Dutch wind hits your face like the blowback from a NASA rocket sled. Your cheeks balloon out around your sudden rabbit teeth, your eyes squint shut, your hair plasters back. And this on a bike ride to the nearby post office to mail a letter. I’ve never understood how hairdressers stay in business over there. There is no hairspray that can survive that tempest. But they soldier on. Mrs. Petrie’s third grade classroom didn’t prepare me for this. I remember the first time I considered Holland.
“Class, consider Holland.”
We were being taught The World from one of those 1960s grade school social studies textbooks whose mission is a sort of broad boiling down of our complicated planet to its easily ingested elements. All the countries were in there, the important ones anyway, with their pyramids and rice paddy peasants, alpine lederhosen folk, striped gondoliers, Eiffel towers, Big Bens, cowboys, and the Taj Mahal. All the loud, glossy picture pages were in the middle of the book, as grotesquely garish as the color-soaked post-surgical food photos restaurants still tape to their windows like a warning. I can see myself sitting at my little desk with the pencil-holding groove at the top of the grade, I’m turning the row of shiny pages and absorbing the world as even the grown-ups knew it, as even the handsome Missiles of October brothers knew it then: famous landmarks and a Manichean map and astronauts, hammers, sickles, and so on. All the pertinent third grade countries contained in those ink-scented pages, a whole complicated world to absorb. Lucky for us they were coded and easily separable. France; yeah, the Eiffel Tower, looking to my mostly empty pinhead like a giant tv antenna. Venice, and you gotta go everywhere in this skinny boat. No sidewalks? No thanks. What’s this? Holland. Or is it The Netherlands? Which is it? Make up your minds, people. On the heavily colorized page a series of big wooden windmills receded into a snowy distance. Apple-cheeked, almond-eyed little boys in MC Hammer pants and girls wearing napkins on their heads skated joyously on a frozen canal, their non-skating compatriots standing around in crazy looking shoes that, if I didn’t know better, might be made of wood. The girls wore superfluous white aprons, some of them shouldering a long pole from which hung milk pails at either end. A pleasantly insane Other World. No depiction of wind, though. Clearly the tourism office thugs had shown up at the artist’s apartment and made some strong-arm requests. Any reader with half a brain would wonder at the presence of so many enormous windmills, though. Surely a tickling breeze occasionally stirs these things?
So, there is a lovely little town on the Dutch Channel Coast whose unlikely name is Monster. My Juud was born there, 2 blocks away from the town windmill, and my in-laws live there still. Hallo Riekie, Karin, Sil, Kim, Lisa, Arnoud, Irene, Loes, Jasper Marcel, Leah, Liam, Hannah, Naus, Erlinde, en Mark. The town’s central intersection is a block a way from a wide and lovely beach that stares out at the frequently white-capped North Sea, and that intersection is where the windmill is planted, a wondrous old thing (1882) whose massive vanes are freed to turn two Saturdays a month. It’s quite a sight and sound when that happens. The bustling town square is towered over by a massive, curiously mothering church tower straight out of Thomas Hardy, the sort of stately tower that terrifies in rain but heartens and assures in sunlight. The cobbled streets of the town wend cozily between gabled brownstone homes of such cluttered character one is warmed despite the often howling, rain-soaked winds. There is a neighborhood in Monster called Big Ghost (Grote Geest) where alongside a small pond a weed-choked, nearly invisible crypt holds a secret; a story for later. This is a village with a lot going on, an entire world.
I lived there for a little while in the ‘wake me up before you go-go’ eighties, fell in love there, married into Monster. I’ve eaten her stroopwafels and frikandel speciaal, smoked her hand-rolled zware shag till dizzy, vomited in a stupor on her lovely brickwork, and with a crazy little vibrating wand coaxed her ripening tomato plants to pollinate under peaked steaming greenhouse glass.
In my time there I ‘mastered’ the language, but not its damning nuances. Once after a particularly storm-buffeted bike ride home from work (a daily nightmare), I was sufficiently enraged by the weather and soaked in sweat that I burst into my mother-in-law’s kitchen, threw down my backpack and yelled “I’m angry and I’m horny!” She wiped her hands on her apron and said nothing. On another occasion, in attempting to offer a demure glass of wine to an elderly dignified lady who was visiting, I said something like “Ma’am, would you like to get smashed?” I soon learned the word zuipen doesn’t mean ‘to have a drink’ as I’d thought; it means to get ripped to the gills. This elderly lady registered some mild surprise at my offer and declined. My mother-in-law took this in from several feet away and again said nothing, but her eyebrows betrayed a suppressed jollity.
We have a small print on our living room wall we bought on the wonderful Denneweg in the Hague, a map of Monster in French, dated 1272. There are lots of stories, from the 5000 year-old Drenthe monoliths called the Hunebedden, to the sometimes hysterical results of Napolean’s insistence on a new personal naming convention when he conquered the place and had to count heads; and from Naaldwijk’s Lost Age rock club De Wip and Annemiek’s expert bartending there, to de Ouwe Droog where Geert offered me something that sent me to hell for about 5 hours. Holland is much more than the adorable doll-house country one is sold in the travel brochures. She is more often one of those trick gift boxes with a coiled toy snake inside that jumps out and stuns the shit out of you. It’s all good. I’ll share. Nederland is zeker een vreemd en gezellig landje. Ik heb een paar verhalen…