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Orange

As this miserable month rolls on (yes, it’s still raining!), I’m working away on a series of posts about Provence. First up is the town of Orange.

There have been places I’ve been to throughout Europe where it hits me with a wallop that the Romans didn’t just take a quick, grand tour of the continent like the ones we take nowadays and then scurry back to Rome. No, they stuck around. They settled down and they governed people and they built things.

Orange is one of those places.

Triumphal Arch

Orange is located in Vaucluse, one of the six departments of the administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. (France has 18 of these regions and, in case you’re wondering, yes, French bureaucracy is legendary.)

The borders of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur align pretty much with those of the historical French province of Provence. And here’s where we get to the point I’m trying to make: Provence was the first Roman province beyond the Alps. The Romans called it Provincia Romana, giving Provence its name.

Roman soldiers built Orange, around 35 BC, and they built it to look like a mini-Rome. The Triumphal Arch (above ) and Théâtre antique d’Orange (that’s a part of it, below) are pieces of that Roman legacy. (The theatre is now a site of an annual summer opera festival. Note to self: go check that out sometime.)

Provence is staunchly Catholic (more about that next post) with one exception: Orange has Protestant roots. It was part of the principality of Orange, a holding of the House of Orange-Nassau of the Netherlands from 1544 until 1713. (The Dutch Royal Family are still, all these centuries later, members of the House of Orange-Nassau.)

One last bit of trivia to torture myself with on this rainy night: Orange receives an average of 2595 hours of sunshine a year. That’s a far cry more than we ever get in Vancouver.

Théâtre antique d’Orange

Through My Lens: Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans

To finish out the month, here’s a photo of the windmills at Zaanse Schans. Zaan is the name of the river that runs past the village and Schans comes from the Dutch word for “earthwork.” The Dutch are fond of moving earth, but what’s special about this one is it dates back to the Eighty Years’ War when the Dutch and the Spanish were going at it.

Zaanse Schans is a popular spot with tourists as it’s only a 15-minute train ride from Amsterdam and has several working windmills. Although I once spent part of a summer in the nearby town of Zaandam on my first-ever home exchange, this photo was taken several years prior to that visit, in late autumn.

A lovely corner of Holland any time of year, to be sure.

Echte Nederlandse Koe

Dutch Cows

I’ve taken the train from Paris to Amsterdam many, many times. One of those times, I spent much of the journey eavesdropping on the idle talk of a Dutch couple sitting behind. From the way they spoke to each other, I surmised they might be brother and sister.

I’m by no means fluent in Dutch, so much of their conversation was way over my head. Except for shortly after we crossed the Belgium–Dutch border, when the woman said something I understood perfectly.

Nu is ere en echte Nederlandse koe. (Now there is a real Dutch cow.)

I smiled to myself. Could a cow seen from the window of a high-speed train possibly look more Dutch than Belgium or French? Really?

Really.

I knew what she meant. She was home ― back in her own country ― and everything looked familiar again. Oddly enough, I’ve always had the same feeling when travelling to the Netherlands from somewhere else by train ― only because, out of all the countries in western Europe, the Netherlands is the most familiar to me. It’s not my home, but crossing the Dutch border always feels like a home-coming of sorts.

I took the above photo while cycling through the Dutch countryside just outside of the city of Arnhem ― only because these cows struck me as particularly fine-looking specimens of Nederlandse cows.

Arnhem

On my first ever trip to the Netherlands ― the one that instilled in me my rampant travel bug ― our family visited Arnhem, the city where my mother was born and lived for the first ten years of her life before immigrating to Canada.

One morning, we went for a walk in a wooded park known as the Rozendaalse Bos. I noticed many damaged trees and asked Mom what the scars were from.

“Oh, those are probably from the war,” she said. “There was a lot of fighting around here.”

She said it so casually that I was shocked. The war (and by “the” war she meant World War II) was distant history ― so I thought ― and yet here was concrete evidence in trees still living. Maybe not such distant history after all.

That walk in the woods sparked in me a lifelong interest in learning more about World War II and what happened in Holland during those years. But it wasn’t until after my visit to the Normandy beaches with my dad that I began to do some serious research into exactly what happened to my mother’s family during the war.

I began by showing my uncle some letters my grandmother had written to me (at my request) about her childhood and experiences in Holland during the war. To my surprise and delight, he translated them for me (they were written in Dutch). After I read them, he and I spent a sunny, summer afternoon in his backyard, talking about the war and, in particular, his own personal experiences. He was able to fill in a lot of the gaps in the stories my grandmother had written down for me and the others that my mother had told me.

