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.











Prague in three acts — an Iowan’s view

The street is tight with tourists. Some jostling rudely, some floating adrift, some wary of every brush of the pocket, and some, of course, looking to brush your pocket. But all of us, innocent and guilty alike, are pushed away from the river, across the tram tracks and careening taxis, up into the ancient beauty of Old Town.

Prague awaits.

Act 1: Barkers work the crowd. Standing stolidly as humanity flows against them, they hand out leaflets with the hope that you will reach out for the flyer. When you do — and how can a boy and girl from Des Moines not politely take their offering? — they launch into their spiel.

“The best music ever.”

“In the very hall where Mozart performed.”

“It is the location for the movie Amadeus.”

“Hear members of the Royal Czech Orchestra perform chamber music just for you.”

They guide us out of the stream to a portable podium, where a young man in low light has a seating chart. He wants to collect money for the admission to the show, supposedly later that night, and to provide us an assigned seat. The Civic Center Box Office it isn’t.

“800 koruna please.”

Eight hundred what???

We buy our tickets, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, fully expecting to have just given a donation to Prague street culture, and leave with little illusions.

Several hours later, we return for the nonexistent performance. Unbelievably, the young men are still there. We are directed up a broad stairway to the next floor. The stairs are chipped and crumbling. The walls are missing large chunks of plaster. The banister is doubtful as a means of support. And the dark landing at the top is equally discouraging as the ambient light reflects red silk wall coverings torn and faded.

But then we walk into the music hall. My oh my. A glorious ballroom from another time. Paintings and pillars and balconies and hidden alcoves. A beauty. But patch-work and two-by-four braces tell that she is long past her prime. Then we look to the ceiling. A magnificent chipped fresco, still bright with color and gods and light. My goodness.


Still, the frosty room is without heat. The wooden folding chairs are without pads. The notion of an assigned seat has disappeared like a chair in a cake walk. Of course, no one dare take off gloves, coats, or hats. We sit, uncomfortable and cold.

Is this the necessary suffering you read about in Slavic culture — One Day in the Life of a Prague Audience?

Then the music starts. Violins, bass, viola, and cello. The sound drifts through the room. Clear. Crisp. Intimate. It soon entangles us. We are carried up past the disrepair, beyond the broken balconies, into the high reaches of the fresco. We are part of the pantheon of the gods. Tears settle behind my eyes. The cold, the lack of comfort, the strangeness, all disappear. We are bewitched.

Act 2: The bridge is like an old stone field marker. Heavy, man-made, plunked down in the middle of nature, claiming land on both ends. The Prague Castle sits on one side. Old Town Square sits on the other. But the bridge is its own destination. It is full of large statutes of Czech heroes and crucified Christs and bishops and martyrs and even Saint Ivo of Kermartin (the intriguing patron saint of lawyers and orphans). This bridge was built to replace the old one washed away in the flood. You know, the flood of 1342. The new bridge was up and running by 1390. No kidding.


The bridge is wall-to-wall people today. And lining the two sides of the bridge is a gauntlet of artists selling their wares.


“My name is Maltin Bulis, I am selling jewelry for six years on the bridge.”

Bulis smiles with soft, sheepish eyes and an artist’s goatee, unfazed by my English and prying questions. Let’s see, Bulis is a 29-year-old metal engraver (check), selling his work on the Bridge (check), going to school in a Prague art program that takes eight years to complete (check), and helping to raise a young baby with his economist girlfriend (check, check, and check). See, prying questions.

So, how does one get the opportunity to sell their art on the Charles Bridge?

“You have to have license, and every year you must take an exam and prove that you have something to contribute. There is a special committee and half the voices have to agree with it.”

“Half the voices.” I am impressed with Bulis’ clever us of English to get his meaning across with such eloquence. I say as much.

“I taught myself English. I was sharing from Youtube. Watching the Simpsons.”

Of course, he learned English from Homer Simpson and  “sharing” with those crazy puppy videos on Youtube. What can Maltin Bulis not achieve? He’s a rock star.

Bulis gives us his shy smile, thanks us for the conversation, and off he goes to help another customer. So we move on to the next artist three steps further down the Bridge.

Act 3: The cemetery seems haunted by the past. Perhaps the set for an apocryphal movie? Can there really be 100,000 people buried here?


