This morning I woke up later than I usually do, opened the curtains of my hotel room, and took this picture of my first daylight view of the year 2022.
This picture leads to a few thoughts I want to share.
A blank canvas
If your first impression of this photo is that there is not much to see, I can't agree more. But isn't that how it should be? It is the first day of a new year, anything can still happen, and this year's history still has to unfold. So what we see is practically a blank canvas. And like a painter starting on a new project in the early morning, we may begin the year with only a rough plan, like the contours on the picture, and then we will fill in the details and the colors during our 365-day trip.
Who needs a detailed painted canvas?
Unfortunately, our approach is not unlike how many politicians work, who try to tackle global problems by last-minute decisions, even though we elected them to plan strategically for a better long-term future for our kids and us.
We, the non-leaders, enjoy the privilege to decide a lot in our lives when we get at a crossroads. However, politicians, and CEOs, are supposed to map out our journey much better; they are like tour guides in a city. They plan, lead, and we follow. At least, that is what they are supposed to do.
What's there to see in the photo?
Back to that picture: my first view this morning was from a hotel in the center of The Hague, and I looked to the Northwest. Had I slept on a higher floor, I might have been able to see the North Sea and the coastal dunes. Actually, my original room was near the top of the building, but at 2:00 am, a party in one of the other rooms showed no sign of ending before sunrise. So I moved to another room, some floors down, realizing that interrupting a party to get some quiet night rest is hardly ever a happy start to the new year, nor is it likely to be achieved.
The forest you see in the foreground was a couple of thousands of years ago the coastal dunes. The North Sea started just at the end of the forest, where you see the first buildings. More of these still slightly elevated areas of former dunes are in the city, known as beach walls. You notice them, for instance, when cycling through The Hague; when you have to push a bit more because the road is going up a little, you likely cycle up what was once a much higher dune landscape. If you take a closer look once you are on such a higher point (we talk about just a few meters, sometimes even less), you often notice that the buildings look nicer, are older, or more important. The same is true for the trees: older and bigger on slightly higher ground.
What to watch for when in The Hague
Throughout history, those in power arranged to occupy the best grounds; for obvious reasons, in any country in the world below sea level, that means the higher areas. You can easily see this for yourself if you are ever in The Hague. If you step out of this hotel (or the Central Station next door), walk into this forest, and follow a course to the south-southwest, you will follow this old sand wall. You will then pass the beautiful Maurits Huis Museum (a former palace), the Prime Minister's office, parliament, the 13th-century Knights' Hall (the venue of the Dutch version of an event that is vaguely similar to the annual State of the Union in the US). Once you have left this former nobility area, and you continue following the slightly higher ground, you will find buildings of the citizens of the city of The Hague (that sadly never got city rights, but calling The Hague a town or a village gives the wrong impression). So the route now follows the former City Hall and the biggest church of The Hague, which most people know as the Big Church.
Once you understand this principle, you can always orientate in The Hague. It even helps with shopping. Let's start, for instance, next to the century-old classic warehouse "Maison de Bonneterie." It is more than a century old and was known all those years as a costly shop until H&M recently acquired it. As you would expect by now, it stands on top of a former dune.
From this spot, you can go right into the "Hoogstraat," the "Highstreet." It is indeed higher, and so is the quality of the shops and the prices. However, if you turn left, you can see that the road goes down several meters, and so does the quality of the shops and the prices; it is the "Veenstraat," indicating the peatlands or wetlands that used to be here. After some 500 to 800 years of building and rebuilding on these grounds, the slight difference of a few meters in elevation is still noticeable: houses or shops on the sand, so former dunes, are still the most expensive.
And I briefly mentioned that the trees, like the houses, are older and more significant on the sand. The logical explanation is that trees on the sand are better rooted. Their roots go deep into the ground to reach the water. Trees in lower areas get spoiled by so much water, and their lazy roots prefer to grow more horizontally. So when a storm passes, it blows over the lazy trees in the lower and wetter areas.
I love to combine history and geography, and when you walk in an old European city like The Hague, there is so much to see that it feels like traveling back in time.
Wishing a beautiful 2022 for you
That's it for the first day of the year. For now, I want to wish you all a beautiful 2022. I want a lot more for the planet, all of us, and therefore for you, but I may get back to that in the next few days. Let's summarise it that if we all behave well, take our responsibility, are all kind to each other, and if we are willing to share more and compete less, there is a pretty good chance that 2022 will indeed be beautiful for all.