Under the umbrella

Do you have a moment today? I know you’re awfully busy. But why don’t you walk under the Crusoe Umbrella. That’s right, it’s downtown in Cowles Commons. No, it won’t be weird. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised. Trust me.

Cologne. Up from the river we stroll in Cologne. Away from the renovated river walk, with its shops and restaurants. Past the early morning joggers with their early morning religious intensity. In front of the young couple pushing a stroller, where the reason for their forced march is happily sound asleep. Around the old man and old woman, with their aged hands sliding together in well-warn grooves. And above us, seagulls squawk, a foghorn moans, church bells ring. Yup, all is as it should be in on this Sunday morning on the river.

The Rhine flows Missouri River fast. Already barges are moving past the docked cruise boats, barely noticing the massive Cathedral on the banks. But we leave it all behind. Past museums and closed cafes and shuttered shop after shop, we search for a cappuccino. We are just too early. So up the valley we go.

Life slowly begins to unfold. Tables and chairs are unchained at the cafes and placed out for the upcoming crowd. The sound of shutters being cranked open echo down the cobblestone streets. The shop owners with their straw brooms sweep away items thrown by the wind or the drunks. We keep walking.

And then my wife says, “Look up, Joe.”

My oh my. A giant ice cream cone. Fallen from the clumsy hands of some careless god. It’s actually dripping down the side of a building. Unbelievable.


Rotterdam. The rain crests, then washes across the plain in front of the Rotterdam train station in a whoosh. It drenches the folks running just steps from the door. I watch from inside. Glad to be dry. This station is built like the prow of a gigantic ship. It’s not inconceivable that the building will unmoor itself and just float away on this rainy day in the Netherlands. It doesn’t.


I head in the rain towards the museum, maybe a mile down the main canal. Within a block, my jeans are bleeding bluish water, my feet float freely in my tennis shoes, and the attached hat on my raincoat has turned into the Saylorville Reservoir. I’m damp. I’m chilled. And I’m thinking about heading back to the train station. But when I look up through the mist, all I can see are those indomitable Dutch. They stroll hatless, hair wet, rain running in rivers down their cheeks — and affecting an infuriating nonchalance. I decide to move to Boone.

At last I reach the museum. As I’m trying to find the entrance, I’m reminded of the quirkiness of life. Yup, the sun comes out. I don’t smile. But then, straight ahead, a gigantic screw, bent, touching the ground. Really? Is someone messing around? This could be a sculpture memorializing every one of my failed home-improvement projects. Did my wife commission this? I’m in awe.


Des Moines. Des Moines has been sweltering hot, the newspapers say. Bad for the folks fishing the rivers and bad for the mid-day strollers along the river paths. Those paths were my old running and walking grounds. No cooling breezes came up the rivers in those days. I suspect they still don’t. But vendors would set up on the other side of the Civic Center and I would buy treats and lounge in the shadow of a crazy gigantic umbrella.

The Crusoe Umbrella. Tipped on its side. Questionable in a rainstorm. Reliable in a strong wind. A vision of whimsy, particularly when packed in snow. It’s truly Des Moines.


Okay, enough of all these sculptures around the world. Who’s doing this? Who made the Crusoe Umbrella? Who made the ice cream cone? And who made that bent screw?

And, since you’re asking, who made the Meredith trowel also in Des Moines? And the spoon and cherry in Minneapolis? And the shuttlecocks in Kansas City? And the bow and arrow in San Francisco? And the saw in Tokyo? And the lion’s tail in Venice? And the needle and thread in Milan? And the spring in South Korea? And the bottle of notes in England? And the match cover in Barcelona? And . . . on and on and on.

Yup, you guessed it, it’s our old friends Claes Oldenburg and his now sadly departed wife Coosje van Bruggen. They built the Crusoe Umbrella 37 years ago. Yup, it is both a beginning and an end. You can stand under the umbrella in Cowles Commons and taste the ice cream in Cologne, turn the screw in Rotterdam, light the matches in Barcelona, shoot the bow in San Francisco, and be back for supper. The threads of culture.

Isolationism? Build a wall? Ban a people? It’s too late to keep anyone out.

As for keeping our sons and daughters in, Robinson Crusoe said:

“When I took leave of the island, I carried on board for relics, the great goat-skin cap I had made, my umbrella, and one of my parrots.”

Mmmm, I can see him or her now, our young high school graduate from North or Roosevelt or Hoover or East or Dowling, umbrella clutched tight, goat-skin cap pulled down, parrot scolding energetically, as the whole menagerie heads east on Grand Avenue for the Interstate, following the outbound threads of Oldenburg’s and Van Bruggen’s creation.

Trust me. All this happens from walking under the umbrella.










Capturing the wind

The 160 acres of black dirt was near Stratford, Iowa. Corn and beans and cattle and chickens and a large garden made up my grandpa’s farm back in those days. I would wake before the sun and he would take me to the landing by the side door, where we dressed in coveralls and old coats and billed caps and dirty gloves and heavy rubber boots. Then across the road to the cattle barn. The old windmill creaked and groaned in the dark as my grandpa went to let the cattle out. And my job as a little boy? To break the ice in the water trough that had formed during the night as the windmill pumped the gurgling water.

He was small and grizzled and tough, my grandpa. And when I was older, he talked to me of the beauty of dark-haired, dark-eyed women. A song of joy, which I heard in my head against the creaking and moaning of the old mill as the wind slowly turned the blades high overhead. A cadence to set your life by.

It was like yesterday.

Today I bike along the cobbled streets near the North Sea in Holland, unhappy with the wind. It is a little strong. Okay, more than a little strong. This is not a gentle breeze pushing at your back with the smell of fresh-cut hay. Nope. I know this because my thousand-pound Dutch bike has the amazing ability to act as a wind sock by always pointing directly into a sturdy wind no matter which way I go or how calm the day. It is a scientific wonder that brings tears to my eyes.

