An Afternoon in Maastricht

October 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

(Some of the details of this story may be just a little embellished)

All we wanted to do was buy a couple of Nijntje postcards. You know how it is when you discover that there is a hitherto unrecognised cultural divide between yourself and people you have known for a while. We had a couple of friends from the UK staying with us for a few days, let’s call them Mrs B and Mr F, and decided to wander around Maastricht one afternoon. We were sitting drinking coffee on a Vrijthof terrace when my wife mentioned to Mrs B that there was a Nijntje shop in town. The mention of Nijntje was met with only blank bemusement and it was clear that Mrs B had never heard of the said Nijntje. Being Finnish she was all too aware of the Moomin’s antics or Pippi Longstocking’s various travails but sadly the existence of Nijntje had never intruded upon her consciousness.

For the emotionally illiterate, Nijntje is a much loved cartoon character created over sixty years ago by the avuncular Dutchman Dick Bruna. Introduced initially in children’s books, Nijntje’s remit now extends from duvet covers, to videos, through to cuddly toys. In the Netherlands there isn’t a woman under seventy who hasn’t owned, or purchased a Nijntje artefact for a small child. Renamed Miffy she has even gone on to invade the English speaking world. Anyhow, in an attempt to fertilise Mrs B’s barren cultural Finnish wasteland, we walked down to the river Maas and explored the delights of the Nijntje shop. Two postcards and a cuddly toy later we made our way back through the old town.

A maze of little cobbled streets makes up Maastricht old town between the Maas and the Vrijthof. The first signs of preparing for St Nicholas day were appearing, with an occasional manikin of Zwarte Piet dangling desultorily from a shop’s eves.  The four of us wandered down a street, barely wide enough to allow the passage of a 7 series BMW, peering through the  stylish, discreet shop windows displaying their wares of expensive chocolates, designer clothes and obscenely priced esoteric gifts. And then there was the narrow fronted shop, its window nearly filled with a black basque. The rest of the window space was taken up with a stylishly fonted sign advertising Masturbation Masterclasses where, for a mere twenty five euros, one could become more adept at self-indulgence. Strangely, Mr F and I assumed that the advert was aimed at women, whereas our wives believed it was for men. From their whispered conversation I gathered that they thought the advert was unlikely to attract much custom as in their experience most men were already complete wankers.

I had a sticky-beak in the window of the next shop, an interior design studio called Gay Jongen. (In English: “Gay Boy”, no, truly, sometimes the clichés just write themselves). Not much to interest me there so I turned around to see Mr F staring across the street, with a slow smile forming. Another narrow fronted, bay-windowed, typically Dutch shop stared back across the street at us. Mr F nodded at the sign, spelt out in olde worlde script, Merkin Hof, and asked if any of us wanted to buy a merkin. With none of us knowing what a merkin was, we assured him that it was probably the name of the shop’s owner. Now, Mr F is a pretty worldly man, highly intelligent, with a range of knowledge that totally outstrips my own, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he was the only one of us who knew what a merkin was. He then led us over to the shop to prove his assertion that merkins are indeed pubic wigs, deriving from medieval days when they were worn by women, often prostitutes, who shaved their pubes as a protection against pubic lice. Why is it, even among the giggles, that women more readily follow their curiosity in these matters than men? Whatever, our wives led us reluctantly into the shop.

