The Netherlands:
14 - 24 March, 2008

Our Netherlands trip of March 2008 was brought about by a string of happy connections through multiple family members, landing us at the home of Dutch friends.

A few years ago, Marisa's stepfather, Oliver, visited his cousin Robert who has lived in Barcelona since 1996. On this visit, Robert took Oliver to a favorite restaurant where they shared conversation with a couple - Pieter and Ria de Graaf - from the Drenthe province of the Netherlands. Before long, the invitations were issued by all four of them to come for a visit to each other's homes: words that are often spoken by travelers who hit it off with strangers who sound like friends.

But it happened! Marisa's mom, Faye, joined Oliver for a visit to Pieter and Ria. The friendship grew during those short two days together. When Oliver passed away in 2006, the de Graafs - who had stayed in touch by mail, email, and phone - flew to Minnesota to pay their respects. During the ten days they stayed at Faye's guest house, they made dinner, helped around the farm, and generally cared for Faye - further cementing the bond of friendship. They also issued a sincere invitation to Marisa and husband, Wade, to come visit. So, the three of us - Faye, Marisa and Wade - landed in Amsterdam on Saturday, March 15, and were greeted by our Dutch friends.

The appeal of this trip, then, was the expansion of our view of the world by spending a week with friends who live in the peaceful countryside, taking full advantage of their pride of place, absorbing all that we may of their world. We would end our visit with a three-day, Easter holiday weekend in Amsterdam, adding the excitement of this important cultural destination.

Friday - Saturday, 14 -15 March

Having met up at Schiphol Airport, we were driven away to the northern provinces by Pieter for a slow, scenic ride back to their home in the village of Westdorp. Under cloudy, breezy skies with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) we made our way to the incredibly large dike that has turned the turbulent waters of the Zuider Zee into the large, placid, freshwater lake: IJsselmeer.The views over the ocean and the "sweet water" lake - as they call it - were wide, deep and desolate, emphasizing the sparseness of the population outside the Netherlands' major cities.

Stopping in Harlingen, an historic fishing village, we strolled beside canals loaded with boats - even clipper ships with four masts - many as old as 120 years. The buildings - home, business, churches, and one empty synagogue - date from the 17th century, as does so much of the best of the Netherlands. Marisa ate the obligatory Dutch treat - raw herring and onions - while the others saw some folks with ice cream, asked directions, and bought their treat. We walked further, had a laugh when we saw "Wally's" bar and grill (thinking of Faye's brother), and enjoyed the flavors of sights and conversation, as well as that of the treat in our hands.

Back in the car, we rode along secondary roads, some narrow enough to have only the dotted lines on the sides of the asphalt. We arrived at Peter and Ria's lovely home after stopping by the supermarket at Borger for dinner supplies. Pulling into the driveway at dusk, our hosts showed us to our rooms in the quarters they've owned, expanded, and remodeled since moving here in 1974. Starting with a small house and detached barn, they left the main walls and kept the thatched roof (recently replaced for 60,000 Euros!). Over the life of their time there, they connected the house to its outbuildings with modern hallways, a new kitchen, bath, workshop with new floors, windows, radiators, and wood stove that followed.

Pieter prepared delicious beef filets with a mustard sauce and we drank their lovely red wine from their last visit to Italy. He and Ria put us at ease - and late to bed - with what we would learn to be characteristic grace.

Sunday, 16 March

After a sumptuous continental breakfast featuring Dutch cheese, a selection of meats and breads, tea and coffee, the five us of hustled off to the Drenthe Museum in Assen, trying to get ahead of the expected crowds. Arriving just ten minutes after the opening time, we saw the beginnings of a line outside the door that would eventually stretch around the courtyard, in the rain, by the time we left three hours later. The majority of the gathered crowd were Dutch citizens, anxious to see their country's only exhibition of "The First Emperor: China's Terra Cotta Army" that is making its way around the world. (Ironically, this exhibition will come to Atlanta in November 2008.)