After I had exhausted my uncle with my questions, I began to read books. Many books. Much has been written ― is still being written ― about what happened in Arnhem during the war. Eventually I stopped reading and decided I had to visit Arnhem on my own.

I made several trips, each time exploring the quarter where my mother grew up as well as the rest of the city. I walked some of the streets I had read about in all those books. Much of what my uncle had told me, and much of what I had read about, came alive for me in the way that can only happen when you visit a place in person.

In 1944, Arnhem was the site of a major offensive by the Allied forces called Operation Market Garden. It was the largest airborne operation ever attempted, and was meant to hasten the end of the war by having the Allied forces leapfrog over the German lines into Holland. Once there, they would be in range of the industrial heartland of Germany. Capturing and holding three bridges over the Rhine River ― one at Eindhoven, one at Nijmegen, and one at Arnhem ― was the key to the whole operation. The American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions landed respectively at Nijmegen and Eindhoven and the British 1st Airborne Division landed at Arnhem.

Johnfrostbrug

Despite holding the bridge for days longer than planned, the British paratroopers ultimately had to withdraw. The bridge at Arnhem turned out to be “a bridge too far.” (That was the name given to Sir Richard Attenborough’s Hollywood film about Market Garden, which I watched on TV with my mother and grandmother not long after my first visit to Arnhem. And, yes, I peppered them both with questions during the entire movie.)

My mother’s family came through the battle relatively unscathed. Although their house was less than three kilometres from the bridge and they could hear the fighting, they were free to walk through the streets of their neighbourhood even while the centre of the city was under fire.

It was after the battle, when the Nazis evacuated the entire city, that things got rough. My mother remembered living in a barn ― my uncle told me it was only for a week. When the Germans told them to leave the area, they said, “But what about our cows?” The Germans replied, “Oh, you can go live over there,” and waved them off. “Over there” was a neighbourhood near the edge of the city that had already been evacuated.

They lived there, in someone else’s house, for almost a year. Not only did they and all the citizens of Arnhem have to wait for the city to be liberated by the Canadians, but it took months for the soldiers to clear the city and the houses of all the mines and booby traps left behind by the Nazis. My grandparents hid all of their canned goods under the floorboards before they left their home, but none of it was there when they returned. The Nazis had systematically looted most of the city.

My uncle spent most of that winter trying to evade the Nazis who were rounding up boys for the arbeitsdienst. (Military training with a shovel, he called it.) The Nazis took him once while he was taking care of the family’s cows, and another time during a razzia (raid) when he went for a short visit to the house where the rest of the family was living. He escaped both times, the second time by lying down in a ditch and pretending to be dead. He told me he was lucky he wasn’t shot.

And the final, most awful hardship of the war for my mother’s family was losing a son and brother (another of my uncles) who was killed by a piece of shrapnel from a shell that exploded in front of the house where they spent that winter. He was thirteen years old and Arnhem had been liberated just the day before.

It wasn’t until after I wandered through the neighbourhood where my mother’s family spent the winter of 1944 to ’45, on one of my visits to Arnhem, that all the pieces of the stories I had been told by my mother and grandmother and uncle came together for me ― the Rozendaalse Bos, which is the wood where my mother told me was the scene of so much fighting, was only a couple of kilometres distant. It was not hard to imagine how a stray shell ended up in front of their house, killing my uncle.

I’m writing this post because today is the 70th anniversary of the start of Operation Market Garden. Arnhem commemorates the anniversary every year, but it’s not the battle they’re celebrating. They’re celebrating the British paratroopers who tried so hard to end the war early for them. Annual events include a service at the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek and a parachute drop by serving British paratroopers at Ginkel Heath (one of the drop zones during the battle).

I was in Arnhem in 2004 for the 60th anniversary. That year there was also a veterans’ parade across John Frostbrug and a convoy of vintage military vehicles from Oosterbeek to Arnhem. The applause for the soldiers never stopped; watching the Dutch people respond to the British vets, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to watch the Allied soldiers march past at a time when the Dutch were so desperate for the war to be over.

I watched the TV news that evening; one of the vets interviewed talked about what a mess they had made of the city and how it had pretty much been destroyed. “And yet,” he finished, “they love us!” While watching the parade on the bridge, I overheard another vet tell his family how he hadn’t paid for a single meal or drink since his arrival ― the Dutch kept picking up the tab.

And that was the moment. I realized then, finally, while eavesdropping on a vet and his family, that the hardships my mother’s family endured weren’t much different from what a lot of Dutch families ― and the Allied soldiers and their families ― went through during the war.

Each of us travels for a variety of reasons; researching your family’s history can be a powerful one. A walk through a battle-scarred wood set me off on a journey to find out what happened to my mother’s family during the war, culminating in a visit to Arnhem on the 60th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. They’re all gone now ― my mother and her family. But I’m so very glad I thought to ask them so many questions when I had the chance.