The Old Jewish Cemetery sits on a high-walled slope in the once-vibrant Jewish quarter of Josefov. The story of the Jews in Prague is the story of the Jews. Placed in ghettos as early as the 11th or 12th century, forbidden to hold most jobs, kept out of markets and restaurants, required to wear some kind of special clothing, or yellow hat, or yellow star, and then facing Easter pogroms, or forced evacuations, or later-day Nazi extermination camps. A story that stretches down through the centuries.

On this sunny day, however, long lines of noisy crowds form to enter the cemetery. Once inside, there is the hush of the sacred. The heavy stones, bent and lusterless, are disintegrating even after death. We quietly weave our way through the grounds, chastened by the tipped stones and disappearing Hebrew epigraphs, feeling the call to return to dust.

But then we see a small piece of paper under a small rock placed on one ancient tombstone. And then more rocks and more papers on more tombs. Until there is an entire top of a grave covered with small papers and rocks.


What are the messages written on the papers — wishes, prayers, confessions? Certainly a statement that someone remembers, someone was here. And if someone remembers and someone was here, isn’t it hope in the face of hopelessness? Why not.

Prague in three acts — an Iowan’s view.












Tulips and candles

Temperatures continue to drop this day in late March. It is now below freezing, and the drizzly rain has turned sharp with just an edge of ice. The grey sky is an old Dutch Masters’ painting — dark and a little foreboding. A Rembrandt sky. And the wind? Busily searching for that small crevice next to your neck, so as to slip below your shirt and whisper that spring will never come. Shivering seems the appropriate response.

I stop, adjust my stocking cap, pull my scarf tighter, and then continue biking. To the beach. I’m in need of a beach holiday today, even if the beach is at the North Sea. It is time for a break from current events.

The news from Brussels is everywhere in The Hague. Death, mayhem, blood. A picture we’ve all seen before. Innocents lying injured or dead. Smoke fogging the shattered debris. A distant woman crying somewhere in the background. Confusion.

Too much.

The smaller fishing boats are already docked and unloaded at the first harbor. The boats arrive early in the morning, long before the sun. The catch is deep in their hulls when they come heavy to the wharf. The fish are unloaded, processed, and on the way to their destination by the time the sun hits the drying nets. Only to repeat tomorrow, of course. But for now, they are docked and cleaned. Resting from a hard day’s work.


The news coverage is incessant. Today the politicians are weighing in. One suggests fighting terror with waterboarding, another says more money for security, another asks for fundamental change in the isolation of ethnic neighborhoods. Their proposals are a mix of thoughtfulness and absurdity. Regardless, all the ideas seem unlikely to stop anyone wearing a vest made to explode.

The sand beach stretches for miles and miles. Not so busy today. People are tired of the cold and wet and want a few days in the 50’s, where the grey skies have cleared and the sun is warm on their hatless heads. But not today. The wind and cold only become more daunting as the North Sea stretches uninterrupted in front of me.

Out on the right arm of the harbor are only a few people. A fisherman sits against the lighthouse at the furthest point into the ocean, resting, wind at his back. His two long poles are wedged between the rocks with lines drifting out into the sea. Patiently he eats a sandwich pulled out of his crumpled bag.

Ahmad the fisherman tells me that the fishing is poor today.

“The seas are rough,” he explains in broken English. “It is cold.”

At least that’s what I think he says. Our ability to understand each other is not good. So we look out over the ocean together, unsure what to say next. I ask to take his picture. He agrees and poses with his long fishing pole. Then, smiling a goodbye, Ahmad hunkers back down next to the lighthouse, back to fishing for fish that are unwilling to be caught, and back to eating his sandwich alone. A fisherman’s story.


Heading back to shore, I see that there are two other people on this arm of the harbor. A couple. Laughing and flirting with each other it seems. He is jumping on the big boulders that protect the sides from the pounding waves. She appears not so keen on his idea of jumping from slippery rock to slippery rock.

And your names?

“Mahtzel and Aza.”

IMG_1788Why are you out here on such a cold day?

“Yeah, it is cold day. I bring her here. All my life I fishing. I love fishing. So, I have free day from my work so I bring her here. But she doesn’t let me fish. She says, ‘All fish, get out.’”

Laughing, hugging, touching each other, they wander away, not wanting me to pry anymore into their day. A lover’s story.

