Monthly Archives: July 2011

THE WITCHES

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Glinda never asked Dorothy how much she weighed.

Twelve minutes from my home is a quaint, beautiful town called Oudewater (old water). Once I heard the history of this town, I knew I had to write about it.

In the medieval times, in the 16th  and 17th centuries, Oudewater was well known for being a major maker and trader in ropes. Hemp was grown in the surrounding areas, and this led to a very successful business for the town. Their ropes were purchased throughout Europe. The people of Oudewater were known as honest and fair traders.

In many countries, women were accused of being a witch if they used herbs for medicinal purposes, if they hunted for specific plants or if they had some home made remedy to make you feel better. Once someone was accused of being a witch, there was a trial (which was usually rigged) and when found guilty, they were burned or drowned.

But Oudewater had a reputation of being honest and so it became the place to go to prove your innocence. Once accused of being a witch, people made a beeline for Oudewater. The woman would be weighed in an official town building, that is now a museum, and they would get a certificate stating their innocence. The weighing was a public event, like a town fair, and I imagine it was the only time someone would want to be weighed with an audience. But why be weighed?

There was a belief that a witch had no soul and therefore weighed less than an ordinary person. So if they weighed over a certain amount, they could not possibly be a witch, because witches have to be able to fly on their broomsticks. If you weighed “too much” then the broom would not get off the ground. No one was ever found guilty in Oudewater of being a witch. In fact, the Dutch did not believe in witches and would not try anyone from the Netherlands. The accused were always from other countries.

Today, visitors will see witch images along the streets and you can even buy witch cookies. This story certainly brings in the tourists, but the town maintains its beauty and is not tacky in anyway. We had coffee in a café built in 1609. The town hall was built in 1588. And you can still admire the design detail on houses built 400 hundred years ago. The canal and river that got the ropes out of town to the rest of the world, are still there. Oudewater has a wonderful history where they proved the innocence of women who were considered a “little odd”. But we all are familiar with witches in films and literature. We have heard about Salem, Massachusetts. Here in this dinkie country, one small town was a safe haven for those who stood accused of making magic potions. And in this town it was proved, that you had to be extraordinarily small to fly on a broom.

The legacy of the Netherlands has always been tolerance for a variety of people and beliefs. I love finding out that the Dutch simply did not believe in witches and therefore no one could be accused of being a witch. If you wanted to skip off to the meadow and make tea out of tree bark and a fruity tooty plant, the Dutch would send you on your way with a smile on their face. The idea that the Dutch were known as brilliant rope makers and fair traders of rope, and so that made them the ideal judges of the life or death or an accused witch, is fascinating to me. And the fact that it was the practical Dutch who said you cannot fly on a broom if you weigh over this amount. I cannot give you a better example of how practical these people are.

Dorothy Gale was not a witch. She was a farm girl who got caught in a tornado and whose house eventually fell on a witch. Naturally, people assumed she must have special powers or plants, and that she must be a witch too, like the Munchkins did. All I can say is that it is a very good thing that Dorothy landed in Oz, and not Oudewater. She would have never met  Glinda or the Wicked Witch of the West. What if L. Frank Baum was Dutch and not American? We never would have had the books or movie The Wizard of Oz. If he had been Dutch, that witch would never have flown.

Here are two photographs of Oudewater today. The first one is of the canal that transported rope and the accused to and from the town. The second is the actual building where the public weighing of the accused witch took place. It is now a museum.

 

Recommended reading: Witch Child and Sorceress by Celia Rees

IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN

A few years ago (a little over 400 years) the Dutch embarked on a journey to America. They landed in what we know of as New York. There were new Dutch settlements and they put their stamp on this new land by naming areas after towns they left behind. Here are a few examples: Vlissingen became Flushing, Haarlem became Harlem and Breukelen became Brooklyn.

I recently went to Breukelen, a town just minutes from my home. It was a brief visit as we were on a mission to visit a specific shoe store. Once the shoes were purchased, we got out of town. But in that short visit, I noticed two things.

