Hup Hup Holland

Just before leaving South Africa we attended the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on Irene’s Oval remembering the Irene Concentration Camp and all the suffering that occurred there 110 years ago. One of the leading people who played a role in The Irene Concentration Camp specifically was the well-known writer Johanna Brandt van Warmelo.

It was her actions that led to W.T. Stead running an article in the Review of Reviews about the appalling conditions in the Irene Concentration Camp, which contributed to a decline in British public support for the war.’ (Wikipedia)


So, based on the motivation that she actually wrote a book on Irene’s concentration camp as far back as 1905 and seeing in her ’Voorwoord’ that she wrote large parts of her book while staying at the Pastorie, Niezijl, Groningen, I thought it would be great to go and see this ‘pastorie’ and thus another meaningful weekend destination was identified. A 387km roadtrip for a weekend, just what the doctor ordered!

There’s two Groningens. One is the province and the other the city, a vibrant student city with stunning architecture, rivers running through it (pun intended), bicycles and riverboats.

A river runs through it

I, however specifically wanted to see a bit of the platteland. You see the province of Groningen is slightly lesser traveled as it is the furthest province north in Holland. Furthermore, this was my first visit to the Netherlands and it most certainly met my expectations. Although we’ve been in Europe now for nearly two months I still find it sort of surreal to be stopped at a 10 meter wide river by booms because there is a 30 odd meter long riverboat filled with anything from gas or coal to MSC containers passing by! Or to drive some 10km from the coast and to see that my Nuvi states I’m actually 17m below sealevel! Or to see a real windmill with emphasis on mill and not ’windpomp’! Its the scenes I read about in books in primary school in Yellowwood Park thinking ’I need to go and see that for myself!’

Now I too understand Jacques Brell’s ’mijn vlakkeland’ concept in context.

I Googled a stunning venue, Olle Pastorie in Vierhuizen ( which is a very small town but providing excellent Bed and Breakfast in a recently renovated ’pastorie’. It’s located, obviously, next to the church, but a sad reality of this post modern era we live in is that so many stunning and very old churches in Europe nowadays are simply memories of days gone by and stand unused. This one is no exception, though it is still maintained and every now and then used for music and choir evenings. Irene and Martin has done a splendid job of renovating the ’pastorie’ including a lovely reading room/lounge with some cold wine in the fridge. It being winter and cold, we spent the first evening after arriving late there, sipping wine and finishing Wilbur Smith’s Assagai.

Vierhuizen (N53°21.624’ E6°17.499’) is a little town in the Marne area of Groningen and in the ’Nationaal Park Lauwersmeer’. Lauwersmeer is a man-made lake which was formed in 1969 when the dike between the bay called Lauwerzee and the Waddenzee was closed. The area is scattered with similar little towns and I stumbled onto the tiny and incidently agricultural little town called Niekerk (N53°20.544’ E6°19.804’). I have a few Van Niekerk friends back in SA, hopefully even reading this blog, and now my imagination ran wild with the idea that this is where you guys originally come from, From Niekerk?

From here Van Niekerks?

The thing a like about staying in B&B accommodation, is that you have the opportunity to chat and mingle with other guests and obviously the hosts. Breakfast becomes a relaxing and interesting occation where stories and experiences are exchanged. This was a similar occasion with a couple from the USA sharing our breakfast table with us and Irene (pronounced Iereene), the hostess hanging around and adding to the chatter. The two from the States are an elderly couple, who’ve been living in the States for 30 years but who are originally Dutch from Zoutkamp, 3km’s down the road. They were doing a family visit trip while nostalgically seeing the old sites which they used to walk as youngsters. They shared interesting insites on the area and suggested Westerbork as a stopover.

The other thing of B&B stays is the breakfasts, which is normally larger and more diverse than the croissant and coffee at a cafe. And with a growing teenage boy in the party, that’s a huge plus!

The thing I don’t like about B&B stays are the price tag; I’ll have to start thinking of other accommodation for my break-aways.

If you look at the map of Europe, and you locate the northern Netherland you will surely see that there is nothing between the Netherlands and Iceland, and ’that cold north wind they call La Bise’ was definately ’swirling around about our knees’ and noses with vigour and sting. Its such a lonely sky. This was the vlakkeland where nothing stops that cold wind and best you stay in the car or some eatery with something warm to protect you. That’s what we did most of the Saturday while driving from quaint little town to quaint little town and enjoying the ‚afrikaans’ roadsigns and names around us. Even speaking afrikaans rather than english with the locals proved easier communication. To exit the highway, for example, simply follow the ’uit’ sign.

I did stop over at Niezijl as well and walked to the church, a simple yet beautiful structure dated 1661 and found what I think is the ’pastorie’ where Johanna Brandt van Warmelo wrote her book, though I could not confirm it was the exact building.

Sunday’s drive back home included a quick stop-over in the city of Groningen which included coffees and a rather decadent cake in the stunning Drie Gezusters which is part of the huge coffeeshop/bar establishment including Groote Griet Cafe.

But I have found that the history of the things that happened in Europe some 70 years ago fascinates me far more than I ever imagined and I did the trip over Westerbork as suggested to me. Westerbork is a sort of transit concentration camp used originally for Jews, Gypsies and other groups who were captured in the then occupied Holland and then distributed further to the likes of Auschwitz. The famous Anne Frank spent a few weeks in Westerbork before she was dispatched to Auschwitz and her terrible and untimely death. As it worked out, the weather came in extra cold with clouds of mist rolling in while we were strolling the camp, adding to an eary and serious thought provoking experience. An experience many people should experience once in their lives. The simbolic stop of the railway at one end and its curled-up tracks at the other end hopefully promises that such atrocities will never happen again.