I head home, past the cookie-cutter Dutch houses, past the ducks and swans on the canals, and past the Belgium embassy.

Brussels is 110 miles away from this embassy. Almost the exact distance from Des Moines to Iowa City. And, like Iowa City, Brussels is a place of youth and excitement and the beginnings of life. Not the end.

As I pass, I notice flowers have appeared in front. A make-shift memorial to the dead and injured. Tulips and candles.

IMG_1832Tulips and candles make sense in the Dutch world. When the old fishermen die, the small church near the harbor rings its bells to mark their death. And before long, tulips and candles appear at the statue of the Dutch woman looking out to sea. Alone and vigilant she stands, waiting for a son or a husband or a lover to return. Hoping without hope.

On TV, the next day, more videos surface. As I look through the smoke and fear, past the legs of the dead and injured, I see survivors hunched together. A mother with her child held tight beneath her body. A man on the floor holding close a woman. Two more people in the distance, one draped over the other, arm and chest providing protection. These unremarked heroes will be forever at the airport in Brussels, long after they’ve safely gone home.

But life goes on. The ocean is fished. Boys flirt with girls. Heroes go unnoticed. And nature is cold and wet and unforgiving.

Tulips and candles seem as good a response as any.















National crisis looms — dramatic shortage of groups to hate

Dear subscriber: this is an article for Cityview’s April Fool’s issue. Some quotes may be fictional. Okay, one quote is fictional. But, trust me, not any of the quotes from Donald Trump.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.” Donald Trump, speech announcing his candidacy.

“I would build a Great Wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall, mark my words.” Donald Trump, speech announcing his candidacy.

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Donald Trump, talking about himself in the third person, The Washington Post.

“I have black guys counting my money. … I hate it. The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” Donald Trump, U.S.A. Today.

“Who the fuck knows? I mean, really, who knows how much the Japs will pay for Manhattan property these days?” Donald Trump, Time.

“You have to treat ’em like shit.” Donald Trump referring to women, New York magazine.

Wow, let’s see, Mexicans, African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, Japanese, women. The list is so long, I’m afraid it has finally happened. We are running out of groups to hate. Sure, I know, hate is popular right now, but there is only so much to go around. It comes in a limited supply, folks, and we are consuming it faster than it is produced. So be warned. The shortage is upon us, and there is no one standing up lobbying the Iowa Utilities Board for a pipeline of hate across Iowa. As a result, we’re running dry, folks.

So we have to act quickly to save hate. And it’s up to us to solve this problem. As John F. Kennedy said, “It’s not what the country can do for you, it’s who you can hate.”

Before we get started on this hate search, let me be clear, this shortage is not our fault. Like global warming, it is just part of the natural earth cycle. But there is a realistic fear here: if we run out of others to hate, we might start turning inward and start hating our sons and daughters. Well, except for Donald Trump, he still wants to date his daughter.

But as we begin this search, don’t start getting all moralistic and whiny. This is something we can solve. From the beginning of time, we always chose a group or groups we don’t like based on “age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability.” Sure, Iowa law tries to give some protection to those very groups — well, less so for gender identity, as we recently saw — but, come on, this is our go-to hate list. And, frankly, it’s just the history of the world. It’s the way it goes. And trust me, you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of this list. Duh.

So what to do?

Well, I was hoping a historical approach might give us some answers to this hate shortage. Perhaps an analysis of how other groups in the past figured out who to hate.

Bingo. The one variable I see repeated time and again is the haters telling the world that the group to hate is stealing and killing babies. Look it up. Nazis said this about the Jews. Serbs said this about the Bosnians. Kuwaitis said this about the Iraqis. Catholics said this about the Muslims. And everyone said this about the Roma. And if that isn’t enough hate to go around, the hated group is then accused of eating the babies. I’m not lying. And the newest variation of this theme? Selling the “aborted babies” for research. My oh my.

Of course, it’s all hogwash, but is it instructive?

Not as helpful as you’d think. It tells us how to talk about the hated group, but not how to identify them. Listen, it’s good to know what to say next time we hate someone, but it doesn’t solve our hate-group deficit.