In the Netherlands you will rarely find billboards. In the United States, billboards decorate our towns and cities. It is hard to go one block without seeing a giant billboard. After being here a few days I noticed that the landscape was different from what I was used to. It took me awhile to figure out that I was seeing lots of grass, cows and homes. I was seeing many tall buildings, stores and people on bikes. Basically, my view was not blocked by billboards. There are outside signs here, but they are on street corners and only about 3 feet tall. But there is one exception concerning the Dutch billboards: there are very large signs announcing a new housing development. On the ground where the construction is happening, there are wooden billboards stating what is being built. Trust me when I tell you that houses are being built here. In this area alone, they are building 30,000 new homes for an estimated 80,000 new residents.

Okay, back to Breukelen. As we entered the town, I saw a large billboard stating the name of a new housing development and I then appreciated the New York/Netherlands connection. The name of the new development? Brooklyn Heights.

The second thing that stood out to me was the parking lot near the shoe store. It was a quite a good size lot, I would say about 150 spaces. Except for one row of spaces, you had to pay to park there. There was one parking space that not only was free, but was also only for hybrid cars. There was even an outlet so that you could charge your car while you shopped. Now I know that in some forward thinking American cities they already have this parking feature. And I know it is becoming more common in Europe to find this service. But it was the first time I had seen one and it was in Breukelen/Brooklyn! The Dutch recognize the need to build parking spaces for bicycles and they have done an impressive job of that. In Amsterdam I saw a multi story parking garage just for bicycles. Hopefully I will see many more of these parking spaces in the future. Less billboards and more greenery…it is a good thing.

Recommended reading:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

WAR AND REMEMBRANCE

Names in cold stone and white marble. A pool of water that is filled with lily pads. Grass  that looks like the richest velvet. And trees that stand guard and branches that make the only sound we hear.

This is the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten. I didn’t know about this place until I had moved here and it became one of the places that I wanted to visit right away.

There are 8,301 American soldiers (from WWII) buried here. You will see a sea of white marble crosses and stars of David, all engraved with the soldier’s name. On either side of the reflecting pool there are large stone walls with the names of 1,722 soldiers missing in action. It is 65.5 acres of remembrance and natural beauty.

I don’t think many Americans know about this memorial, I know I certainly didn’t. And I am also assuming that not many Americans know about World War II and the Netherlands…how Americans, Canadians and the English liberated this country from five years of occupation.

In fact, the Americans liberated Margraten in September, 1944. In November of that year, a battlefield cemetery was created on this very site. The Dutch government gave the land for a permanent burial ground for Americans, without charge or taxation. In 1960, it was officially dedicated as the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

As I walked the grounds and read the names on the crosses and stars of David, I saw a few graves had flowers on them. But only a few. At the wall of soldiers missing in action, there were two bunches of flowers. I can only assume that family members had been here. It struck me how difficult it must be to not be able to visit your child’s grave or to know that his/her name is on a marker or a wall in the Netherlands and there is a good chance that you will never see it in person. It is painful enough to lose a loved one, but to not be able to be at their resting place, must make it even more painful. But as quiet as this cemetery is, it does have many visitors from all over the world. Visitors take their time here, as we did. You do not honor these soldiers by rushing through this place. It was important to me to read the names, to see what state they were from and when they died. Some died on the day that the Netherlands was liberated (May 5, 1945) or soon after. As we walked along we read the names out loud. This may sound silly, but I felt that if no family member has ever visited these graves, it was important that someone say their name out loud. But some graves had no name at all, just the words “Known but to God”.

I told the children that it is a tradition in the Jewish faith to put a stone on a grave as a way of remembrance. I thought it was done only on the Jewish graves, but I now understand that the stones can be put on crosses as well. Anyway, I said that it was too bad that the grounds were so well tended as I did not see any stones or rocks. The children took on the task of finding stones and they were very successful. They would go up to a star of David, lay the stone on top, say the soldier’s name, and then say “rest in peace”. The children did this about 20 times. To watch two children hunt for stones, lovingly place them on the marble and to
hear them speak in hushed and respectful voices, it was another highlight of an already overwhelming day.