No, I’m not happy with the North Sea wind. It sees way too much when it blows around with its inappropriate intimacies and unrelenting advances. And it’s fickle. One moment it’s bracing you up, the next moment it’s pushing you flat on your back. Yup, even on those days when it curls into your ear with a tickle, you know it will soon push you off balance with a whoosh.The North Sea wind is not your friend.

Okay, that might be a little harsh. There is another side, of course.

One-third of Holland’s land is taken from the sea. Yup, it used to be under water. Tulips now grow where the herring swam. Today, the wind blows over sand and black peat and the Red Light District rather than crashing waves and high surf. And why is that?

The picturesque windmill. A man-made device created to do the impossible — capture the wind and tame the water.


A little history. One of the first mills in Holland was in use around 1200 A.D., according to Windmills of Holland. Like most early mills, it was used to mill corn. But before long, the mills were used to drain the land, to move water from canal to canal, and, most importantly, to keep the sea over on its proper side of town.

“You have to be up there before the bad weather starts. Because if you’re up there when it is already happening, then you’re too late.”


Gently smiling. A husky laugh. Measuring eyes. Danielle Boer has worked at this active windmill and museum in Leiden — “Molen Museum De Valk” — for the past 24 years. She speaks three languages fluently, and understands three more. Today she speaks in English of the peril of bad weather hitting the windmill while the sails are out.

“It happened to me once that I was too late. The windmill starts to turn backwards. That isn’t good.”

When Boer speaks of going “up there before the bad weather starts,” she means UP THERE. Seven stages up. She climbs the many steep steps, then she goes out on a platform and grabs a gigantic pirate wheel to turn the sails, lock them down, and roll up the cloth.

“When I applied for the job, I had to climb into one of the wings to see if I was afraid of heights. And that’s what I did. And I’m not, no.”

I am, yes. But at the prodding of my sister-in-law, who’s also afraid of heights but braver than me, we went to investigate.

IMG_3068The stairs between stages are made for a Sherpa. Steep and narrow, a joke for my size 14 shoes. We climb past the ancient hoists, the main axle, the gigantic cogged wheels, the milling stones, the sacks of flour, the tools for repair. Up and up and up. At last we arrive at the platform. Stepping outside the mill, we can see over the city of Leiden. We smile with joy . . . until we both look down through the wide spaces between the floor planks. We can’t breathe. My sister-in-law kindly says, “Don’t look down.” Too late I’m afraid. We are at the highest point in any direction. This is not a comforting thought.

But then I look up at the gigantic framework for the sails. My goodness. The wings, the length of my body several times over, reach up into the sky. A raised arm into the heavens. Ready to take flight at the merest puff.


Those same wings capture the wind. Tie it down in their sails, carry it through the bearings and windshaft, past the brake wheel, down the main axle, to finally force the wind to turn the stone that grinds the meal, or cuts the wood, or makes the cloth, or lifts the very ocean off the land. Victory. The captured wind saves the day.

As I gaze into the sky, I feel something against my cheek. Whispering. Feathery light. A breezy reminder. The wind.

And I am soon lost in the cadence of the slowly turning creak and moan of an old Iowa windmill and my grandpa’s song of the beauty of dark-haired, dark-eyed women. It is a time long gone and a man long dead. But there it is, sneaking up out of the past. An Iowa reverie high in the Dutch air.

Okay, maybe the North Sea wind is your friend.

By the way, you might ask what my grandpa would think about these blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch women?

Well, it was only years later, when he was 98 and both of us bachelors living together for a short time, that I discovered an important truth. According to my grandpa, all women, no matter the color of their hair or eyes, are dark-haired and dark-eyed. Obviously.

So, enough talk, now how do I get down from here?










A graduation gift of three stories

Listen, I don’t have an actual gift. And of course I missed both parties. Not to mention seeing them walk across the stage. But I’m an ocean away as my friends’ boys graduate from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. It’s a big deal. Will and Henry Gunderson and Eli Dotson are their names.

I’m the first to admit I’ve really never been part of their lives. But I was there at the beginning for the Gunderson boys. A wild time was had with those twins (and the third brother who followed so quickly he could have been holding their heels at birth). Those tiny babies took my friend to the mat. Hard. But she survived with grace and style. And my other friend’s boy of course had a health scare early on. Every family gets one it seems. But I wonder if the gods counted on my friend’s fierceness? I don’t think so. They won’t underestimate her again. Of course all the boys thrived. How could they not when they were wrapped in laughter and love? And now they’ve graduated from high school. Bright stars all.

But what now?

I have three stories to tell them.

The first is sobering as all first stories should be. While walking around Sarajevo, my wife and I came across a statute of man with hands cupped around his mouth, calling to someone. The statute was in a beautiful park that had been partially turned into a cemetery, as most open land was turned into in this town that was under siege for an entire war. He seemed out of place. Something was wrong about this statute being here. The grey and the mud and the hollow eyes were more of death than life.


My wife knew the story already, had reviewed the actual Serb video. But I read the sign posted off to the side. The man’s name is Ramo. He is in Srebrenica on July 11th,1995. He is a Bosnian Muslim. He has been captured by the Christian Serbs. He is calling to his son Nermin to come out of the hills and surrender to the Serbs. He is shouting that they will not harm him, that all will be well.

And Nermin comes out of the hills.

The end of the story is not hard to guess, especially when you know that hate loves to cloak itself in piety and nationalism and justice. The posted sign states:

“Exhumation teams found Ramo and his son Nermin in a mass grave near Srebrenica.”

The middle story is about work and family, as the middle has to be. It takes place in Holland. I was walking the cobblestone streets of Haarlem with my sister-in-law when we came upon a wonderful old bookstore hidden among store fronts from the 1500’s. The smell of ancient books and clutter and musk wafted out the door. A heady brew.

“I have been in this book store 50 years. It is a long time.”

Paul Vernout is thin and wiry and grey and tall. A long crease on each side of his face runs from the middle of his nose to his mouth. His chin is firmly set. A high, lined forehead and large, observant eyes peer out of glasses. A character out of a novel.

“It is a nice bookstore. I am a big reader about history and art and about Haarlem.”

Vernout smiles for the first time. He is unsure of his English. Clearly, he is exactly where he belongs. Happy among his books. In love with his work. My guess is that he will die standing behind the counter.

