Holland’s Day of Remembrance – May 4

Crowds honoring WWII and other Dutch dead in Dam Square, Amsterdam. Source: http://www.rnw.nl/.

Since 1945 the Dutch have held a national day of remembrance honoring those civilians and military who died during WWII, and all wars or peace-keeping missions thereafter. At 8:00 p.m. on May 4 all over the country a two-minute period of absolute silence is observed. Cars, buses, bicycles, trains and trams stop where they are. People come quietly together in public squares, waiting for the traditional bugle call for silence. People still making their way home stop on the sidewalks, doff their hats and bow their heads to acknowledge those who died in defense of freedom and liberty.

The commemoration is solemn and sobering, intended so every citizen, no matter how young or aged, whether recent citizen or WWII survivor, will never forget that freedom can be costly to win – and to hold onto – and to silently thank as well as remember those who died. There are no firecrackers, no block parties and barbecues, no brash brass bands; the festivities will come the next day when Dutch across the country will celebrate liberation on May 5, 1945 from Nazi occupation.

By far, the largest May 4 public commemoration takes place in Amsterdam at the National Memorial on the Dam, the main square of Amsterdam, in front of the Royal Palace, and the nearby Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Members of the royal family and various dignitaries lead the crowds and nation in the tributes. However every city and village plans its own version of Remembrance Day, all activity stops for those long two minutes at 8 p.m. for silent commemoration.

For me, one of the most touching features of the Day of Remembrance is not just how the Dutch still honor and remember their own dead. They also honor and swear never to forget how so many non-Dutch fought and died in order to liberate Holland from Nazi occupation — the thousands of British, Canadian, American and Polish soldiers who also gave their lives in World War II.


The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margratan, southeast Netherlands. The cemetery is the only one in the Netherlands for Americans who died during the months of military operations leading to the May,1945 liberation. Over 8,000 American soldiers are buried here; an additional 1.723 are listed as missing in action and whose remains were never found.

Source: http://www.awon.org/memorials/netherlands/

This lesson in history and appreciation of freedom was brought home to me soon after our arrival in the Netherlands, three years ago. We met by chance at a medical conference a young (mid-30s) physician from Maastricht, in southeastern Holland. Upon hearing we were Americans, he asked if we knew about the U.S. WWII cemetery in Margratan, just outside of Maastricht. We did not, much to our subsequent embarrassment. He told us how thousands of Dutch have “adopted” a dead U.S. or Canadian soldier, as the majority of the liberating forces in southern Holland were either Canadian or American. As part of the remembrances observances, the people go every May 4 – if not more often – to tend “their” soldier’s graveside, to lay flowers, and to just remember why that man is buried there. He said he takes his young children, then about 5-7 years old, every year to honor “their soldier,” because “I never want them to forget.”

Yesterday was our first Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. We had been invited to dinner by our next door neighbors, John and Leduine. As we rang their bell, I noticed John had the Dutch flag at half mast, so we asked what is their form of observance of the two minutes of silence.

“Why, of course, we observe the two minutes of silence,” said John. “We will start our first course of dinner, then about 7:40 I will turn on the television, and we will watch the ceremonies in the Dam Square in Amsterdam. The King and Queen will come out of the Royal Palace just before 8 p.m. to lay the first wreath, and then the whole country goes silent.”

And, so we did. Thousands of people crowded into Dam Square, with trails of observers standing in the many side streets leading to the square and the national monument. Comprising these hundreds of thousands were multi-generational Dutch families, WWII veterans, former Resistance members, Jewish Holocaust survivors, recent immigrants, military representatives from around the world — yet hardly a person spoke, and those who did, whispered. It was truly amazing to see how quiet thousands of people could be.

Right before 8 King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima walked solemnly from the palace to the monument, and laid an immense wreath for all the Dutch war dead. Still without saying a word, they stepped back and waited for the bugle’s call for silence, followed by eight peals of the church bells exactly at 8 p.m. The ensuing silence was moving as well as astonishing. Not a sound, nor whisper, hardly a clearing of throats. I couldn’t imagine having so many people in one place in the U.S. staying silent and respectful as the Dam crowd did.

It was truly a moment that brought home how powerful silence can be, not just in rendering respect for those who died, but bringing together those alive and present in acknowledging those people’s sacrifices, and most importantly, standing as one, a disparate crowd of people — with all their differences — finding unity and purpose in giving silent thanks.


The Liberty Statue, also known as the liberation Monument, stands outside the Dom (cathedral) of Utrecht.  On Sunday, May 4 ceremonies were held here in front of the cathedral, much like the one on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, just smaller. Many wreaths of remembrance were laid here at the foot of the statue.

The Liberty Statue, also known as the Resistance Monument, stands outside the Dom (cathedral) of Utrecht. On Sunday, May 4 ceremonies were held here in front of the cathedral, much like the one on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, just smaller. Many wreaths of remembrance were laid here at the foot of the statue.


Footnote: Today, May 5, is Liberation Day when the Dutch celebrate the surrender of the occupying Nazi Army and the liberation of the Netherlands. For a look at some interesting historical photos of Utrecht, see the blog of another American resident of Utrecht on this topic go here.


Canal-Biking in Utrecht

The Oudegracht

The Oudegracht

Michael and I have been trying to engage in some fun activities besides teaching, blogging, and simply “hanging” with friends, all of which are great fun, mind you. Recently we rented kayaks and paddled up a river away from the city. Unfortunately, I didn’t take my camera as I didn’t want to risk it suddenly taking a swim if I dropped it.

One recent, sunny day, we decided to rent a “canal bike,” or paddle boat. Two years ago we had taken a rather pleasant tourist boat tour through Utrecht’s canals, but the motorized boat went too fast to take all the detail pictures I wanted. So, on another sunny day, we rented a “canal bike” and off we paddled.