Then I stumbled upon the answer. I decided to look for the dominant trait of a prospective hated group. It doesn’t take a Donald Trump to see that the hated group is somehow weaker — politically, economically, socially, maybe even historically. Under this analysis, it is just nature’s story about the school yard bully. Survival of the meanest. Target the weaker individual and hate.

But we live in a brave new world, folks. The weak are not so weak. You know what I mean. Not so long ago, you beat up the hated kid, all your buddies patted you on the back, and you went off and spent the poor schmuck’s lunch money. Not anymore.Today, your righteous use of hate is being recorded on someone’s iPhone or by the Hy Vee parking lot video or a camera on an officer’s vest. And you’re screwed. Unfairly, of course. You know what happened to Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens football player. Yup, caught on video knocking out his fiancée in the elevator after we had all come to his defense just the day before. Egg on our face. Not a good day for hating the victim when that video was released.

But there is a lesson here. We need to pick on someone we can beat up. Someone who won’t videotape our nonsense. And someone who we can ultimately accuse of stealing and eating our babies.

Mmmmm . . . .

The answer’s obvious — we need to hate puppies.


And maybe cats. Although, cats scare me just a little.

Whew. National crisis averted. Hate is again safe.















The Dutch bike

The Dutch bike stands outside the bike store just off the Frederik Hendrikplein in The Hague. Solid. Sturdy. Immovable. It is unclear if the bike is resting against the wall or the wall against the bike.

The bike has seen better days. Scratched and scraped, it has certainly never heard of the featherlight promise of carbon-fiber tubing, or the latest advances in aerodynamic streamlining, or the notion of multi-gears timed for going up and down hills. What’s a hill in Holland anyway? That slight bump of the bridge over a canal would not even count as a warmup in Dubuque.

“Bob,” the bike man, has rebuilt the important bits of this old bike and left the beat-up exterior in a gentle acknowledgement of the inevitability of age. And there is of course the in-your-face fact that the bike is so heavy that if it fell over, the rider and anyone close to the rider would certainly be crushed. Such flaws, however, are like a puppy in the window to us.

“The cost is 395 euro,” Bob says in excellent English.

“How about 350?” I say in honor of my carny roots.

“How about 400?” Bob says with a smile and a wink.

And with that wink, my wife is the proud owner of a Dutch bike. Black. Upright. Heavy. Baskets on the back. Light on the front. Handbrakes for quick stops. Lock attached to the wheel to thwart those pesky thieves. Chain guard to keep the oil off your dress or pants. Mud flaps to stop the wet and rain from landing on your back. And options galore if you so desire: umbrella attachment, musical instrument carrier, braces to haul lumber for that remodel project, and every kind of child carrier for the growing family.

It all gets a little crazy, of course. For example, you have three kids? Here’s the Dutch bike for you.


Oh, you need a rack to haul your surfboard? Here you go.


These are all good options, of course, but not for us. And straight off the lot we pedal, as is.

Bikes are everywhere in the Netherlands. In fact, the number of bicycles exceeds the number of people, according to the Fietsersbond, a Dutch biking institution. And in The Hague, where we are living, the BBC reports that 70% of all trips out the door are made by bike. I think 70% is too low when I pass by this parking lot outside a grocery store. Just imagine if each of those bikes was a vehicle. Now imagine the size of the space needed to park all these vehicles, including your RAM 3500 pickup. Yup, a lot of space.

Image 4

So, why are there so many bikes in this Dutch world? Certainly, the high density population, the flat terrain, the tremendous infrastructure that supports biking, and legislation shifting liability against cars in a car/bike accident, is all at play. But I don’t think these are the only reasons.

There is just a Dutch culture of biking. A sense that human power is stronger than machine power. Like skating on the canals. A notion of communal toughness. Strength against the elements. I wonder at bottom whether biking is one more manifestation by the Dutch that they must keep strong in order to be able to shore up the dike when the ocean tries again to take back what is rightfully hers. Who knows?

For whatever the reason, my Dutch friends say with pride when they see me on my bike: “Now you are Dutch.” Particularly if I am biking in the rain. Which I try to avoid. Especially in front of a tram — the silent killer of the unwary biker.

Image 1

But it makes you wonder about the Iowa House killing a Senate bill that would have forced cars to pass bikes just like cars pass cars, one lane over. Not to be this year, it seems. We don’t want to infringe on our cars or slow down our busy schedules.

