THE LOW COUNTRIES
The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg
The Low Countries, Pays Bas in French, have historically included Holland , Flanders, and Belgium. Holland is only a part of The Netherlands, and Flanders no longer exists as a separate nation. The Flemish tongue, a dialect of Dutch, is spoken in Belgium, along with French. Luxembourg is included among these nations in that it is so small as not to have its own currency—Belgian Francs are used there.
During the years that I traveled there, my company had a factory in Soest (pronounced “Soost,”) not far from Amsterdam. So most of my visits were in that area. And several trips began by flying to Amsterdam, where I was met by my driver, Ibraham, who then whisked me off elsewhere.
In the fall of 1977, Betty and I embarked on a grand tour of Western Europe to give a series of one-day seminars on energy conservation. Mother and Carl agreed to take care of the children in our absence—a decision I’m sure they later regretted. We flew to London (Heathrow), and stayed for two or three nights at a hotel on Berkley Square, made famous by a nightingale in a World-War II song. I gave a seminar in the Kensington section of London, and Betty shopped at Harrod’s. Following this, we flew to Frankfurt and thence to Düsseldorf for seminars. After a weekend in Heidelberg, we flew to Amsterdam, choosing to stay downtown, rather than in the country near Soest.
We chose the Grand Hotel Kraznapolsky, impressed by its elegance. But Amsterdam is a decadent city, and the red-light district was only a couple blocks away. We did walk to restaurants, but were dismayed by what appeared to be druggies in the city center. The old buildings around the waterfront are attractive in their distinctive Dutch architecture, and leaned at odd angles. I can’t honestly say we enjoyed our stay there, and felt insecure. Some man even tried to pick up Betty in front of the hotel.
One of my seminars was held in Rotterdam, which I reached by train (alone), and had to ask directions. Fortunately, most Dutch speak excellent English, so travelers are not likely to go far astray. After the seminar, I returned without seeing anything of the city.
On a couple of occasions, I stayed near Soest, at a small roadside hotel called Het Witte Huis, The White House. The rooms were ok, the food good, and there were places to walk, both along the road and through the woods. When dining in The Netherlands, I would order jong geneever as an aperitif. This is a light, clear, young gin, which is the closest thing to a dry Martini I could find. On returning from my first trip, I brought a ceramic bottle of the stuff home in my suitcase, and it broke en route, without ruining any clothes. There is also an alt geneever, which is dark, and more like a cognac.
One of my seminars was held at the White House. Afterwards, I would walk into town, just to look through shop windows, trying to read signs. Some Dutch terms are quite readable. For example, the hardware store had a sign: “Doe-het-zelf!” Obviously, “Do it yourself.” After one meeting, we had a dinner in a local restaurant, where you would grill your own meat over a fire, with steaks, sausage, and pork cutlets provided—it was a fun event.
On another occasion, in the spring, Ibra took me to the famous Kukenof Gardens, which were in full bloom. You could order bulbs directly from the growers, and I did. Of the hundred or so anemones, some survived for years afterward. After my seminar, I took the train from nearby Amersfoort to Hamburg, Germany. Not a very eventful trip, past dikes and windmills and green farmland, and into the industrial north of Germany.
In the fall of 1989, I was invited to participate in a conference at the Delft Technical University. I flew into Schipol (Amsterdam) and rented a car for the drive. It took me awhile just to find my way out of the airport. Finally, arriving at Delft, I was unable to locate the university. I stopped to ask directions of an older woman, who couldn’t understand me, but some young people came to the rescue. Delft is a typical Dutch city of flat land and canals. My visit there wasn’t particularly memorable—the conference was not terribly interesting, and none of my friends were in attendance. I found little of value to buy in the shops, and dinners were nothing to write home about.
My last day there, I had called Ibra, and he picked me up and drove to Den Hagge (The Hague), an old city on the Nordsee (North Sea). We attempted to walk along the beach, but the wind and rain got the better of us, driving us into a hotel, where we drank and talked the afternoon away. It was the last time I ever saw Ibra—he would be retiring. Not long afterward, we sold our factory in Soest, and I never went back.
