“Potverdomme!” Marty pounded his fist on the antique table, knocking books to the floor.
Used to the interjection, I murmured, “What happened this time?”
I listened as I typed the rest of my thought—fluence of poisoned streams and post-martyrdom saints’ miracles is a purposeful melding of cultures. To conquer, power and water were redirected toward new sour—
Exasperated, I interrupted us both, hollering, “Can’t someone else handle this? You do not like to delegate, Marty. You agree that everyone else’s burnout is legitimate, but what about your own? Or ours?”
“But another lab messed up!” As he paced around the living room, I let him vent about mismatched bar codes and other misadventures in miscommunication. I had lent a supportive ear for similar outbursts for months. Lately, a system malfunction had become a daily expectation.
At the window, he looked down to the empty street below. His full boil started to simmer. “I do need to turn off the gas. My little Pear, I’m sorry! I forget that you’re on this achtbaan with me.”
I heard the irony in his choice of words. He was reaching his limit with his baan. Marty kept the pedal to the metal but saw the mountain approaching in the distance. Every day there were fewer co-pilots to whom he could transfer the throttle. Too many had left on a so-called break and had yet to return. He felt a moral obligation. Donating his brain to solving what had kept the world homebound for so many months was a service to his country and science.
Instead of keeping a regular schedule, he ploughed through one hundred hours a week. Inspired, I kept pace with query letters or editing. Together, at opposite ends of a walnut slab, we worked. There, we were socially distanced from the life we once had. Usually, going out to this hip restaurant or that new exhibit, our worldview became dramatically different.
My new-found hobby of growing windowsill herbs diminished our view. The wider vista was through another undraped window. Our neighbour sat on his couch with a decrepit cat, staring at the television. The balding bag of bones was kept alive to keep its owner’s sanity.
We lived in a fishbowl overlooking the same sad story. Accustomed to mealtimes discussing loftier pursuits, we now processed things previously too raw to digest. Biting into a sandwich during a conference call, I learned that illness is tracked through the output from the sewers. There was no longer any filter.
To stave off his turning into a statistic, I interjected into his train of thought before it derailed, insisting, “Let’s take a break and go on a Google Map tour. This time, we’ll pick a hotel we can visit.” The Netherlands never endured a complete lockdown; coffee shops were essential, except on the Ides of March of 2020. Still, it was as if we were in an escape room for which no time clock had been set.
Entrenched in his canal, he quipped, “Why leave Amsterdam, Perrie? The only way you can dine well is by booking a hotel with a restaurant, and we know what’s here. It’s nice to wander around with no tourists.” We pre-payed the package, dined, and dashed back home occasionally. Stepping into the Centrum, we enjoyed the ease of a stroll free from dodging stoned visitors meandering too slowly upstream.
Mostly trapped in our walls, we sulked and fell into wanderlust. City mice, we would have cruised the Autobahn to Berlin, his favourite. My preference is too far for a long weekend. La Serenissima provides Titian in situ, canals, and feats of engineering to hold back the water. The narrow alleys of Venice fell silent, and dolphins returned to the lagoon. But, with the pandemic, nations had dug moats, and we were trapped behind the dijks.
I suggested, “We can do that, but fortunately, Amsterdam is no longer a walled city.”
A Noord-Hollander for generations, Marty had not found an excuse to leave the Southern Sea to come this far up into the Netherlands in decades, but these were special times. Feeling like Florentine aristocrats fleeing the plague to the undulating Tuscan countryside, we made our way to the foothills of Limburg. With no one else on the road, it was a rare traffic-free trip through North and South Holland and so on and so forth to Vaals, on the border with Aachen, Germany.
The building was born as an industrialist’s Neoclassical manse, became a convent, and was seemingly dying as a hotel drained of its guests. Room service was delivered to the hallway with a knock at the door. The accommodations to the crisis made it feel less like being buttled and more like having victuals passed through a donjon door, silver tray or not.