One aspect of living in a land riddled with water — canals, rivers, irrigation ditches, dikes — there are an awful lot of bridges, large and small, you cross over. What is interesting living in an old city like Utrecht is passing under the bridges and seeing their unique aspects. One of my favorites is “The Smiths’ Bridge,” or “Smee Brug,” as seen below. Even after centuries, you can see the sculpted relief of a blacksmith hammering on his forge. Most of the old bridges received their names because of what activity took place in the environs. There used to be a number of smiths living in the area.

The Smiths' Bridge

The Smiths’ Bridge

This is one of several bridges spanning the Oudegracht, or “Old Canal,” which runs through the center of the old city. In the northern sections the Oudegracht dates to 1000 C.E., and were connected to the old bed of the Rhine River; the “younger” sections date to about 1122. Along the waterways of the canal and rivers were a system of locks and sluices, still used today, to help control flooding and maintain a constant water level.

Old wharfs and doors leading to storerooms, many now converted into cozy homes or restaurants.

Old wharfs and doors leading to storerooms, many now converted into
cozy homes or restaurants.

The old city of Utrecht was once encircled by a moat-like artificial waterway called the Singel. Parts of it were filled in and covered over, but there are plans afoot to dig out and reopen the old Singel’s to its original path.


The Singel, wider than the major canals, served as a moat around the old city.

So, if the Singel is like a water belt around the inner city of Utrecht, the Oudergracht runs, more or less, on a north-south direction down the middle, bisecting the Singel. A “new canal,” The Nieuvwegracht,” runs roughly parallel to the old canal to the east. It’s called the “new” canal as it was constructed in the late 1300s. It’s also been called by many people one of the prettiest canals in all of the Netherlands.

By turning north under this bridge, you enter the Nieuvwegracht.

By turning north under this bridge, you enter the Nieuvwegracht.

On this paddle up the canal, we spotted an elderly man fishing. I knew who he was immediately because of the heron perched on his bow. I’d been told that this heron lives on the man’s boat, even when it’s moored in the Singel, and stays with him when he fishes, because the man will give him some of the fish he catches. I’d seen the boat, empty, with the heron perched on it, and, true to what I’d been told, here was the heron, accompanying the fisherman in the boat.

In Utrecht, a fisherman's best friend is a heron.

In Utrecht, a fisherman’s best friend is a heron.


Our good friends Corinne and Martin, and Fred and Petra, all live on a lovely stretch of the Nieuvwegracht. When we first came to the Netherlands in 2011, we stayed several days in a hotel apartment right next to Corinne and Martin, which is how we came to be friends. We stayed there again this year for a week, waiting for our “permanent” apartment to be available.

Many pleasant hours have been spent in front of Corinne and Martin's wharf house (with the open black doors). We stayed in the apartment to the right with the white bench in front of it.

Many pleasant hours have been spent in front of Corinne and Martin’s wharf house (with the open black doors). We stayed in the apartment to the right with the white bench in front of it.

Corinne, Ferdinand, Michael and Martin.

Corinne, Ferdinand, Michael and Martin.

One of the prettiest parts of the Nieuvwegracht is where it narrows considerably and begins to twist and turn through the old neighborhoods of Utrecht. Here the houses are much closer to the water, many flush against the canal walls, or there is only one small street alongside the canal.

Turning into the narrows of the Nieuvwegracht.

Turning into the narrows of the Nieuvwegracht.


This section is called “Kromme Nieuvwegracht,” or “Crooked New Canal.” Most of the bridges here have been rebuilt several times over the centuries, while a few from the1500sstill remain.



The Plompe Toren, or Squat Tower.

The Plompe Toren, or Squat Tower.

This plaque in stone relief marks where the “Squat Tower” once stood. It was once part of the outer defense works of the old city. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1832 to make way for the growing city.

The old drainage system.

The old drainage system.

As you can see from the pipes jutting from both sides of the canal, these pipes were part of a drainage system funneling wastes and excess ground water into the canals. Fortunately, the canals have cleaned up considerably.

The Nieuvwegracht connects at its north end to the water-ring, the Singel, and then a left hand turn a couple hundred meters later put your canal-bike back on the Oudegracht (Old Canal).

Stately 19th century homes line the north end of the Singel.

Stately 19th century homes line the north end of the Singel.

Paddling south on the Oudegracht, passing the center of the city where hundreds gather on wharf restaurants to enjoy the ambiance.

Paddling south on the Oudegracht, passing the center of the city where hundreds gather on wharf restaurants to enjoy the ambiance.

We’ve spent many an evening dining along this stretch of the Oudergracht, which meanders through the heart of the old city.

And, back to the rental kiosk and the end of our canal-bike tour.  Dooie!

In the heart of old Utrecht. The Dom Tower is in the background.

In the heart of old Utrecht. The Dom Tower is in the background.

The Windmills of Kinderdijk


Probably the most iconic Dutch symbol is the traditional windmill, or windmolen.  As one travels about the Netherlands, there’s usually one, possibly two, windmills scattered in the landscape, isolated in the fields, but seldom are the great sails moving, as many are no longer operational. Sadly, there are only about a thousand or so windmolen left in the entire country.  One source claims there about 1,150 windmills remaining, although the Dutch will only “count” a windmill if it is fully operational.  Thus, to see several majestic windmills, sails rotating in the wind, such as these above at Kinderdijk, is a sight to warm a tourist’s campy heart.

The Kinderdijk is a small town situated on a piece of land jutting out among the polders and at the confluence of the Lek and Noord, about 7 miles east of Rotterdam in South Holland province.  For those of you up on your Dutch, the name means (literally translated), “Children Dike” – more on the reason for this catchy moniker later.  This water-sodden stretch of fields and marshes  lying amidst the canals, dikes and rivers is called polders, or low-lying stretches of land (often below sea level), that are kept more or less usable by continual draining and controlling the amount of water entering the area. The polders themselves are of three types: marshes, reclaimed land (from both sea and river deltas) used for crops or grazing, and flood plains. The use of windmills to pump out excess groundwater, dikes, sluices, lockes and canals has been part of Dutch culture – and survival – for centuries. The nineteen remaining windmills of the Kinderdijk are actually still working windmills, although now modern technology does the lion’s share of pumping out water and land reclamation throughout the  modern Netherlands. However, for centuries, the windmills played an important role in pumping from the polders into the canals overloads of ground water, flood waters, and in area nearest the North Sea, high tide water.

