Friday, 11 February 2011


Last night we went to see Wicked. It was wicked! And now Spoiler Alert: if you haven't seen it, I recommend you don't read any further....

The overall performance was good, but the production was transformed to fantastic with the outstanding performance of Rachel Tucker, who played Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west. She showed an amazing range in pitch and a depth of feeling in her powerful voice that helped to tell her story. Such a strong lead, she was careful not to drown out her cast members but was clearly in a league of her own. She was just phenomenal.

The story started slowly, but it was not long before I was identifying with Elphaba - many people feel in some ways that they are hard done by and misunderstood, and even different from everyone else.
So many themes were covered by the story, an obvious one - the power of the media to paint someone as Good or Wicked - so that no matter what was intended it was always poorly received.
It was about standing up for those being persecuted, whose own voice was being silenced out of fear.
It was about the difference between external and internal beauty.
It was about the difference between being Good and being seen or believed to be Good.
It was about personal truth and personal responsibility. The ability to recognise and take responsibility for our own contribution to our own circumstances, without blaming others.

As with many human interactions, it's all about perspective and what individuals each believe to be true, in their own reality. This show was an inspiration: the costumes, the performances and the messages to be truly good.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Dutch Adventures

This weekend we continued our adventures, flying into Amsterdam on Friday night and out again Sunday night. When mentioning our destination to workmates and friends, the response was almost always a knowing look and confiding smile. Descriptions of the place included 'liberal' and 'very different' and 'fun'. So I was looking forward to developing my own impressions.
Thanks to Expedia specials, we stayed at a nice hotel in the historic area of Haarlem, a small city about 18km from the capital. It was a quiet area, one of the major side effects of having bicycles as the main form of transport. We went for a blustery walk in the evening, amongst the fairly tame Friday night revellers, to orient ourselves.

Saturday we walked around Haarlem before catching a train the 15 minutes to Amsterdam to meet Marjolene (Ma-ro-lee-na). I played with Marj on Iceni in 2010, but not this year as her and Henrik's first child is due in June. For the following 5 hours we walked. We:
  • Saw inside a Buddhist temple and people doing tai chi, as part of the Chinese new year celebrations;
  • Saw the palpable boredom of the daytime prostitutes in the red light district;
  • Saw townhouses 5 stories high with a distinct lean, as a result of being below sea level and the wooden foundations not being deep enough to remain solid for more than 200 years (!) in the clay soil;
  • Crossing what seemed like many of the 1000+ canal bridges;
  • Gawking at the multitude of houseboats on the canals, from sailing boats with improbable (but foldable) 15m masts, to square dongers on floats;
  • Explored the private gardens completely surrounded by the houses that share them, gardens being a rare privilege in a country where space is a premium;
  • Bought for ourselves fresh stroopwaffel, a thin waffle biscuit that has been sliced and filled with a fudge/caramel/toffee substance - best enjoyed after heating over your coffee/tea;
  • Wandered across the nine streets, a collection of streets where the canals are every second street and from above are shaped like a child's rainbow;
  • Saw the hooks at the top of each building that allowed people to move furniture out of the top windows, as the interior stairs were almost as steep as ladders and very narrow;
  • Passed by market stands selling every variety of tulip bulb and through what was once Marj's local organic market
  • Heard about the difficulties of building an underground railway where digging holes makes houses collapse;
  • Walked past Ann Frank's house and its associated queue;
  • Discussed careers and children;
and that was just Saturday afternoon.

Sunday saw us sleep in and catch the train to Tiel, where we met Michiel and Miki. Lee played with Michiel on Chilly in Australia.
On the train ride we were able to view some of the countryside. The biggest discovery for me was that there were no fences, only gates! The small fields were bounded by a networked grid of streams! Fencing in this country looks a very different affair - you would have to become good at building bridges instead. Plus the fields are all neatly squared - as there's no contours to suggest otherwise.

Water in this country has almost the exact opposite considerations to water in Australia. As you can imagine, if not for their ability to fly away, you would think that ducks and seagulls were being farmed.

Tiel has really fertile ground and had been known as the fruit capital of the Netherlands. With Michiel and Miki we walked around a castle, next to the meandering river that the Vikings had used to invade, and we explored a historical town (name forgotten already) and finished up with local pancakes, before they drove us back to catch our flight.

Perhaps it was the people we were with or the change of scenery, but it was a really chilled and relaxing weekend. It came as a nasty shock to catch public transport back in London (rude passengers) and to come across frustrations at work on Monday morning.

Now that I've related our actions, I can get to the interesting part, my impressions.
Everywhere in the cities were bikes: chained 2-deep to every bridge railing, in two storey bike parks at stations, outside every shop and pub. For me, this begged the question - why? Behaviour change studies have found that people need to see the perceived advantages as much greater than the disadvantages. Us cycling in Melbourne is a clear example of this. We could either catch a tram amongst jostling commuters with a door-to-door of 45min-1h, or we could cycle with a door-to-door of 10-15min - plus health and financial benefits. In the Netherlands, area is prime - not on the premium scale like Hong Kong, but enough that the waiting lists for parking spots is upwards of 7 years. You need to get around somehow - and bikes are convenient, relatively easy (at its highest point 350m) and come with all the accessories you could possibly need (including buckets for up to 3 kids). Together with trains that have priority areas for bikes, you can easily travel anywhere in the country. A possible side effect of all this green travel is that the cities don't have a grimy, dirty feel as found in cities like London.

The clean streets, regions of new buildings, the lack of skyscrapers and old cemeteries maintained in neat, straight lines makes it easy to forget how old and influential the country is. The first European explorers to Australia were Dutch (in 1606). Some areas have new builds because the previous residences were bombed in the war.

As for the 'cafes' where you can choose your own cannabis, we didn't enter one. The red light district was interesting to see the different expressions on the prostitutes' faces: bored, uncomfortable, confined or actively attracting business.

There will be no photos until after we move into our new place (8/3/11), as our 'quality' Internet service provider cut us off early.