Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zaanse Schans, Land of Windmills and Clogs

Typical Zaanse Schans House

As soon as you step off the bus in Zaanse Schans, you know you're in a special place  --  the aroma of chocolate teases your nostrils and points you in the direction of the bridge over the River Zaan, next to the Verkade chocolate and biscuit factory. Once over the bridge, you find yourself in a village of green-painted gingerbread houses (could this be the origin of the American Carpenter Gothic architectural style?), workshops, and two-hundred-year-old windmills that still saw wood, grind grain, and press paint pigments. The windmills were moved here from all over the Zaan region about 50 years ago, creating an open-air museum visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

According to "The Dutch I Presume," the Zaanstreek (Zaan region) was the oldest industrial region in the world. The first sawmills were built in this area at the end of the 16th century, producing lumber for the shipping industry. The Zaanstreek shipyards became so famous that Czar Peter the Great of Russia came to this area in 1697 to learn about Western methods of shipbuilding.

First Albert Heijn Grocery Store

Near the first Albert Heijn grocery store (which developed into a nationwide chain of supermarkets), you can also see a demonstration of pewter artisanry, baking, and cheese-making. One of the highlights of the village is the klompenmakkerij (clog-making demonstration). Years ago, wooden shoes were carved laboriously by hand, which took the better part of a day to produce a finished pair. Today they are made in a matter of minutes by machine.

The wood most often used is poplar, with a water content of 60 percent, which makes the wood soft enough to work with easily. The shoe on the left is used as a pattern for carving out the block on the right. Once the shoes are carved, they are let to air dry before being painted. Exhibits showed a great variety of styles: clogs for walking on peat or ice, brightly painted clogs for Sunday best, intricately carved wedding clogs, and even a pair of clogs for horses.

"Sunday clogs"

After viewing the exhibits and watching the demonstration, it was difficult to resist the temptation to take home a pair:

Do they have my size?

To the average tourist, a windmill is a windmill. But there is a whole science to learn about how the mechanisms function, how to prevent the wind from blowing them apart, and even how to turn the top section of the mill to face the wind. The traditional mills have names; one we visited was used to grind various materials for paint pigment, including the green paint traditionally used to paint houses in Zaandam. This iconic mill is called De Kat (The Cat).

De Kat, Zaanse Schans

(Many thanks to cousin Robbertjan for being our guide at Zaanse Schans. I last visited this spot many years ago with Robbertjan's grandfather, Jasper Daams. Perhaps some old photos from that trip may turn up one of these days, to be added to this post!)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Excursion to Delft

Vermeer View of Delft (PD)

With its canals, cobbled streets, and connection to Vermeer, Delft draws you into a daydream of girls in pearl earrings and ermine capes, making lace or playing languid tunes on lutes. But search as you may, you won't find the scene that Vermeer painted. The closest I came to that was this scene of the Oostport (East Gate), constructed in 1400, and which may be one of the buildings portrayed in the painting:

Oostport, Delft

And yes, somebody still lives there, as evidenced by the neat flower boxes on the other side of the building:

Inside the Gate

Besides its connection to Vermeer, Delft is of course known for its delicate blue and white porcelain. We visited the Royal Delft Porcelain Factory, the last remaining Delftware company from the 17th century. Believe it or not, the firm was founded in 1653, during the era when the young Vermeer strode the city's cobbled lanes seeking the pure angle of light that illuminates his masterpieces.

A tour of the factory and showroom allows you to see the employees at work and introduces you to the multiple steps involved in producing a finished piece of pottery.

Factory worker using mold
In this room the potters produce plain white clay forms by means of various sizes and shapes of plaster molds. The clay objects are then fired once, at a temperature of 1100 degrees Celsius (2000 degrees Fahrenheit), producing a firm object which is called a "biscuit."

The biscuits are then painted by hand, using a black paint mixed with water, which will eventually give the various nuances of blue once the object is glazed and fired a second time.

Delft artist at work

From biscuit to finished product

During the second firing, a chemical reaction takes place that turns the black paint into the distinctive Delft blue.