The polders, marshes and fields both, lying among the canals large and small, and their containing dikes.

The polders, marshes and fields both, lying among the canals large and small, and their containing dikes.

The Dutch are famous for their centuries-long battle with the sea. There is a reason behind the adage: God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.  I’ve heard estimates that as much as half of modern-day Netherlands was once below sea-level and has since been reclaimed, although most on-line sources seem to think the actual amount is somewhere between 25-30%.  However, a great deal of the “land” in Netherlands remains below sea-level, about 27%, kept dry and protected by a system of pumps sluices, canals and the thousands of dikes that contain and channel the water away from the workable, livable land.

This is, of course, a rather simplistic explanation of an intricate system and tug-of-war with the sea that the country has waged for hundreds of years. So far, the Netherlands seems to be winning, as it keeps adding reclaimed land bit by bit over the centuries. In 1986 a whole brand new, 12th province was proclaimed, Flevoland, from what had once been an inland sea. (More on this in a later blog.)

But back to the Kinderdijk. Yes, it’s a tourist attraction, these 19 windmills, sails a-turning, lining the canals, pumping out their share of groundwater. Yet as touristy as they are, the Kinderdijk is also a recreational area, drawing many hikers and bikers to the miles of paths topping the hundreds of dikes in this great polder.

Hiking and biking along the dikes between the canals and polders.

Hiking and biking along the dikes between the canals and polders.

Being ultimate tourists, we opted for a half-hour canal boat ride in order to gawk and snap pictures at a closer range. Accompanied by Michael’s brother David and his wife Joyce, who’ve been visiting us from Wisconsin, we all hopped on the next boat and cast off.

David & Joyce Rolnick

David & Joyce Rolnick

Michael and me.

Michael and me.

A few things I noticed immediately as we drew closer to the windmills was their shape – octagonal – whereas they’d seemed a roundish cone shape from a distance; that the majority of the sails (the four long arms that turn in the wind) didn’t have “sail cloth” in them; and, that the mills were thatched.



All the windmills here dated from about 1740. This one has partial sails unfurled on its sails.

Another windmill with two sails unfurled. Notice the house and arbor next to it. Several of the windmills have people living in and/or next to them.

Another windmill with two sails unfurled. Notice the house and arbor next to it. Several of the windmills have people living in and/or next to them.

What I found out, in brief, is the following:

  • The traditional Dutch windmill is a “smock mill,” a later variation of mill that has developed over the years from “tower” mills, to “post” and “hollow-post” mills. Essentially, they’re upright vertical structures with the sails attached near the top face of the mill.
  • The “smock” mill is so-named because it usually has an octagonal structure, usually made of a wooden frame and “smocked” or covered with thatching, boards, canvas, or other materials.
  • The “sails” are actually the framework for the arms of the windmill that turn in the wind and generate power – in this case, to pump water out of the fields. Other functions of windmills have been to turn millstones to grind grain, to operate saws, etc.
  • All the Dutch windmills sails have cloth material or wooden slats that can be spread open or shut, depending on the strength of the wind as well as how much power is needed from the wind on a given day. This particular day was quite windy so most of the sails didn’t have their cloth or wooden slats spread out. Only a couple of windmills had the sails partly spread on them.
  • Spreading the cloth or slats still means you have to stop the mill, and manually spread the cloth or unfold the slats. However, I believe now a hydraulic ladder is used, somewhat like a “cherry picker,” to hoist the mill operator up to reach the higher portions of the sails. I spied one folded up next to a mill, but didn’t get a good picture.

As I said, a shortened edition of history.

I also found out that many of these mills are occupied. Michael asked the boatman, who said that it was possible to rent the windmills. Looking at  mills and at their detached houses showed an interesting mix of 18th and 21st centuries. And pictures always speak a thousand words:

A man tending a grape arbor and garden at his house, next to a windmill.

A man tending a grape arbor and garden at his house, next to a windmill.

This windmill owner or renter had goats in a walk-in shed structure.

This windmill owner or renter had goats in a walk-in shed structure.

This mill, older than the others, had been renovated in 1984.

This mill, older than the others, had been renovated in 1984.

Anyone spot the anachronistic intrusion  in this "typical" Dutch portrait? (Yup, that's a satellite dish mounted on the apex of the house's roof!)

Anyone spot the anachronistic intrusion in this “typical” Dutch portrait? (Yup, that’s a satellite dish mounted on the apex of the house’s roof!)

One last photo: "romantic landscape."

One last photo: “romantic landscape.” Actually, what Michael is saying is, “Carol, we have GOT to live in one of these windmills!” and I’m saying, “And YOU have GOT to be kidding!”

Couldn’t resist adding a bit of Dutch nationalism as a final picture.


Utrecht is Open for Business (and Merriment)

What's a [arty without cheese?

What’s a party without cheese?

Sundays in Utrecht used to be rather quiet. Except for the “Koopzondag” (sale Sunday) when many stores would open just the first Sunday of each month, most shops — even grocery stores — closed down Sunday and half of Mondays. Most apoteks (pharmacies) closed on Saturday as well, although usually they would take turns staying open on the the weekends in case of medicinal emergencies. Then, last year, local businesses began a direct advertising campaign to allow the shops to stay open. I woke one Sunday to find every single bicycle seat in our area had been adorned with a gratis water-proof seat cover — with a message:

A plea for stores to stay open on Sundays in downtown Utrecht.

Loosely translated: “Utrecht wants to be open on Sundays.”

