(james benedict brown) on the road

There is a rose in (Dutch) Haarlem

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 15 June, 2008

I was back in Haarlem last weekend. Haarlem is the attractive small city about fifteen easy minutes on train west of Amsterdam that I first visited many years ago, and subsequently revisited last year as part of my dissertation research.

During that trip I interviewed the well known and very well regarded cartoonist and illustrator Joost Swarte. He came to speak in Sheffield a few months later, and reminded me of the biannual comics festival he has been instrumental in organising in the city. It being the weekend after my final exams, how could I refuse? With Eurostar now twenty minutes faster to Brussels, and a door-to-door train ticket purchased for eighty English quid, I was on my way, taking advantage of the ludicrously flexible train ticket that allowed for a night in Brussels en route. The festival was brilliant; as well as browsing dozens of stands belonging to comics retailers from across the Netherlands and Belgium, I attended a few events and even hobnobbed with some of my favourite artists.

But I suspect the real draw for me was the city itself.

I don’t believe I’ve found a more attractive town in northern Europe. The dense central core of Haarlem is just perfect in my eyes. It’s almost a miniature Amsterdam, only there are no drunken British stag weekends and no spaced out American backpackers overdoing it in the coffeeshops.

Herman Hertzberger guided me through my undergraduate architectural education, with his incisive and beautifully compiled design manuals (one and two) for students of architecture. Meandering through the streets of Haarlem, I politely develop the theory that while Hertzberger was a talented designer, much of his commonsense design tips were derived from a close observation of the Dutch cityscape. Every home in the centre of Haarlem seems to have some interaction with the street; every doorway and porch extends beyond the wooden doorframe and takes possession of the threshold between street and home. Despite the proximity of the public street to private homes, layers of ownership and threshold are almost inherently nurtured and manifested with benches, potted plants and privately owned street furniture. This is a dreamy place to get lost in on a summer’s afternoon. Every open doorway or chair that has been lifted out onto the pavement brings a friendly “Hallo” from a Haarlemer catching the sun or enjoying a glass of wine.

I have to be careful about romanticising places I visit on my travels – it’s something I seem to do a lot. I remember returning from my first international holiday as a child (we went to Legoland near Billund in Denmark) thinking that Denmark must be the greatest country in the world. Domestic disagreements with utility firms / politicians / public transport (delete as approrpiate, although I’m not deleting any) usually lead me to see everything through rose tinted spectacles when I’m on holiday. However I’m fairly confident when I say that Haarlem and maybe even Nord-Holland in general is an area I’d consider living in one day. I don’t speak the language but I perfected French by pushing myself into the deep end of a francophone swimming pool, so why not Dutch?

During the festival I noticed a flyer announcing the 2010 dates of the next Stripdagen. Having enjoyed so much the way in which the Grote Markt (above) filled with comics sellers and fans, I look forward to returning in a couple of years’ time to rediscover this colourful and friendly Dutch city.

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One Response

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  1. Duncan said, on 28 June, 2010 at 13:11

    It’s nice to see somebody else likes Haarlem too. We’ve ended up living here and found the comic festival just the other week. It was great.


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