Through My Lens: De Fiets

Fiets is Dutch for “bike.” In the Netherlands, there are almost as many bikes as there are people.

Here’s one of them.

Dutch Bike

Hollandse Kaas

Look what I got!

Dutch Cheese

I was hanging out in Solo again these past few weeks taking care of a houseful of cats while my sister and her husband were gallivanting around northern Europe. I’m back home again, but as a thank-you gift for my hard work my sister brought a gift for me from the Netherlands: echte Hollandse kaas (real Dutch cheese)!

I thought the timing was too perfect to pass up, given my recent post about my love affair with Dutch cheese, and so I just had to post a photo. Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to go eat some cheese.

Alkmaar

Cheeses

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with cheese. The exact moment. Is that weird?

My family and I were enjoying a picnic lunch of sandwiches and fruit after a bike ride through the Amsterdamse Bos, a thousand-hectare park just south of Amsterdam. Mom handed me a sandwich, but I shook my head when I saw what was on it. I hated cheese.

“Taste it,” Mom said. “You’ll like this cheese.”

And ― whoa! That was the moment. I’d spent thirteen years pulling up my nose at fermented milk products, and all it took was a bit of Gouda cheese on bread to convert me to a wonderful new world. At that precise moment, cheese became my favourite food group. It seems, as was the case with me and beer, that I had to be in a country that knows how to properly make cheese (or beer) before I was able to appreciate its finer qualities. The discoveries you make when you travel.

And so, it was my love of Dutch cheese that brought me eventually (perhaps inevitably?) to the Alkmaar Cheese Market. (Dare I call it a pilgrimmage?)

Alkmaar Weigh House

Alkmaar Weigh House

Alkmaar’s centuries-old cheese market is held on Friday mornings from April to September in the Waagplein (that’s Dutch for “weighing square”) located beside the Weigh House. Alkmaar is only a thirty-minute train ride north of Amsterdam, so a visit to the cheese market is easily done as a day trip if you are based in Amsterdam.

Weigh House Close -up

There are always crowds, so get here early if you want to be able to see everything that goes on. Essentially, what you are watching is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years: the cheese makers bring their cheese to the market, the traders and buyers inspect it, and then the deals are made. All the while, men dressed in white carry the cheese using special carriers from the Waagplein, where the wheels of cheese are laid out in neat rows, to the Weigh House to be weighed and back again.

The following is a photo tour of what I saw and learned in Alkmaar. (Click on the first photo at top left to open the slide show.)

Back to the cheese epiphany I had at age thirteen. A few weeks after that momentous picnic lunch, our family settled in at the small Dutch town where we would be living for a few months. We soon got into a routine of going to the weekly outdoor market along the canal. Our first stop was always the kaas stand (cheese stand) where Mom showed us how it was expected that you always taste the cheese before buying. We’d each of us get a nibble of cheese, and then Mom would make her selection.

Oh, for the love of cheese.

Cheeses on Cart

Queen’s Day

Today is Queen’s Day in the Netherlands. The Dutch call it Koninginnedag. It’s their country’s equivalent of Canada Day or the Fourth of July ― the day when the Dutch celebrate their nation. They celebrate Queen’s Day on April 30 because that was the birthday of Queen Juliana, who was the mother of Queen Beatrix, who is the mother of King Willem-Alexander, who became king today.

The Dutch monarchs have a tradition of abdicating the throne to their children, and that’s what happened today. Queen Beatrix will now be known as Princess Beatrix, and her oldest son, Willem-Alexander, is, as of today, king of this tiny nation of 17 million people.

So why am I posting a photo of Canada’s Parliament Buildings on the Dutch national holiday? I’m glad you asked.

I posted this photo because the Dutch Royal Family has a Canadian connection. Queen Beatrix spent part of her childhood in Ottawa, when Canada gave shelter to the Dutch Royals during World War II. After the war was over, the Dutch Royals sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa as a sign of gratitude for the hospitality shown to then-Princess Juliana and her children during the war, and also as a thank you to the Canadian soldiers who played a key role in the liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazis in 1945.

Juliana sent more tulip bulbs the next year, and every year of her reign, which lasted from 1948 until 1980. Today, more than a million tulips bloom in Ottawa each spring, and its tulip festival, said to be one of the largest in the world, is celebrated every May.

Parliament Buildings

Recipe Box: Bitterballen

Bitterballen

Every year around the holiday season, my mother used to make bitterballen. These little morsels are a savoury Dutch meat snack that (in our household at least) disappeared faster than Mom could make them.