And so it now Utrecht is open for business on Sundays. Well, maybe not all the shops are open on every Sunday.  But I have noticed several shops around town have signs posted or painted in their windows, announcing their Sunday availability:



So the streets of Utrecht are bustling nearly every day.

This  window is advertising gifts, Father's Day, and that it's open Sundays (lower right).

This window is advertising gifts, Father’s Day, and that it’s open Sundays (lower right).

And, of course, Utrecht has always gotten around the Dutch version of “blue laws” by having many weekend  events. It comes down to any excuse to have a party, and what better way to make money then having a party along with stoking your cash drawer?

This past weekend was a cultural weekend, I was told, so there were crowds, music venues and street fairs all over the binnestad, or inner city. The “main street” just steps from our front door was closed off and most of the local shopkeepers and other entrpreneurs had stalls displaying their wares.

Twijnstraat, just a few steps from our front door, is a major commercial leg in the historic part of Utrecht. For the fair, stalls lined the street with wares from both local businessmen and other entrepreneurs.

Twijnstraat, just a few steps from our front door, is a major commercial leg in the historic part of Utrecht. For the fair, stalls lined the street with wares from both local businessmen and other entrepreneurs.

Strawberries are in season and are delicious!

Strawberries are in season and are delicious.

Sausages for sale.

Sausages for sale.

The sign says "Fish and chips," but I saw no frites. Kind of an interesting way to consume fish -- whole -- scales, eyes and all.

The sign says “Fish and chips,” but I saw no frites. Kind of an interesting way to consume fish — whole and smoked, not fried — scales, eyes and all.

Who knew there were so many flavors of live oil?

Who knew there were so many flavors of live oil?

Sausage and meats.

Sausage and meats.

Jams and jellies for brood (bread) toppings. I've never seen people eat so much bread, not even the French.

Jams and jellies for brood (bread) toppings. I’ve never seen people eat so much bread, not even the French.

Dutch women wear tights a LOT, under tees, tunics and even dresses. Considering how much biking they do -- and how cold it can be on a bike in winter -- it's no wonder tights are popular.

Dutch women wear tights a LOT, under tees, tunics and even dresses. Considering how much biking they do — and how cold it can be on a bike in winter — it’s no wonder tights are popular.

Colorful displays are a norm in Utrecht markets and shopping areas.

Colorful displays are a norm in Utrecht markets and shopping areas.

Not sure I get the fashion sense with these ankle boots, but chaqu'un, son gout.

Not sure I get the fashion sense with these ankle boots, but chaqu’un, son gout.

Stroopwaffels are a national delicacy. They are round, flat, thin waffle-like cookies but both crisp and chewy. They are loaded with butter, sugar and cinammon and are totally addictive.

Stroopwaffels are a national delicacy. They are round, flat, thin waffle-like cookies but both crisp and chewy. They are loaded with butter, sugar and cinnamon and are totally addictive.

Michael is thinking of retiring. Part of his dilemma is, "What's next?" Corinne and I persuaded him to pose with a calliope busker, to demonstrate  his next possible job. These guys stand on the busiest streets, blaring there music (alas, no monkeys wearing bell-cap hats!), shaking brass dishes and "encouraging" passers-by to drop coins into them. Michael looks a natural, no?

Michael is thinking of retiring. Part of his dilemma is, “What’s next?” Corinne and I persuaded him to pose with a calliope busker, to demonstrate his next possible job. These guys stand on the busiest streets, blaring their music (alas, no monkeys wearing bell-cap hats!), shaking brass dishes and “encouraging” passers-by to drop coins into them. Michael looks a natural, no?

And, of course, when you’re tired of people-watching and food-sampling, there’s always a nearby cafe where you can indulge in whatever suits your fancy.

Michael and Corinne outside the "Beer Church," aka Cafe Olivier. (See the 2011 blog)

Michael and Corinne outside the “Beer Church,” aka Cafe Olivier. (See the 2011 blog)


Royals and Flowers in Utrecht

Brushing Shoulders with Dutch Royalty

As Americans, we generally are unimpressed by the concept of royalty and the fanfare that accompanies persons of hereditary stature. But I will confess it was a remarkable occurrence to find myself standing in a crowd, waiting for the King and Queen of the Netherlands to pass by. Michael had returned from work to find me with Corinne, drinking coffee (a very Dutch pastime) and said, excitement reverberating from every democratic gene: “Don’t you know the King and Queen are coming? They’re supposed to pass by just a block from here.”

Caffeinated as we were to the gills, Corinne and I decided to see for ourselves if Michael was hallucinating or whether we were hallucinating Michael. Nope, he was right.  The Dutch version of the Secret Service and the Utrecht police had blocked off about 2 blocks square of vehicular traffic to allow the newly-enthroned royal couple to pass among their subjects in their first “official” visit to Utrecht.  However, the hoi polloi (including us) were allowed to line the streets along which Willem-Alexander and Maxima would stroll, winding their way from one official ceremony to the next royal happening in Utrecht.

Queen Maxima

Queen Maxima

After experiencing almost military-style scanners and shake-downs at presidential inaugurations in recent years, I was quite surprised that here the common people were allowed so close to the king and queen. In fact, both royals walked the sides of the streets, smiling broadly, greeting people, shaking outstretched hands. The king repeatedly thanked people for coming. The queen bee-lined to the smallest children, but I didn’t see any babies being crowd-surfed for royal smackeroos.

King Willem Alexander

King Willem Alexander, as seen from behind, waving to his subjects

It was actually pretty remarkable, as I was about a meter from the king, and I’ve never been within a mile of any of our presidents. Unfortunately, the close-up shot Corinne took of the king was ruined by some guy sticking his bald head in front of the camera. (No, it was not Michael.)

Why the big fuss over this king and queen? Willem-Alexander is the first king of the Netherlands since 1890, his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother having ruled quite nicely as his predecessors for over a century. However – and also in the tradition of her own mother – (former) Queen Beatrix abdicated on April 30, officially to allow a new generation to take over the titular reins.