The displays and showroom feature collections of various styles of porcelain products, including tiles. There is even an amazing rendition of Rembrandt's Night Watch in Delft tiles covering an entire wall:

Night Watch in Delft Tiles

Wandering the city after our factory tour we came upon the Market Square just as the vendors were dismantling their stalls at the end of the day. There has been a weekly market here for centuries. At one end of the square stands the Stadhuis, or City Hall, which dates from the early 17th century, but whose tower survives from medieval times. At the other end of the square the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) boasts a 100-meter (328 feet) spire  --  and inside, the mausoleum of William the Silent, celebrated as "Wilhelmus van Nassouwe" in the Dutch National Anthem, incidentally one of the oldest national anthems in the world.  

Nieuwe Kerk, Delft

Not far from the Market Square is the Prinsenhof, where William resided from 1572 to 1584, when he was assassinated in July 1584, the first head of state to be assassinated by means of a firearm. And a few steps away is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which also has a magnificent tower.

Oude Kerk Spire

Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to explore the interior of the churches or the Prinsenhof, but that just gives me another excuse to return to Delft another time. Perhaps on my next visit I will indeed catch a glimpse of a girl wearing a pearl earring or an ermine cape. Why not, indeed the very paving stones here are imbued with history!

Paving Stones - Delft

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cycling in the National Park

Pines in the Hoge Veluwe Park
A few miles from the Netherlands' urban centers lies a vast wilderness of 5400 hectares (13,300 acres). This is the Hoge Veluwe National Park. Its open expanses, where scrub pines hold the sandy soil in place, are reminiscent of the dunes in the Pine Bush Nature Preserve on the outskirts of my hometown in New York State's Capital Region.

Climbing the dunes in the park

Like the Pine Bush, the park also contains moors or meadows and deciduous forests. During our half-day excursion to the park with our cousins, we made good use of the famous white bicycles available to visitors, choosing a 10 km. (6.2 mile) loop trail on which to cycle.

Some of the 1700 white bicycles

The route took us through sandy plains and wooded glades, past the monumental St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge, where we stopped to catch our breaths, and to the Visitors Center, which boasts a variety of displays about the flora and fauna in the park.

St. Hubertus Lodge

As we were there in the middle of the day, however, we didn't see any of the wild game that inhabit the park  --  deer, wild boar, foxes, badgers, and mouflons, a species of wild sheep.

The untamed scenery brought out the inner child in several members of our expedition, who decided to climb one of the huge trees just off the bike trail. After this diversion, we continued on our way until we came back to where we had started.

Climbing a tree in the park

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Excursion to Utrecht

From Loosdrecht, our cousins took us on an excursion to Utrecht, a fascinating mixture of old and new. It is a university town, canal town, and industrial town. But Utrecht is much more than a "town"; according to the city's official Web site, it is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, with a population of over 300,000. But you would never sense that from a visit to the old center of town.

Construction at Shopping Center

We arrived in Utrecht through the parking garage interconnected with a large shopping mall and the bus and train stations  --  an example of Dutch practicality. Construction near the shopping center apparently entails a plan to redesign this area, which will uncover some of the old canals that have been filled in. A walk from the parking garage to the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) is like a walk back in time, 400 years ago to Holland's Golden Age.

Canal-side cafe

View from canal boat
 What is distinctive about Utrecht's old center is that the canals lie at basement level, not street level. Our cousins treated us to "broodjes" (sandwich rolls) at a street-side stand, coffee at a canal-side cafe, and a boat tour along the canals. From the canal boat we could peer into the dark interiors of the former storage cellars of 17th century merchants, many now converted into cafes, restaurants, and bars. Here and there, carvings on the building facades hinted at what goods may have been stored there a few centuries ago.

Domtoren from canal boat
From the boat we could also see the Domkerk, the city's cathedral, with its bell tower, the highest in the Netherlands. It is said that on a clear day, you can see Amsterdam and Rotterdam from the top. With my acrophobia, I'll take their word for it! There was much we didn't have time to see: the Centraal Museum, the museum of carillon clocks and music boxes, and the Dick Bruna House (creator of Miffy the Rabbit, a popular children's book series). Just all the more reason to go back to Utrecht another time.

