The wind and cloudy skies have dampened the mood of the city today, yet it’s been an inspiring Friday thus far. Sitting in a cozy cafe close to the elegant Denneweg, I muse on the creative day that has been.
My co-author of Monday Morning Emails Jo Parfitt is away, and so I stepped up to host her monthly Writer’s Circle. It is only next door after all, my solid hunter-green door just a few steps away from her lovely Den Haag home. I arrived first, greeting familiar faces and a few new arrivals– writers bond quickly, a shared love of words and stories connecting us as snugly as well-bound novel.
A writer’s circle or workshop often warms up with a ‘speed writing’ session, putting pen to paper for ten minutes… your free flowing thoughts, loves, despairs, perhaps challenges, and hopefully some joys, are prompted to flow forth. Today I decided to give the exercise a slight twist. In that curiously circular way, I was inspired by a friend’s blog that was in turn inspired by a virtual writer’s circle held by Jo. In her blog Up In the Air, Nikki Cornfield had reminded us of how enlightening it can be to write of the seemingly mundane,
“Easy, I thought, but being a writer where’s the fun in telling you “I fed the dog” or “I brewed some tea?” That’s when I paused and took a real hard look at what there was to love about the place I lived. It took some doing as it was a pretty dull weekend, but I like to paint a picture with words so here we go… look around you, smell the roses, as there is real beauty even in the humdrum. I will never look at hanging out the washing in quite the same way again…”
And so this morning we let it flow, breathing life into vignettes of everyday happenings – cleaning up after the dog and stopping to reflect the stages in life it had faithfully witnessed with the passing years or donning a tour guide ‘hat’ for visitors or maybe the abrupt, loving appreciation of a town when one’s relocation is imminent. And who would imagine that tidying one’s ample stash of knitting wool could bring comfort and a reflection on how precious life is after the loss of loved ones. We also enjoyed an ode to yoga, how the wonder of a class can embrace vitality and soften smiles, even for the teacher. The snippets were beautiful in their simplicity, but infused with raw emotion.
So here goes. As the clouds roll lazily over the somber Dutch sky, it is the perfect afternoon to write a few of my own snippets from the simple pleasures of our week passed.
Kayaking the canals of Den Haag
Then we were kayaking. The sleek, slender boat gliding and rustling the fields of water lilies – delicate vivid white petals against murky, pea-soup canals. Boats lined the waterways, some rather grand, but most were old peeled-paint affairs, their worn timber evoking the toil of fishermen and weathering of stormy seas. We glided through tunnels, ducking my head in sudden alarm at pigeons, and poop, avoiding fluttering wings and the mild stench.
Then out again into the brilliant sun. Paddling past fine tall houses, spires of heaven-reaching church towers, shaded tree-lined boulevards, and bikes and bikes aplenty. We passed ‘invitations’ to snack; a bell to ring for an ice cream to be delivered to your boat or maybe you’re in the mood for patat, french-fries lowered to water level in a basket. The pulley system works well, I’m taken by the simple novelty of it. On a sunny day after all, the waterways are often a place for making merry. If the sun shines, it’s great to be on the water!
“This is nice,” I said understatedly, turning to my kayaking partner with a smile. We’ve paddled the pristine lakes of Canada, the chilly fjords of Norway, now the narrow canals of The Netherlands… joy indeed!
Strolling and soaking it up… and new herring with Mom
She has always loved herring, the Dutch way; chopped onions over raw, slinky fish. Despite my Dutch heritage, I can’t bear them. But to Mom, it’s a delectable delight that awaits her return to the country of her childhood, like a fond friend.
The setting was the harbour of Scheveningen on a festival day. A day of marching and trumpeting bands, bright flags fluttering from ship’s rigging, vendors offering pancakes and poffertjes, old trinkets, porcelain blue and white, and of course that herring that cause for a festival.
Mom and I were lingering over this and that, when some lovely ladies caught our eye. They wore their beguiling baby blue capes and delicate bejewelled headdresses with pride and aplomb, tradition on display. No, they are not worn much these days, more for weddings, funerals and days like today the friendly locals related proudly to us. A day where vestiges of the past are showcased for posterity, celebrating Scheveningen’s proud fishing heritage. In fact today’s Vlaggetjedag (Flag Day) heralds the first herring catch of the season, traditionally presented to the King or Queen.
From one distraction to another, a drai orgal, a colourful traveling organ, chimed its merry tunes. The sound evoked a child’s ferris wheel, its lyrical melodies exuberant and hopeful. I could see memories flooding across mom’s eyes playing out scenes from her childhood. I imagined her as a ten year-old, in the days before she immigrated to a new land, dark curls bobbing as she skipped alongside the wondrous contraption. “A dubbeletje for your music Meneer!”
