Allston Christmas 2

Allston Christmas

There’s a table on the sidewalk of Commonwealth Avenue in Allston that looks like it would be perfect for my room. Not too big, not too small. High enough and seemingly in good condition.
As I set course for it, I see a girl coming from the the other side with the same idea. I quicken my pace, just enough to beat her to the table, but not be too conspicuous. She does the same.
I reach the table first and inspect it. The top looks all right.
“You like it?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” I say while I kneel down to inspect the legs.
“Well if you’re not taking it, I might.”
She kneels down. One of the legs is wobbly.
“It’s not for me,” I decide.
“No, I’ll pass too.”
“It’s too bad, it had potential.”
“It sure did.” She laughs and I get ready to continue my way down Commonwealth. She does the same.
“Merry Allston Christmas!” she yells.
It’s moving day in Allston, one of the many neighborhoods of Boston with a significant student population. Most leases start on September 1st. The result? The sidewalks are full of abandoned tables, drawers and lamps, and those who aren’t lucky enough to have found the perfect sofa for their new house, or the perfect coffee table to go with the beautiful hardwood floor in their new apartment, are out on the streets, hoping for a golden catch.
I’m one of them. I have not a stick of furniture in this city, except for the mattress I brought in from the street opposite my house last night.
That evening I continue my quest for a table with my friend Andy, who lives one street over.
“See this,” he points at the glass coffee table in his living room. “Allston Christmas.” The comfy chair he sits in was last year’s catch. True Allston Christmas veterans like Andy, know you have to come early to find the best pieces. Unfortunately he has a busy weekend, so it’s already dark once we hit the streets.
“I think there’s still some decent stuff out there,” he says as we drive off.
This afternoon he texted me, “you like this?” With a picture of a lamp, with shade, on the side of the road.
“Not sure,” I texted back. It’s tempting to take everything you can find, but you have to be picky or you’ll end up with an overcrowded living room.
“I’m on the lookout for a table,” I tell him as we get into the car.
I look out the window as we turn from Commonwealth onto a side street.
Out on the sidewalk is a complete discarded living room set. We quickly park and jump out. On closer inspection there’s no table, but there is a drawer that looks acceptable.
Together we lug it to Andy’s car. We decide to continue our quest by foot. On the backlot of an apartment building there’s a container full of discarded bed bottoms, mattresses and sofas. Next to it there’s a desk chair. It’s in good shape.
“I never say no to a good desk chair, what do you think?” I’ll ask Andy as I’ll sit down.
“It’s positively you,” Andy answers.
I roll the desk chair to the car. On the way we find a lamp and a small cabinet in mint condition. There’s still no table in sight though.
It’s getting late and we decide to call it a day. We unload the furniture at my place then drive over to his for a traditional Allston Christmas dinner: pizza and beers.
The next day I go for a run. I turn the corner and there, not two hundred meters from my house, is a seemingly brand new table, with four chairs lined up next to it. I quickly assess the situation. I’ve left my phone at home, so there’s no calling in reinforcements. I’ll have to choose: either the table or two chairs. I decide to go for the table, get it home quickly, and then come back for the chairs. The table is heavier than it looks and when I’ve finally carried it up the stairs into my room and run back, the chairs are gone.
“Merry Allston Christmas,” I murmur to myself.

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Charlottesville (2)

As soon as I get off the bus in Charlottesville I start to sweat. It’s incredibly hot and humid today. I’m not even sure what I’m doing here. It was a spur of the moment decision, made in a sleep deprived state, fueled by the many discussions at the Fulbright orientation the week before. Before I knew it, I’d offered to write a short impression of the town for de Groene Amsterdammer, and there was no way back. (Read more about why I wanted to be here.)

First I go to the mall, the place where Heather Heyer was killed, last Saturday. I walk down the main street. It’s recently been redone and paved with friendly red bricks. It makes me think of Hilversum, where my mother used to take me to shop for shoes when I was young. People are outside, sitting on terraces, drinking coffee, eating ice cream. It seems like it’s just another Saturday, but there’s tension in the air. Maybe it’s the occasional video camera, for the umpteenth impression of the town, or the continuous faint drum sounds coming from the small manifestation down the street, or maybe it’s just in my head.

When I turn the corner on 4th SE street, I immediately see the flowers. They’re piled up near the corner. The other side of the street is barricaded by a police car. Further down there’s a fence with more flowers. The walls of the surrounding buildings are crayoned with slogans, drawings and statements of support. Underneath the ’stop’ on the stop-sign next to the fence, someone put the word ‘hate’ in colorful letters. Stop hate. On the sidewalk are two people sitting in chairs. Grey hair, slouched shoulders, leaning forward, to the crowd surrounding them.

