victims who continue to bail them out for their gangster-like gambling? He reminded me that the bankers still get their bonus while others scramble for a place to live, a job and a M.D. to care for their children. Why? Are we stupid? I say no, we aren't stupid, but we have let experts take over and have not kept good track of their activities. I guess that makes us ignorant.
When Mr. T listened to President Obama's acceptance speech calling for hard work and sacrifice, he had renewed faith in our country - and so do most countries in Europe, he said. Mr. T explained that world is watching us to see if we can be trusted again.
He believes that President Obama is strong enough to unify our society by providing true leadership for all the people, not just the wealthy elite. He feels that we are ready for a humanizing period in our evolution. In spite of all our shortcomings and our foolishness he has great affection for us. Mr. T is positive that we can turn our country around and make it a more civilized, compassionate place to live. I hope so, because I'm thinking of moving to kinder, simpler Ireland in the next few years if corporate American continues to be in charge and we can't get out from under their power and control to make some real improvements.