For years, Willem-Alexander has tried to outgrow his nickname as “Prins Pils,” the moniker he acquired as a hard-partying, beer-swilling, not-so-serious student at the University of Leiden. It is not an image he was fond of, apparently. Since then, he’s cleaned up his jet-set, party-boy image, and developed expertise (I use this loosely) in water management and infrastructure (whatever that means).

His marriage to Argentinian beauty Maxima in 2002 was highly controversial, as her father had been the Agricultural Minister there during that country’s internal “Dirty War” of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  However, Maxima apparently has won over all those stolid, resistant Dutch hearts in the intervening years, first by learning Dutch, then participating in many charity events. One of her most recent publicity stunts occurred this past September, when she donned wetsuit and goggles to swim in Amsterdam’s canals for a charity  fund-raiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Event organizers claimed the canal water was the cleanest it had been in years, but I’m not sure I would have swum 2 meters, much less 2 kilometers in that water as Maxima did. What would be worse, the canal in its natural state or after its chemical “treatment” in preparation of the royal bather? I’ll bet she headed right for the Royal Aesthetician for a facial and body scrub after that swill – I mean, “swim.”


Photo credit: hellomagazine.com

The Flora Hof of Utrecht

I was strolling through central Utrecht the other day and spied a beautiful courtyard next to the Dom, the landmark cathedral tower which symbolizes Utrecht. On previous passes, the heavy iron gates had been closed, preventing even a glimpse of what was inside. Apparently, this beautiful little courtyard, or hof, in Dutch, is a small segment of quite a large nursery and gardens that have been here for a couple hundred years. This lovely little courtyard has been restored and is now opened to the public.


Flora Hof

On the interior walls of the courtyard, however, are stone reliefs which are quite violent and in conflict with the peacefulness of the flowery oasis. Various reliefs depict a child being dismembered, a bishop’s hand being devoured, and a person about to be bludgeoned with a truncheon. I couldn’t find much information on line about these stone sculptures. Sketchy sources said they depicted scenes from the life of St. Martin, the patron saint of Utrecht, or of St. Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht.  And while St. Willibrord had been in northern Netherlands, as well as Utrecht, I couldn’t find any specific tales that correlated with these stone reliefs, although he and his merry band of disciples did have some violent run-ins with local pagans.

Child Mutilation

Child Mutilation


Nonetheless, the little courtyard serves as a pleasant oasis and place to sit for a bit of respite outside the bustle of one of Utrecht’s busiest byways.

Another angle of the flower courtyard with the Dom toren looming in the background.

Another angle of the flower courtyard with the Dom toren looming in the background.

And, in final sign-off, a view of the Dom as it towers over the Oudegracht, or “Old Canal.”


A Yankee By Any Other Name

Part 1 – Where did “Yankee” come from?

“Yankee” – a global word that tags a person irrevocably as being from the United States. We’ve heard it used with wry affection, in derision, with condemnation, and with pride.  Most Americans – especially those below the Mason-Dixon line – use it to refer to those U.S. citizens from the Northern States, particularly the Northeast. To non-Americans “Yankee” is synonymous with “American.”

But where did the word come from?

In truth, the etymology of “Yankee” is unclear, although there are several theories as to how the word entered the American-English language. Almost all of the leading theorists, however, agree that the word came from some form of Anglicization of colonial 17th century Dutch.

If you read my earlier blog (“Why New Yorkers Don’t Speak Dutch”, https://ourdistantsojourns.wordpress.com/) you’ve read my highly abbreviated history of the Dutch colonists in New Netherland (northeast to upper mid-Atlantic North America), and how, despite their short stay in Colonial America, indelibly influenced American values and persona, especially in the NY-lower New England region. What’s so interesting to me is how much of Dutch words you can find, still, in the New York area, and in the origins of “Yankee,” the personification of an American.

So here is a summary of possible etymology of “Yankee”:

(1)   Two popular Dutch names in Colonial times were “Jan” (pronounced “yawn”) and “Kees.” A few linguists argue that since often both names were paired together, somewhat like our “Billy Joe,” or “Mary Ellen,” or “Tommy Lee,” that “Jan Kees” came, over time, to refer to Dutch colonials themselves, or the English who settled in the Dutch colonies in the New Netherland.

(2)   Another set of etymologists (yes, people really do study this stuff!) believe that Yankee came from the Dutch “Janneke” which means, literally, “Little John” or “Johnny” (the suffix –eke is a diminutive in Dutch). Again, this term may originally have been used in referring to Dutch colonials, but later came to include English-speakers living in Dutch areas as well.

(3)   A third camp, which includes noted writer H.L. Mencken, believe the word “Yankee” developed from a derogatory term that Europeans and the English-speaking New world settlers used to refer to the Dutch: “Jan Kaas,” or, “John Cheese,” emphasizing  the strong association between Dutch and cheese. This camp argues that semi-derogatory names such as “Jan Kaas” have been similarly used for other nationalities, such as “John Bull” for English, or “Uncle Sam” for Americans, I mean, Yanks. And, with this particular epitaph “Yawn Kahs,”over time,  became “Yankees.”

Personally, I tend to favor this last theory, because you know what it means, don’t you? It means the Yankees are really Cheeseheads! Now wouldn’t that be something…seeing all those Yankee (baseball) fans decked out in yellow foam cheesehead hats like Wisconsinites!

Part 2 – Dutch Lives on in New York

The capital of New Netherland in North America was, of course, New Amsterdam. Then, as now, Manhattan was the center of trade and commerce to the known world. Although a fairly pluralistic society, despite being controlled by the Dutch West India Company, the Dutch influence decidedly dominated the area, and still can be seen today in everyday words, the city seal, area flags, and, yes, even a major New York sports team.

