It is hard to believe it has been ten years. Back then, my career was just starting, I had an unsatisfying job duing business writing and research, but had been rewarded with a bonus that covered the airfare to the Netherlands. My mother is Dutch and I had dreamt of going to her home country for as I long as I could remember.
Mom and I flew over on September 5, 2011 and stayed with Anneke, my mother’s cousin in the village of Valkenburg, near Leiden, South Holland. A few days later, Oma (grandmother) joined us too. It was a little bit of a reunion of the Dutch and Canadian branches of the family and an adventure in a new country for me.
Our first week in the Netherlands had been rainy and cool. We had visited relatives and travelled in to Amsterdam to cruise the canals and visit several museums.
The morning of Tuesday, September 11 was sunny and even a little warm. Mom and I decided that it would be a good day to take a walking tour of the ancient university city of Leiden, also the artist Rembrandt’s home town.
We started the day by touring a restored windmill. The Molen de Valk had towered over the city since 1743 and it was a thrill to stand on the wooden deck as the huge sails soared past us as we surveyed the city of ancient brick and stone buildings below us.
We walked along cobble stone streets, passing the site of Rembrandt’s birthplace, an ancient church and along a canal. We took a break and ate mini pancakes (poffertjes) served to us by a waiter in a white jacket and a perfectly waxed handlebar moustache.
Towards the end of the day, we explored the Lakenhal, now a museum featuring artifacts and art from the area. As I studied an early painting by Rembrandt, completed before he developed his distinctive style, a woman standing near me began speaking on her cell phone. I could make out only parts of her conversation, but the words “plane crash” came out clearly in the quiet of the museum. The woman seemed upset and I figured she must have known someone on the plane. But I also couldn’t help being annoyed that she was talking on cellphone in a museum. I moved on to another exhibit and pushed the thought from my mind. There was no way at that point that I could have understood the magnitude of the words “plan crash.”
When Mom and I returned to Anneke’s home that evening, we were confronted at the door by Oma who spoke rapidly in a confusing mix of Dutch and English about planes flying into buildings. It didn’t make any sense until we walked into the living room and saw the news coverage on TV. Actually, it still didn’t make sense, but at least we knew what Oma had been trying to say. We watched the news all night, alternating between BBC, the local Dutch news and CNN, which in those early hours was already calling it a war. We left the TV only to go to the opening of the annual Paardenmarkt, sort of like a North American country fair. The Paardenmarkt opened with a procession of marching bands to the village square. The evening closed with a lone trumpeter playing the Star Spangled Banner in tribute to the United States.
The next day, the word “oorlog” – war, was splashed across the newspaper. The grey, rainy weather had returned. The Paardenmarkt went on as planned, but everyone was talking about the events of the previous day. The Schipol airport was shut down, mostly because there were no flights going to North America. U.S. airspace was shut down and Canadian runways were clogged with all the planes that had been diverted.
That day, I climbed to the top of the village’s church steeple, the highest point for miles around. From there, I could see the village below, the Rhine River and the nearby Dutch airforce base. Military planes were taking off and landing all day, possibly patrolling Dutch airspace. This airbase had existed since before World War II and, in fact, had been captured early in the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1939. Oma had vivid memories of the Germans commandeering her father’s house and using it as a field command at the beginning of the invasion. She also remembered a young German soldier standing on guard and telling her not to look, but she did and saw the bodies of Dutch soldiers stacked like firewood. The church steeple itself had only recently been rebuilt after being destroyed by a bomb during the war.
For me, WWII and 9/11 are forever linked. The War was devastating on my family, my grandparents survived the German occupation, but nearly starved to death in 1944. On my father’s side, my grandfather and at least five great uncles served overseas. They all survived to return to Canada, but sacrificed at least four years of their youth and time away from their families to liberate North Africa and Europe from the Germans.
We all now live with an underlying fear that something awful could happen at any moment. Unlike the U.S., Britain and Spain, Canada has so far avoided a terrorist attack on our soil, but 17 men were arrested for plotting to kill the Prime Minister and blow up the Parliament buildings. In Afghanistan, 157 Canadians gave their lives and hundreds more live with severe injuries or mental illness.
At least during WWII, the enemy wore a uniform. The soldiers knew who their enemies were. The enemies of today blend in with civilians, hide weapons under their clothes or liquid explosives in their underwear. I think that is what is most frightening and, frankly, cowardly. If you really don’t like how the global political and economic system works; if you don’t like a country’s foreign policies, then stand up and do something right and honest about it. Did the terrorists who attacked the United States think they’d really change things by killing a lot of people? Did they really think this would suddenly change things? That the West would suddenly grovel? As awful and senseless as 9/11 was, it has only strengthened the West’s resolve.
The sad, beautiful thing is that 9/11 has shown us how strong we really all are, how strong we have to be to go on with life.
My Dutch grandparents got married and had three children during the Gernman occupation. Life goes on. We continue living and this is probably the biggest victory.