Saturday, September 12, 2015


The southern part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands fades from coastal or estuarine swampland in the west to gently rolling countryside on the way to Germany, along the way displaying peat bog, scrub and wooded stretches, expanses of farmland, and small towns whose church spires are visible afar. This is the often beautiful and sometimes depressing scenery of Vincent Van Gogh, and earlier, Brueghel.

Here lie the landscapes that inspire, and will cause obsession.
They form and malform the visual imagination.
Malleable points of reference.

And madness.

A family from California once headed in this direction, and settled down.
It appeared to be a good idea at the time.


Valkenswaard, which lies in the east of this area, is equidistant from Eindhoven to the north and the Belgian border southwards. Pine forests start on the north side of town, fields stretch to the Dommel river on the west, and farms give way to the Malpy Fens a few miles before the frontier.

It seems isolated, but nowhere in the entire benelux is truly distant from anywhere.

Not if you receive deliveries from Blackwell's Bookstore in Oxford.

Book deliveries from the civilized world, Dundee Marmalade, Twinings Tea, and tinned plumpudding, are the mark of exiles worldwide. Along with Rattrays tobacco blends, and the Balkan Sobranie smoking mixture.

Having returned to the United States long ago, what I really want nowadays is the occasional pouch of Heerenbaai Tabak, which is ribbon-cut Maryland leaf, soft and fragrant ("zacht en geurig"), strong Dutch coffee, and, naturally, deep fried objects that cannot be described.

[Strong Dutch Coffee: most of the still extant native brands are now of questionable provenance, having been buggered up by an American company, then off-shored, and finally associated with yet another miserable American multinational in a German guise.]

Our house was diagonally opposite the Saint Nicholas Church, next to the Kerkweg. Driessen's drugstore was on the other side of the Kerkweg. The police station was down the block, facing the apotheek as well as the old Amsterdam Bank building across the square.

Small businesses, grocery stores, wholesalers of dry goods, household goods, banks, a bicycle repair shop, and insurance companies, alternating with private dwellings and the occasional eatery.

There weren't very many cafes or restaurants in the centre of town then, but the last time I went back for a visit, every other building on the Markt Plein, Luikerweg, Leenderweg, and elsewhere had been turned into an eatery or drinking hole. Mostly drinking holes.

My childhood home is now a bar.

From this you might assume that alcoholism presents a major business opportunity in Valkenswaard, and you would probably be right. But tobacco has a much stronger history. At one time there were over two dozen small cigar factories. They're gone now, but they are fondly remembered. The last two (Hofnar and Willem II) shut down in the nineteen eighties and nineties respectively. Nearly every family had based its march from the grinding poverty of the nineteenth century to the middle-class prosperity of the twenty first by means of employment in the smoking trade.

[Small cigar factories: Starting in 1865 when falconer Jan van Best established a small manufactury with money he had been left by a patron, there were over twenty such by the end of second decade of the twentieth century, employing leaf-strippers, bunchers, rollers, and warehousemen. Mostly younger women rolled the narrower diameter smokes, more practised hands produced the coronas and figurados. By the midtwenties, nearly half of the working population was employed in tobacco. It was an occupation that for over a century seldom experienced unemployment.]

When I was a child, tobacco was not part of my personal programme yet. But coffee, French fries, and the occasional unidentifiable fast-food comestible, along with books, definitely had a place in my life.

[Unidentifiable fast-food comestibles: frikandel, kroket, bami bal, nasi bal. Delicious.]

Every Wednesday afternoon I would park my bicycle outside of Priem's bookstore, go in, and spend two or three hours happily reading. They didn't have much in English, but their selection of fun stuff in Dutch was rather good, as was the section with comic books. They are still in business, and flourishing more than ever.

On a rainy afternoon, nothing was more enjoyable than forgetting the entire world while safe and dry amidst books.
Eventually I also discovered De Slegte in Eindhoven, as well as autres bibliothèques et librairies, but in Valkenswaard, Priem was an oasis.
I shall imagine that later crops of young people have also gratefully discovered the place, and likewise savoured time spent there.
Boekhandel Priem is a priceless treasure.
It's where the world begins.


The tobacconist next door to Priem is no longer in business, but far further down the Eindhovensche Weg the shop where I picked up tins of Balkan Sobranie and wonderful cigar factory seconds during my high school years has been transformed into Compaenen van Ravenstein, an emporium of luxury smokers requisites, including both Cubanos as well as Dutch cigars, and a selection of wines which might be enjoyed with your smoke.
They don't appear to be set up for internet purchases, but they can be contacted: write a letter to Messrs Meulensteen.

Returning to the United States after a trip back years ago, my luggage was filled with Dutch literature and cigars. Approaching customs I staggered under the weight, and was filthy, sweaty, exhausted.

"Do you have anything to declare?"
"No sir, not a thing."
"What's in your bags?"
"Books and dirty laundry. Lots of dirty laundry."
"I see..... Welcome home."

There's something about a fine Dutch cheroot that makes life grand.
It's worth suffering for.

