Sitting in an airport at 4 a.m. in a foreign country can be surreal, but we were tired enough to make it downright hallucinatory. We’d flown from Asheville, North Carolina, to Atlanta to Frankfurt to Amsterdam with excruciating waits at each stop, then immediately boarded a riverboat docked near Centraal Station. After saluting the ensign and greeting the captain and crew, we tore into the provided dinner, heard an orientation for the next day’s excursions, and collapsed into bed. The next morning we began an exhilarating, virtually nonstop tour of the Netherlands. Seven days later, our adrenaline-laced visit ended where it had begun, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

On four hours’ sleep, we dragged our luggage to a waiting area and tried to brace ourselves for the return trip. A trio of Middle Easterners had huddled nearby and were trying to laugh and tease one another into an alert state. A small, balding man beside us tried to sleep in an uncomfortable plastic airport chair. We sought coffee and breakfast and finding none, we slouched into a pair of those uncomfortable seats and waited.

I began a bleary people-watch — my favorite pastime in alien places. Quickly bored in the near-empty airport, my attention fell to a vertical neon sign across a brace of check-in counters, the sort I’ve found easy to ignore in bustling metropolises. It began scrolling a rambling message in English. Peace is always better that war, its fleeing red digital letters read, nothing positive has ever been accomplished by war.

Ah. The Dutch are still angry at the U.S.’s unilateralism and overly idealistic, neocon-inspired posturing prior to invading Iraq. The sign had been erected to give us Yank tourists a message to take home, I supposed.

The people aren’t the problem, the message board continued, it’s the ones who want to control the people…the multinationals, the churches, the governments… they’re the problem.

Huh. Someone’s been reading my latest novel manuscript on the sly, about to give away the plot. If I see one mention of nationalistic European terrorists…

Such organizations can’t possibly represent the people’s needs — they make arbitrary rules to entrap, confine and diminish the human spirit.

I turned to Becca. “You see that sign?” She glanced up, nodded, returned to her paperback. Good. That no one else was reading the sign meant nothing. Her nod meant I wasn’t having a vision induced by exhaustion.

Time means change, and institutions never change, the message went on without a breath, what does that tell us about institutions?

By now I was mesmerized by the message and its possible origin, but more so by the nonlinearity of such an experience in a foreign airport.

Freedom, the sign pronounced, and I sensed its keynote line looming. Freedom is the only thing left to the people, and we must retain it at all costs. The freedom to do what we want with our bodies, with our minds, with our energy. To restrict this is the last and yet the greatest form of tyranny.

At last I was getting the gist. I was in Amsterdam. Drugs are open there. The government had sanctioned a Red-Light district. Banned books could be found in dusty nooks, including those tacitly banned in the U.S. by distribution companies’ exclusion. The Dutch were multilingual, friendly, open. Ideas, art, music, poetry, styles — all modes of expression — they flow about the Netherlands like so much water through its polders.

This small, oddly energetic nation had me empathizing with French monk Gerbert and the way he described Córdoba, then center of Spanish/Moorish culture. Art, philosophy, science, literature — these were everywhere in Córdoba, in the streets, on the people’s tongues. Then a new Caliph came to power and commanded all books to be burned. Within five years, Córdoba lost its civilizing force and became nothing more than a social and cultural backwater that endured for almost two centuries.

But what had caused the Dutch, of all people, to so resolutely demand and maintain such openness, even in the face of a newly installed right-wing administration? Right-wing governments have been sprouting up world-wide like spring weeds; even we rambunctious Americans, who like nothing better than a trendsetter, have bought into this growing surge of repression, even as it fosters the hyper-materialism capitalism aspires to — something the late Pope John Paul II warned the world about in his too-fatherly manner. But how did the Netherlands become the standard bearer of personal freedom?

