White Stone

As I write, Eva, one of my daughters, is at the doctor’s office with her partner, Matt, getting their first view of the new life forming in her womb.  If all goes well, this little child – to be born in the summer of 2015 – has every chance of living into the next century.  And he or she will bear a name which has yet to be determined.

Naming a child can be a precarious undertaking, running the gauntlet of familial expectations and traditions, cultural and linguistic considerations, and the good sense – or the lack thereof – of the parents.  For two of my four daughters, had they been sons, we had chosen the name “Abraham”.  Which at first thought might strike one as perhaps overly-biblical but not otherwise problematic.  Until one takes into account that we were living in Amsterdam at the time and the name would inevitably have been shorted to “Bram”.  “Bram Adan” would surely have been a constant source of cheer during the annual fast in our predominantly Muslim neighbourhood but methinks the teasing would have been unbearable.

Yesterday, nearly four years after leaving the Netherlands, I had another moment of homesickness for that good land.  Eva and I were driving back to Abbotsford, listening to a CD of Dutch pop music, when the song below came on.  Zelfs je naam is mooi (“Even your name is beautiful”) is a touching love song and as we sang along I started to mist-up a bit.  Suddenly Eva interrupted and recounted how a friend in high school once told her about having dinner with the artist at his home.  “Wait, wait!” Eva stopped him, “is his partner’s name Julia?”.  “Yes,” said her friend, puzzled, “how did you know?”  Eva had picked up on a clever aspect of the song: the name which is so beautiful and of which the artist sings so tenderly is never actually mentioned in all the song’s verses but, if one listens carefully, is the final word the singer says as the music is coming to an end.

There was a brief time, following my ordination as a priest, when – as I was able –  I would say the name of each communicant as they knelt before me to receive the sacrament.  I gave up this practice fairly quickly; I discovered that my familiarity with the individual threatened to turn a moment of ineffable holiness and intimacy into one that was mundane and ordinary. How could I be so sure that the name which this person’s parents had given them only a few years before was a true reflection of the identity they bore before God as they knelt to touch the veil of eternity?  Most likely it was not.  Doesn’t John’s Revelation say something about our secret name, written on a white stone, known only to the divine?

Now Matt and Eva have just come by, breathless at the door, bringing me a hint of December air in their clothing and in their hands an ultrasound image of their wee child.  They are so excited and awed by the wonder of it all.  The tears well up again, my voice cracks, I give Eva a hug; Matt looks aside, careful not to intrude in a father-daughter moment.

Welcome, child; be sure of this: God knows your name.

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Hare Majesteit

Today as I listened to the live broadcast of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands announcing that, come April, she will be abdicating, I was surprised by my emotion.

Like many in the world today my ancestry is varied, though the name “Adan” is Scots in origin and it is this ancient cultural heritage with which I most readily identify. I was born of American parents who lived in Brazil at the time and as a matter of bureaucratic process received citizenship of both countries. After marrying a Canadian I moved with my new bride to the Netherlands where we were granted Dutch citizenship as well. At the moment I’m living in Canada and, if I so choose, will qualify for citizenship of this gracious land within a few short years, which would return me full circle to the status of my Scottish forebears with regard to allegiances to yet another queen.

In sum, when it comes to national identities, I am a child of the age. The multiple identities were not planned as such, I’ve simply learned to welcome the opportunities which came my way, wanting as much as possible to identify with the people among whom I lived, and not wishing to relinquish those ties when I moved on.

So what is it about Queen Beatrix abdicating that brings a tear to my eye? It may sound odd to my born and bred Dutch friends, but Beatrix is “my” queen. Her steadfast and compassionate service is an accurate reflection of the country which welcomed me and gave my family a home for nearly thirty years. With Beatrix stepping down another part of the Holland I embraced, and which so warmly returned the embrace, is disappearing into history. And that makes me sad.

Auto-pilot

I remember locking up my bicycle once outside the barbershop on the Ferdinand Bolstraat, back when Heineken still had its brewery across the street.  As far as the tourists are concerned Heineken is still there, even though the greater part of the plant – the actual production –  has been moved elsewhere and what remains is nothing more than a tourist attraction. (A free mug of beer if you visit on your birthday!)  As for the barbershop, I haven’t looked for it of late – I have my hair cut elsewhere – but at the time it was one of those places frequented by working class men looking for a quick, inexpensive cut.  There were six chairs, I believe, and it wasn’t uncommon to find twice that many men sitting around the table in the back, smoking and waiting their turn.

Just as I headed in the door I was stopped short by the thought, “What am I doing?  I don’t need a haircut.  Why am I here?”

In fact, I never intended to go to the barbershop that morning.  I had been heading across town on my bike to a completely different appointment, absent-mindedly thinking about other things, when I arrived at an intersection which my subconscious knew I generally only encountered when I was going for a haircut.  I switched to auto-pilot without noticing and ended up at the barbershop.