Featuring the famed army of terra cotta figures that was discovered in 1974, its combination with other artifacts from China over 2,000 years ago was fascinating and well-done. Each of us discovered the museum's permanent exhibits as we finished the "First Emperor" displays at our own pace. Furniture collected from around the region showed what upper-class home life must have been like in this province. The rooms in the former city building are small, but the story tells itself.

Pieter particularly enjoys the electrical/technology exhibit that displays "old" 20th-century radios, phonographs, household appliances and other advances. A movie on this floor showed us our first glimpse of the conquest of the peat bogs of this province. Until the early 19th century, this sparsely populated northeastern province was little more than a large, flat expanse of bog. At that point, work began in earnest to convert these bogs and moors into farmland. Peat colonies were established over much of southeastern Drenthe where laborers dug drainage canals and cut the peat for sale as fuel. Pieter read that in some areas, nearly 10 feet of peat was removed from the land. Once filled in again with sand and soil, the province's farms are some of the most profitable in the country.

The rest of Sunday was spent relaxing by the wood-burning iron stove that sits under the old chimney in their great room. Ria prepared a meal of Thai chicken with ginger, and the five of us talked the night away. Pieter and Wade shared a bogka (vodka) according to Pieter's nightcap ritual.

Why no pictures of the trip so far? To make a long story short, the pictures taken of IJsselmeer, Harlingen, and Assen were sacrificed in a forced formatting of the camera's memory card. Don't ask...

Monday, 17 March

This was Bog Day. Faye's interest in this local, historic industry meant it was time for us to ride on the historic bog trails (if we could keep from losing the road signs) all around the eastern portion of Drenthe and into a little of Germany. One may say that this ride was very satisfying, but our knowledge of the significance, timeframe and methods of bog removal were not much enhanced beyond what we had leaned in the museum video.

No, the trip was satisfying because of the many casual turns in a somewhat wayward direction. We followed the historic "Energie Route" to a bog museum, but - being Monday - it was closed. We kept riding, looking at farms and farmhouses and the slight variations between countries. On the German side - a very Catholic side of Germany - there were multiple graphic displays - not simple crucifixes - of Jesus on the cross.

Many restaurants and pubs are closed on Mondays in both countries, so we stopped at what is billed as a schnell (fast) food place called Kiek in de Pans. Now forever remembered as Kick in the Pants, we had a snack of vegetable soup, sausages, fried potatoes, and an ice cream for our driver. Faye had a conversation with the lady manager on the way out, asking for her autograph on a beer coaster. In addition to the autograph, Faye scored a large beer mug for a souvenir!

We slowly made our way over former bog and field, past farmhouses in the rich Dutch farmer style. Our hosts explained that the overbearing financial position of farm owners made this region a perfect breeding ground for Communists in the period between the two world wars. Indeed, the mostly 17th-century farm compounds are nearly uniform - and uniformly - impressive. (A pleasant side story for this visit is the hard work, gracefully undertaken by our hosts, to be our guides while helping each other with translating for our benefit. Among all the words flying gently around the car, there was a revealing sense of mutual curiosity and trust.)

We stopped at the small historic village of Orvelte, which has been rebuilt as it was in 1830. Though the shops were closed - as we suspected - we enjoyed a stroll among the buildings. On our way again, we pulled over to watch some men thatching before stopping for the last time that day: back at the supermarket in Borger. This time Wade made the evening meal: pork roast and green beans. Like before, the relaxation lasted well into the evening.

Pieter and Marisa in Orvelte Thatching the roof A Drenthe village

Tuesday, 18 March

A trip to Groningen took us through many more typical villages with typical large Dutch barns and their attached living quarters: typical (as Pieter would often say).

The city itself - and the university that now has 35,000 students - is both modern and traditional in appearance. The five of us strolled through the open air market, up streets and alleys, looking into shop windows, taking pictures, and stopping for refreshment in a pub near the administration building.