I scrabbled through my backpack for notes I had taken on our manic, weeklong trip. To gain a proper feel for the Netherlands, you first have to picture the Low Countries two millennia ago. This was a land of nearly sixteen thousand square miles reminiscent of the swamps and bayous of south Louisiana. The sandy deposits at the mouth of what was eventually known as the Zuider Zee had been left there as the last ice age receded some ten thousand years ago. The people living in this forbidding land, Frisians and Celts, fished and hunted in a relatively warm but extremely wet climate they were convinced no one else would ever want. And for a long while, no one did.

Then the Romans came, pushing west of the Rhine River, seeking to control its many mouths. Eventually, Roman influence waned and Germanic tribes plundered this low country, razing the Latin civilization the Romans had imposed on these people. Charlemagne’s Franks followed, bringing an authoritarian form of Christianity, their influence later diluted by a last wave of Viking raiders. Feuding Duchies later divided the land, only to be subjected to Spanish invasion and the infamous Jesuit-led Inquisition. Spanish influence fled before the Protestant Reformation, something the Dutch now speak of as a new form of repression dressed in the same old papal cloth. Calvinism, the State religion, forbade Catholicism and arrowed itself deep into the personal lives of Dutch citizens.

Then the floods came. Solar disruptions, we now think, caused inordinately high tides and massive rains, nearly destroying an emerging Dutch culture. So they built dikes and canals to drain the land. Despite more modern protective devices, these centuries-old structures remain to display some of the world’s most enduring inventiveness

Maybe it was the eventual success of such efforts, forged by will, craft, and ingenuity, that led the Dutch to an eventual role as a world power. They built ships, large, ocean-traversing ships, and set sail for the edge of the world. They rounded Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope and set up shop in South Africa and Indonesia.

But not without cost. Many of the Dutch were forced to sell their children to merchants and seafaring enterprises, boys conscripted as sailors for those far-reaching voyages, more than ninety percent never returning. Girls were indentured to the same merchants to take care of mundane household duties, many serving as prostitutes for returning sailors.

Despite such problematic practices, the Dutch became a world power. Other nations envied their accomplishments. England coveted their colonies. A series of Dutch and English wars resulted. During an era of perpetual European war, the French overthrew their monarch, pounding Europe with political shock waves. This led to the Napoleonic Wars. The French conquered and occupied the Low Countries, intending them as something of a buffer against Russia. Later the Netherlands suffered their own catharses of religion and government, relaxing Calvinistic doctrines and allowing Catholicism once more. The Dutch established a constitutional monarchy and parliament.

With barely time to accustom their economy and culture to the Industrial Age, the Dutch declared neutrality and non-alliance as they came under threat from Nazi Germany’s National Socialism. Germany invaded, anyway. World War II nearing its end, Hitler considered breaching the dikes and flooding the lowlands. Fortunately, his absorption in protecting Germany from Allied invasion prevented that. Despite some fifty thousand Dutch starving at the war’s close, many surviving by eating tulip bulbs, they bent to the task of rebuilding, and their nation quickly regained its vitality.

As I folded my notes and stowed them, the message began again. Still in my early-morning trance, I found myself memorizing it. The more I read it, the more I came to understand. With only two hundred years of geopolitical dominance out of two thousand, constantly facing the need to protect themselves from nature’s erosions and war’s ravages, it’s small wonder the Dutch now seek a less conventional path through the minefield of human experience. Might not their focus on creative personal pursuits, however idiosyncratic, be seen in the future, not as self-serving hedonism or political avoidance, but the last natural step of human social and personal development, the natural end of their inventive prowess?

The Dutch are famously blasé regarding government and religion, certainly not without cause. They’re not unhappy laggards, though; they’re an industrious, friendly and curious people. They have a history of adaptation, of personal and national responsibility in the face of crises. Might not their influence once again be ascendant, in ways circumventing the waters of power politics and economics, the dams of restrictive religious institutions? Certainly those proffering that rambling message in Schiphol Airport thought enough of this possibility to tout it in the most unorthodox of forums.


Bob Mustin has had a brief naval career and a much longer one as a structural engineer. He now lives in the North Georgia Mountains, where he is restoring an old house, dabbles in woodworking, and continues to write.