a voyage to Brobdingnag
Although Amsterdam is unforgettable, the highlight of S’s trip was the two-day sojourn to Leeuwarden, the capital of the northern province of Friesland. Of the twelve provinces that comprise the Netherlands, Friesland is the only one that has its own language — West Frisian, which oddly is the closest living language to English. Having its own language serves as a vivid reminder of Friesland’s isolationist history. A large inlet of sea water separates the northern province from Amsterdam, making it difficult to reach in the olden days. In 1932, the government completed construction of a 30-kilometer seawall, and nowadays it only takes a few hours to drive to Leeuwarden from Amsterdam, passing along the seawall highway.
Friesland is also renowned for the exceptional height of its people. Dante even mentions it in his Divine Comedy when he describes the magnitude of an infernal demon by stating that “not even three tall Frieslanders, were they set one upon the other, would have matched his height.” S’s family is decidedly not tall, so even though Julian is not exceptionally tall by Frisian standards, she still towers over S and her parents, which made for some amusing photos during her exchange year.
True to his role as the family’s travel planner, Julian’s dad had crafted an extensive itinerary for the one full day of sightseeing S’s family would have in Friesland. After breakfast, and the subsequent post-meal coffee time, everyone set out on bikes into the center of Leeuwarden. The extra bikes that S and her sister rode belonged to Julian’s sisters, and their frames were a tad too large, requiring S to stand on tippy-toe in order to reach the pedals.
Julian’s uncle is a pastor and town councilman. He led the group on a grand tour, pointing out homes of famous Frisians before escorting everyone through the town hall, which is not open to the public. Though S promptly forgot half of the names and dates that rolled off his tongue, there were a few that stood out, including the famous artist M.C. Escher, who was born in Leeuwarden, and Mata Hari, an infamous courtesan who was executed as a spy in France during WWI.
Other stops along the Leeuwarden tour included the former synagogue, which is now a ballroom dance hall, the main church, and the square between the church and former Jewish school, which is marked with a modest Holocaust memorial and a wall with etchings that copy the attendance book for one of the classes during the war years. The class begins with twenty pupils and by the end of the year only a handful of names remain etched into the wall. The tour was enriched with a peppering of personalized stories of where generations of Julian’s family grew up and what the city looked like before WWII.
After a brief lunch stop, everyone cycled back to the house and piled into two cars for the drive to IJlst, where a friend of Julian’s mom lived with her husband, the De Rat miller. De Rat has a long history dating back to 1711 and has reinvented itself as a saw, corn, and flour mill throughout the centuries, relying at various time on wind, steam, and electricity. The miller led a no-nonsense tour of the three-story wind-powered sawmill, sharing more information about the windshaft, brake wheel, and sails that power the mill than could possibly fit in a single blog post.
He also bragged about having the quintessential miller’s wife, which near as S can tell means being married to an excellent hostess. She plied the visitors with homemade waffles and jam until a rainstorm broke out, sending S’s family and her hosts back to the car for the return drive to Leeuwarden.