Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Amsterdam: Leliegracht

I love the bells here in Amsterdam. They bong, but they also ring and chime and sound very happy. They are musical, as opposed to funereal.  Solemn, but happy. Live and let live. I choose life.

We are sitting here in the living room of our small apartment overlooking a canal. We are at No. 4, Leliegracht, near the corner with Herengracht. It is early evening here. We see leafy trees outside our window.  Down below, Amsterdamers on bicycles are riding back and forth. Bicycles are everywhere. Chained to railings alongside canals. Parked in ranks. The rattle, rattle of bike parts below us.

I am looking through the window at a gambrel-roofed house that probably dates back 300 years. The building we are in probably is of the same age, if not older. (Our floor has a definite slope.) Projecting out from the building across the canal is one of those thingys from which a pulley would have been attached to lift cargo and goods from the canal to the storehouse above whatever shop was located there.

After I noticed the one across the canal, I leaned out our window and looked up. Sure enough, there is one on our building as well.

I have Dutch ancestry. My Grandmother Broom’s maiden name was Schermerhorn. Her grandfather’s people go way back in the Hudson River valley to the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam and New Netherlands. I am related to Teddy Roosevelt and a host of other people with New York Dutch connections. 

Do I feel a connection? Not really. (But I think I’m jaundiced because of my oh-too-long connection with the Mormon Church with its emphasis on genealogy). I long ago gave up feeling I needed an ancestral connection to a place or to a people. Mormons (or, to be fair, the Mormon Church) emphasize the sum of one’s parts, one’s ancestry. Strictly based on my own experience, however, I am the sum of a lot of stuff that has little to do with my ethnic ancestry. Others’ experiences are probably different, and I don’t mean to criticize. 

That being said, I am proud of my ancestors who gravitated not so much to Amsterdam but to a neighboring province of the old “United Provinces” (now called the Netherlands), i.e., East Friesland, or Ostfriesland, just across the border in Germany, to where refugees from the religious wars of the 17th century fled. There, my Grandmother Broom’s ancestry merges to that of my mother’s father, whose roots go back to that land of religious tolerance and welcoming. When the Duke of Alba was slashing his way across the “Spanish Netherlands” in the 16th century, my ancestors fled from Friesland to Ostfriesland, where my ancestor, Dothias Wiarda (pictured left), became chancellor to the prince of that county, later principality. Yada, Yada, Yada.

As we walked to a grocery store this afternoon and I looked up at the old city hall of Amsterdam, I pictured myself in the Amsterdam of 1940, the Amsterdam that was invaded by the Nazis, the Amsterdam of Anne Frank (whose hiding place is just around the corner from us). For the first time in my life, I could almost hear the boots on the streets; I could almost see the swastika flags. It was chilling. A chill for which I am grateful, because it connects me with something that was real, is real.

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