There are times when you reach a destination for the first time while a strong sense of déjà vu pervades your arrival. You feel welcomed as if you’ve returned after a long journey. And so, naturally, you keep on returning.
And so it is for me when strolling through the cities of Holland and its countryside. Probably as different an experience as can be from wandering through my country of birth, South Africa. The weather is dissimilar; the fauna and flora worlds apart and, although the skies are two different sides to the same spherical story, the contrasts are unmistakable.
But having said all of that, there is, after all, some common ground. Whenever I hear the Dutch people, I catch a murmuring echo resonating from the tip of Africa all the way to Europe and suddenly 5 792 miles and two continents seem to be bound by an invisible, reverberating thread. Because less than 400 years ago the Cape of Storms/the Cape of Good Hope became a group of Dutch settlers’ new home and two continents fused within the identity of a new people. During the tumultuous, stormy centuries that were to follow (with perhaps, at times, hope and the Southern Cross a few of the only steadfast anchors they had to hold on to) the Dutch language changed into Afrikaans. Its origins still present in the deepest recesses of people’s hearts and in the everyday sounds of their tongues. And this binds us.
Every so often it is through the medium of language that an idea is formed, where a dream sometimes has its modest beginnings. Studying European languages in South Africa was a baptism of wonder and enchantment. As students we were lured into another world of grey skies and the mysterious appeal of a sense of snow (says Smilla), of otherness essentially. Europe, as a place alien yet faintly recognisable and vividly described, started as an idea of a world seen through the eyes of European writers and also South African, Afrikaans-speaking exiles, like Andre P. Brink and Breytenbach who spent many years in Europe while missing Africa. They conjured up images and snapshots of a world beyond the waters. We saw everything through the magic mirror of their words.
They made some of us, naïve and dreamy and idealistic, believe in the existence of muses and love immemorial; tales of dark, European cities which cave into the narrow mazes of underground tunnels inhabited by wayward, literary revolutionaries-in-hiding; a dakkamer (attic room) in a European city, the perfect place in which to station your old-fashioned, silver typewriter – strong with the tenacity of an old kanniedood Singer sewing machine – and write these stories as they start to play out their plots in the streets below while you hammer away at them deep into the night. A dream of a place where anything is possible; where the harsh edges of reality are somewhat muted by shadows in narrow, cobblestoned alleyways and drizzly rain against the windowpanes of pancake houses and pubs.
And so it was when I arrived. I found that Holland’s gritty romanticism does indeed play hide and seek within the dark, dusty corners of pannenkoekenhuizen and the musty underbellies of barges and houseboats that float motionlessly on murky canals; water patios bright with flowers and an occasional deckchair or two next to a buoyant garden. Many times I’ve dreamt of living like this: in tune with the slight current of the canal, half hidden inside a barge, while being only a step away from the tumult and solid heart of the city. For a country (I remember thinking the first time I walked along the canals) that consists, after all, of so much reclaimed land and lies for the most part below sea level, it cannot be swaying unawares of the rhythm and pull of the ocean’s invisible tide: a bearer of equilibrium and balance.
Later I would explore other towns filled with waterways. As we travelled along these and underneath their low bridges – temporarily disturbing their perfect 360 degree reflections and watching them close up again into perfect circles as the ripples subside – I learned that voices intermittently become muffled and of secondary importance. Because along these grachten (canals), sometimes, stories are told in other ways. While wading past kademuren (quay walls) by boat, the waterspuwers (water spouts) and sculptures mounted on these walls, tell their own tales: a musician playing a wind instrument – cheeks bulging and moustache spreading like hairy wings across the lower part of his face; a woman embracing a unicorn as if in flight; a round-cheeked angel keeping the watch – chin in hand – while sitting on a chamber pot – its buttocks as round as its dimpled cheeks; two drinkebroers (drunk friends) having a great time by the wet feet of the brewery above.
Although one is aware of an ever-changing sense of innovation that is constantly celebrated in Dutch cities, the people always commemorate their stories and their history: they surround themselves with the narratives and allegories that make up their world. The names of artists are everywhere, branding cities with authenticity. The words of my old literary friends constantly surround me here: I never refrain from picking them up as they lie printed at the edges of my thoughts, like eager footnotes; their philosophies lead me by the hand as I stroll through their milieu. In Vondelpark, Vondel reminded me of what he wrote way back in the Golden Age of the17th century: ‘Heel de wereld is rond Amsterdam gebouwd’. (‘All the world is built around Amsterdam’).
