A Frenchman, a Mercedes and a Morceau of Limburger
I had an encounter with the southern Dutch province of Limburg, long before my visit to its capital, Maastricht, last month. It was a close encounter of the rind kind—with Limburger cheese—in France.
As a teenager, I spent a couple of summers with a French family in Hossegor, a beach town located on the Basque Coast. Albert Barrieu, husband to Marie-Josee and father of seven, was a man of taste, especially for old things. For starters he had a collection of pre-Colombian and African artifacts, amassed in Peru and Africa after World War II and coveted by museum curators all over the world. At the family’s main residence in Pouillon, also a small town in the Basque Country, the commode in one of the bathrooms was encased in a heavily carved, dark-wood chair. Albert told everyone it was “the throne of the queen of Cameroon.”
Most of Albert’s antiques were displayed in the 18th-century stone house in Pouillon. The stucco villa in Hossegor (which he named Chasquitambo, after a town in northern Peru) was a museum under construction. During the summers I spent there, Albert filled it with antiques, mostly purchased from dealers in southwestern France. He could sniff out antiques like pig sniffing out a black Perigord truffle.
Albert was a regional sales manager for Gaston Jaunet, a women’s ready to wear firm. His oldest child, Dominique, and I accompanied him on some of his summer sales trips.
It was on one of those trips that I encountered Albert’s passion for old cheese—old Limburger cheese, to be precise.
One morning as I was finishing my breakfast at the long, pine table in Chasquitambo’s dining room, and was ready to hit the plage sauvage (a favorite with surfers), Albert asked Dominique and I to accompany him to St. Jean de Luz, a fishing port not far from the Spanish border.
I was thrilled to have a chance to see more of France’s Basque region. But Dominique, normally a dutiful daughter, refused to go.
Was it because Albert would be driving the black Mercedes sedan, and one of us would be peering at the scenery from the back seat, through the clothing samples? No, that was not why she refused to go.
Was it because her father threw a fit in just about every restaurant he took us to? Once, in Hendaye, he advised me that the best French food is served in restaurants with the shabbiest exteriors. He found a run-down restaurant, ordered poulet basquaise for lunch, took one mouthful and pronounced it to be “as filthy as the restaurant floor.” As we left the restaurant, Albert told me that very occasionally there were exceptions to his French restaurant rule.
No, Dominique did not care about her father’s restaurant rows. The reason she did not want to go with him was because of the Limburger cheese that he kept in the glove compartment of the Mercedes and ate as he drove the French national roads at Le Mans speed.
I volunteered to sit next to Albert. But Dominique insisted that even if she sat behind the clothing samples, they would not be a strong enough barrier to the smell of the cheese. “Deglas,” she said, which is a stronger word than “disgusting.”
Marie-Josee came to her daughter’s rescue, telling Albert that Dominque had to help the other children with their summer homework. Alas, she made no excuse for me.
Albert put on his misshapen Panama hat, stuffed more clothing samples onto the rack over the Mercedes’ back seat, and off we went to St. Jean de Luz.
Not 20 miles into the trip, Albert said he was hungry. I knew what that meant: time for the terrible, smelly cheese. He popped open the glove compartment, and I held my breath. He pulled out a crumpled piece of white paper, and I kept holding my breath. A small piece of cheese fell out of it onto the floor.
William Shakespeare had it right, when he wrote in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that Limburger was “the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended a nostril.”
I stuck my head out the window and took a deep breath as Albert reached for the cheese on the floor and popped it into his mouth.
The boutique owner we were going to see in St. Jean de Luz was one of Albert’s best clients. She was as impossibly chic as she was frank.
As we pulled the samples out of the car, she implored, “Albert, please keep the cheese in the glove compartment. You are selling Gaston Jaunet, not the Limburger line.”
In Maastricht, where I attended the Association of European Journalists’ annual meeting in November, I learned two things about Limburger cheese: first, it is mostly made in Germany now; and second, there is a great benefit to its much-mocked odor. A 2006 study, which showed that the malaria mosquito is attracted equally to the smell of Limburger and to the smell of human feet, earned a Nobel Prize in the area of biology. Limburger has now been placed in strategic locations in Africa to combat the epidemic of mosquito-borne malaria.
A French Musketeer in Maastricht
In another French connection, Maastricht is where the captain of musketeers, Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, also known as Compte d’Artagnan, fell in battle in 1673. He is the person upon whom Alexandre Dumas based d’Artagnan, the hero of “The Three Musketeers” and other novels.
In June 1673, as part of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78, the French laid siege to Maastricht. As Compte d’Artagnan, commander of King Louis XIV’s First Musketeers Company, prepared to attack the city’s Tongerese Gate on the night of June 25, he was killed by a single musket shot. The night attack was portrayed in “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later,” the third and last of Dumas’s D’Artagnan Romances.
Maastricht surrendered to French troops on June 30, 1673. The French occupied the city until 1678. It was subsequently restored to Dutch rule. The French again took the city in 1748, during the War of Austrian Succession, but it was restored to the Dutch that year.
The French would return once more in 1794, annexing Maastricht to what would become the First French Empire. The following year, it became the capital of a French province (departement de la Meuse-Inferieure).
In Maastricht’s city park (Stadspark) there is a cast-iron statue of d’Artagnan drawing his sword. Dumas wrote, “A person who doubts himself is like a man who would enlist in the ranks of his enemies and bear arms against himself. He makes his failure certain by himself being the first person to be convinced of it.”