I’m sure most of us have had the experience of driving a familiar route and “waking up” near the end of it wondering if we actually paid any attention at all to the traffic lights along the way.  Last week I experienced the opposite of that effect: in serious conversation with my daughter I found myself stopped at a green light, the driver behind me honking impatiently at the idiot in front of him.  I believe I must have stopped when it was green to begin with.  He soon passed me, in a hurry, and when I gave a friendly wave he returned the politeness with an irritated jerk of the hand and a dirty look.

About fifteen years ago a friend who is almost that much older than me told me she felt like her life was on auto-pilot.  At the time I didn’t quite understand what she meant even though she explained it had to do with the changeless nature of her relationships and career at the time.  She had adolescent children and in the interest of family stability and job security any changes in direction were on hold.  I thought back on my own youth and concluded she was wrong.  But then, we did end up living in an abandoned feed store along Highway 1 in Florida for a year.  We weren’t your typical family.

But now I understand.  I’ve been itching for significant change for the past five years or so and the one time in that period I dared take the leap, I fell flat.  Ouch!  Not just for me and Renata, but for our own adolescent children as well.  Some day they’ll be writing stories about when, because of their father’s crazy life decisions, they went halfway around the world and came back again, ending up living in an octogenarian’s attic.

I’ve come to appreciate the value of auto-pilot.  And yet…..   There’s been a long pause between that last sentence and this one.  Do I really mean it?  No, not entirely.  I still believe there is something to be said for risk-taking, for adventure, for pushing the edges of life’s envelope even when one is not compelled to.

A time for everything, I guess.

Lefty

The Netherlands will be heading to the polls in a few weeks time, so I thought I better bone-up on party platforms.  We have a wonderful multi-party system here, with governments almost always being formed by coalitions.  (The “hung parliament”, so dreaded in Britain, is our standard variety.)  There is even a “Party for the Animals” with a sitting member of parliament.  But there are “only” about 10 main parties;  still, too many for me to keep track of the fine points in their differences.

So I went online to the Stemkompas (Vote Compass) and answered a battery of 30 questions about my political views.  The results plotted me on a grid, showing where I was in relation to the major parties.  I ended up somewhere in the empty space between the Christian Union and the Labour Party.  Both parties are slightly leftist, where the desire is for government to be relatively more pro-active in ordering society (the majority of Dutch political parties are found here).  However, the Christian Union, though leftist, falls on the conservative side of the axis (“traditional values” & “monocultural”), whereas Labour is leftist and progressive (“personal freedoms” & “multicultural”).  My answers to the poll questions plotted me as also being Leftist and Progressive, though closer to the center on both counts.

Leftist and Progressive.  Who would have ever thought?  Well, I guess my American family would have thought.  Or at least had a hunch.  They’ve been witnessing, for 30 years, my drift away from being a 1980 Reagan Republican.  Luckily, I’ve also largely given up being the dogmatic person I once was, so there are no fireworks when we get together.

One of the benefits of living in the Netherlands has been learning that Christians, even Evangelicals,  can ascribe to a wide variety of political persuasions, and still be authentic in their faith.  The presumption of many American (and British?) Evangelicals, that to be a true believer necessarily means being a right-wing conservative, is here a proven nonsense.  Committed Christians can be found in all the parties, in every quadrant of the political grid, and it is the same love of God and love of neighbour that motivates their activism.

Who knows?  Maybe one day, if I leave here and go somewhere else, my politics will drift in an entirely new direction, to something more appropriate to my new context.  I’m not too concerned about it, as long as those two loves are the guiding lights.  My life and understanding has been enriched by my time in Holland, and I’m thankful to the Dutch for the lessons learned.

Alas, I still don’t know for whom I’ll vote.

Koninginnedag

Today is Queen’s Day in the Netherlands.  It started way back when as a celebration of the Queen’s birthday and even though the present Queen, Beatrix, was born in January, Koninginnedag is now fixed on the birthday of her mother, Juliana.  Presumably, if you want to have a massive national celebration outdoors, then it makes more sense to do it when the weather is tolerable.

So what do the Dutch do on Queen’s day?  Too much to tell in a short blog, so I’ll give you our own experience of the last 24 hours…

At dinner last night we started our celebration with Oranje tompoucen for dessert.  Imagine a rectangular sandwich-like pastry whose “bread” is a crunchy crust topped with a thin layer of orange glaze frosting, and whose “filling” is two inches of a thick whipped-cream substance.  Very lekker.

If we had wanted to we could have followed up our tompoucen by watching an enormously popular national TV quiz show, “Ik Hou van Holland” (I Love Holland), where two zany teams of celebrities try to outdo each other in their eclectic knowledge of Dutch (pop-)culture.  But we passed on the quiz show.

At about 9:30 p.m. our street started to get busy with people streaming to the town square, about 200 meters south of us.  At 10:00 p.m. we looked out from our front window at the fireworks display.  It would have done the neighborhood proud on New Year’s Eve, but seeing as this was supposed to be a big event for the whole town….well, it was a bit meager.  Times are hard everywhere.

We went to bed and were kept awake half the night by groups of young revelers leaving the pubs at the town square.  This morning early, as I walked the dog in the drippy mist, some of these groups were still wandering around, looking like cold and bedraggled neanderthals heading into the McDonald’s for breakfast.

