welcome to the kingdom of things. the place where time seems to flow gently, in harmony with the seasons. it’s the kingdom of alleys with rows of trees alongside them, looking like what i have always imagined the streets of Paris would be, nonchalantly carpeted with fallen leaves. the kingdom of reservation and – seemingly effortless – pleasurable existence. the place where things have souls and are not too trivial to become a theme of a painting.
welcome to Holland.
my first encounter with Holland was rather brief, done almost by chance and in a manner of a significant rush. 18 or so hours in Amsterdam can hardly be described as a visit, or at least in my understanding of a word.
there was a photo with a conspicuous Amsterdam sign. a mandatory visit to a coffeeshop, followed by a rather clouded-minded walk around Amsterdam streets, in the pouring rain. there was a random slice of pizza in the middle of a night. and a hotel room, located furthest possible away from everything – a punishment for booking the said hotel room online (after enquiring about the price at the reception, we proceeded to make a booking online, which saved us 20 euros and added the trouble of climbing countless flights of stairs, very steep as well, to our room). Nonetheless, this brief encounter with Holland was enough to leave me intrigued.
there were other visits, too.
an impromptu trip to Rotterdam to meet with family.
(too) many stops at Dutch petrol stations on the way to Poland, to feast on kroket – incredibly genius, addictive and rather guilty culinary pleasure.
and then a roadtrip last November, when our biggest concern was cheese, the enchanted world of Dutch cheese. the countryside, with its mellow, somehow lazy landscapes, a stark, yet harmonious contrast of the green of the meadows with the juicy blue of the sky; a landscape dotted with trees, neatly planted in rows.
there is a symmetry there, a feeling of a job-well-done, a sudden realisation of being a part of an organised system. or a Swiss watch.
and yet, there is freedom to it.
Herbert was fascinated with the Dutch love for things; intrigued with the special place the objects seem to have in Holland:
‘Thus I am in Holland, the kingdom of things, great principality of objects. In Dutch, shoen means beautiful and at the same clean, as if neatness was raised to the dignity of a virtue. Every day from early morning a psalm of washing, bleaching, sweeping, carpet beating, and polishing hovers over the whole land. What has disappeared from the surface of the earth (but not from memory). what the ramparts of attics have protected is found in five regional museums with fairy-tale names: Ede, de Lutte, Apeldoom, Livelde, Marssum, Helmond. One can find there hundred-year-old coffee grinders, kerosene lamps, machines for drying marshes and irrigating fields, shoes for weddings and every day, instructions for polishing diamonds and forging harpoons, models of grocery stores, tailor shops, pastry shops, recipes for baking and holiday cakes, a drawing representing a huge shark on an ocean beach, and three ominous meteors’,
he says in his book Still Life with a Bridle. It’s a fascinating book; Herbert’s incredible ability to make the words flow, makes up for the amazing prose. And although his book is mostly concerned with 17th century Dutch paintings, I highly recommend it to everyone. reading about Herbert’s encounters with Holland is a true adventure itself.
I remember reading these words for the first time: I was mesmerised by this kingdom of things, a place where clean also means beautiful, modesty is celebrated and hard work is a virtue. Back then, my knowledge of Holland was limited to the snapshots of tulip fields, remembered from my 4th grade geography textbook. When I thought ‘Holland’, my mind would produce images of windmills, clogs and tulips. It was much later, when I discovered the intricate world of Dutch paintings: why would anyone paint portraits of things?, I thought to myself, rather fascinated by this foreign, far-away land I didn’t know back then if I’d ever be able to visit.
The idea of being attached to things did not sound too foreign to me, though. I have always been quite sentimental – a character trait I have been working on getting rid of, but without much success. I made peace with it then, and even discovered that there is nothing wrong with being interested in things: things from the past, things which are no longer in use or whose intended designation had long been forgotten. For years, I kept asking myself what to do with this unstoppable interest in all things old, abandoned on dusty attics and in cold, mouldy basements.
No wonder, then, that our last visit to Holland has, at some point, led us to the Amsterdam’s oldest flea market, Waterlooplein. We weren’t lucky with the weather: heavy clouds above were a scary prognosis of what will happen soon. The wind was not kind, either, cold and wet, chilling. Nonetheless, we were determined to make the most of our two days in Amsterdam.
The market was rather deserted when we arrived. As it is outdoors, the promise of heavy rain had pushed many vendors to make a decision of leaving early, packing and wrapping their goods in a hurry, not minding few seemingly lost tourists, shyly looking around. Disappointed and cold, with noses running and hands like icicles, we were about to make our way back to the hotel, when we saw it. A little stall, or a shop I shall say, as it had walls and a roof, filled with tins.
We approached, although with not much hope, entered and we were sold – gone for an hour, lost in the odd labyrinth of old things. We forgot about the rain, about the cold, about our plans for the rest of the day – we were wholeheartedly dedicated to this unusual setting we found ourselves in.
