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Joe's Neighborhood

Dutch fries and corn mazes

12/4/2013

Mazes are fun. I know this, because people pay money to walk into cut-out Iowa corn fields to experience being trapped and lost. Yup, pay money. I’m sure this whole maze-thing started because on some dark autumn night a disgusted Iowa farmer, on a never-ending wait for Congress to pass a farm bill, finally cracked.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look. There’s the poor guy (or gal) worrying over his coffee, as he sits slumped at the kitchen table — still dressed in his chore clothes — wondering why, with all the uncertainty, he ever became a farmer. Suddenly he sits up, bumps the table, causing the coffee to slosh, and looks around with a strange glint to his eye. In the time it takes to crank the engine, there he is, outside on the combine, cutting a labyrinth into the back-40 corn by the light of the moon. The farmer’s totally cracked. The next day the neighbor kids discover the cut-out and are soon screaming with delight at being trapped and lost in the corn, which is surprisingly fun for the farmer because he never liked the neighbor kids anyway. Voila, the corn maze is born.

Maybe that explains the layout for the downtown district of The Hague — some city designer just cracked. Several times a week, I hop on Tram No. 17 with great bravado and head downtown. The tram dumps me out next to this gorgeous pond in front of the Dutch Parliament. All is fine. I blithely take a right into the downtown business district, walk five steps and am immediately lost in the corn. I couldn’t tell you how I got in or how I’m going to get out. To be fair, there are four or five streets running into the same square — square after square. These streets can start out the width of a car and turn into four-foot wide paths that wind and curve. And even as I look around perplexed, bikes, tiny cars and motor scooters fly past, making me even more topsy-turvy. But whether it’s fair or not, if you look closely on Google Earth, that would be me at a standstill in the middle of the road. Lost and confused.

joes1Ah, but last week was different.

Don’t get me wrong, I was lost as usual, as I walked up this partially deserted street in the downtown district under an early morning grey sky.

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But what caught my eye was a store that was no wider than its front entrance. A yellow flag announced its name, “Verse Friet” — fresh fries.

And inside was Mirjam Badwy-Kraan. Making fries in a flurry of motion.

joes2“When I was young, I had horses. My father and I went riding. I lived in the north of Holland,” she says.

Mirjam works along, as she talks in her crisp, second-language English that wonderfully removes all non-essential words and says everything. I’m thinking Ernest Hemingway may be editing her speech. She barely glances at me as she multitasks. She has no choice. It is getting close to the noon-hour rush, when lines will form outside the single door. She needs to be ready.

“I met my husband in Haarlem,” she says. “We married. We had children. My husband worked with his cousin. They sold fried chicken, bread and coffee and tea.”

Three children in total. Now, they are grown 18-year-old twins plus Marwan, an 11-year-old boy hanging out at the store because of a holiday. The couple bought this small shop in the downtown district 13 years ago. Something to have of their own.

Potatoes are thrown into the large wok. Sizzling and crackling overwhelms all sound. The potatoes are whisked out of one pan into another. Salt is added, and Mirjam flips the fries dramatically into the air. But she is no showman. This is business.

joes3The lines are beginning to form. Cones of fries dolloped high with mayonnaise are handed out the door. People are now lined up 10 deep. Twenty deep. Construction workers in hard hats on lunch break. A swarm of women on holiday. Teenagers. Old men and old women. Laughter. Shouts back and forth. Large smiles.

“The most important thing is to earn enough money to live,” she says. “When I was young, I had a rich life because my father was rich. It was very nice. Sometimes I miss that life. I like nature very much. I like animals very much. Sometimes I would like to have some moments to do that again. You know. I like the life I have now also. It is more with people. When I was young, I didn’t need to work. Now I am in quite another situation that we are not so rich. So it is quite different life. It is nice to feel how that is. When I was young, what I wanted I could get from my father. Now, when I want something, I have to wait a long time before I get it. Because I had the other life, I can leave it. If I want something, I can say it’s not the moment now. And it doesn’t matter.”

Mirjam is warming to her speech, but, at the same time, she starts to get cautious. She tells me she is talking too much. Too much about herself. The unwritten rules of Dutch etiquette, I expect. Or perhaps Mirjam’s rules. Unfortunately for her, I don’t know the rules. But Mirjam is clearly having an internal dialogue, where the voice cautioning silence is losing. I smile. Coming to a decision, she stops her work.

joes4“People need to feel more together with each other. I found that in yoga and meditation. From meditation you feel more equal with other people. That we are together, all one family. I think a very important thing. When we feel all together, one family, there is less fight, less war, perhaps. I think this is very important. I want to tell to the people that it is important. We must be more aware of what we eat, what we do. Every day we can choose. We have so many opportunity to choose. When you have a pretty good life, every day you can choose and think how you can live your life the best. The best not only for yourself, but also for the other people. And also for nature. It’s we are not thinking the right way. It has to change to save, finally, the world. And ourselves.

“That’s the thing I was thinking about.”

She smiles at me. And hands me a cone of fries. I smile back. And slowly wander away, still lost in the corn, but happily licking fingers coated with mayonnaise. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

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