Also see The Demon Skull Pipe
September 22nd it was once again time for one of my annual highlights: The Inter Tabac fair in Dortmund. For those of you who missed the blogposts I made of the visit the last couple of years; the Inter-Tabac is the leading and biggest trade fair of the world for tobacco products and smoking accessories. This year 625 exhibitors from 54 countries presented trends and innovative tobacco products. This included cigars, cigarillos, cigarettes, E-cigarettes, E-pipes, E-shishas, smoking accessories, pipes, pipe tobacco, shishas, shop equipment and spirits. Unfortunately the fair is for retailers, not for consumers. Like the previous years I was able to secure a ticket through Fred. The saying goes, the more the merrier, so (with approval of Fred) I invited Jef, who is an enthusiastic Three Nuns tobacco fan (more about that later) and also a member of the Dutch/Belgian Pipe Smokers Forum. Sadly just a day before the fair Fred told me he could not make it. So on the early morning of the 22nd Jef drove from the West of The Netherlands, where he lives, to the East, where I live. To be precisely, to the MacDonalds in Deventer. There is a big parking lot just near the highway so I could park my car there and Jef and I could drive together. He was already there when I arrived and asked me the magic words on an early morning: “Do you want some coffee?”
We arrived well on time at the Westfalenhallen, the location of the fair, but when we wanted to go to the main entrance we could not find it. Turned out there was a big renovation going on so we had to walk through some sand and mud to get inside.. I proposed to first go to the stand of DTM/Danpipe because, well.. They have coffee there. And excellent tobaccos of course! We were greeted by master-blender Andreas Mund and his charming wife (both DTM employees) who, by the way, is responsible for many of the new DTM blends. Apparantly she has good taste buds, a good smell and some creativity. Jef knew of a perfume site where a lot of smell-combinations are explaned so he told her about it in spotless German. My German is just ok, I can understand it and make clear what I think and want but that’s it. So I looked at Jef and he smiled and shrugged “You probably did not know I am half German right?” No I didn’t but it was damn handy to have a walking translator beside me.
Andreas brought us all some coffee and I asked about new blends. DTM only had one called “The Untouchables”. A collaboration between DTM’s Michael Apitz and Hans Wiedemann from HU Tobacco. Very interesting! Andreas handed me the jar containing the blend and I first read the label: The Untouchables Special Mixture: The basic mixture consists of mature ready rubbed Virginia and a pinch of smooth Black Cavendish. Aroma of cedarwood and roses are added as a final seasoning, which marry perfectly with the tobacco’s original flavours. Untouchable – incorruptable in terms of quality! Ok, I opened the jar and it smelled inviting, so I grabbed my pipe and wanted to fill it with the blend. “Whooh! No you can’t!” Andreas said. “Huh, why not?” “Well, ehm.. We were a bit late deciding which aromas would be used so we only have this jar and nothing more..” “Ehrr.. Ok, so you have a new blend and no one can sample it?? You had loads of time to prepare for the fair!” With a laugh Andreas said: “Well, here it goes like, damn, the fair is in a week, let’s come up with something!” Ok, I opted for some tasty Fred the Frog instead. We talked some more about the company and we all believed it is a company that has “soul”.
Next we went to the big stand of the mighty MacBaren. This was a highlight for Jef because he is a big fan of the Three Nuns blend (and he knows all about its history) which is made by MacBaren now for a couple of years. Recently 2 new Three Nuns blends came out: Three Nuns Green (containing Kentucky, Perique and Virginia) and Three Nuns Yellow (containing Virginia). I did not have tried any of them, in fact, I did not have tried Three Nuns at all in my pipe smoking life. Until some months ago when I received a full envelope from Jef containing samples of different vintages. Some tasted better than others but still, very good! Jef even brought some of those old blends with him to show to product manager Per Jensen, who greeted us warmly. I just had to say “Three Nuns” and almost like a magician he made the 2 new blends appear on the counter. After an extensive sniffing I decided to load my pipe with the “Green” version. It was fresh as a young virgin but it tasted damn mature! Yummie! Per said: “We never looked back when we created the new blend. We never tried any of the old Three Nuns. Reason is that the tobacco manufacturers back then could lay their hands on does not exist now any more.” We talked some more when the subject came upon Burley. I said I seldom smoked Burleys but was willing to try some. So I asked if I could have a sample of the HH Burley Flake. Promptly I was given a full sealed tin. “That is how we do samples at MacBaren!” said Per with a wink. His next gift was a very special one, a big heavy book called “The Pipe, A Functional Work of Art“. It looked absolutely stunning with beautiful pictures. Thank you very much Per!
