Alkmaar – North Holland

Alkmaar, North Holland

Travelling Companion and I spent the weekend in Alkmaar, a city in North Holland.

As at home in Brussels, it was grey, cold and rainy.

Unlike in Brussels, people remarked on this. There’d been sun just a few days ago, they told us; there are rumours of snow next week.

We saw what you expect to see.


man bike station Alkmaar 119.JPG

Ground floor front windows showing the front room to the street.

(Our next door neighbour in Brussels, R., once told us that in the small town in Bavaria where she grew up, if you were going to have a lie-in you would set the alarm for six, go downstairs to open the curtains in the sitting room, and go back to bed.)

There was more to see, though.

In some ways, compared to Brussels, the place feels rather English. Houses have front gardens. Signs in shop windows express important details in the English language:

public writing English shop Alkmaar 119 JEANS & BASIC ITEMS ARE EXCLUDED.JPG


Sometimes these signs pick up English and run with it:

English HIGH TEA HIGH WINE Alkmaar 119.JPG


Church bells rang at midnight, recalling England; the key was major, though, rather than minor.

A fritkot (is that a Dutch word, or a Flemish one?) advertised Belgische Frites– Belgian chips.

Belgian chips bike Alkmaar 119.JPG

And some other things, too, didn’t feel English at all. Where England might have semis, Alkmaar has terraces. And although every house in Barnes in London, where we were last weekend, seems to have a loft extension, this one would never get planning permission:

house extension Alkmaar 119 2.JPG

We noticed that these public clocks were telling the right time, had not been let run down.

house with clock Alkmaar 119.JPG

clock Alkmaar 119 2.JPG

There is no English city as subdivided by canals as this. The only corner shop we saw was a windmill. We saw a combined café and shoe shop; and a combined petrol station and laundrette

garage with washing machine Alkmaar 119.JPG

– reminding us of Tallinn railway station (combining a Russian and an Estonian language newsagent) or a shop down steps from the street in Suzdal in Russia (combining a grocers and a butchers) rather than England.

There were less dogs than in England or in Brussels. There were hooded crows (grey heads and black bodies).

hooded crows Alkmaar 119.JPG

The feeling of foreignness, reinforced by the bike lanes, reinforced by having been in London last weekend, left us always a bit uncertain which side of the road to look for traffic.

bicycle priority sign windmill Alkmaar 119.JPG

We liked it, the city centre in particular. We caught the Thalys back to Brussels from Amsterdam. I thought of Adieu Sweet Bahnhof by the Nits, a Dutch band. I’m riding through Brussels in the rain.

Brrrrrrrreussul, said the train steward joyously as we came in. She rolled it throatily (and you should hear the way she says Rotterdam). Brhouhksell, she said then in French, middlingly. Brussuls, she said finally in English, pallidly. The r was hardly distinguishable from the sounds that surrounded it.


West London

Hammersmith 119 bollards.JPG

With Travelling Companion and Daughter I spent some end-of-holiday days in west London. We stayed in a flat in Barnes and visited Putney, Teddington and Hammersmith. There were a few falsely sunny mid-mornings (I wasn’t up early enough for the false dawns) but basically the weather was the same grey we’ve been having in Brussels.

Boris bike tube 119.JPG

On the tube train that took us from St Pancras to Hammersmith was a Boris bike (a street rental bike). It didn’t seem to be with anyone. The woman in the photo stood up and moved to to make it clear it wasn’t hers. A few stops later, though, a young man who had been made homeless and was begging down the carriage came along and rolled the bike off onto the platform.

When I lived in London in the 80s I was a north London boy, more or less. These places in the west are new to me. North London has hills. West London seems to have the river round every corner.

Thames Barnes 119.JPG

This is where the Boat Race takes place. Everywhere except Teddington, people were out rowing.

rowing boats Hammersmith bridge 119.JPG

In Barnes we ate well in an Italian restaurant (Riva) and a pub (the Brown Dog). Elsewhere, not so well. We were told by Son, who  joined us, that Instagram has changed what people eat. Dishes that bulge have become fashionable.

alleyway Barnes London 119.JPG

I like the snickets (back paths) in Barnes.

milk bottles delivery Barnes 119.JPG

It seems you can still get milk delivered to your doorstep there. I wonder if there are newspaper delivery rounds too.