I found Belgium much more interesting than The Netherlands, although having spent less time there. Brussels is its capital city, but I never stayed there, only flying in and out. Antwerp is its industrial center. The country is bilingual, Flemish to the north, and French-speaking Waloons to the south—I don’t remember meeting any of the latter.
This was the last stop on our grand tour of Europe in 1977. Betty and I saw much of Antwerp, particularly its art. One of its attractions in the Rubens House, home of the famous Flemish painter Peter-Paul Rubens. Many of his masterpieces were on display, some even at our hotel. His work is typical of the Flemish style and the period, very much like his contemporary, Van Dyke. His house is restored to what it must have looked like when he lived there, complete with furniture, studio, kitchen, etc. It probably took a great deal of work to restore, because most of Antwerp was completely destroyed during the war. Blueprints of downtown buildings had been saved, and were followed faithfully in the rebuilding process, so that the city would regain its original charm.
Belgian beer is excellent, some of the best being made by monks. And we had some great meals there, too—especially the deserts, made with Belgian chocolate. We flew from the small Antwerp airport to London and thence homeward on our 1977 trip. I returned there in 1986 for a conference, continuing on to Marseilles afterward. Ibra was also attending, and one evening, we drove to Maastricht, in a little tongue of The Netherlands, and continued east to Aachen, Germany, where we stopped to see the great cathedral there.
Many Belgian places have both Flemish and French names, or at least pronunciations. This ancient city is pronounced either “Brukka” or “Brouge” (like “rouge”). It was one of the medieval seaports made rich from international trade during the 14th - 16th centuries. It is no longer a port, however, as its access to the sea has gradually filled up.
I drove there with Ibra and his wife and daughter from Paris, on our way to Holland, where they lived. We parked near the center of the old city and walked about, taking in the architecture— 15th and 16th century buildings in the Dutch style. Ibra’s wife asked a question of some children playing in the neighborhood, who responded with giggles. There was apparently enough difference between her Dutch and their Flemish to make them laugh, while (almost) understanding what she said. We had dinner in a restaurant on the old city square, in view of the Rathaus (city hall) and the cathedral. It is indeed a beautiful city, well worth visiting.
In the spring of 1987, Ibra met me at Schipol, and we headed for France, with a few stops along the way. I arrived in the morning, so our first stop was for lunch—in Liege. It lies just west of the Ardennes Forest, known for the fierce battle of WW I, and again for the Battle of the Bulge in WW II. Bastogne, where my Uncle Tom was wounded in December of 1944, lies about 40 miles to the south.
Les moules (mussels) were in season, and at the restaurant where we stopped, they were being served in a variety of ways—with a tomato sauce, with butter and garlic, onions and herbs, etc.,etc. So he ordered them one way and I another, that we could try both. They were served in a huge soup kettle—an enormous serving which we were unable to finish. After you eat the first mussel, you then use its shell as a pair of pincers to extract the meat from the other shells. It was a great meal! We could not stay longer, as we had to continue on to Luxembourg for the night.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is sandwiched between the southeast corner of Belgium and Germany. It is all of about 40 miles north to south, and 25 miles across. Its only city of any consequence is the capital, Luxembourg.
We stayed at a hotel downtown, bordering a park. The city is divided between an upper and lower section that differ in height by perhaps 150 feet or more. The cleft is quite sharp, and runs right through its center, with a small stream marking the division, in a long park. The area is quite scenic, with much exposed rock, stone staircases, walks and bridges. We dined in our hotel that Saturday night.
On Sunday morning, I rose to attend 8:00 Mass at the cathedral, a block or so down the street. There were only a few of us in attendance, and the Mass was held at a back altar. But it was unique in being celebrated in four languages, serially: Flemish, French, English, and German. As the priest progressed through the parts of the Mass, he would change languages and continue. The currency used in Luxembourg is Belgium francs, but French francs and Deutschmarks were welcome in the collection basket as well.
After breakfast, we strolled through the park, taking photos. Then we drove on to France.