Metropolis of the North
The last leg of my Dutch adventure was spent in Groningen, the largest city in the northern Netherlands and home to the second oldest Dutch university. Due to The University of Groningen and The Hanze University of Applied Sciences, the city’s population boasted over fifty thousand college students, creating an amalgamation of culture and diversity, influencing and enlivening local museums, theaters, music venues and nightlife.
Groningen, although a large city by Dutch standards, was quaint and manageable by bicycle. In fact, it has been called the “World Cycling City” as over fifty percent of journeys are made on two wheels. The intellectual atmosphere reminded me of my hometown of Boston, yet there was a unique youthful warmth created by the enthusiasm, curiosity and openness of the students matriculating there.
My lodging during my short stay happened to be in an older apartment that housed many current students and recent graduates. I enjoyed being a part of “dorm-life,” getting a quick snapshot of what it would have been like to attend university in the Netherlands. Over the sound of the acoustic guitar, many stories were shared and compared as young twentysomethings flowed in and out of the flat.
One of my favorite spots to spend time with my newfound friends was De Pintelier. The Belgisch Café had a great selection of local and imported draft beers, which we enjoyed around cozy, red candles. It had a comforting and peaceful, yet jovial ambience. Music from the States could be heard over the rumble and murmur of conversation, and a steady stream of patrons bustled around the pub from the bar to their tables carrying pints and snacks alike.
One of the girls I met made me feel particularly accepted and taken in. With a comical stubbornness, she refused to let me order drinks, or any food for that matter, in English. Although American, she felt quite strongly that I should speak Dutch, being in the Netherlands and having Dutch heritage. Touché. She would be happy to know I am in the process of learning my ancestors’ mother tongue.
Groningen also served as a base to venture off to a small village called Oldehove, which used to be home to my Father’s distant relatives. I use village and not town deliberately, as less than two thousand individuals inhabited Oldehove.
Rocking the Suburbs
An hour bus ride dropped me off at the outskirts of the village. Aside from my family connection, I did not bother to research the history of this destination prior to my arrival. I began to chuckle as I walked around one of the tiniest residential neighborhoods that I had ever seen, feeling like I was exploring a cul-de-sac in Pleasantville.
I glanced down at my watch and realized I had a few hours until the bus to Groningen arrived. Despite its size, Oldehove contained a church and two octagonal tower mills – The Aeolus Mill and The Lion. These attractions occupied about twenty of minutes of my time, however, along the way I happened upon a unique pearl in Oldehove.
At this point in my journey it was a little after lunch, and the residential nature of the village I was in did not help satiate the grumblings in my stomach. In the distance I saw a vibrant building with a small oyster sign. Unless I was mistaken, this did not strike me as typical Dutch architecture. The building was not a residence as I presumed, but a small restaurant by the name of ‘t Kleine Oestertje, or The Little Oyster.
Much to my dismay, as soon as I discovered this village oasis I learned that ‘t Kleine Oestertje was “shut” and did not open for another two hours. I explained to the kind owner how I was traveling through the Netherlands to excavate family roots, to walk the streets where my distant relatives once tread and how my Father’s distant relatives used to live in his village. Upon hearing my story the gentleman invited me in, and I soon found myself sitting outside on the patio enjoying an Americano and chocolate as I transcribed my heart of gratitude to the lined pages of my moleskine.
Last Minute Provision in London
My time in Groningen was rich – filled with laughter and play, pubs and connecting with passionate academics. I enjoyed the impressionable nature of the students I encountered, and how varied their personal experiences, hopes and pursuits were. It was now time for the next, and final leg of my journey, the city of London.
I arrived at Heathrow later in the afternoon. Hot, tired, hungry and without a place to stay I sat in Paddington Station trying to link up to Wi-Fi. Despite the incredible provision I had received so far on my trip, I felt that my luck had run dry – I guess I would have to book my own accommodations for the night. The Wi-Fi was cutting in and out, adding to my level of frustration. I had located a reasonably priced hotel for London standards, and with Visa in hand was ready to bite the bullet.