I nodded in silent agreement as I watched the city’s inhabitants and its numerous visitors sway in simple harmony through Amsterdam on bicycles and trams speeding around the angular corners of the city; soaked up the buzz lingering for many hours in the famous shopping streets, like Kalver and P.C. Hooftstraat, and the smells and tastes of cannabis and bakeries and koffie verkeerd and chocolate muffins and cinnamon and powdered sugar and haring (herring) and kroketten (croquettes).
Never do I tire from pulling the words of the Dutch masters from the margins of my memory, as I wander past the city’s houses with their slightly reclining facades and those gables, like the iced toppings of wedding cakes, leaning against sober cathedrals and sleek modern structures, with the narrowest house in the world squashed in between its proud counterparts. It’s Gerrit Komrij that jump onto my shoulder like a friendly ghost when I come to a sudden standstill in gardens and courtyards, half hidden and perfectly groomed like peaceful suburban hideouts: ‘Dichten is een beetje de muziek in je hoofd houden. De betekenis volgt wel.’
And it is in these small gems, like the streets off of the main squares where I like to come and walk time and time again. In these stegies (alleyways), like de 9 Straatjes in the Amsterdam Canal belt, small, monumental, vintage shops and traditional bakeries wait patiently around corners – seemingly understated but always full of treasures. Here the pretty canal houses and water seem quiet and hardly any traffic disturbs the calm atmosphere so you can hold still the poetry of the city in your mind for a little while until the meaning unravels: sweet and delectable and wholly pleasurable. Like the deep pots of syrup waiting on tables – dark, thick and seemingly bottomless – the crannies of Holland are filled with whispers of painters and poets; the world of the old forever haunting the present.
And dotted around the city, obscure-sounding but delightful museums make their appearances. Places like the Nationaal Brilmuseum, (The National Museum of Spectacles), Tassen Museum (Museum of Bags & Purses), Pijpenkabinet (Pipe Museum) and Woonboot Museum (Houseboat Museum). Not as popular as the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum but probably more discreet and definitely quirky, they wait to capture the imagination of their visitors.
Palpably there is little sign of untamed Africa and its tough aloe veras and prickly pear trees. In the mornings during Springtime in Holland, when you leave the green and daffodil-ed surroundings of suburbs, you might find yourself waiting patiently in a traffic jam caused by the slow ambling of geese waddling across the street.
In small places, like Cruquis and Aalsmeer, bright splashes of flowers, cover fields in banners of yellow and pink and purple and orange, like fallen rainbows during tulip season and polder landscapes (lowlands) stretch away from roads throughout the country. They are a tough bunch: the Dutch. For centuries they’d curbed water and turned swamps into tillable, arable soil. And then, when centuries ago, they set foot in Africa they hid underneath lap kappies and leather hats, while learning to embrace the sun in the southern sky.
As children growing up in Africa we used to count the windmills, their metal feet firmly planted in the dry soil of the Karoo, as they flew past along the motorway. In Holland you can count windmills. Peacefully planted in soggy polders, they dot landscapes like silent watchmen waiting for the wind to catch their sails. There are many variants: some grinds grain, others saw wood, many keep the polders dry. And their names read like a set of colourful characters, ready to spin a yarn and fill a stage: De Blom (The Flower), De Otter (The Otter), De Oude Knegt (The Old Servant), De Leeuw (The Lion), De Zwaan (The Swan), De Hoop (Hope), De Philisteinse Molen (The Philistine Mill), De Eenhoorn (The Unicorn), De Veer (The Feather), De Woudaap (The Forest Monkey), De Kat (The Cat). ‘De wereld is een schouwtoneel, Elk speelt zijn rol en krijgt zijn deel.’ (‘The world is a theatre. Each plays his role and gets his part.’), Vondel said and so I always try to get inside one of these characters if they happen to be in working order. Once inside it feels as if you have fallen into the groaning belly of a giant animal. The loud sounds of rhythmical wooden crushing – like the gnashing together of huge teeth – and the perfect timing of its machinery fill the mill. The inner clockwork of these working mills a sure sign that it’s alive and well. Finding yourself inside its beating heart, the heavy beams protectively enclosed around you while you climb up and down its narrow stepladders from one breathing chamber to the next, is quite a mesmerising experience.
This is a country where once a week, in towns like Alkmaar, 30 000 kg of waxed round cheeses, like captured moons, are stacked and transported on big, wooden sledges in pretty town squares, making porters and dealers spring into action, performing cheesy rituals.
And yes, this is a seriously cheesy place! Cheese literally everywhere. You can eat cheese sandwiches from small, wooden sledges and cheese trolleys; yellow wooden crates are found everywhere attached to bicycles for transporting cheese throughout the meandering little streets; these round cheeses, like golden balls from fairy tales and creamy pac-mans, stacked on top of each other are painted above doorways and on the walls of shops. All of these other-worldly goings-on take place while the sound, emanating from a draaiorreltjie (street organ), spills onto the street from underneath the magical touch of small, metal fingers carefully stroking the stacks of papers, one after the other.