When we were chatting and smoking the fabulous Three Nuns a man walked up to the counter. He had an unsmoked corncob pipe in his hand and said to Per he came for his pipe-smoking lesson. It turned out he came from Switzerland, was a cigar aficionado but wanted to explore the world of pipe-smoking. Ah, a possible new convert! Jef had some experience teaching new pipe-smokers so Per and I gave him the thumbs up to go ahead. And I have to say, Jef did a very, very good job. Per and I stood mesmerized while Jef explained all the basics to the man. Beginning with what the man liked to eat and drink in his regular life. Sweet? Not sweet? Smoky? Based on that Jef thought the man would prefer a more natural tobacco. So he let him smell some to show the difference between blends. On my advice the man also held his nose above a mixture with some latakia (some people immediately love it and want nothing else) but he did not like it very much. In the end Jef advised the man to try Amphora Virginia, because it is natural and uncomplicated yet tasty. He then told how to fill a pipe with the 3-step method (first putting in the tobacco like a child, softly, then as a woman, a bit harder and finally as a man, firmly press it). The Swiss man then lighted his pipe and began puffing contently. Jef explained some more basics on how to smoke and clean the pipe. The man loved it, “I can taste my favourite whisky!” he said with a big smile. Later we would bump into him again and he would repeat that he “really liked it, really liked it!” Mission accomplished.
It was already time to lunch and on our way outside we passed the stand of Big Ben. As always Elbert Gubbels was very busy but he took the time to greet us. When I asked how things were going his face contorted: “All those damn EU regulations! Now they want that the Samuel Gawith tins I import no longer have a golden colour. Instead they must have an aluminium look because the gold looks too fancy!” Talking about Gawith, when we were outside having some lunch (which we brought with us because the food prices at the Inter Tabac are utterly insane) I spotted a grey man trying to sneak past us. When he saw I noticed him he tried to get away but to no avail, I gave him a big hug, it was Bob Gregory. “You bastard!” he said, “Every time I look at the bottle of beer you gave me last year I have to laugh! What’s inside huh? Belgian ale? Strong stuff!” Yes Bob, the stuff that makes you grow even more chest hair! Less funny were sadly his stories about, yet again, the EU regulations. I asked him if there was a chance Flatlander Flake would be released worldwide. “No, because the sky is blue.” “Excuse me?” “The sky is blue in the tin art which is not allowed any more. It strikes a too positive note about smoking.” Completely bonkers if you ask me.. “By the way, do you know a place in The Netherlands called Ootmarsum?” Bob asked. “Yes I do, in fact it is not too far away from where I live.” “Good, you should go there to a brewery, forgot which one, and take a good look around.” “Why?” “Because all the old Samuel Gawith machinery and equipment from the Kendal Brown House is there.” “What??? You mean amongst others the legendary old snuff mill from around 1750? The oldest, longest working piece of industrial equipment in Great Britain, perhaps even the world?” “Yup.. After the move to Gawith & Hoggarth we really tried to keep it all in Kendal, in the country. I phoned museum after museum, even the British Museum but no one wanted it.. Such a shame.. In the end a Dutch friend of mine who has a brewery in Ootmarsum bought it all to put in his little museum.” Back home I looked on the internet, the brewery in Ootmarsum must be the Othmar brewery. I think I will visit them soon.
After lunch Jef and I went to the stand of the Scandinavian Tobacco Group. Inside were pipes of brands like Peterson (! I had expected they had gone elsewhere since Laudisi took over the brand), Stanwell, Dunhill and Winslow. Stanwell had some new pipes made out of beech wood. According to the friendly spokes-lady they would last about 300 smokes. Hmm.. That does not add up to much for that price, I thought.. My corncobs are much cheaper and they already last far more than 300 smokes. Peterson had nothing really special and Dunhill had some weird pipes with a bend stem so you can smoke it around a corner or something like that.. Mr. Poul Winslow himself was present and I took the opportunity to thank him for repairing one of my favourite Winslow pipes. Some time ago I bit through the mouthpiece, I contacted my seller and he said to just send the pipe to Denmark for repair. So I did and only a couple of days before the Inter Tabac I got it back, with a new stem and polished. Mr. Winslow immediately recognized the pipe when I showed him, “Ah, the pipe with the broken mouthpiece right?” Further we had a pleasant conversation, he is such a gentleman.
