Greek philosophies

“Really, people always think that Greek family members really like each other. No way. We just don’t have no other option.”

It’s a hot afternoon in mid August and my beloved travel companion and I are tripping over our toes to keep up with our host Faye. We just arrived at the island of Paxos and are still getting used to the steady ground under our feet, the beauty around us and the unmatched energy of the small, curly brunette with the big smile that seems to know everyone on the little island. She shows us the spacious apartment that we can use during our stay, just behind the small harbour of Gaios. “Make yourselves at home, I’ll pick you up in the evening”, she tells us just before she disappears.
“Who is she?”, we wonder.

View on Gaios' harbour

View on Gaios’ harbour

It had been the amazing Bert Kisjes who, again, directed me to a village of his Cultural Village network and introduced me to Faye. Both of us had somewhat forgotten that we asked her to host us -and my questions- at the most insanely busy week of the year. Mid august! What were we thinking. And even though I repeatedly asked Faye to be honest, bad timing is bad timing, she didn’t want to hear a no. Bert had asked and thus we were coming. So here we are, staying in one of the apartments she normally rents out.

Paxos has enthusiastically participated in the Cultural Village activities over the last 10 years. Especially the elderly project ‘Anchise’, set up with the Italian and Dutch villages, turned out to be a great success. The Paxi elderly visited the village of Wijk aan Zee and vice versa. Many stories were shared: personal histories, about life in the village and reflections on the future of the villages. And of course, new trans-European friendships were made. Faye has written a book about it, as a result of the numerous meetings the island and other European villages had organised over the year.

In the evening we learn about the islands history at the small museum. In the art gallery we listen to the local youth rehearsing for a music event. One of the kids, an 16 year old girl, tells us about her future plans. “I’m not sure about what to study, but I know for sure I will be an activist. There are so many things in our world we have to change. I cannot watch it and do nothing”. After her disquisition of the problems of the Greek economic policy, she is called for – the band wants its singer back. Again we wonder: “Who is she?”

The following day after breakfast, we wait for Faye to pick us up. Reading the stories in Fayes book kept me up late, and I wonder who she is planning us to meet. Maybe one of the old lighthouse keepers? Or the lady who, as a young girl, saved a boat full of the islands aristocracy that got into trouble at sea, when she was secretly swimming instead of fetching water at the well? When Faye turns up at the apartment, she is in a hurry. “Nikos is waiting for us at the square”.

“We are all ambassadors of our generation. We have to be the best example.” Nikos

“I miss people to talk to. To really talk to. About life, philosophy, about politics. People die, people leave. Now I am one of the oldies at the island.” Nikos’ start is a little err, negative-ish. But then the former sailor and carpenter moves on, about the specialness of the island and its inhabitants. About the importance of the cohesion between generations. How he feels that the “I” becomes less meaningful then the “We” on Paxos, and how important this is to him. “I have to show my grandson how to live his life. I think I am better at that now, then I was as a father”, he says with a smile on his face. “I really feel the responsibility to leave something good for the next generations. Me, Faye, you, my grandson: we are all ambassadors of our generation. We have to be the best example!”. He is dead serious again. But then, with a cheeky smile: “I want them to only tell good stories about me at my funeral”.


Passionate Nikos and Faye

Faye is translating, and we talk a little about the Cultural Village Project and the exchange with Wijk aan Zee. “We are not really that different.” Nikos surprises me with this statement. “Really. I made some good friends there. Yes, well, we live with family while the Dutch live alone – and are possibly more lonely.” His eyes get a little muggy when he tells about the Dutch grandma who told him she sees her grand kids on their birthdays and with Christmas. “If I don’t see my grandson for 2 days, I get very sad! But to be honest: here on Paxos we don’t have an elderly home, so we don’t live there. 40 Years ago a family would still sleep together in one bed, from grandma to the newborn. So who knows what will change?” And I remember what Faye told us in our first minute on Paxos. No other option but family.

When we say thanks and goodbye to Nikos, he tells us how much he would like to see one of his ‘Wijk aan Zee’ friends again. So in the afternoon I call Bert to see if we can organise a small Skype reunion with some elderly in Wijk aan Zee and Paxos. Bert is busy with the program around the photo exhibition “Rimpels” (wrinkles), but of course he manages to bring together some of the participants of the Wijk aan Zee Senior Circle. Unfortunately, the celebration of Assumption Day -and my name day : )- that brings the Bishop of Corfu to Paxos, throws a spanner in the works. All of the elderly ladies are preparing the celebration, and then the men… Siesta, I suppose.

