View From Afar

Ambling around Amsterdam the past two weeks, I pondered my own Dutch heritage. (This was my third trip there so Amsterdam seemed less a confusing maze of streets and canals and more a friendly hometown.)

Hillsboro claims to have a “Touch of the Dutch.” The Friesen Mill certainly looks Dutch. The Adobe House is a common farmhouse from the Friesland area. (When you think Friesland, think Friesen.) The Hillsboro phone book has tons of shortened Dutch names.

Amsterdam is the same geographic size as Newton, but with a population of 800,000 people. One can walk across both towns in a little more than an hour.

In the 12th century, Amsterdam was a trading village located at the mouth of a river-and for years was not much bigger than Hillsboro is today. Too far away from the European centers of power to be controlled, Amsterdam was essentially given a loose sort of autonomy.

The cheerful little Dutchmen took advantage of this and happily sold and traded from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. With only a loose affiliation with monarchy, power centered on City Hall and a city council.

With larger ships, trading centers from New Amsterdam to China were outposts. The Dutch didn’t have enough soldiers to create colonies. When trade routes to China were interrupted they began doing their own version of “China”-still famous today as Delftware.

The Dutch are a culture of practicality and borrowing. “Hey, you don’t want Jews-we’ll take them in,” until they were 10 percent of the population and given full citizenship in the 18th century.

The Pilgrims landed in Amsterdam first to escape persecution in England. They didn’t stay long-the easygoing tolerance of the Dutch quickly began corrupting their young folks. They headed to the austere isolation of New England.

The British stole New Amsterdam back from the Dutch and called it New York. But the Dutch bankers had the last laugh and loaned money to finance the American Revolution and the new Continental Congress.

The Dutch wiggled during the Reformation. Devout Catholics-they initially said Calvinists could worship outside the city limits. Mennonites-they preferred keep quiet altogether.

When the Calvinists became the majority-and trashed the artwork in the Catholic churches-a compromise was worked out. Today, the historic churches are secular landmarks. It is jolting to hear the bells of the Oude Kerk playing Beatles music.

The so-called “hidden churches” in Amsterdam, both Catholic and Mennonite, are not underground basements, nor are they hidden. They are luxury homes in which the back area is a church. So long as you don’t put up a sign or a steeple, you are good to go.

The Dutch landscape today reflects the endless compromise. Villages as rustic and conservative as any Amish area are not just preserved but funded by the government. But prostitution and soft drugs are legal and zoned. Gay rights are old hat.

Everybody gets what they want-provided they don’t impose their will on others. Mennonites are the rich elite-one even served as minister of defense.

The Dutch are thought to be secular. Last Sunday I went to the Episcopal Church and was lucky to get a seat. The faces and accents seemed like a United Nations general assembly. At coffee hour the youth pastor said he had 34,000 teenagers at a stadium rally.

Religion is a more private affair. About half of Dutch people maintain some affiliation-less than the United States but more than Europe in general.

The binding consensus is symbolized in the unity required to maintain the network of dykes that create the Netherlands. Maintain the cohesion to continue society and what you do on Saturday night or Sunday morning is your own business.

On a hot Saturday afternoon I sit on a canal. Two boats with about 20 young men stop at the bridge. They are rowdy and beer soaked but not menacing. They bang a 50-gallon steel drum to keep a rhythm going. One wears a Superman outfit and hangs from the bridge. Others take turns mooning tourists in passing tour boats. Eventually a few of the onlookers join them in falling into the canal and being rescued. Other boats have to steer around them.

Although several maritime and city laws are doubtless being violated, there seems to be no fear of police intervention.

They are not doing street theater nor do they seem political. As best I can figure out, this is a love of life. Because it is summer, because it is Saturday and because it is Amsterdam.

Maybe more than a touch of the Dutch is called for in Hillsboro.

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