Behind The Scenes
A look behind the scenes of Jeannette and Pieter van Vliet, where we come from, our family, and what makes us tick. This is only a first writing and over time more stories will be added in order to come to some sort of autobiography.
Where We Come From
Pieter's hometown is Reeuwijk in the province of Zuid-Holland in the Netherlands. This village is famous for its lakes. The lakes were created in the beginning of this century when they dug out peat for burning in stoves. These stoves served two purposes: to keep at least one room in the house warm, and to do the daily cooking on it. A large pot of coffee was always kept warm on the back of such a stove.
Reeuwijk is now a major water sport area, where the "upper class" build their expensive bungalows, while the original local population is all but gone.
Close to Reeuwijk is the City of Gouda, famous for its Gouda cheese and its high quality candles. Around Christmas every window of the beautiful old city hall is lit with candlelight. In the old days Gouda was also well known for its white stone tobacco-pipes with their very long stems. You can still see them on some old paintings of some of the Dutch masters.
Jeannette is born in Hoensbroek in the province of Limburg in the Netherlands. The province of Limburg used to be full of coal mines. And it is therefore not surprising that Jeannette is a coal miner's daughter. The coal mines are all closed now.
We left our home country as it is too crowded with over 15,000,000 people on an area of only 41,530 sqkm. (16,042 sqmi.)
A large part of our married live we lived outside our own country. As a child Pieter lived five year in Indonesia where his dad worked as manager on a rubber, coffee and tea plantation. Together with our children, Peter and Victor-Emmanuel, we lived in Nigeria and Houston. Before we came to Canada Jeannette and Pieter spent over three years in Durban, South Africa.
Our "home base" was Lisse in the Netherlands. Situated between The Hague and Amsterdam, it is close to the dunes. The soil mixture is ideal for growing bulb flowers. Lisse has a large bulb flower exhibit called De Keukenhof. Every year in spring thousand of people from all over Europe come to see the fields with blooming tulips, narcissuses, lilies and hyacinths.
What Makes Us Tick
We now live on an acreage with a clear view of the Canadian Rockies, and enjoy watching all kinds of animals. Just to name a few: cows and calfs, bold eagles, red tailed hawks, various ducks, Canadian geese, killdeer, magpies, ravens, crows, partridges, moose, deer, coyotes, badgers, gophers, ermines, mice, mosquitoes, spiders, ants, ...
|What is an acreage?
The magazine Acreage Life (early spring 2008) describes it as follows. Acreage owners live in the country for the lifestyle. They garden on a grand scale, entertain indoors and out, and enjoy nature and pets. Many rural dwellers commute to jobs in nearby cities.
An acre is 160 square rods, 4,840 square yards, or 43,560 square feet of land. For the imperial units challenged among you that is about 4,047 square meters, or 0.405 hectare. Historically, an acre was a field tillable in a day by one ox and one person. Many North Americans describe a non-farm rural home as an acreage; others refer to their estate, country place, farm or property.
At the magazine they call an acreage fun! It's home of your dreams, just beyond the city lights, where you indulge your passions and savour the peace and quiet.
Inside our home we have also two cats. They are now about four years old. Their names are Beauty (black) and Softy (grey). Although they do create havoc from time to time, they are our favorite pets.
Jeannette was active as a member of the Ladies Auxiliary Group of the Dutch-Canadian Club of Calgary. Once a month, the ladies serve lunches to some 100 to 160 seniors at the club. There is always live music. The ladies do also lots of arts and craft work, and sell this again at bazaars.
Besides caring for Pieter and the two cats, she enjoys watching day-time soaps and doing lots of cross-stitching. Many homes have framed needlepoint works from her hands.
Pieter likes model building. He made already a scale model of the clipper Cutty Sark and a Dutch windmill. Wood carving of funny cowboy figures, birds, and Christmas ornaments, is a nice and relaxing winter hobby. Pieter does not shy away from the bigger work either: side tables, cabinets, dry walling, home office furniture, etc..
The heavy yard work is Pieter's job, such as clearing snow from our long driveway in the winter -- a very cold exercise at six in the morning --, mowing the grass in the summer -- a three to four hour job on the lawn tractor --, and creating pathways and patios around the house.
Jeannette is in charge of the vegetable yard. She has done it now two years, with excellent results. Although Pieter believed that it would be a competition between Jeannette and the many gophers (Richardson Ground Squirrels), it turned out that a chicken fence around the yard did the trick.
The orchard is a complete other story. The trees and shrubs are still young, but we did have fruits on the raspberries. However, the magpies were always harvesting one day ahead of us. So next year we have to find a solution for that.
An article "Shhhhhh! Silence is elusive in our noisy world." in the Calgary Herald of Saturday, August 2, 1997, really got my attention. This because I hate noise and especially noise pollution.
I still remember that happy moment as if it happened yesterday. I must have been about fifteen years then, and stayed with my grandparents. They had a huge orchard. It was summer and I had laid myself down in the sun in the tall grass between the old apple and pear trees. With my hands folded under my head I was looking at the deep blue sky where a few white clouds were slowly sailing by. A slight breeze moved the leaves and grass ever so gently. It was peaceful, it was quiet. There was silence, only interrupted by the occasional tweet of a sparrow.
I am not a silence freak. I like a good piece of music such as old Jazz, Blues, Big Band music or the lighter classics. I don't mind a (sometimes heated) discussion. But I cannot understand why the younger generation is attracted to Hard Rock and the likes. "Musicians" screaming at the top of their lungs with their uneducated voices trying to make themselves audible above the amplified sound of squealing instruments.
The latest craze being the portable cassette or CD player, listened to via earphones, but with the volume turned up so high that you can still hear it ten yards away. And don't forget the boom-boxes in the cars. Again volume turned up to maximum so that all loose items in your house rattle when they drive by. I hate to think what damage that does to their ears, and not to forget the medical bills that we will have to pay in the near future for their idiocy.