Never again

I’ve often used the quote ’traveling broadens the mind’, but it rings so true that I will probably use it even more. It‘s so much different and more valuable seeing and experiencing things for yourself, than just reading about or seeing it on TV. And this is what I truely enjoy at the moment about being in Europe. Its not just travel and relaxation though, don’t get me wrong. There’s dirty dishes, school homework and finances in this picture as well, to name a few, but the closeness and frequency of new things are just simply tremendous, I thoroughly enjoy it.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’

I’m not yet qualified to write this commentary, I know. But the one standard question I get asked the most so far is ‘how are you guys doing?’

The one thing I have realised already is that living abroad is different. Whether it is Brisbane, London, Bonn or Beijing, its different and has different challenges than the familiar surroundings built up over 25 years living in Pretoria. OK, I do think living in Chifeng has a few extra un-pleasantries! Language, culture and all the little variations to what you’re used to add to confusion, challenge, learning and sometimes hilarious outcomes and experience.

Before reading this commentary, please take note of my disclaimer. I am simply stating a few things on face value at the moment and am not (yet) comparing countries, decisions or any such issues. I comment on my personal current reality.

The Good was known as Blondie. He was a man of few words, but he stuck to his guns. In that sense, living in Germany is sometimes similar. Rules are rules. If some or other standard operating procedure or governance principle states we do it this way, its done that way. Zat iz ze rule! And there are appropriate consequences if rules are not adhered to. Pedestrians walk because the car will stop and we wait for the green pedestrian light, whether there’s a car coming or not, nearly in a nerd way. Cyclists use hand signals. My experience is mostly that the rules are there to govern order and discipline, probably the thing most lacking where I come from. In business, there is a process, everyone knows the process and as long as you comply, there’s no problem. Quality of education and the discipline of delivering on education, for example and not the length of a boy’s hair is success factor. The result is a society that is responsible for the strongest economy in Europe, with all that German precision and quality that we are so aware of.

We all know about the autobahn, where there is sometimes no speed limit. It works simply because there’s no-one cruising in the fast lanes due to either stupidity or arrogance. All heavy vehicles stick to the slow lane. Society understands the logic and the bigger scheme of what needs to achieved and they adhere.

Furthermore, and obviously, the safety is good. It can never be entirely safe and I appreciate that we can make a huge mistake thinking there is no crime, but old people walk in remote parks even after dark and its OK. Kids travel alone by train, tram or bus from Bonn to Cologne and back to visit their friends and its OK. I think we have lost the belief that that is the way its suppose to be, by default it should be safe, not the other way around.

Some other ‘Goods’ include Kölsch, bratwurzt, autumnleaves, the Rhine, daylight saving, rauchhaar daschund and the fast lane on the autobahn.

The Bad (Angel Eyes) spent most of his time following the other two through the harsh cowboy terrain, sort of with the hope of scavenging from them when they make a mistake. There’s no scavengers here, or at least very few. Coming from South Africa I experience an obvious lack of diversity. That means in practice that you have 82 million people of which only about 7 million are “different” by being foreigners (and bring diverse thinking). That is bad. Diverse thinking is crucial in my mind. To understand this in real life I can share two recent examples.

  • Heleen had the opportunity to subscribe and the first 50 entrants would receive the Steve Jobs ebook for free. She was quick and enthusiastic and was one of the first 50 and yes, she did receive her free copy, a German version!
  • I bought my new laptop and obviously had to buy the Office suite as well. After sucessfully installing the software I realised it was in German as well. And after various Google searches on how to rectify the problem I came to the conclusion that that’s the ‘vay’ it is. Thus I am navigating this edition of my blog using Word functions such as Datei, Bearbeiten, Anzicht, Einfugen. I did not include any Fußnote to this document.

This non-diverse phenomonen creates a funny kind of feeling that the people of Germany are sort of old fashioned. Its contradictory Iknow, since with certain things they are very liberal, but I still experience a sort of 70’s type feeling. But then this one of the leading nations of Europe. The country and the individuals don’t always seem to match up!

Again what this means in practice is that there’s few cafes or coffee-shops with the variety of Bugatti’s, Cappuccino’s, Tasha’s or Cafe41. There’s plenty beer, wurzt, kebab, pizza type restaurants, but that one-stop-get-all café scene is scarce.

Well, if you start missing the familiar things back home, best is to do them here as well, or at least try! We decided we’re gonna Sunday braai before the real winter sets in.  Bought meat, (but stuck to pork as the rump steak price tag was a hefty euro 32.90 per kg (times R11 at the moment!)) and bought a little through-away braai! Charcoal is definitely not on par with the rooikool or hardekool wood I’m used to or even the charcoal. But after heating the chops on the braai the stove and pan quickly finished the braai job.

The well dressed chef
Best effort to braai four pork chops

And then there was the Ugly,  Tuco (Benedicto Pacifico Juan maria Ramirez) played by Eli Wallach. We don’t talk The Ugly here. Its in the past and ended in suicide in a bunker in Berlin in 1945. Its all about looking forward now.

So, when I’m asked how we are doing I can honestly still say that we’re good. Sometimes we struggle with language, different ways than we’re used to, unfamiliar substitutes and simply new things we haven’t seen before, but we’re enjoying the learning curve and are learning at rapid pace. We have settled into the American Protestant Church in Bonn and the kids are well settled into their school. We have by this time also realised that its not an European holiday as was the previous visits but a new home and that requires chores and tasks which may even be new to us spoilt Suffas.

Human beings are very very adaptable. ‘Its an adventure Harry, is good for you’