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The Hague: provincial town or cosmopolitan hub?

Written by Diane Lemieux

‘Nothing ever happens here.’ It’s a common complaint in The Hague, home to the nation’s bureaucrats and seat of the world’s Peace and Justice institutions. Common, but undeserved: ‘S Gravenhage, as it is officially called, offers an impressively full cultural calendar.

The issue of what to do in the city isn’t about the quantity on offer, but rather the fact that The Hague celebrates quietly: it prefers to BE rather than to broadcast its achievements.

Crossing Borders

Take the Crossing Border Festival for example. Every November, the city opens its door to this innovative music and literary event. It is a good example of The Hague’s unsung cosmopolitan soul. For two days, national boundaries, artistic styles, traditional genres melt away. Every artist crosses some sort of border: writers who incorporate poetry and essay forms, blending fiction and non-fiction in their novels; jazz musicians who roll hip hop, funk, R&B and soul into one futuristic, dynamic sound. Some artists stand at the intersection literature and music: L.A. Salami, a young British singer song-writer, uses poetry and story-telling to deliver his social critique in an ultra-pleasing blend of ballads, funk and folk song.

This festival, like the city of The Hague, is world-class but small-ish and not overly crowded. And it doesn’t seem to be well-known. In fact, one gets the impression that the artists were invited purely for the benefit of The Hague’s citizens: the goal is not to attract the attention of the world (like how the Fringe Festival puts Edinburgh on the international cultural map). Rather, it invites Hagenesen to experience a taste of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Out of the box

The festival takes place in wildly contrasting venues in the city centre – the spiritual cavern of the Lutheran Church, the grace of Humanity House, and the youthful grunge of Het Paard – forcing audiences out of the comfort of the boxes that define the space between ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’, ‘music’ and ‘literature’.

Several Paris-based authors commented on an aspect of life in The Hague that we should not take for granted: the lack of obvious security in the streets around the event. The low-key and relaxed atmosphere make it possible for the audience to approach the authors and musicians at the end of performances or at signings. The literary programme presents an outstanding line-up of well-established and newly emerging authors from around the world. Book presentations and readings are given mostly in English, though this year, one room was dedicated to French literature, presented in French to a Dutch and international Francophile audience.

Breaking walls between ‘them’ and ‘us’

The name ‘S Gravenhage translates to Count’s Hedge. In other words, this is the nobleman’s realm separated from the common ‘other’ by shrubbery. One might expect the community that lives within the hedge to have a closed, ‘circle the wagon’ mentality. Yet, even in the Middle Ages, the town never had walls to protect it. In 2017, the city allows Dutch communities, international expatriates, and immigrant groups the freedom to create strong community ties. At the same time the city supports platforms that celebrate the cosmopolitan notion that there is more than one way of being, doing, behaving, and thinking.

A born and bred Hagenaar once told me that The Hague needs to be explored in order to be appreciated: it is a snifter of fine whiskey rather than the unambiguous bang of a shot of tequila. Grab that glass and savour.

@Diane Lemieux

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