In 1980 I went to Houston to work for Shell Oil. A colleague took me on a tour to the various Shell refineries in the USA. On the way back we spent the Mother's Day weekend at his parents place in Hobbs, New Mexico. On Sunday afternoon his parents drove us to Midland (Texas) for our flight back to Houston. Halfway, in the middle of nowhere, they stopped at a lonely gas station to fill up. When I got out of the car it struck me, and I said the them: "Listen." They did and said: "We hear nothing". I said: "That is what I mean. It is absolutely quiet" They had a good laugh and are, until this day, still talking about it.
Oh, we are all noisy. Listen to the noise in your own home. The sound insulation of our house is excellent. But the sound of the heating fan in the winter irritates me, and so does the humming of the compressor of the refrigerator. In this day and age with our enormous technological know-how we are apparently still not able to make these buggers operate without sound.
I have a grandfather clock that I inherited from my grandparents. It makes a very gentle tick tack sound. Noise? Nay. Scientists have proven that this sound is actually comforting as it subconsciously remind us of the heartbeat of our mothers when we were babies. There is sometimes a peaceful silence in our house with me and the misses sitting in the den. The misses cross stitching, me reading a book, and grandfather's clock "silently" ticking away the seconds...
The reason for living out in the country side is to enjoy nature. Just before the January snow we saw an ermine (hermelijn). A beautiful animal, but with it's white winter coat and black-tipped tail it was very easy to spot in the brown grassland. That got me thinking that they needed an awful lot of ermines to create the fur that lined the royal robes in those olden days. Talking about the "olden days" got me thinking back about my grandparents. I have been very fortunate that I have known all my grandparents very well.
Oma Jacoba de Gier from my mother's side was a very sweet person. Even if she had nothing to spare, she made sure that you had plenty to eat and drink, and gave you always something for on the road: a couple of sandwiches, a few hard boiled eggs and a big hug. She died in her early sixties when I was twenty. She was sick already for some time, but she hung in there until she knew that I had graduated from my electrical engineering studies. My oma was very religious, and she had always hoped that I would become a clergyman (dominee) because she felt that I could speak so beautifully. I can still remember how she held the loaf of bread against her breast and then start cutting with that large, sharp knife. The slices always ended up very lopsided, but she applied the real farmer's butter generously, and the cheese or salted pork even more so. Those were the days of the real sandwiches!!!
Opa Antonius de Gier, my mom's dad, was a farmer with dairy cattle, pigs, chicken, and orchards with apple and pear trees. He "retired" (ging rentenieren) at the age of 55. He had rheumatism and suffered from arterio-sclerosis (ader verkalking). He was a heavy smoker of cigars and pipe. His daily raw egg with a shot of brandy, and a cup of leek tea (prei water) must have done something as he lived until the old age of 96!!! I still remember him reading from the bible after every meal. Opa had an enormous memory for family relations too. I wish I had taped his wealth of information. Both my oma and opa were deaf. When opa was working in the yard and it was time for coffee, my oma called at the top of her lungs: Aáááántòòòòòn, kòòòòòffiééééé. My second cousin reminded me of another story. Opa had always a beard and so did one of his brothers. When those two were riding together on their horse wagon the youngsters in their village would call "There go Abraham and Isaac".
Oma Clasina van Vliet from my father's side I remember as a fun loving person. When someone told a funny story her ample belly started shaking up and down laughing, while tears were running down her chubby cheeks from under her wire-rimmed glasses. Drying her eyes with a lace trimmed handkerchief. They lived at the Reeuwijkse Plassen near Gouda. Those were the days that the lakes were not yet polluted, the water was clear to the bottom and you could see the fish swimming by. My oma had a beautiful voice and when she was doing the dishes or rinsing the laundry at the lake side (!!!) she would sing and her voice carried over the lakes. People would say: "Moeder Sina heeft er weer zin in vandaag" (Mother Sina is in a good mood today).
Opa Pieter van Vliet was a strong, tall person and was kind of quite. He disliked tardiness and natuur apen ("nature monkeys", i.e. tourists). In those days tourism was limited to a family making a day-trip on their bikes through the polders. Anyway, my opa leased a piece of grassland for making hay for the winter for their goats. The land was separated from the road by a two meter wide ditch with water. When the grass was about 60 cm tall opa would cut it by hand with a scythe (zeis). One day a young couple parked their bikes at the side of the road, jumped the ditch, and were having a "good" time in the tall grass. My opa noticed that something was going on when he saw the boy's white behind each time popping up just above the grass. This story was told many, many times with all kinds of variations, but I strongly believe that it was the beginning of the proverb "Het gras is twee kontjes hoog" (The grass is two butts high).
The Dempseys. Together with his three brothers my opa Pieter owned three boats. One with a single piston diesel engine. They transported sand, gravel, loam, peat, etc., for the highway projects and for the growers in Boskoop. Those were days of long hours and little pay. It was very hard work as everything was loaded and unloaded using hand shovels and wheelbarrows. In those days the name Van Vliet was very common in that area. References to make clear who you were talking about took often the form of: "Oh joh, dat is Willem van Piet van Klaas de kapper" (Oh man, that is Bill of Peter of Charles the barber). My branch of the Van Vliet family was easily identified by the nickname "De Dempseys". While the competition would say it is to late to do another full load of sand let's go home, the Van Vliets would say if we work a bit harder we can just finish that load today. They kept going and pushing, the same as Jack Dempsey, the heavy weight boxer in those days (that is his picture on the left). Their boat with the single piston diesel engine was also named "Dempsey.".
I am proud of my heritage, I am proud to be a "Dempsey", and enjoy telling the background of this nickname.
Broken glass triggers memories. The broken glass was just a 95 cents glass. It was just my stupidity, not paying attention what I was doing, and let my mind wander. We have also some crystal glassware that belonged to my grandmother and my mother. My wife always gets a kick out it drinking from those. My grandmother's glasses are much smaller than the modern day ones. I remember that on a birthday evening when the whole family came together we had first coffee with a nice piece of Dutch pastry made with real cream and real butter. Then a second cup of coffee served with a cookie. The second cup typically did not have sugar in it, but was served with a hard caramel sweet. You were supposed to take the sweet in your mouth and drink the coffee over it. If there was coffee left then that was served to the few real coffee drinkers. At this point in time the men were offered a good cigar. Ladies did not smoke in those days.
