Insights in Sofia

We had walked half the city to ultimately arrive at one of Sofia’s most prominent buildings; a grand orthodox church. Upon witnessing the mighty structure, my respiration stifled slightly. Its tremendous golden roof caught our attention at once. The surroundings consisted of a newly asphalted large parking lot, so we needed to criss cross through an abundance of cars before finally reaching the entrance.

Shortly after entering, we sat down on a wooden bench and sighed. For some time, we witnessed the ongoing rituals until I got drawn into some sort of reverie. Of a sudden and without being fully aware of it, the following phrase escaped my mouth;

“I’m feeling nostalgia for times in which I never lived.”

The comment awoke a curious look in my girlfriend’s eyes. She instantly nodded in an understanding way, confirming the recognizability of my remark. Somehow or another, it made sense. I desperately wanted to be, even for just a day, living in the times that this church reflects.

Untraceably, this thought surfaced somewhere in my consciousness, coming from the unknown depths of my psyche. Precisely at the moment when the main priest went around the hall to spread around incense smoke, I felt an abundance of unexplainable melancholy, hence the need to inform my girlfriend. I suspect it was the scent which triggered it. 

Either way, it was just a matter of time before such melancholy would strike me, as lately I find myself drawn more and more towards ancient places. In particular old churches and cathedrals, regardless of the religious stream they might embody. Whenever the door is ajar, I aim to slip inside and enjoy its tranquility and order. For me as being not officially religious, such places are beginning to fulfill a more transcending role against modern difficulties. It’s most certain that the value of old churches is not restricted to merely tourists or the religious. 

Imposing environments like these feel growingly like a safe haven, a sanctuary as it were. A place with a low pace. The origin of this feeling seemed disguised and hidden deeply in an ancestral past. It presented itself in a fierce longing for the centuries far before I was introduced to this world. As if I were accidentally born in the wrong times. 

From the wooden bench, we observe the authentic, magnificent columns and impressively decorated ceilings. We witness the simplicity of a priest taking his time to light candles for the remembered and the forgotten, while the low soothing voices of a male chorus echo gently throughout the hall. Visitors, on the other hand, remain silent. Distracting gadgets are seen only sporadically. Every visitor, tourist or local, appears to be well aware of the unspoken commandment in such places and respect them. 

Altogether, the patient and attentive atmosphere infatuated a strong desire for an unknown but desirable past. One beyond the recordings of my memories. It all reminds me of a life I would probably never live. Anyway, it would be sheer impossible during my brief but already stressful and competitive existence. Surely it’s something I (and maybe others) lack of nowadays. 

The serene ambience of these places exposes painfully precise what we have been neglecting in modern societies. Retreats in this form have become a rarity, but are ironically needed more than ever. Over the years, spirituality, calmness and moralism became increasingly replaced by overconsumption and demoralisation. 

Simultaneously, the warmth and inclusiveness that might have existed in the centuries prior to ours, had vanished over the years. Caught up in the obsession of economic development, we have left behind a valuable past and have forgotten some of its advantages along the way. We have simply thrown away the baby with the bathwater. Luckily, some old churches and cathedrals have withstood the test of time, to show us it wasn’t always like this. In the weakly lit halls of ancient churches, the neverending fixation on work and consumption is outweighed by human kindness and patience.

In this sense, priests and clerics fulfil an essential role. They demonstrate to us the necessary attitude when it comes to downshifting from a fast and chaotic towards calm and orderly mindset. For instance, taking the time to light two-hundred candles in remembrance of the dead, is a lengthy ritual. Nonetheless it is likely to be one out of few daily tasks to be fulfilled by this holy man. The devotion given to merely one task simply doesn’t merge with the contemporary lifestyle anymore. In contrast to these disciplined priests, our daily tasks have multiplied endlessly, but the devotion (or possibility) to finish them has weakened.

Today, numerous social contacts are expected to be maintained, next to functioning flexibly and eagerly at work. Essential life aspects have been transferred to the online world. But this is a world without clear limits and borders. And most of all, an unstoppable world that constrains time and pushes it far beyond the limits of our mental and physical abilities. Eventually, this unframed way of living is often halted by what we call a burn out. Likewise, spirituality and devotion have lessened, as they became subject to the hastiness of our time consuming society. 

It might, from this perspective, be pleasant to daydream of the times we have missed out on. Even if the picture is not quite accurate in our fantasies. Old buildings like a cathedral appeared the ideal practising grounds to do so. To deprive yourself from technological gadgets and step into a hall of calmness, dreamily depicting the lives of people before highly developed technology. When spirituality was more apparent. Times when sorrows were diminished by prayers and philosophy instead of prescribing pills. When the world’s population was far under a billion, while borders and bureaucracy were absent for the most part. Things were yet a little more undetermined. 

