“I swear,” my friend said, as we stared up at the two white owls perched in the corner of the landing, “this place just gets more surreal by the second.”
We had ascended the external staircase to find the computer lab and were confronted by yet another of the oddities of life at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands. It shouldn’t have been surprising, the presence of the owls, considering the large black swans that circled the inner moat, the even larger white swans that circled the outer moat, and the myriad of ducks, whose quacks and cackles could be heard even at five in the morning. Here at the Castle, man and beast live with an unspoken truce.
An even uneasier coexistence here is shared by the living and the dead. On most mornings in the dining hall, where the walls are nine feet thick, we butter our toast and discuss ghosts, or rather, one ghost in particular, who seems intent on frightening everyone she comes across.“I saw Sophie last night,” several people declare the moment we are ensconced at the table, and then each launch into their respective stories of sinister footsteps in the dead of night, ghostly orbs, phantom knockings on doors, and ghastly faces appearing through walls.
Young Sophie, the daughter of some aristocratic family, had died of some illness at some point in this Castle, or so the story goes; nobody seems sure of the details. But since she supposedly haunts the Main Castle and I live in the Voorburg, the front section, I sleep easier than most.
Meanwhile in the village of Well, modernity and tradition seem less inclined to coexist and more inclined to draw up opposing ranks with Old Town by the river to one side and New Town by the highway on the other, the Castle precariously in between.
Old Town is a warren of brick streets, narrow connected houses, wide gardens, small shops, and a grand Catholic church, whose bells mark the passing minutes, hours, days, and years.
Old Town is an idyllic scene every day, except on Wednesday nights when Café Zaal Onder de Linden plays host to the infamous American Night. Every Wednesday at 11 p.m., the bar swells with Emerson students dressed according to the theme of the night: preps and goths, Emerson colors, tux and gown. Dance music pours from the speakers as freely as the local beer from the taps. American shouts and laughter echo into the serene night of the Dutch countryside.
It is a raucous scene that might seem better suited for the slice of modernity that is New Town. Here one can find a convenience store that’s actually called Everything Under One Roof, which does seem to sell everything: soap and paint, notebooks and matches, earplugs and stereo speakers. However, the structure which dominates this half of town is De Buun, a square, modern building that holds the local community center, bar, and gymnasium.
One Thursday, I rode on a bike into New Town on the quest for some freshly baked croissants. However, as I rode back toward the Castle, I was struck with a reminder of the uneasy truce between Mother Nature and man in Well.
This reminder took the form of hail, which suddenly pelted me from above as I rode with a bag of warm croissants hanging from each handlebar. Pedestrians fled for cover. Cars pulled to the side of the road. I pedaled stolidly on, collecting flecks of ice on my shoulders and in my hood. By the time I reached the Castle, hail had given way to rain, which dampened my hair and, more importantly, my bread. I ducked into the Office of Student Affairs for shelter. A few moments later, the onslaught abated and the sun shone down again, as if tempting me to try again. I turned to Rene, who works in the Office of Student Affairs. He shrugged and said with a smile, “Welcome to the Netherlands.”