In the Netherlands, bitterballen are served as bar snacks alongside alcohol. (A direct translation of bitterballen would be “balls to eat with bitters.”) I’ve had tapas in Spain that look exactly like bitterballen but are made with fish. (Which makes me wonder if the Spanish introduced the snack to the Low Countries. You know, back when they were the boss of them between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries?)

Another version of the same Dutch snack in cylinder form are called kroketten (croquettes). These you can buy for a couple of euros in vending machines all over the Netherlands. You can imagine our delight when my brother and sisters and I saw kroketten so readily available on our first ever trip to Holland as kids. Christmas treats in a vending machine!?! How cool was that?

There’s a story behind the first time I made bitterballen myself. I was going to a party hosted by an Italian-Canadian friend of mine where there would be many other Italian-Canadians, and I wanted to bring something special. Now, I have to confess that, as a child of Dutch immigrants, I didn’t always like identifying myself as Dutch-Canadian. I would firmly tell my mother when she insisted I was Dutch that I was not. I was just a plain Canadian. No hyphens, please.

But back to the party. Hanging out with my Italian-Canadian friends had shown me a group of Canadians who completely and firmly embraced their heritage in a way that I had not been comfortable doing. Following their example, I decided it was time for me to embrace my heritage. And so, I brought a plate of bitterballen to the party and proudly placed them on the table beside the cannelloni and tiramisu.

The bitterballen were a hit and I’ve made them every Christmas since, sharing them with my friends of all ethnic origins. I find it ironic that it took a bunch of Italian-Canadians to help me appreciate my Dutchness, but there it is. I’m grateful to them for it.

Eet smakelijk!

Bitterballen

2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
2 cups ground cooked meat*
1 1/2 cups grated Gouda cheese**
2 eggs***
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
vegetable oil

1. Melt butter in a saucepan.
2. Sauté onion in the butter until soft.
3. Add flour, blend well, and cook for 1 minute.
4. Slowly add the milk. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.
5. Add parsley, salt, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, cooked meat, and cheese. Cook for another 5 minutes, then allow mixture to cool.
6. Mix the eggs and water together in a small bowl, and pour the bread crumbs into a second small bowl.
7. Shape the cooled meat mixture into small bite-sized balls about an inch in diameter.
8. Roll the balls in bread crumbs, the egg-and-water mixture, and bread crumbs again. (If you intend to freeze them, use three coats of bread crumbs.) Chill balls for at least an hour.
9. Heat the vegetable oil in a small sauce pan, then fry the bitterballen until golden brown (about 2 minutes). Drain on paper towels, and serve with your favourite mustard for dipping.

Notes:
*Ground roast beef is traditional, but use whatever type of meat or seafood you fancy. My mother used ground beef because there was rarely leftover roast beef in our home, and I do the same.
**Mom didn’t add Gouda cheese, but the recipe I use does and I like the flavour. The cheese also gives the meat mixture a firmer consistency for rolling.
***I find I usually need more than 2 eggs. Simply add another egg and tablespoon of water to the bowl as needed.

Beyond Amsterdam

Today being Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day), the national holiday of the Netherlands, I think it’s time I wrote something about the country that all four of my grandparents left to start new lives in Canada.

Many years ago, I was standing in line at Amsterdam Centraal Station, the city’s main train station, waiting to change some money. (This was back in the olden days, before ATMs.) An American came up behind me, asked if I spoke English, and we started chatting, as backpackers do, about where we’d been and where we were going. I explained to him that I was nearly finished my trip, and was going to spend a couple of weeks in the Netherlands before returning home to Canada.

“A couple of weeks!” he said.

“I have some relatives to visit,” I explained.

“Oh! Well, that’s good,” he replied. “Because there isn’t much to see here.”

“Oh?” I said. He then began to tell me about the Red Light District, which I quickly gathered was about all he had seen of Amsterdam.

“But have you seen anything else of Holland?” I interrupted him.

“Is there more to see besides Amsterdam?” He sounded surprised. “What?”

“Uh, well … there’s the whole country,” I said.

“Oh! Is it pretty? Are there mountains?”

I was struggling to come up with a polite response when, just then, it was my turn at the change window. The conversation ended rather abruptly as I turned my back to him. “Idiot,” I muttered to myself. “Are there mountains?”

I know the Netherlands isn’t high on most people’s lists of countries to visit. Nor do I expect it to be. But I do want my readers to know that, for a tiny nation, the Netherlands has a whole lot of country if you take the time to venture beyond Amsterdam. I took this photo one day in August 2007 when I was cycling outside of Zaandam, a town just north of Amsterdam.

No mountains. Just a lot of flatland. Beautiful, isn’t it?