Chat with Bert; behind him the exhibition "Wrinkles"

Chat with Bert; behind him the exhibition Wrinkles

In the evening Faye takes us to see the sunset and we spend some time with her husband at her home on a Paxi mountain. Then we hurry back to Gaios – her mother is almost back from mass and we will have dinner together. If her mother is anything like her daughter – or vice versa – this promises to become an interesting evening. And it is. As we sit down at the Italian restaurant of one of Fayes friends, her mother, very fancily dressed (the Bishop!) starts her story without us even asking. And for the next 2 hours, we will only open our mouths to order another glass of wine or fill them with delicious tagliolini.

Faye and her mother

Faye and her mother

The grande dame of Paxos – I think no other name would suit her – has been spending her life as financial accountant, chief of the local Red Cross, Mother, Grandmother and with several other societal activities I would have written down if I wasn’t too busy listening. Because of this, she knows 1) everyone on the island and 2) everything that is going on the island. She knows of the man that drowns over the loss of his wife, the child that get just a little too much physical attention and the family that is eating only once a day because of financial problems. She is the one that gets a knock on the door when someone needs help – in any way. The loss of her husband, ten years ago, made her wonder herself: what is the reason of living? But still having this important contribution to society – and again, the grandson – keeps her going.

And that is, for those who want not only the story but the analysis, for me one of the most intriguing lessons I learned on my trip so far. Old age is bound to come with loss. The loss of loved ones, the loss of independence, the loss of physical strength. This loss will undoubtedly hurt: often not just a little, nor just for a little while. But if there is one thing that will help to keep going, it is this: being an active part of society. In any way that is possible and fits best to the person. Be seen or heard, write or sing, help or assist, learn or teach, listen or speak up, build or create, give and take. Connect. And be mindful of the thought that this will happen naturally, because unfortunately often it won’t. Society will not always automatically be including the dependent or grieving ones, thinking they may not have any value to add or are just on the receiving end. So here, I think, is a responsibility for both society, or communities, and the individual.

WI guess we have to make something of life, even when old. Or older. Like Nikos, who still enjoys making furniture together with his son. And Faye’s mother, who never closes the front door in case someone needs her. And many many many other people I’ve met over the last 6 months.

Bye, Paxos! And thank you.

Bye, Paxos! And Faye, thank you very very much!

Ps., One more month to go! (And a lot of countries left to blog about. Yup, I’m a little behind on schedule :-/)
Greetings from Maribor, Slovenia,

La Prozia

(the Great-aunt)

Mid july, on my last days in the Marche region in Italy, I found myself warmheartedly adopted by the family of Marcello. He and his parents, uncle, aunt and great-aunt live together in a large three level house on the outskirts of a small town near Ancona. With every family branch on a different storey, most of the living is done communally on the first floor. Eating, drinking home made wine, watching the news, chatting.

On many evenings his sister, her husband, different cousins, nieces and nephews join the table. Marcello’s family owns a vineyard where his uncle, aunt and parents spend a lot of their time taking care of the grapes and creating lovely wines and grappa. If, of course, his aunt and mother are not occupied in the kitchen creating the most delicious meals.

Marcello’s great-aunt, the mother of his aunt, needs some extra care. Her memory is not what it used to be. Fortunately, her children found a way of taking care of her together. During the summer time she stays with Marcello’s family. But when the busy harvest season starts, she moves to one of the other couples, nearby, into a different house. Somewhere during the year, she moves again. This way, as Marcello put it, every family takes its share in caring while it never gets too much.

My first thought, that it could be quite challenging for her to get used to a new house every trimester, faded immediately when I looked at her, sitting at the big dinner table, and thought about what she was part of: a close, loving family. And she could eat (at least 4 months a year, that I know of) the BEST food in Marche, with a dash of home made wine in her glass of water at every meal.