Feeding the ducks along the canal in Utrecht

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Uncle Jasper

Grandma and GrandpaVandenBergh had two sons: Uncle Jasper and his elder brother Jacob ("Jake") both fought in World War II. Jake came home at the end of the war; Jasper did not. He was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

Before going off to war, the brothers posed in the yard of the family home on Beacon Avenue in Albany:

Jasper and Jake at home on Beacon Avenue

The story of Jasper's company and what happened during his last days has been recorded by a researcher who has established a Web site that documents World War II casualties who are buried in the Netherlands.  Jasper is now buried in the Loosdrecht-Rading Cemetery, in his mother's hometown. My grandparents apparently thought that it would be too traumatic to bring Jasper's remains back to Albany, and thus arranged for him to be buried in Grandma's hometown. Over the years, several relatives have seen to it that the grave was cared for.

By coincidence, a number of Jasper's nieces and nephews happened upon another Web site where they exchanged information with a Loosdrecht resident who was curious about the grave of an American soldier in his hometown. A memorial page can be found at this Find-a-Grave Web site
The same researcher has also contributed to this additional Web site in Dutch.

Uncle Jasper in uniform
Entrance to Loosdrecht-Rading Cemetery
During our trip to the Netherlands, we had the opportunity to visit Loosdrecht with other relatives. We were unable to locate the old Daams smithy photographed fifty years ago by another relative (see the previous post "Spring Scenes in Loosdrecht"), as we did not have an accurate address, but we saw many other old houses that resembled it. We did however, visit the cemetery where Jasper is buried.

Thus we were able to pay our respects to the uncle we had never known. 

Jasper VandenBergh's Grave
The grave is indeed well maintained, with a neatly trimmed hedge around it and a profusion of delicate white flowers. All this is an indication that the Dutch still remember with gratitude the liberation of their country by the Allied Forces.

We also located the grave of several other Daams relatives, including another Jasper, the "Oom Jas" mentioned in the post, "The Giechelaars."

How ironic it was to think that these two men, so closely related, but who never knew each other in life, now lie only a few feet from each other.

Jasper Daams' Grave

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dozens of Cousins

At last count, Grandma and Grandpa VandenBergh had close to a hundred living descendants on this side of the Atlantic  -- two surviving children, 23 grandchildren, 41 great-grandchildren, and 31 great-great-grandchildren. Over the century since our grandparents had emigrated from the Netherlands, our parents and their siblings made a great attempt to keep in touch with many relatives. Several Dutch cousins had already made trips to the U.S., so we knew at least a half-dozen, whom we had contacted before leaving New York. As things turned out, we were able to meet up with more than a dozen descendants of Barend and Elizabeth's siblings during our sojourn in Holland.

Hendrina & Elizabeth circa 1900

Elizabeth and her sister Hendrina were very close, not only in age but in temperament. The family archives include two photographs of the sisters posing together, one of which was taken during their teenage years, when they both worked as domestic servants.  Notice the neatly starched and pressed aprons  --  the sisters were meticulous about their uniforms! The travelers from New York were delighted to meet up with three generations of "Tante Heintje's" descendants.

We enjoyed trips to Loosdrecht, Utrecht, Hoge Veluwe, Ede, Zaandam, and Zaanse Schans with our cousins and were overwhelmed by their gracious hospitality.

Here is a photo of Hendrina taken in 1905: 

Hendrina Daams, age 18

And here are the travelers, with some of her descendants. Can you see any resemblance?

With Menno & family: Three generations and three continents are represented in this family portrait

And with another set of Hendrina's great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren:

The travelers with Arjan, Monique and sons

Grandma Elizabeth's younger brother was named Jasper. You can read about his trip to the United States in 1961 at an earlier post, "The Giegelaars." In this photograph from 1903, he is about 12 years old:

Oom Jas, age 12

We met up with several of his descendants as well:

Anke, Ilse, & children: 3 generations of Oom Jas's descendants

And another great-grandson of Oom Jas:

With Robbertjan at Zaanse Schans

Grandpa VandenBergh came from a large family, but we haven't been as successful in keeping in touch with his side of the family over the years. This photograph shows the VandenBergh family around 1910, before Grandpa married and left for America:

The VandenBerghs circa 1910

The little girl with the doll is Grandpa's youngest sister Helena; she is about six years old in the photo. We have been delighted to become acquainted with "Tante Lena's" granddaughter Sonja and her family, as they have come to the U.S. more than once. This time we had an opportunity to visit them and spend some time at their home. We also shared a traditional Dutch dinner at a restaurant in Amsterdam.