Take a tour around former New York City and even Long Island, and you can discern Dutch in many of the place names.  Amsterdam Avenue – that’s an obvious one. Brooklyn was once Breuklen, named after a small, riverside town close to me now in Utrecht. Harlem was named for Haarlem, a town west of Amsterdam. Flatbush was Vlackbos, Flushing was Flissing, Hempstead was Heemsteede. Part of The Bronx was once the farm of Jonas Bronck.

Yonkers has an interesting derivation. An early Dutch settler called Van der Donck acquired a huge tract of land – 24,000 acres — north and east of Manhattan. He worked the land, and built a sawmill that became so crucial to the local economy that eventually a road, and later a modern highway, were named after the sawmill – today’s Sawmill River Parkway.  In 17th century Dutch a young gentleman of property and wealth was called a Jonker or Yonkheer. Hence, the land soon was referred to as “the Jonker’s land,” then Anglicized to Yonkers.

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Former Dutch flag 

Part 3 – Waving the Flag

While most of America might be a tad ignorant of our early Dutch influences, New Yorkers have not been lax. In 1915, the City of New York adopted as its official colors for the city and its flag the orange, blue and white of the Dutch colonial flag. The major difference is the city’s flag colors are vertically arranged, whereas the Dutch flag bears horizontal bars of the three colors. Additionally, the city seal bears two symbols that honor their Dutch heritage: the sails of a windmill, signifying the early, prosperous milling industry, and, the beaver, which was the mainstay of early trade and wealth as well as the symbol of the West India Company. The beaver is also the official animal of New York State.

At one time the NYC seal and flag bore the date 1664, the year the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch, but in the mid-1970s, the city reconsidered its historical origins and  changed the date on the flag to 1625, the year that New Amsterdam was founded, and the true “birth” of what is now New York City.

New York City official flag

Bronx County has gone two steps closer to its Dutch origins. The county flag bears both the colors and horizontal bars of the former Dutch flag, and the center of the seal on the flag is the Dutch Bronck family arms:


Bronx County Flag

And now for what all have been waiting for: How on earth does a major NYC sports team honor the city’s Dutch heritage?

Since you asked:

And ever wonder why the New York Knicks official colors for years were blue, white and orange? I think you can put it together by now…  But just in case you all are slow on the uptake: according to the official NBA site, the original Knicks in 1946 chose the official colors of New York City as their own. And “knickerbocker” from which the Knicks derive their name also has Dutch roots in colonial New Netherland. “Knickerbocker” was a term used to refer to the Dutch settlers because of the shortened or rolled up pants they wore. Washington Irving immortalized the name both in literature and vernacular with his tongue-in-cheek histories of New York, and thus the epitaph became synonymous not just with New Yorkers of Dutch descent, but all New Yorkers. (For more on this read http://www.nba.com/knicks/history/whatsaknickerbocker.html)

So, from flags to place names to basketball to early political values and pluralism, you can clearly see just how much the Dutch influenced America. Now, who wants to convince about 2 million people that they should change their city’s name back to New Amsterdam?

Quaint, once-impregnable, Naarden

Looking from the old arsenal towards the Groote Kerk (Great Church) of Naarden. The former arsenal building to the right is now home to one of the trendiest restaurants in the region.

The weather in Holland has been simply terrible — cold and rainy — for most of the four weeks we’ve been here, so with some break in the forecast predicted for this past Saturday, we set our compass to a couple of small towns I’d been wanting to see.  Our good friend Corinne went with us – in fact she insisted we take her car instead of renting one – so come mid-day Saturday, off we three went.

First we drove to nearby Naarden, a small town north of Utrecht and east of Amsterdam, and a delightful throw-back in time.  One of the many star fort-cities of late medieval Europe, it is beautifully preserved and maintained.  (Explanation and history of the star fort to follow.)  Colorful flowers abound in planters and window boxes, and the town-within-the-fort is well maintained.  St. Vitus Church, locally known as “the Great Church,” dominates the town center, although, like most Dutch churches, it is no longer used for religious purposes.

St. Vitus Church, locally known as “the Great Church,” or Groote Kerk.

The main street in Naarden, leading from the Utrecht Gate in the south to the arsenal at the northern end.

More bright flowers. The building in right center is a nice example of the stepped gables of Dutch architecture in the first half of the 17th century.

One of the canals going through the star fort town of Naarden.

Today, Naarden is mostly a bedroom community in the southeastern suburban reaches of Amsterdam in the province of North Holland.  Because of its picturesque charm and well-maintained historic buildings and fortifications, several locales in the town are sought after wedding venues, such as the historic town hall, the renovated arsenal, and even in the old cathedral.

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Naarden Town Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Council Chambers within the town hall

One of the arsenal buildings used for weddings, as it was on the day we were in Naarden.

The Utrecht Gate, now pedestrian-only.

Now for some history….A simplified and brief history of the star fort

The star forts or trace italienne, was a form of city fortifications developed in the mid-15th century as cannons and other gunpowder-based weaponry began to dominate warfare.  The round towers and vertical, flat walls of earlier fortifications had proven impractical in the age of gunpowder:  cannon balls fired directly against the flat walls could inflict great damage.  Moreover, the round towers of these earlier fortresses and castles had dead zones, where defenders could not see invaders amassing at the foot of the towers:

By contrast, the points and angled walls of the star forts solved these sighting problems: in the star fort, defenders arming cannons placed along the sides and ends of the star points could better see large stretches of the adjoining walls and the area below the points, thus more effectively provide fire coverage.  The star forts usually sat atop glacis, high earthen embankments angling down to broad, deep moats, making it far more difficult for attackers to get close enough to breach or scale the walls.  In later designs, many star forts had overlapping star formations to cover larger areas; building an outer perimeter of steeply banked glacis, all equipped with cannons, added to the fortifications.

