You circle the damp and darkened lanes of a parking garage. Your European minivan can barely negotiate the narrow turns at each end of the level. Finally, you come upon an open spot. But look, it is barely three inches wider than your car…. Sigh. This is your only choice. You pile your children into the back of the van so they can escape from the trunk. You pull in the side mirrors of the car. You carefully back into the spot, hoping you are straight, waiting for the impact of your bumper against the cinder block wall.
There is a phrase the Dutch use when parking a car, “Boem is ho!” Loosely translated this means, “BOOM means stop!” In a country of 16 million people in an area a little bigger than Massachusetts, space is at a premium. I feel we are always bumping into someone or something in this crowded place.
Almost every acre of land here was reclaimed from the sea. Slowly and tediously the Dutch built small islands for their homes, connected them with long dams, and then painstakingly pumped the contained sea water back to ocean. These drained fields became fertile farms. The water was carried to the ocean in rivers contained by tall earthen walls or dikes. It still gives me pause to see a huge flowing river coursing 20 feet above the surrounding farm fields. There are shells in the sandy soil of my garden, not left by children, but left hundreds of years ago when this garden was sea bed.
I think the biggest difference between The Netherlands and The United States is a sense of space. Here everything is small: from the playgrounds, to the houses, to the parking spots. In the States, you can drive a big car down a wide road to your large house in the suburbs. Here the dense housing of the village ends and the farm fields begin without any transition. The roads are narrow. I know a woman who brought her Land Rover from the States. All was well until she managed to wedge it between two lane dividers of a draw bridge.
Still, here there is a warm and enveloping sense of community. You know your neighbors. You see them over the hedges several times each day. You know who has company or a babysitter. Getting together is as easy as walking two houses down for a glass of wine. At church the whole congregation holds hands during the “Our Father”. They stretch across the aisles to each other. I’ve never had such a sense of people literally and spiritually reaching out for each other and holding on.
There is also very real sense of “it takes a village to raise a child”. I have no doubt that if my children playing in the neighborhood were doing something dangerous, they would be chastised by any passing adult and I would hear about it shortly after.
Because of this sense of community, the children here have an amazing amount of freedom. Children as young as 7 or 8 can go to the playground alone to meet with their friends. They are free to bike around the neighborhood, to a friend’s house, or off to school. Ninety-five percent of Dutch children bike to school each day. My children have spent an extraordinary amount of time outside since we have arrived. They play for hours with friends on the block, exploring the alleys that separate the gardens behind our houses, or playing hide and seek.
There are days when the density of the people and the congestion on the roads leaves me with a sense of claustrophobia. I can almost feel that I am struggling for air.
But still, this sense of community envelops me. For now, I am willing to laugh about “Boem is ho” in a parking garage, and deal with the tiny shopping carts all chained together, and be patient with the woman behind me in the check-out line pushing her cart into my heels. “Boem is ho”. You are close enough when you are right on top of it. But really, what better way is there to be part of something?