Letter home:

🕔Jan 28, 2008

After re-locating to the Netherlands several months ago to visit a friend, northern BC resident Ted Widen has discovered that some changes in perception are required to adjust to his new surroundings. He sends us this view of “the old country” through his rural-BC eyes.

Here I am, in Holland! Windmills, tulips, and canals—just like the postcards. But it is definitely taking some time to get used to all the differences here.

First: the weather.

The Internet has allowed me to watch the temperatures plummet to nasty lows back in BC. I would be lying if I said I wish I was there in that cold. We have had frost here at least three times…brutal! People here are similar to Vancouver people in their inability to cope with it. I was chatting with a guy last week who wanted me to agree with his “geez it’s cold” assessment. I think it was +5 or so at the time, and I had just been hearing of ‑15 back in the Bulkley Valley—typical for winter. When he asked me, “Are you used to weather like this?” I was able to truthfully answer, “No.”
One of the big differences in living in a city in the Netherlands versus the way I grew up is that there is no food storage in most homes. I feel ill-prepared and a bit vulnerable having no veggies in the cellar and no fruit or meat in the big freezer. Food is purchased very frequently, and the size of packages indicates that this is normal for people in the cities. I don’t have my gun here, so I’m not able to get a moose when (if) I see one. Thea thinks it’s a joke that there are moose out there, and I have to admit that I haven’t seen any tracks yet, but I figure this is because moose hooves don’t leave tracks on bricks.

Dutch agriculture

Growing up on a farm in northern BC creates expectations regarding what is normal for farms everywhere. Looking at the agricultural practices in the Netherlands indicates that farming here is NOT normal.
In the Netherlands, an entire farm doesn’t seem to be as big as a decent hayfield back home.
The size of the farms in northern BC provides the farmer with enough land to produce a hay supply that would fill a couple of barns. Not that they put their hay in those barns anymore—but they have enough hay wrapped in plastic to fill those barns if round bales would only stack properly. When I was young, farm kids everywhere would move, stack, and store bales by hand. Seems kids aren’t like they used to be; they aren’t required to pick up a single bale by hand! Maybe the twine on round bales isn’t made like it used to be.
The usual kind of farming in BC is called “mixed farming.” Raising cattle seems to be the most common, but the neighbour might be a dairy farmer. There may be a grain field on the other side of the gully from your hayfield.
In Holland, mixed farming is at an entirely different level. I expected to see acres of tulips (because we all know that tulips are the only thing grown here). But I was wrong; there are hectares of tulips! Maybe growing flowers is viewed as being a bit wimpy in northern BC; for some reason, we never see fields of cultivated flowers there. The fields here in Holland might also be growing carrots, corn, berries, fruit trees, and more. (Bananas and pineapples are not common, though.)
When a farmer in BC plows up a field to renew it, he knows that part of the process is to remove rocks that would damage harvesting equipment. This job has to be done by hand. An indication of how much this job is loved is the fact that farmers always allow the kids to do it so that they can learn to love this endless, boring, hot, dusty, cold, frustrating job. Walking up hills, across hills, and through muddy places until the trailer is full of rocks takes at least 40 hours between lunchtime and supper.
In the “old country,” where the land has been worked for hundreds of years, the farm kids have life easy. There are no rocks in the fields. It looks to me like so many rocks have been removed that even the hills and gullies have been flattened.
Barbed-wire fences that criss-cross and surround BC farms are as normal as tractors, hills and rocks. How else could the livestock be kept in designated areas? Signs saying things like “Stay out of this grain field because we are saving it for winter” probably wouldn’t work because most cows, sheep and horses can’t read. But maybe the problem is that they can’t read English, since here in the land of the Dutch there are very few fences. The definition of “fence” is different in Holland: canals are used instead, and they seem to work very well without the addition of any signs written in Dutch.
The success of crops in northern BC is largely dependent on the weather. A winter with little snow is not a good thing; the fields can dry out before anything is planted and the hay won’t grow well. Drought is not a problem in Holland. When the fields are all surrounded by canals, in a flat country that is at sea level (or below—yikes!), I doubt that they ever dry up. Back home, I don’t recall seeing fields with canals full of water—or even canals without water—and I’m sure I would have noticed any canal going up and down hills.
In order to avoid causing dissatisfaction among BC farmers, I won’t even mention the fact that all the side-roads here are paved.