Dining out with Sonja and Giljam

Fitting to the theme of our trip, my dish was called "Oma's Recept," or "Grandma's Recipe":

Oma's Recipe

During our two-week trip, I had the opportunity to spend time with a total of 21 members of my Dutch extended family, "distant cousins" in name only. Our shared heritage and visits back and forth across the ocean ensure that we will remain close.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ik ga naar Nederland

After five months of planning, six of Grandma and Grandpa VandenBergh's grandchildren and great-grandchildren finally took off from Beverwijck in Nieuw Nederland (i.e., Albany, New York) on a trip to the Netherlands. Undaunted by flight delays and jet lag, we began to explore Amsterdam and to contact relatives.

The travelers have arrived!

One of my guidebooks stated that Amsterdam is a city of 800,000 inhabitants and 400,000 bicycles. For the size of the city, it felt comfortably laid back and with a lower degree of stress and hurry than a New Yorker would expect. People seemed to have a healthier work-home life balance than in the U.S.; or was it just because I was on vacation and trying not to obsess about the unfinished work I had left behind?

I am not sure about the statistic on the number of bicycles, but it sounds entirely plausible. In fact, when crossing a street in Amsterdam, you have to look both ways three times.

Once for the bicycles:

Liz astride a Dutch bike

Once for cars and buses:

This one's easy to park!

And once for trams:

Tram near Centraal Station

The bicycles have small bells that riders ring with a ting-a-ling if you step too close in front of an oncoming two-wheeler or don't yield the right of way in the fietspad (bike lane). It was easy to identify the American tourists, who seemed oblivious to the tingling bells, perhaps thinking they were merely an echo of their childhood tricycles. I quickly learned to pay attention to the tingling bells and to look behind me when I heard one in my vicinity.

Which one is mine?!

My hometown in Nieuw Nederland is lagging far behind in terms of bicycle-friendliness, but the city authorities are trying. As this recent article in local newspaper Metroland indicates, bicycle racks are being installed on more and more Albany streets, and many buses now are equipped with racks. But the bike lane still consists mostly of painted indications on city streets that drivers should share the road with cyclists.

During our week in Amsterdam, we tried to visit as many highlights of the city as possible: the Rijksmuseum, where I was thrilled to see one of my favorite Vermeer paintings, The Milkmaid;  the Van Gogh Museum; the Dam Square; and the Ann Frank House (a sobering reminder of man's inhumanity to man).


We took a canal boat tour around the Grachtengordel (Canal Belt) and the port of Amsterdam.

Tour boat on Amsterdam canal

We took pictures of some of the 400-year-old canal houses, and I also made an extra trip into the center of town to visit a couple houses that are now museums: the Museum Geelvinck and the Museum VanLoon.

Typical canal houses in Amsterdam

I also strolled through the Begijnhof, a secluded courtyard of small homes established in the 14th century for the beguines, a Catholic sisterhood who lived as nuns, but with the right to return to the outside world.


 With its profusion of flowers:

Begijnhof Garden

I walked along the Kalverstraat, a street open only to pedestrians, lined with shops offering a plethora of goods from around the world. Here I stopped to enjoy the carnival atmosphere enhanced by an old-fashioned barrel organ:

Barrel Organ on Kalverstraat

 And the flower market, which displayed more bulbs than cut flowers:

Bulbs for sale at flower market

And last but not least, we toured the Heineken Experience:

The bottles go round and round!

Sightseeing was a lot of fun. But the main purpose of our journey was to re-connect with relatives on the other side of the Atlantic. 

Coming up next: Dozens of Cousins!