July 26, 2014
In the stars
All paths led to Zeeland that weekend. There seemed to be no way around it.
First of all, I had to leave my flat for that weekend. My friend and landlord was hosting other people there for a few days and asked me to spend the time elsewhere. Second, my parents’ friends invited me for lunch and coffee to Zeeland, in the Netherlands, to their summer house on the island of Walcheren to be precise, and that’s how I decided on my destination. Third, the universe seemed to like the idea of Walcheren and conspired to find me a great host there, and that with just a few clicks on my favourite two websites, Couchsurfing.org and WarmShowers.org.
And there’s more. Fourth, it turned out my friend Irina had been on Walcheren just the week before, in Middelburg that is, and left her coat at the train station, and tasked me to pick it up; so I even had a mission. And last but not least, well, there was Susan Miller, the online horoscope lady, who seemed to have talked to my landlord, my parents’ friends, my host-to-be, and my friend Irina, and concluded that I should take a trip to a not too far away place around that same date, Thursday 12 June 2014, even though Ascension and Pentecoste were behind us, and the timing thus not that obvious.
So, a long weekend was clearly in the stars for me, and well, the location, Zeeland, and Walcheren within Zeeland, a given as well. There was no other one.
And then a memory came back, of something both distant as from another life, and close as it had happened just last year. Or at least, I think it had, if I didn’t only dream it. At times indeed it seemed more like a dream, yet I had photos to prove it really happened. Not many admittedly as my camera had broken down back then, but enough to see that yes, apparently, according to those photos, I had already been there. To Zeeland. To Walcheren. To the towns of Vlissingen and Middelburg. Or somewhere around there. With someone who was no longer around and who therefore couldn’t confirm any of these claims.
Those memories were very vague; at the time I had just sat in a car, in a haze, and let someone drive me around, without ever consulting the map, barely knowing where we were. And indeed, I actually didn’t. Names of towns, villages must have gone by back then, but they didn’t stick; I remembered none. I remembered a few scenes instead, the beach, the place where we bought kibbeling (golden nuggets of fried codfish) for the first time and then sat down among the dunes, the place where we bought kibbeling for the second time, and then rushed off with the car, the place where we had uitsmijter (eggs dish served for breakfast) and watched the cyclists. As if from distant childhood. And I preferred to not think of them now. Pretend I had never been there. Hoping not to recognize any of the places before me, not to be reminded of that distant and yet so very recent and raw moment in my personal history.
And then it was time. Friday morning. I caught the 7:21 train from Brussels to Knokke and arrived at “my” bike rental place just two hours later. Boulevard Bikes, on Knokke’s coastline, proved to be a lucky choice as always. Olivier, the guy in charge, rented me the coolest Dutch-style Gazelle bike ever, gave me a 30% discount, equipped me with one (free) bikebag, two (free) maps of Zeeland, and lots of (free and heartfelt) tips and tricks on where to go. And by 9:45 I was on my way, feeling on top of the world.
It was an easy ride from Knokke to Cadzand, the first little town in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, which this part of Zeeland is called, right across from the Belgian border. A quick stop at the kibbeling shop, and I was all set for a heavenly picnic on the dunes. When I unpacked my kibbeling (and I had vowed to eat as much kibbeling and Hollandse Nieuwe as humanly possibly on this trip), somewhere between Cadzand and Bad Nieuwsfliet, I noticed that my phone had stopped working. And that I wouldn’t be able to get it working again for the next three days until I’d get to a phone shop in Belgium on Monday morning. Apparently, the pressure of my backpack and the rhytm of my cycling had caused it to „enter“ a wrong pincode four times in a row, prompting it to now ask me for my puk – and I had no idea. Laugh or cry.
Lucky I remembered my address for the night. Oranjestraat 10. In Vlissingen. The Netherlands. And that would have to do. This would be a truly technology-free trip then. Couldn’t remember when I last spent three full days without my phone. A real time-out, almost a Vipasana meditation with no contact with anyone from „my normal life“. Somehow, that made me all the more curious of what was coming. Somehow, as long as we have our phones, we feel somehow „safe“ and able to connect with our „own people“ in case the ones we’re exposed to on this journey turn out to be idiots. But ok, I was going to have to do without that then.
Zeeuws Vlaanderen was as lovely as ever. I had been there before, three years ago, with my friend Joey, doing the same tour, also by bike from Knokke, past Cadzand and Bad Nieuwsfliet, all the way to a small town called Breskens. Back then, Breskens had seemed like a far-away place to us, and we were happy to call it a day there and cycle back. But I still remember the sense of awe I felt at having gotten that far, at having arrived at the end of something, where the land ends, and where the Schelde opens out into the open sea. The Schelde is the river, which separates Zeeuws Vlaanderen from the rest of Zeeland, and therefore from the rest of Holland. That pier in Breskens is where big ships would have passed on their way from Antwerp to far-away countries and continents during the Dutch Golden Ages in the 17th century.
The pier was desolate back then, and I had a distinct sense of finisterrae, of this is where the world ends, and across from it where something new starts. And I spent three full years kindling the idea of going back there, to Breskens, and further, to the other side, but then never got around to it. In the meantime, I travelled to Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon and elsewhere, but that pier in Breskens never lost its appeal to me; it was like a memory from the past, or a call from the future, or a part of myself waiting to be explored.
