A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, January 7, 2011

Gothic Church Is Book Lovers' Paradise

Selexyz Dominicans
Photo courtesy of Etienne Sloun

The people in the photo above are going to church.  Sort of.  They are, in fact, going to MY kind of church - a bookstore in an old Dominican church.  This world-famous bookstore is in Maastricht in the Netherlands.  It has made "best" and "most beautiful" bookstore lists worldwide, and likewise the pictures of it have been well-circulated.  But what is the story behind this old building?

You are about to enter booklovers' heaven.
Photo courtesy of Etienne Sloun

In 1261 the Dominicans were given permission to found a monastery in Maastricht.  They built this church, one of the oldest Gothic churches in the Netherlands, which was consecrated in 1294.  It existed for five centuries until 1794, when the French conquered and annexed the city to the French Republic. This ended the monastery, and the site was used by the French as a parish until 1805.  Then most of the art was removed, and the French used it as a stable for their cavalry.  In the ensuing centuries the building served many purposes, including housing the town's guillotine, as a snake house, a boxing arena, and finally as a parking area for  bicycles.

What the church looked like at one time.
A plant and flower showroom.
As a boxing arena.
As a car showroom.
As a second-hand bookstore.
For bicycle storage.

Enter Selexyz, a large Dutch bookstore chain, who collaborated with the city council to open a new bookstore here.  Designed by Dutch architects Merkx & Girod, a self-standing, two-story structure in black steel was erected for the books, thus keeping the church intact.  This clever arrangement earned the firm the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize in 2007 for preserving the landmark.  The juxtaposition between the modern and the old is intriguing.  The book structure is assymetrical, leaving visitors to experience the full height of the church building.

Photo courtesy of Roos Aldershoff
Photo courtesy of Roos Aldershoff
Photo courtesy of Roos Alderhoff
Photo courtesy of Amrit Dhir
Photo courtesy of Amrit Dhir

This was not a quick nor easy project.  The initial proposal was made in 2002.  In the process of cleaning out the church, bones were found.  This lead to an archaeological investigation as everything had to be photographed and a careful study had to be made.  Once everything was correctly recorded and cataloged, work on the bookstore structure could begin.  The Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen was opened in 2006.

Photo courtesy of this site

In the vaults of the church were ancient and severely damaged frescoes, which have been restored.  They are considered exceptional quality for this area of Europe.  Most of these paintings have been dated to around 1619, and are considered the work of Jan Vassens (aka Joannes Vasoens), a 17th century Dominican monk.

Photo courtesy of Amrit Dhir
Photo courtesy of Emile Ramakers
Photo courtesy of this site
Photo courtesy of this site
Photo courtesy of Arnold den Teuling

The church also has a mural depicting St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), dated to 1337.  It is the oldest image of the saint in Europe.  The mural was covered in white limestone, but in the 19th century Victor Stuers carefully removed the limestone.  Stuers was a Dutch lawyer, politician and civil servant, whose concerns were bent toward preserving Dutch heritage.  Since then the restoration has been painstaking.

Photo courtesy of Amrit Dhir
Photo courtesy of Emile Ramakers

The bookstore also hosts a variety of events, from a poetry reading with a cellist playing, to local performers.  Readings, signings, book launchings, lectures, musical recitals, the church is now alive with creativity.  The walls of the choir exhibit local artists' work.  There are about 120 events per year, which are advertised on their website.  The Coffeelovers cafe is where the high altar once stood, and features a six meter long table in the shape of a cross.

Selexyz Dominicans has an inventory of approximately 50,000 books, many of them in English.  More than 700,000 customers and tourists visit the store per year. A high number of these visitors are Japanese, which is not surprising since their culture seems to value both tradition and innovation.

Great architecture, great art, books, and coffee.  This must be paradise.

All black and white photos displayed here from a book by Emile Ramakers, 
library historian at the Centre Ceramique:
Dominicanen: Geschiedenis van Kerk en Klooster in Maastricht 
(The Dominican:  History of the Church and Monastery in Maastricht)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Thousand Cranes

There is a legend in Japan that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane.  A young girl decided to try this in her efforts to save herself.  She was in the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital dying from the effects of the atomic bomb that was dropped by the U.S. on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.  The bomb was called "Little Boy".  Ironically it killed this "little girl", among many, many others.

First photo of "Little Boy" to be released by the U.S. Government.

