History Repeats Itself 19 september 2012

The best way to learn a language is the hard way. My Dutch vocabulary now includes the word zout. You do not put zout in the apple crumble that you are cooking for your hosts. For that you need suiker. When you use zout, you need to send a willing accomplice, like a husband, off on an electric bicycle to the Albert Heijn supermarket to buy more Granny Smith apples.

Geoff liked the electric bicycle. There are so many sorts of bicycle to be inspired by in Haarlem. On one of our walks, we stumbled across a wonderful collection of bikes parked outside a kindergarten—such a variety of contraptions designed to carry children.

Just one of the ways of carrying Dutch children by bicycle

We slept on the top floor of a typical Dutch house by a canal. It is the third time we have had the privilege of staying there while our friends Rosmarie and Rinze Marten went on holidays. But this time there was no Wolletje, the elderly cat, to care for. His presence is still felt, however, as his paw prints are preserved for all time in the lacquer he stepped on in the doorway to the dining room. They have echoes of the ‘footprints’ of Jesus we saw at the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem.

The paw prints of Wolletje of blessed memory

The first time we visited Haarlem, Geoff spent a good deal of his time in hospital recovering from a heart attack, rather then seeing other local sights. So this time, we made up for that. A highlight was a museum of a museum, the Teylers Museum, which was established in 1784. It was the first museum in the Netherlands and its amazing collection of scientific instruments are just about as fossilised as its dinosaur bones. This is Geoff’s idea of a real museum, none of that interactive stuff.

The second time we visited, I found a ‘birding pal'’ on the Internet who introduced us to the wading birds of the flooded flower fields. Peter and his wife, Berry, subsequently visited us in Canberra. We further deepened the friendship this time when we spent a long weekend with them in the north of the Netherlands. They live in a street simply called Mossell (mussel) in a lovely village called Middenmeer in a rural setting. It is not far from the Wieringerwerf dyke, which was bombed toward the end of World War 2. Following this disaster, the land was again reclaimed including the new lands around Middenmeer. We ate our dinner in their courtyard catching the last of summer and were reminded that we were sitting several metres below sea level.

As Peter drove us around, we paused by each reedy ditch in the hope of seeing the Black Stork reported in the area. To no avail! But as is the way with birding, Peter saw it the morning after we left. We did see dozens of other species over those few days, though, and eight more were added to my Europe list, six of them new to my life list.

Geoff, Peter and Berry watch an old mill in action

Not quite incidental to the bird sightings were the wonderful views of the Afsluitdijk, the engineering marvel that separates the North Sea from an artificial freshwater lake. We crossed the dyke to Friesland where the original Friesian cattle grazed. We also had a tooth-comb tour of a seventeenth-century windmill, fully restored and grinding flour. It was open monument day in The Netherlands, hence the free entry to this heritage marvel and also to two seventeenth-century alms houses in our neighbourhood in Haarlem.

Peter and Berry took us on the ferry for a day to Texel, an island off the north coast, which is a haven for birds as well as German and Dutch tourists. We followed the flight of a Little Tern over marshy lands, which are sometimes flooded, sometimes dry, reminiscent of Lake George near Canberra. For a small island, Texel is packed with history. We saw memorials to Georgian soldiers, sites where NZ and English pilots crashed a Beaufighter and the harbour where the ships of the Dutch East India Company set off for spices on the other side of the world.

Haarlem is now wonderfully familiar yet different each time we come. The Great-crested Grebes are still here carrying their young around on their backs, but the chemist where I bought bicarbonate of soda to make Anzac biscuits is no longer there. Haarlem is just a fifteen-minute train ride from Amsterdam but a world away. We did make an afternoon excursion there to visit our artist friend, Lilian, in her downtown studio and thoroughly enjoyed our tea and hot chocolate surrounded by all that wonderful creativity. But the quiet canals of Haarlem feel like a second home now whereas Amsterdam’s size and bustle is more anonymous, reminding us we are visitors in this land.

This dyke separates the North Sea on the left from the lake on the right

At 3 pm on Sunday afternoon we went to hear Rosmarie’s women’s choir, Malle Babbe, sing. This was a good way to celebrate that, at 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon some years ago, I was born. This year my age mirrors the year of my birth as well. The mathematically inclined among you can now work out my age. (Clue: it has the factors 7 for days of the week and 4 to compensate for leap years.) Anyway, in the middle of the concert, Geoff and I were called up on stage to join the choir while they sang a beautiful song of blessing in four-part harmony. ‘God grant you many years. Peace and prosperity, health and happiness, God grant you many years.’ What a gift! The icing on the cake was then to share an Indonesian meal followed by cinnamon ice-cream with Rosmarie and Geoff, and an evening concert of sacred music at the Grote Kerk of St Bavo, where Rinze Marten serves as a minister.

Rosmarie’s choir marked Chris’s birthday. Rosmarie is second from the right

Birthdays accumulate and history repeats itself. My mother was never allowed to live down that day, about fifty years ago, when she made her signature chocolate pudding with salt instead of sugar. As mother, as daughter.

PS. In the time it takes to examine a bar of chocolate, Geoff had his hand luggage stolen at Brussels railway station on Monday evening as we made our way from Haarlem to London. Of course this left a bitter taste in the mouth that tastes nothing like chocolate. Apart from the wallet, a gift from his father, little of sentimental value was lost and we have travel insurance to cover the laptop, camera and the like. We were served well by the Belgian police and Eurostar and arrived in London just two hours late.

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