(Re)Election Day

Dawn of a New Day
Today is officially election day in the US. Like many expats — and even many people living in the US — I took advantage of early voting, which in my case is more specifically absentee voting. As long as I remain a US citizen, I can continue to vote in US elections. Technically, I vote on the North Carolina ballot, since that was my last place of residence.

I may not live there any more, and I may have no plans to go back, but I have family and friends there who can be directly impacted by who the president is. It also impacts other countries, including the EU, and since I live in the EU, it’s all still relevant.

Pushing It

I was able to email a PDF of my ballot (fax and regular mail were also options), and I still have a copy of my ballot. I was very careful as I filled in the circles, joking that I didn’t want any “hanging chad” issues interfering with my vote! It was nice to physically fill something in, but I do miss going to my local polling place and casting my vote. I always got a bit of a thrill from it all.

Brave Hond [Day 62/365]
Fortunately, I will get my chance to physically cast my vote the next time there are municipal elections here in Utrecht. By then, I’ll have been here long enough to qualify to vote. I can’t vote in national elections here unless I become a Dutch citizen, but they kindly do allow legal residents who have been here a certain amount of time to vote in local elections. It makes sense that we get to have a say on local issues that affect us. No longer will I be like that little doggy, relegated to waiting for someone else to finish voting.

If you feel like voting — or voting some more — you can always vote for me by leaving a comment on this page about my blog. I promise to be a benevolent top-blog ruler if I win! Massive thanks to those of you who have already commented. I am truly touched by the comments you’ve left.

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Campaign Appearances

Election Campaigning
The Dutch are going to the polls tomorrow to vote for the party/prime minister to lead the country. We had an election not that long ago, but the shaky coalition that had been formed fell apart earlier this year. I’ll leave it to others to comment on whether they think the government formed this time around will last for long.

Political campaigning here in the Netherlands is nothing like it is in the US. Here, it’s a much shorter period and it’s not the same full-on barrage that I experience in the US. It’s only been the last couple of weeks that it has really become more obvious as the political parties — of which there are 22 — have been hitting the streets and squares to encourage people to vote for them. The next two photos were taken from inside the Stadhuis, looking out onto the Stadhuisbrug where a large number of the parties had gathered, including the PvdA, VVD, and Groene Links. PvdA has been particularly active around the city the past two weeks, with signs, balloons, and large groups of supporters out campaigning for them. According to the news, it seems like PvdA is the big challenger to the VVD, the current prime minister’s party.

Election Campaigning

Election Campaigning

One of the national television channels has been hosting a political program with some of the politicians being interviewed. The program is called 1 voor de Verkiezingen (One for the Election, with 1 also being the tv channel). They have set up a temporary studio in the square in front of Het Utrechts Archief. That’s the building pictured in the first photo. They’ve been there for at least two weeks. You can see the building in the first minute of the program that is available on the website, if you want to see it in action, so to speak. Whether you want to listen to Gert Wilders is also up to you.

Election Campaigning

There are posters and big trucks set up around the temporary studio, as seen above. Fortunately, most political posters are limited to designated billboards that go up in a few locations around the city. It’s a bit neater and cleaner than the million and one signs I was used to in the US!

I may not be able to vote in the Dutch elections, but I can still vote in the US elections. If you’re an American living overseas and want to vote this November, make sure you sign up to receive your absentee ballot so you can vote from abroad! Hurry! Time is running out.

Utrecht’s Gay Rights Memorial

Recognition
I was born and raised in Florida, but moved to North Carolina (NC) when I was 16. I’ve lived there off and since then, so it’s a state I have some affection for, as well as some feelings of frustration. The recent vote in North Carolina to amend the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage and essentially remove many rights of anyone not in a traditional marriage left me particularly frustrated. The US is legally a secular country, so religious beliefs shouldn’t influence political decisions. I may be an atheist myself, but I have a number of friends in NC, of varying faiths, who fought hard against this vote. It’s a nice reminder that many people of faith practice the loving side of their religion, rather than trying to limit the freedoms of others.

Memorial

About a month ago, I came across a story on one of the Utrecht news site about a gay memorial that stands in the Domplein (Cathedral Square) here in the city. Finally, yesterday, I went to go see it for myself. The memorial is for the 18 Utrechters who were imprisoned and killed for being gay in the 1730s.