Dutch Mountains

Anyone born and raised in northern BC develops an innate assumption that there are mountains on the horizon. Indeed, the mountains bring that horizon rather close…and beautifully rugged. The mountains are the landmarks by which we orient ourselves. Any BC northerner who goes to the Netherlands soon gets the feeling that something important is missing.
I spent my first few days in the middle of a small city, so the buildings prevented me from seeing the mountains. Finding my way around was difficult, and finding my way back to where I started…well, it’s not that I was ever lost; I just occasionally had no clue where I was.
Thea and I took a train to another city, so I got to see some of the famous Dutch farmlands. The air was hazy, preventing me from seeing the mountains in the distance, but I “knew” they were there.
Eventually I ventured a question that may make me appear a bit naïve: “Umm…are there actually NO mountains in the Netherlands?”
The response included a raised eyebrow and a bit of a smile. “There are some hills in the south of the country.”
At that time, I still had no concept of how large Holland is. I envisioned making an overnight trip someday to the southern region to see the hills, but we arrived at the next city just after I finished my morning coffee. I began to realize that distance on a Dutch map was not the same as the equivalent distance on a map of BC. If there’s a decent-sized hill in the south, I could probably see it from the centre of the country.
I was relieved when Thea laughed and said, “I’m just fooling! Of course there are mountains there. They’ve just been taken away for their annual maintenance.”
A month or two later, long after I realized that Holland has nothing that even resembles a mountain, I discovered that I was even wrong about that. Luckily I had my camera with me, because now I can show the folks back home that Dutch mountain ranges can be found on the lawns.
Yeah, the old saying of “making a mountain out of a mole hill” must have been started by a BC northerner who had to adapt his definition of “mountain.”

The relativity of “Old”

We all have a sense of how long ago European influence began in northern BC. A hundred, maybe two hundred years ago…something like that, right? Many of us are fascinated when given the opportunity to see items that have been kept as memorabilia from that time period. There is a feeling of awe when we look at the technology used on early fishing boats, in the canneries, or on farms. While we often admire the ingenuity of those earlier people, and the native people who have been here for more than 10,000 years, we also harbour a certain degree of, “Geez, I’m glad I didn’t have to live back then.”
We see ourselves shivering from October to April, enduring life in the homes built with no insulation. The farmhouse I grew up in was fairly modern since it actually had insulation: sawdust from the closest little sawmill had been poured into the walls. Now, I can hear you scoffing at this primitive insulation, but it DID work. The “R” rating we use today to measure insulation value did not exist back then, but I would put that sawdust at about “R60.” That means that the sawdust Rotted and settled in the walls, down to only about 60 percent of what it had originally been. We didn’t have to break open a wall to confirm this phenomenon; when the weather was cold we could see the line where the frost began on the inside of the walls, about two thirds of the way up.
There were significant benefits to growing up in an old home like ours. Today’s children never get to see the beautiful accumulation of frost on the inside of the single-pane windows. This means that they are denied the essential scientific experience of pressing a warm penny onto the window ice, and watching it melt in until it freezes solid after a few seconds. They are also denied the opportunity to use their fingernails to sketch beautiful scenes where the frost is still thin.
We all know of a few places where ancient barns are losing the battle against gravity, or an old abandoned machine that used to…well, we’re often not sure what they used to do. Was this thing pulled by horses? Which way is the front? Machines today don’t have those big steel wheels, or a metal operator’s seat full of holes. What were those holes for, anyway? …didn’t those guys ever stop for a pee break?
The concept of “old-timer” is interesting in itself. As children, we all knew that anyone who was old enough to have a job was old. Married people were always old, and our parents were definitely old. (If you don’t remember having those thoughts, you are old.) When we reached our 20s we certainly knew that that was not old. In fact, no matter what age we are, “oldtimer” is a term applied to people older than we are.
I was a bit taken aback recently when I heard a teenager say something about “those old-fashioned hot-air popcorn poppers.” I resisted the urge to tell him, “When I was a kid, we used a pan over the wood stove…” Any time you start a story with, “When I was a kid…” you probably qualify as an old-timer.
Although I was born waaaay back in ’58, I had another significant adjustment to my perception of “old.” All of Europe falls into the category of The Old Country; now that I’m in the Netherlands, I can scorn the “old” that I knew back home. As in BC, there are little plaques on some of the heritage buildings here in Holland, but no one can read them because all the words are funny (that seems to be common in the old country); and whereas a plaque in BC might celebrate a settler’s home, circa 1928, the signs on these old buildings have dates like 1528.
As for the people themselves—the ones who nonchalantly live in these buildings that date back to the time of kings and queens, of Shakespeare, of people in the street carrying swords on their belts—there are only a few noticeable differences from back home. Aside from talking funny, there are a lot of tall women (like, whoa!) here. And, unlike the old-timers I’m used to, I see many riding bikes to do their shopping here. I had to modify my mental list of old-people traits by crossing out “Grandmas don’t ride bikes.”
Well, that’s all for now. It’s getting late, and my eyes are closing. It’s very similar to BC in that way.