Canal warehouses Refreshment at the pub  

The "Gold House"     Groningen's "Province House"

Again, the starting place for so much of the old architecture is the 17th century. New architecture can be equally dramatic, with its challenges to conventional taste - like the Groningen museum designed by Mandini. As we leave the city around 4:00pm, we are caught in a swirl of traffic. Up and down streets, narrow and wide, we look for the way out, eventually returning to the countryside.

For dinner this night we had a traditional Dutch dish - boerenkool - of mashed potato and what Pieter called "farm cabbage". Served with local sausages (a "special wurst"), this was a tasty end to our day.

Wednesday, 19 March

Girls' day out. Faye, Ria, and Marisa head off down the road again for a shopping day. The first stop was at a small shop in the village of Echten where Faye had been the last time. After a slow start, many things were purchased: things special because they were generally made by the local villagers. A stop in Dwingeloo for coffee and cake at the lovely hotel on the brink (the Dutch "commons" or town square). We munched as we sat across the street from the small church with the onion dome, watching cyclists and a car or two drive by. A final run by a garden store where Faye picked up real wooden shoes, made in the Netherlands, and handy for her gardening activities back in Minnesota.

Pieter and Wade stayed home and enjoyed conversation, reading and quiet time. The weather was in constant flux - sunshine, blowing wind, drifting clouds, menacing clouds, rain, sleet, and snow. Pieter managed to prune several rose bushes in between bouts of weather.

The highlight of our day was our sumptuous 5-course meal at the Lubbelinkhof restaurant in the small village of Odoorn. Among all our trips around Europe and in South Korea, this meal in a hotel restaurant stood out as flawless from beginning to end. We began with a bottle of champagne in the lobby, seated in leather chairs next to the fireplace. From there we moved into the restaurant proper where we spent the next two and a half hours before returning once again to the fireside for dessert. (There we ran into a group of Dutch business or political men smoking cigars, all knowing that on July 1, 2008, this activity would cease as the Netherlands would become smoke-free in public buildings.)

Back home, sated again, more talking, and late to bed.

Thursday, 20 March

All five of us mostly stayed close to the fireplace and the kitchen for the whole day, each going away for personal reading, resting, or clothes-washing. Many discussions - between two or among three to five - added to our sense of comfort while offering insight about how neighbors from other countries view the same life issues. There was also plenty of silence, broken only by the sound of occasional rain or sleet and classical music.

The highlights of the day's cuisine were Pieter's pancakes - almost as thin as a crepe - prepared with cooked bacon in the pancake. Made of a combination of bacon, oats, buckwheat, soy flour, whole wheat and regular white flour, these were terrific. The evening meal was whole wheat pasta with a meat, paprika and onion sauce. Very good.

We could not say enough to convey the sense of safety and the hospitality that came to us at the hands of Pieter and Ria de Graaf. They had but the same tenuous introduction to us that we had to them, thanks to Oliver and Faye. Still, they extended to us all the family hospitality a relative could hope for - though we are not related - while embracing us as global friends.

Their hunger for understanding matches ours, and we have every reason to expect that we will be measuring these for years to come in each other's presence.

Friday, 21 March

The variable weather haunted us even as we loaded suitcases into the family car and headed to the station at Assen for the two and a half hour ride to Amsterdam Centraal. Peter and Ria were as gracious at the time of departure as they were when they spoke to Oliver in Barcelona; they welcomed Faye with Oliver to their home in 2004; they flew to Thief River Falls for Oliver's memorial service; and they invited us all to their home for six nights in the country when the weather was both protective and fickle, echoing the personal choices of Nederlanders throughout its seven-century identity.

Riding the train from Assen through Ammersfort to Amsterdam, we are reminded that this piece of the public transit matrix is gone for us in the southeastern United States - the freedom to be dropped off for a regional ride at nominal cost to a station within a few hours.