Delft and its master, the esteemed Vermeer
We take the tram to Delft. So easy. Jump on the tram not five minutes from the apartment, and twenty minutes later we alight in one of the loveliest small cities in the country. Wend through a narrow lane, over a tiny bridge or two, and before you lies such a pretty picture. And so timeless, had we perhaps stepped back into the scene of a Dutch masterpiece?
Tall gabled homes squeeze cozily wall to wall, like fine aged town folk, framing the generous main square over which they preside – the ever-so-tall church spire at one end, the ornate city hall at the other.
Church bells peal and chime a lyrical melody. Silken, adorned horses wait patiently rigged at the head of a carriage for touring. Bright waxen, yellow wheels of cheese stack neatly in the shop windows of the square. And blue and white porcelain too – of every imaginable size and function, arrayed to entice and please passing tourists.
It is all typically, wonderfully Dutch, perhaps what a visitor might expect and I channel this scene to indulge in a little time-travel; back to a certain citizen who lived his creative life along these cobbled streets. The great painter, Vermeer, captured the light and the people of this charming town in exquisite reality, portraying them in their own seemingly mundane tasks. He was one of the great Dutch masters. Yes Rembrandt, Hals and Van Gogh are also revered, but for me, it is Vermeer who inspires me to write.
Sunlight strains through brooding clouds, a play of light on stone and cobbles. Baristas deliver coffee flitting from table to table, some patrons now partaking of a late afternoon glass of wine. And still I linger, the light inspiring me to write of my favourite Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. I reflect on his life and works, and a clear image of his widowed wife comes to me. And so, I write in her voice…
December 30th, in the year of Our Lord 1675
My Dearest Mother,
It has been just fifteen days since we buried our dear Johannes and I lament still that your fragility prevented you journeying here to Delft. We live day by day. Johannes has left us surrounded by paintings, most of which he tried in vain to sell. It is my firm conviction that our financial stresses led to his illness… and oh how we miss him.
Eleven children now mourn for their father as we persevere in our family home in Papenhoek, just off the town square. Rooms brimming over with pigments and palettes, with brushes and easels. How my dear Johannes adored this home and his beloved Delft with its bustling port and its skilled artisans – the tapestry weavers, the earthenware potters and the beer brewers. There are many wealthy citizens but alas, not the Vermeers.
And I despair, for these distinguished burgers have not seen the genius of my husband. Yes Johannes Vermeer is recognised as a good painter, yet now his forlorn studio echoes with paintings bequeathed to me and some to you dear mother. But indeed, I wish they had been sold.
I see some beauty in them of course, yet I find the scenes almost frivolous. A milk maid pouring milk from a pretty jug. A lady penning a letter, receiving one or even reading one in earnest. I often asked what was the intention, so ordinary did these scenes appear. Our Johannes would explain, “Liefde, one must think of the symbolism. Notice the map in the foreground, the ship sailing, the letter in my subject’s hand. It is news of her loved one, this Golden Age has taken him to the East Indies to trade spices and even our fine Delft blue and white,” Johannes would explain patiently.
“And look at the objects I have staged so well,” he would elaborate, pointing with his painting stick. “The apples for temptation, the walnut cracked in two for wanton adultery. The feathery hat for frivolity, or the organ piano being caressed by a woman’s hand.” Goodness dear mother, all this talk would force me to blush. I who have given birth to more children than I can count!
But I do understand his use of light and of colours. Indeed was he not a master? Only the finest pigments were procured. The deepest of blues – indigos from India, Laapis Lazuli from Aghanistnan, or fine cobalt. He loved spanish green, earth green and that haunting umber – a green brown from Umbria in Italy itself. And of course there was always ochre- red to replicate the abundance of bricks in this fine city of Delft.
Yes, he played with these colours and created hues of lights that only he could conjure. Light that was bright, filtered, soft and shining. Or perhaps watery and smooth, gleaming, even falling. Yes the ways of light are cunning and Johannes knew them well.
Dear mother, you shall soon have your choice of a few of his works. Perhaps you would like a particular small pretty painting of young woman with pearl earrings. It bears a slight resemblance to our dear Rosa, she is mourning her father terribly. For myself, I am only interested in the Little Street painting. This is who our dear Vermeer truly was. A simple man who gazed out to that scene from his studio and often remarked, “life is captured in the seemingly mundane, the precious simple moments.”
And so I must sign off for now, the bells at noon have tolled and the children will soon be asking for their bread and cheese. I shall write often dear mother. Please know you are in our thoughts until we see you soon.
Your loving, Catharina Bolnes Vermeer
And with this, the inspiration of the morning has worked its magic. I have conjured and imagined, mused and written.
And I challenge. Poise a pen over a blank page and let it flow….