Some Parts of the World Pt. 6
BettySoo wraps it up on the road from the Netherlands to Germany
9:51AM, Mon. Jun. 13, 2011
My last stop in the Netherlands was the ancient city of Nijmegen. I’ve been told it is the oldest city in the country, established by the Romans. There is a palpable weight borne in this place by the second World War, for several reasons.
First, it was the site of one of the largest airborne landings near the end of the war, and both military and civilians shared in tragedy and triumph together. The bridges of Nijmegen were battled over fiercely. Second, the coordinates here were mistakenly inserted rather than those for the targeted German city, and so Nijmegen lost many of its Roman ruins when it was bombed.
When the war comes up in conversation – and it does, repeatedly – the city’s residents grieve Nijmegen’s role in WW II battle history and what it lost because of war in general more than it resents the barrage of fire it received from German forces. Doug and I visited one of the city’s main bridges and the Roman ruins that overlook the water, and for 2011, there is a big shingled rabbit sculpture next to the ancient buildings. Why a rabbit? I have no idea, and I didn’t ask. The enormous rabbit has an observation deck built in, but it was closed the day we visited.
The next day, as we crossed into Germany, Doug and I said in passing that we figured that would be the last we’d hear about the war for a few weeks, assuming no one in Germany would want to talk about it. We were wrong. The first town we played in was Holzminden, a lovely old city on the Weser River. We sat at a café with a friend, watching kayakers move quickly past. I asked what a few of the buildings around us were for, and we admired a few of the old buildings close to the water.
Her face turned serious, and she said, “It’s such a shame. There used to be a very nice old building in the city center, but it was bombed in the war. There used to be very many old castles and beautiful buildings in this country, but now you have to travel to certain towns to see anything really old. All because some stupid Germans had to go to war.”
As she spoke, she grew angrier, and Doug and I found ourselves squirming a bit in our chairs. She continued, “And there are still stupid people like that here, Germans who think they are better than everyone else.” She is, I should point out, completely German.
We left Holzminden to visit friends who were staying with their old friends in Bad Essen. We were guests of guests. When Doug disclosed during dinner that he is Canadian, our host pointed past a few houses outside the kitchen window and said the last soldier who was killed in this town during the war was a Canadian and is buried nearby. He wasn’t killed by another soldier but by a local villager.
Two generations later, the war is still on everyone’s mind, and it’s one of the first things people bring up. We just listen, and mostly, they talk only about the local facts: churches or old buildings they have lost, how many anonymous soldiers were killed nearby, which nations’ armies were in their area.
I don’t know how to ask any questions about it, and I don’t think I want to. Sometimes your only role is to listen and look and learn.
BettySoo and Doug Cox are touring through Europe this spring and in the UK for several weeks in September. Both musicians tour year-round in North America and abroad to promote their project, Across the Borderline. Their new album, Lie to Me, comes out this summer.