Travel Calls to Mind the Limits of Our Expertise

My wife and I are just back from a week and some in the Netherlands, which we spent mostly in Amsterdam, with time out for a couple of glorious days bicycling on the island of Texel.

Bicycles are everywhere in that country, which partly explains, no doubt, why any unfit person one meets there is probably a tourist, and why, for a big city, Amsterdam is so stunningly quiet. As we pedaled from place to place within the metropolis, I couldn’t help thinking how much more livable our own big towns would be — not to mention how much “greener” — if they were equally bike-friendly. And it frankly depressed me to imagine the shouting down of such an idea, were it proposed in most of those towns.

Bicycles for commuting? How Third World.

Of course the Netherlands is anything but that. We Americans are so schooled in the We’re-Number-One mentality that many of us instinctively impute inferiority to all places that happen to lie outside our borders. Yes, the Dutch do pay a lot of taxes, a word that not even liberal politicians dare speak in our current, constrictive moment. At the same time, their poverty rate is a mere fraction of ours; the gap between upper and lower financial strata is an immensely thinner one; there is little evidence of homelessness in the Dutch streets; a comprehensive health care system ensures that catastrophic illness will not bankrupt a family, as it can so easily do here; and their infrastructure makes ours, crumbling under our very noses, appear the Third World example. But.

But the inclination of self-styled sophisticates in the anti-We’re-Number-One direction is often just as misguided. A monumental blessing of having been a writer and/or academic for four decades is that I’ve enjoyed very extensive travel experience– from which I have concluded that to grow instantly infatuated with this or the other “foreign” society is facile and wrong-headed. It’s a silly mistake to imagine altering all we stand for in order to ape that society’s virtues. (Not that reasonable people shouldn’t, for example, be appalled by the U.S. rate of infant mortality, on a level with Jordan’s.)

One can draw no useful conclusions on the basis of a vacation, or even a few years of residency. Indeed, I’m sure it takes a lifetime to understand the nuances, grim and bright, of any culture, and to think otherwise is to engage in cartoon sociology. Our own Dutch stay was briefer than brief, but with each passing day, this conviction recurred to me with increasing force. At 70, even if I wished to, I wouldn’t have enough time left on Earth to get a true sense of what we (wrongly) call Holland. For starters, I’d have to learn the language at least as well as most Dutch know English.

One morning, I got out of bed earlier than my wife, wanting some time to polish a lecture I’d soon deliver in Brattleboro. For whatever reason, though, I found my mind wandering off task.

Here I was, shaping up a talk I’d been asked to give on the premise that the state poet must “know a lot about poetry.” Well, yes, I suppose I do know a lot about poetry. Some of it.

How much, I mused, do I know about Dutch poetry? Precious little. In fact, the only Netherlands poet I know personally (and this mostly by way of correspondence) is Hans van de Waarsenburg, whom I met at an international P.E.N. conference in Slovenia a decade ago. His English is every bit as good as my own, so I am inclined — far more than is usual for me — to trust the poet’s translator, Hans himself having done the job in the poem I cite below.

This is a poem that captures my attention not only for its salty humor, its incisive perception, and its economy, but also, the writer being just my age, for its dead-on evocation of rock ’n’ roll’s explosion onto the scene in the ’50s, and of the fabulously outraged responses of our elders ... which anticipated our own responses to the music our own kids seem to favor. In short, amid the nostalgia and the wit, there’s a faint smirk at hypocrisy in every human quarter.

Early that morning in an Amsterdam hotel, as I remembered Bill Haley in Maastricht, I wondered: if there’s work of this quality in one Dutch poet, what might be the general case for that country’s poetry? I am not equipped to say, will never be.

I refer to poetry here simply because it’s what I have known for a great portion of my life; but I hope, with rightful humility, that my thoughts may extend to other modes of human behavior. We may or may not be artists, but we all must be citizens. As such, should we not bear in mind that whatever we think we “know a lot about” excludes the experiences of countless, unnameable others?

Bill Haley in Maastricht

What had not assailed the ears!

The dulcet tones of Mantovani, Helmut Zacharias

Sugary syrup of the lowest seaside sort. Incestuous

Family gathering. Hurrah for raised skirts

The grasping, groping hands. The uncles

Heated, randy with lager and provocative drops

Of gin. Catholic orgy, suddenly smothered

By Bill Haley and his whirling Comets.

Their sound burst into the room like

Exploding shells. As if the devil himself had

Appeared. As if the end of time had come

And the curtains were torn to shreds.

Never were heads shaken so firmly and was

Spittle blown to all points of the compass.

One of those days, filled with dire curses,

Sleepless nights and snoring daydreams.


Time languishes in vinyl, like sad banknotes.

Yes, the spit curl stuck to his forehead. Yes,

Blue jeans blew their top. Fat-bellied

Rock ‘n’ Roll, with Moluccans swinging and

The bass player bestriding his instrument.

Pints were downed, disappearing in the

Hollows of everyone’s past. Bill Haley

In Maastricht. Late Sunday service, brylcream

On old heads. Their fathers, already dead,

Had to be reburied. Steam rising

Once again. I turned my back on those fragile


Sydney Lea lives in Newbury, Vt.