How did this job start for you?

“I was 21 when I started.”

And your father?

“My father worked here.”

Really? And his father?

“My grandfather worked here.”

Are you being serious? And his father?

“My great-grandfather worked here.”


May I take a picture of you?

“Ahhhh . . . not important.”

Of course it isn’t when you’re one in a long chain of family and work and love. Or is it?


The last is about dreams as last stories ought to be. This time in Lille, France. We stumble upon a shop displaying hats of mesh and silk and ribbons and weaves and banana leaves and wool. Amazing creations. My wife and her sister are soon oohing and ahhing and trying on hat after hat. Sarazin Chapeaux the business is called.

So, Nathalie Sarazin, how did this start?

“My family with me and brother, we lived in the same rooms, and my father is the first to have a suit for work. I was three or four years old. I brought a pair of scissors and I cut the trousers because I imagined how the trousers should be. My father and mother say it was a little twisted. They give me the next day to see the doctors.”

Sarazin apologizes for her English, which is lightyears beyond my French, and then slowly smiles at the memory of her creative work on her dad’s suit pants.

And what did the doctors say?

“The doctors was saying, ‘No, she is not mad. But she has to play with the cloth.’”

So, after years of schooling and study and apprenticeship — “playing with the cloth” as the doctors ordered — Sarazin was ready to open her own hat shop.

“Once I had 23-24 age, I said I wanted to make the hats for myself. My father said ‘no’ because not enough money.”

Sarazin forged ahead anyway. Now, years later, Sarazin makes hats for the various queens of Belgium, for the children of the King of Spain, and, yup, even Princess Caroline of Monaco. And let’s not forget you and me.

And what of your father?

“My father does not think I’m mad any more.”


There you go, boys. Take the stories for what you want. They’re yours. A gift from me to you.

And now?

Don’t ask me. Go write your own stories.











Sarajevo, Slipknot, and the Hawkeyes

“Where do you come from?” the young copper artists in Sarajevo asked.

My wife and I told them.

“But where in the United States?” they insisted.

We went into our typical patter that goes something like this: “A small state in the middle of the country called Iowa, it’s near Chicago, and a town in the middle of that state that you probably never heard of called Des Moines.”

The young copper artists of Sarajevo smiled as if we were all old friends.

“Oh, Slipknot.”


Listen, I have not heard much English spoken all day, the other visiting tourists are clearly not from Western Europe or America, I just heard my first-ever call to prayer from the mosques, and our young copper artists are perched in a tiny shop on a narrow cobblestone street in the heart of the oldest old town I’ve ever visited. And they’re Bosnian.

Of course they know Slipknot, the iconic heavy metal group from Des Moines. Why not?

Earlier we had wandered up through the old town. Eyes wide, mouths open, amazed.  “Bascarsija” the old town is called, a wonderful foreign name of hidden promises and intrigue, with narrow streets that curve and wind around shops and outdoor cafes and flow with people.

A bazaar of delights.

Here’s a jewelry street with fine silver and gold displayed in locked cases behind narrow windows, where you have to duck down to get through the shop owner’s door, only to find a secret cave of precious jewels.

And over there are shops selling hundreds of colorful rugs, draped on the floors and walls like the set of an old Hollywood movie about a Persian prince and a lonely American widow. I suggest to my wife that I am the Persian prince. She suggests that she is comfortable remaining the grieving widow.

And here’s a street full of the delicious smell of lamb and goat roasting over large pits of coal and wood. Head and legs still present. A salivating vegetarian’s losing dilemma.

And bakeries with circular Bosnian bread, miraculously airy and chewy and salty, stacked on shelfs like wood at a lumberyard. My idea of heaven.

Ah, and the copper shops.

Copper shops can be found all over Sarajevo. An ancient tradition that comes out of Persia. But the old town has an entire narrow street devoted to copper artists. And the most common item in these copper shops? A copper coffee container with a long handle that is used to hold the thick, dark, Bosnian coffee, a beverage that can give you a quick sense of purpose.


Our young copper artists, fans of Slipknot, just opened up shop on the side of a hill near this copper street. Admir and Suljaman are their names. Thirty-three and thirty years old. They have been copper artists for 15 years.


“We started 10 days ago in this spot. We are growing,” Suljaman says.

His partner, Admir, watches us talk with his soft, dark eyes that obviously know too much. Their narrow little shop is brand new. The young men decided it was time to make a go of it. They are both hard working and Suljaman is impatient with the many young people who are unemployed in Sarajevo.

To live here is okay. If you want to work, you have a living. Most people want a salary immediately. Come on. Work. If you want to work, you have to work. If you don’t work, you don’t have nothing.”

Suljaman is tired of the complaints. But his voice changes midstream . . . .

“Most of the people are poor, really poor. Most of the people don’t have anything. They have no social help.”

How do they survive?

“I don’t know. Really, I don’t know.” He shakes his head sadly.

Admir is etching a plate during our conversation. Intent. Focused. Tourists trickle into the narrow shop. Suljaman works the crowd with a large smile and colorful language. Slang comes easily to his tongue. An aging skateboarder it turns out.

But the 1992-1995 war is never far.

“I had seven years when the war started. We both stayed in Sarajevo. I was in the worst part of town, Down near the airfields. It was weird. But at the same time for me as a kid it was a new thing. What the hell is going on? Now when I look back it is bizarre how we even survived. I think 10,000 children died in Bosnia.”

But Suljaman has no patience for the politics or the religious divides that were drawn by the war.

“Hey, Suljaman, are you Muslim?” He mimics a question from the crowd. “No, I’m a human!” he shouts back to himself.

Admir finishes his etching and gives us his work. With several gifts tucked in our purchases, and the last swallow of Bosnian coffee, we basketball-handshake our goodbye.

Down the valley that is Sarajevo we go, along the river that divides the city. The sun shines brightly as rain clouds skirt the ringing mountains. Families walk along the river. Children race ahead of mom and dad. Well-dressed grandparents stroll, arm in arm, with heads bent slightly forward. Lovers nudge each other with their open secret. Laughter and shouts and conversation drift down the banks of the shallow water and circle back up.