After we walked past the rows of graves, there were some steps leading to a huge flag pole. As you look up you see this glorious American flag flying across the blue Dutch sky and nothing more needs to be said. It is so still and quiet, the only sounds are the branches and  leaves in the breeze. The simplicity of this place is very moving.

For me, an American living in the Netherlands, this visit meant the world to me. It was the combination of my two worlds and I was proud of both. It was also another reminder of how cruel war is and how many parents, siblings, wives and relatives lost their golden boy or girl.

Here are some photographs of our visit.  It was certainly a day to remember, and I am happy to share it with you.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME by Jean Thompson

Writers dream of rave reviews. They imagine strangers writing wonderful things about their work. They also wish for an audience and they can only get that IF the critics love their work. And positive word of mouth goes a very long way.

I would guess that Jean Thompson is pretty happy with the reception her novel has received. She got reviews that writers can only fantasize about. And as a reader, I am happy to say that the praise is well deserved. I read this book because the advance “buzz” on this book was so strong, I just had to get this book into my hands.

THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME spans three decades (1973-2003) of one Iowa family. The novel gives us many points of views of members of the family and so we get a great sense of each character. Thompson’s strength as a writer is taking her time to give us well developed characters. This book really is about the peeling of a glorious middle American onion.

What were the dreams of teenagers in the early 70’s? And how were they realized 30 years later? There are many personal journeys as people leave home and Iowa and then there are those who stay rooted to what is familiar. Thompson asks us what is home and what makes us feel safe and secure.

This novel reminds us that nothing is black and white, especially with family dynamics. Simply put, Thompson has given us a story to enjoy and admire. Enjoy.

NETWORK

My friends have been curious about Dutch television. I think some believe that we have little wooden shoes dancing at the bottom of the screen and there are hourly updates on the making of cheese. Or at midnight we have a live feed of a windmill turning for 7 hours. Nothing could be further from the truth. You cannot escape American culture if you wanted to.

The great news is that in the Netherlands nothing is dubbed on TV and in film, except shows for young children. Other than that, all shows have Dutch subtitles. That means that we can enjoy a film or movie with the actual actors talking. You can watch THE GOOD WIFE, GLEE or CSI as if you were in America, and you would have Dutch words at the bottom of the screen. As an example, to show you how wonderful the Netherlands is, all American shows and movies on German TV is dubbed. I could only take seconds of seeing Tom Hanks talk in another voice.

There are numerous American shows on television, and they usually air a few weeks after the American airing. There are also many reruns, like the rerun king, LAW AND ORDER.  In the day time they also play American commercials that I had thought I had left behind. Those exciting infomercials that sell you wonder bras, paint brushes, exercise machines and grills. The Dutch import American  shows as it is cheaper than producing the shows in the Netherlands. In fact, there are not that many original Dutch shows on TV. There are only a few Dutch dramas and a few comedies. From what I can see, there is one Dutch soap opera that airs at night and no daytime dramas. For those wanting those dramas, there are American soaps. The big thing that Dutch television produces are competition shows for singing and dancing and a few game shows. There are many Dutch documentaries and reality based shows too (like home building). And there is the news. The Dutch love the news. Not only do they watch the news, they love sitting around a table and talking about the news. For a dinkie country, they have a lot of news. To be fair, the coverage is very global. The Dutch do a great job of giving us in depth stories from other countries.

Sports is very big in this country, there is even a 24 hour channel for sports. There is also a 24 hour channel dedicated to classical music, religion (with lots of American preachers), and opera. Yes, in my basic cable package, we have 24 hours of opera. There are many children’s programs and those are almost all imported. I am profoundly grateful for the two BBC channels as they have wonderful programs and I get to hear the English language with no words under their chins.

