I am back from Holland (I use the term broadly - The Netherlands always seems a bit of a mouthful to my mind), and am pleased to report that I found Mr Bonkers much improved on my return - particularly on the health front. I should perhaps abandon him more often when he is feeling under the weather, as it may accelerate the recovery process. Though my money's on the curative effects of the two bottles of Ribena he consumed in my absence.
The Californian Road Trip post remains imminent, but meanwhile I feel moved to comment on a couple of Dutch cultural oddities which struck me while I was over there.
Firstly, the Dutch appear to be a nation of pyromaniacs. The setting off of fireworks in Holland is confined to New Year, so this compressed time frame seems to create a tinderbox mentality - or might I mean a hothouse mentality? Either way, to say the Dutch go overboard when it comes to seeing in the New Year with fireworks is putting it mildly: an estimated 65 million euros' worth of the things go up in smoke over the festive period - including several hundred thousands of euros' worth in my friends' street, at a conservative guess - some of them directly over my head. Yes, this is the first time I have ever felt as though I was literally inside a firework display, and I could liken the effect to a cross between the opening credits of Star Trek and 3D TV. And on New Year's Day, there's the inevitable thick carpet of confetti and spent cases to scuffle through - like autumn leaves, but with a telltale note of sulphur.
As one travel site puts it: "(The Dutch) stay at home and celebrate quietly with the family until midnight, then dash out on the streets and indulge in a freestyle orgy of pyrotechnics."
I should also point out that there are two types of firework: the traditional rocket and Roman candle variety, which burst into showers of colourful sparks, and the other kind, so-called "duizend klappers" - which are the mother of all bangers, basically - acoustically akin to heavy artillery, rocket launchers, machine gun fire and the occasional 200 lb car bomb. The loud and startling reports from these incendiary devices reverberated round the neighbourhood from early morning till the small hours. Several of our party remarked that it felt like being in a war zone - images of Flanders Field, Beirut and Baghdad flashed before our eyes as we hunkered down in our friends' living room, reaching for the lids of tins of Quality Street and shortbread by way of improvised body armour. I probably left the country just hours before the shock and awe mutated into full blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
And then the second cultural oddity of the weekend was the annual New Year's Dive or "Duik" at Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. On New Year's Day, somewhat the worse for wear after the drink, merriment and fire-raising excesses of the night before, around 10,000 Dutch people of all ages - and clad in outfits of varying degrees of scantiness and/or whimsy - rush into the sea on the dot of 12.00pm, briefly get wet and rush out again, before changing en masse (and with barely a shred of inhibition amongst them) in a communal tent erected for this purpose on the sand.
Although I just happened to have bought a swimsuit the day before, I was not so foolhardy as to go in myself, though about half the 15-strong contingent from my friend's village braved the waters, including my fellow countrywoman and owner of Meg, the pipped pageant pooch), though she may have been ever so slightly cheating by wearing a wetsuit... Everybody - "divers" and spectators alike - received a carrier bag from the sausage company sponsoring the event, containing a dayglo orange bobble hat, dayglo orange gloves, a tin of pea soup bearing the legent "dive hero", and a commemorative bookmark/medal, rather optimistically stating that the water was "scrummy", if my rudimentary grasp of Dutch serves me.
And there was one more surprise to come that weekend...In Spakenburg, a sleepy and picturesque fishing port to which we made an excursion on the last day, my friend pointed out a perfumery shop in an alleyway called La Ruelle. The staff were visible inside merchandising the shelves, but the sign on the door clearly stated that the store was "gesloten", so I contented myself with peering through the window.
Imagine my surprise when, nestling amongst the Amouages, Serge Lutenses and Etros - remarkable enough but not completely unprecedented in a small village on the continent - I spied a full shelf of Parfumerie Generales. At 30% off no less! I only know of one retail outlet in the UK for PG (Les Senteurs) and 1-2 at most in Paris. So how come a little shop in Spakenburg in Holland had managed to acquire the line? Does Pierre Guillaume have business connections with Holland? Maybe there is some kind of reciprocal trade agreement in place: perfume for gerookte paling perhaps (smoked eel, a Spakenburg speciality)? Or aged Gouda, cheese graters, Delft tableware, or maybe even the dreaded "duizendklappers"....though for the sake of those poor citizens of Clermont-Ferrand, I do hope not.
And finally, a big thank you is due to our hosts in Hoevelaken for their unstinting hospitality, bottomless wine cellar and banger-free bolthole.
Photos of fireworks from Wikimedia Commons and panoramio.com, photos of New Year's Dive from Wikimedia Commons and Clare Chick, photo of Spakenburg from toeristeninformatie.nl, photo of La Ruelle from the shop's website.