Sunday, August 7, 2011

Last(ing) Impressions

On my last full day in the Netherlands, I struck out on my own in Zaandam, without a relative to guide or interpret for me. I wanted to set myself the challenge of shopping, visiting a monument, and ordering a meal in Dutch with no assistance. (My level of proficiency in the language is probably akin to that of a four-year-old.) Would I stick out as a foreigner, or be able to blend in unobtrusively?

Canal in Zaandam
Not ten minutes out of the house where we were staying (at cousin Sonja's house in a labyrinth of lanes and canals), I was accosted by a young woman on a bicycle asking me for directions  --  in Dutch, of course! Well, as least I didn't look like a foreigner, I thought. But taken by surprise at being taken for a native Netherlander, I could only stammer a reply in English, which startled my inquirer to no end.

I did better ordering a snack of appelgebak met slagroom (apple cake with whipped cream) in a cafe near the train station, where I actually understood when the waiter asked me if it was tasty. I went on to a card store, where I bought a birthday card for my sister. Hearing my accent, the cashier asked if I was German. "Neen, ik ben Amerikanse," I replied, remembering the phrase I had repeated over and over from the language CD I had borrowed from the library the previous month. So far, so good, I thought. At least I'm making myself understood.

I continued on to the pedestrian shopping mall behind the train station, where I purchased a bestseller I saw advertised in a shop window: "In Mijn Dromen," (In My Dreams), by Simone van der Vlugt. It's described as a literary thriller. Okay, I thought, I'll have to work my way up to that one. My reading level in Dutch is closer to "Nijntje," ("Miffy"), a picture book series for pre-schoolers.

Next I ventured into a clothing shop, where a couple of brightly colored t-shirts caught my eye. Luckily, I had also studied the section on shopping in my phrasebook, so choosing a couple of shirts, I asked an employee, "Mag ik dit proberen?" and she directed me to the trying-on booths in the rear of the store. I may not have used the correct word, but she understood me after all.

To the right of the shopping mall was a narrow street that led to the monument I wanted to visit: a wooden house dating from the early 17th century, where Czar Peter the Great of Russia had stayed for a short time in 1697. To protect the old wooden house, it is now enclosed in a brick outer structure built many years later, making the structure "a monument within a monument."

Czar Peter House, Zaandam

Peter the Great had come to Zaandam to study Western methods of shipbuilding, when the Zaanstreek was an important shipbuilding area. Inside the house you can see the tiny wooden cupboard bed into which the 6 ft. 8 inch (2 meter) tall emperor supposedly folded his lanky frame:

Cupboard bed
This historical site has been visited by a number of dignitaries over the centuries, not the least of whom was Napoleon Buonaparte, who reportedly said upon viewing the cramped sleeping quarters, "Nothing is too small for great men." I was able to decipher much of the historical information in Dutch around the walls of the enclosing structure, but there was also a multilingual brochure available for those who don't read Dutch.

Wandering around after leaving the Czar Peter House, I came upon a small square named after the Czar, where a half-dozen or so cafes and restaurants catered to the weekend shoppers. I sat down at a table with a good view of the square so that I could indulge my hobby of people-watching, and ordered a typical Dutch lunch  -- an uitsmijter, a sort of open-faced fried egg sandwich with cheese. Mine also had bacon and tomato, and it was lekker (delicious)!

As I enjoyed my lunch, I gazed out at the monument in the middle of the square. It was impossible to tell from the rear what the figure represented was supposed to be doing:

Statue in Zaandam
After I finished eating, I went around to the other side of the statue to get a better look.

Czar Peter Monument
Of course  -- it was a statue of the Czar himself, intent upon plying the tools of the shipbuilding trade the Zaandamer scheepstimmerman had taught him.

I peered at the inscription on the pedestal, which indicated that the statue had been presented to the city of Zaandam by Czar Nicholas II, the last of the Russian czars, in 1911.

Inscription


1911  --  the same year my grandparents had left the Netherlands to emigrate to the United States. And so on my last day in the country, I was led back full circle to the reason I had come to the Netherlands   --  to reconnect with the country my forebears had left behind a century ago.

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I've been back home now for two weeks. And so now I awake to the chirp of a chickadee instead of the warble of a European blackbird; at lunchtime I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of an uitsmijter; I walk down to the Hudson River after lunch instead of to the nearest canal; and I take the bus to work instead of riding a bicycle. If I take my bike out on the weekend, I am usually the sole cyclist on my neighborhood street instead of peddling along among a swarm of bike riders.

But I can still have appelgebak for dessert. The only catch is that I have to make it myself.

Homemade apple cake

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