It began as a beautiful day, the sun was shining for the first time in a week. I was on vacation in the Netherlands with my mom. It was a special trip for us, because my mom was born in the Netherlands and had emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. It was a first trip together to visit her homeland. We were staying with our relatives who lived in a small village near the ancient city of Leiden.
We had arrived in the country a week before. After catching up with relatives, and I learned a smattering a Dutch words, we had spent our days exploring nearby museums and galleries. We had travelled to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum and cruised the canals, passing by Anne Frank’s house. The weather had been mostly cool, grey and rainy.
We were excited that Tuesday morning to be greeted by blue skies and warm temperatures. We wanted to enjoy the great weather so we decided to spend the day on a walking tour of Leiden.
We picked up a walking tour map at the local tourist office and set off.
We wandered along narrow cobblestoned streets past stone buildings and 18th century canal houses. Our first was to visit a restored windmill. The 300 year old mill still dominates Leiden’s skyline. We climbed up through the mill, past the living quarters on the lower levels and paused to watch the giant mill stones turn round and round that once produced flour for much of the city, before stepping out onto the deck. Above us, the giant blades, covered in canvas sails, whirled around, creaking like an old sailboat. One of the guides explained that the windmill blades were controlled and managed just like the sails on a sailboat. When the wind was light, canvas sails were unfurled to catch as much of the wind as possible. If the wind got too strong, the sails could be reefed and the wooden blades would capture the wind instead. If the wind became too strong, the blades would be stopped and lashed down. If the blades were allowed to turn in high winds, it could lose control and the windmill would shake itself to pieces.
We continued on our walk and stopped to each lunch at a pancake tent. We sipped rich European coffee (so much better than the weak, watery stuff that passes for coffee in North America) and enjoyed poffertjes – little puffy pancakes covered in butter and powdered sugar.
Nourished, we continued our walk. Above us, we noticed that the windmill had reefed its sails. The wind had picked up.
We walked across wooden lift bridges and down streets so narrow that they were really walkways and not streets. We ended the day by touring the Lakenhal, a museum and art gallery. We browsed exhibits exploring the city’s history, including how the residents had survived Spanish occupation in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The defeat of the Spanish led to the Netherlands Golden Age of art, commerce and exploration. In another area we stop to study an early Rembrandt painting, completed before he developed his unique style and appreciation for light.
I was studying another painting when I noticed a woman standing near me. She was talking on her phone and I overheard snatches of her conversation. I overheard the words “plane crash” clearly but not much else. The woman’s voice was filled with emotion and then she turned and left the museum. At first, I wondered if she had known someone who had just been in a plane crash, but I let the thought slip from my mind and carried on browsing the museum.
Footsore and tired, Mom and I decide it is time to return to our relatives’ house. We leave the museum and walk back to the train station. Above us, we notice that the windmill is still. The wind is too strong for the mill to operate safely.
We returned to our relative’s house, but before we made it to the front door, my grandmother flung open the door and in a confused muddle of half English and half Dutch, tried to tell us something about planes flying into buildings. It didn’t make any sense. In the living room, the TV was broadcasting BBC reports. The horrifying news became clear.
That evening, we attended the opening of the annual horse market festival, more like a European version of a country fair. In this village, the festival always begins with a marching band contest. The horror that took place in the USA is on everyone’s mind and puts a damper on the festivities. Before the contest began, a single trumpeter played the “Star Spangled Banner” before the crowd sang the Dutch national anthem.
The next morning, the cool rainy weather has returned, and the horse market is in full swing, even if the main topic of conversation is the attacks in the USA. I learn the Dutch work for war – “oorlog.”
I climbed to the top of the church tower, the highest point of the village, with my relative and looked out across the countryside. In the distance, we saw the runways of the air force base. Planes are taking off and landing at a rate faster than in the previous week. There was no announcement on the news, but clearly the Dutch military was on patrol.
For Americans, the attacks on September 11 was a rare and disturbing experience as there has been few foreign attacks on the US. But for the Dutch, foreign attacks and occupation has shaped the country’s history. The last attack was the Nazi German invasion and occupation from 1940 to 1945. Thousands of people died. Cities, such as Rotterdam, were reduced to rubble. Jewish neighbours were transported to concentration camps. My own relatives had survived both the invasion and the Allied bombing that ultimately liberated them from Nazi rule.
The war years were very dark and terrible years. And yet the Dutch survived and rebuilt their country. The church tower I stood on had been destroyed by a bomb at the beginning of the war. It had taken the villagers nearly 40 years to raise the funds to rebuild the tower, but they did it.
Life carries on and we must have faith that ultimately goodness and decently will triumph over hate and evil.