Then it was time for the real drinks. The men typically had jenever (juniper based Dutch gin) or citroen, 40% alcohol drinks served in a tot glass often with a teaspoon of sugar in it. The ladies had either a glass of lemonade or a small glass of wine, typically their own fermented raspberry or other berry wine. Come to think of it, the brave ladies would have a glass of "boerenjongens". Literally "farmer boys", but it was 40% brandy with raisins. Or they would have, again in a small glass, a thick brandy based eggnog. The first round was served with a chocolate bonbon or rum beans. After a while there would be a second round and if you were lucky another piece of chocolate. When those glasses were empty then it was time to say, "Come, I think I am heading home. I have to get up again early tomorrow morning." The hostess would typically offer another drink, but that was politely declined. Those that accepted the third drink were often spoken off later as "heavy" drinkers. All this got triggered because I broke a 95 cents glass.
Family of Poachers
Here you get a peek at four generations of poachers. Yes, you read that right.
The generations before me were/are truly honest people. They had lots of respect for the mayor, the doctor, the minister, the notary public and the head teacher in their village, as all these were "learned" people.
But they changed as soon as they had to deal with law enforcement, internal revenue (the tax man), or local, provincial or federal government. Especially when those bodies interfered with their "right" to hunt and fish.
Let me start with a story I was told many times about my great-grandfather Van Vliet. Grown up in the lake area of the Reeuwijkse Plassen all Van Vliets are excellent rowers. Apparently my great-grandfather was no exception. My family leased an island in one of the lakes. On that island they grew potatoes, blackberries, beans, roses, etc.. But most important was the thatched lurking-place hidden in the tall reeds.
My great-grandfather spent many hours on the island hunting wild ducks, mallards as far as I know. Obviously the shots got the attention of the local village policeman (veldwachter), who was fully aware of the fact that the hunter did not have a license. The story goes that those two could row sometimes for hours around the island. My dad told me that his grandfather was proud that he was locked up 53 times (!!!) in the spider-shed by the village policeman.
My grandfather taught me how to shoulder a gun. He also told me that you have to keep both eyes open when you aim. My dad said that Opa Piet van Vliet was an excellent hunter, but did not follow normal conventions. He would sit with his double barrel shotgun on his lap, and let the other person have the first shot at the wading ducks. Then he would raise his shotgun, short of to the side of his body, and BANG, BANG, brought down several ducks from the air.
Opa Pieter had also the eel fishing rights (with an honest license) for one of the lakes. It was at least one hour steady rowing to get there, one to two hours eel fishing, and then another hour steady rowing back. The Van Vliets all love to eat eel in any form, pan fried, smoked or cooked with a dab of real butter. When I was visiting them and they did not have enough fresh eel in the holding bins in the water, my grandfather and grandmother went out at night in the rowboat to catch some. Grandmother would row and grandfather would scope ever so gently with the big net under the reeds around the island. They did not have the fishing rights there so it was illegal, but I can tell you that eel tasted so much better.
Growing up in that environment my dad did a fair share of hunting too. One day, as a youngster, he got a brand new winter coat. A major expense in those days. When he went hunting he got a stiff warning from grandma to be extra carefull with that new coat. Going in or out of the boat he tripped, banged the shotgun, the shotgun went off barely missing his body and burning a beautiful hole is that brand new coat. Boy, am I glad that I was not there went grandma had her say later.
Me? I am into hunting as well, but a different kind of hunting. I hunt with my binocular and camera with lenses. You don't need a license for that. Oh, I poached as well when I was young. My grandfarther had a high quality air-gun that was used for fun and target practice. I was always shooting at targets in the water, a floating leave, a piece of driftwood.
One day some tame ducks came by at about 50 yards. "Can I shoot a duck, grandpa"? Opa Van Vliet was absolutely convinced that the shot would go wide and said yes. Well that shot went right through the poor duck's head. I have never seen my grandfather move and row that fast. In a flash he was in the boat, rowed like crazy, got the duck and rowed back. Why the haste? Well the tame ducks belonged to the family he leased the island from. People had tamed ducks as they were cheap to keep and the eggs are bigger then the ones from chicken. Any way, grandpa cleaned the duck out of sight in the barn, grandma pan-fried it, and we had another delicious meal. Yes, it became yet another great story to tell at night when company was there.
For some people their earliest memory goes back to when they were four or five years old. My memory goes back to when I was almost two years. That must have been close to the end of World War II (May 1945).
I can remember playing with silver-paper or tin-foil strips that were dropped by the allied forces to confuse the German radar systems. I also remember an allied forces plane coming back from a bombing mission over Germany. The plane flew very low leaving a big trail of dark smoke. It crashed in a polder next to the Reeuwijkse Plassen where we lived. No surprise that there were no survivors. The Germans forced my grandfather and his brothers to dig part of the plane out of the peat. The Germans did not get much out of that as the sneaky Van Vliets pretended that they did not have the proper tools. After the war the Van Vliet family got permission to salvaged that plane. The result was that every Van Vliet family had a propeller blade standing in their front yard. I also remember that they had thousands and thousands of screw, bolts, nuts, washers, etc..
The funny part is that I distinctly remember seeing that crippled plane coming over, while my mother told me that if planes, or V1 or V2 rockets, came over I would dash under the table with my hands on my head.
My first memory of my dad was one evening when a dirty, unshaven "stranger" sat at the kitchen table and my mom said: "You don't have to be afraid, this is your daddy". Just before my dad was suppose to go to Indonesia in 1946 he was involved in an bad accident with an army truck. It crushed his right elbow, which he was never able to fully bend or straighten since. He spend six months in the hospital and I can still recall him there in bed with all those wires and weights hanging overhead.