The nave of the cathedral was destroyed in a storm in 1674, and the ruins became a meeting place for those known as sodomieten. In 1730-31, after complaints from the sacristan of the cathedral, the government stepped in and began arresting people and interrogating them. Other meeting places were discovered and a wave of arrests followed. Some people in important positions were tipped off in advance and escaped, but in the end, 18 people were sentenced to death and strangled.

The memorial to this atrocity stands on the historic church grounds. It also shows the way thinking has changed from the 18th century to today. The memorial describes how in the 18th century, it was called sodomy and punishable by death. Today, it is called homosexuality and it comes with freedom and choice.

Vrijheid

The memorial is dated June 1999. Since then, gay marriage has been legalized in the Netherlands. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, it will be legal everywhere and we will look back with horror at the way the GLBT community has been treated and isolated.

Source

Utrecht’s Occupation

Wave the Flag
On 15 October 2011, people of all ages began gathering at the Domplein in Utrecht. The crisp, autumn morning saw signs being made, posters being hung, and people coming together to voice a frustration with the form of capitalism that has taken over in many countries. On this day, in cities and countries around the world, people joined together to show a solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not everyone there was an anarchist, nor were they all dirty hippies or a lazy bums (or any other needlessly pejorative terms). They were young and old, dreadlocked and neatly shorn, obvious protesters and people who look like someone’s granny. Many had different issues that they found particularly frustrating, but the point was that they were all feeling a bit fed up with how the super wealthy and the corporations seemed to be getting the better end of any and all deals.

Since that day many of the Occupy protests around the world, including the original Occupy Wall Street, have been closed down, sometimes with unnecessary violence and brutality. Other protests have popped up, often with mixed results, and frequently with seemingly unnecessary arrests. I recommend checking out some of the posts at nylondaze for some great photos and discussion of recent protests in New York.

While other groups have been shut down, often ages ago, the Occupy Utrecht group, which took over a small section of the square behind the old Stadhuis (city hall) in the center of town, has hung on through (lots of) rain, snow, and changing seasons. They’re still there, and while relatively small, they’ve been clean and organized and seemingly willing to talk every time I’ve gone past their camp.

However, they’re finally being asked to move. Well, at least for a day. You see, April 30 is a national holiday, Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day). Mayor Wolfsen has decided that for the health of the protesters and others, the camp needs to go. The protesters obviously didn’t agree, especially when it was stated that they couldn’t return after the holiday. However, a judge has agreed with them and stated that they can return on 1 May. I’m not sure if they are going to move, but if they do, I suspect they will return, especially when you consider the history of 1 May, also known as May Day and International Worker’s Day. This is a day traditionally when labour and left-wing movements often take to the streets for demonstrations and marches throughout the world.

I’m not sure if I’ll be passing by the Stadhuisplein on Monday, although if the weather isn’t pouring down in buckets as it’s doing now, I may be tempted to go to see if they complied for the one day. I did stop by yesterday, though, and got a few photos. As you can see, it’s not a large, unruly camp. It’s actually condensed and become more organized over the months. With the current austerity measures vote and the recent collapse of the government, I don’t think it’s a bad group to keep around as a reminder that lower and middle classes shouldn’t be the only ones to bear the brunt of economic struggle.

Occupy Utrecht

Occupy Utrecht

Nederland in the News

Train Trein
The Netherlands has been making news over the past few days, for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. Although to watch some of the international news programs, you wouldn’t know it. For example, there was a train crash on Saturday, in which one woman died and 117 were injured, but it didn’t get a mention on BBC’s The Hub news program, which we watch nightly. It’s not that they don’t cover similar stories, since the plane crash that happened that day elsewhere was covered quite extensively.

It seems that the crash was the result of one of the drivers missing possibly missing a red light. However, the driver may not face prosecution, because the signal safety was out of date. It, and most of the other signals across the country, lack the updated security, which would cause the train to halt and avoid running into another train. They have been attempting to update the security of the signals since the 1980s, but the original plan was put on hold, because of a different EU system. However, the EU system was prohibitively expensive and never put in place. Since 2006, they’ve been installing an improved version of the system they started with in the ’80s, but only 1,264 signals have been refitted. Out of 6,000. The transport minister said in November of last year that she is not planning on rolling out the upgrade across the country. I wonder if that plan will change now.