Amidst the chaotic and unorderly world of today, old and dusty churches can make you feel serene, and offer solace. Yet, castles or other ancient places might provoke similar mental refreshment. I hope that these sanctuaries of existential guidance will withhold far into our doubtful future. For everyone. Not as a beacon of religious divide, but as a modest hideaway from our evermore accelerating society.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Afscheidsplaatsen

Luchthavens, trein- en busstations hebben iets eigenaardigs gemeen. Duizenden familieleden, geliefden en goede vrienden nemen er dagelijks afscheid van elkaar. Soms voor een paar weken, soms voor onbepaalde tijd. Sommigen kunnen de tranen nauwelijks bedwingen en anderen schudden elkaar zakelijk de hand, wanneer het moment daar is.

Op luchthavens in het specifiek, heeft het afscheid doorgaans een definitief karakter. Vliegtuigen hebben immers het indrukwekkende vermogen om de marge tussen twee zielen in korte tijd te vergroten tot duizenden kilometers, terwijl vliegtuigmedewerkers je loten proberen te verkopen van dubieuze buitenlandse kansspelen.

Voor geliefden in het bijzonder is de luchthaven een wrede plek. Al druk zoekend naar de juiste vertrekhal bekruipt hen een wrang gevoel van tegenstrijdigheid. Het pijnlijke loslaten voelt namelijk als een vonnis, dat ook nog eigenhandig voltrokken moet worden. Snel na aankomst zullen zij zich in aparte ruimten bevinden. De automatische deuren aan het eind van een fel belichte vertrekhal symboliseren de onverbiddelijke grens tussen distantie en nabijheid. Deze klinische omgeving is de laatste plaats voor een reeks omhelzingen en andere uitingen van affectie.

Op een ongespecificeerd moment wordt besloten dat het tijd is om te vertrekken. Tijdens het weglopen verdwijnt het gezicht van je geliefde dan langzaam tussen massa’s haastige reizigers. Oogcontact met elkaar wordt steeds moeilijker. Streng toekijkende douanebeambten geven geen blijk van geen mededogen. Op dit punt laten ze zelfs een korte omhelzing niet meer toe. Zij hanteren zorgvuldig de regels, en manen de afgeleide afscheidnemers hun attributen in de juiste bak te plaatsen. Want de vloeibare middelen zitten doorgaans in het verkeerde type plastic zakje met zipsluiting, en door wat overgebleven muntgeld in de broekzak ziet de metaaldetector je als een potentiële vliegtuigkaper.

Maar het groeiende idee van de aanstaande distantie tussen beiden maakt elke kortstondige glimp van je beminde levensechter dan het meest geavanceerde communicatiemiddel kan compenseren. Onafgebroken oogcontact zet zich voort totdat het simpelweg niet meer mogelijk is, en de geautomatiseerde deuren onherroepelijk dichtvallen.

De inmiddels zo vertrouwde gevoelens van genegenheid en geborgenheid maken abrupt plaats voor desillusie en verdoving. Dit dringt tot het bewustzijn door in de vorm van hevige twijfels over de juistheid omtrent de beslissing van dit vaarwel.

Helemaal onterecht is dit niet; allerlei onzekere factoren beïnvloeden de kans op een (snel) weerzien. Vanuit het perspectief van de geliefde is het transportmiddel immers een vliegende kerosinetank, die met ruim negenhonderd kilometer per uur, op elf kilometer hoogte, door extreme weersomstandigheden zal razen. Een opsomming die weinig vertrouwen ontlokt.

Een droge mededeling op een enorm scherm in de hal duidt vervolgens aan dat het betreffende vliegtuig is opgestegen. Niet alle duizenden probleemloze vluchten, maar juist de dramatische beelden van mogelijke rampscenario’s treden direct op de voorgrond bij de machteloze achterblijver. Lichtelijk paranoïde beelden van een allesvernietigende confrontatie tussen de straalmotoren en wat onoplettende ganzen, of van een mentaal instabiele copiloot die het vliegtuig de grond injaagt, passeren met regelmaat de gedachten. Paniekaanvallen zijn niet uitgesloten.

Dergelijke voorstellingen houden stug aan totdat de verkeerstoren de ontnuchterend zakelijke melding maakt dat vluchtnummer BT451 volgens dienstregeling is aangekomen. Amper twee uur na het opstijgen staat het vooraf zo gedoemde projectiel weer veilig aan de grond.

In de ochtend samen, in de middag alleen, of andersom. In de eerste uren na het afscheid, meestal in de trein of bus, volgt een hartverscheurend gevoel van eindeloze leegte. Het contact met je geliefde gaat onverminderd door op de smartphone, waarbij berichten van affectie en gemis het ambitieuze doel hebben die leegte op te vullen. Maar de communicatie die eerder nog via alle zintuigen verliep, is nu gereduceerd tot een vakje waarin tekst geschreven kan worden.

Zoenen, een uiterst delicate en zachtaardige handeling tussen twee personen. Lippen van vlees en bloed, zijn nu vervangen door oncharmante kale, gele gezichtjes zonder geslacht of duidelijke etniciteit die een hartje uitspuwen. Ze zijn te vinden in een zijvakje van het virtuele toetsenbord op je telefoon en kunnen ongelimiteerd worden uitgegeven. Maar het is allemaal ontoereikend voor het voeren van de complexe, vertrouwde gesprekken zoals voorheen.