The store is now in its second or third generation of ownership, and bigger and better than ever. Harry van Ravenstein, who sold the business in 2008, knows all about pairing pipe-tobacco and Scotch Whisky.
Which is priceless information.


Closer to the Meerendreef, which marks the northern boundary of the settlement, the old house with the straw thatched roof where rats lived above the residents is, of course, a precious architectural masterpiece, and carefully preserved. We had a chance to buy it, and chose not to.
My mother did not want to sleep under so much combustible material.

Or the rats. For some reason she wasn't okay with rats.

I passed it every day during my teenage years.

It looked like a comfortable house.

The High School to which I went no longer exists -- conceivably too many brilliant graduates went on to stints in prison for brigandage or incendiary activities -- and the youth club where I hatched any number of plots to take over the world, along with several dissolute comrades of a similar bent, closed many years ago also.

[Youth club: Jeugdociëteit Parsifal. Formerly Aquaradius, in the Draaikolk building on the Maastrichterweg, where it was on the top floor, and, apparently, considered a serious nuisance. When that location was closed down, the intellectual rowdies invaded a working men's bar near Willem II for over a year, until the municipality relented and rented us an abandoned and falling apart building on the Eindhovenscheweg, on the condition that we act nicely, and also fix up the premises. I spent many happy afternoons and twilights there, swilling tea and smoking dark stinky Latakia blends in my pipe. It was just up the road from the aforementioned tobacconist.]

A long time ago, Plane Tree Lane ("Plataanlaan") past the Hertog Jan College was a spooky deserted area permanently in the shade from the old growth, but the last time I saw it it seemed gilded with sunlight, although still haphazardly unpaved and bumpy.
I don't know why I didn't remember it being beautiful.

Perhaps because one of my sadistic physical education teachers forced us all to jog in this section of the woods for hours, in lieu of anything more creative in the field of exercise.

Rain, sleet, frost and fog, occasionally snow.

I wonder if any of the kids at the high school ever got picked off and eaten by trolls there because of him.


The town peters-out abruptly beyond this point. It's a half hour by bike to Eindhoven, which counts as the nearest big city. But Eindhoven, though exotic and foreign, never seemed as special.
It was simply where teenage boys went to buy smutty magazines.
Not a very exciting place, all things considered.
Stranger food. And worse coffee.

Valkenswaard is one of the navels of the world.
The centre of its own discrete universe.
Timeless, and stil fragrant.



A. Brangers; Botycos; Erba (N.V. Gijrath's Sigarenfabrieken); Firma Baeten; Firma Gebroeders Jeurissen; Firma H. Kersten & Co.; Firma Van Aken & Van Veldhoven, Firma Van Hoof-Swinkels; Firma Van Veldhoven en Van Der Heijde; Firma W. Helling en Co.; G. Plompen & Co.; Gebroeders Neijnens (Neijnens Brothers); Gebroeders Rijkers (Rijkers Brothers); Gebroeders Van Best (Van Best Brothers, Hollandia brand); Hofnar; H. Kinjet (Hamilton brand); Holland-Amerika; J. Heesterbeek & Co.; J. Peters; J. Smulders; Lord Carnavon; N.V. Jasneva (Jaspers & Snellens; Hendrick Hudson cigars); S. de Louwere; Taberna (Chris Van De Kerkhof & Zoon); Texas Sigaren Fabriek (Firma Hoekx en Maas, "Texas Tips"); Theo van Gerven; Van Aken & Co.;Willem II.
Et mult altres.

Altogether, there were over seventy brands from this town.
Only Hofnar and Willem II survived past the sixties.



Sumatra, which is soft, silky and thin; of an even light-medium hue, fragrant and almost floral. Often used for wrapper ("dekblad"; capa).
Java (Besuki regencies), thicker and a little coarser, stronger than Sumatra, and while naturally aromatic, it is a drier fragrance, more incense like and resinous. Both binder ("omblad"; banda, capote, ) and filler.
Brazilian, having both a spiciness as well as a sweetness; filler only ("binnengoed", tripa).
Cuba, also called Havana, a rich-tasting medium full leaf from Pinar del Río with a broad flavour palette, earthy and somewhat "salty".
Often used condimentally as part of the filler melange.
Finer qualities are suitable as wrapper leaves.
It feels "toothy" to the finger tips.


Varinas, that being the name for Venezuelan crops from Varinas and neighboring provinces, a fine delicate leaf of chestnut colour, medium strength.
Manila, sweeter and less aromatic than Java, but more uniform in hue.
Mexican, very similar to Cuban in appearance, touch, and flavour, but less finely cultivated and cured.
Domingo, Santo Domingo; a fragrant light coloured leaf of excellent aroma, suitable for long filler, though the finest leaves will be used as wrappers.
Porto Rico is suitable only for filler due to variable colouration, but it adds a sweetness. It is more often used to make 'krul tabak' ("curly"), that being a single-type pipe tobacco formerly both cheap and popular.

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All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Anonymous said...


The back of the hill said...

Jawel. Nu woonachtig in San Francisco. En gijzelve?

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