Milling About
However, it is not likely to change any time soon, since the other bit of news is that our government has fallen apart. Geert Wilders, leader of the PPV, who made up an unofficial part of the majority coalition, decided to take his toys and go home (he pulled out of the budget negotiations), causing the coalition to collapse. Prime Minister Rutte (VVD) handed in his cabinet’s resignation yesterday to Queen Beatrix. There was a debate today as to when the election should be held, with some groups preferring to hold it within the next few months, but it seems as if it is going to be put off until the beginning of September. We will be left with a caretaker government in which the current figures carry on, but cannot make any major laws or changes.

The collapse hasn’t come as any real shock, since the VVD and CDA were unable to form a more stable coalition, ultimately having to depend upon an unofficial majority through the support of Wilders and his PPV party. The problem is that Wilders is a eurosceptic and heavily opposed to what he calls the “Islamisation” of the Netherlands and Europe in general. His party’s support has dropped recently as the party itself seems to be falling apart. He’s not well-liked by many here, and he was always viewed as the straw that would probably break the coalition’s back eventually.

So now comes the juggling to see which parties will take the lead in the election, which may well depend on when the election is held. If it were to be held sooner, certain parties would be more likely to come out on top, whereas with a longer delay, other parties might be able to take the lead. As for now, there’s still talk that an agreement over the austerity plan will be reached before the deadline of April 30, when it is supposed to go to the European Commission in Brussels. I guess we’ll see.

Here are some English-language stories with more details:
Train crash
Election
Government collapse

I thought this was an interesting opinion piece (in Dutch) about Wilders having laid the ground work to make a move to the US.

Patriotism Ain’t What It Used To Be

Glam
A few weeks ago, I entered a contest through the I Am Expat website to win tickets for an evening of comedy here in Utrecht. It turns out that I won! That meant that on Friday evening, G and I headed over to Schiller Theater on Minrebroederstraat to have a few laughs. It’s a small theater, but with some beautiful decorative details, including the lovely chandelier and some interesting decorative moldings along the ceiling.

The performers were Greg Shapiro — known as the American Nederlander — and Ava Vidal, a British comedian doing a short tour here in the Netherlands. Greg Shapiro was the one who helped organize this tour for Vidal, so he did the first half of the show and Ava Vidal did the second half. Shapiro has lived here in the Netherlands since 1994, or as he put it, he came for a long weekend in 1994 and never left. A lot of his comedy is based around the politics, and cultural politics, of both the US and the Netherlands.

Close to the beginning of his show, Shapiro asked the audience if anyone was from the US. Myself and a few others quietly half-raised our hands. As I was sitting on the center aisle a few rows back from the stage (and it’s an intimate setting anyway), he seemed to notice my half-hearted acknowledgment and commented on the way things have changed over the years. As he pointed out, it used to be that if someone asked if there were any Americans in the audience, you’d hear loud cries of “U-S-A!” or hoots and hollers and cheering. Nowadays, he’s noticed that the American members of the audience did what I and the few others did: half-raise our hands, while sinking down into our seats.

I’m sure some of us — especially those who have made a point of staying overseas for an extended period of time — are maybe less likely to be the rowdy, chanting type of foreigner in the first place. But he was right in pointing out that over the past decade, our government has made it embarrassing and frustrating to be an American overseas sometimes. Things have gotten better since Obama got elected, but there are times when you dread having to explain once again that no, you didn’t vote for Bush, and no, not every American is a right-wing, evangelical, warmonger.

It’s not that we’re ashamed of being American; it’s just that we recognize that the US isn’t the end all and be all of the world. Shapiro isn’t hesitant to knock some of the Dutch practices either, particularly when it comes to the assimilation programs (inburgering). He tells the story of sitting in his class next to a Muslim woman as the teacher says that the headscarf is a sign of oppression. The woman explained that before moving to the Netherlands, she wasn’t free to wear the headscarf, so for her, being able to wear the headscarf was actually a symbol of freedom. But no, when it comes to inburgering, the headscarf is a sign of oppression. Period.