The owner/shop assistant was a timeless looking, cultured woman who could have been a decade either side of forty. She looked a little like Audrey Hepburn’s slightly more serious older sister. As is traditional in some small enterprises in the Netherlands, she solemnly shook each of our hands. I hesitated over the handshake as on entering the shop I had noticed on the door, next to the sign proclaiming a bespoke facility, another sign offering a free fitting service. The shop was all layered silk and finely wrought wooden display cabinets, which she invited us to inspect. As Mr F and I began to back towards the door, our wives announced they wished to buy a Christmas present for a mutual friend. The shop owner swung into action and explained the variety of services she provided. The most popular apparently was a computer tailored service by which the customer provided the specifications which were then punched into a computer programme. She claimed that with complete specifications the computer could model, within a 1% margin of error, the perfect merkin for any woman. Specifications included: weight, height, body mass index, nationality, hair colouring (natural and dyed), educational attainment and cultural and racial background. For a perfect fit, similar specifications were obtained about the woman’s partner. She told us that without a partner’s details, there had been unfortunate incidents, most noticeably beards forming a Velcro bond with certain types of merkin. (Well, that answers one Hipster question I’ve been meaning to ask!)

She also said with some embarrassment that before activating the programme she needed to know if any of us had a recent criminal history. In explanation she told us that a couple of months ago she had been questioned at length by the AIVD, the Dutch internal security police. The interrogation related to an unfortunate incident concerning a rather obese German professor of forensic psychology who taught at Aachen University. The shop accessed a state of the art computer server located in the local regional parliament. When the German woman’s details were entered into the computer, the modelled merkin formed an identical profile to the flying-wing shape of the prototype Northrop Grumman stealth bomber which was still in the early stages of development. An regrettable coincidence identified by the security service’s computer surveillance algorithms. We assured the woman that we had neither criminal histories nor aero-nautical intentions and she proceeded to take down the entirely spurious dimensions provided by my wife and Mrs B.

I’m not sure who the woman was that my wife and Mrs B profiled for the merkin computer programme but I suspect Dolly Parton will shortly be receiving a surprise package. When asked to give details of the giftee’s partner, I may be wrong but the description was suspiciously like that of Damien Hill, the former Formula 1 world champion. (Strange the things you can discover about a long-standing partner just by visiting a merkin shop together).  The computer buzzed for a while and we awaited the arrival of the AIVD. After five minutes the owner rubbed her hands in satisfaction and informed us we were lucky as she had the exact specification in stock. Would we look after the shop while she went up to the third floor to get the item? (Trusting, maybe, but it is unlikely there is much trade in shoplifted merkins even in the Netherlands)

We looked around the displays while we waited, amazed by the sheer number of ways a woman can secure a recalcitrant merkin upon her person. There was also evidence of just how remarkably well qualified Dutch shop assistants are with an elegantly framed diploma displayed proudly in its own cabinet, celebrating the fact that the shop owner had been awarded a three year diploma from the Technical University of the merkin makers of Maastricht. Further signs on the walls appealed to a range of customers, everything from “Make mine a merkin” to “Re-mink your merkin.” All signs were replicated as fridge magnets displayed on a small rotating circular stand on the shop counter. The owner returned five minutes later, looking pleased with herself, and with a flourish presented us with the merkin, nestled in what seemed to be a claret-coloured silk handkerchief. I have to say I was just a little disappointed as it resembled nothing less than the unfortunate outcome of a confrontation between a Sioux raiding party and Geert Wilders. Still, we all ooh aahed in appreciation and she asked if we wanted it gift- wrapped. Presenting us with a range of gift boxes all satin lined with little round holes in them- according to the owner, merkins need to be able to breathe- we selected a burnished cedar wood box into which she gently proceeded to lay out the merkin. We then moved onto selecting the wrapping paper (all of which was more expensive than the last present I bought my wife) and the ribbon. And then there it was, on the counter in front of us, a perfectly wrapped merkin, the owner had even done that thing with the scissors that makes the ribbon curl. She seemed strangely reluctant to hand the box over and instead walked with us to the door. Again the obligatory round of handshakes but it was only as she was ushering us out of the door that she handed the boxed merkin to my wife. I swear I saw a glisten in the woman’s eyes as she pressed the box into my wife’s hand, patted her on the arm and said, “Please remember mevrouw, a merkin is not just for Christmas.”

Yes, as I said, all we wanted was to buy a couple of Nijntje postcards but somehow it all went downhill from there.

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