Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Grounded (part II)

The circus has been and gone and after the invasion, our quiet little street is, well, quiet again.
I've been eating humble pie for the last two days and telling all in sundry how much fun it was. No, really. I've never seen the street so busy before - and I'm not just talking about the wielrenners and their entourage (the support vehicles that follow the pack of cyclists in hot pursuit, at breakneck speed). Many of my neighbours decided to turn their front gardens into party venues, others residents brought their garden chairs with them and parked themselves on the pavement for the duration, and some people just walked up and down the street and joined in the fun.
At the end of the day, I almost found myself wishing we could have another day of racing. There really is nothing like a cycle race to bring about some neighbourhood bonding. And more than anything, it was a lesson in Dutch culture.
So please, please, come back next year...

Friday, 26 June 2009


I'm sure this happens elsewhere, but I'd like to imagine that this is the sort of thing that only takes place in Netherlands. Spring and summer are popular times for the Dutch to interfere with their traffic circulation system. If it's not roadworks - which seem to start when temperatures hit 10 degrees Celsius and end when the building contractors take their annual leave in July - it's the cyclists.

In Dutch they have two words for cyclist: one is fietser, a category into which I quite happily fit, and wielrenner. The latter are those who race around in packs, dressed in tight-fitting lycra emblazoned with an array of sponsors' names. In high summer, it's not unusual to be driving around, minding your own business, when all of a sudden you'll hear the whistle of an officious looking verkeersregelaar telling you that the road you want to follow is out of bounds for the rest of the day: the wielrenners have taken over.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating when I say it happens a lot, and I try to remain philosophical about it. I mean, I'm a foreigner who chooses to live here and should be tolerant towards my host country's predilictions. In general I am, but this weekend - when the Dutch professional cycling championships come to town - takes the biscuit. Not only are the races being held in Heerlen, but last Tuesday, when I received a missive from the council on my doormat, I discovered they're actually coming down MY street. We're talking about two whole days here: on Saturday AND Sunday the street is strictly off limits to car traffic - no bad thing in itself - but, worse still, there's a parking ban, and me and my neighbours who live in this peaceful side-road have been told that our vehicles will otherwise be towed away (presumably at our expense).

Many Limburgers will no doubt enter into the spirit of the occasion and watch the cyclists flash past from the comfort of their own front gardens with a crate of beer. Others will be bemoaning the fact that the organisers (including the local council) have decided to stage the event slap-bang in the middle of the south side of town and will be confined to their homes on what looks like being a warm, sunny weekend.

Right now, I'm thanking my lucky stars that I'd not planned on moving house this weekend or running errands that require trips back and forth to the shops. In fact, secretly, I'm looking forward to my street being a centre of attention tomorrow, but I won't be shouting it from the rooftops, nor will I have a crate of beer.

Who knows? Maybe in a couple of years when I've spent the majority of my years in the Netherlands, I'll give up watching cricket and head off to the nearest cycle store for some lycra - but I seriously doubt it.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Nieuw Amsterdam

When Henry Hudson weighed anchor off Manhattan Island in 1609 to sail up the river that bears his name in a vain attempt to find a North-West Passage, little could he have realised that this safe anchorage would develop into an iconic world city that celebrates its 400th birthday this year. Hudson was in the employ of the Dutch East-Indies Company, and later, a trading settlement was established here under the auspices of the newly established Dutch West-Indies Company. The anniversary is being marked by a number of events on both sides of the Atlantic in 2009, not least an exhibition at the Rijksmeuseum in Amsterdam: Return to Manhattan (Weerzien met Manhattan).

It was the last day of the exhibition on Whit Monday, so I took my chance and travelled up to the Dutch capital. Having been to New York 2 years ago and having read up on its history, I went in eager anticipation. It was a great day out but the exhibition itself was disappointing with just a handful of exhibits on display - even the Nightwatch covered more surface area - and no commemorative material whatsoever, but for a nostaligic, Dutch-centric Elsevier publication: Ons Amerika. 400 jaar Nederlandse Sporen in de Verenigde Staten. This despite the fact that Russell Shorto's best-selling and authoritative book on the early history of New York (i.e. Nieuw Amsterdam) had been published 5 years previously (and been translated into Dutch): The Island at the Centre of the World.
Perhaps a visit to the Henry Hudson 400 site would have sufficed.

Until recently, little had been known about this fledgling Dutch colony that marked the beginning of the Big Apple. Much of the early documents pertaining to Nieuw Nederland had been gathering dust in the New York State archives in Albany (formerly Fort Orange). What's more there was no one able to decipher, transcribe and translate the handwritten Dutch documents into English. That was until 35 years ago, when historian Charles Gehring decided to start examining these early records. Much of his painstaking research forms the basis for Shorto's intriguing insight.
New facts are being uncovered all the time about this fascinating period, which has so far been treated as a footnote of history. It can be argued that the founding of New York was of even greater significance than the landing of the Pilgrim Father's at New Plymouth, but it is this latter event (in 1620) which is marked by Americans in Thanksgiving as the founding of the American Dream (of course, there is a Dutch connection here too).
Even the vast majority of Americans are unaware that such time-honoured New York place names such as Harlem, Brooklyn, Jonkers and Flushing have Dutch origins (Haarlem, Breukelen, Jonkheer and Vlissingen), not to mention Stone Arabia in the Mohawk Valley, which may be a corruption of Stenen Rapen. Other place names, such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Rensselaer and Watervliet, in upstate New York are less subtle reminders that this was once a Dutch colony. A form of Dutch was spoken here until the end of the 19th century before it ultimately died out. In the meantime, English adopted Dutch words some of which are in widespread use today, such as cookies, boss, cole-slaw and stoop.
The pioneering Dutch rulers were eventually forced out of Nieuw Amsterdam by the English, who not only had expanding colonies to the north (New England) and south (Virginia), but who were probably more committed to investing resources in North America (whilst the Dutch focused on their East Indian possessions). Ultimately of course, the English themselves were ran out of New York by the revolutionaries, but that's another chapter of history altogether.
Perhaps more material will be unearthed in future which will shed more light on the subject. But one thing still seems to be indisputable: it was an Englishman who is celebrated as the founder of modern-day New York.
A Dutch book on the origins of New York is to be published shortly, the author having been responsible for the organisation of the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum:
Nieuw Amsterdam / New York by Martine Gosselink

Other popular histories have been written about other early American colonies, most notably:
Mayflower: A Voyage to War by Nathaniel Philbrick