This cell, however, had a view. As we enjoyed our brunch from a different table, we looked through the leaden glass into the garden. Walled with stone dripping in ivy and protected by cypresses, the highlight of the verdant lawn was a ginkgo. The pale green maidenhair had just begun to feel enough chill from the lengthening nights to shiver her tresses’ tips a Venetian blonde. The slowly crumbling dahlias still holding fast to their vibrant pigments rendered the tableau spectacular.
We had other destinations than the deserted palace in mind. Parking the car at a distance, we scurried. We were two of a handful of people looking around, hoping not to be seen. Usually teeming with tourists, the family destination was eerily still. The only human sound was hurried footfalls.
Our eyes darted nervously as we approached the border marker. Inscribed 322.50 AP, this craggy edge of the Netherlands is hundreds of meters above the level of the capital’s inundated summer canals. Further enhancing the attraction for a history buff like me, this was once where four nations had met. Today it is the boundary of three. Neutral Moresnet was absorbed primarily by Belgium after the First World War.
We took the obligatory couple selfie. Then we posed cheekily with only our fingers pointing into Belgium. Having documented our location, we turned off our keepers. Untethered, we slipped back in time, double-checked to ensure no guards spied, and sprang over the border. Instead of smuggling tax-free goods out of Moresnet, in 2020, we secreted ourselves into Belgium.
Evading detection, we took the path less travelled. It cascaded down over moist, loosened rocks creating a narrow ravine. Streaming forward, we pushed back the untended branches of scrubby trees with their fading leaves. Descending from the North, we flowed with a favourable tailwind.
The track had only been a shortcut. We were struck breathless at the confluence of a path through two woods. A gash across the land, it looked as if it could have been created by an army ploughing a wide furrow to help Caesar advance against the defiant Eburones.
To our right was Belgium, and to our left was Germany. We marched for kilometres between these different worlds, encountering no other human beings. Then, there was almost total silence.
Startled by the trampling of only my own feet, I turned. I found Marty as stunned as a salmon. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. “Peregghrine!” His hard Dutch G ricocheted around the forest. “Have you noticed the trees?”
“Which ones, honey, the Germans? Or the Belgians?” I giggled, happy that our minds were synchronised. I was also amused because we rarely said each other’s names. I had trouble pronouncing the “IJ” in Martijn, and he had difficulty softening the “G” in Peregrine.
“I’m glad you noticed, too. I didn’t want to make assumptions about a forest’s national tendencies,” he smirked. Behind him, rows of orderly evergreens stood at attention, waiting for an order to drop their needles in unison.
“I was thinking the same thing about the Belgian woods,” I said, dramatically sweeping my hand toward Brussels. “Where unlaced Francophonie confronts—”
Marty was no longer so black and white. He was a reformed, Reformed Dutch but increasingly agnostic and verging on the edge of atheism.
I felt culturally atheistic, having wandered like my ancestors, but this time to the Netherlands. As a generational expatriate, I understood borders.
“No, not yet. That frontier is a little farther north.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Per! I’d forgotten how many chapels and crucifixes create the look of Limburg. It’s practically… Belgian,” he snickered. “Imagine what they say to each other?”
“The trees? How can they chat if they refuse to speak the same language?”
“Surely they all speak Limburgish? I bet the Germans look at the Belgians wondering, ‘What’s it like to have such joie de vivre?’”
“The Belgians would respond, ‘Why should I tell you? You’ll roll through as you like, throwing cones.’”
Through peals of laughter, he snorted, “The Dutch trees peer over the ridge saying, ‘Thank God we have this one mountain to block the view. That seems messy.’”
A Gallophile, I was comfortable in Belgium. But I could understand how it might feel like a descent into chaos for a deliberate Dutchman. Always ready for any eventuality, they are easily spotted at rest areas abroad armed with mugs filled from a thermos of home-brewed coffee.
Until that moment, however, I had never felt the difference in aesthetics between this strangely carved corner of the world. That morning, we left a curated botanical exhibit, crossed through an untamed scrub brush, and were pushed westward by columns of evenly spaced firs. Not wholly stripped of the city slickers that left us impenetrable to the sentimentality of nature, we anthropomorphised the trees. Even in the middle of nowhere, humanity’s presence was too absurdly clear.
