Monday, November 29, 2021

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Tulips and candles



Temperatures continue to drop this day in late March. It is now below freezing, and the drizzly rain has turned sharp with just an edge of ice. The grey sky is an old Dutch Masters’ painting — dark and a little foreboding. A Rembrandt sky. And the wind? Busily searching for that small crevice next to your neck, so as to slip below your shirt and whisper that spring will never come. Shivering seems the appropriate response.

I stop, adjust my stocking cap, pull my scarf tighter, and then continue biking. To the beach. I’m in need of a beach holiday today, even if the beach is at the North Sea. It is time for a break from current events.

The news from Brussels is everywhere in The Hague. Death, mayhem, blood. A picture we’ve all seen before. Innocents lying injured or dead. Smoke fogging the shattered debris. A distant woman crying somewhere in the background. Confusion.

Too much.

Prep Iowa

The smaller fishing boats are already docked and unloaded at the first harbor. joes1 4.7The boats arrive early in the morning, long before the sun. The catch is deep in their hulls when they come heavy to the wharf. The fish are unloaded, processed, and on the way to their destination by the time the sun hits the drying nets. Only to repeat tomorrow, of course. But, for now, they are docked and cleaned. Resting from a hard day’s work.

The news coverage is incessant. Today the politicians are weighing in. One suggests fighting terror with waterboarding, another says more money for security, another asks for fundamental change in the isolation of ethnic neighborhoods. Their proposals are a mix of thoughtfulness and absurdity. Regardless, all the ideas seem unlikely to stop anyone wearing a vest made to explode.

The sand beach stretches for miles and miles. Not so busy today. joes2 4.7People are tired of the cold and wet and want a few days in the 50s, where the grey skies have cleared and the sun is warm on their hatless heads. But not today. The wind and cold only become more daunting as the North Sea stretches uninterrupted in front of me.

Out on the right arm of the harbor are only a few people. A fisherman sits against the lighthouse at the furthest point into the ocean, resting, wind at his back. His two long poles are wedged between the rocks with lines drifting out into the sea. Patiently he eats a sandwich pulled out of his crumpled bag.

Ahmad the fisherman tells me that the fishing is poor today.

“The seas are rough,” he explains in broken English. “It is cold.”

At least that’s what I think he says. Our ability to understand each other is not good. So we look out over the ocean together, unsure what to say next. I ask to take his picture. He agrees and poses with his long fishing pole. Then, smiling a goodbye, Ahmad hunkers back down next to the lighthouse, back to fishing for fish that are unwilling to be caught, and back to eating his sandwich alone. A fisherman’s story.

Heading back to shore, I see that there are two other people on this arm of the harbor. A couple. Laughing and flirting with each other it seems. joes3 4.7He is jumping on the big boulders that protect the sides from the pounding waves. She appears not so keen on his idea of jumping from slippery rock to slippery rock.

And your names?

“Mahtzel and Aza.”

Why are you out here on such a cold day?

“Yeah, it is cold day. I bring her here. All my life I fishing. I love fishing. So, I have free day from my work so I bring her here. But she doesn’t let me fish. She says, ‘All fish, get out.’ ”

Laughing, hugging, touching each other, they wander away, not wanting me to pry anymore into their day. A lover’s story.

I head home, past the cookie-cutter Dutch houses, past the ducks and swans on the canals, and past the Belgium embassy.

Brussels is 110 miles away from this embassy. Almost the exact distance from Des Moines to Iowa City. And, like Iowa City, Brussels is a place of youth and excitement and the beginnings of life. Not the end.

As I pass, I notice flowers have appeared in front. A makeshift memorial to the dead and injured. Tulips and candles.

Tulips and candles make sense in the Dutch world. When the old fishermen die, the small church near the harbor rings its bells to mark their death. joes4 4.7And before long, tulips and candles appear at the statue of the Dutch looking out to sea. Alone and vigilant she stands, waiting for a son or a husband or a lover to return. Hoping without hope.

On TV, the next day, more videos surface. As I look through the smoke and fear, past the legs of the dead and injured, I see survivors hunched together. A mother with her child held tight beneath her body. A man on the floor holding a woman close. Two more people in the distance, one draped over the other, arm and chest providing protection. These unremarked heroes will be forever at the airport in Brussels, long after they’ve safely gone home.

But life goes on. The ocean is fished. Boys flirt with girls. Heroes go unnoticed. And nature is cold and wet and unforgiving.

Tulips and candles seem as good a response as any. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands.  He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at

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