Once ingenious war mongers developed more explosive shells and mortars, however, the effectiveness of the star fortifications was greatly diminished, and their construction largely abandoned by the early to mid-19th century.  For an example of an old star fort in the U.S., there’s Fort McHenry in Baltimore, of Star Spangled Banner fame.  Below are some examples of both simple and more complex star fort plans, as well as an aerial photo of Naarden, all courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ideal fortified city: 1663 plan of Neuhäusel, Upper Hungary (Nové Zámky, Slovakia), drawn c. 1680

17th century map of the city of Palmanova, Italy, an example of a Venetian star fort


Bourtange fortification, restored to its 1750 condition, Groningen, Netherlands

Aerial view of Naarden

After an hour or two of delightful meandering, the three of us finally tore ourselves away and headed to the equally old town of Muiden, a few kilometers west, where I wanted to see the Muiderslot, or castle.  Unfortunately, once there, we had only 40 minutes to see the castle before it closed at 5, and at €12,50 a person (with no senior discount!), it didn’t seem worth the heavy entrance fee.  So we did what everyone else does on a pleasant Dutch afternoon:  retired to a café along the canal, sip beers, and watch the boats go by.  I did manage to take a few pictures, which I will end with below.

Muidersot, or Muiden Castle

Swinging bridge opening to let a sailboat come through the lock.

Not quite done yet….

Okay, I wasn’t quite finished.  In search of the highway on our way out of Muiden, I spied an unusual sight for here in Holland.  I made Michael turn and go back, because he and Corinne thought the (one) beer had gone to my head.  But, I wasn’t hallucinating on hops, and here’s the proof:

Who’d have thunk you’d see camels grazing in Holland?!

Small Towns, Large Vistas

Thatched cottage in Giethoorn, the “Venice of the Netherlands”

Michael and I have now been back in the Netherlands a month and, of course, enjoying it very much — despite another colder-than-usual and rainy summer.  In between teaching and seeing friends, we’ve tried to go on a few side trips.  Most of these have been one-day side trips out of Utrecht, to Amsterdam, Leiden, den Bosch and Giethoorn, the subject of this blog.

A student had mentioned this water-bound village to Michael, and a subsequent Google search brought up only a little information.  Nevertheless, I figured out the train and bus routes and off we went.

Giethoorn is a quaint, lovely village in north-central Netherlands known as “the Venice of the North” or “the Venice of the Netherlands.”  Second to Amsterdam, which is a dozen times larger, Giethoorn has more canals (about 4 miles) than any other locale in Holland.  In fact, the “avenues” of the town are all canals, and the “streets” bicycle paths.  In fact, the bicycle paths are a recent addition.  The preferred way of getting about town is on foot, hoofing it over the more than 50 small wooden bridges, or by “punters” or, more recently, small boats powered by quiet electric motors.

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One of the thatched houses of Giethoorn. Notice the two punters to the right. They are flattish-bottomed boats propelled by one person standing in the rear, using a long oar to push off the shallow bottoms of the canals — much like the gondoliers of Venice. 

Giethoorn was established in 1230 by people from the “Mediterranean region.”  (Note:  I did try and find out more specifically what part of the Mediterranean but have been stymied thus far.)  Apparently the landscape was littered with wild goats’ horns, so the fledgling town was name Geytenhorn, or horn of goats.  Later this was shortened to Geythorn and then adapted to Giethoorn.  The shallow lakes surrounding the town were formed by the harvesting of peat from the naturally-forming peat bogs in the area.  Reeds from the marshes were also plentiful, hence the abundance of thatched roofs in the village.  There are about 2600+ year-round residents today in the village, but a thriving, contained vacationers’ area has sprouted up between the town proper and the lake:

Small, cheaply built, rectangular wooden vacation houses such as this were being advertised for sale for 150,000 Euros.

Punters on the lake outside of Giethoorn

Panoramic lake view. There are many such shallow lakes in the area.


It seemed several thatched cottages included art studios, as this one.

Most of the above pictures were taken from a “tour boat,” one of about three dozen that clog the waterways of Giethoorn.  It wasn’t the most informative tour ever taken, and I think next time we’ll venture out on our own.  In addition to the tour boats, vendors are hawking “whisper” boats, electric-motored little dinghies for people who wish to tour on their own.  While I didn’t notice any bike rentals, I’m sure there is at least one in this tourist-oriented town.  However, one can rent bikes at the train station in Steenwijk, the station closest to Giethoorn.

Getting to Giethoorn wasn’t difficult, and we ended up having a lovely time chatting with a gregarious bus driver. From the station you can take Bus #70 or rent a bike for the (approximately) 7m/10 km round trip to Giethoorn and back. As it was, we took the bus, and this friendly bus driver not only made sure we got off at the correct stop, he told us when he’d next be by, and he made sure we were delivered to the train on time.  I love the Dutch!

So, I will close what has probably been my shortest blog ever.  Stay tuned for additional posts on smaller venues in Holland!


By Your Seat Advertising in Holland

Living in another country for a period of time enables one to settle back and observe the many differences in cultures, yours and theirs, theirs and others.  Many cultural differences are readily apparent, others tend to take some time to sink in.  Certainly, the bike culture of the Netherlands is ubiquitous.  Whether in Amsterdam, Utrecht or a small hamlet, even the most unobservant dolt connects to fact that everyone in the Netherlands bikes everywhere.  On the streets, one can barely doge the bikes or negotiate crossing a roadway because everyone, it seems, is mounted on two wheels.  The Dutch even have parking lots and garages (some multi-story) for biking commuters.

A multi-story bicycle garage at the central train station in Amsterdam.

To commute by bike 20-30 miles a day is nothing.   I know people in the States who complain about a daily 30 mile commute by car.  Sure, in Holland, there are the bicycle traffic jams on the morning commute.  Yes, the bicycle parking garages in the bigger cities can be overcrowded.  Yes, people will often steal bikes.  People seem to accept the inevitable bike commute hassles and accept with resignation the thefts.  And, of course, there is usually a lot less invested in a $90 “granny bike” than an automobile.

A typical “granny bike.”