But the writing is on the wall. As more people bike in Iowa, the more those same people when driving will move over to the next lane, law or not. As more people bike in Iowa, the more we will see designated bikeways for increased safety. As more people bike in Iowa, we’ll rightfully see a pridefulness about people riding their bikes to the grocery store, or picking up the kids, or going to a concert. And we will say to a visitor when we see them riding a bike, “Now you are an Iowan.”

But not today. Today my wife buys flowers from the flower stand on Frederik Heindriklaan. Tulips, of course. She carefully puts them in her new bike bag, flashes me a smile, hops up on her saddle, and rides her old Dutch bike home. And I pedal slowly behind.









A short helpful guide to air travel

Flying in an airplane without crying is just one of those skills we are all supposed to have learned after a certain age. Sure, I get it. The jets fire up, the plane lumbers down the runway, and everyone is anticipating the sun reflecting off the sand as they saunter down to the beach, drink in hand, safely at their final destination. This is my wife. Happy. Carefree. Curious as to what free food and beverages will be provided as she arranges her knitting projects over my trembling lap.

Is she kidding?

Listen, do you want your last thoughts before your horrific death to be whether the peanuts are too salty? Are you going to knit and purl across the Atlantic rather than rend your clothes and pray mightily to any gods who will listen to please keep these 875,000 pounds from falling into the crashing seas?

My wife pretends she cannot hear my concerns and asks the flight attendant for a second glass of wine.

So why shouldn’t I weep just a little? Not embarrassingly so, of course. Just a little in recognition of the obvious. We are going to die today. In a plane crash. End of story.

Why am I so certain?

Well, let’s start with the planes. There we are at Gate C1 at the Des Moines International Airport waiting to take off for the first leg of our trip to The Netherlands. Okay, no big deal. A very small plane sits connected to our gate. Really, just a baby plane. A plane that you might give your five-year-old daughter on her birthday.

The attendant, seeing I am mildly concerned about the size of the plane, reassures me.

“Sir, that isn’t your plane, it will pull up next.”

You can guess what happens. Yup, a smaller plane, the mere wisp of a plane, really just the idea of a plane, then docks at Gate C1. This did not reassure me and necessitates a second trip to the bathroom.

See the man with the flashlights? He is bigger than the plane. I am going to die.


Then, in Minneapolis, we arrive at the baby plane terminal that is 400 miles from the terminal where the parent plane is going to take us across the freezing Atlantic. No problem.

It is no problem because we have the magic walkways that propel you forward in leaps and bounds across this gigantic airport. A flat escalator, really. Now, a normal escalator, like the ones you used to see in the old Younkers Building, lets you off at the top or the bottom with a gentle nudge. These flat escalators fling you forward as if you’re attached to the bungie cord ride at the Iowa State Fair. But, of course, without the cord.

My agile wife skips from walkway to walkway. After my third propulsion, I decide it is time to again go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, without the aid of the magic walkway, it feels like I have been on the International Space Station a day too long. I decide the bathroom may be an unattainable goal. I want to cry again. And to make matters worse, I can’t even remember whether back in third grade Sister Jean Marie said there were bathrooms in the afterlife. I suspect that I don’t know this information because I was in the bathroom at the time.

At last we are on the big plane. I look out over the hundreds of people sitting quietly and patiently, waiting for take-off. Some read. Some sleep. Some watch the many wonderful movies provided. Others are neighborly and make new friends and show kindness to the flight attendants. It is a very convivial group of world travelers.

I believe they might all be zombies.


The proof is obvious. All this metal and steel is going to be thrown up into the air and then guess what? Yes, Newton’s Law of Gravity comes for an unwelcome visit.

So, why isn’t everyone gnashing their teeth? Why isn’t everyone weeping and wailing? Where are the sackcloths and ashes of mourning? I start hyperventilating. Nobody else is hyperventilating. I start sweating. Nobody else is sweating. I again start crying softly. Only the baby three rows back is crying. Unpleasantly, by the way.

See what I told you? They are all Zombies.

My wife tells me to quiet down and look out the window.

After I wipe my eyes, this is what I see.


Yup, I see only one engine. They’ve lost the other one somewhere over the Atlantic.

We are all going to die.

So, you want my advice on air travel? Simple enough. Have you considered spring break in Grimes?