Impromptus

Hague Journal

by Jay Nordlinger

Friends, I’m writing you from Salzburg, where I’m doing my annual job at the festival. (Jobs, actually.) I don’t propose to scribble you a Salzburg journal — later. I’d like to do a Hague journal. I spent some time in that Dutch city not long ago.

Why? Was I indicted for war crimes? No, much as some readers have suggested it over the years. Some of us National Review types were there, in advance of an NR cruise — which is another story, or journal.

Before leaving New York, I had lunch at my favorite barbecue place. It later occurred to me: from Harlem to Haarlem.

Speaking of double a’s: They’re all over Holland, on signs. Holland is a double-voweled country.

(Beethoven was of Dutch ancestry, by the way — note the double e.)

I arrive at the airport in Amsterdam, and I think, “Man, are they tall.” Even the girls look down on you, many of them. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world — surpassing even tall East Africans.

Tony Daniels — a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple — once told me something. There was an article in a Dutch newspaper, which described him as “short of stature.” He is not — he is quite normal, for most places. But he must appear short to Dutchmen.

The airport in Amsterdam, as you know, is called “Schiphol” (meaning “Ship Hole”). The “sch” sound in Dutch is one of the most amazing sounds in language — some impossible scrapy thing. Of course, many sounds are impossible until you learn to imitate them. And then they’re not impossible at all.

On the way from Amsterdam to The Hague, I thought of a line from Mark Helprin’s recent novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow: Holland has “a mild, waterlogged landscape.” So true, so well put.

Kind of funny to see modern windmills in Holland — those sleek, silver things. Because you think of Holland as the home of the old, Rembrandt-style windmills.

At least the tulips don’t change. (Or do they?)

Our hotel has a restaurant, and its name is Pearl — clever. Capitalizingly clever. When Vermeer painted that girl — the one with the pearl earring — I wonder if he could guess that she would be one of the most famous and best-loved girls in the world.

I have not seen so many bicyclers since my last visit to Stanford University. In either place — The Hague or Stanford — you’re liable to be run over at any second. They don’t just whiz by. They threaten.

Here in The Hague, almost no bicycler wears a helmet. Which is interesting. Hasn’t the EU ruled on this, as on the lesser details of life?

Suddenly, I’m being yelled at, by two young Dutchmen. It turns out I’m walking in the bike lane. (They too are on foot.) Their tone is sharp and nasty. As they continue down the street, they scowl, mutter, and shake their heads.

I think, “Zealous sons-of-guns.” (That’s a Bowdlerized version of what I think.) Their outburst was so unnecessary.

Later I think, “Would they have taken the same tone with, say, a group of young Muslim men? Hmmm?” To borrow a phrase from Fred Barnes: Not likely.

The Peace Palace is really one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. It was paid for by Andrew Carnegie. I got to know it a little bit — in a scholarly way — when I wrote a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. The palace figures in the early history of the prize.

A lot of international peace-ism is silly — some of it isn’t — but the building is beautiful, regardless.

I try to visit the palace — to go inside — but I’m told that visiting hours are quite limited. This is not a place for tourism. “It’s a working palace,” says a guard.

I’m sort of tickled by that phrase: “a working palace.”

As longtime readers know, I have a tradition in foreign capitals, and other cities: When I pass a Cuban embassy or consulate, I flip it off. I raise my bird.

This is a tradition I continue in The Hague.

There is a Domino’s Pizza here. I smile as I pass it. Domino’s started in my little ol’ hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its founder is Tom Monaghan, a greatly inspiring story: an orphan who made good.

Even the Left would be inspired by it if they could get over his opposition to abortion, which, of course, they can’t.

Our group takes a bus tour, and our guide mentions the Battle of Waterloo: It was a glorious Dutch victory. As one of us remarks, sotto voce, Wellington had nothing to do with it!

We have a look at Parliament. Our guide points out that security is relaxed. There is little political violence in Holland — although a Dutch politician, a right-winger with extreme views, was assassinated in 2002. The gunman was “a normal Dutch guy” (by which our guide means, I’m sure, a non-Muslim).