At a side of the stand I spotted a friendly giant: Scandinavian Tobacco Group master-blender Lasse Berg. On a table before him were jars with all kinds of loose tobaccos; Virginias, Burley, Kentucky, Latakia, Perique etc. It turned out he was blending mixtures for whoever who wanted them. That was an opportunity I would not miss! “What do you want?” He asked me. “A good balkan blend please!” With the speed of an experienced blender he put together some orientals, Latakia and Virginia. “Would you like some Perique?” “No thank you.” “A bit of Black Cavendish?” “Yes please.” He deposited it all in a tin and asked me what the name of the blend should be. “Balkan Arno, please”. Later that afternoon I smoked it and I have to say, it was better than expected!
Next was the stand of Kohlhase & Kopp. What struck us the most were the new “just-like-Dunhill-but-different” blends under the Robert McConnell banner with names like Early Bird (Early Morning Pipe), City of London (London Mixture), Majesty Elizabeth (Elizabethan Mixture) etc. I don’t know what to think of it.. Creative, yes, but also a bit of an insult to the old Dunhill blends. Anyway, Dunhill tobacco already died for me when Murray’s took over. I had the opportunity to smoke several sublime 1970’s versions and they were superior to the later blends I had, Murray’s and Orlik. At Vauen there were few new items. I think a new Auenland and I saw some pipes with weird psychedelic spots on them.
Jef had spotted a brochure that somebody held advertising CBD oil. What the hell does someone want with oil made out of the cannabis plant? Well, sadly Jef’s father has cancer, a very lethal version. The doctors had given him only 6 months but because of the use of CBD oil and Curcuma extract pills he has been going pretty strong for 19 months already! Jef is busy with setting up a business that can import, and perhaps later make, CBD oil in The Netherlands. But he did not expect to find suppliers on the Inter Tabac Fair. So we visited several of them. Pretty interesting, one company even had a vaping device which allowed you to inhale the CBD into your lungs. Handy with patients who have lung cancer for example.
Because the visits to Danpipe, MacBaren and the CBD companies took so long we could not see the entire fair. But I don’t think we missed much. Oh wait, there was one thing, I missed some scantily dressed promotion babes! It all was very, decent, this year. Until we were in one of the Vaping halls and we saw a stunning bodypainted beauty. Yesss!!! Around 5 o’clock we decided to call it quits and find something to eat. Like every year there was only one location we could go to; El Greco in the town of Herne. The friendly owner more or less recognized me from the other years (“Netherlands, right?”) and the meal he made was as good as ever.
I want to thank Jef for keeping me company and for all the interesting conversations we had. All pictures were made by Jef and myself.
Nowadays a truly good tobacconist sadly is a rare thing here but decades ago The Netherlands boasted lots of them. Specialist stores where the knowledge of the salesmen was of crucial importance because the clients relied on it. These days we can simply look up information on the digital highway but back then you had to trust the expertise of your tobacco vendor. One of the most well known and respected tobacconists in that time was G. de Graaff in the political heart of our small country: The Hague.
Founded in 1928 by Gerard de Graaff (who was later joined by his son Frits de Graaff) the business was located at the Heulstraat no. 27. Not far from Noordeinde Palace, Council of State, Council for the Judiciary and the Binnenhof in the old city centre. They got well-known both at home and abroad very quickly, mainly because of their excellent house-brand G. de Graaff cigars, which were made by 5 different cigar factories in The Netherlands. Even the legendary Winston Churchill had heard of them. Dutch Pipe Smokers Forum member Willem tells: “My father, who had a high ranking job at the Ministry of Finance, knew De Graaff very well because he always bought his cigars there. So when Churchill visited The Hague for the Congress of Europe in 1948 my father arranged some special Cuban cigars for him which came, of course, from De Graaff.” Other famous people who visited the store throughout the years were amongst others Bill Clinton, prince Bernard, Josip Tito, François Mitterrand and Konrad Adenauer.
After the war the sons of Frits, Robbert and Gerard de Graaff, entered the business. But soon father Frits realized that letting Gerard and Robbert work together was not a good idea. So Gerard kept himself busy with the production side and Robbert took care of the sales in the store. Frits de Graaff was a remarkable man, a real old world salesman. He lived above the store and was always impeccably dressed, like the true gentleman he was, with his trademark bow tie. Also he was a man of principles, if he did not believe in a brand he would not sell it. Willem tells: When I had my practice in The Hague, around 1976-1980, the De Graaff store had something special, something chic. In that time I smoked MacBaren. When I asked for such a tin at the store Mr. Frits always said that the tobacco contained too much glycerine “Which is not good for your throat!”. Like the polite man I was and still am I then bought a tin of Flying Dutchman, which was much better according to him.
