Why I Am A European
Posted on April 19th, 2018
I spent a few days in Amsterdam last week. While I was there I got to thinking about my first trip to the city.
It was in 1969, I was almost 14. We travelled by car, 4 of us in an Austin Maxi with 2 tents on the roof-rack and a full boot. Dad drove all the way, as I don't think mum had learned to drive by then. The first leg was from Dundee to Harwich. We took the ferry from there to the Hook of Holland, drove to Amsterdam and got to the campsite.
The next day we drove south to a town called Vught, near to the better known city of 's-Hertogenbosch. We went straight to the Police Station where mum, who spoke excellent German went inside to explain why we were there and ask if they could help us.
We were looking for the family van Veghel, who had 3 daughters, Mia, Dina, Corri and a son, Berti. The Police couldn't have been more helpful; we followed a couple of officers in their police car round the houses, as van Veghel is a very common name in Vught so it was going to be a bit of a hit and miss trip. The first 2 or 3 houses we stopped at were misses, so we went on.
I think it was the 4th house we stopped at where an old woman came to the door and the Police explained why we were there. Dad had got out of the car and I remember him saying, 'I think I recognise you.'
Sure enough it was Moeder, the mother of the house. Her husband had died but Corri and her husband Jan van den Bos lived with her. Berti did too, his learning difficulties perhaps having made this necessary.
Dad hadn't seen them since 1944, when he had been billeted with them at one point during the 51st Highland Division's journey from Normandy to Germany.
We were invited in, and treated to lunch. It was all a bit strange; disorientating but exciting. We couldn't speak Dutch and Moeder couldn't speak English, but Corri and Jan had a bit of English and we could 'talk with hands and feet' as they put it.
The next day Corri and Jan came to the campsite in Amsterdam. They had told Dina, who lived in the area with her family to meet them there, but hadn't explained why. Dina came round the corner of our tent, looked at Dad and said, 'Bill!' so either she had a very good memory, or Dad hadn't changed much from his 19 year old self, or he'd made quite an impression when he'd been there before. Of course Dad wasn't just an ordinary soldier, oh no; he was a piper, or a 'doedelzakspeler' in Dutch. And, as he said in response to the innocently youthful question about his rank in the Army, too intelligent to be an officer.
I still have an image of that in my head, brightly lit by the sun. It was great day. Dina had married Jan de Vleger and had a daughter, Antonie. Jan was a joker so there was never a dull moment when he was around. I don't remember much of the specifics of the conversation, but I remember feeling comfortable with everyone and feeling emotionally linked.
At some point during our trip we met with Mia, her husband Ko and their daughter Inike. There seemed to be several occasions when we all met up, perhaps even on the way back from Germany after the second week of our holiday.
Jan and Corri visited us in Scotland. So did Jan, Dina and Antonie. We kept in touch and Dad went back in 1994 for the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation. Perhaps only then did he realise the enormity of the events he had participated in from June 1944, as he had been preoccupied at the time with surviving.
They are almost all gone now, that generation. Perhaps one day I'll take my children to Vught and meet up with the children and grandchildren of the van Veghels. I don't expect there to be any language difficulties, as between us we have French, German, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Chinese. That's just my kids, I only have fluent Scots and swearie.
By the time I was 14 I'd holidayed in France, Holland and Germany and established family links in Europe. What chance did I ever have of not being a European?