My story is not spectacular. My story is not heroic. My story is actually not even my story but at the same time it really absolutely is! This story forms part of a greater whole and I am so proud that I am a part of it! It deserves to be told and I want to be the one to do it. So there.
I ended my previous blog on a bit of a cliffhanger. I wrote about the voyage of my grandparents in 1943 and may have briefly mentioned that I retook this voyage, as an ode to them and all others who attempted to cross the North Sea to England during WWII. But enough about them (but no seriously, they were awesome!), allow me to tell you about my part in all of this!
So, I think I’ll start at the end and work back from there. You see, when we returned from our fourtysomething hour long journey, we came ashore with cameras pointing at our faces (waiting for us to break down?). We were applauded, photographed, filmed and interviewed. We were asked to pose, to talk about how we felt, to smile and to wave this way and that. I tried to be original every time I was asked about the voyage and to treat every question as if it was asked to me for the first time.
The most frequent asked questions were the following:
1) What drove you to take part in this venture? (sometimes asked in the form of: why in the blazes did you say yes?)
2) What went through your mind while you were at sea?
3) What does it mean for you to step in the footsteps of your grandparents?
4) Would you do it again?
The questions sound simple enough, but I had the hardest possible time coming up with the right answers. I think whoever asked me them, was pretty satisfied with whatever I came up with but I always felt I hadn’t quite covered it. I kept thinking they actually wanted to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I felt I was never really giving them all that. Sure, it was always true but I always had to feed it to them in ready to eat soundbites and therefore my answers always sounded incomplete to me. It missed the “on the one side blablabla, but on the other side blablabla” crap we academics love to get lost in.
That’s why I thought writing this blog would be easy. I would just jot it all down, from left to write, and equip my formulated thoughts with tons of footnotes and sidethoughts between parentheses, which is what I reckon most of my daydreams must look like as well… but I degress…
Let’s answer these questions… Numero uno, why in the blazes did I say yes?! Ahhh, but my answer needs an introduction… because my perceptive readers must have noticed that this question implies the involvement of another party, being the one that is asking me to come along. That would be Epco and Teije, who came up with the idea for this undertaking during the new year’s reception of the newspaper they both work for.
They found out about a little boat that lay in a museum in Overloon, named after one of the original passengers, Yvette Bartlema. And during their first brainstorm sessions about how this project could take form, they came into contact with living legend, Eddie Jonker. This 90 year old war veteran was also the chairman of a Stichting Engelandvaardermuseum, raising funds for the resurrection of a museum to commemorate all those who travelled to England during the second world war and joined the allied forces and the resistance. He joined the RAF himself and contributed greatly to the cause and remains an amazingly sharp witted man today with a strong will and a warm hart. The foundation was working on a project to build a replica of the Yvette for in the museum’s collection, which turned out to be the final boost Epco and Teije needed for their idea to really set sail.
All they needed now were 3 other people to come along on this odyssey, which (long story short) brought them to me. And I said yes because… well, honestly because I thought it sounded like an adventure. The first time I tried to explain this to my friends and family, I described it as the reaction a child would have hearing his / her favorite attraction park had just opened a new ride. But of course there was more to it… I was getting the chance to learn about these mysterious people in the black and white pictures. I read their words from fading letters that had been kept safe (but nearly forgotten!) in boxes and cupboards by family members. I learned things about my own history and about history in general that I didn’t even know I missed.
I also said yes because from the very start, the organizers emphasized that safety was very high on their list of priorities. That made me feel like I could permit myself to be brazen. It was an opportunity to go on an adventure, with a big chance of discomfort a slight chance of getting hurt, but with a panic button in case things (or people) would go overboard. That my grandparents did not have this luxury, was a realization that was often in our minds and humbled us during our get-togethers.
And I guess that brings us to the second question. In all honesty, what I thought about during my time at sea wasn’t all that interesting… I wish I could tell you I philosophized about the meaning of life and my part in it. I wish I could tell you I solved some crazy riddle or perhaps made up one, but I’m afraid it would be untrue.
My thoughts were more along the lines of “Man, this North Sea puddle sure is BIG!” and “ Didn’t I see a wave just like that one, an hour ago?!” and most of all “ bleeeuh, my tummy feels funny… but luckily not as bad as THAT guy…”. That guy was one of my fellow passengers and grandson of one of the original crewmembers, Coen. His nausea started somewhere during the first night and never really stopped. He came out of his greenish-greyish cloud of misery for a couple of minutes every time he ate something. It would give him enough energy to make a couple of jokes and then fall back into his zombie-state after hanging over the side to give whatever he had just eaten back to nature…
There were a couple of moments during the voyage that we spoke about what we were doing and what it all meant. We talked about the original passengers and about their role in the bigger picture. We talked about the other veterans we had met and what they represented for the younger generations. We talked about boat refugees in current times and the way we view them. My grandparents were heroes, boat refugees arriving in Southern Europe from Africa are a plague. Is it really that different?
After this last conversation I had Manu Chao’s song, Clandestino, on my mind and tried to remember all the lyrics. All I kept coming back to was “Soy una raya en el mar”, or “ I’m a line in the sea”, which is pretty much how I felt. Another song that stuck with me is Papeles mojados, by Chambao. I encourage you to listen to both songs and look up their translated lyrics if you don’t speak Spanish.
And how it feels to step in the footsteps of my grandparents…? In truth, I don’t think I have. I made a trip in a boat and I am proud of myself for doing it, but I have in no way done anything matching the heroism of the original passengers, as the boat trip itself was merely the beginning of their voyage. I guess that is also why it was so hard to write this blog. I just felt so small in the light of their story and almost unworthy to be putting the spotlight on myself for something so meaningless.
I did feel the need to describe this feeling of gratitude and admiration I feel for the people that fought for our freedom. Not just my grandparents but all the men and women that contributed to the resistance and stood up against the hate and injustice that was swallowing the continent. The last question is therefore an insignificant one. Retaking the boattrip does nothing for the true meaning of their mission. To truly honor their valor I must actively participate in the world and make an effort to make a difference. I can either sit by the sidelines and point at all the things I see going wrong, or I can find ways to truly make a difference.
In current times, things have been getting so confused. People are being called fascists left and right. Politics are filled with fear mongering rhetorics, which is creating an atmosphere that is truly worrying. Fear is the best bed to plant the seed of hate in and it is happening all around me. I will not go into this much further in this blog (but I will try to in a future one) but will leave you with this video that recently aired before the European elections.