Now that I was finally back on that bikepath, I was somewhat impatient to make it beyond that pier this time. I swiftly made it to Breskens, didn’t see the pier, didn’t even look for it, but found the ferry, immediately, and before I knew it, I was on it – and in Vlissingen less than half an hour later. On the other side. Almost too easy. The ferry was more like a metro; it cost four euro and went back and forth 2-3 times an hour. I felt like a Canadian soldier who had been here in 1944, and now came back, 70 years later, well into old age, and in supreme awe of how easy the crossing of that stretch of water proved to be this time around. I was in Vlissingen at 13:00, about four hours earlier than expected; I had somehow thought it was going to be a full-day trip.
Vlissingen was lovely. A medieval town, an orange town, orange flags and posters and t-shirts everywhere. A sunny and light-hearted town, with a blue sky, bridges, cobblestones, happy people, ice cream. Awaiting the football world championship Holland-Spain match scheduled for that night. „Vannacht moet het gebeuren“, the newspapers wrote that day. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch team’s coach, would „have to prove himself that night, and make it a historical night“. A lot of pressure, I thought. How could anyone stand straight in the face of that. And then the game was against Spain, the world champions. An unlikely bet. But hey, one never knows. And people were happy anyway. I dipped into a few shops, one sporting bright orange cyclists’ t-shirts, for ladies, the kind I would wear. The salesgirl promptly complimented me on my choice, „t’is leuk“, and we both came out with the same two words at the same instant, with one voice, „voor vanavond!!“, and she burst into laughter. As in: „You’ll/I’ll at least look nice when we loose“. And I would have bought it hadn’t it been for my budget.
I went about visiting Vlissingen with some sort of greed, some sense of this is where I want to be and this is what I want to see, and to absorb and integrate into my life. I first cycled all around it in one larger circle, and then, much like a predating bird, cut through into the centre of it, and then circled around that centre, twice, just to know what I already knew, which was – that I had been there before. And extensively. I knew every streetcorner. We must have spent a lot of time there. The greeting card shop. The 1 euro shop. The icecream shop. My stomach churned somehow, and I listened, and hesitated, but all seemed under control. No crashing yet. Crashing of my soul. I parked my bike. It was sunny, it was beautiful. I was on a high after the cycling, protected by a warm and floaty feeling. And the memory didn’t assault me, which was a bit of a miracle; last time I had gotten close to a location with that same legacy I spent the next two days crying. Here I was, taking it on squarely. I even had the nerve to get an ice cream at that same icecream place. And even remembered the flavours. Zeelandse bolus, the Zeeland specialty yeast cake with cinnamon, and stroopwafels. I had been in two minds between those two last year as well, and then chose stroopwafels. And found myself doing the same thing over again.
Feeling fragile, and yet reasonably in control, I decided to spend the last half hour before my appointment with my hosts by the beach, which was at about eight minutes cycling from the city centre. And which turned out to be our beach from last year. The one we dug a hole in, and laid ourselves down in for that last hour together. Back then, in another era. And the kibbelingstand by that beach was our kibbelingstand, the one on my photo, the one from my memory. It was spooky. And here I was, feeling, listening. Would I escape, would I cry, would I shake or would I stay? I longed for a moment on the beach, in the sand, by the water. And I had time to kill. And there was no other beach around. And again, with a lot of nerve, and maybe a touch of masochism, I locked my bike and walked straight down to the centre of that beach. Sat down among pink-bikinied teenagers and screaming blond children and oversized seagulls circling right above us. Unpacked my kibbeling. Yes, I would eat lots of kibbeling on this trip. If only I could swallow it. I couldn’t swallow it. I got up to do a cartwheel instead. And another one. And another one. The beach was mine. The sky was the limit; the water my element; the horizon a promise of better times to come. I would exorcise the ghosts from the past. Cleanse the place. I felt alive. And deliciously dizzy. And when I noticed that the seagulls were eating my kibbeling, picking through the paperbag, and flying off with big chunks of fish in their beaks, I didn’t even care.
Time to go find my hosts. Easy. Oranjestrat. „Bij de Oranjemolen“ as everyone was able to tell me. Sounded like the right address for this (historical and all-orange) night. Relieved and happy when I got there. And delighted with Froukje and Paul when I met them. Turns out they are hosting almost every day. Via Couchsurfing, Warm Showers or Vrienden van de Fiets. Couchsurfers and warm shower mensen stay for free; vrienden van de fiets would normally pay 19 euro per night, but Froukje in her overwhelming generosity often lets them stay for free, too. Just to give something back to the world, hear a new story, meet a new person, give or get some inspiration. Or at least that’s my take on why they’re doing this. Clearly not for the money as they’re not making any, and it’s not like they „need“ extra company either; they’re surrounded by good friends and neighbours, a few of which I actually met.
