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Horizontigo 27 February 2016

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CIMG9333 Horizontigo. Twiske mill in the distanceI thought I’d coined a new word to describe that feeling of disorientation I still get when faced with an entirely unrelievedly flat landscape – horizontigo. It still gets to me even after 2 decades of constantly travelling through it in Flanders and Holland; I long for a rolling Chiltern hill or a Yorkshire moor.
So I was disappointed to find the Urban Dictionary has got there first, defining it as the feeling you are going backwards when the vehicle next to you starts up. I think the Germans have a great train-related word for that, but I can’t find it.

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Austerlitz vs. Waterloo 11 June 2015

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P1010044 Austerlitz PyramideWith one week to go until the bicentenary of the Battle of My Street (it’s next Thursday), we made a coincidental discovery.
On a sunny cycle ride through the forests between Amersfoort and Utrecht, we detoured to visit the strangely named village of Austerlitz. Napoleon’s army camped there, and named the place after the 1805 battle at what is now Slavkov in the Czech Republic. That battle was a victory for Napoleon, and his brother Louis Napoleon built a pyramid to commemorate it. After suffering some erosion it has been restored and equipped with a very gently Dutch uitspanning complete with ice cream, toy railway and various harmless amusements.
P1010050 butte du Lion info panel ironic about NapoleonAfter you have climbed the 80 steps to the top of the pyramid it is worth examining the very well-thought-out information panels mounted on the parapet. The panels are surprisingly generous to Louis Napoleon, who went native and introduced such useful attributes of civilisation as national unity, land surveys and surnames. But the panel comparing this pyramid with the Butte du Lion at Waterloo is memorably ironic:

    “On the top is a giant bronze Dutch lion, looking censoriously towards France. This monument was erected by King William I in memory of the heroism of his son on the battlefield. While ‘our’ Pyramid is a real French monument, the Butte du Lion is a Dutch memorial, despite the Walloons’ attempts to exploit it as homage to Napoleon.”

So the Dutch monument is in Belgium and the French monument is in Holland. The last clause is classic. You don’t often find Dutch nationalism in such a raw state!
How funny by the way that after the French objected to a special €2 coin being minted, Belgium has minted a €2½ one instead!

Cities can profit from car sharing 2 July 2014

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When a fleet of shared cars is introduced in a city, this can arouse resentment among existing car owners because they can’t park in the reserved parking bays. Cities typically bill the operator for these spaces. An evaluation of the car2go free-floating car sharing scheme concludes that Amsterdam actually makes a small profit from it.

a mass of car2go carsThe car2go scheme, using 300 electric smart cars, was launched in 2011, and the impact assessment published in November 2013 shows that the income from the parking charges alone, less the estimated loss from selling resident’s parking permits and from visitors using parking meters, is €39,100. This without taking environmental and convenience benefits into account.

The calculation is as follows. Car2go now has 17,500 members who make 10,000 trips a week. The city charges €675 for parking each of 300 cars, which brings in an income of €202,500. As against this, it sells 320 fewer residents’ parking permits at €205 (= €65,600) and earns €105,000 less from parking meters paid for by visitors. The combined loss is €170,000, leaving a profit of €39,100.

In comparison there has been some controversy in Seattle, where car2go pays $1,330 (€973) per car per year, which one blogger reckons is too cheap, given the market price of parking. The city’s report is here.

Borders to Cross – Amsterdam promotes ‘do-ocracy’ 6 November 2013

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Dutch Minister of the Interior Ronald Plasterk is keen not to reduce the welfare state, but to augment it through citizen participation. Accordingly, his ministry has just sponsored the Borders to Cross event, held in the De Zwijger warehouse in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docks. This brought some 300 people together to examine and debate a score of initiatives from round the world in which citizens have taken the development of their communities into their own hands.

A participative event in both form and content

CIMG2968 Pakhuis De ZwijgerThe participants divided roughly into half from civil society, a third from local government and a quarter from academia. They could attend workshops on a score of initiatives from around Europe, comment on poster displays, and intervene in plenaries. Journalist Tracy Metz facilitated with energy, humour and insight, with the help of modern technology. The walls of the main hall displayed an uplifting display of images of local initiatives and those fortunate enough to have a smart phone could vote in instant polls via Sendsteps (which by the way is free for an audience size of up to 20).