And in the distance I see a young man. Yellow and black sweatshirt. I approach his back, tap him on the shoulder, and introduce myself as from Iowa.


With a broad grin, Amar Karisik, resident of Sarajevo, cousin of Adi Feriz and Azra Feriz, residents of Urbandale, Iowa, says in a thick accent and a loud voice.


Mmmm . . . they are us.

















A Sarajevo bullet

“Honestly, officers, I just forgot it was there.”

Words I have heard many a guilty criminal utter as they are hauled away to jail.

The five-inch, copper-cased bullet was wrapped in soft tissue paper and buried among the copper coffee grinders, the copper pan, the copper plate, and miscellaneous other souvenirs of our travels, which were all carefully placed inside shirts and sweaters and socks and underwear, deep in my backpack.

The bullet was retrieved from the foothills of the war, the copper maker had told us, and then converted into a pen. No kidding. Into our bag of copper items he placed it when I asked what it was. No charge, a gift from him to us. Which I promptly forgot.

A bullet from Sarajevo.

Unfortunately, the Austrian guard scanning my backpack at the airport in Vienna was not impressed with the copper maker’s kindness. Soon other officers were swabbing the linings of my belongings for gunshot residue and asking me to raise my arms and spread my legs for a much more thorough search.

How did this happen?

Surrounded by mountains, Sarajevo is the picture of a cosmopolitan city tucked away from the outside world, safe and secure. High fashion, art, the winter Olympics, a world-renowned film festival, all were here. To this day, a place where within a couple of blocks are a Croatian Catholic church, a Serbian Orthodox church, a Bosnian Muslim mosque, and a Jewish synagogue. And everybody accepted everybody. And everybody married everybody. And everybody got along. At least as well as people get along most places.

But then war. Under siege from 1992 to 1995 (officially ended in February of 1996), Sarajevo faced daily sniper fire, modified air bombs, mortar attacks, you name it. It is reported that on some days, up to 10,000 shells fell on the city. Market places were blown up. Bread lines were bombed. Rescue workers were shot. Fathers died. Mothers died. Children died. No food, no water, no heat. It was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. It was horrific in every way imaginable.

My wife, working for the prosecution in the cases against several of those accused of crimes in this war, brought me to a high overlook of the city. It appeared that someone had spilled white paint down our end of the valley. A spill that ran meanderingly into the city in a lazy flow. A white spill of Muslim graves. Most killed in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995. Born somewhere in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s. Grave after grave. A generation gone.


And there were other Muslim graves in many empty spots around the city. Graves springing up around corners, down streets, across from a new shopping mall, past the burek stall, on the other side of the copper artists. No ground seemed untouched from the consequences of the bomb and the mortar and the Bosnian Serb sniper firing from the hills.

Ironically, given today’s politics of hatred against Muslims, it was Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbs who were killing innocent Bosnian Muslim civilians riding the tram, or going to the market, or crossing the street. Yup, Christians killing Muslims.

The sniping in Sarajevo was particularly horrible. Judge Robinson, with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, talked in one opinion about the sniping in Sarajevo:

“John Jordan [a Rhode Island fireman who on his own volunteered to fight fires in Sarajevo while it was under siege — really???!] responded to a number of incidents over the years in Sarajevo where one member, often the youngest member of a family was shot. It was his view that, here I quote, ‘When you’re targeting civilians like this, particularly families, who may or may not be Muslim, shooting the child has the effect of literally disembowelling the whole family.'”

The taxi driver told us in a tour-guide voice, “And here is Sniper Alley.” An open spot of beauty that ran down the picturesque river that cuts the valley. And over there, gorgeous old buildings reflecting on their walls the war years of shrapnel and gunfire. 35,000 buildings were completely destroyed during the siege. Most buildings carry some scar.


And here is the bridge where Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić were shot by sniper fire in 1993, which resulted in the documentary, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo. One a Bosnian Serb and one a Bosnian Muslim. They had been assured a safe exit from the city. He was killed immediately. She, also shot, crawled to his body, wrapped her arms around him, and died. Their bodies lay for four days on the bridge.

Then my wife pointed out the faded, red spots on the concrete. The Sarajevo Roses. Red resin filled cracked concrete and asphalt where mortars had landed, bringing death and injury to all around. Reminders of man’s inhumanity. God doesn’t rain down hell fire, we do. I wanted to throw up.


But then I noticed other Sarajevo Roses. They’re there. Behind the church corner. In front of that building down the block. Next to the market. You’ll see them. But they are fading. The red is gradually disappearing. The trams and cars and trucks and people are slowly wearing down the violence of the past. The city is rebuilding. New construction is happening. The great smells of Bosnian food cooked over wood fires and the buzz of the people is everywhere in the market. Young men and women speak of dreams and plans and a future. Things are on the move.

“So, why would you sell a pen made out of a bullet from the war?” I ask the copper maker. “Isn’t it horribly tragic? Isn’t it just a reminder?”

He doesn’t pause to argue the economy of the marketplace. Instead, he smiles and states, “It is better to write love letters than killing people.” And he slips it into our purchases.

I do not offer this explanation to the Austrian airport police, who, already shaking their heads at my stupidity, sternly return my belongings and send me on my way.

And I board my plane with my backpack lightened, of course, by one of the last vestiges of a horrible war — a bullet from Sarajevo.


Next week — Sarajevo, Slipknot, and the Hawkeyes.










How to eat a herring

“There are multiple ways of cleaning a herring. What I do is chop the head off, chop the belly off, make sure the skin’s off, the fins are off. Then I’m opening the herring by putting my thumb under the back spine, and then I clean the belly and take the organs out. My herring is done and ready to eat.”