Froukje, Paul and their neighbours Sebastian and Frank have created what they call a cooking club. Several times per week, and often joined by other neighbours, they take turns in cooking dinner, and then eat together around a large table in the garden. On that Friday night, the cook had been Sebastian, late forties, who treated us to artichokes for starters, yummy veg and chicken as a main, and a lucky dip into a big round bowl of strawberries for dessert. Served with whipped cream, coffee and Belgian chocolates. We ate like kings. And we kletsen nooit over geld. Wow. Dutch community and garden life at its best. Gezellig. And belying the cliché of the Dutch being stingy. No zuinig and gierig for that little garden community. And so nice and easy after a long day’s work. Ik schuif maar gewoon aan. Neighbours from heaven. Like from some Italian movie. Extended family dinners on a summery terrace, all generations, and lots of straight talking. And the Dutch are straight talkers, too, but I’ve always known that.
And then there was the game. The game. The historical moment. To be watched in one of the pubs in the centre. We were late. Spain was leading 1-0. No special emotions to be detected anywhere. The Dutch are a sturdy breed. And Spain was world champion after all. And then the miracle happened. Vannacht moet het gebeuren. Just before the break, Holland scored a goal. Tonight’s gonna be a good night. At once, all those people under all that orange facepaint, hairspray and clothing were coming alive. Jumping onto tables, high fives, hugging, whooping, we are the champions. And then it was break time. A well deserved one. Time to catch our breath. And watch the hilarious ads featuring a curvy Brazilian sexbomb on Copacabana beach speaking Dutch and mocking Dutch carnaval. Oranje. Super Dutch. Hup Holland Hup. Parodies of various movies. Voor Oranje begint de strijd nu, met power, respect, teamspirit. Want winnaars verliezen nooit. LOL. I whipped out my camera, people posed for my video, the tide was high.
Then we moved on to bar number two. Around the corner of Bellamy park, still in the centre of town. There the next miracle happened. Holland scored again. And then again. And then things got out of control. Holland scored four more times in that second halftime; five times altogether. After the 3rd Dutch goal, the Spanish gave up. Later that week, a Spanish friend told me that earlier that day, the Spanish state had sold off a major public services company, hoping the people wouldn’t notice in their narcotic football craze. And just days before, the King had abdicated causing the people to demand the abolition of the monarchy. „The country is falling apart; football was all we had left“ he diagnosed. But one nation’s misery is another nation’s fortune, or at least in football. Later that night, the Dutch commentator told everyone that „there could have been a 6th and a 7th and an 8th goal“. During the game, people behind me were all shouting: „Tien! Tien! Tien! Tien!“ Getting greedy, loosing every sense of proportion. This was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. You could almost smell the testosterone. „Je had jouw oranje t-shirtje kunnen aandoen“ some half drunk guy lurched when I walked past. Me, who was clearly Dutch with that orange hair of mine, and orange soul beaming through my darkblue sweater. And me who obviously had a whole selection of orange t-shirts and skimpy dresses in my all too Dutch wardrobe in my all Dutch home town somewhere. Maybe I should have bought that t-shirt after all.
Still delightfully immersed in an orange cloud of Dutchness, I woke up to an all orange breakfast the next morning. Boterammen, pindakaas, hagelslag, appelstroop and (orange) plakjes kaas. Only the musjes and vla missing to complete the cliché. And there was coffee. When I was younger, I used to have a postcard featuring two deliciously inviting coffee cups before a starchy white lace curtain saying „De koffie is klaar“, which I kept on my desk for years. The Dutch have a thing for koffie. They even drink it at night, with lots of foamy warm milk, in big comforting mugs, reassuring, lulling you to sleep. Froukje, Paul and I ended up having koffie and breakfast in the garden, with the neighbours greeting us as they walked by. Gezellig.
I eventually braved the road, with a huge delay and only a vague idea of where I wanted to go. Domburg, then Veere I thought, then somehow on to Middelburg. Bike-guru Olivier had said the best ice cream was in Veere. My parents’ friends had cancelled last minute, but I had made a coffee appointment with Anna, a couchsurfer in Middelburg. Plus there was Irina’s jacket; yes, I had a mission. And off I went. Following the coastline, I cycled northwestwards, and thought I’d hit Domburg within an hour. But things turned out different. What would have normally taken one hour, took me four. The weather had changed, it was much colder than the day before, a stiff little wind was blowing, and I soon found myself pulling out a sweater, and then another one, and tugging my scarf tightly around my face and hitting the pedal without much pleasure. I soldiered on just for the sake of it. I had to get there somehow, there, where, anywhere. The water on my left, the inland on my right, I navigated my way through dunes and dykes and ditches, and past other cyclists, but just didn’t enjoy it that much. Strain and headwind.
Until the way suddenly opened (and yes, there was a distinct sense of opening) when the road led straight into the adorable little village of Zoutelande. Which really lifted my spirits. And I can’t even say why. The place in itself was not even that special, objectively-speaking, but I was just plain delighted. In a physical sort of way. Almost shivering with it. With a sense of having gotten away with it, or tricked the system. As if I hadn’t been supposed to come here, or come back here, or at least not alive, and yet I had. I had never been there before, or at least not to my knowledge, so maybe it was relief at not recognizing anything, and being allowed to explore something perfectly new. Or, on the contrary, it might have struck a chord with something from the past, long lost and found, broken and mended. The place was so jolly and blue and sunny again, with scores of beachtoys and bikinis dangling in the breeze outside colourful little shops, and people sitting on terraces in the sun and eating „opa’s appeltaart met slagroom“ and drinking more of that reassuring Dutch coffee. (In Holland, applecake’s being baked by the granddads nowadays; the grandmas are busy writing novels and travelling the world). A summer’s day, despite the changing weather, families, the north sea, my childhood maybe.