Italian family

(From l-r) Marcello’s Dad, Great Aunt, Mom, Sister, Brother in law, Uncle, Aunt, Niece, Me, Marcello






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Zo gaat dat dus

Als we Anna Enquist moeten geloven* (NRC, 12 juli 2014). Een ietwat treurig relaas. Enigszins begrijpelijk gezien haar achtergrond, maar het roept bij mij ook de vraag op in hoeverre (on)gelukkig oud worden een zichzelf waarmakende voorspelling is. Gelukkig kom ik op mijn reis meer hoopgevende personen tegen.

“Het is de leeftijd, je telt steeds minder mee”

*Gisteren deed deze link het nog, vandaag niet. Hieronder in elk geval enkele belangrijke passages.20140722-092452-33892885.jpg



De dochter van de fabrikant

We zitten aan de eettafel midden in de kamer. Er zijn Tsjechische broodjes met ei en slagroomtaartjes. ‘Eet, eet!’ Aan de muur hangen schilderijen van overleden familieleden. We spreken ons beste Duits, moeder, dochter en ik, dat van mij wat roestiger dan ik had gehoopt.

In de jaren ’70 was dochter Jana op uitwisseling geweest in Nederland. Het had nogal wat voeten in de aarde gehad om een uitreisvisum te krijgen. Ze moesten zeker weten dat ze weer terug zou keren. Het lukte. Voor het eerst naar het Westen! In Nederland maakte ze kennis met leeftijdgenoot Vera en haar familie. Het begin van een lange vriendschap tussen de families: wederzijdse bezoeken, voornamelijk richting Tsjechië in de tijd van de Muur. Later ook naar Nederland, en zelfs een keer naar het zomerhuis van Vera en haar man Ko in Frankrijk, met wat financiële ondersteuning. Niks te makken, maar eindelijk vrijheid.
Jana (l), man en moeder

Jana (l), haar man en mevrouw

Ons contact was ontstaan via de Franse connectie tussen mijn ouders en Vera en haar man Ko. Al in de herfst vertelde mijn moeder dat er in Tsjechië een dame van 91 was die graag haar verhaal wilde vertellen. Zo komt het dat ik op een druilerige vrijdagmiddag in juni op bezoek mag bij een van de oudste inwoner van Nové Město nad Metují, een schattig kasteelstadje in het Noordoosten van Tsjechië. De dag erna mag ze op het gemeentehuis haar 92e jaar vieren. Een statige, trotse vrouw. Goed bij de pinken en in haar nopjes over mijn bezoek. Ze mag vertellen!

Het leven van de oude dame kende een begin vol welvaart: als dochter van een fabrikant in landbouwmachines woonde ze in de jaren 2o en ‘3o in een mooie villa. Ging naar school. Zwemmen met vriendinnen. Mooie kleren, goed te eten. De werknemers van de fabriek waren er vaak, hun gezinnen hoorden er bij. Haar vader was wel de fabrikant, de baas, geen uitbuiter. Herinneringen vol geluk.

Maar nog voor ze haar studie had afgerond was het oorlog, bezetting en daarna het communisme. De fabriek werd onteigend. Haar vader, die zo goed voor zijn werknemers had gezorgd, werd met zijn hele gezin uit het eigenhandig gebouwde huis gezet. Smekend moest ze de deuren langs, op zoek naar een kamer voor het gezin. Een dak boven het hoofd. ‘Iedereen een huis!’, dat gold niet voor de plutocraten, de kapitalisten, de uitbuiters van weleer.

De fabrikantendochter, inmiddels getrouwd en een dochter, moest gaan werken in de conservenfabriek van Nové Město. Gepest, uitgejouwd, de slechte baantjes. Ze moest haar plaats kennen. En ze had zoveel in haar mars! Ze had willen reizen en voor haar vader willen werken. Zoveel ambitie. Nu was de ‘dochter van de fabriekseigenaar’ niet langer haar geluk. Het scheldwoord achtervolgde haar tot na de val van de muur.