Also I know that De Graaff did not sell Peterson because of the P-Lip mouthpiece, the often shabby finish, the many fills and because of the long time it took to break in a pipe. I think he liked Dunhill better, Dutch Pipe Smokers Forum member Rob tells: Once I was in the store together with Mr. De Graaff. While talking he took a Dunhill pot-shaped pipe out of his pocket and told this was his father’s favourite pipe. You could see the pipe was old and that it had once been a heavy sandblasted Shell Briar but because of the use the surface had become smooth. After his death he kept the pipe and smoked it several times a week. As far as tobacco went Frits de Graaff liked latakia very much. Rob tells: I remember well that I was a boy of about 18 years old when I stepped inside the store to buy a pipe. When the conversation drifted towards pipe tobacco he pointed out “the only tobacco” latakia to me. Besides the pipe I let myself be persuaded to also buy a tin with latakia and indeed, I was swept away. Back in those days that fine tobacco was significantly more expensive than e.g. Mac Baren so I smoked latakia in moderation, because I had to pay for it from the proceeds of my newspaper round. Sadly Frits de Graaff passed away in 1996, Robbert took over the business but he sold the store in 2005. The new owners tried their best but the grandeur of days past never really came back. Just recently I learned that the shop at the Heulstraat no. 27 is closing, the owners want to merge it with another store of them at another location.
My own story with De Graaff began in 2011. I was just discovering the realm of the dark leaf when I began exchanging messages and tobacco samples with Klaas. Because of him I was able to try wonderful blends like Balkan Sobranie Original Smoking Mixture, GL Pease Westminster and De Graaff Kegelbaan Mixture and Back in Town. The last 2 were house-blends. I knew sh*t about pipe-tobacco in those days but what I noticed was that they were all of very high quality. Klaas saw that I really enjoyed the De Graaff tobaccos, generously gave me some tins and told the following story: I discovered the De Graaff house-blends fairly late, in the 90’s, but I was immediately smitten. I really invested in them and bought loads of tins. Suddenly at the end of the 90’s I was told in the store that the house-blends were being discontinued. I panicked a bit and decided to buy all the tins I could get my hands on. In the store and in other tobacco shops in The Netherlands who also carried the De Graaff house-blends. Of course during the years I smoked a lot of them but I still have some left. The only thing I always wondered was where those fabulous tobaccos were made. It was a well kept secret that De Graaff never told to anyone..
Throughout the years I smoked some excellent De Graaff blends which were given to me by Klaas and another forum member. Also whenever I was in a tobacco-shop I asked if they had some old tins stashed away somewhere. Now and then I even got lucky and I was able to buy some old De Graaff tobaccos meant for home-blending, which I did and created lovely blends with them. But when I heard that the actual shop at the Heulstraat was closing down I decided to write a blogpost about De Graaff and do some research. At that point all I had were the names of the 2 sons of Frits, Gerard and Robbert. So I asked yet another forum member, Rudi, who had a tobacco-shop in Middelburg for years, if he had a contact address or something like that. He didn’t but he pointed me towards a Belgian man who made cigars for Gerard. I contacted him but he knew very little, only that, very sadly, Robbert had passed away a few years ago. Damnit! Robbert was the mastermind behind the pipe-tobaccos, so I was pretty gutted when I heard that. Then I decided to use an old contact of mine, Louis Bracco Gartner, founder of the Historical Tobacco Museum in Delft and the Tobacco History website. He helped me before with my Diepenveensche Tabaks Centrale blogpost and when I mailed my questions to him he responded with “call me, I know more.” So I phoned him and he turned out to be friends with Gerard de Graaff. I got the mail-address of the latter, contacted him a couple of times and got no response besides a mail which said I had the wrong man and that he did not know anything about pipe-tobacco..