De fel verlichte trein is voor even een onverbiddelijke en confronterende omgeving. Om je heen zijn mensen druk met alledaagse bezigheden, zonder enig inzicht te hebben in de kwellende pijniging die je net bent ondergaan. Serieus ogende medepassagiers verhouden zich onverschillig ten opzichte van jouw onzichtbare wonden. Ze richten zich bijna onafgebroken op hun telefoon, laptop of tablet.

Uren geleden, toen zij nog in tenenkrommende werkbesprekingen zaten, bevond de arme afscheidnemer zich nog op vreemde bodem, verenigd met zijn of haar dierbare. De komende weken kenmerken zich door een onwennig gevoel. Zo snel als het vliegtuig de separatie vermenigvuldigde, zo tergend langzaam ontvouwen zich de eerste vage tekenen van berusting met de vretende absentie van je geliefde.

Plekken zoals een luchthaven hebben een paradoxale betekenis voor grensoverschrijdende liefde. Enerzijds functioneert de steriele ambiance van de vertrekhal als spreekwoordelijke martelkamer van het vliegveld, met haar klinisch witte muren, dichtklappende deuren en hermetisch afgesloten controleruimte met strenge medewerkers.

Daarentegen vervult de aankomsthal de genoeglijke rol van hereniging. Ongeduldig ogende individuen met bloemen of een naambordje verdringen elkaar bij de onregelmatig openslaande deuren. Alsof het een fabriek is die op volle toeren draait, rollen de gearriveerde geliefden van de productielijn. Het gemis is hiermee voor de komende tijd wellicht gedempt, totdat het schrijnende afscheid zich in de nabije toekomst wederom zal aandienen. Een patroon dat zich in een kort tijdsbestek maar beter niet te veel kan herhalen.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lidia’s Wisdom

Babushka Lidia is a woman of extraordinary strength. At the imposing age of eighty-two, she lives a physically intense life in a wooden cottage, some twenty kilometers away from the closest city. Apart from the occasional resupply by family, she is largely self sufficient. Whenever I’m residing temporarily in Russia, a visit to this admirable woman guarantees to become a highlight. This piece of writing is a devotion to her and many other brave elderly.

With three delicate kisses on the cheeks and a tight yet gentle hug, Babushka Lidia ensured me a pleasant farewell. It meant saying an indefinite goodbye to a very remarkable person. After reassuring her of our return, I tumbled down the small stairs and found myself in the characteristic living room. Its low ceiling (confirmed by a fierce headache) and squeaking floor supplied me with a last warm, cozy embrace. 

As we walked across the yard towards the adjoining dirt road, Lidia peeked out of the window once more, with a soothing smile. A glance of reconciliation. Upon embarking the car, we waved back and set off. Within moments, Lidia was out of view. And so was her tiny, two floor cottage. Or, as it is called in Russia; her Datcha. The weakly illuminated window of it, reduced swiftly into a modest dot in the darkness. 

Just a stroll away from this fairy tale place, lies a dense forest full of tall pine trees. Pointy treetops outline the horizon. This captivating panorama reaches out far into the distance. The house is encircled by a stretch of cultivated land, wherein Lidia grows potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, paprika, cucumbers, zucchini and so on. Often, her skillful and persistent way of farming leads to a surplus of food. She then calls out for family to pick up some of her harvest. For us back in the city, her insurmountable production levels generally lead to another week of zucchini and potatoes for dinner.

Every summer, Lidia can be found here, shovelling land and practicing other kinds of complicated agricultural labour (of which I don’t possess the slightest knowledge). All the desperate attempts of family to re-establish her into her city apartment were unsuccessful. Only in the relentless Russian winter, when snow and ice begin to obstruct the farming, she relocates reluctantly to the city, just to return the very next spring. 

Lidia was a child during WWII. And in her turbulent youth, she fell into the hands of the Germans and was banished to a labour camp. And so were her sisters and parents. She had told us that at times, there were not much more than a few crumbs of bread to eat. This bitter epoch of scarcity lasted until far after wartime. Oftentimes, she was expected to overcome about twenty kilometers on foot towards the nearest settlement, in order to obtain a negligible amount of groceries. If any groceries at all. 

On the worst of days, she returned home empty handed. Besides, the journey was not without hazards, as it crossed dense forests covered in snow, inhabited by bears and wolves. And if that is not enough, the temperatures during those risky ventures dropped regularly to far below zero. Additionally it’s worth mentioning that her shoes, if you could call them so, were made of plain cardboard. 

In the subsequent decades of her life, she worked, as many women did during soviet times, in an enormous plant. As chief of the factory kitchen, she had thousands of hungry labourer’s mouths to feed. Perhaps it’s a plausible explanation for her superb farming productivity nowadays. Over ten years ago, she lost her beloved husband. They had been married for over fifty years. Lidia has been grieving ever since.

