Netherlands


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Most of my family on my mother’s side lives in a tiny Minnesotan farming town called Cottonwood (pop. 1,146).  My great-grandmother settled near Cottonwood after she emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in the early 1900s.  She came over on her own; her parents and almost all of her ten siblings stayed behind in the tiny Dutch farming town of Ulestraten (pop. 2,660).

I’ve always had a vague idea that we still had some family in the Netherlands,1 but I never knew anything about them.  As it turns out, two of my great-grandmother’s nieces still live near Ulestraten, in a similarly diminutive town called Obbicht.  Lies and Inna Gelissen are now in their 80s.  Having never married, the two sisters have lived together for most of their lives.  When they found out that their (very distant) relations were going to be in their country, they welcomed us into their home with open arms.
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Shane (my brother who met up with us for a few days), Derek and I arrived on Lies and Inna’s doorstep having no idea what to expect.  Within an hour, we were stuffing ourselves full of lasagna and some German concoction called Tutti-Frutti, learning about what life was like when the Nazis occupied the area during WWII and being challenged to do shots of an unnamed, but highly toxic, foreign brew.  In a word, it was awesome.
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After spending a night in their immaculate home, which is full of mementos from their travels around the world (such a nice change from all of the generic-feeling hotels), the five of us piled into our Peugeot and set off in search of Shane’s and my roots.  We stopped into the church where my great-grandmother was baptized.  On our way out, we ran into a woman and a baby who, as Lies and Inna explained, were related to us.  Distant relations, sure, but meeting them made the world feel very small.  Later on, we visited the cemetery where my great-great-grandparents are buried.  Although both of them died long before I was born, I felt incredibly connected to them as I stood there in the sun at the foot of their carefully tended graves.  I guess family ties are strong enough to survive separation by both generations and an ocean.

  1. I’ve recently learned the difference between Holland and the Netherlands.  Although most people in the U.S. use the two interchangeably, they’re actually not the same thing.  Holland is the name of two provinces (North Holland and South Holland) located in the western part of the Netherlands.  The Netherlands itself is a nation that includes not only the two Hollands, but ten other provinces as well. []

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After an 8-hour flight out of Africa (which seemed to last about 30 minutes with the aid of Ambien, a fantastic sleeping pill that is a godsend for long flights), we landed in a very different world – Europe. With only 10 weeks left on our trip, we quickly caught a train from the Amsterdam airport to Lille, France, where we were to pick up the brand-new Peugeot car that we had leased for the remainder of our trip. After loading up the family truckster, we hit the road (without a map), only to get lost twice in the first 30 minutes. Our first stop was Brussels, where we picked up Shane, Shanna’s brother, who was coincidentally in Europe for a few days to present a paper he had co-authored. A few minutes later, we were in a traffic jam on our way to Bruges, Belgium.
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After hearing my friend Scott Wells state on several occasions that Bruges is his favorite city on the planet, I had high hopes for this small, medieval town. Having eluded attacks during World Wars I and II, Bruges is regarded as possibly the best-preserved city in Europe, so well maintained that you could easily convince yourself that you’re in the European section of a Disney theme park. The ancient streets are lined with ornate buildings that have housed countless families and businesses over the last thousand years and now serve as homes to quaint hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. While our allotted time here was short, we quickly voted Bruges as our favorite small European city we’d ever visited. Scott, I guess you finally got something right…
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After departing Bruges the next day, we stopped in historic Ghent for lunch, drove through the diamond powerhouse of Antwerp and were quickly in the neighboring country of the Netherlands (aka Holland). What we saw of the rural part of the Netherlands was exactly like I had imagined: a land flat as a pancake, full of windmills, small canals, wildflowers and bicycles.

After spending an amazing day in the Netherlands (Shanna will tell you more in our next post), we looked at a map and decided to drive to Luxembourg, mainly because we knew nothing about this tiny country. After saying goodbye to Shane and departing the Netherlands, we crossed back into Belgium for a couple of hours and got lost on the small, hilly backroads leading south toward Luxembourg, allowing us to visit small, gorgeous towns completely off the tourist track.
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We also saw dozens of friterias, small buildings on the side of the roads completely devoted to french fries (was this a dream?). Although still full from lunch, we eventually gave in and stopped at the last friteria before Luxembourg – one of the best decisions we’ve made on our trip. The fries were unlike anything we’ve ever tasted, with the perfect thickness, crispness and saltiness. Unlike at home, where the only viable condiment option is ketchup, the Belgium friterias provide 10-20 sauce options, including mayonnaise (don’t turn your nose up until you’ve tried it!) and “American” sauce – a delicious blend of ketchup, mayo and cajun spices that reminded me of my famous “pink sauce,” which I serve with shrimp and crawfish (of course, my sauce has a few other ingredients not available for public distribution).
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Feeling bloated, we crossed the border into Luxembourg, a sparsely populated country (400,000 residents) the size of Rhode Island. As our guidebook only had about 3 pages devoted to Luxembourg, we were unsure of our final destination for the evening. When we read about a small village named Vianden famous for its majestic castle and the fact that it was once home to Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables), we rolled the dice and pointed the Peugeot in Vianden’s direction. Vianden turned out to be the quintessential medieval village, dominated by the gorgeously restored 1,000 year-old castle that overlooked the town, which was built to house the peasants that moved here to be near the protection of the castle’s ramparts.
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The next day, we drove through much of Luxembourg, passing its many castles and roaming the streets of the modern and refined Luxembourg City. One of our highlights was a visit to an American cemetary just outside Luxembourg City where over 5,000 American soldiers, include General George S. Patton, were buried after losing their lives fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. We could not help being deeply affected by the gravesights of so many heroic Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and to ensure the freedom of millions of Europeans.

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