So I phoned Louis again, told him this (according to him the mail-address was correct) and said I only wanted to know where De Graaff house-blend pipe tobaccos were made. “Oh but I know that!” “Ehmm.. Excuse me??” “Yes I know that, the house-bends were made by Dunhill in London.” Wowwww…. I was gobsmacked.. Made by Dunhill.. Hmmm, the 60’s and 70’s ok, Dunhill was still Dunhill, but during the 80’s and 90’s Dunhill blends were made by Murray. Those tobaccos were not highly acclaimed, not just by me (I smoked some) but also by others. The De Graaff blends I smoked dated from the 90’s and were of exceptional quality, way better than Murray-era Dunhill. Then from out of the back of my head I remembered I read something on the Dunhill page of the great late John Loring. Something about blends still being made (in the 80’s and 90’s) at the Dunhill Duke Street shop: One exception to the 1981 blending transfer (from Dunhill to Murray) should be noted. The Dunhill Duke Street shop continued to offer custom blending for the next two decades and as part of that continuation, a small batch blender in London (I suspect with Dunhill associations) continued to produce a number of My Mixture blends available only from the Duke Street shop. So it could very, very well be that that was the way the De Graaff house-blends were made.
Now about those house-blends. I don’t know precisely when the first pipe-tobacco house-blends were made but Rob has to say this: It must have been 1967 when I first visited De Graaff. I remember that in the room where the pipes were there also was a display with pipe tobaccos, sold under their own name. A couple of years ago I luckily had downloaded through the Wayback machine the original house-blend descriptions from the old De Graaff website. Here they are with notes from myself and pictures:
Exceptional aromatic flake with a good deal of Latakia, as well as Turkish, and Red Virginia tobaccos. Excellent composition over a glass of Single-Malt whiskey. I smoked some tins of this one and I can best describe it as the prefect marriage between Smoker’s Haven Krumble Kake and Esoterica’s Penzance. In fact, it looked and tasted so much like those blends that I decided to mail J.F. Germain (and added some pictures) and they responded: These are very interesting pictures, we did not make any tobacco for De Graaff but I understand why you ask the question the tin and the tobacco look like Penzance from years ago.
-Back In Town-
One of our most successful mixtures, an ex-cigarette-smoker assisted in composing this blend. A fine composition of light and dark Virginia’s, Syrian Latakia, Kavalla (Macedonian tobacco) and Carolina Cavendish. A medium mixture with a pleasant flavour. A pleasant flavour indeed! This is one of the De Graaff classics, Syrian latakia, Kavalla, nomnomnom! Perfectly blended, very harmonious.
-Carl’s Own Blend-
Carefully composed by the HOUSE OF GOOD TASTE. Is the choice of a man of FINE TASTE. Born and bred in the THEATRE OF ROYAL TASTE. Full-flavoured mixture on the basis of Virginia tobaccos (Flue Cured East Carolina and Georgia) and a small quantity of Latakia. Sadly I never smoked this blend.
This blend has been already produced for more than a century for the discerning smoker. Very mild, not burning the tongue. For the morning. I once had a sample of this blend but can’t remember it any more..
An unique blend of first class tobaccos: Syrian Latakia, Old Belt Virginia, Brown Cavendish and Turkish tobaccos (Yenidshe). Mild taste, cool, slow burning. This is another big classic, I just finished a tin and only 1 word: exceptional. And not just a couple of times, no every time! The Yenidje is immediately recognizable (for those that have smoked Yenidje Supreme) and sings together nicely with the Syrian Latakia and Virginia’s. The Brown Cavendish mellows it all out a bit. I think that the creator Robbert De Graaff tried to imitate the old Balkan Sobranie with this one if I see the ingredients. And for me he absolutely succeeded!
Cool, somewhat sweet Virginia Bright Leaf. This is one of the oldest varieties of “flue cured” tobacco. Pleasant taste. I used this blend a couple of times in home-made mixtures. It reminded me a bit of Dunhill Flake, but then in a ribbon-cut. I had several tins but threw them away in a fit of cleaning rage before I could take a picture..
Jebeli is also called “Abu Riha” (Father of the pleasant smell) by the Syrian population. The flavour is acquired by drying the tobacco over a fire of camel-dung (nice commercial story but not the truth..). Tobacco especially for mixing. And that is precisely where I use it for. When you open a tin, whoaaa… It smells so damn good! Also when you smoke it straight it is very yummie. On the tin it says Mountain Blue Syrian, of course made famous by Balkan Sobranie 759, the stuff of legends.
This tobacco gives evidence of craftsmanship. Composed of the best Golden- and Middle Belt Virginias, Corolina Cavendish, completed with a pinch of Lousiana Perique, for the perfect taste. Especially made for those smokers who prefer a Virginia blend. This tobacco is particularly aromatic and yet mild of taste. The only thing I can remember about this one is “tastes a bit like Dunhill Elizabethan“.