Really? Is this evoking some warm and cozy Iowa memory for you? Nope, me neither. In my family, all eight kids sat around the supper table, pushing and shoving and bickering, waiting for the food to appear on a meatless Friday. My mom, in a patterned house dress and full apron, tiredly pulled open the oven door where the sizzling grease announced the arrival of a product found nearer to a factory than an ocean — the lowly fish stick. Considered a welcome relief from tuna noodle casserole, and greeted with high enthusiasm in my family, we fought over the last dried-out stick. And, by the way, this “fish product” had not a hint of a head or fins and certainly not an organ or two. Well, at least not visible.

But that is not Marie-Claire David’s experience.

“I was 18 years old and I needed a job. I was starting University. My dad said I found you a job, go out and apply at the fish shop. I went there and there was all men behind the counter. So I said, ‘I heard there was a vacancy here for Saturdays. Do you still need people?’ They looked at me like they saw fire burning. And I said, ‘So do you need anybody?’ They said, ‘Ya, you can start tomorrow if you like.’ Okay. From that day on I was unstoppable in fish.”

Customers are streaming into the fish shop as we talk. The shop is close to the harbor in the old fishing area of Scheveningen in The Hague, and is well-known to people who love the best fresh fish.

“The fish are purchased for the shop every day. Saturday is our most busy day. The family man is going out on Saturday to get the fresh fish to cook for Saturday evening because it is the weekend and his wife does not have to cook. But on the weekdays, it is all mommas.”

David pauses with a suppressed smile.

“That’s why I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, the men all coming on Saturday, I only see mommas the rest of the time.”

A low throaty laugh. Her eyes are actually twinkling with fun. Mmmm . . . I’m thinking she’s not lacking in suitors.

I tell David I only see men actually cutting and selling fish in the fish shops.

“The world of fish is really a man’s world. The ego. The ego is to the ceiling. As a woman, she needs to find a way in this circus. In my opinion, I did well. By being as a woman in the team, the men get softer. I am the catalyst — is that a good word? — for less ego in the team.”

Do you have a specialty?

“My specialty is selling. I can sell in an enormous way. Also, fast in a good way. While selling, I’m wrapping the fish in the most beautiful paper, with my words to the customer and with a smile on my face. People go out and enjoy their fish that they bought with a happy feeling. It is a mental way of pleasure doing groceries. That is what I provide. Nice chat, they go out with a smile, and the most beautiful fish that they eat tonight.”


And what about herring?

“Herring is one of my specialties. Herring season is coming up. At half of June the boats are coming in. 50 years ago, we had the only herring boats here in Scheveningen. From the whole Netherlands. Very important import/export. Now it comes from Norway and Denmark. Caught on the boats. Put in buckets and freeze at -18° Celsius. It goes back to shore and is exported all over the world. The last two years no official herring boats anymore in Scheveningen. The North Sea needs to recover. For now it’s done. That is better for the herring.”

Although not better for this poor guy I’m about to put in my mouth. I can’t stall much longer.

So how do I eat this?

“In every city in Holland they have another way of eating herring. So let’s start in Scheveningen. In Scheveningen, they grab the fish cleaned, on the tail, and they take a bite like this. Guts out, head off, no skin. No onions. Hold the tail and take a bite.”

I hold the slimy tail expectantly, my fingers having a difficult time getting a grip, then I clear my throat and . . . find out I’m not quite ready to take the plunge.

And how do they eat them elsewhere?

“When you eat a herring in Amsterdam, they always chop it up in pieces with onions and sour, pieces of pickles, and they add it on the herring chopped in pieces, and you eat it with a fork.”

Clearly, from the tone of David’s voice, Amsterdam can add this to one of many reasons it suffers as an inferior destination.

Anyplace else?

“In Rotterdam, they have the herring, they grab the tail with both hands and they split it in half, so that means that you have some kind of double pleasure, I guess. Why? I don’t know, but it is from Rotterdam.”

Of course, who can explain the actions of a small misbehaving child like Rotterdam? I nod in agreement.

So David demonstrates the right way to do it, the Scheveningen way — no onions, no pickles, tilt your head back, grab the tail tight enough that it doesn’t slip and poke out your eye, and take a bite.


And I do the same.

It is surprisingly textured, salty, mildly chewy, and not in the least reminiscent of breaded fish sticks.

I swallow with a large gulp. I have a quick sense of relief at surviving a death-defying adventure — but then I have the awful realization that there is a lot of slippery fish left. I panic and struggle for a way out.

“What about those Hawkeyes?” I am tempted to blurt out.

Okay, that may not be my best go-to for a rescue in a foreign land, but, heck, what would you do? I’ve got it.

“Boy, the corn sure is tall for this time of year.”

That doesn’t work either. My Iowa small talk does not provide an answer.

Ah, I have it, “You look really Dutch,” I actually say.

She laughs, shakes her head, and clearly wonders about crazy Americans.

“Joe, that is because I am Dutch.”

I shut up, tilt my head back, and take another bite.





Tulips and cornfields

Iowa cornfields in late August are a thing to behold. Sure, I’m biased. I love the long formations of parading stalks, their dark green leaves turned dry and hard by the approaching autumn, their tops swaying and rolling in unison with the warm winds, and, of course, their whispering, as hundreds of leaves touch hundreds of leaves, sharing secrets with each other, and, I imagine, making a few slanderous remarks. The promise of a good harvest comes with the smell of dry dirt and the retreating sounds of the Iowa State Fair. A cornfield in late August is a delight.

Ah, but a tulip field in early spring . . . .


Two weeks of cold and rain slowed the tulip blooms in Holland. Every day I bike for groceries with rain jacket pulled tight, stocking cap low to the eyes, gloves soaked to the skin, jeans sponging up the rain, and tennis shoes smelling more and more like wet basement. The Dutch don’t seem to care. Hats and gloves are for people of southern climates. Hundreds of bikes on the streets in the sun and warmth.  Hundreds of bikes on the streets in the rain and cold. Children, face forward in the front child seat, round cheeks bright red, water dripping off their chins, make not a complaint. They are bred to endure.

But even the Dutch are looking to the sky for a glimmer of sun this wet and cold spring.

Today, the clouds have vanished, the temperatures have climbed into the high 50’s, and the tulip blooms stretch high and wide. The bike trail my wife and I ride edges the fields in the countryside around Lisse in the Netherlands. The heart of tulip country.

