Day 1 - Breda
I was invited by a distant relative to stay with her and her family in Breda, a moderately sized town in Southern Holland that you've probably never heard of (I hadn't either). I felt as though I couldn't pass up this very kind offer as get out of the major cities for a bit. I gleefully imagined being in a single family home with a yard. So different from the pullout couches in multi-story apartments and much more pleasant than the packed/smelly hostel rooms that I had not yet become accustomed to. My cousin Andrea had kindly offered to take a few days off work so we could go exploring together, an added incentive to visit!
So it was decided I would go and on Tuesday evening I took a train from Brussels, arrived at the Breda Central Train Station, nervous to meet the relatives I had never met before. I met Andrea and immediately felt at ease. It must be the shared Finnish blood between us! I met her partner, Joris, and we all stopped at the grocery store before heading home. I marveled at the price scanners used to tally the cost of your cart as you shop. Such genius! You simply hand the cashier the device with your pre-scanned items, pay and away you go. Random checks of your cart keep you accountable. The Dutch have modernized food shopping, take note world!
Day 2 - Rotterdam
First thing Wednesday morning, Joris drove Andrea and I to a Waterbus pick-up dock in Dordrecht. Our goal was to head down the Nieuwe Maas River to Rotterdam for the day. The water bus ride itself was very enjoyable, the best way to appreciate the massive infrastructure of water works the Dutch have constructed: dams, canals and ships all making a intricate liquid highway system. Sometimes they let sheep roam on the manufactured islands in the channels to keep the vegetation under control. I learned that Finnish people have a word for beer on the go, kassiolut. A freezing rain began to fall in Rotterdam as we crossed over the iconic Erasmusbrug, a suspension bridge built like a sundial. We visited the Netherlands Photomuseum to see an exhibit, "Europe, What Else?" featuring photos, past and present , from all over Europe. Very nice way to see the blend of old and new.
There is a really cool area in downtown Rotterdam we accidentally stumbled upon called Witte de Withstraat. This is hipster central! A complete hipster wonderland with pop-up boutiques selling industrial style lighting next to unusually decorated cafes with stuffed gorillas set as the entrance to youth hostels. Metaphysical thought was stimulated by the single word metal decorations hung from the brick buildings so they hovered over the center of the street. Yes, we eventually found our cafe and sipped on drinks prepared by a barista with a handle bar mustache, a long orange beard and arm sleeve tattoos. What more could you want in a barista?
When visiting Rotterdam, one must pay homage to the Markthal for yummy local and international food vendors in a very large space across from the Kijk Kubus (yellow cube houses, not practical for use of space but very cool looking). There, we guiltily enjoyed a late afternoon lunch of stroopwaffel and poffertjes with chocolate sauce. Also, when you have the chance for a Heineken in the Netherlands, take it. Heineken is Dutch, in case you didn't know.
Day 3 - Breda Centrum & Kinderdijk
Breda is not a very big place, but just the right size. Its downtown has a vibrant shopping district and beautiful, ancient churches. There's also plentiful street art adorning the tiny passageways off the main streets. Everything is so walkable and cars can't drive in the center of town (what a revolutionary concept!). Andrea and Joris showed me one of their favorite spots, next to the Grote Kerk Breda, called De Bruine Pij (the Brown Pie). After some drinks in the warm cafe, we strolled back to the car and I was introduced to some rare Dutch delicacies. Since Holland had colonized areas in Indonesia, (among other areas) elements south-east Asian cuisine fused with the Dutch frying pan. My stomach thanked me greatly for eating a cheese souffle and a Bamischijf, which is spicy noodles breaded and fried. You can unlock these greasy snacks from walls of glass compartments, putting money into a corresponding slot next to the junk food calling your name. There's something very satisfying about it. You haven't truly lived until you visit a FEBO, and you won't live long if you go there often.
With cheesy fried noodle goodness in our bellies, we took a drive to the iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk. Windmills! Walking along the water next to these windmills, some of which are as old as the United States, was a great outing. The stone structures are still home to some people even if they no longer serve their original purpose of pumping the water out of the lower lying areas in Holland to create more area for living and farming. There are modern water pumps for that now. Sounds pretty cool, but it's actually quite muddy! Also, when we were there it was freezing cold. The air and wind were so cold, in order to take pictures I had to unlock my phone's camera by swiping with the tip of my nose to avoid taking my hands out of my gloves. No, I don't have smart gloves that allow me to use my phone. I suggest you invest in those for a winter trip to avoid an unfortunate case of frostbite and smelling your phone unnecessarily.
