A tough head that man had – Uncle Gerben.
Only after the late discovery of his Proof of Dutch Citizenship I now know this. I came to know him only after World War II, when he was much older and not yet grown bent and smaller. His pass was issued on July 25, 1938.
Isn’t all time from before your own birth light years far away? Especially so, when this time has been recorded in black and white. Although such pictures do indeed constitute proof of the reality of that prehistory, at the same time they also increase the effect of unreality. Like when you observe a picture of a Brontosaurus – so real and not real at all.
Uncle Gerben I first met when I was six years old. Just for once – I did not see him again till that day in 1970, when I travelled up north to Friesland to show my wife to the family. She was also something unreal for me – an Indo as we call them, a woman of mixed Indonesian and Dutch blood, yet living in the Netherlands. Having come from so far, this of course all the way for me, she was my fairytale princess.
We came to Leeuwarden to visit Uncle Gerben; I was born in that town. There he lived – together with his wife, Aunt Trijn, and her sister Aunt Doe. The inhabited a tiny house that was still close the old, now defunct gasworks. I once described it as follows:
‘Uncle Gerben was a labourer in the Leeuwarden Gas Works. As a boy he went inside that monster, retired he came out again and went to work in a nursery for plants and vegetables. Their minuscule house must have been designed by such a modern, meagre ergonomist. Nowadays, you would make a little barn from it or an over-sized doghouse’.
Not only is one’s prehistory unreal, even the criteria that were used in those days are not for real – prehistoric. It was a time when for a Friesian ‘Luxembourg’ lay at the other end of the world. In 1938 Gerben’s travel document was issued only ‘for travel in Belgium and Luxembourg…’ Stelpstra was his last name, also something I only know since the discovery of that document.
Given their poverty it may very well have been his only globetrotting experience, leaving from the small town Huizum for Luxemburg, or perhaps only for Belgium. Given the ‘place of delivery’ at the time, Leeuwarderadeel must have had its own private town hall. Meanwhile Huizum is posted on the web as a ‘district of the city of Leeuwarden’.
Then suddenly things become closer. Empathy strikes and I realize how in 1971 our journey to America, to stay there for two years, seemed to us like a trip to the moon. ‘Jules Verne’ so to say.
Although one knew people who had also travelled there, they were still a few – happy or not. Added to all this was the fact that the Foundation that provided my fellowship in The States put all European fellows on a real ship, making our journey all the more unreal as this was the very last trip of a Holland-America Liner ever. From then on plain travel took over. Seven days and nights we sailed – so America must have been very far away.
By now, everyone goes to America, some for a holiday, others simply for a shopping spree in New York. The airplane has taken over. The States are just around the corner, say, the Luxembourg of the postmodern era.
My wife came also by ship from Javanese Batavia to the Netherlands, this obviously to find me. That ship was then called The Willem Ruys. So by the time we boarded our ship for The States she had already many sea miles behind her – a real globetrotter. However, only a year old she was at that time, she had just been saved from falling through that awesome hole from which they veer the boat’s anchor – if ‘veering’ is what one does with an anchor.
So she had completely forgotten that first sea voyage, knowing of the trip only from hear say. But my knowledge of her passage always inspired awe in me for what as such was already my fairy tale princess. For her, like for me, our journey to America was a trip to the other side of the world.
The vicissitudes of existence, how strange things go. That very same motor ship The Willem Ruyss, built in the years 1938-1947 as a passenger ship for the Royal Rotterdam Lloyd, after its tropical duties had been sold and then converted into an Italian cruise ship: The Achille Lauro.
Even ships are globetrotters.
It was only after I went to Adam’s magnificent opera The Death of Klinghoffer that I recently discovered that in 1985 this ship was hijacked by terrorists. They managed to execute a disabled Jewish American and then throw him overboard in his wheelchair. Ein Wanderjude, you might say – a globetrotter by cruise ship who had wanted to explore the ancient glories of the Mediterranean past and ended in his diaspora of death.
Much later a fierce fire executed the very same ship…
Thus, it has become a chaos in my head – of standards and displacements, of distances and values, of times and of kinds of madness.