“I thought you were amazingly brave on television,” a woman says in a slight Southern accent. “What you said to Trump: think before you speak. You were so right.”

Others join in.

“They keep going back to the statue, but that’s so not what it’s about.”

Another woman joins the group. Clearly emotional she says: “I’m so sorry. I came all the way from New Jersey, I just had to be here with you.” She’s fighting her tears. The man gets up and gives her a hug.

“Thank you so much.”

A few minutes later he approaches me as I stand on the sidewalk and look at the flowers. I’ve kept my distance, but he noticed me nonetheless.

“Thank you for coming,” he says. He has a friendly face. Grey hair, wrinkled forehead. He’s missing most of his front teeth.

“I have a bad back, but I can’t just sit there,” he says leaning against the wall, “I want to thank everybody personally and talk to them.”

I should tell him I’m here to write a short impression, but I can’t think of how to phrase this in a way that doesn’t make me a cold-hearted bastard. Somehow I don’t want it to be true. I’m here as a human being too, although I’m not the kind of human being who would drive down here all the way from New Jersey.

He opens his arms.

“A hug?”

I hug him. I hug this big man and I feel his body warmth and I don’t know what to say.

“I’m so sorry,” is all I can think of.

“Thank you,” he whispers as he lets go of me, but holds my shoulder.

“Do you know what was the last thing on her Facebook?” he asks me. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

He’s remarkably calm. Emotional, definitely, but calm.

“The last footage I saw of her, was when she was walking down this street. She was happy, she wasn’t hateful. She just wanted to show everybody was welcome.”

I still don’t know what to say. I feel a sadness, but it’s an abstract kind of sadness, especially in the presence of the tremendous concrete grief of the man standing in front of me. I could cry, but I’m not going to.

“Last week we cleared out her apartment, not too far from here. I got into contact with her friends and asked them if they would help me. Most of her stuff was taken by friends. We don’t want to keep anything. We want it to be in hands of people that cared for her.”

He talks more about her and about the amount of support they’ve been getting from everybody in the community and how that is such a comfort.

Then he says: “Thank you for listening,” and opens his arms again.

I hug him again. He squeezes my shoulder and I touch his as he excuses himself. He walks back to the chair and chimes back into the conversation. I look at the flowers for a little while, then decide it’s time to go.

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Charlottesville (1)

I was fortunate enough to spent four days with Fulbright grantees from all over the world, at the Gateway Orientation in Fairfax and Washington. I met 63 truly delightful and inspiring people from Argentina, South-Africa, Greece, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Indonesia, Switzerland, Sweden, Columbia, India, and many more countries. I’ve never met such a diverse group of people who at the same time all seemed to carry the same universal spirit.

The unnerving events in Charlottesville, about 160 km from Fairfax, were weaved like a red thread through the program. There was a need amongst everybody to discuss what had happened and on more than one occasion, presenters or students referred to Charlottesville. The first on to mention it was Ángel Cabrera, the director of our host institution the George Mason University in Virginia. In his opening speech he stated that it was hard to stand in front of such a diverse group of students from countries all around the world, and wish them a truly warm welcome in the United states, with everything that was going on.

The events in Charlottesville shocked me. Probably the most disturbing aspect of the rally to me was that it were mostly young men. The fact that a whole new generation of people is growing up infected with these ideas is deeply disturbing and makes you worry about the future.

At the same time, I experienced an enormous amount of energy coming from my fellow Fulbrighters every time Charlottesville was mentioned. There was anger and frustration, but there was also a tremendous willingness to take action. The universally shared notion was that this should be stopped right here, right now and everybody wanted to stand up and make a loud and clear statement that this line would not be crossed.

I don’t want to make it sound like everything is going to be okay – I’m not sure it ever will – but the amount of counter protesters at the rallies, and the spirit of everybody I’ve met at least make me feel there is hope.

After the orientation I felt a strong need to go to Charlottesville and see it for myself. Multiple friends recommended the town before everything happened for its liberal spirit and openness, and I read that it’s been chosen, more than once, as the best town to live in in the United States.

So I booked a Greyhound bus to spend a day in Charlottesville. Read more about it here.