Both my parents were in the resistance (ondergrondse). I can recall that someone knocked on the door and said something. I can still see in my mind a man climbing over the kitchen table that was standing under the kitchen window. The man went through the kitchen window, ran over the courtyard into the barn. I learned later that that man was my dad, and that they warned him that the Germans were close by carrying out another razzia to round up young men for their factories in Germany.
In the barn we had our "outhouse", nothing else but a board with a hole in it over a smelly septic tank. Apparently this outhouse was "modified" so that the board could be lifted and thus providing an escape over the septic tank through a hatch on the back of the barn through which the septic tank was normally emptied once a year.
I have no recollection of this, but my mom used me as cover for her resistance work. She was distributing pamphlets for the resistance. The story goes that she put those at the bottom of the baby-carriage (pram) and then put me on top of that. Apparently I was a very good sleeper, because my mom told the Germans at the checkpoints that they could not search the baby-carriage because they would wake me up. Some lady...
Across from us was a bakery. The baker and his wife had three daughters. They were all smitten with me with my bow-legged walk. Everybody had limited amounts of food stamps, and when you had them there was often no food to go with that. But young Pieter had always more fresh bread then he could handle. My mom was only moderately pleased with my visits to the bakery as I was always covered from head to toe in flour when I came back. The baker had his flour stored in big bags in the loft above the bakery. He would carry one of those big bags on his shoulder down the stairs. Then he put me in the empty bag and carried me back upstairs an so on. I had fun. I can still remember that big stone oven with all the bread bins next to each other. On the stone floor above the oven it was always warm and there they dried apples and other fruits for the winter. I can still smell all that, yummy, yummy, yummy.
Memories from my third to sixth year bend together a bit. My paternal grandparents lived about a kilometer away from our house. I "traveled" that distance on my tricycle over the gravel roads on the dikes between the lakes. My grandfather and his brothers had those three boats. The single piston diesel engine of that one boat needed to be overhauled regularly. One day I was wearing a brand new sweater knitted by my mom. As you can guess I ended up of course on that boat with the engine taken apart. When I got home later I smelled of oil and diesel, and according to my mother, my new sweater was soaked in that stuff.
Even now I am fond of exotic foods, but this is a complete different story. When supper was served I did not want to eat my potatoes or vegetables. I kept my mouth closed and just sat there. However, when it was time for the pudding -- typically warm, thin and vanilla flavoured -- I wanted that. My mom just scooped the pudding over the other stuff on my dinner plate, I took my spoon and started eating as if my life depended on it. One day my grandmother was with us when this same routine unfolded. Word has it that grandmother was very angry at my mom for treating "her" grandchild like that. What I do know is that when this story was told for the umpteenth time my grandmother's belly was shaking up and down and tears rolled down her chubby cheeks laughing.
My playmate was our dog Barry who was on a long leash so that he could roam around in the barn and on the courtyard. My swing was mounted in the door opening of the barn. Many kids had a swing like that. One Sunday, my dad was already in Indonesia, mom and I were visiting a friend. I was dressed in my Sunday's finery and was permitted to play on the swing with my friend, provided that I would not dirty myself and that I would not go near the waterfront. What is more attractive to a child then a few meters wide ditch with water, teeming with fish and frogs. I could not resist temptation and ended up submerged in the ditch. I must have been a sorry sight with kelp in my hair and mud running down my pants.
No Child Abuse
My mom never ever have hit me; she controlled me with her eyes... That is right. If I was misbehaving she only had to look at me in a certain way and I became an instant angel. This is quite unusual because I am the only child and only childs are often spoiled brats.
The proverbial cleanliness of the dutch housewives is well known all over the world. My mom was no exception. She did the major spring and fall cleaning where the whole house is turned upside down. Rugs beaten, bedding stuff put outside to air, ceilings painted, where needed new wallpaper was applied, etc. etc.. Each cleaning took easily a whole week of hard labour. Outside these two periods the house was cleaned on a daily basis. Yes sir, you better believe it. Everything was dusted off, the floors swept -- common folks did not have vacuum cleaners --. Monday was laundry day and everything better be ironed and back in the closet by Monday night. In addition to that every Saturday the whole house was cleaned even more thoroughly than the other days, i.e. all windows were cleaned both inside and outside, porches scrubbed, the weekday wooden shoes cleaned and the Sunday wooden shoes put out, and every family member took a bath so that Sunday was entered sparkling clean.
Hold on to this picture when you read this story as told by my mother many times, but I do not recall any of it. I must have been about three years old. The spring cleaning was in full swing. My mom had just cleaned the cabinets under the kitchen sink and everything stood open to dry. Next thing you know my mom caught me spreading chocolate hail all over the still wet bottom of one of the cabinets. Apparently I told her that I was helping her cleaning, imitating my mom spreading some cleaning powder or so. But... she never hit me.
At that tender age I was absolutely crazy about carrots, especially the raw ones fresh out of the yard. My dad maintained a larger vegetable yard like any other Dutch family in those days. Several times a days I walked to the vegetable yard to look if the carrots were growing. There was only one problem with that, as I obviously could not see the carrots I pull them out of the ground to check. But my dad never hit me. He was not a very good educator because he could never keep a stern look. He usually burst out laughing when he learned of one of my pranks.
Was I otherwise very well behaved? No. Was I never naughty? Oh yes, many times. I remember that one day I came very close to being hit. I was ten or eleven and we were living in Indonesia. The three of us were having lunch, some rice dish with vegetable and meat I believe. All very spicy so everybody had a tall glass of water. I was misbehaving very badly, ignoring several warnings from mom and dad. At one point my dad had enough. His arm came up and was swinging towards my poor little (ahem, ahem) head. I duck under the table and my dad hit the full water glass instead which flew from the dining room into the seating area shattering to pieces on the concrete floor. What happened next? My dad burst out laughing.
Thanks mom and dad for preparing me for the real world without ever hitting me.