This was backed up by a powerful demonstration of political will – none other than the Minister of the Interior, Ronald Plasterk – turned up to kick off the closing plenary. The final presentation was a barn-stormer from Jim Diers, a community organiser who had been appointed by the mayor of Seattle to lead a team of what he called “overt double agents” working to promote community initiatives within the local authority. The city encourages volunteering through its Neighbourhood Matching Fund, set up 25 years ago, which has supported 5,000 projects and is now worth $4.5 million a year.

If democracy was complete, it would decay

Geoff Mulgan of NESTA gave a provocative keynote speech, citing the Copenhagen summit as the most obvious example of world leaders getting together to entirely fail to address the word’s most pressing problem. He said that nowadays democratic institutions have to compete with social media as a means of expression, and are consequently becoming more direct, deliberative and community-based. To work well, democracy needs not just mechanisms for the public to instruct parliament and for the government to deliver policy, but also civil society participation and media scrutiny. He introduced a term that was new for most people – ‘epistemic democracy’, meaning that good decisions stem from putting together the combined knowledge of citizens. The ‘delivery state’ becomes the ‘relational state’.
NESTA is putting this into practice in an EU project called D-CENT – Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies – to pilot two digital platforms for direct democracy and economic empowerment in Finland, Iceland and Spain.

Political will

Ronald Plasterk’s speech, delivered without notes, was impressive. He pointed out that Holland’s municipalities have grown so large – they have on average 20,000 inhabitants – that they have outgrown street-corner direct democracy. But people are better educated and more autonomous. So there is a gap and an opportunity. Secondly, governments can no longer pay for everything. He called for representative democracy to become a “do democracy”, forestalling our doubts by affirming that participation is a new development within the welfare state, not a substitute for it. He values what social democracy has achieved, and does not want to go back to schools that are not run by professionals (an oblique reference to Britain’s ‘free schools’?).
Yet he is conscious of the consequences. First, if you don’t act, yourself, then you have to put up with what others do. Second, geographical differences will be inevitable (what in Britain is derided as a ‘post-code lottery’). Third, enthusiasm goes in waves; energy is not constant and there’s no one to complain to if things go quiet for a while. Fourth, the state can only let go so far: at what point do community meals or nurseries become businesses that require health inspections?
Though full of praise for his passion and sincerity, Tracy Metz did not let him off the hook about the recent abolition of the stadsdelen or boroughs within Amsterdam, which his party had originally opposed and now he had implemented. His reply was simply that the Netherlands had had six tiers of elected authorities (municipalities, cities, provinces, the country, the EU and the water boards) which were too many.
Underlying the optimism, the government appears to have a pragmatic motivation: in the past it has had its fingers burnt when planning proposals have been bogged down in legal challenges. If stakeholders can be engaged beforehand then such unpleasantness can be avoided.

Citizen’s initiatives

– G1000 –Belgium’s citizens reinvent their own government

In 2011, Belgium beat the world record by spending 541 days without a government. A group of citizens created the G1000 citizen’s summit, whose manifesto analyses the problem picturesquely as follows:

Political parties, once created in order to streamline the diverse interests in society, now keep each other in a permanent stranglehold. Politicians are reminiscent of what is known as a rat king, a nest of young rats whose tails are so intertwined that any attempt to pull the knot tightens it further. A rat king doesn’t live long: the animals, which cannot coordinate their actions (each one pulls in its own direction), die of hunger and deprivation. Representative democracy, that fresh system of yesteryear, has become a low-oxygen environment. No wonder the country is in respiratory distress.

– Forum 2020 – running rings round Antwerp’s planners

Antwerp’s traffic planners got themselves into trouble by ploughing ahead without popular support. Manu Claeys, the author of Stilstand, told the story of how Forum 2020 and Ademloos (‘Breathless’) united business and community in a nine-year campaign to successfully oppose the extension of the Antwerp ring-road round the city’s north-west quadrant (the infamous Oosterweelverbinding).
Anxious to be seen to be doing something – anything – the region pressed ahead regardless and signed a pre-contract with BAM, but a referendum has reduced its road-building plans to a halt. Compensation must be paid. “It’s in the run-up to elections that accidents happen” Claeys said. A more deliberative democracy would run more smoothly. And so it shall come to pass: next year parliament is to vote on a law which would provide for public consultation before any formal objections are submitted.