After what felt like aeons, we stumbled into a village. Parched, we found a place willing to pass us a cup of coffee through a door barricaded by a table. Neither Dutch nor French worked, but asking in German did. The medley of signs included Limburgish, so we assumed we were in Belgium. Refreshed, we began our ascent up the emptied mountain, over its summit, and across an unobserved border.
We hiked through Moresnet and back through time. I babbled about the terrain’s history as the sun started to set over Belgium. A zinc ore mining company owned the stores, the houses, and the ground beneath Moresnetic feet. The workers for Vieille Montagne mined the old mountain. Their toil sourced material to produce the locally crafted brass chandeliers gracing every baron’s Neoclassical kasteel. When the mine to decorate this splendour was exhausted in 1885, it was the source of many floral zinc bars carved for Paris or Horta’s Brussels.
Reaching the border marker, Marty turned on his phone, hoping it had tracked our exertion. It did not. “How far did we walk?”
Having just conquered centimetres and metres, I paused to convert our trek into kilometres. “At least 20K?”
“Maybe more. But the air is so fresh that I’m not even tired!”
“Alas,” I sighed, taking in one last full breath. “We have to go home, Marty.”
He shrugged, and we returned to Mokum Alef. But Amsterdam no longer felt like a safe haven, despite its Yiddish nickname. We worked at our table surrounded by walls. Painted stylishly dark, they slowly closed in on us, absorbing the sombre mood outside. The patina of the once-charged city had begun to wear as thin as Moresnet.
We put our flat on the market. A younger couple bought it, moving up from a crowded apartment building for their safety and sanity. In their gezellig kitchen, we left them a bottle of Limburgish sparkling wine. From Holset, its grapes are seasoned by the spring the Eburones worshipped—before the Romans called that deity Baal and so on and so forth.
The End of the World
After our trip, the good doctor Marty became attracted to his deeper ancestral soil. We found an old cottage on a patch of land as large as a city block. My friends across the Pond dubbed me Eva Gabor and wished me the best of luck in Hooterville.
As we loaded the moving van, our Amsterdammer neighbour scoffed, “But it is the end of the world!”
“A great-grandmother came from near there. It’s too much here.” An e-scooter buzzed past Marty.
“It’s nothing but boeren.” Farmers: but in the ring of Amsterdam, the connotation is hillbillies.
In Drenthe and Groningen, however, the hills are occupied by gracious old farms or the former estates of the titans of lost industries. Sharing our destination, over the Hondsrug, his response was a raised brow followed by, “Over there? I hear there’s nothing but tokkies,” aka trash.
It was as if we were exiling ourselves beyond the pale of civilisation delineated by this ridge of sand. The so-named “Dog’s Back” was high ground. It was security from an unreliable land — before it was tamed.
According to mediaeval maps, our new home was once beyond the reeded shores of an expansive wetland. It was teeming with waterfowl and fish. Aeons ago, these hard-to-navigate rivers of grass and groves were part of the greater defence system for Groningen.
Centuries ago, when military technology eclipsed natural barriers, this land became a facet of the peat moss industry. Groningen exerted power over the water, diverted the region’s flow, and built canals on the edge of backwater Drenthe. These straight slices eased the ferrying of reclaimed earth to fire factories. These chunks of desiccated terrain fuelled the industrial revolution.
When coal replaced peat moss, the impoverished workers on both sides of the provincial line were abandoned. Scraping by with subsistence farming, they used leftover inventory to patch up their melting huts. Better farmsteads were thatched to keep both livestock and owner drier. The material was locally sourced from the great dismal swamp.
However, unlike city mice, the country mice had food, heat, and water. But, cities soon overflowed. Their tendrils naturally reached for tired river ports, and they were retransformed for the modern, urbanised world.