Then more cycling again. The weather changing again. Chilly. More headwind. Onwards to Westkapelle. Where the Allies landed in WWII. On 1 November 1944, with heavy amphibious warfare on even heavier ships. The full monty. Mainly Brits and Canadians. It must have been even colder and windier back then.
Turns out Walcheren played an important role in WWII. Little history lesson: On 6 June 1944, the Allies had landed in Normandy, also known as D-Day. Three months later, on 4 September, they captured the port of Antwerp, mainly to shorten the supply lines to their soldiers advancing towards Germany. But when Antwerp was captured, they couldn’t use it, as right above Antwerp there was Walcheren, and Walcheren was still controlled by the Germans. Now, Walcheren was difficult. The Germans were heavily fortified there, and the Allies first tried driving the Germans out of Holland from the other side. But after weeks and weeks of not making much progress, British Field Marshall Montgomery had enough and gave the opening of the Schelde “complete priority without any qualification whatsoever”. All eyes were on Walcheren again.
Next thing you knew was that between 2 and 11 October, a Canadian Lt-General called Guy Simons ordered the Walcheren population by radio and pamphlets to evacuate potential strategic objects, and on 3rd, 7th and 11th October respectively, the RAF Bomber Command dropped between 8000 and 9000 tons of bombs onto the dykes at Westkapelle, near Vlissingen and at Veere. Walcheren was instantly flooded and transformed into a massive lagoon rimmed by broken dykes. A few weeks later, on 1 November, at 05:45 in the morning, Allied commandos landed at Oranjemolen in Vlissingen, right behind Froukje and Paul’s house.
Casualties-wise, „the campaign to free up Antwerp cost the Allies dear”, says the History Learning Site. “They had lost 703 officers and 12,170 other ranks killed, wounded or lost in action, presumed dead. Over half of these casualties were Canadian men.” A few survivors of the campaign still gather, every year (yes, every year, says Paul, and one of them is in a wheelchair) on 1 November to commemorate them (and yes, right behind their house). In Westkapelle, the 3 October bombings are still known as ‘t Bombardement and remembered as the day when 180 Westkapelle residents were killed and the village all but wiped off the face of the earth by the bombs and the incoming sea.
Some footage of the flooded island on youtube -the wonders of youtube- at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FAFWYM9yvQ and voor de nederlandstaaligen among us, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fg7zGo9Wy08. Even one year after the bombings, three quarters of Walcheren were still under water and the devastation breathtaking.
Luctor et Emergo
Talking about floodings, turns out that Walcheren came under water again in January 1953, and so did other parts of Holland, when a heavy storm caused the dykes to break, killing 1,835 people and forcing the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned that day, 37,300 buildings were damaged, and an extra 10,000 completely destroyed. The Dutch coined a special word for the disaster – watersnoodramp- and the Dutch government set out to build an ambitious flood defence system, the so-called Delta Works, designed to protect the estuaries of the Rhine, Maas and Schelde rivers. Zeeland was particularly affected by the disaster. No wonder the province’s slogan (coined long before 1953) reads Luctor et Emergo – I struggle and I emerge – a reference to the interminable battle the province has been waging with the sea if not since time immemorial then at least for many decades. Indeed, the inhabitants of Zeeland’s small towns and villages have spent much of their history either at sea or keeping the sea away from hearth and home.
The Allied landing has left a strong mark on the island. No wonder the street next to Paul and Froukje’s street in Vlissingen is called Landingsstraat. And no wonder the tiny village of Westkapelle has its own war museum, and a monument on the dyke above the museum. When I reached that monument on the dyke that day, and admired the ironcast tank on top of a block of granite, I noticed a small figure all dressed up in a WWII uniform complete with helmet and rifle, climbing all over it. I blinked. An apparition? A wax figure? A guard? An actor enacting a scene from back then? Weird. And some others seemed confused by it, too. I looked again and discerned a little boy of maybe 8 years of age, wearing an original Allied WWII uniform, with a small Dutch flag sown onto its front. A little Dutch boy playing at war. I couldn’t help myself and walked up to the kid and asked in a playful tone where on earth he got that uniform from. In Dutch. No answer. In German. Maybe he was German and got it from the nearby museum as part of some fun historical reenactment exercise. No answer. Spreekt je Nederlands? Ja. Ok. Waar heb je die vandaan? No answer. Is die van jou? Ja. Ok. Of van je papa? Nee. Right. Ok, this is his own uniform and he’s simply – playing at war. Not sure I’m getting these parents. I was raised on „Nie wieder Krieg“ and my brother, born in 1969, kept from playing with anything even resembling a soldier. Even „action man“ was considered too violent. But maybe I’m missing something. After all, I am the granddaughter of those staunch and humourless people who dug trenches on Scheveningen beach, and who stole this little boy’s greatgrandparents bicycles. Hm.
Vlissingen has been of interest to many foreign powers throughout history. Significantly, the 44,500 people town is, despite its relatively small size, one of the few Dutch towns with names in two other languages. The French call it Flessengue and the English Flushing. Long before the Germans in the 1940s, Napoleon had laid hands on Vlissingen in far-away 1795, incorporated it into his French republic, and invested in it by building some heavy fortifications. To his mind, Vlissingen was going to play an important role in his plans to conquer England. Not surprisingly, the English didn’t like the idea and, in 1809, subjected the town to heavy bombardments.