– Sustainable villages

The Netwerk Duurzame Dorpen (Sustainable Village Network) brings together 83 Dutch villages, 2/3 of them in Friesland, which have decided not to wait for the government to act, but to install their own solar panels, communal vegetable gardens and recycling systems. The development pattern is generally that the villages are fired by the issue of energy, then move on to address other issues.

Government response

– Tuscany – a regional law on participation

Tuscany is the only European region to create a law on public participation, and Rodolfo Lewanski, no lesser personage than the ‘Independent Authority’ charged with regulating its application, explained how it worked.
Law 69/07 was the brainchild of the region’s president, and included a ‘sunset clause’ which means that it expired in March of this year (it has not yet been prolonged). While it was in force, it addressed the issue of who represents diffused interests on such matters as the environment or health. It recognised the need to reinvent democracy given the public’s falling trust in representative initiations and the greater role of the media. With a budget of €650,000 a year, it gave financial and methodological support to 116 projects, four-fifths of which were submitted by public authorities and the others mostly by citizens and schools. It aimed to proactively manage conflict by adopting the following principles:

  • inclusion – it worked with random microcosm of the people concerned
  • informed opinion – it went deeper than the ‘raw’ opinions sampled by opinion polling
  • dialogue – through active listening and the acceptance of diversity
  • deliberation – weighing the different arguments
  • consensus – finding the common ground between the stakeholders and at least understanding your opponents
  • influence/empowerment

There were some ironies: the municipality of Pisa staged a deliberative process on the Castelfranco waste site, and adopted the result – only to have it overturned by the very same regional council that had adopted the law in the first place! However the law has led to some cultural change as local authorities have appointed councillors for participation and trained their officials in how to involved citizens.

Guerrilla marketing 3 November 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, beer.
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Last night saw my third stint as guest barman at Castrum Peregrini, an arts-based ‘intellectual playground’ in Amsterdam’s city centre, during Museumnacht, when the cream of Amsterdam’s museums stay open till 2 a.m. During World War II, Castrum was a hiding place for German refugee artists, and in 2011 won the prize for the best exhibit (Truus is on its programme advisory group). This year, the show featured the Atelier Revolutionair, which explored the role artists are playing in struggling for justice, diversity and social inclusion worldwide. There was an exhibition called Speaking from the Heart curated by Shaheen Merali – and an Iranian disco.

Toby manning the barIn a throwback to my Ale House days, I made it my mission to subvert the tenacious and irrational belief among Dutch people that Heineken is a good beer by wearing my IJbrouwerij t-shirt. This subtle bit of guerrilla marketing resulted in at least one customer’s hopes being raised that something decent to drink would be on offer – but they were cruelly dashed. I could tell he was a man of principle as he preferred to drink nothing rather than Heineken.

We looked enviously across the Herengracht at the trip boats disgorging into a permanent queue outside NIOD, the National Institute for War Documentation, whose first foray into Museumnacht it was. Nevertheless we did a decent turnover purveying not only wine, ‘beer’, tea and coffee, but also delicious home-made pumpkin soup – served straight out of a picturesque giant pumpkin (shame I didn’t have my camera with me) – and that unwieldy Dutch staple, the rookworst. There’s nothing like a rookworst to pick you up after an exhausting night of museum-going.

I’m hoping and praying that when Museumnacht comes round next year, Castrum Peregrini will become a unique haven of hoppy tasty ale.

Fyra – poster twins 2 June 2013

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The Fyra saga has driven me to criminality. I don’t like graffiti, but a new poster campaign by Thalys was too great a temptation – could it be it was wickedly designed with this in mind? At the Albert Cuyp tramstop on our way home from our habitual curry in the Balti House on Friday night, we found ourselves confronted by the giant slogan Met Thalys is Parijs nog nooit so dichtbij (‘With Thalys, Paris has never been so near’). I could not resist scrawling underneath (with a soluble marker of course) Met Fyra, Brussel is nog nooit zo ver weg.

