Monday, July 8, 2013

Dutch Treat

I am usually a cheapskate. I blame my Dutch genes.
My wife is similarly blessed with frugality, descending from a long line of thrifty Scots. We don't easily spend much money on stuff like vacations, fancy stuff or expensive entertainment.
But that's not to say we never did...
In the many years before marriage, kids, houses and big financial responsibilities, we travelled some. As a single girl getting away from nursing duties Shirley would sometimes splurge on a Caribbean vacation with beaches and vacation spots. She also spent a year at college in England and took some time to explore Scotland and Sweden while in Europe. I was lucky enough to have relatives in Holland (including for some years my own mother) with a house to stay at whenever I would fly to Amsterdam. In our teens and twenties my brothers and I went several times. But that was over 30 years ago.

    Last month Shirley and I flew to Amsterdam and stayed in Holland for two weeks. We even did it cheaply, thanks to our recent house-building adventure. By purchasing materials through our local RONA store, which allowed us to pay with Master Card and earn **air miles**, all that lumber, heavy stacks of drywall, roof trusses and hardware became a vacation trip.
     We had talked about it over the years, but if ever I mentioned going to Europe, Shirley would ask if I intended to spend the whole time looking at dusty old buildings, art museums or historical settings. She preferred to do 'people' things and even suggested meeting my Dutch relatives.
And yes it was about time she met my family. I've met many dozens of Taylors, Ewins, Delaneys and the like and they have made me feel welcome and I'm now part of their clan, but I was always outnumbered. Apart from my brothers and parents, Shirley had no Schmidt or Chrisstoffels family member in Canada to ask embarrassing questions about my growing up years. I was not raised with tell-tale uncles, gossipy aunts, teasing cousins, tut-tutting grandparents or nasty nephews. The only close relative who knew me young, now long dead, was an aged great-uncle who lived near Boston. He was a fun character who dressed like a down-and-out gangster. He would loosen his belt and belch after dinner.
Amsterdam is ringed by a series of interconnected canals dating from when commercial traffic barged everything heavy through the city proper.  The photo is a series of seven canal bridges that, when you time your photo right, you see lined up on the Reguliersgracht.  
We had cheap accommodation most nights with my Uncle John (Oom Jan) in a town called Emmeloord, a spot on the Netherlands map which was below water until the 1940's. It has dried up nicely since. We rented a tiny Citroen and although I always enjoy driving, it was a challenge every day. They are smarter and more alert drivers than we are here; seldom does traffic stop, but intersections are all round-abouts and on the narrow streets it would be madness to text and drive. Smaller streets have a right-of-way logic which we don't use here: the guy on the right has the right of way, even if he is turning into the road you are already on.  Needless to say, I was honked at and gestured to a few times before Oom Jan told me what I was doing wrong.
 The photo above and below is of the house I was born in; a 300 year old house in Zaandam, an old port and industrial city next to Amsterdam. The corner window facing the shot is actually rounded glass panes in a wooden frame - a feature of this house, named the "Skeve Schans" and owned by my great grandfather Boerendans, a Zaandam builder.  I remember little of it, since I was three when we left.  Now it was made into an open concept house and the sleepy students living there were very obliging in letting us look around.

The town of Zaandam has a open air museum featuring large old windmills, many of them still 'working' for the tourists to see.  Our 'Skeve Schans' was to be one of the houses on display there, dismantled and rebuilt, but the $ ran out in the 1970's and the project was left on the planning table.

The house on the left is the house my mother bought in Monnickendam, a well-preserved town which had once been a major fishing port on the Zuider Zee. The house was so small that if a few extra guests came to visit, someone inside had to leave. Though the interior was plain and drafty when she bought it, my brother Werner and I did some building-in and fixing-up while on visits over the years. It ended up looking pretty nice.
An interesting footnote:  Once when repairing a blocked sewage pipe from the inside toilet, I noticed the flushed water pouring directly into the canal opposite the house a few seconds later.  Ducks and swans (and presumably the fish they ate) survived happily in this same canal...  Going fishing anyone?  
The town of Monnickendam is now connected to land on three sides and the harbour's only vintage fishing boats, with the distinctive sideboard keel, are strictly tourist boats. Not much fishing is left on the freshwater lakes.
   Bus and train transportation in Holland is excellent. Still, you would not expect less of a country the size of Lake Ontario crammed with a population of 17 million. Hourly trains take you to Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Den Haag or a few dozen other places. Buses take you there and everywhere else and everything is on time.
Do you like junk food?  You won't find much. The odd McDonalds restaurant at the roadside of the busy highways is disdained by most Dutch people I asked. Their taste is more Chinese or Indonesian food, but the sight of strollers munching fast food as they go is rare there. Rare also are hanging guts and porcine physiques. Most Dutch are slim and do a lot more bicycle riding than we do. Bikes make sense of course because everything is closer by (duh), but also we don't assume an adult on a bicycle there is someone caught in a D.U.I.  

Visiting a WW-II museum near Arnhem we encountered a Dutch Military Pipes and Drums band playing bagpipes & drums like the best Scottish guards.
Who knew? They were very talented.
The museum itself made frequent references to the British Army and it's fight against the Wehrmacht and SS troops in Operation Market Garden, a dismal failure in 1942. But visiting the graves nearby made it clear that it was a mixture of British and Commonwealth troops, many Canadians among them, who died in Field Marshall Montgomery's optimistic effort to shorten the war.
Museums?   We saw plenty of those too.
To the left is a Piet Mondrian (or one of his students) showing what minimalism is all about. We saw Rembrandts, Van Goghs, Frans Hals', Breugels (Pieter the elder and the younger) and Hieronymus Bosch paintings which made you really wonder what this guy saw dancing around him when the lights were low. The painting below is a lesser-known (for good reason) painting of a wild bull going amok. The man is killed outright and the woman, after being gored and thrown, gives spontaneous birth to a child (which lies in the grass) on a farm outside Zaandam. This instructive painting is not a great classic, but an important lesson for those who might ignore crazy enraged bulls. Channel Seven eyewitness news stations would have found a following among the burghers of the Zaan River.