Everywhere the blooms feel the change in weather. Keukenhof, the famous gardens near Lisse, are lined with buses and cars and bikes come to visit and glimpse the momentary beauty of the seven-million spring bulbs planted within. We also cannot resist their pull and spend a few hours walking the gardens with mouths agape.


But the countryside beckons us back to the farms. The narrow canals divide the fields, and the blossoms meld together into giant swaths of color. The last of the aging but still fragrant hyacinths with their muted purple flower and fading green stem are snubbed by the golds and reds and pinks of the vibrant youthful tulips.


We bike along field after field until there are no tourists left. A small cafe sits at the end of the road. No one is inside. The locals sit outside, faces turned to the sun, eyes closed, a glass of wine or beer or a cup of cappuccino on the table, the level marking their spot of last awareness. Two large cats sit on the periphery. Hoping for a mistake.

“Together with my husband we own this. He is standing here for 26 years, and I for 14 years.”

Jol, stylish with spiked hair and dark glasses, flashes smiles with comfortable ease as she takes our order. Her husband, Dick, works the grill and turns out loempias, kippenpootjes, bitterballen, and vlammetjes, among other things. With a deep laugh, he makes fun of the notion of me taking their picture, but then suggests their statute of a Native American as just the right spot for an American photograph.


After they get done laughing at the silliness of it all, Jol tells me that April and May are particularly busy.

“Flowers everywhere. It is very nice that the people are enjoying it very much. Last week was the flower parade. One million people in this area.”

One million people????

Perhaps that makes it less complicated to understand tulip mania. Tulip mania describes the time in Holland during 1636-1637, when the price for a tulip bulb went through the roof. Apparently, folks started buying and selling contracts for future bulbs, that is bulbs still in the ground, and those sales just went higher and higher. Stories are told that the price for one unusual species was equivalent to the cost of a house in Amsterdam or the salary of a skilled laborer for a year. People went nuts based purely on unavailability and desire. Then, in February 1637, the market in tulip bulbs crashed, and that was the end of tulip mania — except for economists and historians writing about its meaning for present day futures markets, option contracts, and the truth or falsity of the tulip mania stories themselves.

Back at the cafe, more customers arrive as the afternoon sun moves to the west. Jol, smiling of course, goes to greet the new arrivals, and Dick, watching her leave with a smile, soon returns to his kitchen.

So here we are, 380 years after tulip mania, sitting in a small cafe in Holland, surrounded by field after field of tulips. We drink our wine, smell the perfumed air, and admire the beauty. But now I can’t help but think, what IS a tulip worth? Or, for that matter, what IS the real value of an ear of corn?

Enough of that. We close our eyes, tilt back our heads, and follow the sun.










The bones of the Magi

We’ve been doing a lot of sinning lately, don’t you think? Sure, most are lazy sins, like poisoning our water and hating immigrants and trying to take health care from women. It’s easy when there are no faces. The sins get a little more complicated when we are about to stone our next-door neighbor. The trouble arises not from the stoning, but because we are a little conflicted. I mean, the neighbors did bring little smokies to the block party, didn’t they? And they do keep their Winnebago out of sight behind their garage, right? But can you be sure they’re not Democrats? Or not Republicans? Or not Muslims? Or not Christians? Or not Jews? Or even that the “she,” who is so nice and personable, is not formerly a “he”? It gets so confusing without name tags.

And I haven’t even gotten to the collapse of the Hawkeyes in the second half of their basketball season, even though several fans, not me of course, offered to sacrifice close family members to turn the season around. See? We have become first-rate sinners, deserving of just a splash of hell fire.

Which is why we have indulgences.

An indulgence is a little like good and honor time after you’ve been sent to prison for, say, hiding your money in Panama. An indulgence is simple: it reduces the time you serve for your sins. For example, in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, one of several amazing museums in Cologne, Germany, there is a medieval painting of Christ with a long prayer beneath it. The museum describes the written words of the painting as follows:

“The subsequent explanation promises the sinful believer a remission of no less than 27,000 years and 36 days in the period spent suffering the torments of Purgatory if he recites this prayer combined with five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.”


This is genius. And I particularly like the “36 days.” You know, it’s that last part of a long trip. The first 27,000 years go by fairly quickly, but then you have that painful two-hour ride from Omaha. The 36 days takes care of that.

But a pilgrimage is the real Star Wars of indulgences. Something where you pack up and leave the comfort of your home in the East Village, or Beaverdale, or Pleasant Hill, and by this very act of leaving, you change your sinful behavior.

I have just the pilgrimage for you.

First, a little preamble. We’re talking bones here, folks. The bones in question were found and stored by St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mom, sometime around the year 330, when she was scavenging in the Holy Land for the true cross and other relics for her son. Several hundred years later, the bones made their way to Milan for safe keeping. Finally, in 1164, the bones were given as a thank-you gift to the Archbishop of Cologne for providing an army to the Holy Roman Emperor. And now, here they sit in the Cologne Cathedral. Resplendent in a golden shrine. Viewed by six million visitors a year. No kidding. The actual bones of the Magi.

Of course, you may not know of the Magi, or perhaps you know of them as the Three Kings, or the Three Wise Men, or, if you’re on a first-name basis, Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar. The Magi actually occupy only 16 verses in the Book of Matthew. There’s no other mention of them in the New Testament. We know they came from the East, they followed a star, they brought gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, and they triggered Herod to order a minor massacre of young baby boys in the Bethlehem area. Their story resulted in Christmas carols, a bad movie or two, and tons of parody. But, the trek to Cologne, Germany, is a honest-to-God holy pilgrimage, and has been since 1164. That’s a long line of people stretching over the years to see Magi bones and to receive the indulgences from such a visit.

So, being a sinner, and to encourage you to go on such a pilgrimage, I went to check it out.

The Cologne Cathedral wipes out the southern sky the moment you walk out of the central train station. Its turrets and flying buttresses and statutes and bronze doors all force your head back and your jaw to drop. It is impossible to take it all in. As the largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe, it does not disappoint. And the inside, with vaulted ceilings and altars and candles and statutes and paintings and the smell of incense, only gets better.


