Dutch Diaries: A Pilgrimage to a Place of Heritage

by Thea Byrd / Beacon Correspondent • January 29, 2014

I grew up listening to Dutch lullabies, playing with Dutch porcelain Hummel figurines and eating Dutch apple pie. I was named after my Dutch grandmother, and taking my first of five trips to the Netherlands when I was six so being Dutch has always been a significant part of my identity. And now, living in a castle only half an hour from the farm on which my grandmother grew up, I am making my heritage tour.

Throughout my childhood, the stories of Dutch life during World War II were told to me so frequently I got sick of hearing them, but being here I recall the family history and am thankful for what I know about the Netherlands. While recounting tales of hiding a Jewish family in the farmhouse and of meeting my grandfather, an American soldier, my grandmother—Oma in Dutch—clearly missed her life and past in the Netherlands. Despite living in America for over 50 years, she still has an accent that makes her nearly unintelligible and she tends to mix up English and Dutch so that she speaks a hybrid of the two languages.

Her resistance to sacrificing her language and culture has always made it hard for me, a born and bred American,  to relate to her, but this journey to Well is my way of paying my respects to my ancestry and reconnecting with that lifestyle. Every other time I have been in the Netherlands, I have felt like a tourist. Now I’m here as a student, learning through my experience of living in a medieval castle in a provincial town. I am discovering the past my grandmother still longs for: the simple life in the Dutch countryside, where everyone waves hello as they ride by on their bikes and where the flat fields seem to stretch out to the ends of the earth. 

My experience at Kasteel Well is a quest to comprehend the life my grandmother lived, bridging the gap of generations and culture. My time here is my way of honoring the past I am lucky to know a little about, and an attempt at understanding my heritage in practical circumstances.

My ancestors were well-established farmers in Heeswijk, a small town in the Catholic and southern North Brabant province. The history, customs, and economics of Limburg, the province in which Well is located, are very similar to North Brabant, and seeing the locals calling out greetings to one another on bikes, I am reminded of my ancestral hometown. Even their accents are similar to those of my family with the Dutch equivalent of a Southern drawl.

The town of Well possesses a handful of shops including a bakery and grocery store, displayed on the main street. The town is easy to bike, with a few winding streets to the castle’s right in the old part of town.

Here in the countryside, it is common for the lights to flicker all over town, which leaves the locals unperturbed. At the few stores in town, the clerks greet local customers by their first names. As the mist descends over the soggy and sparse fields, it is not hard to imagine life here 100 years ago. Living in a renovated 16th century castle makes me feel thousands of miles but also hundreds of years from Boston.

When I look out my window and see the ghostly bare tree limbs and the rippling moat, the culture I grew up so far from seems much more accessible. My three months here at the castle will be about connecting to the culture I have always loved from afar on a more immediate level. My understanding of the slow pace and the values of hard work and friendliness are completely new compared to what I know from my previous trips to the very Amsterdam.

For many students, this trip to Kasteel Well is a pilgrimage of some kind. There are a few students planning to visit their European homelands for a weekend, just as I get to live for three months in mine. For some, it is enough to be part of the Emerson castle tradition, the most recent of the many residents this castle has seen. But the best part is that no matter the motivation, we all ended up here, in a castle in the Dutch countryside, for 90 days. We will make our individual pilgrimages and journeys, and add to the centuries old legacy of Kasteel Well.