Bommen Berend Festival in Groningen
May 13th 2008 21:10
While Louis lamented, across the channel the English had a misplaced confidence in their ability, reminiscent of that heady spring frenzy every 4 years when an honestly held national belief builds that they’re about to win the World Cup in total disregard of their competitors abilities and their own team’s form. In that 1672 spring, without the football drug to sate them, the English were baying for some form of combat in which to fall predictably short. As Samuel Pepys noted at the time in his diary, they were mad for a war. They even had their own theme song. Perhaps. But as a kicker, on top of all other geo-political manoeuvrings and populus bloodlust, the Dutch Admiral Tromp had insulted the wife of the English Admiral Spragge. So in a bout of tall poppy syndrome and pettiness the English, with the full cheer squad of Louis XIV at the ready, tried to invade the Netherlands in 1672. Very Springer.
At the vanguard, the task of subduing the north was outsourced. Even then, the English were looking to the continent for their star forwards. In that summer of 1672 Bommen Berend, the Bomber of Berend and occasional Bishop of Munster, laid siege to Groningen. Unfortunately for the Gronigers, along with his penchant for lobbing big heavy stuff over city walls he was also a budding chemist interested in the more subtle art of biochemical weapons. He stuffed the incendiary devices with belladonna in the hope of producing toxic fumes. Budding chemist, but incompetent meteorologist, the Bomber of Berend failed to take wind into account during his assaults. Inside the walls the hardy Gronigers stuck it out and observed the tragi-comic Berend bombing both them and scoring toxic own goals until 28 August 1672 when the siege broke and the Bishop returned to Munster to resume his priestly pastimes.
On a baking August afternoon I arrived to find the Gronigers still celebrating some 335 years to the day that the Bishop left in failure. I came to study at the university already 58 years old when the mad bomber laid siege. I exited the train station bleary eyed and dazzled by the Lego blocks melted together and dumped in the middle of a canal. The post-modern Groniger Museum is an intrigue of design and architecture. Designed by Mendini with the assistance of a half dozen other architects the building is, quite rightly, as much an attraction itself as the archaeological, historical, and modern installations inside. The architecture is a testament to collaborative deconstructivism, whatever that may mean. If nothing else, dumped as it is in the centre of a canal and facing the traditionally bruin brick station, it serves as an apt symbol of a city both head scratchingly modern and classily classic.
Jet-lagged, discombobulated, and shielding my eyes from the mutated Lego, I walked across the footbridge into the sanctums of the city, startled as bikes pedalled by long legged tapered jeans wearing locals grazed past either side of me along the dull yellow bricks paving the circular inner island. The air was thick with a musty-sour-saltiness, a mix I placed as some combination of body odour and wet socks left at the bottom of a sea-trawler, a whiff I came to identify as herring, particularly pungent on market days when locals (and almost only locals) lean against the counter of the fishmonger’s van and throw those smelly rolled up little fish down their throat, head titled back like pelicans. The wind can drown out the herring on windier days when it variously carries a golden syrup-molasses scent from the sugar refinery or a thick brown pipe-rum odour from the tobacco plant.
In the late summer the population swells by a quarter with the beginning of university term and an influx of both Dutch and pan-European Erasmus students who add an extra edge of cosmopolitan vibrancy to the city. The Bommen Berend festival is the perfect time to visit as its local inhabitants are full of bonhomie and the wide eyed excited students fill the pedestrian city centre on the Grote Markt (the great market) in the east and the Vismarkt (fish market) in the west. On weekends and festivals the city becomes crowded with purveyors and providores and bicycles and locals who have that stress-less expression that comes from not dealing with traffic. Around the Stadhuis at the Grote Markt under the pencil shadow of the Martini Tower and the green letters Houghoudt (the local Jenever), stalls line up in orderly rows under red and yellow striped awnings, pink neon signs advertise fairground rides to dislodge the herring, and musicians busk away happily.
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