The Perique tobacco is unique, its history is dating back to the Choctaw and Chicasaw Indians. It adds a spicy flavour to all tobacco blends. It is without “bite”, although it is far too heady to be smoked straight. Well, Aleister Crowley did! I use it only for home-blending.
Matured dark Virginia. This warm, dark tobacco is mild in taste and can be smoked pure or in mixtures. Unadulterated Red Virginia, I used it many times in home-blending for some Virginia backbone.
Excellent burning qualities. Suitable for mixing, can also be smoked pure. Extremely mild with sweet undertone. I used this once in home-blending, it tastes like there is some Kavalla in it.
De Graaff also had house-brand pipes. Several Dutch Pipe Smokers members have such a smoking device. They were made in London and later in France. But where? No idea.. So I mailed Louis again, he asked around and came with a name: GDD! Ehrrr, I guess you mean GBD? He wasn’t sure but I now know it was GBD indeed, just look at the picture beside this paragraph. Where the pipes were made in France I sadly do not know..
Of course there is much more to tell about De Graaff, especially their cigars, but since this is a pipe-smoking blog it is enough for now. One last thing, here is a PDF document of 2 interesting old booklets/flyers from De Graaff, in Dutch.. I would like to thank all the forum members and people who have helped me and made this blogpost possible!
At the end of November 2017 my world came falling down. For weeks and weeks it was extremely busy at my day-job, in the evenings I was often working on the blog, answering personal emails etc. and in the weekends I was doing all kinds of things. After a while I really had trouble finding peace, in my head it just kept going, night and day, day in day out. I could not find the “stop” button any more. A big feeling of unrest, anxiety and stress began to creep into me. My stomach pained me, my neck pained me, I had constant headaches, I slept badly and on top of that my shoulder hurt. On Bali last year I had dislocated it, luckily it went back in again but it kept bothering me. I could do nothing without the feeling that my arm would pop out of my shoulder and there was a constant, nagging pain. In October I went to to the hospital at last, after my shoulder got dislocated again, for some X-rays. It turned out that the bottom of my right glenoid cavity had broken off, I needed surgery. But before that my brain called it quits. There was so much work at the office (plus a colleague with maternity leave, all kinds of hard- and software issues, no extra helping hands) that I could not handle it any more. Every day I was snoring vast amounts of snuff tobacco, I had a hip flask filled with Austrian stroh-rum of which I sometimes took a swig, all to keep me going and settle down my nerves. Then at a night I had a severe panic attack. I suddenly awoke drenched in sweat with my heart racing while my brain was going in full overdrive. Poor Ellen thought I was having a heart-attack.. That morning I called in sick while crying.. I went to the family doctor and he came to a quick conclusion; I had a mental breakdown on the verge of a full-blown burn-out. I had to take total rest.
The next couple of weeks were utter hell. Every day when I awoke, often after a short night sleep, my mind was racing and I was full of feelings of paranoia, unrest, stress, anxiety and guilt. Guilt because I felt that I had let myself and my colleagues down. Also my emotional barriers were totally shot. I would burst out in tears at nothing several times a day. Luckily I have some great friends who (sadly) had similar mental issues in the past. I talked to them and they gave me all kinds of useful tips. First I had to follow my daily routine as much as possible. So not lie in bed forever but get up, take a shower, make breakfast etc. Second I got the advice to exercise. I began taking a ± 40 minute walk every day through and around the village where I live. Of course while smoking one of my trusted corncob pipes, lunting that is called. Slowly halfway a walk my negative emotions subsided and I began feeling a bit human again. The evenings mostly went ok until I went to bed and awoke again the next morning..
Pipe smoking was a big help for me in those weeks. Just the ritual, the act of choosing the pipe and tobacco, filing the pipe, lighting and slowly smoking it gave me some peace of mind, a soothing experience. During my lunting walks I always smoked aromatics. When enjoying my pipe in public I always try to please the noses of passers-by. Plus that it is a shame to smoke fancy tobaccos which burn away quickly because of the always present winds. I started with Danpipe’s Sweet Vanilla Honeydew (now called SVH), a great tasting blend but it burned way too hot on my tongue. Then I tried Planta’s Danish Black Vanilla which was much better. I really don’t understand the low score on tobaccoreviews.com, for me it is one of the great all time aromatics. But my favourite was Graf Adolf Brauner Flake, one of the home blends of Linzbach in Düsseldorf and also known as John Aylesbury Dragon Flake. Great taste, slow burning and cool. Currently I am smoking Cornell & Diehl Autumn Evening, no bite and very tasty! Another tip of my friends was to do fun things, things that made me relax. So for example I watched all kinds of series on Netflix (loved Peaky Blinders!), shot pictures for my Instagram page, I devoured books on my e-reader (a lot of Indiana Jones books), sometimes had an outdoors lunch after walking and with Ellen I went to see nearby forests and places. By the way, Ellen drove the car wherever we went. I could not drive, it was simply too much for me, too many stimulations. Also I was visiting a psychologist and started practising some mindfulness.