To this day, she misses him undiminished. In speech and ritually, she pays homage to him. More recently, Lidia had suffered from a variety of cardiovascular problems, for which she underwent multiple surgeries. And the list of alike intriguing life events continues endlessly. Nevertheless, it couldn’t withhold her from residing in the cottage once again, irrigating plants and shovelling land with a fulfilled smile on her face.  

When trying to understand her life’s narrative, the significance of it becomes evident. She overcame miseries, nearly incomprehensible for youngsters like me. During a pleasantly melancholic conversation with her, it struck me that, as I looked into her dark green eyes, I was looking into a bittersweet past. Lidia had felt and seen anything that induces anyone with loads of anxiety.

During the lengthy talk with her, I promptly realized something peculiar. The curious eyes I was making contact with, stood once face to face with German camp wardens. Next to this, intense surgeries, grieving over the dead, thirty years of working in a factory, starvation and numerous other sorts of dismay bashed upon her life. To the same extent however, she had felt affection and tenderness. Either from a loving family, children or a good husband. Henceforth, her family’s astonishing solicitude still keeps her warm in times of distress, like a thick blanket during the harshest Russian winters. 

Considering this, I reckon that being in Lidia’s proximity offered me some sort of immunity against any problem, even though I’m nearly twice as tall and still have my teeth. Her carefree expression made me feel safe from harm. Her impregnable wisdom and persistence instilled me with loads of consolation. Without a doubt, I felt protected by this eighty-two-year-old woman.

It felt as if her eventful past reduces the anxiety about the uncertainties of my future. There will be difficulties, tragedies, grief and the occasional headache. But to a similar extent, moments of beauty, growth and love will present themselves. What matters is that you perceive life’s inevitable stages with gratitude. And later on, like Lidia, with a healthy dose of melancholy. Preferably when harvesting potatoes from the meadows, accompanied by an unconcerned but wise smile on your face. 

Lidia’s contentment contradicts profoundly with the busy lives some contemporary people chase. Millennials, for example, need to do skydiving, visit the Bahamas, do an Arctic expedition, climb the career ladder before there’s no more time. Or visit all the countries in the world, and simultaneously maintain a glorious love life. All before the interlude of life’s final phase. It’s likely that these ambitions are born out of pure fear for mortality, rather than unfolding from a genuine, congruent desire to accomplish them. 

Some want to complete this list of accomplishments before it’s all over. ‘You only live once’ is a popular philosophy, which is, of course, undeniably true. You do live only once. Nonetheless it contains a counterproductive element. Its definition emphasizes unwittingly the things we haven’t done or experienced in our brief existence, rather than cherishing and gratifying life’s tests we’ve gone through already. 

In an ironical way, it’s chiefly the elderly people like Lidia, who appear the most serene with the idea of our imminent mortality. For they are already soberly familiar with life’s misfortune and its sorrows. Lidia and many other elderly prove that it’s important to grow old solving life’s phases in an accepting way.  Not full of envy or regret about the things we haven’t done or achieved, but content with the suffering and grateful for any granted moments of sublimity. 

There is another, more mind-broadening aspect to be learned from Lidia’s story. It’s quite often discussed theoretically by existentialists such as Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom. And more fundamentally by philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, whose ideas are now anything but outdated. In the finely inverted words of Kierkegaard:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

These thinkers underline the correlation between depression and the fear of getting older. This is undoubtedly connected to nowadays obsessive emphasis on youthfulness in Western countries. But also to the aforementioned ‘you only live once’ construction, which actually implies ‘you’re only young once’. Our juvenile time is seen as the worthiest part of life, wherein people are at their best, only to thereafter descend into a long, boring epoch of old age. This alleged long stretch of regression, leaves no room for further development.

In spite of this, talking to Lidia made me envy her calmness and wisdom. Though ambiguously, it denuded my abundance of fear for the unpredictable future too. She has the advantage of being familiar with life’s unavoidable difficulties, while I as a young adult, still need to find ways to transcend them. Harsh lessons are awaiting me. But Lidia’s glance from the small window and her bittersweet stories all instilled me with resilience towards the unforeseeable future. 

Lidia

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

IJzeren Wegen

Er zijn verschillende mogelijkheden om Rusland te doorkruizen. De slaaptrein is daarvan misschien wel de meest bekende. De Transsiberië express, Transmongolië express, Beijingexpress, Transmantsjoerije-express, en de Noord-Korea express. Het zijn allemaal benamingen voor min of meer hetzelfde; jezelf voor een aantal dagen opsluiten in een piepende en krakende cabine, meestal zonder privacy. Het achterliggende idee luidt dat de reis belangrijker is dan de bestemming.