Our new mokum became Stadskanaal, the closest “stad.” For necessities, we no longer walked but drove. It was a treasure trove of Art Deco architecture. But the lead had long loosened from the cracked stained glass.
“Marty, what happened here? It was once so grand. Even stately.”
“My textbooks from school noted Stadskanaal as an example of economic disaster because it only depended on one industry at a time. Like that one,” he pointed. “Phillips.”
The internationalist glass frame is in shards. Phillips produced semiconductors in Stadskanaal for half a century until manufacturing was offshored in 2006. Because of the illegal dumping of barium on site, the remains sit behind graffiti-covered exclusion barriers creating a brutalist landscape. Currently, the industrial waste zone is the backdrop for a refugee container city.
From the passenger’s window, there was an antique factory along a railway. “Was that ruin also theirs?” It is behind a safety mesh because of a fire. The brick shell produces weeds.
“No, I think that might have been the carton factory that Phillips replaced.”
The carton factory had stepped into the hole left by the peat moss industry. Crossing the provincial line, we sped back to our section of reclaimed swamp. Once a gas station for tractors and recently a used car lot and mechanic’s barn, our neighbours were overjoyed that someone wanted to spruce up the eyesore.
We started by tearing out the row of scrubby trees wound into chain link topped with barbed wire at the back. This created confusion at the side fence. The buurman asked, “Why would you want to see over there?”
Our village is home to 450 people, 2,000 livestock animals, and hundreds of thousands of potatoes. Above the evenly-hewn fields are serrated blades milling the air from six two-hundred-meter-tall windmills.
“She likes tall things, Henk.” Marty joked. “She’s from New Amsterdam.”
“How did you wind up here, Peregrine?”
“I wander. And some views are better from a distance.”
“This view should be blocked. That’s why we have so many trees around here.” By day, stadium-length blades slice their pall through windows. Their rhythm drums silent shadows onto the walls, tricking the eye. “Ineke had headaches for years until the forest grew.”
“I’m from New York. My people were upholsters. I believe in curtains.”
The Dutch are famous for the open gaze into their homes. It displays wealth and taste in glittery Amsterdam or Den Haag. In the countryside, this transparency invites the world to know that everyone inside doet normaal. Hardworking, they have no time to be flashy, and the lights are out soon after sunset.
Henk nearly spit out his biertje. “And they say the Dutch are direct! Here’s a taste: I think these windmills were sold to us as enough to power the entire province. So, how are our bills so high when we deal with it night and day? Now farmers are selling out to solar panel companies left and right. It’s blinding.”
The view is clear: dystopia. They spend what little money they have to plant trees in the difficult soil to hide towers scraping the sky. The neighbourhood is always here, bound to their unnatural jungles planted to keep their sanity. Yet, continual slashes through the foliage inform their changing outlook. Replete with blinking red lights through the night, this newest intrusion feels like an affront to nature and humanity. The line is often blurred.
Soon it might be refracted. Pulling back my drapes to let in the morning breeze, I yelped for Marty. The farmer across the street was driving piles into his field.
Country mice, we crossed the road to be nosy. “Hoi! We just bought this place,” Marty waved. “This is Pereg—”
“We won’t be neighbours for long,” he grumbled, snapping off his glove and extending his hand to Marty’s.
“Oh, are you retiring?”
“Before I’m bankrupt, yes. My land is worthless now.”
“But your crop looks tasty,” I said awkwardly, still struggling with Dutch. “I meant healthy. Why stop now?”
He was patient, searching my eyes to ensure I understood as we shook hands. “The crisis, you know?” He made the international charade gesture for money with his hardened fingers. “I cannot afford to water it,” his fingers sprinkled as he shook his head. “The cost of diesel is more than the crop is worth. Tomorrow, I will mow it.” His fingers became scissors. “Better than a fire, ja?”
During the drought of 2022, water was more precious than Golden Age tulip bulbs. Farmers looked out over their yellowing yields. Like in an expressionist painting, the observer can almost smell the manure. True to style, steam belched in the distance. The water missing from the ground was evaporated before their eyes to cool heavily funded enterprises like data farming. Instead of Monet’s factory tower on the horizon, the end of the Dutch earth is crowned with hectares of big boxes.