The show wasn’t all dark politics, though, despite the discussion of racism by Ava Vidal. In fact, the whole night was incredibly funny, while also thought-provoking. I was walking away from the show wiping away tears of laughter, not tears of misery. Greg Shapiro is going to be back in Utrecht in May to present his full How To Be Orange show and we definitely want to go see it. The show includes actual questions from the inburgering exam that he has the audience try to answer, including the Dutch members of the audience to see if they can pass their own exam. For instance, one of the questions asked where the Dutch go on holiday every year. A) They travel within the Netherlands. B) They hitch up the caravan and go to France or Spain, or C) they go overseas. If you’ve spent any time in the Netherlands, you’re probably going to guess B or C, but it turns out that the correct answer was A. Tell that to the people stuck in long lines of traffic made up of Dutch caravans in France every summer. Although I hear some of them are starting to head to Italy now.
Greg Shapiro

Gargoyles and Frothy Mixtures

Gargoyle
This was going to be a Wordless Wednesday post, since my brain’s addled from this awful cold that won’t let go. And to be honest, if I weren’t so familiar with American politics, I might have thought this story was just a figment of my fevered brain. But no. Rick Santorum seems to think that the Dutch are going around euthanizing everyone, especially the elderly, to the point that elderly people are too afraid to go to the hospital and are wearing “Don’t Euthanize Me” bracelets. As bad as I’ve been feeling, maybe I should get one of those bracelets. Just in case!

Get real. As if I wasn’t sick already, this kind of story — and the fact that Santorum is being considered a viable candidate for US president — makes me truly sick. Anyone who would spout those kinds of ridiculous lies — who wouldn’t fact-check the story like crazy before mentioning it in a public forum — deserves no place anywhere near politics, much less the presidency. Santorum and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly need to get their facts straight and stop spouting lies like rain from a gargoyle. (See how I tied in today’s photo? 😉 )

Whatever your views on religion and politics, you’re entitled to them. But you are not entitled to lie.

Here’s a nice article that breaks down the facts, if there are any doubts.

Third Tuesday in September

Ridderzaal
Every year, on the Derde Dinsdag in September (third Tuesday in September), the Queen goes before Parliament to discuss the budgetary goals for the coming year. Today was that day. It’s known as Prinsjesdag, when the Queen drives to Parliament in the Golden Carriage to deliver the speech from the throne.

Den Haag (The Hague) is where the Eerste Kamer en Tweede Kamer (First Room and Second Room, literally, but essentially the Senate and House) meet, although technically Amsterdam is the nation’s capital. It’s all a bit confusing. To add to the confusion, although the Queen presents the budget, the speech is actually written by the cabinet. Her role is purely ceremonial, although the money allotted to the royal family certainly isn’t ceremonial. As the announcement of cuts of 18 billion Euros was made today, it’s hard to see the value of a monarchy.

The speech was given at the Ridderzaal (Knight’s Hall) pictured above. It was built in the 13th century for Floris V, Count of Holland. Eventually, the other buildings that make up Parliament were built up around Ridderzaal, and now the area is known as the Binnenhof (inner court).

To read more about today’s troonrede (royal speech), check out Radio Netherlands Worldwide. They include a nice slideshow of photos from today. If you know Dutch, you can read the actual speech here.

The following are just a few other photos I’ve taken in the Binnenhof of some of the various Parliament buildings that essentially encircle the Ridderzaal.

Senate

Grandiose

Binnenhof

Time Travel: From Stables to Squatters

ACU
The blue and white facade of the ACU building on Voorstraat belies a storied and interesting history. The buildings, originally 71 and 73, began as municipal horse stables. Then, in the 1920s and the meaning of horsepower changed, an auto garage took over the property. By 1935, the Maas family took over the property and changed the name to Auto Centrale Utrecht (ACU). The following are photos of the building from 1943 and 1950, respectively.

(Circa 1943, photo courtesy of Utrechts Archief)

(Circa 1950, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

Somewhere along the way, the right half of the building was demolished, but I’m not sure when that happened. I do know that by the early 1960s, the garage closed its doors as a business and the property was left empty and abandoned.