Deze routes worden natuurlijk ook door Russen afgelegd. Vaak maar voor een klein deel. Voor vele Russen is de trein het enige betaalbare vervoersmiddel om bijvoorbeeld familie te bezoeken. Mensen met een dikkere portemonnee, meestal uit westerse landen, hebben echter de mogelijkheid om een pakket te boeken. Dit is inclusief treinkaartjes, visum, hotelovernachting en vliegreis naar Moskou. Daarmee is het een van de weinige treinreizen die niet in de trein begint, maar in het vliegtuig. De redenering dat de reis belangrijker is dan de bestemming, die toch de drijfveer moet zijn voor een reis door het eentonige Russische landschap, wordt voor de gemakkelijkheid maar even vergeten.

Tussenliggende landen zoals Wit-Rusland of Letland zijn daarom slechts kortstondig vanuit het vliegtuigraampje te aanschouwen. Potentieel interessante plekken in deze landen drijven dan reddeloos voorbij, terwijl het vliegtuig met hoge snelheid de hoofdstad Moskou nadert. Aldaar zal voor de meeste reizigers met zo’n pakket de échte reis beginnen. Het achterliggende idee dat de reis belangrijker is dan de bestemming, treedt pas in werking in Moskou.

We verveelden ons dood in Nabareznije Chelny. En ik moest zo nodig naar Wolgograd. Vanuit financieel oogpunt was de trein de beste optie om de anderhalf duizend kilometer te overbruggen. Maar we zouden de echte prijs op een andere manier betalen (een gouden regel wanneer iets goedkoop is in Rusland, je betaalt door te lijden.) Het beginpunt van dit traject lag in Perm en eindigt in de buurt van Sochi, een reis van ongeveer tweeduizend kilometer. Zoals gezegd, zouden wij de helft van dit traject meerijden, van Chelny tot Wolgograd.

Op de vroege ochtend van ons vertrek hadden sommige medepassagiers er al een nacht op zitten en ontwaakten al gapend toen wij wat luidruchtig de wagon binnenkwamen. Het is in Rusland heel gebruikelijk voor doorsnee gezinnen om op deze manier op vakantie te gaan. Veelal gaat de reis naar een van de vele toeristische badplaatsen aan de Zwarte Zee.

Want gek genoeg grenst het reusachtige vasteland van Rusland bijna niet aan wateren die voor toerisme geschikt zijn, waardoor alle binnenlandse vakantiegangers aangewezen zijn op dit volgebouwde stukje kust. Veel toeristen komen uit duffe industriesteden zoals Perm of Izhevsk. Ze verruilen daarom hun grijze Sovjet flats in de stad voor grijze Sovjet hotels aan het strand. De heenreis duurt net zoals de terugreis tweeënhalve dag (60 uur). Je moet er wat voor over hebben.

De eerste twee uur op het spoor ben je meestal nog wel opgewekt en enthousiast over de reis. Maar al snel wordt dit minder. En na een tijdje is het moeilijk te geloven dat je ooit op de bestemming aan zult komen. Een paar uur op het spoor hoeft overigens niet te betekenen dat de trein daadwerkelijk gereden heeft. Ongeveer vijftig procent van de tijd staat hij namelijk stil op een verlaten rangeerterrein, zonder duidelijke reden.

Om de verveling aan boord tegen te gaan wordt er gegeten. Daarom brengt bijna iedereen in de cabine een jaarvoorraad aan voedsel mee. Thuis klaargemaakte kippenpoten met gekookte eieren zijn in Rusland het meest populair, wat in onze cabine zorgde voor een interessante geuren combinatie. Om tussen de vette kippenpoten door niet te verhongeren, worden er enorme aantallen zonnebloempitten of gedroogde vis genuttigd, meestal weggespoeld met anderhalf liter bier.

Wie van een treinreis in Rusland een spectaculair noch afwisselend uitzicht verwacht, zit er lichtelijk naast. Het eentonige landschap heeft op sommige momenten zelfs een hallucinerend effect op je perceptie van de werkelijkheid. Na een tijdje kon ik de ontelbare rijen berkenbomen niet meer van elkaar onderscheiden en versmolt het geheel tot één lange boom. En soms lijkt het alsof er een soort 3D poster op het raam geplakt zit. Het draagt allemaal niet bij aan de hoop dat de reis enigszins vordering maakt.

Het is in de slaaptrein een zeldzaamheid wanneer de toilet niet bezet, kapot of verstopt is. Die fungeert immers als spoelkeuken, douche, baby-verschoonplaats, rookruimte, wasserette, ontmoetingsplaats, telefoon-oplaadplaats, afvalbult en kleedkamer. Een uitkomst hiervan is dat na een dag reizen ook de verstopte toilet bijdraagt aan de geuren combinatie in de heter wordende cabine.

Mede door mijn sukkelige Russische taalkennis en lange benen was het voor medepassagiers, en met name kinderen makkelijk om mij te ontmaskeren als westerling. Dit is in Rusland doorgaans problematisch. Door gebrek aan geografische en antropologische kennis zeggen ze dan; ‘’kijk mama! een Amerikaan!’’ omdat ik toevallig Engels sprak.