Zodra het kon besloot ze Duits te leren. Daar kon ze nog iets aan hebben. En zo geschiedde: op latere leeftijd mocht ze als tolk werken voor de gemeente. Geen volle baan, maar voor erbij. Zo kwam ze nog eens ergens, tijdens een uitwisseling bijvoorbeeld. Ook het contact met Vera en Ko werd zo vergemakkelijkt. Een belangrijke vriendschap, dat benadrukken moeder en dochter veelvuldig. De gastvrijheid en gulheid van het Nederlandse echtpaar. Dat bij andere Nederlanders de koektrommel meteen weer dicht de kast in verdween, dat vinden ze nog steeds raar. Daar zou moeder nog wel eens iets aan willen doen. Maar de kleren die ze dragen? Via Vera, uit Nederland. Zeer trots zijn ze er op, want kleren kopen in Nové Město is geen optie. Veel te duur. Maar dat hoeft ook niet, de kast hangt nog vol.

Jana en haar man, beiden boven de 60, wonen net buiten het stadje. Een huisje, een moestuin. De kleren uit Holland, en een paar honderd euro staatspensioen en wat groenten uit eigen tuin: daar leven zij en moeder van. De herverdeling van eigendom na de val van de muur was voor de oude dame een grote teleurstelling. De villa uit haar  jeugd was vervallen, het eigendom werd opgedeeld. Er waren meer mensen geweest die vonden dat ze er recht op hadden. In haar stem klinkt nog steeds een felle boosheid. Gelukkig had ze in de loop van de tijd een mooi appartement kunnen bemachtigen, midden in de stad. Niet dat ze nog buiten komt met haar hartproblemen, maar toch.

Als ik vraag wat haar geheim van ouder worden is moet ze lachen. Ze heeft geen idee. Ze heeft lang onder veel stress geleefd. En boos is ze ook lang geweest. Haar man is al lang overleden.

Maar dankbaar is ze ook, voor de kleine dingen. En bezoek uit Nederland! Zomaar op een druilerige vrijdagmiddag. Nog een broodje dan? Ahhh toe! ‘Eet, eet!’

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There’s something about Poland



We had a difficult start, Poland and me. No love at first sight. I entered the country on a sunny day in June, in the North-East coming from Lithuania. I was told to visit ‘one of Polands gems’, the Masurian Lake area. Well, on this first afternoon I felt myself caught in a touristic mouse trap. Worst part: I was the only mouse around. Dirty and expensive accommodations, empty restaurants and scary dressed up creatures trying to sell me things seemed to line up along Road 16. Now and then I saw a flash of a lake. Bright red poppy fields.

At the hotel that seemed most acceptable, I bumped into a group of Dutch Harley Davidson bikers. They had spent the weekend at the Harley rally in Tallinn and were on their way back home. Nice people, great storytellers. Even my research topic was not strange to them: the Harley club has an aging problem too. A shortage of new bikers blood. ‘The young generation has other interests. Money and things.’ I thought it possibly has to do with an image problem too. I also thought it would be best to keep my mouth shut : )



Well, many stories, beers and a good night of sleep later, the hotel was empty. So was my Couch Surfing inbox. Alright. Where to go? What to do? How could I get to know Poland? Meet its people?

A friend told me to go to Lódz (pronounced as Woodzj). So I did and found myself in an old phenomenon of textile industry and city full of contrasts. Streets full of bulldozers and beautiful buildings crossing old and dirty communist building blocks decorated with fantastic graffiti scenes. In the streets ancient ‘babkas’ were shuffling past hipsters in their converted electric Trabant cars. I shared a dorm with the 60-something year old Martha and her punk rock son, who were in Lódz for a Black Sabbath concert. Unfortunately, Martha somehow lost her ticket, so she spent the evening on her bed knitting socks.


forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…

It’s a little hard to explain, but there has been no other country so far where I could so vividly feel the touch of past and the future. The rich, complicated and often painful history of Poland became most explicit when visiting Lódz, Krakow and ultimately Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, I was grateful to have the company of my love for a few days. To share the silence and trying to process the horrifying details of human mass destruction.

Next Monday morning in the cheerful city of Katowice, I met up with Grzegorz, a young researcher at Katowice University. I stumbled upon his name while doing some online research about ageing in Poland, and since my couch requests remained quite unanswered, I contacted him for a coffee. He happily suggested to meet at the Silesian City Centre, a place that oddly reminded me most of shopping malls in Panama. He  wanted me to see how the city of Katowice thought about fortune and prosperity. Capitalism for all, I suppose.