Dogtroep swansong 22 March 2013

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ImageOn 25 September 2008 we went with Roos & Michiel to ‘Tobetonotbe’, the final spectacle of ‘Dogtroop’[1] which billed itself as theatre but was more like I imagine the Cirque du Soleil would be – i.e. anarchic like Amsterdam used to pride itself on being. The show took place in the Mebin ready-mixed concrete depot on the dock in Nord. The cast and half the audience arrived by old IJ ferry no. 21 along with assorted strange roaring and flaming vehicles – a tractor with flaming smokestack, even an old Morris Minor. After that numerous strange and unhealth-and-safety-like things happened around the place. A battered red Escort was driven back and forth at high speed, and eventually disappeared inside a freight container – and magically drove out again (in fact it veered off to the left – as one could see from the brake lights – through the non-existent rear wall, and it was a different red Escort that drove out, of course). A woman disappeared inside a cement mixer that looked much too small for her, then performed a kind of belly dance as it rotated. Another woman kept losing her leg down an invisible hole in the ground. A couple ‘danced’ somehow like spiders across a wall, hanging onto almost-invisible metal rods cast into the concrete. Meanwhile a man with a moped-mounted epidiascope projected a much-enlarged microscope slide of some wriggling many-legged bugs onto the wall, so it looked as if the couple were specimens under the microscope. Eventually, they reached the right-hand end of the wall and the man covered the woman in a simulated act of coition, before she escaped over the top of the wall into the pyramid of gravel, leaving the man with just her leg. A noseless wingless aeroplane was assembled and then took off (lifted by the dockside crane) and flew away. A woman climbed endlessly up and down an endless spiral staircase (very clever geometry as it was two helices inside each other, one going up and one going down).

There were explosions of escalating size, signalled by the two pyrotechnicians shaking hands in self-congratulation: first a pop bottle, then a plastic oil drum popping up in the air – and for their finale they shook hands on top of the giant cement silo – but it didn’t explode! However there was a mighty whoomph, a hot blast and cloud of smoke centre stage at the end of the performance. Back across the concrete wall a man painted a wiggly line with nothing other than a flamethrower – terrifying. A raggedy band marched around in Sgt Pepper-style uniforms with much gold braid and fur shakos.

Afterwards there was abdijbier and jamming in the beer tent and an espresso machine mounted on a motor trike and powered by an oxy-acetylene torch. To produce a cup the operator would blast the flame at a little boiling chamber plumbed with three pipes.

They have wound up and this was their swansong and very memorable too. Archetypical Amsterdam.

 


[1] obituary here http://www.dogtroep.nl/eng/index3.html

Hello Fyra – for your rail annoyance 10 December 2012

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As Truus said, I’m a guinea pig. The ‘high speed’ Fyra, wouldn’t we have guessed it, is experiencing teething problems. To be fair the Thalys did too. I’ve just completed a ride on the “12:41” from Amsterdam, scheduled to arrive at Brussels Midi at 14:42. The trainset arrived in Amsterdam at 12:51 and then sat at platform 13 for a further half hour as a technical problem was sorted out. Meanwhile a competing Thalys loaded up at platform 15, and we pulled out together in perfect parallel formation. Unfortunately there’s only one track, and of course it was us who had to give way somewhere near the romantically-named Transformatorweg. The driver put his foot down through the groene hart and we made it to Rotterdam, but stayed there longer than expected as we broke down again. After that we really got moving and enjoyed a particularly fine view from 24 metres’ altitude (high for Holland remember) on top of the new 1.2 km long Moerdijkbrug over Hollands Diep, which marks the boundary between Holland and Brabant. We were an hour late but making up time…

Fyra at Antwerp

Fyra at Antwerp

But this was too good to be true, because sure enough the power cut out again somewhere near Breda and we cruised to a gentle halt in the middle of nowhere where we waited for a further 20 minutes or so. By the time we got to Antwerp we were 1 hour 16 minutes late and holding up the train behind us. We were eventually turfed out unexpectedly at Brussels North, where we should not normally have even stopped, so that the train could start its return journey only half an hour late.
NS had given me a coffee voucher – but there was no opportunity to use it. Even the catering cart gave up serving the row before it reached me, its operator lying to us that she would be back. There isn’t really enough light to read by – especially in the long stretches that out of respect for the neighbours and/or wildlife are in tunnel. And it’s going to get even less convenient: from 9th January you can only get the €25 fare if you book at least a week ahead.
I completed my journey by tram – but they were running late too, with 5 trams backed up in the North-South tunnel.