I can’t help thinking, with a burn, “Pim Fortuyn was certainly less extreme than the normal guy who killed him.”

A couple of times, our guide says, with a smile and a lilt, “As you know, we don’t like the Germans very much.” (I keep picking on this guide, but she was generally very good.)

Here is an uncomfortable fact from World War II — a fact I learned several years ago from David Pryce-Jones: Holland, of all the countries occupied by the Germans, had the highest percentage of men volunteering for the SS.

Our guide tells us something charming: A common excuse for lateness in Holland is, “So sorry — the bridge was open,” i.e., up to allow ships to pass.

We visit the famed windmills, the ones Rembrandt painted (I believe). And I’ll tell you something: In paintings and photos, they may look quaint and cute. But, up close, when the wind is going, they are powerful, formidable, somewhat scary things. They are not toys. They work.

They are marvels — absolute marvels — of engineering. The question occurs to me, “Am I so impressed because I’m a non-engineer? Or would I be even more impressed if I were an engineer?”

There is an engineer along with us — John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire. He earned three degrees in mechanical engineering — bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate — at MIT. He says, “When you think about when these babies were built [I’m paraphrasing], the engineering is very impressive indeed.”

In parts of Rotterdam, you can think you’re in Turkey, or North Africa. The mayor of Rotterdam is a Muslim. This is cause for celebration, in some respects.

But think about this: If Europeans moved en masse to, say, Morocco, and one of them were elected mayor of, say, Tangier, what would the Left say?

They would go absolutely, stark-raving nuts: Imperialism! Colonialism! Morocco for Moroccans!

It’s true, isn’t it?

Delfshaven has many immigrants, or children of immigrants. This is where our Pilgrim Fathers set sail. For these immigrants: Does Delfshaven represent a new beginning, as of old?

This is a big question, one of the biggest facing today’s Europe.

In another town, a Dutchman whizzes past me, not on a bike but on rollerblades. I think, “This is as close as I’ll come to Hans Brinker.”

I see words that are familiar to me as New York-area place-names: Orange, for example, and Nassau. If the historical cookie had crumbled a little differently, N.Y. could be N.A., still — New Amsterdam.

I see the name Oosterhuis — which also belongs to an English golfer and commentator.

I see the name Van Pelt — and it hits me: “Hey, Lucy [from Peanuts] is Dutch!”

In The Hague, I see a man washing windows — upper-story windows — and doing so with the longest squeegees you’ll ever see in your life.

Who knew they made ’em in that size?

The Hague is hard by the North Sea, and you know how to find it? The beach, that is? The seagulls will let you know. They usually do, around the world.

A sign reads, “Best Steak in Town” — I’m not translating, either. That’s what it says, in English. I think, “They know how to appeal to particular tourists.”

I’m a little surprised to see a Chinatown in The Hague. No, not an Indonesia-town — that, you might expect. An honest-to-goodness Chinatown.

I will continue a theme of my journals this year: The Hague has a beautiful train station — as train stations really should be. The inside is nothing to look at. But the outside (where it counts) — superb and civilized.

It lets you know, “Human beings, with souls, live here” (or once did). They have reached beyond the utilitarian, beyond the humdrum.

Years ago, there was a book published, a book that was widely and wildly praised. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a book so praised, except maybe one by Toni Morrison. It was The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama. I have always intended to read that book. Maybe someday I will.

If Holland falls to sharia — well, put it this way: “Fall” will be the word.

I walk into a French lunch-place, which is displaying a lot of cheeses. I feel like a sandwich, and I’d like to sample some Dutch cheese, seeing as I’m in Holland (and Dutch cheese is famous). I ask whether there are any cheeses from Holland. The young woman gives me a look that says, “What a shocking and unnecessary question.” I think the answer will be, “Of course we have Dutch cheese, we’re in Holland!”

But the answer is: “Oh, no. Only French.”

Mais bien sûr, mademoiselle, pardonnez-moi.

Before getting on the ship in Amsterdam, I decide that this country should be renamed “Tall Pretty Girls Riding Bikes.” The country already has two names — the Netherlands and Holland. A third wouldn’t hurt.

Thanks for joining me, and see you soon.

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