In Teddington we visited a housing development whose residents share a broad lawn that slopes down to the Thames. They provide themselves with boats, apparently, to putter or row across to a pub on the opposite bank. It made me think of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which I’m in the middle of.

combined football and rugby goal Teddington 119.JPG

West London seems to be the rugby-playing area of London. I liked this combined football and rugby goal.

To get to Teddington we caught a train from Barnes station, which is to be found, oddly for a station that serves an almost-inner suburb of a world city, buried in a wood.

map railway station Barnes London 119.JPG

In Hammersmith we went to riverside pubs – the Rutland and the Dove, where, allegedly, James Thompson wrote the song Rule Britannia in 1740:

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never never never will be slaves.

We also went to see the pantomime, Dick Whittington, at the Lyric theatre.

the Dame Lyric theatre Hammersmith 119.JPG

This is the Dame. Another character was a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a pigeon who is mayor of London.

Not all pantomimes have a message but this one did: London is a great city, and anyone who lives here is a Londoner.


Over Christmas, we’ve had a house full of family.

car carrying furniture soft top Louise 916.JPG
(Brussels, 2016)

Now we’re getting ready to move house.

The new house is sure to be smaller.

During our St Silvestre meal this evening we discussed what furniture we’ll try to find room for.

We agreed that the épergne, bought at the end of the nineteenth century by Travelling Companion’s Great-Grandfather, who worked in the City in shipping, should come, kangaroo and all.

epergne kangaroo 1218.JPG

It is two feet tall. Who even knew what an épergne was?

We should put stickers on the undersides of such things with their history. How it was us that cracked one of the épergne’s bowls. How on Boxing Day, at the house of Travelling Companion’s Aunt, it used to be in the centre of the dining table piled with fruit. How the leaves of that dining table, a polished walnut table that came from Travelling Companion’s Grandfather and is now in our house, used to drift apart. How one evening our friend T.H. turned up with wire to tie it together.

We should put a sticker on the underside of this house, telling what we know of its history. The soap and perfume factory, the dealership in American cars. Poking around in the cellar, the new people or their children will find the sticker one day.

furniture cart, Sue and Mio Bungoma 813.JPG(Bungoma, Kenya, 2013)


Montmartre (& Simenon, & Malta, & Napoleon)

Penguin have out new translations of Maigret stories. In A Maigret Christmas, I recommend the story Seven small crosses in a notebook. There’s a chase that finishes in the Orient Bar near Rue Damrémont… at Montmartre’s highest point, not far from The no man’s land of the suburbs.

France took Malta from the Knights of Malta in 1798. After Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile the island was put under siege by the British navy. In 1801, there were peace negotiations. Napoleon said frankly to the British ambassador…  ‘Peace or war depends on Malta. It is vain to speak of the Netherlands and Switzerland, they are but trifles. For myself, I would put you in possession of the heights of Montmartre rather than of Malta’. (Peter Elliott, A naval history of Malta 1798-1975, 1980). Nevertheless, Napoleon gave up Malta to Britain in the end.

restaurant Montmartre 113 2.JPG

The photo shows a restaurant in Montmartre where Travelling Companion and I had lunch one January, a few years ago.

It’s true that Paris can be annoying. But when it is its own self, in places like this, nowhere can beat it. Britain stayed in Malta until the 1960s. If Napoleon had given Britain Montmartre in exchange for Malta, I don’t think the arrangement would have lasted long.

Making watercress soup on Christmas day

Travelling Companion is a terrific cook. Son buys the best cheese. If I am going to contribute to Christmas lunch it is only going to be a gesture. I make soup.

The past few years I’ve made pea soup on Christmas day. Yuk, said Son, when I mentioned that possibility. So I looked up the recipe in Sarah Brown and went back to what I’ve made on Christmas day in the past, watercress soup.  I bought watercress yesterday in Carrefour, just before it closed; and lemons; and yoghurt.

It was only when I opened the cookbook this morning that I realised these are the ingredients for a cold soup. In our household among the younger generation there is no understanding of cold soup. Yuk, said Son, Daughter, and Son-in-Law. (Retrospectively).

That wasn’t the recipe I used to use: so what was it? I found one in Julia Child that looked vaguely familiar – taking some pleasure in the light of yesterday’s blog about Julie and Julia.