Indonesia - My Dad
When the second World War was over my dad was hoping to get back to a normal way of life. He worked in Boskoop on a nursery for trees and shrubs. His favorite were the roses. No machinery in those days; everything was done by hand. In later years I learn some of that trade from my dad and apply it still while maintaining our own acreage.
Anyway, the current Indonesia was at that time still a dutch colony and call Nederlandsch Indië. An army officer visited my dad and asked him to go to Nederlands Indië as volunteer. My dad declined the offer. So the officer said that he would have to go anyway, but now under the conscription law. My dad asked what the difference was and it turned out that as volunteer he got far more money. Caught between a rock and a hard place dad decided to volunteer.
As I mentioned before, just before my dad was suppose to go to Nederlandsch Indië in 1946 he was involved in an bad accident with an army truck. It crushed his right elbow, which he was never able to fully bend or straighten since. He spend six months in the hospital and I can still recall him there in bed with all those wires and weights hanging overhead.
Finally in 1947 he arrived in Nederlandsch Indië. He had the rank of Sergeant Major of the artillery, but because of his injury he was assigned to the dental services!!! He got a large army truck with driver and had to go across the island of Java to deliver small packages with dentures!!! He told me that he had a hell of a good time visiting all those interesting places, eating great Javanese and Chinese food, etc..
But that got off course boring in the end and dad got an assignment as head of security on a dutch rubber, kapok and coffee plantation. With my dad's background he was obviously very interested in the plantation business. As there was nothing else to do he studied instead.
In 1949 he was discharged from the army and was suppose to go back to Holland. He arranged to stay, in what became in 1950 Indonesia. He got a job offer from the plantation owners and he gladly accepted.
Headquarters was in Amsterdam while the regional head office of the various plantations was located in Semarang on the coast of Java. The plantations were in the mountains where the soil is very fertile. An administrator was in charge of a plantation. Second in command was either the accountant or the factory employee, depending on seniority. Then there were several field employees who supervised the planting and maintenance of the rubber, kapok and coffee trees, and the harvesting of the products. Kapok gives a cotton-like product while the trees provide shade for the much lower coffee trees.
What my dad really wanted was to work as field employee. He loved to be outdoors, ride around on motorbike (his lifetime passion), look for orchids (his new passion) and see all the wild animals. Unfortunately being a real Van Vliet means that he was also technically quite competent, and what he did not know he would find out by reading up on it or just try-and-error. With the factory in shambles after the war, equipment strewn around in bits and pieces outside, my dad got the job of factory employee.
Dad did an excellent job as far as I can judge. He got the factory working smoothly and managed to increase the production of highest quality rubber. Coffee production was only a sideline, but dad studied and talked to experts and eventually managed to have the first batch of 5 bails of first quality coffee beans. The day before the coffee was to be transported from the factory an armed robbery took place. Both the administrator and the accountant were for meetings in Semarang and dad was held at gunpoint. In the safe was only a small amount of money. The attackers browsed around and found the coffee. Obviously they were knowledgeable as they disappeared with the coffee much to my dads regret. He never managed to really produce first quality coffee again as the second batch got stolen as well a year later.
Lots of power is needed to operate the mangling-machines for converting the raw rubber into rubber sheets ready for transportation. A few kilometers away was a hydropower plant with a large water basin above it to ensure sufficient capacity. To take care of breakdowns and during low water levels in the dry season, my dad finally got approval for a huge diesel powered generator as well. This made the whole power distribution more complex with fuse panels, transformers and circuit breakers, but my dad managed.
In the wet season we had every day a thunderstorm between 1:00 and 3:00 PM. Those storms could linger between those mountains. I remember one day a bad storm came over. I was doing my home work on a table next to the open window. Suddenly my hair was standing on end -- a very eerie feeling --, then a sssssssss sound and a palm tree some 10 meters away in the yard was completely lit with a blue light. No bang, but the factory noise stopped. Later we heard the story from my father. There was a direct hit at the hydropower plant. On the distribution panels in the factory the circuit breakers were "welded" together while the 2000 volt fuses were blown right across the factory floor barely missing the workers. Everybody was pretty shaken, but thanks to the diesel generator and temporary fixes they were up and running again the next day.
The workers got paid every ten days. Once a month they got also a certain amount of rice depending on their job and family size. In the morning on payday two employees with one or two armed guards drove in a jeep to Semarang to get the money from a bank in a huge canvas bag. Obviously hold ups were not uncommon. One day my dad was one of the employees to pick up the money. The accountant had calculated how much was needed to pay out and that amount was obtained from the bank. After the payments were made there was a huge amount left over. Everything was re-checked and found in order. So the only conclusion was that the bank had paid too much. The next day they went back to the bank and explained everything to the bank manager. The bank manager said with a straight face: "We don't make mistakes at the bank". Now the plantation accountant was all up in arms as he would not be able to explain at the end of the year how they could have such a large amount of surplus cash. In the end they decided to give a huge "slamatan" (Indonesian celebration) for all the workers, with an elaborate "rice tafel" meal, "gamelan" music and "wajan" doll shadow play portraying their belief in good and evil spirits and heroes. Is it amazing that that was the best running plantation?
The end of year closing of the books was always a nightmare time. There was only one mechanical calculator, so that most of the books had to be added up by hand the old fashioned way. I remember my dad, his colleagues, and yes even my mom, sitting there for hours and hours adding up figures. Everything had to balance to the very last cent!!! One year they were done around ten o'clock in the morning. The plantation administrator felt good about that and proposed to have a drink to celebrate. So the dutch jenever (gin-like 40% alcohol drink, but far better) bottle and liquor glasses came out. They were joyful and at their second drink when a sedan stopped in front of the house. Out came the big boss from Semarang. Panic struck. Glasses were gulped empty and put in the pockets. Big boss entered, everybody stands, hands are being shaken at real arm length with kind of closed mouth. Anyway the books were presented and when the big boss saw the good results he was very happy and said: "Gentlemen this is a cause for celebration and I propose that we have a drink".