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House Viewing (1)

I’m meeting Mo in front of the building on 1267 Beacon street. He’s parking his black Lexus convertible just as I come down the street and waves at me from his side window.
The first thing he tells me in a strong accent that’s probably Israeli, is that he’s the owner of the building.
“Frankly, I don’t care if you take the room,” he says as we enter the apartment. “You’re not gonna make me rich anymore.”
He swings the door to the room open.
“It’s a nice apartment. There’s two women here who keep the place clean. It’s good.”
I look around. The room is painted dark blue, but not recently. There’s little light coming from a tiny window in the corner. The mattress is old, the closet is old, there’s black tape on a window above the door to block the light coming from the hallway.
“It’s not bad,” I tell him.
“This is the best deal you’re gonna find anywhere in this city.”
I look around and fear that he tells me the truth.
“Just look at the kitchen. They’re all women, they keep it nice.”
The kitchen is old, but clean. There’s a porch looking out on a dead wall of the building opposite the street.
He asks me what brings me to Boston.
“So you’ll be a big famous writer,” he says and I tell him probably not.
“It’s good,” he says, suddenly serious. “You’re young. You should follow your heart when you’re young.”

When we’re outside again, he points at the other gigantic building next to the one we just came out of.
“Mine too,” he says with a slight touch of melancholy in his voice.
“I’m an old man. Pretty soon I can’t climb the stairs anymore. I want my son to take over but he’s not interested in property management. So what am I gonna do?”
He walks to the car and I’m not sure if I should follow.
“Come on,” he waves at me, “I’ll show you where to run and then I’ll show you where to eat. Get in the car.”
I hesitate.
“What, you don’t have time?”
I shake my head, it’s not that.
“Well then get in the car.”
I get into the convertible. He lets the roof down as we take off.
“Let’s get my hair blowing in the wind,” he says as he rubs his bald head with his hand and laughs. I laugh with him and relax. I make conversation, ask about his son, who appears to be a banker somewhere in Vermont. His wife left him, he tells me, “and she took all my money.”
The roof squeaks as it’s folding.
“It’s an old car,” he says. “An old car for an old man, with an old building.”
He laughs, then points outside.
“Here, this is where you run.”
There is a small lake, with a track all the way around it.
“I ran a lot down here when I was younger and skinnier.” He laughs again then wipes his face with a napkin.
“I get too hot, I’m fat, I can’t stand the heat. You’re skinny, you’re alright.”
He turns on Harvard street.
“The food in this country is shit,” he says. “It’s the worst. Let me show you where you should eat.”
We pass by Rami’s on Harvard street, an Israeli falafel restaurant.
“One of the only two places that serve descent food in this neighborhood. Promise me you’ll go.”
But before I can promise him, he slows down and yells at a man in kaki shorts that just steps out of the restaurant.
“Hey Lou! Lou! What’s up? I got a guy here, who’s gonna take the room.”
He points at me. I wave, slightly embarrassed.
“You gonna rent a room in that shit hole?” Lou asks me laughing.
“Sure he is.”
They joke around some more before we take off again. He drops me off a mile further down, on the corner of Harvard and Beacon street.
As I get out of the car he says: “I don’t care if you take the room, but it was a pleasure meeting you, either way.”
I shake his hand and tell him likewise. He waves as he drives off. I watch the car until it turns, then I head in the direction of Rami’s.

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A short note about cooking in the US