Day 4 - Camp Vught & N.A.C. Football Match
Yes, Southern Holland is very scenic and quaint, filled with wooden shoes and tulips, but there are some darker moments in the region's past. I'm always one to seek out the variety of a place, the good and the bad. During World War II, the Nazis had set up concentration camps in the Netherlands. Having already been to a few holocaust museums, including the one in Berlin (a must see), I wanted to visit a concentration camp. Joris offered to take me to Camp Vught, a former S.S. operated concentration camp about forty minutes east of Breda by car.
As we arrived, a light, quiet snow fell in the parking lot. My mind could not help think of the tiny snow particles as a terrifying allusion to crematorium ashes as if it were a memory of the place reliving itself.
A mental institution, sort of prison, currently operates next to the Camp Vught museum. It was slightly ironic, in an uncomfortable way, that vans with armed guards shuttle prisoners to "Justice Institution Vught" through the very same parking lot where visitors make their way to the museum, memorializing a Nazi prison from decades before. Perhaps ironic is not deep enough of a word.
Seeing the camp itself was much different than any holocaust museum or memorial I've seen before. The place itself, the concrete, bricks and dirt hold a darkness. Everything felt stained. It is difficult to imagine what the remaining original structures, even the very ground had seen. I wonder if the trees old enough to have watched what happened here? The fact that there are still living survivors from the camp is proof that it wasn't all that long ago. Sometimes I think we like to push it further into our past than it really is. The barracks remind me of the slave cabins I once stood in at the Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana. Cramped and depressingly simple. Instead of a plantation swamp, sticky and humid, there is a frozen winter fog. My skin burns in the cold if exposed for too long so the snow to make prolonged contact. The camp's watch towers have been recreated, ghosts manifested beyond the icy water filled ditch. Two barbed wire fences stand between me, the ditch and the forest.
This is place is a reminder. A reminder of the capacity humans have for evil. Let us not forget this reminder of what we have done, what we are still capable of doing to each other, to our fellow human beings, when fear and hate take root inside us. We may be capable of doing great evil, but I also know we are capable of profound acts of love and kindness. I'll hold on to that.
Note: I believe it is important to acknowledge our collective mistakes as humanity, because if we forgot evil acts committed in our past, what is there to prevent similar evils from happening again? The capacity for good and evil is inside each of us. It is our choices and actions that determine whether we ourselves are good or bad. Currently, in the western parts of the world, there is a rising tide of conservative ideologies, increased nationalism with isolationism and a growing fear of the other. It isn't hard to see this global trend and it is important to guard against the possibility that fear and hatred will hijack the logical, more loving parts of ourselves. The alternative is too costly.
So, that might not been uplifting, but I feel it's important to share. For those of you deciding to not read on, don't leave now! There are more highs and lows to come in my time away from The Shire.
The next event in my grand adventure was to attend my first European football match (that's soccer for the North American readers). My host family and I biked across town in a snow storm! That was a magical bicycle trip I won't ever forget. I laughed the entire way! In Breda, they have a rambunctious football club called N.A.C. Also known as the Yellow Army or De Ratten (The Rats). Oh and NAC holds the record for the longest name for a football club in the world. Where the full name expands to Nooit opgeven altijd doorgaan, Aangenaam door vermaak en nuttig door ontspanning, Combinatie Breda. Meaning this: Never give up, always persevere, Pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation, and the C is for Combination. Pretty cool right?!
The match was a high scoring game where they ended up losing with two goals to their opponents' three (but that was with NAC scoring three goals that were discounted due to offside penalties!) The yellow army fans were out in force. Thousands wore yellow and black scarves and jerseys and chanted rallying cries. The whole stadium erupted in songs every few minutes and there were some moments when one side would call and respond to the other. Flags flew, insults were shouted, and beers were thrown (I'm glad I had a hood on my jacket). An experience I won't ever forget.
Leaving Breda was really hard to do. I felt so at home with Andrea and her family. The kids like Lego Star Wars as much as I did (still do) and dinner at the table each night felt so nurturing for someone constantly on the move. There were so many laughs, good food and the experiences in Breda were something very special. Thank you for everything!!!
As the train pulled away from Breda towards Amsterdam on Saturday afternoon, a very distinct shift was felt. I was no longer going to be staying with friends or family for a few weeks. I was off on my own into a solitude in the Venice of the North. A solitude I welcomed like an old friend I've been waiting to meet after many years. More on that next post.