Vanaf het moment dat die constatering is gemaakt, ben je voor de rest van de reis een attractie. Je hebt dan dezelfde status in rangorde als een Giraffe of Olifant in een dierentuin en krijgt de bijbehorende behandeling. Mijn inlevingsvermogen ten opzichte van circusdieren is aanzienlijk gegroeid.

De nacht in een slaaptrein is, als je geluk hebt, tamelijk onschuldig. Terwijl je wegdommelt in een lichte roes, zijn aankondigingen te horen van compleet onbekende stations. Pas dan doordringt je hoe groot Rusland is. Op vreemde plaatsen stopt de trein dan een half uur of langer, om families met grote boodschappentassen uit te laden. Toch is er één noemenswaardige bedreiging voor een goede nachtrust. En dat heeft alles te maken met een kind dat nog niet zindelijk is, en een potje. Die reizen meestal met een oma, die vervolgens gewend is om op fabriekstijden te ontwaken en het kind aan een zindelijkheidstraining te onderwerpen.

Wanneer het ochtendgloren is aangebroken, is het landschap veranderd van saaie begroeiing naar saaie vlaktes. Geleidelijk aan stijgt de temperatuur in de cabine. Een deel van het traject gaat namelijk dwars door de steppes van Kalmukkië, die ik graag de oven van Rusland zou willen noemen. Temperaturen van rond de vijftig graden zijn er geen zeldzaamheid. En er staan tempels. Opeens verlang ik weer naar die rij mooie groen-witte berkenbomen van weleer, totdat een norse conducteur iets in onze richting schreeuwt. We zijn in Wolgograd aangekomen, na 22 uur. In ons geval was de bestemming belangrijker dan de reis.

Wolgograd was voor ons de eindbestemming. Maar sommige arme zielen waren nu slechts halverwege. Voor het groepje overlevenden van deze erbarmelijke rit wacht een verdiende vakantie aan de Russische variant van de Costa Brava. Maar die dient vooral als mentale voorbereiding op de even lange terugreis. Voor sommige Europeanen is de transsiberië express het ultieme avontuur, voor ons was het bescheiden stukje naar Wolgograd meer dan genoeg.  

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ode To The Restroom

Going to a public water closet can be a quirky experience. Not because of the traditional struggles, like a malfunctioning flush, or when running out of toilet paper and all of their shameful outcomes. No, the real thrill comes from an exemplary demonstration of human stubbornness.

If you’d ask me, a fine public restroom is of utmost importance for mental health, and I’m dead serious about it. Next to its primary use, which we hopefully all know, it offers something of grander value. Namely, that it serves as a great retreat, offering some welcomed minutes of solace amidst our stressful lives. A small but fortified space in which you can regain your breath. A pit-stop before rejoining the rat race.

Times change. And so do our water closets. The definition of toilet should therefore be broadened. As our lives got more and more accelerated, there is an increased desire for a room to rest: say hello to the restroom. An upgraded meaning of the word toilet, thanks to the way in which it has enhanced our lives over the past decades.

The restroom proves its effectiveness when trying to escape lengthy meetings in the office (preferably during a brain shrinking question round). And in particular, the unfortunate case of being dragged into a shopping mall or an IKEA for the afternoon. When trying to overcome the excruciating horrors of screeching children and ceaseless announcements, a swift slip into the restroom might enable you to survive. Nothing can interfere this modest moment of serenity. Right?!

As ought to be widely known; most reliable toilets have a functioning lock. This small device fulfills a simple but crucial role, since it’s the barricade between the hostile outside world and your two square meters of tranquility.

So, it’s clarified that the purpose of this device is obviously to lock the door. But more importantly, the essence is to show those waiting in the queue that it’s locked, so that they don’t have to come over and disturb your five minute retreat.

It does so by presenting either a white or red bar/lid. It can be seen from afar. Red, in combination with the door firmly closed, means that it’s occupied. There’s not much sense in trying to enter. The lock makes sure that the poor soul inside won’t be harassed for merely a brief frame of time.

Yet it appears not all that obvious to quite a few fellows. Especially during toilet rush hours, politeness is brushed aside. Those who cannot bear with the waiting, do something typically human. They intervene.

And so, ignoring all the clear visual signs of occupancy, these impatient individuals venture towards the sacred door, hoping that it will magically open. A fierce pull will do the job. They grab the door handle and pull it powerfully, just to find out what they already knew. Indeed, it is confirmed that the door won’t open. Nonetheless, they desperately try to shorten their temporary uphold and conquer the restroom, but are foolishly unaware of this attempt being rather counterproductive.

And to all the smart minds who had the mind-blowing idea to turn the door handle aggressively, attempting to shorten someone else’s pit-stop in favour of themselves: thanks, the effectiveness of the door lock has been proven.

In spite of this, the harmonious calmness inside has been interrupted heavily. It leaves the slightly irritated rest seeker in the cabin no choice, other than to annex his sanitary sanctuary a little longer. He decides to use the granted stretch of time productively.

Thus, after being reassured by the trustworthy door lock, he sits back, returns to zen mode and takes plenty of time to write a peculiar article in honour of a peculiar place: the restroom.