My father had several hobbies: orchids, birds, bungalows and drawing. His wish was to one day build his own bungalow and he made many drawings of what that should look like. Unfortunately that dream never came true. However, I followed up on that dream and now Jeannette and I own and live in a bungalow. His real passion was orchids. Our verandas of the many places we lived in in Indonesia were always lined with beautiful specimen. Dad communicated a lot with an expert from the botanical gardens in west Java. We also had various birds in cages. Dad designed a great bird cage for our parakeets. Now building was something else as there was no proper material available. So we used the thin planks from some type of "orange" crates. I clearly remember spending hours with the handsaw making small, one centimeter wide, strips for the framework. As bars we used the wire from a leftover piece of tennis court fence. And you guessed it, I spent hours bending those zigzags back into straight wires. But in the end it was all worth it; my dad had created another masterpiece.
All in all my father worked on three different plantations and got also involved in cacao and tea production. End of 1957 the Indonesian government nationalized the plantations. The dutch employees were not allowed to enter the factory or fields anymore. Local staff took over, but did not have the experience. They come every night to our house to consult my dad. In March 1958 my mom and dad were forced to return to Holland as headquarters in Holland stopped paying salaries in Indonesia. The company offered my dad another job on a plantation in Brazil, but he had to emigrate. Because of my education my mom and dad decided to stay in Holland. I always wondered how things would have turned out had they accepted the Brazil job...
My dad died on February 25, 2002, at the age of 86. We shall never forget his positive look at life, his sense of humour, and his love for nature. Dad, you will be missed by us all.
Indonesia - My Mom
Once my dad decided that he wanted to stay in Indonesia, I guess with approval of mom, he started his long battle with the bureaucratic process of acquiring visas for mom and me. Finally in 1949 he had all the papers together and just picked them up in Semarang. Before returning to the plantation it was customary to go to a special restaurant in Semarang and have a good meal. My dad had all the papers in his briefcase next to his seat in the open jeep, the good old Willy. He parked the jeep, got out, turned around to take the briefcase... and it was gone. Not a sign of it obviously. So it took another year before he had again the visas for us.
In the meantime my mom underwent a transformation. She had beautiful long hair that she had rolled up in a bun. She changed that in short hair with a perm, as that was how the dutch ladies had their hair in Indonesia as dad wrote to her. She also had to pick up smoking as that was the way of the expatriate community. In those days one did not know any better.
Finally in May 1950 the big day was there. Mom and me boarded the MS Oranje, an large ocean liner, in Amsterdam en route to Djakarta. We were travelling third class, which had just been renovated. The engines were replaced by new ones as well, and there was the problem. A trip of about two weeks turned into three and half weeks. Days in a row we were just drifting while they worked hard in getting the engines fixed.
Our hut was small but nice. I slept in the upper bunk bed. We had a little washbasin, a small table attached to the wall and one or two stools. Other facilities were shared and somewhere down the corridor.
Every class had its own decks, restaurants, etc.. Kids had their meals separate from the adults. That is were the problems came in. I was almost seven years old, but very much mama's baby. Now I had to eat with two and three olds, play on the children's deck with those same kids. Did not jive with me very well at all.
Our porthole was just above sea level, so it had to be closed with bad weather and when we went into a port. I clearly remember that the finishing of the hut followed the curve of the hull having a square opening with the porthole recessed in it. At that time I was a skinny chap and climbed into that square opening to look through the porthole. It scared the hell out of my mom, but the purser assured her that nothing could go wrong with the porthole closed.
We finally arrived in Djakarta, but due to the constantly changing arrival date my dad could not get a flight from Semarang in time to meet us in Djakarta. So mom and I were on our own. We ended up in a nice hotel. The only thing I remember from that is that we had lunch. Glasses with water, elaborate rice dishes, bananas and a saucer with some red stuff. I went for the banana, a luxury in Holland in those days. But the red stuff did not look like anything we knew. For me anything that is red is jam, so I took a teaspoon full. That was my initiation to "sambal oelek" the Indonesian crushed red pepper paste, that is burning hot!!!!! I don't know how many liters of water I drank, but obviously it did not cool me at all. Something must have burned my brain cells permanently, because I love hot spicy food ever since.
We arrived in Salatiga the day before my seventh birthday. A few weeks later I had to go to school. The problem was the language at school had become Malaysian by order of the Indonesian government. I could sort of follow the math classes, but anything else was a disaster. My grades were miserable and the fact that the dutch teacher hated those "colonialist" kids did not help very much either.
My parents came in contact with someone from the Dutch Reformed mission. They learned that there was and Institute For Individual Education (IVIO). The curriculum followed that in the home country. It had ten handbooks for the home teacher with instructions on what, when and how to teach the home student. Every month there was a kind of exam of which the home teacher did not have the answers either. That was mailed to the IVIO school in Bandung and then came back with marks and remarks for both student and teacher.
My mom took up the job of home teacher. She had time enough as we had several servants, a "kokkie" for the shopping and food preparation, a "baboe" for cleaning the house and doing the laundry, and a "kebon" for maintaining the garden. Mom was teaching in the morning. After lunch I had my daily homework while mom and dad had their afternoon siesta as was customary there.
My school vacations were very irregular. My mom was unfortunately plagued with several illnesses that required major operations. While she spent time in the hospital I had my "vacation", often on the plantation with my dad. Mom educated me up to the sixth grade. Although the IVIO offered highschool level education programs, my mom was not able to do that as she herself never had highschool. So in 1955 my mom brought me back to Holland where I stayed with forster parents for my further education. This is a subject for a later topic. One thing is for sure, my mom was a very strict teacher and that showed later as I had no problems whatsoever to pass the highschool entrance exams. Thanks mom for all the time you spent on me.
