After two weeks in the land of the Dutch, one can’t help but evaluate and compare cultural distinctions. It’s inevitable.
An added consideration is that both Michelle and I have this ancestral blood teeming through our veins as our parents emigrated from this land.
The question is do we recognize anything of ourselves here?
Just below the surface, unspoken, I think I’ve been expecting, hoping, searching for a moment. It’s like I’m thinking that I’ll suddenly come across a long lost cousin, maybe someone exactly like me or like my grandfather. Surely I’m drinking the water my father drank as a boy, breathing the air my mother breathed as a girl.
Looking for romantic ghosts? Did I just see one out-of-the-corner of my eye?
Our family maneuvered the journeys to the towns of Delft, Kinderdijk and Gouda this week. I use the word “maneuvered” quite intentionally because we did it on well-worn bikes. Cycling in the areas around Rotterdam is rather perilous for the beginner – for the intermediate. The bike trails here are awesome but crowded, and you’ve got to know the rules of the game.
We merely pretend to know the rules of the game and navigating between traffic, trucks and cars, scooters and motorbikes not to mention other bikes is treacherous for us.
Michelle and I not only have to think for ourselves (challenging at the best of times) but for our three kids on their ill-fitting cranky two-wheelers. Our voices were raw at the end of the day from yelling frantic instructions and cautions. Highly stressful.
More than once, more than seven times actually, traffickers reprimanded us. Did I just write “reprimanded”? How very kind of me! Perhaps not knowing the vast array of colourful Dutch expressions was an advantage this week.
Rachel, for example, inexplicably turned in front of a moving vehicle in the village of Moordrecht, which had the surprised motorist slamming on his brakes, stopping a foot shy of our paralyzed 12-year-old. It was heart-breaking to see her crying from sheer panic and shame. The motorist had a look on his face like he had just bitten into a grapefruit having expected a banana.
However difficult it was for us to maneuver, I want to emphasis the art in which this city is designed for motorists, pedestrians and bikers . . . and how the three manage to coexist at break-neck speeds without fanfare.
How did this happen and how does everyone “simply know’?
I remember attending an Inglewood Community Association meeting some years back in which members complained bitterly about the busy traffic on the river trail. Every 90 seconds a bike would whip along the path! Outrageous!
In Rotterdam, every 10 seconds sees a scooter, a jogger, a misguided soccer ball and two cyclers navigating the same small space without a thought in the world.
Who are these people?
And . . . no one wears helmets!!! Not required.
“How many accidents happen here?” I ask.
“I don’t think I’m aware of any . . .” is the casual answer.
What the heck!? Who are these people!?
Anyway . . . it took us some two hours to get to Kinderdijk, a unique town with some 19 gigantic windmills. To get there we must have passed over 100 bridges and rode beside as many neatly manicured canals and low-lying polders. Hundreds, all strict and uniform. And we saw but a glimpse! After two short ferry rides, the windmills were like finding gold at the end of a long rainbow. Massive constructions!
They were assembled around 1740 as part of a larger water management system and now are symbols of Dutch grit and innovation. The mills are lined up in two opposite rows, separated (naturally) by a complicated series of canals and ditches. (The area was rewarded with an UNESCO recognition in 1997.) Every summer all 19 mills are cranked up to go and thousands stand in awe.
Yesterday our family stood in cold wind, wondering how we’d get back to Rotterdam in one piece.
The Dutch have been swishing with the water for over 1,000 years. It’s part of their cultural legacy. How do these things happen? How do people agree to be ‘this’ or to be ‘that’ over a 1,000-year period? How do people consent to these distinctions from one culture to another? Who decides?
In Holland, for example, folks appreciate the variety in transport . . . their trains and trams, underground subways, buses, scooters and bikes are a natural part of life. The Canadian mode of transport is limited primarily to one mode. The almighty automobile! (I sure miss mine by the way. I can hardly wait to get home and honk at some unsuspecting cyclist! Honk, that is, in salute!)
Housing as well has evolved differently than in our Canadian experience. Here, the homes/apartments I’ve seen are rather cramped, and so folks tend to spend their time in communal areas. The pubs, restaurants in Rotterdam are crowded, as are the libraries, markets, public places in general. I think people go home grudgingly, to sleep primarily. People aren’t as isolated as they might be in Calgary.
I’m not sure what came first. Did people desire community and so build small homes . . . or did small homes force folks into public spaces? Again, who decided?
And where does any one person fit into the cultural mosaic? What if you don’t fit?
I’m not sure how I feel in this country, as a Canadian Dutchman . . .
Am I a cross-section of my new roots in Canada and the hardened fixations in the old world? Why this deja vu whenever some Dutch child shouts something caustic in the school yard? Why do I understand without knowing the words?
Is there something familiar about being on an old black bike, passing a 200-year-old brick house, crossing an arching bridge, over dozens of canals, a dyke in the distance, the ocean brewing behind that? Is it my imagination that conjures up memories that surely don’t exist!?
I’m wondering how this culture ‘perceives’ God. I look for him in the all the various tasks the Rotterdam church undertakes. I look for him in the faces of the people. My perception is that God has turned fairly stiff and orderly here. Perhaps he has always been a little more rigid and formal than I’ve known. I don’t recognize him as readily here . . . or have I concocted a self-serving image in my new land across the pond, one my ancestral heritage would frown upon?
Michelle and I continue to struggle with our role in this church . . . I feel like a Polar Bear come to dwell with a colony of Grizzly Bears with the Grizzlies asking me to speak correctly into their context. We’re all bears . . . but our seasons don’t feel the same. The climate is different here . . . and we need to adjust to the wind and rain. Perhaps, in the end, we simply need to figure out a way to enjoy the newfangled scenery, a couple steps back.