Another 200 years before that, when the Netherlands were still ruled by the Spanish, and Willem van Oranje was slowly gaining ground in his struggle against the Spanish oppressors, Vlissingen became famous for being one of the two first Dutch towns, which managed to free itself from Spanish rule. Oranje’s rebels rebels first captured the town of Brielle, on 1 April 1572, and then Vlissingen on 6 April 1572. These events marked a turning point in the 80 Years War between the Netherlands and Spain, and the event is still remembered today, with a rhyme for April Fool’s Day: “Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril, en op april zes verloor Alva zijn fles,” basically meaning that “on 1 April the (Spanish) count Alba lost his glasses (bril meaning glasses and referring to the town of Brielle), and on 6 April he lost his bottle (fles meaning bottle and referring to Vlissingen).” Ok, so Vlissingen has a tradition of freedom-fighting and insurgency. Or at least it did 400 years ago.
Anyhow, I had neither glasses nor bottles to lose that day, mainly as I hadn’t brought any in the first place, but I missed them all the same as I felt my eyes water from the wind (no glasses) and my mouth go dry from a lack of water (no bottle). And I longed to arrive somewhere now.
Treats and tailwind
Next stop Domburg. So close and yet so far. The headwind didn’t help and neither did the dark clouds which were suddenly forming everywhere. Eventually I did get there, but when I looked at a clock it was 3pm. The 20km from Vlissingen to Domburg had taken me four hours. Granted, I had made a few stops, but still. Bit daunting when I thought of what was yet to come. If things continued this way, I wouldn’t get back to Vlissingen before midnight. But first things first. I deserved a break. Time for lunch, and coffee, and cake, and a stroll. I parked my bike with a few other bikes. In Zeeland you don’t need to lock your bike to anything; just lock it „to itself“ and no one will touch it. „It’s too heavy to carry around“, says Froukje. Plus, where would they take it to? We’re on an island. And indeed, none of the hundreds of bikes I saw those three days were attached to anything. So very different from Brussels where according to some statistics they steal 75 bikes a night, and even the crappiest about-to-fall-apart bike requires a 60 euro U-lock to protect it from the bike-mob. So Zeeland really felt like a fairy tale world, or a long-lost timezone, where people and bikes still happily coexist and no one fears anyone else and everyone is getting enough.
And I certainly got enough in Domburg, too. „The beach is the main event in Domburg“ writes the Lonely Planet, but I didn’t even see the beach; it was just too chilly. That day, the main events in Domburg were clearly the Hollandse Nieuwe, the kibbeling, and the ice cream. Domburg is a quintessentially little Dutch village with one-storey houses, lace curtains and lacquered blue front doors, which has basically been transformed into an open-air tourist resort, but all that without having lost its soul. You still feel the sweetness of it. There’s a bakery, and two fish shops – one on each side of the village – and a whole array of charming little cafes and bistros in between. But the fish shops are clearly the most popular. Everyone happily munching their kibbeling. To the sound of Zeeuwse folklore music brought to us by a group of men in their 60s, all dressed up in the Zeeuwse traditional costume, standing there and playing just for our amusement. Melodious, jolly, brass. Watched by swarms of retirees and families with children, many Germans. No backpackers, no couchsurfers, few people in their 20s, 30s or 40s, or at least not many without kids. Domburg is the kind of place my grandmother would have loved. But I didn’t mind somehow, and loved being there, too. Me who’s done Ukraine by bike, on my own, even ten years ago. Me who spent the last two summers couchsurfing and cycling through Morocco, and hitchhiking and wildcamping in France and Italy. Even I loved Domburg. And so did everyone else it seems. Olivier, the bikeguru and surfer thought it’s a „very, very, very niiice place“. And so did Irina.
My lunch consisted of three pieces of deliciously warm and fleshy (and overprized) Hollandse Nieuwe (at 2 euros a piece), met ujtjes, and a chicken piri piri pastry, which I jumped on for the sole reason that I had no idea what it was. It just sounded so quintessentially Dutch, a bit like saté kroket or bami and I just had to try it. I found a little bench in the sun (yes, the sun was back again) and indulged. And rarely has herring tasted so good, not to mention that buttery piri piri pastry. But not enough, I also had to have my appeltaart met slagroom. And two koffies. And, on my way out of town, an icecream on top. Haagse hapjes, vanilla with koffie. Just to get my blood sugar levels up all the way. Yes, I was eating myself into some kind of over-energised frenzy, which I though I’d need to master the rest of the day. Because the ride to Middelburg scared me. Another 25km, which would have been nothing under normal circumstances, but with this headwind, they looked daunting.
But then things turned out all different again. The headwind was suddenly tailwind, the sun back out, my sleeves rolled up, my spirits high – and I flew. Or my bike flew me. I barely had to pedal. And instead of taking what felt like four hours, I was in Middelburg within what felt like 40 minutes.