Life in Indonesia had its ups and downs. Refrigerators were hardly available. Produce and meats were shopped for on a daily basis. Other food items were stored on storage racks that had their legs in old cheese cans filled with bleach to keep the ants away. I remember one day my mom walking into the dining room sniffing and looking around. She smelled something that the cat had done what it was not suppose to do, if you know what I mean. My dad and me didn't noticed anything wrong. It turned out that my dad had brought a "durian" fruit in the house and put it on the storage rack. My mom was fuming so dad and I ended up sitting on the steps to the veranda eating the fruit. Durian is a watermelon size fruit with a spiky surface. The fruit-meat is neatly arranged around one inch round pits. The ripe fruit-meat is delicious, very rich with creamy like consistency. The only drawback is that it smells a wee bit...
I do remember that mom did not like the Indonesian dishes too much, especially the spicy ones were not on her list of favourites. I recall that while dad and I were having a ball with a new spicy dish prepared by our kokkie that she was eating plain boiled rice with butter and sugar!!!
There was not much in terms of entertainment. Having coffee and drinks in the evening or on Sundays with dad's colleagues was about all that was available. Playing tennis was the only sport available. From my room I had a clear view on the tennis court which did not always help the progress of my homework. I cannot remember if my mom was the guilty party, but one day my dad was brought home with a marvellous blue-black, closed eye. A serve was a bit off and the tennis ball had hit my dad right in his eye. Luckily no permanent damage, but it was THE story for months where my dads tennis skills were examined.
Occasionally there were parties. The only 76 rpm record player went from employee to employee on the plantation. We had some 10 different records that were played with those thick "nails" that needed replacement every five records or so. The one song that sticks out is "How much is that dog..gie in the window" from Doris Day. Mom loved to dance, foxtrot, walses, tangos, you name it. Dad was the one that was more comfortable keeping the seat at the bar warm!!!
When there was a party on another plantation they could borrow the company jeep, but then took a local driver with them so that he could drive them back at night. To get to our plantation was about 15 km (10 miles) over a winding, rutted dirt road through the mountains. Their driver that night was a very old bloke who had driven that piece of bush road thousands of times. Halfway my mom noticed that he was driving with his eyes closed and sound asleep. He opened his eyes again went he stopped in front of the security gate to the plantation. Others confirmed this story. Amazingly enough he was the only driver on the plantation with an absolute clean driving record.
Indonesia - Young Pieter
As I said before, we arrived at our place of residence, Salatiga, the day before my seventh birthday. What I remember still is that smell of the new surroundings. Different smell of cooking, different smell of flowers, different smell of polish on furniture.
The language was also different. My dad was "doro tuan" (sir), my mom was "doro nonja" (madam) and I was addressed as "doro sinjo" (son). "Doro" is some kind of title. My dad spoke the Malaysian language as that was the common language throughout Indonesia. Our servants were all Javanese so he spoke their language as well. There were two forms in the Javanese language, the formal form which our servants use to address us and the informal form which we were suppose to use when we spoken to our servants. My dad insisted on addressing them in the formal form which was considered by the servants as an honour bestowed on them.
I was a garbage collector in terms of food. I liked everything, I tried anything, and above all I enjoyed the food of the servants far better than the Dutch oriented cooking that was done for us, especially because mom was not very fond of the spicy food. I often went with the kokkie to the local market to buy meat and vegetables. She spoilt me rotten by getting me something to eat for one of the local stalls. It was always packed in banana leaves, and boy, it tasted so good. The result of all this was that I talked the whole day with the baboe, the kokkie and the kebon. I mixed all languages, but communicated within of few months, often being a go-between for my mom who had far more difficulties.
I remember one funny episode. The wind was picking up and mom asked the baboe to close the windows. What she should have said was: "toetoep tjendela". However, what she said was: "toetoep tjelana", which means close the pants. After initial blank faces from the baboe things got straighten out. But, it is still one of those stories that are never forgotten and told over and over again.
There were very few friends for me, if any. So one of my favorite guys was the kebon, our gardener, that is, if I could sneak out from under my mom's iron supervision. He had this huge knife with which he made the most marvelous toys out of bamboe. Flutes, whistles, gamalans (Indonesian type xylophone), bow and arrows, boxes, etc.. Later I had an old pocket knife from my dad and made some of those toys myself.
Due to a transfer of my dad, and proper housing not being available on the plantation yet, we spent I believe almost a year in hotel Kalitaman in Salatiga. We had the most "luxurious" suite there. It overlooked tennis courts, and was close to a swimming pool where I often went. One day I met an Indonesian boy of about my age. We played together and it turned out that his father was some kind of Javanese royalty. Well that did not bother me at all. His father liked me and taught me how to build a kite, Indonesian style.
I must tell that flying a kite was serious business there. You not only had to know how to fly it properly, i.e. let it do all kinds of aerobatics, but do with utmost precision. Oh, and no multiple lines like today; one line did it all. The reason was that once you were in the air kite fighting was almost mandatory. The idea was to "attack" the line of your opponent's kite and cut it!!! That is why the preparation of the kite line was so very important. The royal dad of my friend helped me make my kite line, all 1500 meters (almost one mile) of it. We first made a mixture of special glue and finely pounded glass. Then we put a spool of extra strength fine thread in it and walked out the "dipped" thread between a couple of palm trees so that it could dry. I never invited kite flights, but I seldom lost when I got attacked.
The island of Java is full off volcanoes. We lived first on the slope of a "sleeper", mount Merbaboe. Behind this mountain was mount Merapi, which was an active one. When we were sitting on our verandah at the back we saw it always smoking, and at night we often saw the eruptions as little red lights going downhill. One night the Merapi had a major eruption. I was already in bed and woke up. The whole house was shaking. The louver blinds were rattling. My ruler was shaken off the table and fell with a bang on the ground. Mom was more shocked than me. The next day the sky started hazing over and a very fine dust settled on everything, even inside the house. This lasted for several weeks.
Dad had a special shortwave radio. It did not only had the marker on the dial, but also a fine tuning "clock" at the top which I have never seen on any other radio since. Dad had read up on short wave radio technology and had erected a properly aimed shortwave antenna. In that way we could received Radio Nederland Wereld Omroep. We listened every evening in order to stay in touch with what was happening on the home front. Thinking back the sound was awful, constantly fading in and out, but we even listened to Dutch music. Stereo was not even invented is those days.