Now, if you would excuse me, I need to get back into that terrible shopping mall.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Serbian Cashier

Purchasing something in Serbia.

The following phrases are taken from an interesting conversation while acquiring groceries in a local shop.

Me: “Hello (dobar dan), I would like to buy this.”

Shop assistant: ”…”

Me: *puts two ciders and sunflower seeds on the counter*

Shop assistant: ”…”

Shop assistant: *stares into the distance*

Shop assistant: *starts scanning products*

Me: “can I pay by card please”

Shop assistant: ”…”

Shop assistant: *sticks card in machine*

Machine: *payment accepted*

Me: ”Thank you! Have a nice day!”

Shop assistant: ”…”

Me: *walks out of the shop*

Cashiers in Serbia like to use words efficiently.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In The Netherlands, Everything Is Anticipated On.

Forget about bicycles, tulips and windmills. What really characterizes the Netherlands is much more life-enriching. It comes down to this; Dutch authorities have a plan for pretty much everything.

Days ago, I read a news message saying that a Wolf had been seen in a natural area in the east of the country. A big thing for an urbanized country without any scary animals in the wild. The fact that the female beast was caught on camera (in a forest?) in the vicinity of cubs meant that these furry friends weren’t planning to retreat back into Germany.

No, they are intending to stay. And thereby it is confirmed that the Wolf is officially reintroduced to the Netherlands, after decades of absence. A small victory for nature. Bummer for the folks living in nearby urbanized areas. Which, in the Netherlands, is pretty much everywhere. For a country with such little wilderness, the arrival of a Wolf on the loose, induces quite some fear.

But, no worries. The Dutch government had already foreseen the expansion of family Wolf. And upon this discovery, an officially named ‘Wolf action plan’ has been initialized. This is a book-like protocol, worked out into detail, regarding the approach towards the newcomers.

You have to try and imagine that different authorities, the mayor, police and various experts have had numerous meetings to develop a work of countless pages, just to anticipate on the birth of two cute wolf cubs.

Essence is, that Dutch people always have a plan. For everything. Months or years ahead of a situation. In summer, there is a ‘heat action plan’, developed by various specialized institutions. This plan is immediately implemented whenever the temperature rises above a certain level.

It advises that people with overweight, elder people, the weak and the sick, should be extra careful during this type of weather. Likewise it recommends that citizens should not underestimate the strength of sunlight and drink enough water. How generous. Similar to the Wolf issue, a selection of smart minds have been cracking their brains in order to come up with valuable advise.

I think there are only few other countries better prepared for any event than the Netherlands. Downside is that it kills spontaneity. It’s a bit patronizing too. Upside is that, as a citizen, you don’t have to worry about anything. Everything is anticipated on.

If I may take it a little further; might there be the unfortunate case of a meteorite on crash course with the Netherlands, the local authorities will implement a ‘meteor action plan’, empirically founded by appointed experts. As a matter of fact, I think the authorities already have such a protocol. The Netherlands is a sanctuary. When you follow the steps as described in the plan, you’ll surely be safe from harm.

While writing this, more exciting news came from the Netherlands. This time a bit more gritty though. Of a sudden, the parliament stated unanimously that the Dutch aren’t prepared for death. The statistical institution (CBS) had revealed that people are too avoidant regarding their final hour.

Now, this institution was already a renowned research facility, but these results are really mind-blowing. They calculated somehow that people don’t like to acknowledge that their life isn’t infinitive.

Furthermore they concluded that the Dutch are therefore emotionally and financially underprepared to be burried or cremated.

To stimulate citizens, authorities launched an extensive campaign to inform them that their lives are not infinitive. A governmental webpage will guide you through the process, containing the necessary information, tips and tricks on how to die responsibly.

On the somewhat formal looking webpage (the same interface is used for tax inquiries), the government has collected all information considered to be necessary for a carefree end of life, for it would be a pity to do all the paperwork in your last hour..

So after filling out a somewhat dull questionnaire, an algorithm will tell you what to do. The system reminds you to take into account that death has some emotional aspects too.

The Netherlands proves again that it can (and will) prepare you for pretty much anything.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On Demand

In living rooms all around the world, there has been a remarkable change in recent years. Already for a long period of time, people gather around the TV screen in order to have a cozy evening before bed time. A film on DVD or videotape, or less known; a Blue Ray might be hired from the local cinema store, possibly from the ‘comedy’ section. Once a film was chosen and paid for, there was no way back. Popcorn or crisps are bought, completed with a bottle of coke or some beers. But on the vast majority of evenings, the preference is to passively take in whatever is scheduled by a limited amount of TV channels. In this, hides a certain laziness and the absence of pressure to entirely follow the TV program. You can chat about the foregoing day and not be afraid to miss out on something. By far, this way of enjoying before bed time leisure, has my favour.

Streaming services already exist for a longer period of time. Yet, they only became increasingly popular in recent years. So of course, smart on-demand distributors have seen this too, and simplified the acquiring process. And doing so, they drastically changed the entire living room experience.