I believe that reading ahead is to be discouraged, in novels and in recipes.

Half-way down Julia Child’s recipe for salade niçoise, however and for example, we find Arrange the potatoes in the bottom of the bowl. Looking up the list of ingredients we find ¾ lb cold French potato salad (preceding recipe). Time needed for that preceding recipe: quite a bit (at least long enough to boil the potatoes and let them cool). This time it wasn’t like that. But I found it hard to believe the final instructions:  1) mix egg yolks and cream; 2) beat the soup into this mixture, first drop by drop and then in a thin stream (we’re talking a bucket of soup); 3) stir in some softened butter, again a little at a time. I obeyed the butter, skipped the cream and poached the egg yolks directly in the soup. Which made it a bit odd.


The people ate it, even so. Subsequent courses: the salmon en croûte was divine. Son has gone off Herve, which is the perfect Christmas cheese, but I had some in reserve. Grandson, who slept through most of this, dined on chicken.

The picture shows a station on the Watercress line, a heritage railway line in Hampshire, England. We had a trip on it in spring 2014.

public bird Ropley Watercress Line 314.JPG


Having a fire at Christmas

When we visited California this summer I found, in one and then another of the houses we borrowed, a couple of books about the cookery writer Julia Child. They were her memoir My life in France, written with Alex Prud’homme (2006), and Julie and Julia (2005), whose author, Julie Powell cooks, over a year, all the recipes from Julia Child’s book Mastering the art of French cooking (which could also be found in the Aptos beach house).

Julie Powell lives in New York. She goes back home to Texas for Christmas. It’s always nice to go back to the folks’ house, she writes. There’s no mildew in the bathtub, and you can shower for as long as you want and the water will stay hot. There’s a queen-sized bed to sleep in, no roaring semitrucks passing in the night, a hundred channels on the television, and broadband on the computer. On Christmas Eve we jack up the air-conditioning so we can light a fire. 

Even if my energy-efficient soul is in revolt, I know what Julia Powell’s family are thinking of with the fire.

In the late 1990s we moved to a house, here in Belgium, with a little old metal stove. The people who sold us the house tried to claim that the stove was a mere content of the house, not a fixture or fitting, and to take it away, but we won the argument. (Compared with England, what’s odd in Belgium is that aspects of house purchase, like this, are still debated on the day the house changes hands.) That Christmas, Daughter and Son wrote letters to Father Christmas. We lit the stove and used it to propel their letters up the chimney.

Not long after, when the stove was lit again, we saw that its metal exterior was glowing red. We were unnerved. We never used the stove again. We unfixed it, or unfitted it, and left it in the cellar. I’m afraid that the people who bought the house from us probably chucked it away.

Son is grown-up now. We spent last Christmas with him, in London. He had a dog basket in the fireplace and a nice fire on his TV screen.

Linton's flat artificial fire stockings Christmas Day 1217.JPG


keyboard Ekaterinburg 812.JPG(Cleaning a keyboard on the bank of the river Iset – Ekaterinburg, Siberia, 2012)

Today I came across a quote from the Observer (22 January 2017) – Research company Gartner reckons that by 2018, 30% of all interactions with devices will be voice-based, because people can speak up to four times faster than they can type, and the technology behind voice interaction is improving all the time. 

This doesn’t look right to me. I think we type faster than that. In my first job at the European Commission I was a speechwriter. I had to provide 100 words for each minute that the speech would last (120 for Commissioner Kinnock). By contrast I type at 40-45 words a minute (including thinking time).  Two or three times slower, not four times.

In French I type half as fast as in English (more thinking time). In Russian I type a thirtieth as fast (much more thinking time – the main reason – and a different keyboard).

When I write by hand I go two thirds as fast as when typing. I was sad when I found that out. I like writing with a fountain pen, on paper with a bit of resistance in it. But when you can, typing on a laptop seems to be the best way to write. It’s fast, and afterwards, it’s searchable.

I have one more quote about typing. It comes from a review by David Bromwich of “On Empson” by Michael Wood (New York Review of Books, 26 October 2017). In 1937-1939, William Empson taught English in the makeshift universities of China under siege… [W]hat they chiefly required was books, and “Empson, without saying anything, typed out Shakespeare’s Othello from memory”.

Linton's computer keyboard 613.JPG(My son’s old computer keyboard)