In between parties
While Vlissingen had been swinging with life and sunlight that previous day, and whilst Domburg had been brimming with happy people munching their all-Dutch junk food that afternoon, Middelburg – that evening – seemed dead. Not a soul on the streets, the wind blowing again, a few isolated jazz musicians rehearsing for the open air concert that night, and hesitantly striking some wailing notes, but to not too much of an audience. I must have gotten there in between parties. The football game was over, and the jazz concert hadn’t started yet.
And yet, it was a beautiful town. With an air of grandeur, or at least much more so than any of the other towns on Walcheren. Middelburg is the provincial capital after all. And an ancient one that is. Built in the 13th century, Middelburg grew into one of the Netherlands’ most important trading centres during the late Middle Ages. No wonder the town was full of beautiful architecture. Fivehundred years later, in 1940, Middelburg was heavily bombed by Germany, but rebuilt after the war, much of it in its original style. The Gothic townhouse, built in 1452, (again) a masterpiece.
The Lonely Planet calls the town pleasant, prosperous and sedate. And indeed, it had a calm, dignified, unhurried quality about it. As if this were where Dutch people go when they want to start anew in life. Like after a divorce, or a midlife crisis, or a burn-out from their hectic lives in Amsterdam, Den Haag or Utrecht. A bit like Spain or the south of France, but – in Holland. And then there’s the climate. Zeeland has a peculiar microclimate, which makes for clear skies and sunshine almost all year around. And, last but not least, there’s the dependable and obliging nature of the Zeelanders, who over the centuries have grown used to accommodating all sorts of guests and invaders. But then those stressed-out city people tend to be of an amenable and indulgent breed themselves. Which might be why they chose Zeeland in the first place. Actually, I have no idea. Purely speculating, trying to be clever. And bigtime deducing this from the handful of „import people“ I met there, who tended to be kind and generous NRC-reading, PvdA-voting social workers, civil servants, journalists and artists. But there may be entire colonies of retired VVD members dwelling on their yachts by het Veerse Meer somewhere; I wouldn’t know.
In any case, Middelburg, as pretty much every Dutch town nowadays, has a strong social conscience, or at least pretends it does, and persuasively so. That day, Middelburg hosted a festival commemorating the end of slavery, and the shadowy role the town had played in upholding slavery for many years before that. In Middelburg, there were shipyards, and those shipyards built the ships, which shipped tens of thousands of slaves from Africa to the Americas.
According to the Lifeline Expedition (www.lifelineexpedition.co.uk), an impressive reconciliation initiative launched in the UK in the 1990s bringing together the descendants of people from the three corners of the slave triangle (Europe-Africa-America), “the Dutch were among the most successful traders in slaves, especially during the 17th century.” Shockingly, and with specific reference to the role of Zeeland in all this, the Lifeline Expedition maintains that “altogether, ships from Zeeland made 672 recorded journeys transporting 278,476 slaves, compared to 173 recorded journeys from Amsterdam carrying 73,476 slaves.” It goes on to say that “the biggest number of voyages was from Vlissingen”, and that “Middleburg and Vlissingen must have been virtual slaving communities, with a substantial amount of manpower involved in the traffic. In fact a report of 1750 confirms that Vlissingen’s only commercial branch of significance was the slave trade.” Hm. Not very palatable.
An excellent article on “The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850” puts things into a larger perspective. The author basically suggests that, at the end of the day and compared to other European powers, the Dutch didn’t profit much from the slave trade, which in part explains why the economically disadvantaged province of Zeeland might have been more willing to get involved with it than Holland’s other more prosperous regions.
Past and present
One name I kept coming across on my journey through Walcheren, was that of Admiral Michiel De Ruyter. Who is this guy, I asked myself, and googled him upon my return to Belgium. And well, „BadassOfTheWeek.com“ sustains that „this dude is one of the toughest motherfuckers to ever come out of the Low Countries, and one of the most amazing seaborne murder-machines to ever pound his enemies to death with his massive (cannon) balls. In nearly 60 years sailing on the high seas during the Golden Age of Dutch Badassery, this Netherlandian (Netherlanderthal?) aquatic destruction-monger served in seven wars, led warships into combat in over forty engagements, and fought more than fifteen massive full-scale naval battles against the toughest sailors Earth has ever seen.” Right. Woah. But the text is meant to be funny and actually goes on to portray De Ruyter in a very positive light.
According to other and maybe more scientific sources, „badass“ De Ruyter was actually born in Vlissingen, in 1607, has streets named after him in pretty much every town in Holland, and played a significant role in Zeeland’s trading activities in the mid 17th century. Now, whether De Ruyter was a good guy or a bad guy is a tough one to answer. On the face of it, he’s very much a good guy; so at least all of Holland, and beyond, has agreed centuries ago. He heroically fought in the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, and is basically credited for the continued existence of the Netherlands as a sovereign country. Also, he is said to have been a kind and humble man devoted to the wellbeing of his crew, and, last but not least, to have „regularly freed Christian slaves by redeeming them at his own expense”. It appears that even in Hungary, of all places, there’s a monument commemorating the role he played in negotiating the liberation of 26 Hungarian clergymen who had been forced to work as galley slaves by the Spanish. On the other hand, I ask myself, what about the „non-Christian“ slaves? And, if he was one of the biggest traders in Vlissingen at that time, and if the main trade in Vlissingen was slavery back then – well, you do the maths. Unless, he was working to change the system from within? Or maybe I’m missing something. Other must have researched this before, no? In the meantime, he remains a hero.
