Creative Hub – De Ceuvel in #Amsterdam

Sorry for the radio silence, dear followers! I have been doing a turbo-boost fiction course which I blogged about for Writers Abroad here. That took up my writing energy for a bit.

Clichéd Vision
The new series on BBC1, Sunday evenings at 9pm, Baptiste, is set in Amsterdam. Occasionally it shows the city in a flattering light, but generally the usual clichés are peppered throughout; scantily clad women in windows being leched at by drunken men in stag parties, a tulip farmer who hasn’t seen a bath in months, Romanian underworld figures who specialise in decapitation, and drugs being sold in every café. These are supposedly the types of people and activities that abound in my adopted hometown. No doubt this has a smidgen of realism, it would be naïve not to believe so, but it’s pretty easy to avoid seedy areas if you just look a little further afield and don’t fall into tourist traps.

Get the Ferry Instead
Few weekends ago, when the weather was all balmy, I got the ferry from behind Central Station across the River Ij, to visit The Ceuvel. This is a creative hub of start-ups, unicorns, and community projects based in a former shipyard that looks out over the River Ij. The community is entirely off-grid, in what the Dutch call a circular-living economy. All energy sources are renewables, everything, including the boats and their refurbishments are made from re-used and recycled material. It has a post-apocalyptic vibe, the phoenix arising from the ashes, but the views over the water are calming and it feels inclusive. Anyone can walk amongst the boats and soak up the atmosphere. It was fun to wander along the boardwalk wondering what all those creative young things were getting up to in their wooden houseboats. There is also a nice café called, unexpectedly enough, Café, de Ceuvel. So next time you are heading Amsterdam way, avoid the clichés and take ferry 901 towards Buiksloterweg instead. All passengers travel free. See another aspect of Amsterdam, just as real as the clichés, a little harder to find but definitely a lot more wholesome.

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Silence: an elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

Cityscape with traffic noise

At least 1m healthy life-years are lost every year in western European countries because of environmental noise, according to World Health Organization.

Noise, it’s everywhere, isn’t it? Loud machines and vehicles are associated with importance and personal status. It’s even infiltrated our language. The idiom; he/she’s a big noise means someone is an important person.

Fire Alarm set too loud
Even if you live out in the sticks there are increasingly loud household appliances to contend with. Mistakenly, we associate noise with efficacy or at social occasions, conviviality. After getting irreparable tinnitus in the 90s from a fire alarm that was set too loud, nowadays, I never go anywhere without ear plugs. Visiting the cinema can be an ear-damaging experience (theatres control the sound levels and the trailers and ads are often set above acceptable norms). I’ve given up on music concerts all together. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Discovering a low tolerance for noise
But before sustaining permanent tinnitus, I was always sensitive to noise. One of my earliest memories is of Mum hoovering the front room and me stamping on the red switch at the back of the machine to silence it. I was then just a toddler.


The offending vacuum cleaner

I still have, ‘tender’ senses, a characteristic of a hypersensitive type. For example, meeting a friend at a noisy café with a growling coffee machine, cacophonous conversation and scraping chairs to contend with, the occasion can turn into a trial rather than a treat. Hyper Sensitive People (HSP) are now becoming better understood mainly because of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You by Dr. Elaine N. Aron which was published in 1999. HSP make up around 20% of adults and this comprehensive list of traits is helpful in identifying if you or someone around you is an HSP;

The habits of Highly Sensitive People

*They react strongly to noisy environments and need regular downtime to recover.

*They’ve often been told to stop being so sensitive or to toughen up.

*They agonise over decisions: as well as having great attention to detail, being more aware of consequences they also worry about upsetting others. “But they tend to make very good decisions in the end,” says Dr Aron.

*They notice small details: “An HSP will notice somebody’s new haircut or the design of a hotel carpet when others won’t,” says Dr Aron.

*They’re people pleasers: because they’re so sensitive to criticism they tend to overcompensate.

*They feel other people’s pain: “HSP tend to have incredible empathy and will worry about others a lot and be in tune with how they’re feeling,” says Dr Aron

Light bulb Moment
I completed a mindfulness course in 2014, and the aforementioned book about HSP was recommended to me. After reading the first few pages, I experienced a light bulb moment. At last, at the tender age of 54, I understood why I was different from others and needed to recover from evenings in noisy restaurants or parties, and why other people’s bad moods or unhappiness affected me so much.

Childhood is an important time for helping a child cope with hypersensitivity. If a child is taught to accept and value their emotions instead of being told to toughen up, then this can lead to better mental health in adulthood. One important trait which isn’t mentioned on the list above is that HSPs often have a special affinity with animals. As a child growing up on a smallholding, animals were an extension of my family. Animals didn’t judge or worry about me. They accepted me as I was.

