The first opportuntiy I had to return to Holland came in 2003. The family had grown up and I had finally accrued enough points to take “Long Service Leave”. Up until this time I had a habit of quitting just short of the qualifying time. That says something about my stickability.
In February of 2003 the Lufthansa 737 banked over Schiphol and glued to the window I saw the flat water-crossed land for the first time in 49 years – and really – the first time in my life. As my nose was glued to the little oval window a wave of amazing emotion travelled through my whole body. I was coming home.
As my wife and I drove through Holland it seemed so familiar. It was a familiarity developed from family and parental stories. Most of this I had never seen and I certainly hadn’t remembered. But I had seen it through my parents’ stories. How real and vivid they were and how real they were now as I saw them.
Holland, more correctly, the Netherlands is like no other place. Not because it is spectacular or grand – it isn’t. Its very ordinariness; its everyday life, towns, cities, factories, offices, schools, homes, parks and gardens in which people live their everyday life is so different from my experience – and I imagine the experience of all people not Dutch.
The orange blinds on multi story housing blocks, the criss-crossing canals and sloots, the bikes, the flatness, the canal crossing the highway, the dijks holding back enormous rivers, while villages nestle in their shadow … and the bikes, the ubiquitous bikes with grannies and grandchildren all making their way resolutely, efficiently and without fuss.
Forty nine years is a long time and an enormous distance. I met members of my own family. We shared names and heritage but our experience of life separated us.
The one thing in which we had been well indoctrinated was not whether we supported Feyenoord or Ajax, but food. Dutch pancakes, appelstroop, speculaas, King Peppermints, Zoute drop, rookworst, stroopwafels, candy and chocolate hagel and … The tastebuds have a heritage that outlasted time and place.
As we drove into a Dutch village late on Christmas Eve in 2005 we heard the church bell ring and we saw people walking from every direction to the church in the centre of town.
Coming in from the wintry weather the church was warm – in welcome and temperature. Even though the Christmas Eve service was traditional there was still a sense of anticipation and excitement. For our whole family the experience was new and different. My cousin Piet who had the Stok musical gene that I missed out on was the music and choir director. That family connection made the experience more personal and little did we know then that was one of the few Christmases Piet had left.
A week earlier the four younger girls had flown in from Australia. For a few days we were involved in a lightning trip around the UK: London, Bath, Coventry, The Lake District, Greta Green, Lords and, of course, the Lego shop in Milton Keynes. Now it was time to visit relatives and see Holland – the place of their father’s and grandparents’ birth.