By Marvin Hokstam, freelance writer
When you’re in the Netherlands, dare to hop over its open borders and take a drive through Europe’s vastness. Don’t just stay in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague, but go beyond. You’ll realize (again) that there’s much more to this earth than we allow ourselves to see as we get bogged down into only going to places we already know. It’s exactly what I did this summer.
One of the main reasons I decided to stay in the Netherlands in 2013, was because I wanted to get to know Europe. I had lived in St. Maarten for almost 15 years and in that time visited practically every island in the Caribbean; but I did not know much about the continent from where the colonizers came who stole my ancestors from Africa and brought them to Suriname. And going back to the country I was born in would not satisfy my curiosity regarding the rest of the world.
So I stayed in the Netherlands, missing the Caribbean thoroughly, whilst settling into new surroundings and lifestyle. And every month I would just visit another piece of the country that I had never heard about. I had challenged myself to see visit every town and as many little villages as possible. Since I moved here, learning more about my African ancestry has become an important part of my existence, so often I would consciously look for traces of African presence wherever I went. But that’s a different story for another day …
This summer I decided to take the challenge farther across the border than I have ever been before. A road-trip. I wanted to see things, touch the ground that I was travelling through, so no flying. Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and back. And boy what a treat it was, the scenery that I cruised through. I felt like a blind man, granted eye-sight just for those two weeks.
An unforgiving rain had drenched out Kwaku Summer Festival in Amsterdam Southeast on Sunday July 30 and I got soaked throughout; my pretty blue and red flower-patterned espadrilles that I had bought just for the sunny weather, were nearly ruined by the time I made it back to my car.
“Where has the summer gone to!” I screamed on Facebook, coincidentally forgetting that in just a few hours I would be heading toward the sun. I got laughter as response; people seemed to take malicious pleasure in the weather I was stuck with. My cousin teased me with a picture of the sun-drenched resort she had flown to somewhere in Eastern Europe. I told her “wait for it … “
The next day we hopped in our car and drove toward Germany; I had driven over the autobahn before to visit German cities, but this time we would speed through the country to a little village in France where we would spend the night in a hotel with crummy beds and no service. That the Wi-Fi did not work only added to the impression of being in the middle of nowhere.
A farming area with houses that were built in the middle ages, where tractors and pickups are the preferred modes of transport and where cows outnumber the people who live there. A good place to disconnect from the world and come to rest. Perfect for what else lay in store.
The road trip continued the next morning, across the border to Switzerland. We had a schedule to keep, to make check-in time in Italy, but Switzerland kept its promise for beautiful scenery. The highway cut through valleys and went over and sometimes straight through the majestic Alps; the 15 minutes of darkness as you speed through the 17 kilometre Gotthard Road Tunnel is an experience on itself.
It spat us out just a few kilometres away from the Italian border and by then the rainy weather that would pester the Netherlands for the next two weeks had become a distant memory. Italy was a steady 40 degrees C; we had driven straight into a brutal heatwave nicknamed Lucifer that would prompt authorities to issue extreme heat warnings. Did we care? Only at night.
We had rented a spacious apartment in a town called Aquaviva, where most of the inhabitants seemed at least 70 years old. Friendly old people who didn’t speak or understand a word of English, but who made sure we knew they cared and came over regularly with wine and fruits from their garden. Little old Renate would not leave before she got to kiss you on the cheek. Her husband Franco tried to tell the story of his days -years ago- of keeping bees. We would respond with “ahh, pa bene”, complete with the hand gesture, and it seemed to work.
Our dwelling seemed winterproof, but sans air-conditioning, it was no match for Lucifer. Luckily, we had thought of solutions; dress scarcely and be outdoors visiting as many places as possible. Zigzag through the countryside. Do things tourists do.
So we found a nearby lake side beach at Castiglione de Lago. I am notoriously scared of cold water, so the warm water in the shallow basin Lago di Trasimeno was a treat. And when we were not there chilling, we visited places with fancy sounding names, and little villages that the countryside was littered with.
We zigzagged between Florence, Sienna, Montepulciano and Rome, and marveled at their tangible ancient history on display.
The architecture of Rome is everything that everybody has ever said it is.
I must have seen Gladiator at least twenty times and will soon binge-watch all four seasons of Spartacus again, so I had to see the Coliseum, even if it was just in a drive by.
Italian restaurants all seemed to try to outdo themselves. It was all in the plan; you don’t go to this country to drink beer or eat hamburgers, so I splurged. When in Rome eh.
It was on a Saturday night, the night when all townspeople fled their sweltering houses to catch some wind outside, when I had the best pasta ever in a trendy restaurant in the main square of Sienna.
I was not impressed with the food in Castiglione -which had much to do with the restaurant staff-, but the view from the old city that overlooked the residential area that has sprawled beneath it, was marvelous.
In Montepulciano, an ancient castle city that cradles the top of a mountain, a guitarist livened up the dining experience with magical tunes that echoed between his acoustic instrument and the stately cathedral. Like he was playing just for us.
At a little restaurant a little further down I finally understood why Italians love their olive oil. The chef, a genius, had served me rabbit and chicken in the same simple dish.
The waiter who looked and acted like his father is probably also his mother’s brother, forgot to bring me the baked potato that goes with it, so I had to make do with the bread that was on the side. Heaven came close. I forgot to thank him later.
In Montepulciano, we stocked up on wine before we left. Too bad I could not do the full tour through the mysterious caverns that snake throughout beneath the city.
Time was up and the air down there made breathing difficult anyway.
Ten days of Italy had come and gone way too quick, but fortunately we had no schedule to keep anymore, so we did not rush the drive back. And the closer we got, the worse the weather became. The rain that had chased us out of the Netherlands had continued there consistently.
This time the GPS took us over the Alps and not through the 15-minute tunnel, which still made for a beautiful drive, even with the heavens opening up. Little streams that I had spotted earlier in the distance, had now turned into forceful waterfalls coming down the mountainsides; luckily, as they had conquered the mighty Alps with highways, tunnels and viaducts, the Swiss had also constructed little gullies that channeled water away.
The clouds briefly let some sun through when we were passing the famed Lake Como, so I had to stop. You cannot not go there when you’re there. And it was amazing.
That’s a good word to end this story with; amazing goes for the entire road trip and I can only recommend it as I will probably do it again. A colleague has insisted that I then continue on to Palermo and Sicily to visit the city that he is from. And I have read too many mafia books not to take the offer I can’t refuse J .
For now, next on my to-do list is that Eastern Europe country my cousin tried to shame me with. She already knows better than to try that again by the way.
(For some obscure, probably stupid reason, The Weekender editor at The Daily Herald refused to run this story in August 2017.)