And in the meantime, Middelburg concentrates on present-day slavery. That weekend, Middelburg was hosting a large-scale photo exhibition reminding people of the fact that slavery exists even today, mainly in the form of forcing undocumented migrants into 18 hour shifts for loans way below the legal minimum wages. And yes, even in EU countries. All documented on large billboards greeting me from above on my way into the town, and educating me on facts and figures. Nicely done (those Dutch!). But quite gruesome indeed.
And, talking about human rights violations (or genocide), well, just a few moments before reaching those billboards (we’re moving backwards now, rewinding the movie so-to-speak), I passed a large Jewish cemetery. Which featured a commemorative plaque honouring the Jewish citizens of Middelburg who were deported to the Nazi death damps. And surprisingly, the gravestones seemed to be chained to each other, which made me wonder whether there had been acts of vandalism. Apparently, Middelburg had quite a flourishing little Jewish community before the war, counting 131 people, says the Joods Historisch Musem website. Then, in 1940, the Middelburg synagogue was plundered by local members of the Dutch collaborationist NSB party, and in 1942, the Middelburg Jews were deported, and none of them returned alive.
Not an easy legacy for Middelburg. First that slave trade, then the ousting of the Jewish community. Driven by the German occupants of course, but possibly helped by the locals. But then, in 1994, the synagogue was restored and rededicated, and in 2004, the first Jewish wedding took place in Middelburg since before the war. Eind goed, al goed? Minden jó, ha a vége jó? All’s well that ends well? Let’s just say yes. The town’s just too beautiful to be cross with it. By the way, Middelburg’s Jewish community goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when Jewish merchants moved to Middelburg from Spain and Portugal, compounded in the late 17th century by Jewish families fleeing pogroms in central and eastern Europe. So, in theory, the Dutch provinces of the Middle Ages, including Zeeland, were a land of refuge and asylum rather than the opposite.
I swiftly cycled through Middelburg, and straight to the train station, and the stationsrestauratie, and Irina’s blue coat. Which I found immediately. And, still inside the stationsrestauratie, I turned around and – there was Anna. My couchsurfing coffee appointment, and that without having made a real appointment. She just knew I had to pick up that coat at some point, and I was all the more delighted to see her. Sometimes things just work out.
Anna is a writer. And many things on top of that. An ex-business consultant that is. And someone hosting poetry and prose salons in Amsterdam, Den Haag and now also in Middelburg. And a woman who once travelled to Nepal to spend 12 months in Bhutanese refugee camp and then wrote a book about it. That is, about a Bhutanese refugee girl who was then resettled to the Netherlands to be precise. In her book, called Headwind, that girl experiences various difficulties as a child in Nepal and upon her arrival in the Netherlands, but then that headwind turns into tailwind and she gradually grows into a self-assured young woman. And yet, that headwind never leaves her altogether – which is probably true for all of us, refugees or not. Hardships, as facts of life, will always be there in one way or another, and it’s all in the „how we cope with it“.
And indeed, headwind had been the theme of my whole day. And Anna has had her share of headwind as well. In her life I mean. Which she’s gloriously managed to turn into tailwind. We spoke about all sorts of things, and it was refreshing to be able to go straight to the point, and talk about „what is really going on“ in our lives, in the way one sometimes finds it easier to talk to perfect strangers than to people one knows one will meet again at work the next morning. I loved Anna’s sunny take on life. I’ve made choices and changes, I’ve re-invented myself, and I’ve made it all work, could have been her line. And yes, she really has. No nonsense, down to earth, getting things done. She amused me with her tales about her upcoming novel set in the Victorian times, which has prompted her to „dress and live like a Victorian“ one day a week to get into her main character. I glanced down at her. „No, today’s the 50s“. Right. She was wearing a stiff blue dotted dress, tights and assorted shoes. The 50s, indeed. The Victorian day must be another day. Can’t wait to get my hands on that book.
After a chat in the station restaurant and a scenic bikeride through the old town, we ended up at Anna’s favourite kroeg, as in bar, or pub, and had another chat session there. That place was my kind of place, like an old sailor’s inn, on a street corner, jolly, open, and flooded with a golden afternoon light which warmed my heart and illuminated the ancient wooden beams framing the doors and windows. Anna ordered a glass of nutwine for me, a deliciously sweet beverage served with ice. A group of young guys, just random guys from the town it seemed, in their 30s and 40s, entertained everyone and themselves with a roaring interpretation of We are the world, followed by The rivers of Babylon. One of them played the piano. Karaoke, but without the whole (silly) technology. Like in the old days. And they all knew the texts anyways. And all that over Anna’s stories.
I floated. A high. I had clearly arrived at my destination.
Eventually I said goodbye and set out to cycle back. As in, to Vlissingen. Bit tipsy, from the sun as much as from the nutwine. Not sure about my whereabouts. Somewhere in Holland, right. I asked an elderly couple cycling behind me. The road to Vlissingen? No answer; I figured they had to be German tourists. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Ja. Die Strasse nach Vlissingen? Their reply: Immer nach rechts. With a Dutch accent though. Right. Not Germans after all then. I was a bit sceptical. Immer nach rechts sounded a bit like immer geradeaus. But this was not 1940 in Scheveningen, and I didn’t look like a German soldier who had just stolen a bike, did I. I chuckled and came out with U spreekt toch wel Nederlands. Ja, they replied, en u bent Nederlands. As in, me. A compliment, half question, half statement. Nee, niet echt, I confessed. And they liked me all the same. We smiled, she was kind, and the direction was right. And the ride by the canal from Middelburg to Vlissingen memorable. A real treat. They should prescribe this against depression. Or sleeplessness. Or ADHD.
