Hague Journal

The Peace Palace


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.