That is what the statue of d’Artagnan looks like he is thinking. Or is he thinking, as Dumas also wrote, “I prefer rogues to imbeciles because they sometimes take a rest.”
Once a decade a world horticultural exposition, Floriade, is held in the Netherlands. The sixth Floriade, themed “Living Nature,” will be held from mid-April until mid-October 2012 in Venlo.
“In addition to the most exquisite and exceptional flowers, plants, trees, fruit and vegetables, each day at the expo features a cultural program of music, dance, literature, theater and visual art from all over the world,” Sven Stimac, director of projects for Floriade 2012, told the Association of European Journalists.
Floriade 2012 aims to get visitors to use “all their senses, so they can experience the influence horticulture has on the quality of their daily lives; be part of the theater in nature, get closer to the quality of life,” according to its organizers.
Venlo, the site of the world expo, is located in the province of Limburg, close to the borders of Belgium and Germany. “More than 30 million people live within a two-hour distance by car,” Stimac said, adding, “The Greenport Venlo agrologistics area and the Lower Rhine Agrobusiness region together form the largest area of horticultural production in Europe.”
Besides the horticultural highlights, there is another reason to visit Floriade 2012: the green buildings and landscaping.
Exhibitions of this nature often leave a legacy in the form of spectacular buildings, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Atomium in Brussels and, after Floriade 1960, the Euromast in Rotterdam, Stimac said.
“This Floriade will also have a number of imposing structures. The buildings and landscapes will leave a legacy by becoming the site of GreenPark Venlo: an innovative, sustainably developed business park where economy, ecology and knowledge transfer go hand in hand,” the organizers said.
Floriade 2012’s organizers anticipate more than 2 million visitors, and 35,000 peak-day visitors.
Press Freedom and ‘Jeans’ in Ukraine
There was much revelry at the Association of European Journalists’ meeting in Maastricht, notably at the dinner hosted by the Provincial Council of Limburg in the building where the Maastricht Treaty was signed on Feb. 7, 1992, and at the APG Group-hosted dinner among the ruins of an ancient Roman temple and forum.
But there was also much to dampen the spirits of the journalists, especially the presentations on media freedom in Europe and two former Soviet republics, Belarus and Ukraine.
In their report on freedom of speech in Ukraine, where the media benefited from the Orange Revolution, Arthur Rudzitsky, Diana Dutsyk and Mykhailyua Skoryk wrote that journalists are often pressured by media company owners. “Most owners of the media in Ukraine have political interests and partially implement them through the media,” they wrote.
Media companies are so cash-strapped that they mostly depend on “donations” for their operating capital. “The number of such media is increasing because of the advertising market’s fall by 40 percent for the first half of 2009, compared to the same period in 2008,” they wrote, adding, “The main donors for the media are Ukrainian businessmen and state and local budgets. This grant nature of media has led to mass layoffs in the media … and the closure of many television projects and programs.”
While the Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice opened access to the state register of print media and news agencies last December, “this information is still not enough to make a complete picture of the owners of Ukrainian media companies. In particular, owners of leading Ukrainian TV channels, according to the documents, are offshore companies; so it is difficult to determine who actually owns them,” they wrote.
In 2009, there was a spike in the number cases of violence against journalists. These appalling cases include:
- On Feb. 16, someone blew up a car owned by Valery Vorotnyk, owner of the Antenna media group, headquartered in Cherkasy.
- On March 16, unknown assailants beat up Anatoly Ulayanov, journalist, art critic and editor of the Kiev-based Prosa Web site, who has criticized the National Expert Committee on the Protection of Public Morals.
- On June 24, Kiev Pharmacy guards used tear gas against a TV crew attempting to film a stand-up in front of the company.
The saddest statement in their report was “most journalists rarely come to court in cases when the violation of their rights takes place because they do not believe in justice and do not consider it worth their time; and the rest of the journalists simply do not know how to do it. The cases that reach the court are not always resolved in favor of journalists.”
Not stated in their report was the corruption of journalists.
“ ‘Dschinza’, which means ‘jeans,’ is the name commonly used for the system of paid contributions, as the money vanishes immediately into the jeans pocket of the journalists. That this practice forms part of everyday journalistic life is an open secret among those working in the media in Ukraine,” journalists Cristoph Kersting and Dorthe Ziemer wrote in the latest edition of Kontakt, the newsletter of the social and cultural arm of the Erste Bank Group in Central and Eastern Europe.
“Volodymyr Mostovoj, editor in chief of the critical political weekly newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli, also complains about the dubious work methods of many of his colleagues. He believes that one reason for the attitude of many journalists to professional ethics lies in their poor training. ‘When I studied journalism, in what was still the Soviet Union, there were three faculties in the entire Ukraine where I could study. Today there are, believe it or not, 41 – of questionable quality,’ ” wrote Kersting and Ziemer, whose report has been picked up by Deutsche Welle and other media outlets.
Apple Park Hotel’s Polished Service
The Association of European Journalists’ meeting was held at the Golden Tulip Apple Park Hotel, located in a sports park area not far from Maastricht’s historical center.
The hotel’s Big Apple theme had a few sour notes, like the dark halls with shadow boxes filled with New York mementos hanging outside the guest rooms. The one outside my room contained pictures from the rowdy American television comedy of the 1960s, “The Three Stooges,” and Grand Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a child, I could not stomach the three knuckleheads. It was even harder to do so as a hungover adult entering a hotel room.
The hotel service was sweet and polished, especially at the front desk and in the Dreamz restaurant.