Coping Strategies
However, you don’t have to be HSP to suffer from the ill effects of noise so my coping strategies may help you!

Look for silent household appliances. I recently purchased a quiet vacuum cleaner, and earplugs help me cope with noisy environments. I use paper towels or hand wipes in public toilets instead of Dyson dryers. I have a very understanding husband who also cherishes his peace, and through house-sitting we can spend time in quiet places away from the sometimes overwhelming hubbub of the city. Writing and reading are two favourite activities, neither of which involve noise. I go to a dance class where the teacher is mature about the noise levels of the music. I can enjoy the cinema and theatre as long as earplugs are always at the ready! The Dutch company Alpine sells the best earplugs in terms of comfort and noise control.


A quiet place in Mongolia

Read more about HSP here in an article in the Telegraph.

More in-depth information on HSP at Dr Aron’s website.

Potentially devastating health effects of noise in this Guardian article

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A Ghost Story for #Christmas!

Decorations, reindeer and jolly, rotund gentlemen are all very well, but there’s another tradition of Christmas which I love as much as the aforementioned, and that is a cracking good ghost story. The last few weeks I’ve been hooked on Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ directed by Mike Flanagan. The series is loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Horror writer, Stephen King, describes the series as, ‘close to genius’.

Memories or Ghosts?
The story is told through two timelines; switching between one summer the Crain family spent at Hill House when the children were growing up, and their lives as adults in the present. The story is told over ten episodes in a non-linear way and we get to know what led up to a night in Hill House that changed the family’s lives forever. We also learn why the truly terrifying Bent Neck Lady haunted Nell Cairn when she was a kid and still haunts her in adulthood long after leaving Hill House.
THoHH plays with that numinous area between emotional vulnerabilities and supernatural possession suggesting that we are all, like the Crain family, ‘haunted’ in some way; perhaps by family trauma, relationships that went wrong or wishes that never came to fruition.

Inspired by Poe
When I was at secondary school, we had to write a story in response to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, ‘The Black Cat’. I wrote about a girl walking in a wood at night who witnessed a murder through the lighted window of a log cabin. She didn’t see the actual figures but events unfolded in silhouette on the cabin wall. I was really proud to be asked to read it to the class. My first published short story had ghosts and witchcraft, but since then I have generally stayed away from the horror genre because of its reputation as trashy entertainment, and the fact that it’s so easy to get it wrong and end up with something farcical.

Can we learn from the horror genre?
My opinions on horror changed however, when I went to a workshop at a writers’ conference a few years ago. The tutor explained how fiction writers, regardless of genre, can learn so much from the horror story. All stories need powerful antagonists, and horror stories have to deliver on that score. Readers must care deeply about the main character and at the climax of the action you know that your MC will be isolated and face-to-face with the antagonist. The classic three act structure of fiction; inciting incident, building to a climax, and resolution is already blue-printed into the ghost story.

Jekyll and Hyde
In many horror stories, protagonist and antagonist even merge into one, so that hitherto ‘good’ characters step over to the dark side. Indeed, the characters’ struggles with light and dark forces are major plot points in THoHH. This merging with dark forces also happens in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book. In the novel, protagonist, Jack Torrance, tries his utmost to resist the evil forces in the haunted Overlook Hotel, retaining traces of his humanity almost until the end of the story. In the film, lapsed alcoholic, Jack, quickly sides with malevolent spirits and carries out their evil bidding without resistance.

Why do we need ghost stories?
Kubrick said that, ‘The Shining,’ is a positive movie because any evidence of life after death offers reassurance to mortals.
Ghost-story doyenne, Susan Hill, theorises in this Guardian article that we all enjoy thrills in a safe environment and in doing so prepare ourselves for the real frights and dangers in life. And Stephen King suggests that it’s much more diverting to be scared of ghosts than it is to worry about the true horrors of life such as serious illness, loss of loved ones and the grim reaper.

What about you? Do you like ghost/supernatural horror stories? Which ones are your favourites? Maybe you are a rationalist who has no truck with ghosts, fictional or otherwise?

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Coffee, Cake and Furry Friends #catcafe #jippies #haarlem

Haarlem is so close to Amsterdam that Frank and I often go there for a day trip. It’s much more civilised than Amsterdam. The Red Light District there is quite small which means it doesn’t attract the amount of low life and spin-off criminality that Amsterdam does. Many streets are pedestrianised and it generally has a calm feeling which you can’t find in the centre of Amsterdam.

