Skip to content

Postcard from the Netherlands: snapshot of a wedding

August 2, 2022

At what stage of your life and under what circumstances do you cease to be a doer and become a watcher?

I was thinking about this a couple of days ago as I was sitting at a family wedding on the outskirts of Amersfoort, a small but comfortable city near Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Thomas, a beloved cousin of my wife, was definitely in doing mode when he tied the knot with Kees, his partner of the past couple of years. Both are in their fifties, or rumour has it. Their love is joyous and transparent – the sort you would normally see shining out from newly-weds in their twenties and thirties. To see two people show such enthusiasm in middle age despite bearing the scars we all acquire in earlier years was a powerful antidote to world-weariness.

What made the day doubly memorable was the gathering of two different clans – one Irish and one Dutch, with a smattering of friends from Germany, Italy and France. Each set of family and friends freely mixed with the other.

Die keltische Bruderschaft

What also made it special was that it took place almost without reference to COVID. Hardy a mask in sight, the occasion made all the brighter thanks to the delight of seeing people face to face for the first time in three years. COVID hasn’t gone away, but attitudes towards it seem to have changed profoundly. In contrast, a year ago our elder daughter was married. Though equally joyful, her wedding seemed like a triumph against the odds. It happened despite the pandemic, constrained by all the workarounds and precautions with which we’d become so familiar.

As for the doing and watching, I was an incidental player in Tom and Kees’s celebration. So I was content to watch, at least as far as the dancing was concerned. In years gone by, my contribution to the art of dance was to make an arse of myself. Stupid dancing, in other words, all gurning and galumphing. In that respect I’m a perpetual disappointment to my wife, who likes a good whirl, not to mention the occasional smooch. Fortunately, her cousin Karl played my part, stomping like a bull in a ballet around the dancefloor, occasionally raising his Irish kilt to display a spectacular pair of golden drawers.

Me? I sat on the side-lines, watching, occasionally getting up to capture some of the more compelling action with my phone. Unlike Auntie Margaret, who, at the age of ninety-one, was up there on the dancefloor skipping around like a teenager. Which reminded me that if you want a long life, watching is not enough. You need to keep doing.

The event was the climax of a road trip. Down from England via the horrors of the Channel Tunnel (see previous post) to our house in Southern France for a week. Then up to Paris for a night, where we picked up Karl and his partner Fiona, and onwards to Amersfoort. A couple of thousand kilometres, all told. After a hard week of gardening and municipal dump runs in our rural redoubt, we had a seven-hour drive past Limoges, Orleans and Chartres to St Cloud, where we stayed at a hotel on the edge of the race course. All very grand, with pictures of former owners, distinguished visitors and sleek racehorses covering the walls. Edward VII, le Roi D’Angleterre, who seems to have left his mark on every spa, golf course and country house of his vintage in Europe, was inevitably there. Sometimes I feel like his stalker, kept at bay only by the passage of time.

From Paris, with our new passengers, we set off again via Northern France and Flanders, where every second place-name reminded us of the destruction inflicted on the region during the First World War: Amiens, the Somme, Cambrai, Ypres, Menin and more. As we speeded effortlessly through country borders, first into Belgium and then into the Netherlands, the contrast with the British border – endless queues for passport stamps in the name of taking back control – seemed ever more ridiculous.

After six hours on the road we made it to Amersfoort. It’s a city known for its rail network, which made it something of a prize for the Germans in the Second World War. Luckily, the old town survived, with its typical Dutch architecture: high-pitched town houses overlooking canals and elegant squares full of restaurants and bars.

Most of us who gathered in the city centre hotel on the night before the wedding headed for the main square, which was about a mile away. It’s been about twenty years since I last visited the Netherlands. I’d forgotten about the domination of the bicycle. Just about everywhere you walk, you’re not far from a cycle path. To step onto one without thinking is to invite death or serious injury, both to you and the cyclist, because none of them wear helmets. So not only do you have to look left and right to avoid oncoming cars, but you need to do exactly the same with the cyclists, who ride down their parallel lanes with the confident expectation that no stupid foreigner is likely to impede their path. I had neck-ache by the end of the evening.

Which brings me to another reality about the Netherlands. Those who cycle look impossibly lithe and athletic. And that includes the old people. Those who drive cars – or many of them at least – reminded me of well-stacked buffaloes carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. I’m not a great fan of cyclists in England, because I often find them arrogant and self-righteous. But I have to say that the contrast was telling.

Kees had organised a bus to take most of us to his house on the morning of the wedding. We followed in a friend’s car, unaware that the bus driver had decided to give his passengers an extensive guided tour of the area. We thought he’d got lost, yet another victim of satnav’s whims. But on the long and winding road to the house, it seems that he was pointing out the local attractions. “On your left, you can see an alpaca farm. And here on the right are the remains of a war-time concentration camp.” Pity we missed the commentary, but it was a nice drive anyway.

For me, apart from the joyous ceremony conducted by a notary-cum-cheerleader called Babs, who treated us to a long exposition of how the happy couple met, before whipping us into a frenzy at appropriate moments in the formalities, much of the pleasure lay in conversations with strangers. The saxophonist-priest who discussed Luther and his impact on the German language. The German-Jewish woman who suspected that her grandfather was a Nazi, but will probably never know because her grandmother, now 101, refuses to say. Was this how her parents escaped the Holocaust? The nephew of a film distributor whose business was wrecked by Netflix, but not before he’d survived a number of riotous encounters with film stars in Germany to plug their movies. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, in town to promote Easy Rider, particularly came to mind. How is Nicholson still alive, the uncle wondered?

Little snapshots like these hardly serve as evidence of the state of nations. But looking out on the well-ordered city of Amersfoort, at the cyclists, at the people gathered in the square for an evening’s eating and drinking and at our fellow guests at the hotel, who included a magnificently dressed Eritrean wedding party, I did get a sense – despite the best efforts of Twitter to convince me otherwise – of a country more at ease with itself than my own.

As for the guests at our wedding, I was one of the very few not to possess an EU passport, which entitles the holder to come and go across the mainland with hardly a second thought about borders. But no matter. I’m a European, and I’ll come and go despite whatever hurdles the jobsworths in my country put in my way.

And I wouldn’t for the world have missed the wedding of Thomas and Kees, the joyful reunions of brothers, sisters and cousins, the fascinating stuff I learned from talking to people I’d never met before, and above all, the love that was so much in evidence on a balmy weekend in the Dutch countryside.

It made the doing well worthwhile.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: