Tuesday, August 22, 2023

The great Dutch divide

The other day I was reading a blog post by a Facebook friend, Dvora Treisman, who lives in Spain. She was writing about the various festivals connected to Mary, mother of Jesus. I knew there were numerous virgin Mary churches and was aware from a marvellous book I read earlier this year that many spaniards have a deep attachment to their own district's madonna. 

The blog and the book together have led me to ponder on the individual customs associated with religion in different countries and particularly in my own Netherlands. Now, most people perceive this country as being a progressive, secular, anything goes nation, and in many respects they'd be correct. Among other notable events, the Netherlands was the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001; it has long tolerated the use of cannabis and marijuana; and it was apparently the first to legalise euthanasia in 2002. However, in something of a paradox and to a noticeable degree, the country is still divided along religious lines. These days the distinctions are marked more by customs than church attendance, but for someone like me who grew up in the UK and never knew what religion anyone espoused it was a surprise to encounter them here.

The first thing I was made aware of was that the north of the country, including Zeeland in the west, is predominantly Protestant, while the south is mostly Catholic. The map has become more blurred in recent times but largely speaking the dividing line is still the same. The two maps below show the proportions in the 19th century and in 2015.

By I, Dimitri, 
The 1849 situation
The green areas are Catholic

The red/pink areas are predominantly Catholic:
Downloaded from Quora: Sources from Statistics Netherlands (2016)

Clearly, there has always been some overlap, but the situation hasn't changed all that much. Where I live in Zeeuws Vlaanderen (that narrow strip bottom left), we have quite a mixed scenario. Zeeuws Vlaanderen is part of Zeeland, which is traditionally Protestant, but the areas bordering Belgium and those closer to Antwerp are Catholic. This could, of course, be purely notional as the number of people attending church services has dropped substantially, but it's still prevalent in the local traditions. 

One example is the celebration of Carnaval. Every February, Catholic towns and villages organise this three-day event with flamboyant floats, outrageous costumes and an emphasis on role reversal and social ridicule to prelude the start of Lent. If you like, it's the Dutch version of Mardi Gras, except the weather is usually awful, bitterly cold and painful grey (sorry). 

In our disputed area, the towns and villages bordering Belgium are all Catholic, including our own, so we have carnaval here. Personally, I can't imagine anything more wretched than going out and following garishly coloured (but superbly constructed) floats in such horrible weather. However, it's hugely popular and widely supported. Ten kilometres up the road, we are in Zeeland proper and it's Protestant, so no carnaval...perish the thought. 

Sourced from Wikipedia: Role reversal at carnaval is a 
common theme.

Sourced from Wikipedia: 2013 Carnaval
including social criticism

In fact, wherever you find Catholic communities, whether they are church-going or not, you will find an enthusiasm for processions and celebrations. In the more sober Protestant areas, this is simply not done, and in the more conservative Protestant towns and villages in Zeeland, strict social rules apply. Several years ago, I remember driving through one village on a Sunday and asking Koos why we were seeing so many men in dark suits and women wearing dark calf-length skirts and sensible shoes.

"This is a Protestant village," he told me. "On Sundays, they go to church and spend the day in service of their Lord. No work is sanctioned, not even gardening."
"Oh? Not even weeding? Or washing the car?"
"Not even that," he confirmed.

Later, I was teaching a girl who lived in such a village, and she told me she'd been criticised for wearing shorts on Sunday and for cleaning her windows. While I think much of this strictness has been diluted with the increase in mobility and the exodus of young families from the cities to the country, there are still numerous places where these social restrictions apply.

Oddly enough, and this is something I've only just learnt, there are religious/regional differences in language as well. These might be as minor as differing prepositions, but they are distinctive. For instance, I'm told that Protestants will say 'in de eerste plaats' (in the first place), but Catholics say 'op de eerste plaats' (on the first place). This was news to me, but it seems it crops up in other situations and in other expressions as well. 

Overall, however, Catholics are perceived as being the 'easy come, easy go' types, eager to celebrate, drink plenty and enjoy life. Protestants are culturally more sober, and although the edges of these characteristics have softened over time, they are still evident in this apparently progressive country. 

So that's my thought for the week allemaal.  I know it's a sidestep from my usual 'doings of the us-ings' post, but it's a subject that interests me greatly in this small country of mine. Are there any cultural paradoxes in your country? I'd be very interested to hear about them.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

How to keep afloat on your (little) boat

The last week has been one of torrential rain and wild wind, but at last the awful weather seems to have abated, at least for a bit. This has given Koos and me the opportunity to check on the boats and do a few much needed jobs.

One of these has been to solve the problem of protecting the Vereeniging from bumping hard against the poles to which she is moored. The canal off which our harbour lies is a busy one with massive sea-going vessels ploughing their way to and from the Ghent docks. One of the by-products of what is definitely a marvellous sight is that the wash from these huge ships flows into the harbour resulting in substantial disturbance and movement.

We learnt early on that we needed fenders to stop the bumping, which can be quite irritating. A large fender tied to the pole to the right of the gangway (looking at the Vereeniging from the land) made a huge difference.

Another fender tied to the pole to the left of the gangway prevented bumping at the bow end of the barge. So, we thought, everything was secure and sorted. Alas, we were wrong.

Now the summer holidays are here, most of the neighbouring barges have left to go cruising and the Vereeniging is more exposed to the wash of the water coming into the harbour. Over the last couple of weeks, each time we’d been to check on her (almost every day, in fact), the fenders had slipped out of place. Then, a few days ago, the front fender sheered off completely in the storm that battered our part of the country (a no name brand this time). So it was back to the drawing board. 

The first solution was to string three old karting tyres together, courtesy of my daughter's speedy hobby, and tie them around the pole closest to the bow. These have nestled neatly around the waterline and are protecting the Vereeniging nicely. The stern fender has been more of a problem, though, as it kept slipping out, so today, Koos and I bit a few bullets and took radical action.

To help with access, we'd already towed our little rowing boat over from the Hennie H to the Vereeniging. Now bearing in mind, it's a very small and light boat, suffice to say it isn't very stable.

A very small boat indeed

The upside is that it was easy to drag from the car into the water and position it near the pole. The downside is that when Koos lowered himself into it, the boat acted like a skittish colt and keeping his balance while he secured the fender was similar to riding a bucking bronco. My heart was in my mouth as he clung to the pole while the boat swung in and out beneath him, but determination won the day and he managed to tie the fender in such a way it would take a major tsunami to dislodge it.

Then it was my turn. I'd noticed a nasty scrape on the hull just on the water line where the paint had come off and rust was showing through. Once Koos was safely back on board, I dragged the boat forwards, tied it to the Vereeniging and walked along the rubbing rail to climb down into it. Like Koos, I suddenly felt as if it was determined to tip me out, but I clung on and managed to kneel down so I could apply a paint and oil mix to the offending scratch. 

Getting out was even more of a challenge because I needed to stand on its edge and find my balance before heaving myself back on board. I should mention that I've never been physically agile and have had many a past misadventure in wayward small boats, when my legs have parted company with each between ship and shore (so to speak). Thankfully, Koos was on hand to help me haul myself up and a dunking was averted, but we both felt quite proud of ourselves for taking on such a physical challenge. 

I am seriously considering investing in a larger rowing boat, however. While I like a bit of excitement in life, the threat of being cold and wet is one risk I can live without.

So that's it for this week, allemaal. Plans for faring are still unclear at the moment, but you'll all be the first to know as and when. For now, we're just glad the sun has finally come out again. Have a good weekend and watch this space for more news and views from the flatlands.