This is where things start to get particularly interesting. Under the cover of darkness on March 26/27, 1976, the buildings making up Voorstraat 69, 71, and 73 were squatted. Squatting and squatters (kraken), are probably thought of slightly differently in the US versus much of the rest of the world. In many countries, it’s a result of true need. For others, it’s a political or social statement. In the US, it’s almost always considered illegal and is usually associated with the homeless, gangs, drug addicts and criminals. Meanwhile, in many other countries, squatting has been legalized to one degree or another, or at least a certain truce has been reached. That was the case in the Netherlands until October of this past year when the Squatting Ban Bill was passed.

Squatting really gained momentum as a movement in the Netherlands in the 1960s, as a form of protest. There was a housing shortage (don’t forget that the Netherlands has the highest population density of any country in Europe) and property owners were intentionally leaving buildings empty to drive up market prices. Thus, squatting became, in this case, a political anti-speculation move. Eventually, in 1971, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that squatting was legal under the concept of huisvrede (domestic peace). As a rule, as long as a building had been empty for at least 12 months and the owner was not going to be doing anything with it in the next month, squatting was legal.

(ACU building in 1980, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

The reality is that many buildings taken over by squatters have benefited from their new inhabitors. Of course, there are always going to be bad eggs in the bunch, but many buildings have been improved and offered something for the community as well as the people living in them. Not all buildings squatted become residences only. In the case of the ACU building, the squatters also turned the building into a bar (opened in 1983) and cinema club, as well as a place for music performances, dance nights, a food co-op, and squatting consultancy. The ACU still serves these purposes and more today.

(ACU building circa early 1990s, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

Still, by 1993, the owner of the building had decided to sell it and the squatters were facing a decision. Ultimately, the users and inhabitants decided to try to purchase the building and make the whole thing legal. After forming the Stichting Voorstaete (Voorstaete Foundation), and after much negotiating, the buildings on Voorstraat were purchased, along with another squatted building around the corner on Boothstraat. The buildings on Voorstraat were renovated, and by 1999, the political culture center that is the ACU was complete. The building on Boothstraat is now the home of Strowis, a low-budget but attractive hostel perfectly located in the center of the city.

Strowis Hostel

Over the years, various other squatted buildings have been legalized in one form or another, sometimes helping to save and restore historic buildings that might otherwise have fallen into complete disrepair. They also often serve as places for artists in all mediums to work. The ACU building itself had one of its exterior walls become a canvas for artist D. Dijkshoorn. In the early 1990s, he painted Bebop a lu la on the side of the building. The comic-style panel reads: “It all began in 1976” followed by “Hey Boss, there are still people living here.”

(photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

I suspect that will be the case for many buildings that are squatted, squatting ban bill be damned. As I said, it’s not all positive, but it’s not all negative either. I’ve heard stories that go both ways. It seems like a case-by-case situation, and as a result, I’m not sure that the ban was the right approach to take. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed getting to know a bit more about a building I pass regularly.

Sources:
http://www.acu.nl/current/geschiedenis/main_en.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squatting
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlands_Squatting_Ban
Het Utrechts Archief

Sitting on the Sofa

Rutte?
Despite the rain that’s been with us all day, we headed out to hit up a few shops and the Saturday market. Half a kilo of shrimp for €5, and three stinky cheeses for €5 are pretty decent deals! After running most of the errands, we stopped at Café de Journal in the Neude square for a hot chocolate to take the chill off. As we sat out on the terrace, which fortunately has lots of big umbrellas and even a heater, we saw this group arrive.

PvdA is one of the political parties. Mark Rutte is the current prime minister of the country, but he’s with the VVD party. There’s an election coming up soon, so I guess this is some form of campaigning and perhaps a complaint against Rutte. The sign says, “Met Rutte kom je op de bank te zitten”, which basically means “sit on the sofa with Rutte”. I suppose there is some implied meaning that is just lost in translation. Or not. Anyway, they had a guy there with a paper mask of Rutte and you could get your photo taken seated next to him. No idea how successful they were, since it was raining. Who wants to sit on a soggy sofa? Hopefully someone reading this will be able to explain the whole sofa/Rutte thing. Meanwhile, as they were setting up, we saw a couple of people from D66, one of the other parties, walk past. They restrained themselves from standing behind the sofa and making rude gestures. I bet they at least thought about it.
PvdA