Gradually after some weeks I began to feel a bit better. The mornings were not as bad as before (although still not even near pleasant) and my negative feelings and emotions began to subside somewhat. Slowly I was preparing myself mentally for the surgery on my shoulder at the beginning of January. But 1 day for the actual date I got a call from the hospital, the operation was called off because the surgeon got sick. Another blow.. I also started feeling a bit bored and useless so in consultation with my office I began working again for a couple of hours per day. Which went pretty well luckily. Soon a new date was planned for the shoulder surgery (after some pushing from my side), the last day of January, such a relief. So at the 31st I checked in at the hospital. The operation went well (despite I felt ill afterwards because of the narcosis). They had sawn some bone from another part of my shoulder and used it to repair the glenoid cavity. Also they re-located part of my biceps so it wouldn’t interfere with my shoulder.
Recovery went well, the first week was pretty painful but aside from the nights (I could only sleep on my back and left side) I really could not complain. The most annoying was that I had to have my arm in a sling all day and night. Unfortunately after some weeks I suffered a mental relapse. I got a mail from my work about my travel allowance (nothing serious) but that in combination with the thought of working again in some weeks time (just like the first drive after a car accident) fuelled my feelings of paranoia, unrest, stress and anxiety. It took me more than a week to shake the feelings off. I noticed I wasn’t there yet where I wanted to be mental-wise. Also I discovered that work was not the only reason of my mental breakdown. Roughly for about the last 2 years I had a nagging feeling it was going slowly downhill with me. That I was running aground in who I was, my habits, my thoughts, my past etc. The psychologist I was seeing was a very nice lady but a bit formal, I did not have a connection with her. Besides I needed something more than just talking. I decided to look for someone else.
Soon I stumbled on the website of psychologist Guusta Zuurbier and immediately had a good feeling with her for some reason. So I called her up but could not find the right words immediately at which we both had to laugh a bit, a good sign. She has her practice at home and when I visited her for an introductory conversation I was pleasantly surprised. She lives on a beautiful farm with lots of grassland around it in the rural area of my village. A place of peace and quiet, just what I needed. But I was truly amazed when I saw the practice itself; a stunning original Mongolian yurt! Ok, a tad woolly perhaps but it felt like a place of healing. After some talking we came to the conclusion that I had 2 options. Or take regular sessions with her or begin with an intensive yearlong treatment program called Tools for Life. I choose the latter, I was ready for change. In the following weeks I had 2 intake interviews so Guusta could determine my problems and pain points.
But before it all started I first wanted to let my shoulder further heal and have some working experience again. Luckily all went well and soon it was time for therapy. Tools for Life consists of 2 weeks of 2 hour sessions every day and after that once a month (or more if necessary) for a year. From a friend of Ellen who also did it and from the things I had read I understood those 2 weeks were going to be pretty heavy. Well, I thought, it certainly will not be that bad. Famous last words.. The first day I waited outside the practice in the sunshine enjoying the view before Guusta called me in. I had to take off my shoes and we sat in the yurt while enjoying a cup of herbal tea (afterwards I learned that deliberately no coffee was provided (too much of a stimulant) and alcohol was prohibited in those 2 weeks (which Guusta forgot to mention, whoops..)).