I entered in my credit card information and clicked “purchase.” The loading indicator on my iPhone went in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. The connection cut out. After ten minutes of trying to get back onto the Internet, I conceded defeat, and decided that it would be a good idea to grab some food. I walked to a nearby market and found a shop that looked appetizing. My mood was shifting and my energy returning with each bite – it felt good to sit and be present during the hectic day of travel.
After my meal I decided to jump back into the ring and finish booking my accommodations. When the connection was established and I was making my way to my browser, a banner alert from a friend I met in Amsterdam flashed across the top of my screen with some well-timed encouragement. I shared my current predicament as we exchanged texts. She had lived in London for a time, and recommended that I head to a church that she used to attend. They gathered on Friday nights, in fact, the service would be starting within the hour. She gave me the address and the name of a friend who may be able to help get me situated. The pending hotel reservation had now fallen to the back burner as I ran through the swinging restaurant doors.
I rounded the corner of an old church building. The side door was propped open, allowing worship music to seep out into the bustling London streets. I poked my head around the door and peered inside – I had found just what I did not know I was looking for.
The service was perfect. Much like the physical nourishment I needed a few hours earlier, my spirit needed refreshment. By the time I had left the old stone steps I had three standing offers for places to spend the night – I opted to stay with two Australian brothers. Once again I found myself in a new city with new friends. We sat out by the River Thames, throwing back a few beers with the stars overhead, sharing our lives, hopes and dreams as if we were old mates.
After a proper English breakfast with my Aussie friends I found myself heading to a family barbecue. One of the folks I had met the night before extended an invitation to a Saturday afternoon family get-together. I had not made any previous plans, and soon found myself surrounded by aunties, uncles and children. The little ones ran about inside the flat as other friends enjoyed the sunshine and the fresh smell of the grill on the back patio. As I made my way from room to room I found myself answering two common questions – “how did you end up here” and “whom do you know here.”
An old friend from college was kind enough to open his flat to me for the final few days that I was in London. Although it was a different location, I found myself in a familiar situation. I used to spend weekends on his couch in New York before I moved to the city. His current arrangement was spacious, offering an open floor plan, a massive leather couch and beautiful views of Tower Bridge. During our time together we reminisced about our days on The Heights, shared laughs, meals, recent stories and pints. After weeks on the road I had come to find peace and rest in familiar faces.
I enjoyed my last evening in London with a British couple that I met a year or so prior in New York. While our friendship had been short in duration, the time we had together was rich and meaningful, spending weekends together in California, New York City and now London. From the time our eyes connected outside the Covent Garden Station we were all smiles, picking up where we left off like no time had passed. They had become dear friends, the type where you can come as you are and leave feeling encouraged to become all that you can be.
After a day venturing through London, its stores, eateries and coffee shops (including one of my favorites – Monmouth Coffee), we ended the night in a vaulted wine cellar sharing stories, laughter and relationship amidst the candlelight.
Lessons Learned, Experiences Shared
Although each country offered its own unique experience, there were two takeaways from my time in Europe – seeing God’s goodness in a new light, and seeing and appreciating the richness and importance of relationship.
I was overwhelmed at how not only my needs were being met, but also desires that I did not know I had. During my time abroad I never had to book accommodations, people lent me bikes, a canal boat, a car, while a few others purchased groceries or provided meals. Even the manner by which things were provided was so detailed and intricate, at times getting the best of me when I began to doubt and take things into my own hands. Even when it came down to the wire, the details would come together sure enough.
The latter takeaway took me by surprise as I thought I would be having a more solitary and reflective trip. I found myself time and time again in community, grabbing a coffee or drink with people I ran into, getting invited to family parties rather than touring museums and staying up late in deep conversation with people I had met only a few hours earlier. I am blessed to have met and learned from these incredible individuals. After many of these encounters I found myself almost laughing at the level of openness in these exchanges – moments that those nearest and dearest to me may not have heard. It was relationship that led me throughout my journey, it was out of relationship and embracing the other that everything else came together.
As the sun set over the Thames the sky exploded with mixtures of yellow, orange and red hues. I was overwhelmed with peace and joy. Although I did not know what the future held, I knew I would be taken care of. I was ready to embrace the adventure ahead.