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O My America: Six Miles Per Hour

July 24, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

Pénichette935R-RESIZED-1SOUTHERN HOLLAND, at least what we’ve seen of it, is like a Richard Scarry book about transportation. If you’ve ever sat a young child on your lap and looked through one of Scarry’s categories-based, vocabulary-building illustrated books, you’ve visited Holland. The landscape is flat for as far as you can see (17 percent of the Netherlands’ land mass has been reclaimed from the sea and lakes). There are cars going one way, bicycles another, boats a third, and pedestrians a fourth, with birds cutting across, sheep standing still, clouds floating along — all slow, all peaceful, all somehow benevolent. Although the bicyclists ride in town with verve that might be called aggressiveness (the Tour de France began here in Utrecht on July 4th), the overall feeling, when you’re cruising at six miles per hour, is one of patience, contentment, and goodwill.

Utrecht was our last stop before returning our boat and heading back to Amsterdam to fly out. First we walked our feet off again in that capital city (though the government is largely headquartered in The Hague, Amsterdam is apparently the capital), including a visit to the Dutch Resistance Museum, where we learned the following: Not only 25,000 Jews went into hiding in the Netherlands a la Anne Frank, but 300,000 non-Jewish Dutch citizens as well. There was tremendous resistance to Nazism in Holland — a railway strike, a doctors’ strike, a farmers’ strike — as well as disturbing elements of collaboration. Nevertheless, nearly 80 percent of the Jews in Amsterdam were murdered (although of the 25,000 who hid, 18,000 survived — a clear indication, if unique to the circumstances, that resistance rather than cooperation yielded better odds of surviving).

The Resistance Museum also has a fascinating display about Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, and how the Japanese sought, with some success, to portray their conquest of that island nation as a movement of national liberation from the racist hold of the Dutch. It was important for me to be reminded, for all of my admiration of the friendly, social-democratic Dutch people, of their history of racism in South Africa, Surinam, Indonesia... (And more than one Hollander reminded me on his own of the current animosity towards Muslim refugees...)

Coming home, we had an 18-hour layover in Iceland, where we rented a car and went sightseeing through the daylit night. Strange landscape, with the largest glacier in Europe, which you see from many angles along the highway, and with a magnificent waterfall on the scale of Niagara Falls. Otherwise a South Dakota-esque landscape of rolling plains and hilly pastures, dotted with sheep, who get rounded up, like our souls at the high holidays, in September-October. Icelandair is helping to cultivate the tourism economy with these long layovers on inexpensive flights. For us, it was a delightful layover in an unknown land.

I STILL CAN’T SAY much of interest about the Netherlands, where we cruised on our little boat for a week, certainly not beyond its 17th-century history as the richest and probably the most free nation in the world — because our time there was mostly consumed running our boat, navigating canals, locks, and bridges, and seeking Internet signals (the entire old city of Utrecht is blanketed with wifi, a mekhaye (pleasure). But I can testify to the virtues of going slow, being patient, waiting for the bridge lights to turn green, waiting for the locks to fill or to empty, waving to every boat you pass, and trusting that the entire system is highly functional, however long it takes to function after you’ve pushed the button/blown the horn/moored your boat...

I kept fantasizing about New York City and canals. If Hurricane Sandy’s damages are an indication of what global warming is going to mean for the city in which I grew up, a Manhattan canal system, going up and down, say, First Avenue, Sixth Avenue, and Tenth Avenue, with crosstown canals every twenty blocks or so, could be a real salvation. Let’s get back to our New Amsterdam roots, O Breuklyn!

I also kept wishing that the United States would join the civilized world by recognizing, as they certainly do in Denmark and the Netherlands, that an economic philosophy of lifting all boats makes for a much happier and untroubled society than an American-style yacht race to the finish line. In our travels, we discovered America’s presence in the world time and again, in a very positive sense: all of that American jazz in Copenhagen, all of that rock and roll in the shops of Amsterdam (no wonder English is so, so ubiquitous, with Bob Dylan spouting song lyrics in every other Dutch souvenir shop), all of that American modern art in the Danish museum in Louisiana... If only, now, the influence could go both ways, and America could shed some of its hyper-capitalistic culture and seek, instead, the happiness that comes from sharing the wealth...

Lawrence Bush is back to work on the next issue of Jewish Currents.