It goes like this (and I use an average family as an example). Generally, when visiting family for an evening, the TV is already turned on. Nothing special, just some trivial programmes running on the background while discussing some recent life events. But at a certain point, somewhere between 8 or 9 PM and briefly out of interesting topics to discuss, the TV screen takes its chance and starts to regain attention of those present in the room. By then, the chatter has lessened and the room is filled with the sounds, pounding from the TVs’ speakers. Nowadays’ digital receivers are good for some 250 channels, of which usually 220 ones are totally neglected. The preferred thirty are the traditional ones, already available since the nineties. They have the unthankful task to entertain the spoilt audience.

Thus, it is time for a radical intervention by whoever has control of the remote control. Following shortly, there is a spine chilling silence, as the master of the remote control skips to channel 200 and a selection menu comes into view. It displays the unmistakable red colour of a certain streaming provider, offering thousands of programmes and films.

Subsequently, the gathered family members start to fire suggestions at the remote control master, regarding the film choice. Generally, this part of the process is very time consuming. This has likely to do with the fact that a movie is a time investment, and therefore should be guaranteed to have grand entertaining value.

But ironically, picking the movie takes averagely as long as a movie itself. Moreover, choosing a film, on the worst of watching days, might cause an ongoing 2 hours cinema-worthy arguing experience, leaving everyone exhausted. When later, a film has ultimately been selected, another danger is lurking. As the selected movie has been carefully chosen, the possibility of it being somewhat mediocre, is indigestible for the demanding crowd. And so, the omnipresence of choice often results into the remote control master returning to the main menu to start the choosing process all over again.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Introduction

Hi there! Glad you found your way to the site. I’m Stefan, the establisher and author of The Social Writer. In this introduction, I will give a small impression of me as a person, followed by some history of the site. I started to exist back in 1991, in a mid sized town called Groningen, located in the northern part of The Netherlands. As a child, I was quite privileged to grow up in Haren, a gorgeous settlement known for its wealthy inhabitants, lush green parks and impressive villas and grand mansions. I was certainly very lucky to spend my childhood there, and I believe that the beauty and calmness of that town has instilled me with lots of hope ever since. It surely had its share in my strong idealistic endeavours I embrace today. We were a middle class family that didn’t face many financial difficulties. It was in the small town of Haren that I was confronted for the first time with (financial) inequality, subcultures, status roles and our market based consumer society, experiencing all of the challenges and difficulties inherent to these phenomena.

On the contrary, I have experienced many dark and bitter times which left deep carvings on the shape of my personality. Around the age of twenty, my family fell apart. And all the way from early childhood, via adolescence, eventually reaching adulthood, an abundance of misery battered upon me. To a certain degree however, I managed to also have a taste of the sublimity that life has to offer, and that’s primarily thanks to a thing called travel.

But the real revelation began when I found a possibility to untie myself from the confinement of my past and grabbed the opportunity to study something close to my heart: Social Work. Simply helping others. Next to its main curriculum consisting of psychology and sociology, I was taught on how to reflect upon my emotions. It meant the starting point of a long and probably neverending internal search for answers, to bring clarity about the ways and means of my scarred self.

Now, in 2020, some years have passed since the graduation, but the enormous interest for humanities remained with me, and is thoroughly practised by means of reading, meditating, reflecting and later on: writing. It’s nothing more than my thoughts converted into words. Some of my favourite books include: 1984 by George Orwell and The Course Of Love by Alain De Botton, as well as many other works on ancient philosophy and psychodynamics, like those of Irvin Yalom.

The Social Writer is simply a coalescence of the words Social Work and Writer. In the beginning, writing went a little too passionate, I would say, since it often resulted in being knocked out behind my writing desk at 3 AM with red eyes because of a coffee overdose: Irony wants that writing and sociability can hardly coexist.

Nevertheless, I’ve found that we live in rather interesting times. So I intended to write about anything I assumed to be noteworthy. Which is to say, quite a lot. So I refocused towards specific topics, roughly revolving around stories on humanity and society. After a year of writing without an audience, my lovely girlfriend remarked that keeping these notes locked in my computer until eternity, would be quite senseless. And she was right. An outlet needed to be found. Thus, in the summer of 2019, The Social Writer was launched.

Next to this, the difference between a blog and this page is roughly that a blogger is expected to be almost continuously active, and posting regularly to keep its followers’ attention. But for me, under such pressure, no ideas of sensible value would flow from my mind onto the writing pad.

I therefore think it’s safe to say that the frequency of new additions to the page ought not to exceed once, perhaps twice a month, in order to preserve its originality and inspiration. (And to not annoy the audience too much.)

At last, beware that some writings are drenched in sarcasm and irony, while others may have a more earnest approach. Yet they’re all genuine and somehow based upon what I’ve read or experienced in real life. In most of the Social Writers’ stories, I pursue to take its reader (you) on a small, perspective changing journey.

Stefan, 23-04-2020.

In Belgrade, 2019.