Forgive me, Maastricht, for I have sinned
September 24, 2009 Leave a Comment
I must start with a confession. Telling people that I was moving to Maastricht elicited a mixed bag of surprise (really?), questioning (is that in Belgium? No, Germany, right?) and, albeit a rarity, intrigue (why?).
My sister’s words were “a Treaty was signed there and it sounds like a place I won’t be going to” (my sister was mild in comparison to some of my friends).
Embarrassingly, and with nerves earnestly making their presence felt, I was swayed by certain comments and feared a socio-cultural limbo for the next 12 months.
St John Church, Maastricht
Forgive me, Maastricht, for I arrived not only suspicious of you but uncharacteristically guarded (I still am a tad guarded but that is due to my studio being encaged in what can at best be described as a juvenile detention centre, at worst the Big Brother house. I accept that this is not the city’s fault necessarily).
Maastricht being a rather elusive, if not unknown, subject, please excuse me if I proceed, in a rather pedestrian way, to introduce you briefly to my Maastricht.
The city belies most Dutch stereotypes: modestly hilly (in Dutch terms),no windmills, no blankets of tulips and relatively few coffee shops. The bike cliché does exist as does the quota of blond, wonderfully tall and slender Dutch persons peddling with unquestionable ease along the beautiful cobbled streets characteristic of other Dutch cities.
Cobbled streets of Maastricht
Maastricht oozes cosmopolitanism and was propelled into stardom with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. If any Treaty could be a blockbuster this Treaty was worthy of Hollywood fame: not only did it create the European Union, it introduced social and educational pillars to the community’s agenda – a triumph – as well as giving birth to the Euro.
While the Treaty’s association with greying politicians (Jacques Delors, in particular) may have tainted Maastricht’s image, being talked about was far better than not. Aided by its picturesque quality, Maastricht’s reputation as the crossroads of Europe is now firmly embedded on the European map (even if people may have difficulty spelling the city’s name).
During term time, the city is awash with foreign students and the University, although a baby in comparison to its European siblings, has an air of history. With tuition fees being almost half the price of English tuition fees, coupled with the easy access to Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris or London as well as Brussels, Liège, Cologne and Düsseldorf, the number of non-Dutch students lining corridors who opt for tertiary education in English, does not surprise me.
Maastricht is no Berlin; it’s not even Bruges. The city is more of an adolescent in the European family tree (as it happens the Treaty turns 16 on 1 November – the Treaty came into force on 1 November 1993 – Fijne verjaardag!) and, like all adolescents, the city is coming of a age. The bars, the ones I have fallen upon, are lively and unpretentious; so are the restaurants. To the horror of Dr Atkins, the Dutch love their carbs. Bread accompanies every dish – we’re talking a baguette on the side of a bowl of pasta.
As to culture, I arrived 48 hours before the start of the city’s international culinary carnival, Preuvenemint (a four-day annual culinary event on the Vrijthof square), two weeks before the Bruis music festival (showcasing the Icelandic-Italian songstress, Emiliana Torrini’s, trippy acoustic folk) and a week before the Fringe Festival (albeit in Amsterdam).
The weekend of 18 to 20 September 2009 enjoyed the Musica Sacra festival, a mixture of live classical music, mezzo sopranos, where the French Ensemble Syntagma, led by the Russian Alexander Danilevski, interpreted love songs from the Italian Trecento and art installations.
St Servatius Basilica, Maastricht
The four-day Jazz Promenade Maastricht starts on 22 October 2009.
There are a healthy number of galleries (the Bonnefanten Art Museum, Avenue Céramique 250, Maastricht, is particularly worth a visit) and art centres. AINSI (Lage Kanaaldijk 112-113, Maastricht) has a delicate exhibition dealing with homosexuality in Nazi Germany and in occupied Holland during World War II. The exhibition is in Dutch but the images speak for themselves (the exhibition is on display until Thursday, 29 October 2009. And it’s free).
The Lumière cinema (Bogaardenstraat 40-B, Maastricht) screens Dutch and foreign films. The cinema is currently enjoying a retrospective on Pedro Almodóvar and an Italian cinema exposé. Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist will have its local premiere on 29 October 2009 (although the avant-premiere was on 19 September).
But now here comes the best bit. I have discovered why I selected my Maastricht. As it happens my decision had little to do with the Treaty or to prove a point to my sister, but now has everything to do with a bookshop, the God of all bookshops.
Selexyz Dominicanen bookshop, Maastricht
If there is one reason alone to come to Maastricht, this is it. Blessed with the name Selexyz Dominicanen, the bookshop is set out on black steel imposing and interconnecting levels within a Gothic church. The theological and academic collections are stored in the heavens with more contemporary works on the lower levels strategically close to a café serving espressos and fresh juice. Paintings line the church walls. Utter poetry. I have found home (and absolution) for the next year. The end.
Selexyz Dominicanen bookshop, Maastricht
P.S. To my former colleague who told me that I would be home by 23:00 every night, my first night out had me staggering home at 6:00am. Ha!
By Michael Wells-Greco
Michael Wells-Greco, a solicitor in his former life, now undertaking post-grad studies at the University of Maastricht.