So, after heading to Haarlem and doing a little bit of early Christmas shopping for such essentials as Dachshund-shaped Christmas baubles and mince pies from expat shop A Taste of Home, we decided we needed some rest and sustenance. Good fortune favours the brave and we happily stumbled across Cat Café, Jippies. I believe that this concept of allowing cats to mix with customers while they enjoy their beverages originated in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998 but it truly became a ‘thing’ in Tokyo, Japan. More about the history on this Wikipedia page.

There are ground rules for each individual cat café however; washing your hands before entry, not picking up the cats, and not giving them titbits from the table. Seemed reasonable enough, so before we knew it we were sitting down being largely ignored by the seven rescue cats that grace customers with their presences at Jippies Katten Cafe

In case you’re wondering about hygiene, the food preparation area is totally sealed off from the cats and they have a separate area at the back of the café where they can escape to whenever they want to. There were no smells of cat either; the café was scrupulously clean. You can leave a donation for the cat’s welfare if you wish, but by patronising the café you also contribute to the upkeep of the seven rescue cats.

Cats, or pets in general seem to engender ‘gezelligheid’ which is that Dutch word no one can really translate. It’s often translated as cosy, but gezelligheid also says something about  a sense of community. At Jippies, instead of being strangers with a load of other strangers at separate tables, it felt like an informal gathering of mutual cat-lovers. The cats’ antics got people chatting and so the ice was broken. So the friendliness brought about by the cats was another bonus. Needless to say, the sticky banana cake wasn’t bad either. So if you are ever in Haarlem in need of a furry friend and sustenance, head to Jippies, Katten Café!

Keizerstraat 10
2011 VS Haarlem
Open Wed thru Sun 10am to 5.30pm


Watch Haarlem vlogger, Marit, at Jippies. (all in Dutch)

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This Little Pig Likes to Frolic #Endthecageage #CIWF

Can I Play Outside?
I grew up on a smallholding so the welfare of farm animals has always been an important issue to me. I believe farm animals should live without pain and discomfort and be able to fulfil their natural instincts. At the end of what is hopefully a pleasant life, abattoirs should be local so that hellish journeys are eliminated. Killing should take place under humane circumstances. Sounds easy doesn’t it? But with 600 mega-farms in the Netherlands alone, it’s a long road ahead. Whilst big numbers don’t necessarily mean bad animal husbandry, it often leads to overcrowded conditions and a focus on profit margins rather than quality of the meat/eggs/milk and animal welfare. It’s all too easy to blame the farmer but consumers and supermarkets play a greater role in their need for low prices and high turnover respectively. The Dutch government isn’t helping much, it even subsidises mega-farms outside of the Netherlands in developing countries. Go figure.

No Meat Today
I guess you are thinking I am a vegetarian. I’m not, but I do have meat-free days which makes me a flexitarian. If we all made a few adjustments to our diet and gave up meat once a week that would significantly reduce the need for intensive farming methods. Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday, campaign encourages us to have at least one meat-free day a week. That would have a huge effect on the amount of green house gases produced and significantly decrease the need for intensive farming and the spin-off animal suffering involved. Small changes on a wide scale can have a huge impact.

Supporting Campaigns
For many years I have made annual donations to Compassion in World Farming. They have just started a Crowdfunding campaign, to send the pig sculpture (pictured below) on a tour of the Netherlands. The aim is to raise awareness amongst consumers about the nightmarish circumstances some farm animals live in. The impressive ‘Ode to a Pig,’ is made by artist, Jantien Mook, who made ‘Ode to the Wilderness’ which I blogged about here.

Get Involved
Please sign the petition, End the Cage Age. Or better still crowdfund the campaign so that happy pig gets to go on tour in NL, CIWF campaign is open for funding till 8 November. Right now he’s in the Westerpark, Amsterdam, on the edge of the playing field. Why not leave meat off the menu for one day this week? Plenty of tasty recipes via the Meat Free Monday link. Good luck and on behalf of the pigs, thank you!


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In Praise of #Amsterdam Parks

Well designed and well-kept parks are good for people’s mental and physical health. In Amsterdam we have parks and green spaces in abundance. My favourite park, because it’s less than 100 metres walk away, is the Erasmuspark. When I moved to this neighbourhood in the 80s it was run down and more or less a no-go area because of danger of harassment or mugging. Since its renovation in the noughties and the addition of Terrasmus café, the park has grown in popularity. Events are organised there throughout the summer and it is a nice place for dog owners and young mothers to interact. While one wouldn’t think of striking up a conversation when walking along a regular concrete street, it’s far easier to chat to other dog owners or neighbours in a green setting. Nearby is also the Rembrandtpark, and of course Amsterdam’s famous Vondelpark. This time of year after the flocks of tourists have flown back home, even the Vondelpark is a pleasant place to be.

