Relaxing in The Netherlands

Holland is a fascinating country. My family and I have been going there for years, usually spending a week or so there in the Spring. Whenever I tell people that I am off to the Netherlands they utter an interested “Oh!” but I am sure that what they are really thinking is “Why?”!

IMGP0012.JPGWe spend our Spring break in the south of the province of Zeeland, in an area that borders Belgium and which was until very recently separated from the rest of the country by the mighty Schelde river.  The opening of a 6km vehicle tunnel in 2003 beneath the Schelde at the town of Terneuzen, brought huge economic benefits to the area. On a map, Zeeland looks like a collection of islands jutting out into the North Sea, which appear to be joined to the rest of the country by the most tenuous of links. In truth, this part of the Netherlands does indeed have a tenuous grip on the land, much of it having been reclaimed from the water by sheer force of will and human ingenuity. These tracts of land are known as polders and maintaining the dikes and the drainage systems, the sea defences and the canals, is a national preoccupation.

From time to time, the sea reasserts itself (and we will no doubt see more of this across the world as low-lying lands will be the first to be hit by climate change and rising sea levels). The last major incident was in January 1953, when a storm surge in the North Sea led to the deaths of 2,551 people, including 1,836 in the Netherlands, and 326 in eastern England and Scotland. A total of 9% of Dutch farmland was under water. (See the images below of exhibits from the wonderful Watersnoodsmuseum in Ouwekerk.)

I have only known about the 1953 flood since 2002, when we first started going to this part of the Netherlands, and every year I have learned more and am increasingly fascinated not only by the history of this and similar events, but also by the relationship the country has with the sea and mor widely with nature. Much of the landscape of Zeeland is man-made, many of the beaches where we have spent some glorious sunny days have been created, but I find there is a greater harmony between human enterprise and nature and an immense respect for the natural world that I have seen in few other places.

 

From where we stay in the village of Hoofdplaat, in the area known as West-Zeeuws Vlanderen (nearest town is Breskens), we are within cycling distance of many pretty Dutch towns. We are also driving distance from the Belgian towns of  Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, even Brussels. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are even do-able on a day trip.

Our annual trip to the Netherlands is one of the most relaxing and energising weeks of my year. The biggest problem is returning to gridlocked England and making the snail’s-pace journey back up to the north via the M25 and M6. As for the potholes…! Something you seldom see on Dutch roads. I recommend Zeeland for a relaxing break…just don’t tell anybody. Please.

Which places do you find most relaxing? What quality is it that creates that feeling for you?

 

‘In the Dutch Mountains’ by Cees Nooteboom

As a mother of three, I find it is always a challenge to get back into the swing of things after a school holiday. I am self-employed and work from home so I tend to take the holidays ‘off’ (insofar as one is ever ‘off’ as a parent!), but it always seems to take me a week or so to restore the term-time order of things and get back into my rhythm, including my reading rhythm. The dynamic at home has also been affected by the fact that my eldest is deep in GCSE revision and now on study leave, wanting feeding during the day and everything!

We took a short family holiday to the Netherlands over Easter, a country we know well and have visited annually for many years now. We spend our time either in Amsterdam (a fab city for kids, by the way) or in the far south of the country in Zeeland, a fascinating area for which I have a very deep affection. I’m a bit reluctant to plug it because it’s authentic and unspoilt, but we love the cycling, the beaches, the space, the calm, the beautiful and historic Dutch and Belgian towns and the warm welcome we receive each time we go there.

Despite my love of Holland, its art and architecture and its people, I am ashamed to say that I know very little about its literature, so on this trip I decided to take with me a book called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. He is one of the giants of not only the Dutch but also the wider European literary tradition. I picked up this book at a secondhand stall in a market in Dublin, so this particular copy is well-travelled!

Since starting this blog almost a year ago my reading habits have changed; I now find I am reading much more newly-published work than I have ever done before, which is great, but that has been at the expense of my reading of the classics or other contemporary fiction from recent years which I have wanted to read. There really are only so many hours in a day, after all! So, it felt lovely to be picking up a novel that was first published in 1984 and is widely considered to be a modern classic.

2017-04-26 13.45.25What is so immediately intriguing about the title of the novel, of course, is that Holland is very, very flat. But In the Dutch Mountains imagines a world where the Netherlands extends much further south of its modern borders to northern Spain and the Pyrenees (hence the Dutch mountains). The narrator is himself a Spaniard, a civil servant who not only relates the story, but also philosophises on the processes of writing and story-telling: a story within a story. The main characters in the tale are Kai and Lucia, a slightly other-worldly circus couple, remarkable for their physical perfection, who are relieved of their jobs (because times have moved on and audience tastes have changed) and find themsleves travelling south to look for work. Kai is kidnapped and Lucia sets out on a journey to find him, accompanied by an old woman she meets on the way who agrees to drive her to find her lover.

The book is a vivid re-telling and reinterpretation of an iconic European fairy-tale, The Ice Queen, and explores the boundaries between myth and reality, but as a 21st century reader the strongest themes that came out for me were that of migration (for work), and what it means to be one nationality or another. The author contrasts the orderly, tidy north (what we now know as Holland) and the more chaotic, but freer south. He himself is Dutch but his narrator is part of the Spanish establishment (an inspector of roads), who happens to be a part-time novelist and philosopher. Alfonso, the narrator, is writing in the quiet of a school, empty of children who are on their summer holiday, a middle-aged adult sitting at a diminutive desk and chair. Thus the novel sets up a whole series of contradictions which invite us to challenge our assumptions and expectations.

This is a short novel, but one which merits reading slowly and deeply, and I will probably re-read it at some point. It won the 1993 European Prize for Literature.  It was a curious read and I can’t exactly say I loved it, but I did find it fascinating, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I think it’s always good to push your reading boundaries and as I read this book I certainly found myself drawn into a very different literary tradition than the one I have become used to in recent years. As a citizen of a nation that has expressed its intention to leave the European Union I feel strongly that European literature has a great deal to offer us in terms of enhancing our understanding of and empathy with our near neighbours, and I intend to read more of it in the future.

What European novels have you read? Do you think they are different in style and tone to English literature?

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