Late night TV is pretty interesting. I recently discovered this when I was sick and having trouble sleeping and was hoping to find something to either entertain me or put me to sleep. I found many stations that offered phone sex. And all of the “sales” personnel were topless and talking right to the camera or pretending to be on the phone. It was not so much shocking, but just sad and disgusting. I couldn’t wait to find CNN, BBC or Turner Classic Movies. At that point, I would have watched an infomercial on a thigh reducing torture device.

For someone who has still not grasped the Dutch language, it is a challenge to watch some Dutch shows. On the other hand, I am picking up on familiar words and that has been helpful. For such a small country (17 million people), there are many dialects and accents. Someone from Amsterdam sounds very different than someone from Rotterdam. The Dutch can hear it right away and can figure out what part of the country they are from.  But for me, it sounds like some people have bigger hair balls than others. Imagine putting four Americans in one room: one from Texas, Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois. They all sound very different and that is the same here too. So when I watch the Dutch news or a reality show, I can hear how different the Dutch speak. I have no idea where they are from, but I now know that the Dutch don’t all sound the same. And I would not have known that if it weren’t for television.

All in all, moving away from America could have been a lot worse. But my transition has been made easier because of television.  And if I cannot find something on the TV, then I can turn to the Internet. The good news is that American television is alive and well in the Netherlands.

HOLES

When I was young, I loved buying school supplies. I loved getting pens, pencils, packets of three holed paper (wide rule only), three holed notebooks, and three ringed binders. Maybe it was the nerd in me, but I loved getting all of these things as I got ready for another school year.

The other day I was staring at something in the house that I just could not make sense of. I had seen this object for months but I never really thought about what it was, but when I finally saw it being used, I knew I had to ask. It looked like a hole punch, where you line the paper inside and then push down to make three holes. But this looked really weird because it was small and so I asked “what is the purpose of this thing? What do you do with two holes in a piece of paper?” I was given the famous Dutch look: this  American has truly lost her mind look. “We put the paper in our binders, like this.” I then got a demonstration of paper being put into a binder, very slowly and carefully, like I was an alien that had never seen the miraculous world of binders.

I asked why they needed two holed papers when they had three holed paper. And that is when I found out that there are no three holed papers in the Netherlands, and maybe not in all of Europe. There are no three ringed binders. How was this possible? How could countries have different rules for papers, binders and hole punchers? I continue to be amazed at how naïve I am. I found out that Canada, United States, Philippines and parts of Mexico use the three holed papers and in Europe it is either two or four holed paper and binders.

Everything that I believed in had been shattered. My world of school and work supplies had been altered by one little dorky looking two hole punch. Two holes?!! Who knew that countries had different standard sizes for paper and envelopes? I have been learning the metric system (very badly, I might add) and have tried to grasp the difference in cooking temperatures. I have been working on not saying dollars anymore and thinking only of euros. But now I have to accept two holed paper? I think that the European Union is asking an awful lot from me, and I think I will be taking my own sweet time in accepting this aberration.

Before I left America I had packed some new notebooks and so I can now gaze lovingly at the last of the three holed papers in all of the Netherlands. There may be stores (winkels) who sell these papers in this country, but it will likely be in the “weird American section” of the store. I imagine aisles and aisles of two holed papers and notebooks with little Dutch children gathering their school supplies. And I will be wandering the store looking for a dusty little corner where you whisper your request and you get a three holed punch and a notebook. The items will be placed in a discreet bag and I will leave the store by a side entrance that is exclusively used by Americans. As I walk out the door, a man walks by me and gives me a questioning look. And with a nod, I reassure him that I have not wiped out the three holed inventory of the Netherlands. I may be a dork, I may be a little greedy with my supplies, but I am at least fair. I know the heartbreak of two holed paper, and I can feel his pain. I am considering starting a support group.

Recommended school reading:

Fiction Class by Susan Breen

Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz