Bricks, Water, Peace

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written Monday 19 July 2004

Bricks, Water, Peace

And now the time has come to close this blog.

Why now? Because now I know--and now I feel--that I no longer live among the Dutch, and I know I am not going back to live there any time soon. How do I know? What's makes me feel this exactly now?

I recall the exact moment that it first really struck me that I was leaving: while turning away from the bicycle for the last time, wadding the extra Te Koop/For Sale sign into my pocket, very unhappy. And this afternoon, after wandering around Chicago purposelessly for two weeks, I knew--and finally felt--that my next few years in the US have really started. Landing at O'Hare didn't do it for me. The Fourth of July parades didn't do it. Nor did going to work with my smiling American colleagues, or grimacing at American TV, or even buying a car. But yesterday I felt like this is where I will live for a while.

What did it? Yesterday, from the midst of suburban Chicago freeway traffic, I spied a Fry's and exited to check it out. Irresistible. Overwhelming. The parking lot and interior of this enormous computer store define a space roughly that of the entire center of my Dutch home village of Bussum. Computers and computer parts and stereos and books and long row after long row of software and and echoes from the TV departments, refrigerators and car stereo salesmen and music CDs and desk lamps, all in one cacaphonous space...exhilarating and very depressing at the same time. And then I knew, really knew that the jammed freeway that brought me here, the vast parking lot, the stores' attractive prices and long hours and wide selections, and all the advertising and sly gimmickry and soul-impoverishing "economization of all life" that go with them--it was now my lot in life to fight these every day, or simply give in to them. My calm experience in the Netherlands was very fine (and after the events of a few years ago I was grateful for the time to heal), and it strengthened my resolve to fight against parts of the American Way like the everpresent, ever-urged temptation to hang out at the mall--and it strengthened my resolve to fight harder from now on in favor of forgotten others, like habeas corpus).

But now there's no escaping the choices in front of me. They aren't "somewhere else", to be dealt with "someday". The kinds of choices in my Dutch life--the names of quiet villages, the train schedules, how to respond to the forthrightness and even bluntness of its people--those are a different life. They cannot help me now. Here I am.

So now I write, now I close.

Closure on such a trip calls for summary. But how to summarize the Netherlands objectively?

I've concluded that it's best not to insist on objectivity. This blog has always been personal, so I will try to convey my very personal sense of how things are there, what makes the Netherlands a place to remember, to admire, to wish well upon leaving.

A personal summary. Bricks, and Water, and Peace.



When your land is full of water, and sand and clay, and forests for firewood, and when you reasonably want something hard and dry and affordable to make your walls and floors, you think of bricks. I expect that no one makes more of them than the Dutch. And tiles--the exquisite tiles of Delft and Makkum--these are simply bricks with a surface made easier to clean. No surprise that the Dutch valued that early.

The first thing you learn is that, by the color and shape of bricks and blocks, the Dutch are silently but urgently signalling their purpose. The most important example is: Red = Bike Path = Death to Pedestrians.

Along these lines, an amusing and true story. In Amsterdam, it only required a few brushes with death to impress upon my parents that you never walk on red tiles. A week later, they stepped from the grass onto SMU's red-colored sidewalks and leapt back, eyes wide, before they realized they were back in Dallas.

But more than that, bricks work themselves into everyday Dutch life so that, unless you're looking for them, or trying to capture their essence with a camera, you don't really quite see them, They recede to background, like grass or sky. But they endure.

(the post office, Bussum)

(Brediusweg, Bussum)

(Naarden-Bussum station)

(north harbor, IJmuiden)

The Dutch have known for centuries how to shape their backgrounds of brick to alter the mood and meaning of an entire space.

(village of Jabeek)

(detail of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

(Nieuwekerk, Delft)

Cut stone works, too--lots of it. (Gemeentehuis Bussum)

My father marvelled at some of the paved open spaces, long roads of brick, walls and canal sides. "How in the world do they make so many bricks?" Well, when you want something to last, when your frugal nature wants it cheap, when the existence of the land you live on depends on it, and when you get good at making them and do so for six centuries--you end up with a lot of them.



Water as a part of Dutch life and survival needs less explanation than the other elements. In practically every language, the nation's name simply means "low land."

And so the land is low, and along much of the North Sea, there is no line separating land from water, but just a broad blur.

And where land is low, water rushes in--even in the best weather, for which the blustery North Sea and its storms and tidal waves do not allow.

Even where the land is high and far from the Sea, it can be marshy and better for birds than for people.

So water has shaped the Dutch, and vice versa. How the Dutch tamed it, how they love it, and how they have come to live in harmony with it--these are surely the greatest distinguishing marks of their history.

Of course, they use the water, too. It was a long time before I realized the reason they have so few large trucks on their highways--they have dug canals wherever freight needs to go. They enslave water every chance they get--a practical sort of revenge for all the centuries of flooded villages and drowned fishermen.




In my own way, too, I had to work around water, to make very sure I didn't go a bridge too far, or deadend at a ferry on Sunday. But in time I learned to make the coastlines and bridges work for me rather than against me.

To the point that, now, the Dutch and water coexist in a manner as refined as any I know of on the planet. It is startling to think that their marshy land began just as forbidding, certainly as economically unpromising as Bengladesh or the Louisiana bayous. (pictured: Oude Delft)

A few hundred years of persistence, now, and all that water is finally under control for the most part. In most places, one would never know the fear that water caused during most of their history. (pictured: Naarden)

(pictured: Keukenhof)

(pictured: Bussum, up the street from my apartment)

Controlled to the extent that we think of now. It was not always so. But I suspect that the Dutch are most at home within sight of water; and that whether this seems rational to others or not, water's proximity brings them a kind of peace difficult to explain.

(pictured: Breukelenveen)



The most elusive condition. So elusive to bring about, elusive even to describe. I will do my best.

The first thing you realize is: no symbol is adequate to capture it--not a Peace Symbol, the UN logo, a dove, or even the small tree that greeted me each morning as I emerged from my tiny apartment.

No. Peace can not be imparted visually, or developed with fine words--which are the only tools this poor blog has. Peace is a contact sport, acquired only through contact with more peace, indeed by immersion in it.

I am not there yet; maybe no individual is, or quite can be. But there is hope for societies, and if words have meaning, Dutch society is a peaceful society.

Why? Everyone who knows their society senses it's true, but still--why them, why the Netherlands? I've stared out my window many hours while tackling this question--pardon, while considering it--and my poor understanding extracts only two factors. Details notwithstanding, I believe these two supporting characteristics of Dutch society have something to do with it: Straight Talk, and The Horror.

Straight Talk. It's fun to watch. "The Americans are coming" echoes through your company's rumor mill, and one day, sure enough they appear--combed hair, fresh shave, shined shoes, laughing and back-slapping even through their jet lag. The Dutch are not impressed, indeed don't really notice. Then both sides open their mouths, and the Americans are immediately on the defensive, disoriented. The insides of their heads are as disarranged as the outsides are carefully lacquered.

What in the world happened? This happened: American businessmen consider themselves straight talkers, "telling it like it is" until they meet the Dutch. The first time I showed a Dutch scientist how I proposed to modify his instrument, he responded--and I quote--"That's stupid, don't do it that way." Fortunately, I had cram-studied their culture and so half-expected it. Still it was startling. And the ones who parachute in and expect to deal with "soft Europeans"? They get their heads handed to them.
A mildly wrong answer gets, "What have you been smoking?"
A really wrong answer gets, "My God, don't be so stupid."
Don't even ask about an answer that costs This is not that kind of blog.

It is not rudeness. There is some (rare) rudeness, but learning to distinguish rudeness from simply Straight Talk requires months of careful attention. Let's just say: Euphemisms don't get it there.

Perhaps a vivid--perhaps too vivid--example from the everyday might help:

You're walking in a Dutch neighborhood, and you happen to notice a waste bin. You look more closely:

"Dog-crap-sacks also in the waste bin." It's not rude, it's only a little funny, but you can't misunderstand the intent, and to the Dutch that's what matters.

So then...this bluntness facilitates Peace? Yes. Yes, in fact I think it does. While a newcomer's first, unthinking temptation might be a fist fight, something else is actually going on. With a little practice one understands this: what is accomplished is exposure of subterfuge and misunderstanding into the bright glare, before they become dogma. In what might at first seem their gleeful pouncing on logical mistakes or misstatement, I think I sense a fear that someone might get carried away with a bad idea, that others might follow. Once you realize that it is meant to be defensive, you realize that it is not meant to be offensive. It is just straight talk.

I'm not political, so I don't know and don't particularly care if it carries over into their political life. And while no one is immune to groupthink on a personal or small scale, my experience is that Straight Talk renders the Dutch nearly immune to groupthink on a grand scale. Which should not be surprising. Groupthink on a Grand Scale has inflicted on them untold horror, within living memory.

The Horror.

There is no telling how deeply or for how long the early 1940s will scar the European psyche. I know that in other countries, it has been relegated to history, as it must one day be everywhere. But not in the Netherlands, not yet.

And their remembrance is
not kept safely away in textbooks. It is worked into the everyday: on the pages of the book in the glass case in the town hall, each page with the names of war dead, and one page turned each day to the book's end and then started again at page one, again and again. On the statues and memorials and names of streets. And on plaques in everyday places. The train station wall (pictured) in Beverwijk has three plaques. The small blue one behind the blue post at left reads: VERBODEN (BROM-)FIETSEN TE PLAATSEN. "Forbidden to place (motorized) bicycles here." The blue plaque at right reads the same: VERBODEN (BROM-)FIETSEN TE PLAATSEN. The larger one in the middle reads: OP 16 APRIL 1944 WERDEN VAN HIER 486 JONGEMANNEN DOOR DE BEZETTER WEGGEVOERD VAN WIE VELEN NOOIT ZIJN TERUGGEKEERD. "On 16 April 1944, 486 young men were taken away by the occupiers, of whom many never returned." This is, after all, a train station. It is not hard to imagine the scene at a train station. It is impossible to imagine the scene.