The weapon was developed by the Manhattan Project during WWII.  The U.S., the U.K., and the Republic of China had called for the surrender of Japan in the Potsdam Declaration, which was ignored by the Japanese.  President Harry S. Truman ordered the "Little Boy" dropped on Hiroshima, then three days later "Fat Man", a second nuclear weapon, dropped on Nagasaki.  Hiroshima was never bombed prior to this in order to serve as a "pristine" target.  The damage was to be studied later, but the energy yield could only be studied at the moment of dentonation, so instruments were dropped by parachute from a plane flying in formation with the Enola Gay.

Atomic Cloud over Hiroshima after "Little Boy" was dropped.

Because "Little Boy" detonated 5 miles aboveground, there was no crater and no local radioactive fallout.  People close enough to receive lethal doses of direct radiation died immediately.  Others on the edge of the lethal area and beyond it suffered from radiation, some dying soon afterward.  The body count will never be accurate.  The number of those who died from the fire will never be known, and all incidents of illnesses cannot be precisely attributed to the fallout.  However, there were increases in the number of people exposed who suffered from cancer, leukemia, and other diseases, including children exposed in utero.  So far, there is no evidence of inherited disease.

U.S. Army official poster, 1944, U.S. Government Printing Office.

Hiroshima was an area of military and industrial significance.  The Japanese government had evacuated about 40,000-50,000 people prior to the bombing, but population figures are indeterminate.  The casualties included unintended victims - 3,200 Japanese-American citizens, Allied POWS, scholarship students from Malaya, and Korean and Chinese laborers, to name some.  There are those who claim that medical treatment for survivors was refused in some cases in order to get better research results.  Although unconfirmed, it is entirely plausible since planning for the bomb drop and recording everything about it was done in such a calculated manner.

Statue of Sadako Sasaki
Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Sadako Sasaki (January 7, 1943 - October 25, 1955) was a mile away on August 6, 1945.  By November of 1954, she developed chicken pox on her neck and ears, and two months later purple spots appeared on her legs.  Almost ten years after the atomic bomb was dropped, on February 18, 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and told she had a year to live.  The people of Nagoya send a gift of a thousand origami cranes to the hospital.  She, along with many of the patients in the hospital, were inspired to create their own.  Because of a shortage of paper, they used anything they could find to make the cranes.  She was twelve when she finally succumbed.

Children's Memorial with structures to protect cranes.

Her friends and schoolmates began to raise funds to build a memorial to her and all the other children who died from effects of the atomic bomb.  In 1958, a statue of her holding a crane was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  There is a plaque at the foot of the monument inscribed in Japanese:

This is our cry.  This is our prayer.  Peace on Earth.

Sadako has become a symbol of the consequences of nuclear war.  Her story is told to school children in Japan, and she is a heroine of Japanese girls.  Over 9 metric tons of origami cranes are sent to Hiroshima each year from locations worldwide.  August 6 is celebrated in Japan as annual peace day.  Her story is now familiar to children all over, thanks to the numerous books, songs, and films produced.

Some of the cranes dedicated to Sadako's memory by
Japanese school children at the Memorial at Hiroshima.

Sister memorial sites have sprung up, most notably in the Seattle Peace Park.  A sister statue in Santa Fe, New Mexico was erected, dedicated in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombings.  Santa Fe is where "Little Boy" was built.  The monument was funded by youths.

Statue of Sadako in Seattle Peace Park, Washington.
Photo by Lisa Norwood

Sadako was not of the military.  She had no power, and probably no knowledge of what was demanded of Japan.  She paid the price of the decision of men.  May she rest in peace.  And in her name may future young girls, among others, experience peace.

How to make an origami crane, browse here for more instructions,
including a video.
Unless otherwise noted, images from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chocoholics Rejoice!

Ripe cacao pods, whence chocolate comes from.  Not very appetizing...yet!


A true treat from the Americas.  At least originally it was.  Despite the fact that westerners altered the original ways of consumption by adding massive quantities of sugar, it is so popular that one can find a blend that suits one's own particular taste.

Ah!  More like it...a piece of a bar dipped into melted chocolate.

Now we know there are health benefits to it, as well.  Since it comes from plants it contains some of the health benefits of dark vegetables through flavonoids. Flavonoids act as antioxidants which protect the body from free radicals.  Dark chocolate contains the most antioxidants, so I call it "medicinal chocolate".  A small piece every day can keep one's heart and cardiovascular system in shape. Chocolate can lower both blood pressure and reduce LDL cholesterol up to 10 percent.  It also creates endorphins, which create a feeling of pleasure, and serotonin, an anti-depressant.  Because it contains theobromine, which is a stimulant like caffeine, no matter how much Rover or Tabby like it, they shouldn't have any because it's poisonous for them.

