I really enjoy reading the concise, sharp, witty, and often eye-opening columns that my newspaper grazing gives me access to. And several Dutch columnists have mastered the art to levels that engender awe. Not every single piece that they produce, but enough to be envious. It is an art form, the opinions they vent are sometimes, or, for some of them, mostly, not mine, and also do not become mine after imbibing them in the superb concoction brewed by the columnist. When I read or hear about other aspects of their professional lives, their tv-appearances, their more focused efforts to influence public debate regarding a particular issue, I’m often not impressed, or even put off. All of that doesn’t matter when I come across a particularly evocative little vignette that strikes a chord. A young Dutch philosopher, writer and critic, Simone van Saarloos, is one of these language wizards.
I translated a piece that illustrates her ability to do several things simultaneously with just a couple of short paragraphs. The two core themes, a social and a psychological one, are both tragic, and my contribution, as often, are some compatible sounds.
During the war, my granddad hid in an old houseboat in the reed, because he didn’t want to work for the Germans in a factory. A farmer sometimes brought him some food. Courageous, because it didn’t freeze enough to walk on the ice, and every meal created a treacherous channel through the ice.
About this period he only said: “there was no choice”
Years later, when my granddad could really be called ‘granddad’, my grandma and him bought a cottage on Ameland [one of the West Frisian Islands off the north coast of the Netherlands]
We regularly visited, taking the boat at Holwerd. First enter the deck with the car, between the station wagons filled with kids who took their cushion from home along. Then below, the tables near the window were usually already occupied. We ate home-made sandwiches, the motor vibrated beneath our bums. On the ferry the smell was like I remember the idyllic part of my childhood: a gym at sea.
The cottage was surrounded by marram grass, in the sand were rabbit-holes that you could disappear into up to your shoulder. I got a pocket-knife from the corner store, made a slingshot, and blew arrows made of newsprint through a pvc tube. In the evening we did a tick check with invariable positive result. On Ameland I also saw my first dead body. My parents watched tv and I emerged from my bed room: on the screen a naked foot with a note attached to a toe – classic, lipstick-red blood, Baantjer. [Dutch crime series]
All very much the nineties. Until we, together with granddad and grandma, went to Crete. We sailed with a catamaran and coddled stray cats. After that, I only wanted holidays in far-away places. New York (the ferry around Manhattan, pointing to the fresh hole in the skyline, a stop at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis island), Cairo (float down the Nile in a cruise ship, in an air-conditioned bus to the pyramids, gawk at the work of slaves), Capetown (the passage to Robben island).
But I did miss Tompouce. Tompouce was the Shetland pony that I rode with through the dunes on Ameland. He was cake-brown with white spots on his belly. Tompouce was sluggish and didn’t follow the group very well – the owner of the riding school called him “the animal that falls by the wayside”. But I didn’t want any other. I had chosen him with the unconditional devotion that disappears when you grow older – distracted by an abundance of possibilities. When we walked together, I vividly pictured us as a cowboy couple on the prairie: towards freedom.
We call them ‘fortune seekers’, the people who with the required submission board an overloaded vessel to Lampedusa. The people who only float when they are dead.
But let no one who associates a boat trip with West Frisian islands, sailing for pleasure, or luxury cruises, say that he understands what these seekers die for.
Maybe to conclude another tragic contribution in sound, this time by a Dutch poet with a gift for black humour. His tale of the young family who feeds its kids to the wolves seems befitting.