Just three hours after our good-bye kisses from Pieter and Ria, we stepped off the train, stepped onto a trolley, then off again a block from our hotel. It only took checking into the Trianon Hotel, in the museum district of Amsterdam, to remind us of just how special our first six nights of lodging had been. Throughout our subsequent three-night stay, the noise and the smell and the feel of the place made its $200 per night cost seem all the more unwarranted.

But the location was superb, the very next building to the Concertgebeouw, and a short walk from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. After checking in, Faye took off for the latter while Marisa and Wade rested, had a meal, and took a stroll through the shops in the area.

The weather was still changing by the second, with rain giving way to wet snow and back to just wind, all with temperatures slightly above freezing. We could watch the magnificent efforts of bicycle riders pulling carts with children, holding flapping umbrellas in front of their faces or talking on cell phones as they held their place in the flow of trams, cars, pedestrian and other cyclists.

The Concertgebeouw is renowned for acoustic excellence, and we experienced it in all its glory with two choruses, six soloists and a full house for the Good Friday performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. We noted that this was very much a Dutch, not tourist, audience, and thoroughly enjoyed this fact along with some superior musical performance.

Saturday, 22 March

Having seen the lines of people the day before, we three were at the Rijksmuseum as the doors opened at 9:00am. In the final phase of a six-year renovation project, we took in the limited highlights of the collection. The majority of this exhibit spans the years of Dutch economic dominance and exploitation of much of the new world - parts of North and South America, island kingdoms across the Pacific and Atlantic. Many paintings were commissioned by rich patrons and show them or their families in all their over-the-top couture. Of course, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and the other masters provide the real thrills here.

From the museum, we walked down to the water and bought Canal Bus tickets to last till noon the next day. Because of the cold, it was a good call for seeing sights while staying warm. The only trouble was that the wet and cold combined to fog the windows of the boat, making humorous the directions spoken by the recorded guide to look at this or that landmark. We changed routes in the middle of the trip and then went back to the Rijksmuseum stop to get back to the hotel.

Easter Sunday, 23 March

The day dawned bright and we took off early for the Anne Frank house by cab because the holiday lines we had observed the day before stretched around the block. The house evokes, as it is intended to do, the sense of confinement and fragile security that the inhabitants experienced during the years before they were shipped away to concentration camps where most of them, including Anne, died. As in every part of Europe we have visited, the most haunting thoughts are those of the acquiescence of the community in the betrayal of Jews to the Germans.

The Canal Bus stop was close by, and the sunny sky prevailed as we again tried to see the city from the water. For two hours we stayed on the boat and were treated to the best of those particularly Amsterdam sights.

Ubiquitous bikes Can you tell it's snowing again? A villa near the Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum from the Canalbus Herren Canal Blue Bridge

Afterwards, we trammed back to the hotel in hopes of getting into another museum or two. Faye chose the diamond museum, and Marisa took Wade to the House of Bols, a corporate distiller’s private museum about itself, next door. By the time we came out, the weather had turned again, with wet snowflakes joining raindrops in the cold wind. We then had a nice meal at a nearby pub. (The food choices are now so universal in cities of size that the only differences in what’s on the menu are how you spell the name of your salad or what word you use for fish and beef.)

Out again that evening for a last meal in the driving snow. The weather has gone from disappointing to bringing us to unbelieving laughter at our "spring" holiday!

Monday, 24 March

The 5:00am checkout for the trip to the airport was a riot, and not just in the comic sense. A group of twenty-six English women was attempting to get cabs at the same time we were waiting for ours, looking out at snow and sleet on the ground and covering cars.

As the women came into the lobby, their tough girl British accents blaring, two at a time went to stand in the doorway of the small area, causing the automatic door to stand wide open so that they could have a smoke. When Wade eventually commented on the open door, a woman who wasn’t smoking at the moment said, "'Snot yore house then, is it?" apparently making the point that twenty Brit babes can bloody well have a bleedin' fag if they like!

Then the quietest, tiniest of the lot walked up to the clerk with a small package.

"Can't take this on the plane, so I guess you can have it," she said, and handed him her leftover marijuana.

Bye-bye Netherlands.