On Monday, I visited a formidable woman. At 87, she is very frail and very grey, but still beautiful. Her memory, as she will tell you, has never been very good, but it has gotten considerably worse in latter years. However, she has never lost her incredible wit and sense humour. Every wrinkle tells a story of a smile she shared, or a tear she once shed. She is my first link to the Netherlands, and without a doubt, the primary reason I feel such a strong connection to the Dutch people and culture. Born in Rotterdam in 1927, my grandmother grew up in what I can only imagine to be one of the scariest times in history. On the 10th of May 1940, at just 13 years old, granny was torn away from the life she once knew as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. With all her worldly belongings in a little suitcase, she and her parents set sail for greener pastures, never to call Rotterdam home again.
Growing up, I had always thought of my grandmother as more Swiss than Dutch. Her mother (Grand-mama) was Swiss-French, therefore Granny spoke French. Having an invested interest in the language, I picked it up quickly and devoured everything French that she showed me – old school books, letters and even the odd movie or two. French is always something that I immediately associated with my grandmother. I never noticed anything quintessentially Dutch around my grandparents house. Then again, as a young girl and then teenager, I never had the interest, nor did I go looking.
In between reminding my wonderful grandmother who I was (‘I’m Charlene, your granddaughter, Barry’s eldest daughter…’), and my aunts suggesting I speak to her in French instead of English (cue Granny asking if I am French, and if so, why do I have an Irish accent when I speak English?!), I suddenly decide to tell her that I am learning Dutch. “Hoe gaat het met jou?” I asked. This proved to be the worst thing I could have possibly said, as while she fully understood me and started conversing with me in Dutch, her eyes filled up with tears and she began to cry. The simple act of asking ‘how are you’ in my basic Dutch suddenly brought back too many memories than she could handle. While dementia causes severe memory loss, it appears that the memories rooted in her childhood will always be with her. As it was a beautiful summer’s day, we sat outside in the garden. Every time the DART (Irish inter-city train) passed, she would remark that it sounded like the tram that used to pass her house in Rotterdam. It gave her so much comfort to hear the familiar sound, and I watched her smile as she was transported back to being a young girl again, for a split second. It was there and then that I truly understood my Dutch connection, and moreover innately understood my decision to move back there more than ever.
This evening, my cousin and I went for a walk to a nearby park in the area I grew up in. We lost track of time, and strolled further into the woods, completely unaware of the menacing grey clouds that were gradually gathering above us. We felt a light mist beginning, and before we knew it, we were soaked through. Once we arrived back at my grandmother’s house, we quickly changed into our warm (and oh so dry!) pyjamas. I decided to make some of my famous hot chocolate to help us warm up.
Not knowing my grandmother’s kitchen as well as I thought, I searched high and low for some spices to add into my chocolate potion. I noticed a rack on a wall that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. In it were six small glass jars with cork stoppers, and black and white labels. I picked one of them up to get a closer look, hoping to discover some cinnamon or nutmeg, but to my surprise, the labels were all in Dutch. Of course, I used my good friend Google translate to help me understand what I was reading and here’s what I found.
Frutseltjes = Thingys
Ditjes = Bits
Dingetjes = Things (Or yokes as we’d say in Ireland!)
Rommeltjes = Bits & Bobs
I would love it if any Dutch speakers (native or otherwise) could let me know if these translations are correct? These jars are the cutest little things, and I cannot believe that they have been sitting in Granny’s kitchen, untouched and unused, for such a long time – at least as long as I have been around! I wish I knew exactly how long they have been there for, and why she had placed them there, empty, with no real purpose. I wish I knew if it was Grand-mama threw them into her suitcase while fleeing Rotterdam in 1940 before passing them onto her daughter. I wish I knew if one of Granny’s friends, whom used to visit her regularly in Ireland over the last 60 years, brought the jars with them as a gift from the homeland.
I may never know. Either way, I discovered a piece of my Dutch grandmother today. I discovered a little bit of treasure, that perhaps had some sentimental value to her. While she lived in Ireland most of her life, I do think she was proud of being Dutch, and she held onto the little things that may have held some nostalgia for her. I could be completely wrong in my assumptions, but those jars were definitely never used for any herbs or spices as far as I can tell!!