And then there are the bones. Way at the front in their golden case. One of dozens of miraculous sights inside the Cathedral. It is truly a moving, awe-inspiring, drop-to-your-knees experience. Unbelievable.


But, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to some of you, it doesn’t work for me. I still felt the lick of flames coursing up my legs even when standing a few feet from the bones themselves. Yup, the Magi have no indulgences headed my way.

So, out the Cathedral I walk with my wife, resigned, aware of my fate, heavy of step — although a small part of me still wondered if maybe Lourdes Water might be the real answer.

But then we hear wonderful music. An intricate Beethoven string quartet echoing across the plaza at the side of the Cathedral. Beautiful. Haunting. Seductive. Five street performers, on instruments Beethoven never envisioned — two accordions, one violin, one concert tuba, and one something with a deep and rich sound that must be from another world.


“This is balalaika double bass. There are five balalaikas. This is the largest.” Valery smiles at me with his red-numbed face and heavily Russian-accented English. They’ve been performing on the square for already too long this cold day, but Valery patiently answers my questions.

“I study for accordion and balalaika in Russia. We have orchestra for Russian folk instrument, and in this orchestra I play balalaika.”

And where do you go after this performance?

“We go to Poland. We make money this way.”

And so they do. They play Pachebel’s Canon as a crowd pleaser and then pack up for Poland. Performance over.

But the sound of their music remains, floating against the hard walls of the Cathedral, up the jagged Gothic towers, across the broad, cobblestone plaza, and back down to settle deep inside your throat, leaving a taste of rich earthiness. Precise, achingly clear, beguiling.

And that is enough for my pilgrimage. Off I wander to drink German beer, whisper things to my wife, and think about the balalaika double bass and its reverberating deepness.

And the bones of the Magi? Mmmm . . . perhaps they spoke after all.









The Ambassador

This part of The Hague was new to me. The reddish-brown bricks in the road still held the last drops of rain as I peddled towards the cafe where we had agreed to meet. Yellow daffodils, vibrant green grass, and canals bordered the way. Arriving early, I waited at the outdoor table for the Ambassador, sipping my cappuccino.

In preparation for our meeting, I had to look at the pictures. Those pictures out of Syria sting your eyes. Dead. Wasted flesh. Mutilated bodies. Thousands of photographs of death’s variations. They were smuggled out of Syria by a photographer for the government known as “Caesar.” Carefully documented atrocities committed against prisoners in detention by the regime —  recorded by the regime itself. Shades of Nazi bookkeeping at Auschwitz. Once again, torture and death as a daily job before going home to supper and the kids.

The Ambassador knows those pictures. He asked that the FBI verify their authenticity. And he concluded those photos were some of the strongest evidence he’s seen of mass atrocities by the government of Bashar al-Assad.

“That is a passion of mine, what is occurring in Syria, I am concerned with the broader issue of fact-finding and documentation in situations where we don’t have a court. You can think so-and-so is guilty, but when you have to prove it, it is a whole other thing.”

Rather than despair, which seemed the obvious answer to the horror of Syria, my evening with the Ambassador was saved by three small tangents.

First, of course, his smile. Wide to the corners, warm with nearly closed eyes, arched brows. And the laugh, almost a giggle really. A little boy caught in a moment of joy.

Then, there was his dad’s gas station. He was the teenage boy with a red rag in hand, checking the dipstick, asking if there was anything else needed, maybe air for the tires? But I bet he was already a little distracted by a different world beyond Cedar Falls, Iowa.

And finally, his legislative races. Two against Chuck Grassley for the U.S. House. Even back in the beginning, Grassley was a dangerous opponent, according to the Ambassador. Already all that down-home lingo and affability. But the Ambassador remembers two young men, polar opposites, both winners of their party’s primaries, sitting outside on top of an old Buick, alone together, shooting the breeze, sharing their doubts, unaware of the real drama yet to come in their futures. A quiet moment before the fickle wind came blowing across the years.

But our conversation that evening always returned to the dead, and the justice for survivors. 800,000 slaughtered in Rwanda. 75,000 murdered in Sierra Leone. And anywhere from 250,000 to 470,000 in Syria. And what are we doing for the victims? And how do we hold the criminals accountable? And should we intervene in current conflicts before it gets even worse? And who has the political will during this crazy time?

See what I mean? Despair.

“Thank you all for coming,” the Ambassador says at the podium. And the couple hundred diplomats and lawyers and judges and international law students all nod back.


Today, the Ambassador, Stephen Rapp, is moderating a discussion in The Hague about reparations for victims of violence around the world. With a broad grasp of the facts, and equally broad grasp of international law, he talks to the group about Africa and Syria and Bosnia and wherever else there are victims. Just another day in his fellowship-in-residence at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. It soon becomes clear to me back in the eighth row, he’s the guy, and everyone in the room knows it.

Okay, hold it. Really? Are you kidding? This kid from Cedar Falls? This unassuming graduate of Drake Law School? A classmate to our own Terry Branstad? Give me a break.

“I was born in Waterloo, Iowa. Came home from the hospital to veterans housing in Cedar Falls. My father was 22 years old working in a gas station in Cedar Falls. My mother worked at Montgomery Ward.”

Beginnings should hint of the future, shouldn’t they? Perhaps the morality of hard-working parents? Or the value of not having a silver spoon in the drawer? Or is it just luck, how the cards fall?

By high school in Cedar Falls, Rapp is deep into debate and politics. He loves them both.

“I entered a Voice of Democracy contest, supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  ‘What Democracy Means to Me,’ or something like that. I won the State in 1967. In March of ’67 I went to Washington and won it nationally.”

Soon he’s off to Harvard for college.

“I went to Washington D.C. in ’70 and worked as an intern for Senator Birch Bayh.”

Okay. Typical college stuff, blah blah blah . . . . And then what?

“I was kidnapped in Washington by three armed men and came close to being killed.”