Do you think it matters, how food is served? Or, to complicate matters even more, how is it sold? Of course, nobody would serve a soup on a dinner plate (or would they?), that’s not my point. For a while now, I have been wondering to what extent the dinnerware used during a meal influences our experience of eating. Red wine tastes better from a wine glass than from a mug, right? Or does the taste not change, and what’s changeable is our perception of the ambiance of a meal. A terroir? I have been having a long-standing debate with myself, trying to figure out whether such terms as authenticity and terroir are constructed, perceived, taken for granted or impossible even. Why is Japanese food almost always photographed with chopsticks and bamboo mats? Why the Polish dishes I see on Instagram or blogs are often accompanied by various ethnic decorative elements, corresponding with the notion that ethnic = authentic? It bugs me. I can’t quite get my head around it. Can only Polish people cook Polish food? And does it have to be served in a Polish setting to be Polish?
The discovery of the tin shop at the Waterlooplein Market in Amsterdam only confused my (already quite complicated) discussion with myself. Serving food on different types of plates is one thing, trying to sell pre-packaged food – is another. Whereas it’s arguable to what extent our perception of taste is influenced by the exterior factors (i.e. ambiance, smells, sounds, aesthetics, dinnerware – or simply terroir), the marketing of processed foods takes the issue to a whole other level. What image do we want to evoke with the packaging, in order to make our target consumer buy the product? It’s become quite a common knowledge now, that brown paper bags are synonymous to eco products, heavy plastic or foil wrapped usually means processed foods (although British supermarkets are true kings in foil-wrapping everything, from broccoli to bananas; but hopefully, it will change!), green often means natural and neon colours – enjoyable, but not so healthy. Marketing is a highly underrated area of expertise, don’t you think? And scary, as many decisions we make while shopping for groceries are subconscious (don’t ever shop hungry!) or, apparently, dictated by the advertisements we’ve seen on TV and don’t even remember anymore.
It’s not surprising, then, that I was rather thrilled to have discovered such a pearl as this tin shop was. Sure, there were other stalls, too. Some packed with books, and in at least few languages, too – and these would normally be the shops I would be diving in first. But there was some weird magnetism, a sense of a mystery about all these used, empty, rusty tins – it was irresistible. Imagine me, a student of food anthropology entering a room full of old tins: tins in all shapes and sizes, in various states of decay, some old, some relatively new, and almost all of them used to contain some sort of food: cocoa powder, biscuits, lozenges, coffee. My imagination went wild, trying to trace back the whole chain: from production, to packaging, from shipping to buying and consuming at home, most likely miles away from where the product was first produced. amazing, and scary, again.
yesterday, i had a rather terrifying realisation. imagine you’re at your home. surrounded by things. many things. too many. much, much more than you probably need. and now, imagine all these things were made somewhere (or were assembled somewhere, with the parts produced in few different places). got it? that much is still possible to grasp (depending on how many things you have, though). now, imagine that all these things were probably packed by someone, then shipped by someone, than unloaded by someone… you get the picture. the scary question I came up with was: how many hands touched all the things I own? How many people participated in making of what I now call home?
the increasingly globalised word is, in my opinion, increasingly fragile. looking at all these tins, I was thinking about countless people involved in the production of the goods to fill the tins with. I am not saying that globalisation is evil (if such a statement was even possible!) or that the world should suddenly focus on untangling the complicated network of trade relationships. but food does come from somewhere. and it is made/grown/produced by someone. I can’t help but wonder: what difference would it make if we started being more aware and more conscious? I wonder, if people were able to make a more informed decisions while shopping, would they?
but there I was, in this little shop at the flea market in Amsterdam, lost in my thoughts and absent to the world. If I could imagine my own private heaven, I could not have done a better job. All these tins, each of them with a story.
I wondered, is it only possible here to have a shop dedicated to old, rusty tins? Is Holland the only place in the world where the profound love for objects allows for such an extravaganza? All the great Dutch painters aside, this trivial truth, this (possibly non-comprehendible for some) love for the inanimate things, for the still-life, for objects is what makes Holland special. Or maybe it’s just my might-have-been archeologist/ almost-anthropologist soul, that dictates the love. Who knows.
Have a nice Tuesday, everyone!
You’ve nicely drawn together so many interesting themes in this post that intrigue me too.
First, how we serve food definitely matters because we never eat only with our taste buds but all other senses too.
Second, how true that we tend to confuse ethnic with authentic, especially in matters of food. As “traditional” dishes are merely a construct of a particular time, it’s difficult to pinpoint any dish as true to its national heritage. If, instead, we thought more about the production of our food, it would help us make better purchasing decisions.
Lastly, speaking of tins, the Portuguese highly prize their sardine cans. They come in beautiful decorations and tons of flavors. I think you would be interested (if you have not already seen them).