It is seven o’clock by the time I manage to escape.
Two days ago, my parents and I boarded a plane at LAX, Los Angeles International Airport. At least, I think it was two days ago. Time gets a little confusing when you cross so many time zones. We landed in Rotterdam in the Netherlands after a couple of layovers, and since then, there hasn’t been a moment of peace.
My dad’s great-uncle and his wife met us at the airport and we squeezed into their tiny car, after the old man and woman had given us a dozen hugs each and patted my head twice as many times. I mean, come on. It takes a lot of work to get my hair to fall just right. I don’t need a couple of old people flattening it and ruffling it like I’m dog.
After that, it just kept getting worse. From the moment we arrived at their old, brown house in Rhoon, a suburb of Rotterdam, we’ve been bombarded with an endless line of distant step-aunts and third-cousins-once-removed and people I’m pretty sure we’re not actually related to at all.
Some vacation. “We’re going to take a couple of weeks to visit family in the old country,” Mom and Dad had said. “It will be fun!”
Yeah, real fun. I’d never seen these people before in my life. I was born in Iowa and raised in California. The Netherlands has no significance to me. All I want to do is surf, draw, and sit on the beach with my friends when I’m not in summer school so that I can graduate high school next year. That’s what summers are supposed to be, not full of weeks of cruel and unusual punishment like this.
There are two kids staying with my dad’s great-uncle, though I’m not entirely sure how they are related. Eight year old Ina and eleven year old Diederik. When no one else from our abnormally huge family is at the house, they follow me like shadows. Two very annoying shadows. They are starting to learn English in school, and so they think it’s the funniest thing in the world to say phrases in their best American accents, which are actually horribly-executed Southern drawls.
“Cat’s out of the bag!” Ina giggled.
“Don’t shoot your mouth off,” Diederik grinned, miming shooting a gun.
“Leave me alone,” I demanded.
The first sight I saw this morning was their impish little faces staring at me over the top of the couch I’m sleeping on for the duration of this visit. I’m embarrassed to admit how high-pitched my shout was as I fell onto the hardwood floor. The little devils thought that was hilarious, and then Dad peaked out of the guest bedroom and chewed me out for making so much noise. That pretty much set the tone for the whole day. The ten hours of putting on my best face for the relatives were the longest hours of my life. Then Sofia, who’s a third cousin or half-niece or something like that, came over, and she would not stop flirting with me. That did it.
I wove my way through the mob of people in the kitchen to my mom, whose face was shining with happiness. “Mom,” I muttered in an attempt at privacy.
“What is it, Freddie?” she distractedly turned away from Great-aunt Petra.
“I really need to get some homework done. Ms. Pacek will have my hide if I come back without doing any of it.”
“Of course. I’m glad you’re finally getting your History work done. Are you going to do it here, honey?”
I shrugged. “Nah, too much noise. We drove past a cool-looking castle place on our way here yesterday. I think I’ll check it out.”
“Okay,” Mom approved. “If you get lost, call us immediately.”
“I’ll be fine,” I promised, then grabbed my textbook and skateboard from my bag and bolted for the door, and now I’m finally free from my family for a few hours.
Most Dutch families are eating dinner right now, so the streets are quiet. The familiar rhythm of my wheels on the asphalt sooths my frayed nerves, and I do a couple of tricks just because I can, because I’m free. It takes a couple of unintentional detours past more old houses and a shopping district that is a hodgepodge of squat medieval and tall modern buildings, but in short time, I’m dragging my blue tennis shoe on the ground to slow down in front of the castle. “Kasteel van Rhoon,” a plaque reads.
Rhoon Castle. It looks like it’s a restaurant now, but from what my dad said when we drove past it yesterday, it used to be abandoned. Rhoon Castle isn’t what typically comes to mind at the word “castle.” There’s no moat, now drawbridge, hardly even any stone or brick. It’s just a mansion a couple stories tall and half a block long, with plain white plaster walls, gabled roofs, and grey shingles. In the center of the roof on the side of the front door, there’s a small bell tower housing an old bronze bell. Carefully-trimmed hedges form a low wall around the castle.