Grzegorz spent a full afternoon talking me through Polish society. The lack of jobs, low salaries and working pensioners that cause the brain drain to England and other West European countries. The return of the money that buys people homes but also breaks into the fragile balance of post-communism society. Corruption, growing inequality and other struggles of this young democracy. Though, Grzegorz was optimistic. “It’s been a struggle, the last 25 years of independence. But I feel we are winning this battle.”

never grow up!

Never grow up! (ft. Aneta&The Nasi)

The feeling of optimism was strengthened in my last few days in Poland, that I spent with Aga, Borys and their 2 sons in a small town near Wroçlaw (finally, a couch to surf!). Borys and Aga founded the company Pizca del Mundo, the first self producing fair trade brand in Poland. Aga and I spent our days shopping, cooking, eating and talking. It was nice  to learn more about their life, the company, and the state of CSR in Poland. In the end, true love never dies. Right? When Aga’s friend Aneta visited on the last evening, I made nasi and we had a good conversation about how to grow older. Or how to grow up. Or not.

And that is how I left Poland: impressed, with the wish to return and learn more about this fascinating country. Large, full of contrasts, old fashioned and modernizing rapidly.



De Solo-club

De drie dames van de Solo-club staan samen op een camping in Litouwen. Ik sta daar ook met mijn tent, een veldje verder, mijn eerste kampeerplek van dit jaar. De camping is van Bert*, een Hagenees op leeftijd die op volle toeren leeft: fietsen, het heropvoeden van de jongens uit de buurt, het gras dat gemaaid moet en iedere avond om 20h koffie voor de gasten.

Daar, ’s avonds bij de koffie (en wee je gebeente als je niet komt opdagen!), daar leg ik het contact met Sonja, Thérese en Gonny. Drie dames tussen de 64 en de 74. Alledrie weduwe. Alledrie enthousiaste reizigers. Alledrie in het bezit van een prachtige camper of camperbus. En alledrie actief lid van de Solo-club.

Een kleine zoektocht op internet leert me dat dit een populair fenomeen moet zijn onder Hollandse kampeerautorijders. Er bestaan meerdere versies van en de Solo-club van deze dames bestaat uit 440 enthousiaste alleen-kampeerders. Soms rijden ze alleen, maar des te vaker in groepjes van 3, 4 of 5. Soms zijn ze met bijna honderd Solo’s, maar dan heet het een Solo-evenement.

De volgende dag maken we met z’n vieren een fietstocht naar het Middeleeuwse stadje Trakai. Op een lekke band van Thérese na (en til zo’n e-bike maar eens een halve kilometer naar het station…) hebben we een prachtige dag. Een broodje aan het water, een ijsje voor de terugweg. Bert die de fiets met platte band komt ophalen. We hebben het over van alles. Ook over ouder worden uiteraard. Volgens mij vinden ze het wel grappig, zo’n jonkie erbij die van die vragen stelt.

Middeleeuwse toestanden

Middeleeuwse toestanden

Het wordt wat stiller wanneer het gesprek richting op de aanleiding voor het solo-reizen gaat: alledrie zijn ze nog voor het bereiken van de pensioenleeftijd weduwe geworden. De dames van de Solo-club zijn unaniem: dit deel van het leven hadden ze anders voor zich gezien. “Hier keken we heel lang naar uit: lekker lang samen op pad”. Het mag klinken als een cliché. En ja natuurlijk, je moet iedere dag leven alsof het je laatste is. Dus ook vóór je pensioen alles uit het leven halen. Mja, de realiteit van het dagelijks leven is nu eenmaal vaak anders. Dat hoor en zie ik zeker ook hier, in Polen en Tsjechië.

Dus nu reizen ze alleen. Of nouja, vaker in Solo-formatie. Ik vind ze stoer, deze dames op leeftijd, alleen in zo’n grote bak. Gemoedelijk staan ze met z’n drieën in een kringetje, eten een hapje. Na de koffie of de borrel gaat ieder haar eigen gang. Een boek, of een potje patience. Even op de wifi om de kinderen te mailen.

Hoe meer lokale senioren ik spreek, hoe meer ik hoop dat al die Nederlanders die door Europa toeren met mij beseffen hoe bevoorrecht we zijn. Het geld, de tijd, de talen, de energie, de vrijheid. Want Jetta mag dan wel door links en rechts  voor gek verklaard worden: wie hier boven de 65 is en geen kinderen, Nederlandse vrienden of een moestuin heeft, heeft het heel erg zwaar. Maar daar hebben we het later nog wel eens over.

