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In the house where I grew up, we had two kinds of cheese: Dutch cheese … and everything else. And by Dutch cheese, I of course mean Gouda cheese. (Which is pronounced GHOUW-da, with a guttural “g,” not GOO-da. If the “g” is too much for you, think HOW-da, and stress the “h.”)

But the town of Gouda, I learned last week, has a whole lot more to it than just its cheese.

For one, there’s a pretty impressive Stadhuis, or Town Hall, built way back in the middle of the fifteenth century in the Gothic style.

For another, there’s a pretty impressive church, known as the Grote Kerk (Great Church) or Sint Janskerk. At 123 metres, it is the longest church in the Netherlands.

Hugging the church’s perimeter are many tiny little streets filled with tiny old houses.

These streets are a delight to wander through.

Naturally, Gouda cheese does play a big role in Gouda’s tourism, and the city does a fine job of using it to promote itself.

During the summer months, there is a weekly cheese market (which we did not see) that takes place in front of the Waag or Weigh House.

But I did buy some cheese at the regular Saturday market that was going on in the Markt or market square.

People were first attracted to the area around Gouda by the peat that was plentiful in the nearby swampy marshland and which they harvested. This was back in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. By 1272, Gouda was granted city status. It is less than an hour from Amsterdam by train and well worth a visit.

Even if you’re not as crazy about cheese as I am.


There’s a saying in the Netherlands that I quite like: “God created the earth, but the Dutch made Holland.”

It refers of course to how much of the Netherlands is reclaimed land. Netherlands (or Nederland) means “Low Countries,” which it is. About half of the country lies barely a metre above sea level, and a quarter of the country is reclaimed land that would flood if not for the dykes. The larger areas of reclaimed land are called polders.

Reclaiming land from the sea involves an intricate drainage system of dykes, canals, and pumps. In days gone by, windmills were the pumps.

And that’s the lesson you learn when you visit Kinderdijk. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to 17 windmills that have been pumping water for almost three hundred years. They were supplemented by steam pumps during the nineteenth century, and then, in the last century, they were replaced by electrical pumps.

But now the windmills — the largest concentration of old mills in the Netherlands — remain as a living museum.

Kinderdijk means “children’s dyke” and there are a number of stories about how the name came to be. The one I like best is a simple one: the dyke that was lower than the surrounding dykes was smaller, like a child, and became known as the Kinderdijk.

The Kinderdijk windmills are called “ground sailers” because the sails almost reach the ground. I expect it was a risky business, living in a windmill, as one wrong step could easily end your life.

There are three kinds of windmills at Kinderdijk. The Nederwaard mills (at right in the photo below) were built in 1738 and are made of brick, except for their caps, which are thatched. This cap can be turned, which allows the miller to move the sails so they face the wind. The mills are staggered to make sure they do not steal the wind from the sails of the other mills. One of them has been turned into a museum, furnished as it was during the 1950s when the last miller lived there.

I learned there is nothing quite like the sound of being inside a windmill as its sails turn. Let’s just say there was a whole lot of creaking going on.

The Overwaard mills (at left in the photo above) were built in 1740. They are thatched mills and are not staggered because they are spaced further apart.

The last type of windmill is a wipmolen (hollow post mill), which is the oldest type of windmill in the Netherlands. There is just one of these at Kinderdijk and it too has been turned into a museum.

The wipmolen can also be rotated, which is exactly what this miller is doing.


If you want to see windmills in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk is where you need to be. It is easily accessible from Rotterdam by bus or waterbus and can done as a day trip from Amsterdam.

And if the wind is blowing, as it was when we were there, be assured you will see many of the mills in action.

Through My Lens: De Gooyer Windmill

Nothing says “Holland” quite like a windmill. De Gooyer Mill is located on the Nieuwe Vaart canal in the eastern part of Amsterdam. It used to be a flour mill and is the tallest wooden mill in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam Canal Parade

I’ve seen a few Pride parades in my time, but will probably never see one quite like the Amsterdam Canal Parade. This year’s version took place yesterday along the Prinsengracht. The best way I can summarize it is to simply say that the Dutch sure know how to have fun.

If you don’t believe me, check out these photos.

A Month in Amsterdam

Earlier this week, as I watched the crazed Dutch cyclists zip past each other along the tiny streets of the Jordaan district next to where I am living, I wondered if a summer is long enough to figure out Amsterdam’s traffic rules. I’ll let you know, but at the moment, one month in, I’m still bewildered.

While I was pondering the mysteries of the Amsterdam traffic, I began to reflect on the stages of adjustment I always go through when I relocate to a new city, even when it’s just for a short while.

At first, everything you see and smell and taste is delightful. You can’t believe you are where you are and you notice and marvel at every little detail. On my shorter trips, I rarely move past this phase.

The second phase is when the differences you first marvelled at start to annoy you. Why do those cyclists have to go so fast? Why don’t Dutch store clerks ever smile? Why are there so few ticket machines in the Metro at Centraal Station?

The third phase is when you start to adjust to the differences. For me, an important step in reaching this phase is when I’m comfortable navigating the city without a map and stop noticing that I don’t understand the language.

The fourth and final phase is acceptance. This doesn’t mean that you feel completely at home or you have become fluent in a new language. Rather, you understand and accept that you may never feel at home — and you’re OK with that. How long it takes you to reach this final phase is the big unknown. In Paris, it took me only a few months. In other cities, it took me years. (Toronto, I’m looking at you.)

I’ve been in Amsterdam for a month now, and I’m most definitely in the second phase, inching slowly towards the third.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Through My Lens: Bloemgracht

I’ve arrived in Amsterdam, where I am going to be hanging out for a couple of months thanks to my latest home exchange. Here is a taste of what I’ve seen in the past few days. This is Bloemgracht, a small canal in the centre of Amsterdam, very close to where I’m living. Bloem is Dutch for “flower” and gracht means “canal.”


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?


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.


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.


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.