The parks have looked so lovely the last few days, I couldn’t resist taking some photos and sharing them with you. Try and head out to inhale some greenery if you can, even five minutes in a park can boost your mood. Catch these last few halcyon days of an Indian Summer.


Day of the Dog Event in Erasmuspark. Filmed by Peter Eijking



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Living the Dream Inside a Chocolate Box

Those of you who follow my blog will know that Frank and I enjoy house-sitting and caring for animals. Looking after pets is a big part of the reciprocal agreement between house-sitter and owner. Often feeding the garden birds is something we are asked to keep up during the house-sit. We were once even asked to feed Aldi bread to a seagull called Sidney and his missus Samantha. So far we have looked after; horses, cats, dogs, fish, ducks, chickens and geese.

Dry Your Eyes
Now, my intention was to write a blog about how not to get too attached to the pets while looking after them. But I have failed miserably as I got very attached to one of ‘our’ wards – his name is Harvey – a miniature, long-haired Dachshund. He has the most soulful brown eyes and very soft, long fur which makes him an ideal lap dog, filling that gap for a pet owner who wants the fun and affection of a dog but the sofa-sharing convenience of a cat. Anyway, I have dried my tears which I shed on saying goodbye because the home-owner is keen for us to come back to house-sit next year’s holiday and I have even put my name on the list for a pup should they ever breed from him.

Bumper Harvest
This year has been a bumper harvest for house-sitting wonderful properties, meeting new animals and people! Neither of us were really familiar with the counties of Wiltshire and Hampshire but the rolling wheat fields in the slanting sun of the evening are breathtakingly beautiful. Avebury with its mysterious standing stones and quaint pub (encircled by the stones) was also a highlight. Does anyone remember the 1970s kid’s TV series, Children of the Stones? It was filmed in Avebury and scared the bejesus out of me.

Hampshire is also filled with pretty chocolate-box worthy villages and is only a stone’s throw from London where I visited the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A. (Great exhibition but the V&A has really dumbed down, read my Tripadvisor review here – I even got food poisoning from their restaurant food.)
On a more positive note, Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed, is also just up the road in Berkshire. We spent a very enjoyable sun-drenched afternoon there, eating our own packed lunch, much cheaper and probably healthier!

Hobnobbing with the Locals
We were absorbed into the community on our house-sit in Worcestershire, making friends with the neighbours and being invited over for oven-baked pizza, Prosecco and a game of croquet on the lawn. The summer of 2018 will go down in history as a hot, dry one. Frank easily spent a couple of hours a day tending and watering (I chipped in occasionally) the extensive garden so it wouldn’t look like the Gobi Desert on the green-fingered owners’ return. Our dear friends, Cathy and David came to stay and David took some stunning photos of the garden and chickens. The village of Rock, near Kidderminster certainly tops our list for friendly and welcoming communities.


A Film Star’s Home
Below, a few pics of the highlights of our fabulous nine-week sojourn in the UK. We had originally planned to stay for a shorter period (seven weeks) but due to a cancellation by another house-sitter we had the chance to look after two dogs and two cats in the stunning village of Monxton in Hampshire. The 300-year-old thatched farmhouse formerly owned by film star, Gordon Harker (1885- 1967), is like something out of a fairytale. See more pics and Harker’s Bar on the Airbnb listing. Harker starred in three silent Hitchcock films and had an acting career which spanned the 1900s through the 1950s. Evidently he liked a drink as he built a bar in the cellar to entertain his film star friends. Maybe even Hitchcock had a tipple in the eponymous Harker’s Bar! We have yet to try it out as it’s decidedly spooky down there…



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Nostalgia and Spitfires in Bewdley

During a Sunday afternoon visit to the small town of Bewdley, Worcestershire situated on the River Severn, Frank and I stumbled across a 1940s-themed event along the Severn Valley Railway Line at Bewdley train station. GIs, Tommies, civilians, landgirls and glamorous ladies were out in their glad rags strutting their stuff up and down the platform. How wonderful to be transported back to a simpler time when we didn’t have omnipresent, tyrannical technology at our heels. But I told myself I shouldn’t get too nostalgic; I wouldn’t have enjoyed rationing, air-raid shelters, blackouts or indeed any of the fears and deprivations that ordinary folk endured during WWII.