PS I sent in a compensation claim and at the end of January I received a 50% refund of my fare, along with a very courteous letter, so that was nice. Meanwhile out on the snowy rails the Fyra 250s are definitely out of service until Ansaldo Breda can ensure that bits don’t drop off them! The poor old passenger has the choice of paying €79 for a Thalys or a 4 1/2-hour journey via Roosendaal or even round via liège and Maastricht. Dutch parliamentarians are pressing for an enquiry into the procurement decision, and Finmecchanica’s credit rating has been slashed to junk status.

from Brussel Deze Week

from Brussel Deze Week

PPS The Belgian rail users’ group puts the Fyra fiasco down to the Dutch and Belgian governments suppressing competition and wanting the whole cake themselves. If Die Bahn had been given the concession, it argues, NS & NMBS would have had to try harder with their existing Beneluxtrein.

Moving on – 15 Dec 2013

Today, with the introduction of the winter timetable, the Fyra brand is finally interred. Henceforth it’s called Intercity Direct.

Bye bye Beneluxtrein 9 December 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, Brussels.
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Brussels-AmsterdamOn Friday I made my last journey on the Beneluxtrein, the conventional train that has trundled between Brussels and Amsterdam every hour for the last few decades. It was an unexpectedly emotional experience. Today, the service has been replaced by the new-fangled but controversial Fyra. The good news is that it lops no less than an hour off the journey time, which drops at a stroke to two hours one minute. The bad news is that you have to book in advance and the fare is doubling. Till now, ditherers had the luxury of just turning up at the station and getting on whichever train one wanted, and if you had a Dutch voordeelurenkaart it cost €26-60 single. From now on, the full fare is €54 – over double – with advance booking bringing it down to €41 or even €25. The €25 ‘supersaver’ is a good deal, but there are two cracks on the rail. First, we depend on the quota of cheap seats, which is now 75%, being maintained. Secondly, we have to book at least a day in advance or in effect be ‘fined’ €27-40. It’s more flexible than the Thalys – €69 walk-on – but why make things difficult for everybody?
Another potential problem is capacity. The Beneluxtrein has been incredibly popular – at going-home time it is often standing room only from Brussels to the Hague and from Schiphol to Amsterdam. They have replaced 16 daily Beneluxes with just 10 Fyras, so where are the excluded 40% of passengers going to go?
The boss of NS smiled and placated his way through an interview on Buitenhof this morning, but there’s no escaping the own goals that NS has scored. It has unilaterally withdrawn the direct service between the Hague and Brussels, and the only other train crossing the border is the slow train from Roosendaal to Antwerp which stops something like 10 times. More treacherously, it has made season-tickets invalid.
Our conductress on Friday was valiant and inexplicably upbeat. She explained patiently in 3 languages why we were held up behind another train crawling from Leiden to Hoofddorp, why most of the toilets werent working (but surely they will be reusing the carriages?) and finally even coped with good humour when someone attending a rock concert in the Arena pulled the ccommunication cord just as we were about to enter the station. She thanked us for patronising the Beneluxtrein for all these years. It was a high point. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all those saved hours in the future.

The joy of organs 5 March 2011

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I’ve discovered a new joy in organs – of the street, café or dance variety.

Enthralled children at the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht

It all started when my cousin Steve Greatrex took me to the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht. This not only collects and restores mechanical musical instruments and curious automata of all sorts, but is a paradise for children, who can punch out and play their own tunes. Last week was half-term so it was busy: the museum now attracts over 110,000 visitors a year. One of the main reasons for its success must be the enthusiasm of the guides, who are mostly music students. It’s absolutely infectious. And it’s a popular art from, the predecessor of the jukebox and the MP3 player.
As we were shown round by Jelle Verhoeks and Alberic Godderis, I had a sudden flashback. I remembered how once day in the late 80s I’d set out on a beer expedition to Beersel, a village southwest of Brussels. We tracked down the Oud Beersel pub on the outskirts, which had a reputation for its home-blended gueuze. We installed ourselves in the middle of the room, at a party table encircled by a round bench. As we supped our sour beer, the landlord walked over to a contraption built into the wall, opened it up, pressed a button and played us a rousing tune. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but now I realise I was privileged to be listening to what was probably Belgium’s last café organ, a Mortier Orchestrion. The pub is now a flower shop and the organ has been sold to an American collector. Happily the brewery nextdoor was reopened in 2006.
Until quite recently an organ grinder toured the back streets of St-Gilles a couple of times a year, but nowadays it’s quite rare to find an organ, a Dutch trademark, on Holland’s streets. There are plenty of collectors so they are no longer being broken up. But it’s a real shame that such uplifting and essentially public instruments should be hidden away in private and never heard.

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