Probably a full year's worth of chocolate calories.

There are a couple of caveats, however.  (Isn't there always when something is too good to be true?)  Chocolate is high in calories and fat, so stick with the amount that studies use, which is about 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate a day.  If your choice contains nuts you're okay, but any filling like caramel or nougat adds excess fat and sugar, lessening the benefits.  Some research shows that consuming it with milk could prevent the antioxidants from being absorbed, so you should avoid eating it with milk for the time being.

No comment.

Although in the U.S. we mostly consume chocolate in milk, desserts, or candy, it has come to my attention that eating chocolate doesn't have to be so boring.  There are many ways to eat it that can complement your interests and I've decided to share them with you:

First of all, you are going to need a laptop to find all these goodies.  A Chocolap would be perfect!  Chocolap is a cardboard computer containing a roughly ten ounce chocolate bar in the shape of a computer.  It comes in milk, dark, or white chocolate from the Netherlands.  You can even have it customized.  Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Mercedes-Benz are a few of the companies who have ordered them for gifts.

Perhaps you are interested in typography, and have need of a chocolate font. Typolade will make you a set of letters.  Select chocolatiers make these sets by hand in small batches with custom-designed molds.  You can get letters A-Z or have them make a custom message.  The percentage of cacao is 60 percent, placing it in the "medicinal" category.

If you are "old-fashioned" (a nicer word than "Luddite"), then you would probably prefer chocolate pencils.  These pencils come with a pencil sharpener.  If you can restrain yourself and not eat the pencils, you can sharpened them over your favorite dessert - the shavings add a nice touch.  Designed by Japanese designers Nendo for the Tokyo patissier Tsujiguchi Hironobu, they come in a variety of blends.  I used to chew the ends of my pencils.  Perhaps I was just waiting for these to come along.

If you are constantly watching the calories you consume, there is a chocolate that can help.  "Rompicollo" by L'Agenzia per il Disegno e la Funzione, in collaboration with Cinzia Curitti,  has the calorie count of each piece on top, so you can easily monitor what you are eating.  The chocolate bar has several piercings along the sides of the pieces so you can break off the correct amount for your diet.

Maybe a good way to burn up some calories would be to walk your dog.  Don't have one?  Well, you can buy a charming French Bulldog, that also tastes great. Fetch Chocolates is the brainchild of Manhattan Fruitier and Fritz Knipschildt. Using high quality chocolate, they are made from custom designed molds, and are solid chocolate.  Available in 34 percent milk chocolate (not so healthy!),  white chocolate (even less healthy!), or delicious AND healthy 71 percent dark chocolate.  Currently they are "breeding" Bulldogs, but there are plans for Labradors, Dachshunds, Yorkies, Golden Retrievers, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  Roughly an inch and a half, the Bulldogs come in litters of six.  The chocolates come in gift sets as well.  You can also buy natural peanut butter dog cookies from them, so you and Fido can snack together.

Speaking of walks, do you have the right shoes for this activity?  Or for golfing? If not, try Gayle's Chocolates where you can get a variety of shoe types, including golf shoes and men's oxfords.  These shoes are six-seven inches long and about 3.5 inches wide.  The golf shoes come with a white chocolate golf ball.  Gayle also makes women's shoes.

I don't know if Imelda Marcos was a chocoholic, but if she was she would buy all of Gayle's shoes, and all the ones from ChocChic.  Here you can buy a pair of heels with a handbag to match.  They will even customize the inside labels for you. Made of Belgian chocolate, there are a variety of types of chocolates and flavorings you can pick.

Okay, so you and your dog are out walking and the heel of your chocolate shoe gets stuck in the grass.  Never fear, you can pull out your chocolate Swiss Army knife and save the day!  It even has the Victorinox Swiss Army logo, but this one has a hazelnut praline filling inside instead of gadgets.  It is 3.5 inches long, and you can buy a gift tin with six inside.

After you've taken your walk, or instead of walking, you can hang out indoors and play a game.  But beware!  There is a real danger in losing these pieces, so be sure you are playing with someone you trust!  At Chocolate Games you can choose a variety of games to play.  Scrabble?  Monopoly?  Trivial Pursuit?  Pictionary? Clue?  How about playing poker with chips made of chocolate?  Perhaps you'd prefer chess, or draughts (checkers)?  Sure to bring family fun and a delicious way to spend some time.

This has been a very trying post, and I'm off to make some fudge...

All images from their respective websites.   
Others from Wikipedia.