It was pure escapism though on a very hot day with tunes from a less cynical age such as Mairzy Doats, playing in the background. Old-fashioned trains shunted in and out of the the station without much care for deadlines or timetables; time slowed to a more manageable pace. On the other hand, I was also quite glad it was 2018 because it meant I could take a few snaps with my phone and share them with you. Toodlepip! Until the next blog!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Taking a picnic along - love the sun umbrella

Taking a picnic along – love the sun umbrella

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Found this vintagey dress at the open-air sale behind the ticket office so quickly changed!

Himself in front of the iconic Spitfire that epitomised Britain’s fighting spirit during the darkest times of the Battle of Britain.

More photos of our train trip in 2014 along the Severn Valley Railway Line.

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Celebrate National Flash Fiction Day!

16 June is National Flash Fiction day! Founded by writer, Calum Kerr in 2012, this relatively ‘new’ genre of micro-stories is growing in popularity and there are more and more opportunities for writers to submit and see their work published online or in print. Indeed, now we are all so busy flash fiction can be the ideal form of entertainment to fill otherwise redundant time when sitting in a waiting room or standing on a station platform. Its brevity makes it perfect for reading on a mobile device.

Anyway, I will cut to the chase! My story, ‘Swanning Around’ went live on the National Flash Fiction Flood between 6-7 am CET this morning  but you may read it at your leisure via the link below. It’s a 500-word piece about a late bloomer, a stroppy swan and an ice sculpture. If you are intrigued how these disparate elements form a story then please click and don’t forget to bookmark the link for other stories! There will be new ones posted throughout the day and they have all been curated by experts in the world of flash fiction. Enjoy! My piece, Swanning Around






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Sing for your supper, or is it dinner, or perhaps even tea?

A Dutch student learning English once asked me when British people have their supper. A deceptively-simple sounding question, isn’t it? One which I could have answered simply enough by telling him that supper is a simple snack of a sandwich or biscuits with a hot drink before going to bed. But then, if I did that I would have missed out on the chance to explain (or at least attempt to) the rather complicated English class system. It’s always easiest to start with oneself as an example so here goes.

Soap for Tea
Growing up as a smallholder’s daughter in 1970s Britain I believed myself to be working class with middle-class aspirations. We mixed with people from all levels of society through our love of horses and that included upper and middle-classes whom we got to know through show-jumping and Pony Club membership. At home breakfast was cereal or toast (from the Rayburn) with a few rashers of bacon, dinner was a substantial hot meal served about 1pm, tea was a cold meal, bread & cheese and cold meats followed by cake at 6.30pm. This meal always coincided with watching the Brummy soap series, Crossroads on telly, and then if still feeling peckish around bedtime, a cup of tea or Ovaltine accompanied by crackers or biscuits was in order for supper. Having hobnobbed a bit in the tuck shop at Pony Club Camp with posh people’s children I learned that they had supper around our teatime and that it was a hearty warm meal with two courses eaten in an informal manner.

The Rayburn

The Rayburn with toasting fork

Tea table at home

Tea table at home

Supper snack

Supper snack

After tea, washing up

After tea, washing up – All sketches by yours truly anno 1979

Class Divisions
When I went to university I was suddenly surrounded by middle-class people who had their main hot meal or dinner in the evening, a light lunch around noon, tea was something sweet eaten between lunch and dinner and supper a pre-bedtime snack. Are you getting confused? Believe me, I was. After finishing university and learning about garlic, avocado and Liebfraumilch wine, I travelled overland in Africa with a group of northerners and unsure of my provenance they quizzed me about what time of day I had dinner. Even though I had adopted some middle-class habits and nomenclature during my student days, dinner was still firmly embedded in my consciousness as a warm midday meal. Happy I had given them the right answer, I was warmly taken into the fold! Northerners consider themselves generally working class; the hard-working webbed feet of the elegant swan that is England anywhere south of Nottingham.

Source of Comedy
You’ll be relieved to hear I didn’t go on at length to my student as I have done here but I simplified my answer somewhat. But even so, being Dutch and wanting a straightforward answer to a straightforward question it probably sounded waffly. In the Netherlands you have ontbijt, lunch en avondmaaltijd and that’s it.

Is it perhaps time to ditch this outmoded way of pigeon-holing people into working, middle or upper class? But then where would we look for rich sources of comedy? So many of our best loved sitcoms were based on class idiosyncrasies. Only Fools and Horses, The Good Life, Are you Being Served, To the Manor Born, Dad’s Army, Keeping up Appearances and Hi-de-Hi are all built upon observations of the different layers of English society exaggerating each group’s aspirations and absurdities. Maybe that’s why there are so few good comedies being written today as society merges into one homogeneous whole in which everyone is vaguely middle-class. I’m curious to hear what time of day you have supper? What class do you belong to or perhaps you consider yourself classless?

Further ramblings on supper on The Guardian.

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