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O My America: Inward Bound

July 16, 2015

Sailing Down the Canals of the Netherlands

by Lawrence Bush

Giethoorn_houseTHE NOTEBOOK in which I’ve been writing during this vacation (my laptop is almost constantly out of juice) was a recent find as I was cleaning out some of my son’s remaining stuff, some ten years after his departure for college. The notebook has only one piece of writing by him, a teenage anxiety poem about not really knowing how to do anything. (“I don’t know why I act the way I do half the time/I don’t know what I should do next.”) I meant to mail him the notebook, but instead grabbed it at the last second to have on the plane en route to Denmark.

So now I’ll mail it to him with some of my own anxious scribblings. Truth is, I share much of my boy’s anxiety about not being full competent.

Ahh, but here’s what I’ve done in the past 48 hours:

I’ve steered a 30-foot boat at a speed of no more than 11 miles an hour down miles and miles of canals in the Netherlands. I’ve parked that giant fucking boat, more than once, at docks, both sideways (parallel parking) and nose in, without banging into any other boats. And I’ve pulled away from the same docks and mooring posts, ditto.

I’ve helped my lovely wife tie up the boat, bow and stern (I didn’t know which was which three days ago) without getting rope burn, and I’ve used a boat hook without being yanked into a canal.

I’ve even bailed a little bilge water to stop a buzzing sound from the motor. I located the sound under the floorboards, saw the water, grabbed a glass, filled it about 36 times, and presto, the buzzing stopped. (They hadn’t told us at the rental place how to know when you’ve filled the water tanks sufficiently, 400 liters full, and there’s no gauge. Apparently, we nearly sank our boat at our first filling.)

HOLLAND AT SIX MILES per hour is wondrous: a lush profuseness of flowers, especially hydrangea, planted in front of thatch-roofed houses; families of swans, with cignets, swimming along; yo-ho-ho friendly boating people who give you a little wave as you pass each other; a language that you think you’re deciphering until you see a sign about the next bridge and you have NO IDEA what it means; rushes along the banks that shelter all kinds of adorable and beautiful water fowl.

The Dutch are really into a) boating, b) bicycling — it’s like the Tour de France in town after town — and c) farming: the entire south where we’re floating smells like fertilizer and is a Kansas-flat landscape filled with sheep, goats, cows, and channels of water.

I don’t know much more about the place, however, besides Anne Frank, Gouda (pronounced Howda, I think — that’s where we are now), and the Dutch East India Company. We haven’t had access to Google on the boat, and we’re too busy steering and navigating and tying up and finding mooring spots where we can spend the night to really explore towns and villages and meet people beyond asking them for directions and information. My impression, after a week on Copenhagen and now a week in the Netherlands is that this place is more anarchistic than Denmark — being a pedestrian or a bike rider is more dangerous here — and more rough and tumble. That’s especially so of Amsterdam, where we arrived first in the Netherlands and spent two days walking and walking and walking to avoid our closet of a hotel room.

Amsterdam is a very Jewish-conscious and Holocaust-conscious city. We visited the huge 16th century Portuguese Sephardic Synagogue there, where the exiles from Spain (1492) set up shop; we saw several of the “stumbling blocks” that were editorialized about in Jewish Currents a couple of issues back, cobblestone markers with the names and dates of victims of Nazi deportation throughout Europe; we came upon (and removed cobwebs from) a piece of sculpture that memorialized Amsterdam’s Jewish citizens; we were reminded that more than 75 percent of Dutch Jews, about 107,000, were killed between 1939 and 1945.

The Holocaust and its World War context still hover over this land, as it does in Denmark. In Gouda, there’s a square named for Raoul Wallenberg — and a lingering animosity towards Germany (“Four times the number of people as Holland,” complained one of our informants in a restaurant, “and twenty times the land.”)

BUT THIS IS MORE of a honeymoon to celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary, our 41st year together, our companionship and our romance, than it is a learn-about-Holland experience. Many years ago, Susan and I agreed that the fairytale that we relate to most is “Hansel and Gretel” — that if you hold hands (and leave a breadcrumb trail), you can give each other the courage to visit the witch’s candy house in the deep woods, and eventually laugh about it.

Now, pardon me, I’ve got a 30-foot boat to get out of harbor.

Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents, is out of battery power on his laptop again.