I’m off to Aruba this week (see my header, the palm trees beckon), but come along with me on a story I wrote in 2001 about a trip we made to the Netherlands. I’ve been noticing on my WordPress stats page lately that I’ve had a steady flow of readers from there (welcome!), and I’m happy to relate this wonderful experience.
Ever since I got my braces four months ago, I eat oatmeal for breakfast. Oatmeal is soft, soothing—a comfort food for my metal-scraped screaming mouth.
On the Netherlands canal boat tour last week, however, there was no oatmeal. The U-shaped breakfast bar began with a stainless steel deep tray of tightly knotted scrambled eggs wedged in glistening inlets of brown grease. In the next tray, greasy overcooked bacon strips and four-inch round sausages lined up as if on a barge to Rotterdam, the major seaport of the Netherlands. Following these hot trays, baskets held piles of rye, wheat, and currant bread. At the head of the U, platters held thinly sliced ham, dried beef, salami, and pale yellow cheeses that smelled like the sewer stench in our cabin bathrooms. On the final side of the U, white two-handled cups—buried in a deep basket along with large soup spoons, could be dug out for use with stale looking dried cereals in plastic containers or soupy looking plain yogurt slopped in a large serving bowl. The end of the bar held dried prunes, a traveler’s staple, and honey, butter, and Hagel—a shaved sweet item—in different flavors.
Without my comforting oatmeal, my mouth and I settled on yogurt soup each day mixed with chocolade Hagel, puur flavor—the bitter kind of chocolate shavings. With a strong imagination, the mixture tasted somewhat like a warm melting hot fudge yogurt sundae from McDonald’s.
I began to think that here I am on a journey to explore my Dutch heritage and already with breakfast, I am not feeling Dutch at all. These food items and the way in which they were prepared were not my usual experience.
My unsettling breakfast experience grew into a full-blown identity crisis as the nine-day tour progressed. I not only did not identify with the meals, but also felt estranged from the dress, language, and behavior I saw. From the narrow cobble-stoned streets. From the barren window displays in the bustling shopping districts filled with old people riding no-speed bikes and young people dressed in black.
After a couple of days of growing alienation, I told my dinner companions—my husband and his sister and niece—that I had an announcement to make. With my wry sense of humor, I said seriously, “I have decided that I am not Dutch after all. Pretending to be Dutch all these years is a sham. I don’t look like these people, act like these people, talk like these people, or live like these people. And the tulips I have in my yard at home and the Delft pottery I have in my curio do not make me Dutch. So to think that I am Dutch is a sham, a total sham.”
It was at this moment that I declared my emancipation. I announced that I was simply an American. I felt relieved to discover this both experientially and poignantly.
After the boat tour, the four of us, along with my husband’s 78-year-old Dutch aunt named Anne, traveled in a rented eight-passenger van that dwarfed all the miniature-sized cars driven in this country. Our goal was to find evidence of our roots with Anne as our tour guide and interpreter. One trip was to the northern province of Friesland. We crossed the Afsluitdijk, the 32 kilometer dike keeping the North Sea from drowning the Netherlands and separating the “salt water from sweet water.” After the dike, we took the first right hand turn to Witmarsum, a small town of 1700–the town from which I had two early 1900’s pictures, one of a church and one of my paternal great-grandparents’ home.
We easily found the church. My sister-in-law carefully took my picture in front of the church from the same perspective as my old picture. The only change was mature trees from saplings. The five of us then fanned out to check the cemetery for my maiden name. After about five minutes in a hot sun, I spotted my name—Hoitenga. I choked up and began to cry. I felt a hand on my shoulder—Anne’s. In her halting English spoken with a Dutch brogue, she kindly said, “It is…it is…what do you call it?”
“Emotional,” I answered as I began to blab that I never met any of my dad’s family because his parents and sister, my only aunt, were killed in an Model T accident before I was born, and so I had no sense of family other than my own folks and siblings. All the while catching my breath between tears. Our eyes met—the deep gaze transmitted invisible ties of heritage and kinship. Standing there at a Hoitenga gravestone, I felt an identity far deeper than American. I felt comforted, not unlike the feeling of soothing oatmeal. I was not only American, but Frisian as well. Pretending to be Dutch was not a sham after all. And just wait until I have time and room to tell you about finding my great-grandparents’ home.
(Next week, after Aruba!)