“I was coming home late at night, and as I parked the car, I was hit in the left side of my face with a gun. Three guys took over the car, pushed down my head, and started hitting me in the back. I had nothing in my wallet. They drove around for a awhile, then stopped by the side of the road, grabbed me by my hair, and I thought they were going to throw me in the ditch and shoot me. Instead they emptied the trunk and threw me in the trunk.”

Hours later, Rapp, still locked in the trunk, had given up hope.

“I figured I was going to die and the question was just how.”

He survived, and remembered his time as a victim.

Rapp was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1972. The next year, he graduated from Drake Law School. Several years later were his two unsuccessful attempts at the U.S. House. He was a defense lawyer in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area for awhile. Then, in 1993, he became the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa. In 2001 he joined the prosecution team at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. By 2007 he was the Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court of Sierra Leone. And, in 2009, President Obama named him Ambassador at Large for War Crimes. Finally, in early 2016, he became a fellow in residence at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, on loan from his job as a Sonia and Harry Blumenthal Distinguished Fellow for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.



So we sat over a glass of wine outdoors at our small cafe on Frederikstraat in The Hague. A light rain had fallen earlier, but the sun succeeded in breaking through before the night fell. The ambassador spoke of the horrors in Rwanda, the horrors in Sierra Leone, and the present horrors in Syria. He spoke of victims and bad guys. He spoke of justice. And he told me his story.

We drank our wine.

And at the end of the evening, I said my goodbyes, straddled my old Dutch bike, and slowly peddled home. And I thought of the man as I rode away, of the wide-open smile, of  pumping gas at his dad’s gas station, and of the long-ago evening sitting with Grassley on the hood of that Buick, sharing their worries and dreams. Good things.

And the bad things? Mmmm . . . I’m glad that this Iowa boy is on the front line.



Thoughts from an outdoor cafe

An outdoor cafe in early spring in Holland.


The hat comes off first. Your head drops back. Your eyes shut. Your surroundings disappear. And all you feel is the sharp heat of early spring raising pinpricks of red on your cheeks and a rosy hue under your eyelids. And your thoughts? Gone to a time of warmth and good cheer. Perhaps to a beach. Maybe to a ball field. Or possibly just adrift on an Iowa river, floating languorously past the lowing cattle drinking at the banks, while a blue heron slowly flaps its wings, hugging the curve of the water, marking the way. Sure, the biblical warning of “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” is still lurking in the background of your thoughts — but shouldn’t you turn your face just a little to one side?There you go, feel that toasty sun.

All this from just taking off your hat.

Admittedly, a sunny day in spring is a bit of a rarity in Holland. Most days it rains, at least a little. But when the sun shines, coats come off, sleeves are rolled up, eyes are closed, and the outdoor cafe crowd slowly pivots in their chairs like sunflowers in a field, looking for the tiniest ray of warmth on their upturned faces. Relaxed and glowing.

That is, until reality returns.

The Dutch daily newspaper on the table, the AD Haagsche Courant, blares a headline above a picture of Donald Trump:

“Alfamannetje heft problem: de dames molten hem niet.”

My Dutch friend translates: “Alpha male has problem: women don’t care for him.”

Is this really news? Of course, women aren’t keen on a man who focuses so much on their looks and bodily functions and who personally dislikes so many women. But more shocking, does Europe think Trump is an alpha male?

It should be no surprise that politics comes up while you’re soaking in the rays at an outdoor cafe. Politics and outdoor cafes are no strangers. It is reported that the 1968 Paris revolution, where students barricaded the streets and the unions shut France down with strikes, began in outdoor cafes. And the 2011 Egyptian revolution, where a government was overturned and the ripple of independence stretched across the Middle East, also began in outdoor cafes.

So even on this sunny day, politics wants a seat at the table. Even if uninvited.

Take the British daily, The Guardian, popular reading in this neck of the woods:

“Cruz, the red-meat Texas senator with an army of conservative followers, raised eyebrows on Tuesday when he told the Texas Tribune that people who believe global warming is real are ‘the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.’”

Really, with Cruz’s evangelical fervor, this can’t be a surprise. Supporting Cruz is like going to the front of the tent and agreeing to renounce Satan. Who wouldn’t want to renounce Satan? Well, maybe ex-felons. Cruz has identified ex-felons as Democrats, which is why Democrats want to restore ex-felons’ right to vote. It’s good to know who’s who without resorting to fire and a stake.

See, once you get started on these rants, the warm sun seems to just nurture more and more heated discussions until eventually you have a revolution, or, more likely, table guests anxious to leave.

Ah, the sun has shifted. With precise choreography, we all stand, turn our chairs, and sit back down. And begin arguing again.


There is the BBC News coverage of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia:

“He was one of the most prominent proponents of ‘originalism’ – a conservative legal philosophy that believes the US Constitution has a fixed meaning and does not change with the times. In 2008, Justice Scalia delivered the opinion in District of Columbia v Heller, a landmark case that affirmed an individual’s right to possess a handgun.”

“Affirmed” might not be strong enough. Justice Scalia suggested that we need to be armed not only for self-defense of home and hearth but to fight against the tyranny of the government, just like the old days. Well that’s certainly “originalism,” but does that mean we should take up arms against Governor Branstad’s regime because of the unreasonable licensure requirements for braiding hair? Talk about tyranny getting you where it hurts. Although, as they say at the salon, one person’s tyranny is another person’s updo gone awry.

As politics devolves into silliness, the afternoon begins to wind down. The drinks change from coffee to wine. Food starts to appear at various tables. Conversations become muted. Sweaters are pulled back up. Coats are wrapped across legs. And politics is left to the side. Quiet drifts in with the ocean mist. A candle appears on the table. It is a time for peace to return.

Just over the dunes at the beach is a line of German bunkers, lost today in the sand and high grass. The Atlantic Wall. Ready to repel an invading force of Americans and Canadians and British.

Image 10

But that invasion turned out to be much further south, with its own horror. But I wonder what those German boys talked about on a warm day in April, as they sat outside their bunker, helmets off, turning their faces like sunflowers toward the heat, their thoughts adrift on some German river. At peace.

Thoughts from an outdoor cafe.