I came home to Froukje’s and Paul’s place 20 minutes later feeling all zen and grounded and blessed. And yes, home was the right word by now. I had missed out on the cooking club that evening, but there were still some of leftovers in the fridge. Mexican tonight, all beans and veg and cheese and salad. Delicious and therapeutic after all that sugar earlier in the day.
Two new guests had arrived that night, Vrienden van de Fiets, a father and his 16-year old daughter, a most touchingly sweet little pair. Him involved in a squatting project in Maastricht. I loved the colourful array of people I met in Froukje’s garden, and I had barely scraped the surface of it. Froukje volunteers for 1001 organisations it seems; it was hard to find anything she isn’t involved with in some way. From the cultural centre inside her building to the Refugee University Fund, helping refugees to complete their education in the Netherlands.
And then our conversations. Like in the old days, before email and facebook. When people actually still talked to each other and without keeping the TV on while doing so. But, with perfect strangers. Which maybe wouldn’t have happened back then. Before the internet gave us insight into the fact that we’re basically all the same; striving for the same stuff, struggling with the same stuff. So, I was getting the best of both worlds. Modern day internet connectivity which had allowed me to hook up with them in the first place. And old school appreciation for real togetherness and communication. And it was so easy to talk to them. I’m always curious and one word gave way to another.
About the ties we have on this planet. Family and other ties. About who our friends are. Are facebook friends friends? The kind we do know personally of course, but communicate with only to let them know that we’ve just gotten up to a wonderful new day, purchased a new pair of glittery pink sandals, or booked a holiday to Spain? And how about couchsurfing friends? Or vrienden op de fiets friends? Are new networks replacing vanishing old structures? Are fast-paced, short-lived friendships supplanting long-lasting ones? Friendship almost as a consumer good, something we can order and book online these days? We talked about giving and taking, and loyalty and betrayal. Verbijsterend teleursgestelt are two words that I learned that day. And that I won’t forget so quickly. They really struck a chord with me. And this whole last year. As the ultimate expression of a sense of total abandon by those one had cared about, relied on and trusted most. But is anyone of us really immune to that? And what happens when that stuff happens? How do we cope? Do we cope?
Froukje had a nice book about that. Called Borderline Times and written by Leuven-based Belgian psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter who maintains that many of us no longer do. And drift off into self-diagnosed mental illness instead. „I’m unhappy so something must be wrong with me“. And then fall into the pharmaceutical industry trap. „Let me purchase a pill to sort me out“. Helped by the growing hype around „trendy“ mental disorders like ADHD in adults, bipolar disorder and borderline syndrom. And yet, de Wachter says, it’s not so much those more vulnerable individuals who feel like there’s something wrong with them and who come seek help in his psychiatric praxis that are the sick ones. Instead, he says, it’s society as a whole, which makes them feel that way, that needs to be looked at. He calls it de geluksmaatschappij, the happiness society, where we’ve all made it our personal aim in life to show the rest of the world how happy and exciting our lives are. In colour, with pictures, on facebook, or elsewhere, and every day. It’s us, the mainstream, those creating and cultivating this climate and keeping up the pressure, and increasingly hiding ourselves behind shields and layers of – well, basically hypocrisy – who are the sick ones. Or sickly ones. Suffering from borderline syndrome. Often characterised by a sense of emptiness and fear of abandon. And yes, I could see that. Again, that family and other ties question.
Froukje and Paul seem to have resolved that question for themselves by opening their house and lives to all those who can appreciate it. And by taking action, serving, advancing and not looking back much. And by trying to keep in touch. „Why don’t you come to Zeeland in a year from now, when you have a stressful job, and treat yourself to little weekends in Zeeland and in Maastricht, chilling?“ she asked me, followed by her trademark line: „Doen!“ As in: „Just do it! And not just talk about it!“ In the same way she encouraged others to try camping, to borrow her bikes, and to organise a trip around the world.“ And I concluded that Froukje’s the kind of person who should have five children and ten grandchildren and who’d be a role model to each one of them.
On Sunday morning, Vaderdag, I said goodbye to my hosts, their guests and the neighbours from heaven, and started my retreat. Suddenly it was all over. My way back was uneventful. Within ten minutes I was at the ferry, within 30 minutes I was in Zeeuws Vlaanderen again, on the other side of the Schelde, and within three hours I was back in Knokke.
And yet, I felt I’ve had it all. Headwind and tailwind, pain and pleasure, some fear and anxiety, much good fortune and lovely surprises, a sense of disconnect, and then again heart-to-heart connections, out of the blue, „boddhisatvas from the earth“, crowds and one-to-ones, past and present, history and mystery, insights into my life and the lives of the others, intertwining and parting again, like the waves of the ocean behind Froukje and Paul’s house.
Author : Isarajka