Around the corner from Bourtange's lovely, peaceful, architecturally perfect round plaza. GEDEPORTEERDEN is "deported." There would have been screaming as families were dragged away. The flowers for them are fresh.

It would have been easy to hate. Probably many did. But the Dutch seem to have fixed on Never Again, and not in any polite, candle-waving sense, but in the sense that "we will not be party to this. We will not even risk being party to this." A fierce sort of pacifism, a whole-body gag reflex to promises that some new war will make things better. They do not seem particularly concerned that others might read it as timidity or weakness. They know that it is not, even if they don't much talk about it; and if one were to insist that it were, he would receive--believe me--a calm, unhesitating demonstration of Dutch Straight Talk.

So, we've come back again to Peace.

Den Haag. The Vredespaleis. The Hague's Peace Palace. You've heard of the International Court of Justice. The Hague Conventions. The Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Alstublieft--here you are. More or less around the corner stands the UN Prison (did you know such a thing existed?). In these and related, nearby buildings are presented and discussed the most hopeful agreements for peace that the world has to offer, and here or near here also are tried the most execrable war criminals the world can offer. Even those who consider international law unworkable in the present world have to agree that they represent a counterpoint to humanity's worst tendencies. It's also true that if the world is ever to agree on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior of nations and their leaders, there is no better time to begin than right now. To me, this is not nothing. And the Hague is, essentially, where we're all starting.

This is a prince. He has come to the small town of Warffum to help celebrate his mother's birthday. He is walking a few steps behind her--she is the Queen after all. Everyone is smiling or laughing for simple joy. The people smiling are from all political parties--this is not a political gathering. There are very few police for the tens of thousands of well-wishers. They are not needed. It is a birthday party for someone the Dutch love. That's all. Many other countries have in their governments absolutely no such center of simple goodwill. It's hard to imagine even one individual in their governments to feel warmly about, much less to journey to the middle of nowhere just to spend a few hours revering. These other countries don't know what they're missing. I guarantee that no one was thinking about war on the Queen's Birthday. How refreshing: no one thinking about war. I suspect they may be on to something.


I did not come to the Netherlands as a vacation. I did not come expecting to be impressed. Frankly, it wasn't my first choice as ex-pat assignment. And the language was a problem for me, and probably would have continued to be so, for while I find Dutch more logical and structured than most languages, I find it just too flat, too little expressive for my taste. It does not seem to be a language of nuance.

Still, I come away impressed. Whatever one's own tastes, it must be admitted that the Dutch know what kind of country they want to have, and then they have rolled up their sleeves and created it. They decided to tame the North Sea's surges and did it, though it took a century. Land out of marsh. Toleration out of a ravaged history. An frankly incredible degree and uniformity of self-discipline out of--I just don't know. But they have built a society that works, that expects only fairness, that is incapable of whining, that values peace as it values dry land. I will be years untangling what that means to me, how that means I should live.

How to live.

Two weeks ago, when the plane lifted into the clouds, I left behind the bricks and the water. Nothing to be done about that. But I am going to try--oh, how I'll try--to hold on to just a little bit of that peace.

And so we come to the end of Downwind of Amsterdam. Perhaps I will return to the Netherlands someday. Doors that close are sometimes reopened. We shall see.

Many thanks to you, Gentle Reader. Thanks also to those who posted comments, who e-mailed me with corrections and with encouragement during difficult times, sometimes with simple good wishes. Sincere thanks to my new employer, who saw fit to send me overseas in my fifth week. And thanks go to the Netherlands, all of it, all of them. Farewell.


posted by eric at 5.33 CET


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Readers' Comments

Thank you for your wonderful blog. I enjoyed it immensely. It is always interesting to see a fresh perspective on one’s country, and I like the way you came without preconceptions. It is a pity that you had such difficulty making Dutch friends, but that’s the difference between tolerance and hospitality. The Netherlands are very tolerant but not very hospitable, which is one of the reasons that it is difficult for foreigners to integrate themselves in Dutch society. I’m sorry to see your blog end, and I wish you “het allerbeste”.

Posted by: Bas Suverkropp on July 21, 2004 05:42 PM

Hi Eric,

So that we may keep track of the adventures of Eric, where's the next (or current) site?


Posted by: Ryan on August 9, 2004 02:01 PM

hey.......... why stopping it??!
your posts were so nice. and Holland is in your heart and will be a place to spend your holidays and live your daydreams your entire life.

hm. c'mon, come back!

Posted by: Monica on September 30, 2004 03:36 AM

Nice pics Eric! I'd like to print some for my daughter and frame them.

Posted by: Anita on December 22, 2004 07:49 AM

I come across yours tonight attracted by your words and pic.
It's wonderful that i can meet all these!
and i feel it's lucky that i am here by chance!
Thanks for giving me a beautiful page tonight!

Posted by: Kathy on April 7, 2005 02:30 PM
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