The main event for Queen’s Day are the numerous “vrijmarkten” (free markets).  Imagine the Mother of all Garage Sales.  Then push it to the limits of your imagination, and go further.  Everyone – at least half the population – who has any old junk to sell brings it out and spreads it out on the sidewalk, hawking it to the other half of the population who have decided that this year they are going to buy and not sell.  In amongst all the buying and selling one can find innumerable children playing their instruments, performing acts, organizing games, selling home made baked goods, etc. etc.

We made two forays into the fray today, one in the morning, one in the afternoon when the sun had finally come out.  Honestly, it makes me dizzy. Something about walking slowly by stall after stall of stuff, trying to spot anything that might be worth taking home.  I’m awful at it; I never find anything.  But Renata comes home with armfuls of goods, proud at her amazing savings.  Today her focus was on her school class, and she got 4 brightly painted little wooden chairs and a number of games.

In between, at lunch time, we turned on the TV and watched the live reports of the Royal Family’s visit to a town in Zeeland.  And after our final outing was over I downed a cold beer, and  had a well-deserved nap on the couch.

Still, blue

A few weeks ago, out walking the dog in the early morning, I was struck by how quiet it was.  Well, relatively.  Because the more I focused on the quietness, the more I realized it wasn’t quiet at all.  We live in the centre of a city of eighty thousand, a 6-lane motorway only 500 meters away, and – as the crow flies – about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the end of one of five runways at Schiphol airport.  In other words, there is always a high level of background noise in our neighborhood.  And even though on this morning it was quiet enough for me to hear the birds singing in the treetops, if I listened I could also hear the roar of jet engines and the hum of traffic in the distance.

The most quiet I can remember it ever being where we live was in the middle of the night after a heavy snow had closed the airport and stopped all the traffic.  But even then, one could hear noise from the neighborhood.  I wondered, while walking the dog, what real quiet would be like.  What if I could stop all the traffic, stop the birds, stop the ringing in my ears and the drum of my heart, maybe even still the “music of the spheres”?  What would real, absolute quiet be like?  In the end I decided I probably wouldn’t like it, not for very long.

Part of my wishful thinking has come true.  The airplanes have all stopped.  A volcano hundreds of kilometers away has brought air traffic in Europe to a standstill.  Who would have thought?  And everywhere I go in our little town, people are commenting on the sudden relative quietness that has descended upon us.  What a treat!

Not only that, but the sky is so blue!  Normally it is criss-crossed with contrails, or tainted with the whitish vapor that remains when they dissipate.  Dutch airspace is a very busy place, and there is always a trace of that traffic in our sky.  But yesterday and today the sky has been blue, blue , blue – with nothing to spoil it.  Not a cloud, and not a single sign of an airplane.  It is like we are living in a different age.

I didn’t think I minded, at all, the intrusion of modern air traffic in my life.  I quite like the sound of jets taking off and landing.  But now that everything is so still, and the sky is so blue, I believe I do mind.

I wonder what else clutters my life like this.  Someday, when it is suddenly gone, my soul will let out a long-awaited sigh of relief.

Customer Service

Anyone who lived anywhere else in the world before coming to Holland knows the words “Dutch Customer Service” border on the oxymoronic.  Naturally there is a modicum of service, otherwise business in general would be impossible.  And I recognize there are even a handful of Dutch businesses known internationally as customer-friendly (KLM Airlines, for instance); but the overwhelming trend is toward abysmal customer care.  It is often a topic of conversation at expat social gatherings: who can give the best (=worst!) example of customer service from their time here.

A few years ago, at a clearance sale in Canada, I bought a sofa set.  As the clerk rang up the invoice, she asked what day and time I would like to have the furniture delivered.  “You mean day,” I thought, as I recalled the many times in the Netherlands waiting all day at home for a delivery that could come anytime “after 8:30 a.m.”, often to have the phone ring at the end of the day telling me they would have to reschedule.  But no, the Canadian clerk was serious: what day and what quarter hour did I want the delivery van to come?   As skeptical as I was, I gave her a time.  And indeed, on the appointed day and quarter hour, up pulled the truck to offload my order and bring it in the house.  Friendly guys, too.

I’ve never figured out why, even though Dutch products are of a very high quality, their delivery is accompanied with so much disregard for the customer.  It’s as if, once the money is in the till, nothing else matters.

Twenty-five years ago, when we were learning the in’s and out’s of Dutch culture, a friend explained the difference (then) between how American’s view lunchtime bread meals and how the Dutch see them.  American’s use two slices of bread (“sandwich”) to hold what is their real focus: the filling.  The more elaborate the filling, the better the sandwich.  For the Dutch however, each slice of bread is given a single topping, one layer, and is eaten with knife and fork.  It is not at all uncommon to see someone down 6 or 8 such slices, one after the other, in a single sitting.  The focus for the Dutch is the bread, not the topping.  (That’s why they have such good bread.)

I wonder if something similar is happening, but in reverse, with customer care.  For the Dutch the focus is the actual product transfer (the “filling” in this case), and for many of the rest of us, its about the persons involved in making the transaction (the two slices of bread on either side; the relationship).

(If you have any wisdom on this, please feel free to comment.)