“Misschien?” Maybe: one of the most challenging words to wrap an anglophone tongue around, my dismay was reduced to a soft Flemish version, mishseen. “What will you do now?”
“My wife came from Slochteren. Lotte and I made sure that the old bakhuisje is patched up now. It took ages.” A bakhuis was a small house built next to the farmhouse reserved for baking. Once a means to prevent total devastation by fire, it will be the farmer and his wife’s tiny house to avoid financial ruin. “But we have a caravan, too!”
Beyond Stadskanaal, further into Groningen Province, and deeper into the ancient morass, there was a motherlode of gas. In the 1970s, however, Slochteren’s vast gas fields were nearly sucked dry. The province bled. Inducing earthquakes, people lost their homes and businesses. The splintering ground severed commerce and communities.
“I hear we may need to start the gas works up again,” Marty worried. “You know, the war and all.”
“Oh, I can see. Do you come from Ukraine, mevrouw? God bless you for many reasons and for trying to speak Dutch. You all are top-notch. My cousin had a lot of kids. They’re grown, so with the space, she has a house full of folks from your version of Drenthe. I forget, though. It’s hard to pronounce.”
“No, I’m American,” but that was never anyone’s first guess. Anglophones rarely learn Dutch, even though the first noun in the complete OED is Dutch. An aa was an archaic English word for a wandering stream.
“This is mijn vrouw, Peregrine.” Whilst Marty introduced me, the nearby Drentsche Aa trickled down from the Hondsrug.
“And this is Martijn. He was born in Amsterdam.” After leaving Mokum Alef for Beyond the Pale, I was forced to learn Dutch and how to say my partner’s full name.
He slapped his hands to his belly. “I can certainly hear that. I’m Jos, and that’s bizarre. What are you two doing over here? But, if I can so say, if we die, we die. I’m old, and I couldn’t care less anymore. What’s new? Put on my tombstone that I died of Dutch Disease,” he did not laugh.
The whirlwind of greed from under Lotte’s childhood home created a new economic concept, “Dutch Disease.” Coined by The Economist in 1977, this malady describes when a natural resource is exploited at the expense of all other sectors. The rectification of the failure outstripped the profits. The ends do not justify the means.
“Let’s hope for the best, Jos. Do you like walking?” Marty said wandeling the Dutch pastime of long walks through reclaimed patches of nature. “The only benefit of Dutch Disease is that over there has turned into a reserve, or so I’ve heard.”
Over the border into a different province, it was like another world. It was a few dozen kilometres away, so we had never been. But, after a few weeks in the middle of nowhere, we knew all of our neighbours’ names and stories, having lived anonymously in the capital for years.
“For now, Martijn.”
And Jos and Lotte knew us for a few brief months. The soon-to-be unemployed farmhands mowed Jos’ lost wheat. They made a straw man from the chaff. The plastic sheathing was painted with a frown. It held up a flagpole with the Dutch flag flying upside down in distress. Standing beside the For Sale sign, Jos announced his reason for selling.
In my view, inspired by the other side of the Pond, these citizens’ protests resembled a warped American Gothic. Borders are meaningless in the universal human struggle. It was not just stoic Jos and Lotte defeated and their dreams shattered into dust. For Sale signs and straw men have lingered across the land. The agricultural designation renders these plots unusable for anything but solar panel fields, especially on this side of the Hondsrug.
And backs are raised in defense as glass shards threaten to shatter across this new Drentse Landschap. Once renowned for its rolling hills, a smattering of Saxon farmhouses, and wide open spaces, the view was spliced only by curtains of gracious trees. Along our street, these mighty oaks were sewn down to make way for six of the province’s forty-five windmills. The stumps were covered with a concrete bike path, upon which the rippling pattern of the blades above casts an ominous shadow for kilometres — over here, at the end of the world.