But does anyone truly think the car culture (with its traffic jams, overcrowded garages and carjackings) is superior?  Didn’t think so.

Thus, in a bicycle-dominated society, advertising by bike seat should not have come as a surprise, although truthfully, I didn’t pay too much attention to how people decorated their bicycle seats.  (Even though I wrote a whole blog on the Dutch proclivity for decorating their bikes in the most wonderful manner.)  This summer, however, I walked out of my apartment one Sunday morning to see every parked bicycle in sight (just a few hundred) blanketed with this seat cover:

A plea for stores to stay open on Sundays in downtown Utrecht.

This  bicycle equivalent of handbill dashboard advertising was an effort to mobilize grass roots support for stores to stay open on Sundays, something most do not think is necessary.  “Well, duh, I thought,” looking around with eyes freshly opened.  “This certainly makes sense.”  So I started walking around taking pictures of bicycle seat covers.  Mind you, this engendered some weird looks, but in the best photojournalistic tradition, I bravely ignored the stares.  Of course, I was somewhat used to the looks after I photographed every cleverly-decked bike in sight last summer.  (If interested in the resulting blog of that endeavor, see https://ourdistantsojourns.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/pimp-my-bike-dutch-style/)

First, some history. (Of course!  Do you expect, gentle readers, anything less from me?)

The Netherlands is a pretty rainy country.  Also, it is an “ecologically correct” country.  Among other practices, one is expected to bring one’s own bags to the grocery store, and, if you forget to bag a bag or fall victim to impulse shopping, you usually have to pay anywhere from 50 cents to over $1 for a plastic bag in which to carry your wares.  Thus, between the weather and the green thing, the Dutch usually have a spare plastic bag on hand.  Many, very practically, use their spare bags to cover their bicycle seats and keep their tushes from getting wet during or after a sudden sprinkle.  Thus, the practicality of advertising by bicycle seat:  useful, makes a point, and saves a plastic bag – which could be used to carry home whatever your new seat cover is advertising.

A typical and practical seat cover – a re-used plastic shopping bag.

So, here I’ll stop and just display a few of the covers I photographed.  Some are self-explanatory or you’ll be able to figure out, others I’ll attempt to translate if I can figure out the Dutch!

An Artist of Unique Vision

Too often artists of tremendous talent and beauty are not recognized in their lifetimes.  I’d like to help change that for at least one artist. 

In this blog I’d like to introduce my faithful readers and friends to a Dutch artist of unique vision and broad talent, and who just happens to be someone who has become a close friend.  Corinne van Bergen sculpts in glass, wire, bronze, elastic and combinations thereof.  She also is darn good with paint and pencil, but it’s her sculpting that caught my attention and admiration.

The work pictured above, Solo Swimmer, part of a series of glass sculptures she has completed, and in my opinion, is the best thus far.  The methods by which Corinne sculpted the swimmer makes him appear as if he were flying through the water.  In fact, upon first seeing Solo Swimmer, I blurted, “That looks like Superman’s Flight!” — referring not to the superhero but to a memorable drift scuba dive that resembled the thrill of uninhibited flight through the water.  

How Corinne crafts the glass sculptures is a painstaking, remarkably unique process.  She conceives and sketeches out the image she wants to portray, then draws each bodily segment on a sheet of plastic, which, ultimately, guides her as she carves each pane of glass.  As each etched glass piece is pressed to the next, they collectively begin to form the body Corinne’s envisioned.  Or at least this is my simplistic understanding of what she does. 

Think of a CT head scan where each “slice” of the brain reveals an intricate pattern of whorls, squiggles, and noodly shapes (sorry, I got fired as Artistic Editor on the school newspaper!).  When all the CT slices are put together, they would form a picture of the head, brain casing and inner brains, etc, included.  (Sorry again, non-marine science wasn’t my strong suit either!)  The point is:  each “slice” or piece of glass is intricately carved to be part of the whole sculpture, and performed in a medium which is fairly common — glass — but when completed, presents a piece of art which is as unique in concept and execution as it is in beauty.

Corinne’s other work as an “expressive artist” is similarly intriguing.  Her use of commonplace items such as metal-coated string, wire, or even elastic bands, produces small sculptures which are indeed as expressive as many anatomical drawings. Many of the wire figures she has used in story-telling tableaus or “sculpture plays” (my definitions) in exhibitions, while others are expressive as solo pieces.  As of this summer she has started an interesting series of cast bronze scuptures of little “B’Angels” which in Dutch loosely translates to “mischevous” or “naughty” angels that nevertheless posses a smidgen of vulnerability.  The first shows a young angel full of piss and vinegar perched on a spool.  Peek behind her and you see her clutching the thread to the spool for dear life. 

You can see photos of Corinne’s sculptures on her website:  http://www.corinnevanbergen.nl. The website is bilingual; just look for the combination U.S./U.K. flag in the upper left and the page will translate into English.  I’m sure all of you will be as fascinated by Corinne’s work as Michael and I were.

To construct her wire figures, Corinne begins twisting and turning the wire in her fingers, and eventually what emerges is a figure:  man or woman, dog, ear, or — my favorite — a little whale:

I am particularly fond of this piece as Corinne made this especially for me as a combination 60th birthday and farewell present.  We had become close friends during our sojourn in the Netherlands and this was such a touching and individualistically “Corinne” way of expressing  to me great friendship and caring.  Indeed, Michael and I had become good friends with both Corinne and her husband, Martin, spending many an evening over wine, Dutch kaas (cheese), and dinner, including our last night in Holland.

In a previous blog I enthused about three other Dutch artists whose work I admire greatly:  Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Escher.  Their styles and indeed epochs varied widely, but they had one thing in common, besides being Dutch:  they were all deceased.  It’s a shame so many artists only achieve fame once they’ve passed on to the Great Artists’ Haven in the Sky.  Let’s try to get Corinne van Bergen some deserved attention and praise now rather than later.  Her singular talent and work deserve it.

Corinne & Yanna, her cat