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The Dutch, I Presume?

Holland and Netherlands are not the same thing, and the people and language are Dutch (though Flemish works, too). It does not help the rest of us, I suppose, that the Dutch national team was competing in the World Cup as Holland, though it was in fact the whole of the Netherlands represented. Holland is the western part of the Netherlands, one of the regions and once-independent states that combined to form the Netherlands, which itself is part of the region known variously as the Low Countries and the Benelux region (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg).

In fact, while Eveline and I were touring the canals of Den Bosch, the volunteer tour boat captain asked the 20 people on board how many were from Holland. Considering I was the only person not speaking Dutch, I was surprised when Eveline was the only one to raise her hand – the rest were from elsewhere in the Netherlands: Friesland, Zeeland, Gelderland et al.

Hans Brinker, the boy everyone knows about for sticking his finger in the dyke to keep it from flooding. Everyone but the Dutch, that is.

A few people asked what my impressions of the Netherlands were, and what my expectations had been. Everyone seemed genuinely surprised that growing up on the far end of America, I had even heard about their country as a child. When visiting Kinderdyke, a picturesque concentration of nearly 20 windmills, we saw a notation in the guestbook reading, “It is a childhood dream come true to see these! Thank you!” The mild scoffing by the natives at the remark earned an explanation from me that indeed the mills and dykes of the Netherlands are known to us since childhood. Who knew that most Dutch have never heard of Hans Brinker?

In front of the Binnenhof, home of the Dutch States-General (parliament)

A few words to describe my impressions? Fiets (bicycles)! Windmills, dykes, canals, and polders. Skating. Decorated bread! Drop (liquorice). Small country and houses. Friendly people, hospitality. Stroopwafels and Gouda (‘how-da’) cheese. [The Netherlands is about 16000 square miles – roughly 2/3 the size of Western Washington;  the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.]

M.C. Escher tribute in sand

During a game of Dutchopoly, which was lost to the aforementioned theologian-diplomat, I got a pop quiz from her mom: “Do Americans know any [contemporary] famous Dutch people?” Schillebeecx, of course! And Visser t’Hooft. (Pronounced tohft, not tooft, I discover after the laughter subsides…) M.C. Escher is well known, but I doubt many know he was Dutch. Historical figures are more likely: Spinoza, Erasmus, Van Gogh. I had already mentioned Hans Brinker to mostly blank stares. But actors, musicians, athletes? Not so sure…

My generous hosts

After Amsterdam, I got a full day to explore the university town of Tilburg, Eveline’s college home for the last five years. Big, beautiful, rarely visited churches; bicycles in the tens of thousands parked at the train station; a large outdoor shopping district. I discovered almost immediately that the Dutch do not anticipate size-13 American feet when designing stairs.

Amsterdam may be the capital, but the seat of government is Den Haag (The Hague), which is where the Queen, parliament, and the embassies cluster, not to mention the international criminal courts. Like Amsterdam it dates from about the 13th century, and retains a great deal of European charm. A little less so, Rotterdam, which we visited next. Though an older city, its historic center was all but completely demolished during WWII. Definitely something to be in the midst of The Hague and the sea of orange as Holland won its way to the World Cup finals!


Over the weekend we retreated to Maasdam in South Holland, a small rural town where Eveline grew up and where her parents still keep her childhood house. Her father rides his bike 40 km to work daily, as he has for decades, and her mother has a pair of wooden clogs she still uses for working in the garden. We toured the island by fiets, and I discovered this is a lot easier to do when A) the entire country is flat and below sea level, B) you ride street cruisers rather than mountain bikes, and C) the entire country is crisscrossed with dedicated bicycle paths, not just 18” lanes on the side of a road!

World Cup game ends in five minutes. Your train leaves in three. Where would you be?

Sunday was my first Fourth of July outside the U.S. Thanksgiving in Rome had had all the feel of home, a big feast and a gathering of friends, but there were no fireworks for me for Independence Day. (“So that’s why they always play that movie on TV today!” she says). There is plenty of Red, White, and Blue, however, since those are the colors of the Dutch flag as well – though Orange is the ‘unofficial’ color of the country, William of Orange being the ‘founding father’ if you will. We spent the afternoon touring the windmills of kinderdyke and the surrounding area. It is a little bit eerie to see rivers flowing through fields where the river is consistently higher than the land around it!

The Binnenhof

My last day was spent with a gathering of the Dutch clergy, honoring the end of the Year of the Priest, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch for short). The guest of honor, presider and lecturer was the recently retired Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has been president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity for the last decade. Between the morning’s Eucharist and the afternoon’s lecture and vespers, we wandered around the town, sampled the famous Bosch Bollen, and toured the city from the canals that run beneath the city.

The cardinal’s address was delivered in German, and we were provided with Dutch translations in advance enough for me to glean the basic points from my host before the lecture began.

Cardinal Kasper in Den Bosch

(As I was searching for an English translation, I came upon a blog, In Caelo et in Terra,  that included them and a photo from the event. I have commandeered both, so please give credit where it is due.) His remarks reflected on his more than half century of ordained ministry, and he addresses head-on the topics of clericalism and celibacy, and does not shy away from the scandal. His central point is that the priest must be a servant of joy, must put aside secondary attitudes (clericalism) and focus on Christ and his community. It was a fine way to end my year in Europe, in the company of a great friend sitting at the feet of a great teacher!

English Translation


Not to be confused with the Netherworld

I have said this before, but it is hard to believe it has been an entire year already. One year ago, I was wrapping up at St. Brendan, still trying to work out visa issues and wondering if I would in fact get to Rome at all!

This morning, as I took my leave of the Eternal City for the summer it was already 30°C (85°F) by 10:00am. By all accounts it has been a relatively mild June, but it is already toasty enough for me. Arriving in Amsterdam a couple hours’ flight north of Rome, it was a much more reasonable 22°C (72°F).

The first thing I saw out the airplane window as we approached the airport was a windmill. Not one of the iconic Don Quixote sort, though, but a modern, white, high tech electricity producer. As for wooden clogs, I did not even have to leave the airport before I encountered a few!

Eveline, a good friend and Dutch theology student who had spent the year at the Lay Centre, was there to greet me and show me around Amsterdam before we left for her university town of Tilburg. This much further north, the days are noticeably longer – more like home. I knew to expect it, but you really cannot prepare for how many bicycles there are in this city! Everyone is on two wheels – kids, parents, professionals in suits/dresses, elderly folk out for a stroll. I can understand why fiets is basically the first Dutch word anyone would learn!

Before Amanda asks, yes, I got to the Van Gogh Museum, but it was closed. Saw the palace, the “new church” (from 1410), various canals, the flower market, Rembrant’s square, ate pannekochen (pancakes) for lunch and Irish pub fare for dinner. Also smelled marijuana wafting through the air at several points on our walk, I got hit on by a guy on a bike, and we overheard a tour guide address his group as they emerged from the red light district: “OK, let’s count everybody. I always lose one of the guys by this point…  Hey, where’s Mike? Oh, Hi Mike! Your daughter told me I had to keep an eye on you since she could not come along today!”

Den Haag, Delft, Rotterdam, Maasdam, Tilburg and Den Bosch (with the just-retired Cardinal Kasper) are all on the agenda before heading for home.

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