Notes from the Dutch Road

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My wife and I have been traveling around the Netherlands the past ten days on a trip with our adult children and their consorts in honor of one of those milestone wedding anniversaries that come upon couples who still feel pretty young. But aren’t, really. In lieu of a formal post, then, a few jottings typed on a weird gizmo that the younger generation carries along on their globe-trotting.

1. Last week Jim Schaap told the story of West Kapelle, a town clustered in the lee of the dike on the tip of Walcheren, one of the tongues of land that constitute the province of Zeeland. Standing on the dike in person makes the story come alive. There’s a Sherman tank up there, left as a memorial. There’s an old landing craft down below in the parking lot. There are explanatory boards detailing the waves of British bombing that blew out the German defense works–and the dike itself. The attacks were repeated at two other sites on the Walcheren perimeter, leaving the entire countryside submerged with only the fringe of dunes above water as in paleolithic times. And there are all the homes and shops below, well below the place where you’re standing. Also the church–the ‘west chapel’ of this tongue of land–where the innocent perished in the manner that Jim described. Today, it’s a pretty town going about its business.

2. Ride your bike another ten kilometers up the coast and you come to Domburg, a century ago one of the elite summer resorts of Europe. A gargantuan resort hotel dominates the dune line, with bathhouses private and public to either side. Further along the esplanade, a graphic depicting Domburg’s past as an artists’ colony. Piet Mondrian painted here, on his way from being a standard Impressionist to becoming a premier Expressionist. The old pier pilings down below, stretching out straight into the sea he eventually transformed into the strong right-angular lines that dominate his mature style. But those with me unaccountably want to walk on and grab a bite toe at rather than have their husband/father wax eloquent on the point. My parting word is that next year we’ll mark the centennial of the outbreak of World War I that put an end to Domburg’s heyday. No surplus for vacations, no international travel possible. And for my companions, no escape from the historian traveling with them.

3. If you do travel in the Netherlands, use trains and bikes if at all possible. With our gang of eight, auto is the only feasible mode—and a stress inducer. Dutch drivers are, umm, assertive. Especially coming at you on narrow streets. Which suddenly become one-way—the other way. There is no such thing as an uncrowded Dutch expressway. There are, happily, few American-style drivers who just as soon pass on the right as on the left and regard lane-signalling as entirely optional. You want to move briskly and crisply, however, as befits the Dutch character itself.

4. The Netherlands is quite secularized and the old pillarization system of social segmentation according to religious conviction has significantly eroded. Except…. A journalistic dust-up over the medicalization of end-of-life issues brings out more than residual feelings on the point. Particularly for today, the summer solstice, which the old humanist pillar traditionally commandeered as their holiday. Frets one opinion-leader of this party, the humanists aren’t what they used to be—or ought to be. Time was when you could trust this company to be a like-minded cluster of rigorous atheists. Now they’re into every kind of spirituality under the sun (save, one might note, one of the monotheisms). Fundamentalists of any outlook seem to be in short supply in the Netherlands, so it’s nice to see that the Dutch have their own Richard Dawkins.

5. Rumor has it that some of the classic museums in Amsterdam are actually open again—the Rijks, the Van Gogh, and the Royal Palace. Seeing will be believing. After two days of high temps and sunshine, it’s cool and drizzly this morning. Good day to look at paintings. Maybe the weather will clear and tonight will bring another good evening to sit outside reading till 10:15. Happy solstice, everyone.

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