All day I was a tourist in my motherland seeing and visiting sites I never had. After we picked up our rental car at the airport we drove to a neighborhood in Amsterdam that is called ‘Het Schip.’ It’s a vestige of and testimony to social housing efforts that took place about one hundred years ago. The housing cooperative ‘Eigen Haard” (meaning ‘own hearth’) hired architect Willem de Klerk of Amsterdam School architecture fame.

A tiny museum, that wouldn’t be on anyone’s list of ‘must-see’ museums in Holland, has the ticket counter integrated with the original post office in the building. At the time the state’s post office officials didn’t think illiterate and unschooled workers needed a post office but the socialists housing cooperative thought that was wrong and the architect threw all his creative and idealistic power into the design.

A young architecture student showed us around, pointing out delightful and playful details that the architect had inserted here and there for the uplift and education of the working poor. We walked around the building that was only later called Het Schip (the ship) because it resembled one.

According to our guide the design and execution derived from a wish to make people who would live there proud of their new home and lift them out of their very miserable existence. The apartments were tiny but built according to codes that had until then been considered unnecessary for the working poor: electricity, separate toilets, separate kitchens. Here too were small details that made every room a work of art and something to be proud of. Upstairs in the museum I saw pictures of the dwellings where these people had lived before – not all that different from the tenements in lower Manhattan at that same time.

There were public health considerations (separation of cooking and toilet space) and egalitarian considerations that inspired the whole enterprise. And it worked. I bet descendants from these first tenants are now white collar workers who earn a good living.

We then headed to Enkhuizen, an old fishing town in the province of North Holland where I had stayed lonely in a bed & breakfast on my return home from Sita’s wedding. The original plan to walk around was shelved when the rain started coming down in sheets. Instead we sat down in a fish store/café to a yummy fish lunch and watched how eels are caught, smoked and packed on a large TV screen. The eel trade is big in this town and the product considered a delicacy. So we had that, and haring, and salmon and fish soup and the fish equivalent of chicken nuggets.

Our next trip was across a dam with the Ijsselmeer on one side and the future Markerwaard polder (still water) on our right. But the rains came down as if a monsoon and the clouds touched the ground. It was naptime for everyone except the driver.

At the end of the dam is Lelystad, provincial capital of one of the large tracts of reclaimed land. We drove to the Batavia wharf where the four centuries’ old craft of ship building is being given new life by a small group of craftsmen and women. A replica of the Batavia, meticulously following the design of the original one, was built over a 10 year period. The original ship perished on a coral reef near Australia in the early 1600s. We visited the carving workshop, the rope-making workshop, the iron workshop and then walked up and down the ship itself.

Our final stretch of the day was the one hour ride to Groningen that turned out to be a bit longer, too long to the liking of our offspring who were already impatiently and tired waiting at the clipper ship moored in one of the canals where we overnighted.
We took everyone out to have a rijsttafel (a collection of Indonesian dishes), one of the many ‘must do’s’ in my playbook. On the way home we stumbled on a small store run by an Iranian refugee on whom we practiced our Dari in exchange for opinions about immigration policy that don’t make Holland look quite as nice as Americans believe it to be. He wants to come to America. We wished him luck.

My computer gadget countdown timer now says less than 24 hours till the big day. It makes me think of the time in Kabul when I was cooking this trip up and when the counter had more than a hundred days to go. Dreams do come true!

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December 2011
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