When mom was in hospital I was left to my own devices. That is, my dad took me with him to the plantation. I played outside, climbed trees, made toys out of bamboe, and was good friends again with the kebon (gardener) there. Now I must say that everybody in those days was smoking. The kebon was no exception. Only the Javanese rolled there own cigarettes using rice paper and tobacco mixed with cloves called "kretek". Most likely because its sparkled like 4th July fireworks. You either liked it or you didn't. Me? What can I say, you only learn by trying, so I smoked the occasional kretek cigarette begged from the kebon. The problem was that the baboe or the kokkie told mom and dad. What came then was worst than a volcanic eruption.....
I was also good friends with the truck drivers of the plantation. I always managed to get a ride with them when they went into the field to pick up the tanks with latex. Dad had given explicit instructions that I had to sit in the cabin with the driver. But the fun was of course on the back of the truck with the labourers and the tank. There is were I learned the Javanese dirty language and the matching sign language. The problem was I could never show mom and dad my knowledge.
There is of course far more to tell from those five years in Indonesia, but let me finish with a few more food topics. First there is koffie toebroek. You take a glass, put in one table spoon fine grind coffee, one table spoon sugar and boiling water. Stir for a minute and let the coffee dregs settle. For me this is still the very best way to drink coffee. The problem is that modern day coffee beans are not roasted dark enough.
Last bad not least is "bami godok", a type of Chinese noodles, with vegetables and pork. Initially stir fried and at the end stock is added to give it a cooked or thick soup type consistency. Mom did not likely it so she had rice with butter and sugar (!!!), while dad and I gorged ourselves on bami godok. I normally never volunteered for doing house hold related work, but I was always eager to go to the warong (street stall) with the rantengan to buy bami godok. A rantengan is a stack of 4 to 6 aluminum pans held together with a special handle.
Thinking back I can honestly say that I had a good youth.
As I said before, my mom educated me privately up until the 6th grade. Highschool level was too much for her. So in 1955 my mom and I flew back from Indonesia to Holland with the KLM. The plane was a super-constellation and it was a four day trip. We had the same crew all the way from Djakarta to Amsterdam. Our night stops were to refuel, clean the plane, dine and sleep.
I do not remember very much about our stops at Calcutta and Karachi, but Cairo I will never forget. We spent the night in a motel type place in the middle of a huge sandbox; at least that is how I recall it. It was extremely hot there, but we made the free bus tour to the famous pyramids of Giza anyway. It was only many years later that I realized what a wonder I had seen. We had dinner when we came back, and then went to our rooms. Although the ceiling fans were blowing like crazy we stayed hot. The bathroom had a big concrete basin but there was hardly any water in it. Absolutely exhausted we finally fell asleep only to wake up at a terrible noise. Outside the rain was pounding on the corrugated iron roof and inside the water thundered through a wide pipe into the concrete basin. Coming from the tropics where one bathes at least twice a day, I rushed into the bath room, undressed, scooped a bucket full of water and pored it over me..... Well, that was the first and only bucket, because that water must have been close to freezing point. That is the desert alright.
From Cairo we made a lunch and refueling stop in Rome. From there we flew over Spain because the Alps were too high for the plane and then north to Amsterdam. Over the Bay of Biscay we flew into a terrible storm. The plane bounced up and down, left and right like a yo-yo. Everybody was sick, including the crew. The stewardess stumbled through the aisle sprinkling Eau de Cologne to counteract the terrible smell of the sick people. However, there was one person on that plane who was not sick and had the time of his life. Right that was me.
In Amsterdam we were met by mom's brother and his wife, and we stayed with opa and oma De Gier. My parents had made contact with a family that was willing to take me in, also as companion for their "after-thought" son. It turned out that our age difference was considered too much. He was 16 and I just made 12.
Via various contacts my mom finally found a foster family for me. They had no children of their own, but Aunt Carry came from Indonesia and was a highschool teacher in English. Uncle Dirk was working at the University of Utrecht and working on his doctorate in Theology. He later became professor at that same university.
My foster parents had also girls staying with them; first Lydia and later Eileen. Very often other kids came over to study: Dik, the son of a preacher, who was my friend and Ria, who was getting extra help with her Greek and Latin studies. We were all about the same age and had lots a fun together.
There was lots of activities going on in and around the house. We played lots of games, but made also long bicycle trips to visit friends of my foster parents. They were very actively involved with the people coming back from Indonesia, and I distributed their newsletter all over the city of Utrecht on my bike, collected annual club fees and sold tickets for their Pasar Malan.
I also had a chance to do my hobbies: building and playing with all kinds of radios and, my all time favourite, woodworking. I remember building a large doll house, including all the furniture and battery operated lights, for a niece of Aunt Carry. There was a little section in the cellar (basement) that was dedicate as my hobby corner.
But in all this, studying came first and Aunt Carry and Uncle Dirk kept strict control over us. The vacations I spent normally with my grandparents. One time it was spring break and I stayed with my oma and opa De Gier some 20 kilometers from Utrecht. After one day the neighbour of my grandparents came over and told me that uncle Dirk had phoned -- phones were not that common in those days -- and that I had to come home immediately. What happened was that I did not study very much and had the lowest possible grade for my French language exam. I knew that I did not do to well on that exam, but I told my foster parents that everything was great, because otherwise I could not go to my grandparents and had to study instead. I can tell you that SPARKS were flying when I came home.
After my mom, it was through the dedication of my foster parents that I got through highschool undamaged and well prepared for my further technical educational as electrical engineer. Thanks Aunt Carry and Uncle Dirk.
A few years ago Ria organized a reunion with our foster parents and us foster kids with our better halves. It was like those good old days came back alive again. And then of course that delicious Indonesian food. That reunion day was over far too quick.
Uncle Dirk died February 23, 2003, at the age of 83.
Aunt Carry passed away August 17, 2006, at the age of 91.