* De namen heb ik wegens privacyredenen aangepast

Ps, het schrijven van deze post was geen straf! Groetjes uit Tsjechië : ) IMG_6732

South Estonia: extra-extraordinary

Imagine… You’re on your own, alone in a deserted hotel in a sleepy village in Northern Poland. The streets are empty, the bars have long been closed and the hotel staff has gone home… Only the sound of the frogs in the puddle to keep you company… Sad story huh? ; ) Well, it’s an excellent moment to remember better times. Times with fun and newly made friendships, like my stay in Killingi-Nõmme in Estonia, now 2 weeks ago.

I have to start even before that. In my first week as a free bird (I finished working for MVO Nederland on March 7), I had a meeting in Wijk aan Zee. The months before, several people emailed me to tell me that I really had to get in touch with Bert Kisjes, the founding father of the Cultural Village of Europe. The what? Well,

“Cultural Village is an international cooperation of twelve small European communities. They discovered Europe and are on the search for their identity in an urban world. Since 1999 villagers are travelling through Europe and visit each other. They discover the value of the forgotten local level.” (source:

And since, so these people told me, Extraordinary Bert also had done projects with elderly people in these cultural villages, they urged me to go and talk to him: maybe we could somehow help each other.

So I went to Wijk aan Zee, had a few cups of coffee with Bert, listened to his stories and promised to share mine when I would have some to share in the future. He also told me that if I needed some contacts in any of the countries I was planning to visit, I had to email him. And when I was in Finland, looking at Estonia on the other side of the Baltic sea, I decided to give it a go and email Bert: maybe he would be able to get me in touch with someone in Killingi-Nõmme, the Estonian Cultural village.

Within 12 hours, I did not only have a reaction from Bert, but also from 2 of the local school teachers.

[…] we are more than glad about your trip to Estonia and especially to Kilingi-Nõmme! Of course we´ll help you during your stay here. You must know that both of us are super-organizers and we like plans :D So, we have a very busy schedule for you for those two days! :) First, we have a apartment for you where you can stay and sleep. […]

This was Kätlin (about my age, German teacher) writing. And when I arrived in Kilingi-Nõmme on Sunday evening, both she and Mari (about my moms age, school Principal) were waiting for me in front of the apartment with two boxes of home made rhubarb cake and two big smiles. This was the beginning of some special days, I knew immediately. The next two days, these ladies who were very busy organising the last week at school, full with ceremonies, exams, final lessons and end-of-year meetings…

  • arranged a meeting with the headmaster and for me to join two English classes where I shared my story and tried to encourage the 16 y’olds to ask questions (not easy, a thousand standing ovations for all teachers in the world!)
  • took me on a visit to the elderly home, where the manager gave us a big tour and we had a small talk to Kätlins grandma
  • organised a meeting with a very interesting older couple, who had been separated by Siberian times more than 50 years ago
  • showed me some local history when visiting a beautiful manor house
  • took me and my car to the mechanics, not once but three times, to repair the lock that had been demolished in Tallinn (by someone really poor or drunk or simply sad grrr)
  • let me cook for them in Mari’s kitchen
  • gave me a beautiful walking tour around town
  • showed me how to look for luck in the lilacs 
  • challenged me in a disc-golf (uhuh!) game in the Kilingi Forest
  • treated me to some Estonian folk and ballroom dancing
  • even let me enjoy a free morning (I still wonder: How? When?)

But most of all, they found a place in my heart. I’m not one for the cheesy lines, but really, it was a very special stay in a beautiful town with two extra-extraordinary women. I hope they will be able to visit the Netherlands when I have returned, so I can return just a little bit of their hospitality. I’ve learned a lot about Estonia, about it’s history, it’s people, the elderly care and closely related topics as education and economy. Sometimes, 2 days pass by in a vacuum of nothing importantness, and sometimes, 2 days are a simply box of good memories filled with great people. So, thank you again, Bert, Kätlin and Mari. I owe you!

(I will add some pictures when I have a proper wifi connection, until then: some colorful lines ; ))