In this country you can go shopping for ballet clogs; a high-heeled, bright red pair; even roller skate and ice skating variants and pastel pink ones with wooden wings attached to them. A country in which the length of the sharp tips of these wooden shoes (carved by husbands-to-be for their brides) were an indication, once upon a time, of how passionate the love was between a married couple.
It smacks of childhood, when life seemed endlessly captivating: a kitsch affair (in hindsight) and comfortable, like a tea cosy over a warm pot of tea in your grandmother’s kitchen. When reality was as foreign a concept as change: a shapeless ghost tucked away like an urban myth. And yes, I love it: the fairy-tale quality of it all; the whimsiness and eccentric, zany idiosyncrasy; the people’s steadfast belief in tradition.
As Breytenbach said: ‘’n Gemeenskap sonder ’n gevoel vir geskiedenis, sonder die stabiliteit van tradisie, die mens met ’n ahistoriese identiteit wat net leef vir die onmiddellike van die huidige moment – as bogaande menslik moontlik is, dan beteken dit dat ons die dood van die geheue vier, en erger, dié van alle hoop.’ (‘A community without a sense of history, without the stability of tradition, the human being with an ahistorical identity that only lives for the immediate of the present moment – if this is humanly possible, then it means that we are celebrating the death of the memory, and worse, the memory of all hope’).
And then, of course, will there ever be a European city without its square? Those open spaces where people breathe deeper and look up at the sky and talk more openly. No matter which shape and size: these triangular, circular, oval-shaped hearts of the old towns are what draw people in. Surrounded by singels, the towns and cities dilate and contract around these squares, gradually guiding pedestrians to its bosom. Sometimes these cores are criss-crossed by lines of small, red flags like fluttering robin red breasts and always flanked by cafés with beautiful names like De Blauwe Engel (The Blue Angel), Crêpe Affaire, De Zwarte Ruiter (The Black Horseman).
If you wait long enough the bells from the church will chime through the market square claiming ownership of the sweeping space spread in between bright red and black and white hour-glass shaped patterned shutters; intricately detailed spires all pointing upwards; weather vanes, at times flying tiny flags and outdoor terrasjes (cafés). A perfect place to while away the afternoon eating pancakes covered in cherries or stacked with slagroom (cream), poffertjes or a koffie compleet with two chocolate bonbons, a glass of liquer and a small slice of tart.
Is it Holland’s contrast to Africa, yet the sense of familiarity I feel when stepping onto Dutch soil, that draws me there time and time again? Could it perhaps be a subconscious longing for the other half of the ancestral coin that makes it so? Or could it be that the country was just as I had hoped for it to be; just as I had dreamt it? Right from the beginning.
At first I trod lightly, trying not to disturb and give life to a faint suspicion that things might not be as I’d imagined them. Because usually that is how life is: it gives you less of what you’ve hoped for.
But I found the country lenient and gracious and forbearing. Maybe we recognised something in each other: a certain affinity as I was tourist, and yet, not completely so. And it allowed me my dream. Because whereas Africa is brutally honest in its devastating brilliance, Holland has, up to now, shown itself to me as quaint and picturesque, even in its most pragmatic state.
As Willem Frederik Hermans said,‘Ik denk dikwijls dat er eigenlijk niet veel verschil is tussen leven en dromen. Het verschil is maar schijnbaar, doordat we, als we wakker zijn, alles veel te bevooroordeeld bekijken om te zien dat het leven ook een droom is.’ (‘I often think that there is not really much difference between life and dreams. The difference is only apparent because, when we wake up, we look at everything too biased to see that life is also a dream.’)
It started with words and a piecing together of a place so completely foreign, yet faintly familiar. When at last I found it, it matched perfectly the Holland of my heart. And so, these days, I don’t ponder too much. I simply enjoy the perfect combination of water, half-light and history whenever I manage to get there as, after all: ‘Het was integendeel het hele mysterie van alles wat zo aantrekkelijk was. U zou er niet teveel bestelling op moeten leggen. Als u dat gedaan heeft, zou er onherroepelijk iets verloren gaan (…) Hij voelde zich thuis in zijn sentimentele chaos. Om het te plakken moest je volwassen zijn, maar dan was je tegelijkertijd geëtiketteerd, klaar en in feite al een beetje dood.’ (‘It was, on the contrary, the very mystery of everything that was so attractive. You should not want to impose too much order on it. If you did, something would be lost irrevocably (…) He felt at home in his sentimental chaos. To chart it you had to be an adult, but then you were at once labelled, finished, and in effect already a little dead.’) – Cees Nooteboom