I veer off of the path onto the finely-manicured grass by a still, blue pond. There are some deciduous trees scattered around the edge of the pond that look like good places to sit. A couple of rabbits and ground squirrels scatter as I approach, but the little brown birds flitting about the foot of the trees are bolder and only hop away.
I settle down with a tree against my back and a view of the castle, wishing I had brought my sketch pad. From this angle, I can see a low roof, probably over what used to be a kitchen, which is covered in red shingles. The contrast with the white walls and the grey of the other roofs begs to be drawn. But no, I have to do homework. Stupid History. What’s the point of reading a bunch of boring stories about a bunch of dead people who fought a bunch of stupid wars? What good did a vast knowledge of History ever do in real life?
The textbook is old, its dirty orange cardboard cover about ready to fall off, its pages so yellowed by age and dirt that my hands feel dirty just turning them. That just goes to prove my point further. History’s not even important enough for schools to invest in new textbooks every ten years. It’s ridiculous that I can’t graduate unless I pass this pointless class. I can’t, though, which would mean I’d be held back while all my friends graduate and go away to college, and I’d have to wait another year to go to art school. With a deep sigh, I turned to the chapter entitled, “World War Two.”
“The cities of Europe were devastated by bombings on both sides during the second World War. Even neutral countries did not escape attacks. During the Rotterdam Blitz, Germany bombed a major city of the Netherlands, a neutral country, for four days, reducing many important buildings to rubble and starting fires that further devastated the city. At the end of the four days, the Netherlands was forced to surrender to Germany to save the rest of the country from similar treatment.”
I glance up to look at the peaceful city around me, amazed that the people had rebuilt so well after the war. My breath catches in my throat. The sky glows orange, as orange as a tangerine, I the sunset, and smoke from several backyard fire pits drifts upwards. For a moment, it is like no time has passed, like my textbook transported me back to the 1940s, when the fires started by the Germans’ bombs set the sky alight.
I imagine hearing the piercing shriek of the bomb sirens turn off and the wail of fire truck sirens fade in. Pale families emerge from bomb shelters to see their houses now nothing more than piles of smoking rubble. Frightened children cry. Over the horizon, German tanks and wagons appear, crawling forward like ants coming to feast on the carrion. Grey ash replaces the green grass that used to cover the front yards, a visual image of the loss of Dutch independence. Hitler’s Nazis marched in straight lines of khaki uniforms with red arm bands, led by officers in slate grey, perfectly-ordered troops coming to occupy the Netherlands. Everywhere, the vibrant hues of Dutch life are replaced by the colorless tints of German occupation.
A red-breasted goose honks from edge of the pond at my feet, pulling me sharply back into reality. My attention wanders back to the castle, lingering on the warm yellow light streaming out of the restaurant windows and the muffled laughter from inside mixing with the chirps of birds and crickets outside. No one could tell, from looking at this place, that it had fallen into disrepair after the war, or that some of the people laughing inside still remembered the years of occupation.
With the sun gone, the nearby sea makes the air almost chilly. I can’t see to read anymore, and I didn’t bring a jacket, so I shuffle back across the dark grass. When I reach the sidewalk, I drop my skateboard and step onto it, pushing off slowly. The clack of my wheels is slower than it was before. I leisurely inhale the cool, fresh air, letting it fill my lungs with the salty sea breeze, sharp smoke from backyard fire pits, savory scents of home-cooked dinners, and the sweet perfume of flowers in the planters that line the walkway. The old houses seem alive now, young in comparison with their predecessors. Their walls are testimonies of the resilience of their inhabitants, who rebuilt their lives out of the rubble left by war. These people, my family, are survivors, warriors, champions. For the first time, I understand my parents’ pride in their heritage. I am Dutch. I am strong. No matter what the world throws at me, I won’t let it get me down.
The kids are waiting for me at the door, ready to resume their game with their American cousin. Diederik tilts his head to the side and asks, “Freddie, can I be your friend?” I can tell he’s been thinking about this the whole time I was gone.
“Sure,” I offer him my first genuine smile I’ve given since I set foot in the Netherlands.
“Before you kick the bucket,” Ina drawls dramatically. She clearly has no idea what’s going on, or what the phrase means.
I laugh and ruffle her hair. “Yeah, kid. Before we kick the bucket.”