We talked and eventually she asked me to lay down on a mattress and put on an eye-mask. Behind the mask she had put some tissues and I remember myself thinking “Why the tissues? Ah, probably to keep the mask from getting dirty”. We did some relaxing exercises and then she asked me to imagine I was a young child again, about 7 years old and that I was standing before the door of my parental house. Which I did. At that moment I suddenly noticed I got a lump in my throat. What the hell?? Come on man.. So I swallowed it away and continued. Then I had to visualize that my parents came home and constantly, with everything that happened then, I had to tell how that felt, what it was doing to me, the young Arno. I had to feel, feel, feel again and again. And that child now had to say things to his parents, things that he would not have said back then but that the current grown up version of me would have spoken of. So in short I said the things out loud I wouldn’t have said as a child. I accepted and took responsibility for them as a grown-up. And it was soooo hard to do.. Getting those words out of my mouth often felt like getting a stuck cork out of a bottle. I won’t go into specific details but after that session on the mattress I understood the tissues behind the eye-mask, they were soaking wet.. When we sat down again I heard the sentences I had to say out loud were from a technique called logosynthesis, very interesting and incredible. I went home feeling like a zombie who just got steamrollered over.
Every next day pretty much followed the same concept; first some talking, then the mattress and then more talking. I also had home work, for example each day I had to bring a symbol with me that represented the day before. So after the first day I brought an old wristwatch with me that I had bought together with my father to represent his relationship with me and time, the young and current Arno. Besides that I had to write letters to persons and read them out loud to Guusta. Pretty emotionally heavy I can tell you. Further we discussed the circle, which represents my boundaries and wanted (new) and unwanted (old) behaviour. Boundaries in a sense that I only had to let persons, things and events in my life (circle) that I really wanted. Tools for Life also is about recognizing and changing behaviour that you learned in your youth and is making life difficult now. Unwanted (old) behaviour is outside the circle and wanted (new) behaviour is inside. For example old unwanted behaviour is wanting to write a blogpost every month because I feel I have to please people. New wanted behaviour is writing whenever I feel like to without any pressure.
Slowly throughout the days all my mental layers were professionally peeled off like an onion. On the second Monday I could not stand it any more. My masks had all gone and Guusta was, figuratively speaking, constantly rubbing my open wounds and putting salt on it. Feel this feel that… Suddenly I had enough, I wanted to get away, which I told Guusta. “That is escape behaviour, which you also showed before your mental breakdown. But feel free to leave whenever you want.” Arghhh…. I battled with myself but in the end stayed and continued the exercise. I believe that was the turning point. From then on I felt I was slowly getting stronger, more confident. I was on the rise again, an incredible feeling. At the end of the second week it was like I was drifting on clouds, it felt almost unreal. The last day we had a little party, to celebrate I had completed the first stage of Tools for Life. I could ask for anything to eat and drink so at 09:00 in the morning I was sipping away whisky while munching on Croky paprika potato chips. One of the symbols I had brought with me in those weeks was the first CD I ever bought, Back in Black from AC/DC. Like she had read my mind Guusta put on the title song, very fitting: Back in black, I hit the sack, I’ve been too long I’m glad to be back. Yes, I’m let loose, from the noose that’s kept me hanging about. ‘Cause I’m back, yes, I’m back. Yes, I’m back in black.
But the real work starts now, the new road has only begun. I have got some tools to re-program myself. Now if I fall into old automatic behaviour I know and recognize it, so I can change it. Like a birds-eye view I see myself and the situation and am able to respond to it in a new way. Easier said than done, believe me. Luckily Ellen supports me and sometimes points things out to me. So every evening before I go to sleep I go over the day, how did I feel, good or bad, old or new behaviour etc. And some things I write down so I can discuss it in a next session with Guusta. Those will be going on for maximum a year, or less. Right now I feel pretty damn good, back to earth but in a good way. It feels like like once in me was a shed full of all kinds of garbage and now it is clean. And I want to keep it clean.. So I am trying to be more positive in all aspects of my life, unconsciously I had became fairly negative. The glass is half-full, not half empty. And oh, of course there is much more to Tools for Life as I have told here. But some things have to remain a mystery until you undergo it yourself.
If people read this who are experiencing what I experienced, who are having a mental breakdown or a burn-out; learn from my story, there certainly is light at the end of the tunnel. You will get better, you will get stronger. There is absolutely no shame in your condition. Seek (professional) help, talk to people and most important, smoke a relaxing pipe now and then. It helped me! Regarding this blog, there will be fewer posts. The past 2 years I often was really struggling getting a blogpost ready every month. The amount of research, making and getting pictures, the writing itself.. Pffff… No more of that now, I’ll write whenever I feel like writing and take things easy. To you, my readers, I would like to say, thank you for reading!
I would like to wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a smoky 2018!
Unfortunately I am slowly recovering now from a mental breakdown and in January I am having surgery on my shoulder (the bottom of my right glenoid cavity has broken off..). So for the coming time there will be no blogposts. But as another Arno(ld) once said: I’ll be back!