Call me snobbish, call me spoiled, call me European, but after 4 nights of semi-fastfood, taken out or eaten in, in one of the few places in the neighborhood that serve vegetarian meals, I’m fed up with pizza, quesadilla’s, vegi burgers and American-style Vietnamese. It’s time for a proper meal prepared by a proper chef, eaten with proper silverware from proper plates in a proper kitchen. I might even go overboard and treat myself to a little bit of wine.
Even before I enter the Trader Joe’s to get my groceries, I’m mouthwatering at the very thought of a simple pasta with tomato sauce with fresh garlic, onion and bell peppers. It’s going to be the perfect healthy taste explosion that I’ve been longing for ever since I had a scone for breakfast, and been craving since the pancakes with maple syrup I ate for lunch.
I know a thing or two about American supermarkets, so I’m not surprised at the four bucks for two bell peppers or the two dollars for a sphere of garlic. I know this is America and the only things that come cheap are corn and sugar made out of corn. I’ll even throw in some zucchini at $1,50 an ounce. I don’t blink at the check out counter – eye on the prize – when I pay my grand total of $18. Nothing can throw me off, it’s going to be completely worth it.
In my temporary home I unpack my fresh darlings and inspect the kitchen gear. My host’s already shown me the paper plates in the cupboard, so they’re no surprise. I’ll have to make do with them. What is a surprise is the absence of a cutting board and proper knife. There’s no kitchen knife, no small fruit knife, not even a pizza knife of sorts, nothing. Just four regular knifes in the drawer with silverware. Okay, so it’s going to be a little messy. No problem. It’s still going to be healthy and tasty as hell. It’s still going to be near perfect.
Preparing a meal, like life, has three phases: first you prepare yourself as best as you can. You get your groceries, you clean and cut them. Then the actual cooking starts. You fire up the stove, and you put all that well prepared food into the pan, you fry, bake, cook and flambé[Bart Kuipers, 08-08-2017 13:14] and after all that, the good part starts. You can sit down and eat. You get to enjoy your hard work, and enjoy it even more so, knowing that you did all that by yourself. But like life, there’s a lot of things along the way that can put you down.
I inspect the pots and pans, or better to say the two unused frying pans and no pots stowed away in the bottom cupboard. I make a quick assessment: no pots, means I can’t cook the pasta. How will I ever make pasta with red sauce, if I can’t cook the pasta? I frantically search for a water cooker, or anything else that will boil a substantial amount of store bought pasta, but there is nothing there. Alright, so it’ll have to be just the sauce then. I’ll turn the pasta sauce into a meal by adding some red beans. It’ll be more like chili without chili, but with Italian seasoning, but whatever. It’s still food, and it’s still healthy, that’s what matters.
I start cutting the onion on a paper plate, or better to say I start butchering it, because of the terrible knife I’m stuck with. I blood, sweat and tear myself through two bell peppers and the zucchini – replacing the drenched and thus decomposing paper plate in the process – but I need to take a break before I can mentally handle cutting the garlic.
When everything’s in the pan my spirits are lifted again. It’s not going to be as I envisioned it, but it’ll still be good.
I inspect the seasoning options. Thank heavens, there is a salt and pepper grinder. I take it, put it over the pan, turn it and before I know it the pan is filled with tiny black peppercorns, hundreds of them. In my hand I hold the top that came apart from the rest of the grinder. I curse, I’m starting to loose my patience, I curse again. Pretty soon there will be nothing left to eat, without stumbling on a peppercorn with every bite.
With the last bit of patience I have in me, I dig up all the peppercorns individually and throw them in the sink. When I’m done, fifteen minutes later, I realize the red beans are overcooked. The rest seems okay. I add some salt – the pepper grinder I don’t dare to touch again – and plate up.
This is cooking in a badly equipped kitchen: you start out with a plan for a banquet, and you end up with bowl filled with the bear essentials. But it tastes damn good!

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I’ve been meaning to start this Blog for three months now, but what better moment to start than on the very first day in Boston over an all American breakfast.

When I enter Martin’s Coffeeshop on Harvard Street in Brookline the place is crowded. Americans, having lunch, chatting about their idiot president, the weather, or what not. Real Americans who, presumably, live in the neighborhood. Who have houses here, and jobs, and cars. And then there’s me, a 35 year old Dutch guy, who thinks he can blend in. Unseen.

I carefully selected my table and picked one in the back where I can observe the crowd and the ballet of coming and going waiters and waitresses serving the hungry Bostionians, without drawing too much attention to myself. I order blueberry pancakes and coffee. There’s something alluring about the American clichés that I know so well from the movies and television series I used to watch as a teenager. It’s very comforting to have a whole country consistently eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, watching ‘the game’ and wishing each other a great day, all day, every day. So I decide I want to try and be a true Bostionian for the short time I’ll be here. That’s why I don’t act surprised when the waitress offers me a refill of coffee, but just casually offer my cup. I pour the syrup over my pancakes, just like everybody else and I sip my coffee as if I’m a regular customer and not someone who flew in a day earlier and is excited about eating breakfast in a real American coffeeshop.

I’m on a different mission too. I have to to find a more permanent residence and an affordable cell phone plan, and since my temporary host has trouble with his internet connection I have to do it here. Just as the waitress turns her back to take the coffee pot back to it’s place on the hotplate behind the bar, I casually ask for the Wifi password. I don’t want to sound like a tourist – I live here now – but of course I do.
‘It’s 35haavaad,’ she says.
’35,’ I repeat slowly, ‘and then?’
‘Sorry what?’
In a split second I realize it’s an address and since the coffeeshop is on Harvard Street I finally make the deduction. In the same split second I realize I heard this typical Bostionian accent before, in Good Will Hunting, to be precise, mouthed by Ben Affleck or Matt Damon, or both.
’35 Harvard,’ I repeat and she nods: ‘Yes 35 Haavaad.’
‘Thank you.’
I enter the password and she puts the coffee away.
When she comes by to ask me if I want a third refill, I politely refuse. I ask her if she’s from Boston.
‘From Boston?’ she repeats and then she laughs. ‘No way, I’m from Slovenia.’
Suddenly I hear her accent no longer has that touch I mistook for Bostonian. It actually does sound slightly Eastern European now.
When I pay the bill she says: ‘There’s a lot of Europeans in Brookline, you’ll fit right in.’
With a smile I slide a generous tip over the counter and think: mission accomplished.

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1 Comment

  1. Olga Terlouw

    Very nice written Bart! Well done! Yes you can!!
    Enjoy your stay over there🍀🌺🌻🌻🌺🍀