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Leeuwarden.....of all places

column August 2005 Monday 15 August 2005 This time, I wanted to write a column about Leeuwarden, but never before have I had so much trouble putting something together. I'm flabbergasted. Isn't Leeuwarden interesting enough to write about? Isn't my own town worth dedicating words to? "Leeuwarden, of all places," said an acquaintance from the middle of the country not too long ago, who had planned to visit us and wondered why on earth we lived here.

“Why do you live all the way in Leeuwarden? Why in the “High North”, why so far away?” She was already tired from the trip before she had even started it. “How long will it take me?” she asked. I couldn’t suppress a grin. At one time, she had lived in the USA and during her vacations she happily journeyed from state to state without counting the miles. But Friesland and Leeuwarden… in her eyes, that was really far way. We hear that often, because we have family living in de Randstad (the densely populated, horse-shoe shaped section in the mid-western part of The Netherlands) and for them, too, Leeuwarden is almost at the far end of the world. Consequently, one doesn’t travel north very often. We go to de Randstad more frequently, because apparently, somehow, the distance from de Randstad to the north is much longer than the other way around, from the north to de Randstad.

Amazingly, a few weeks ago, when we had just returned from a short vacation in Belgium, we received notice of impending visitors from de Randstad. It was quite a trip for them, but once they arrived in the peaceful quiet of Friesland, well, it did seem to be rather attractive, that place called Friesland. And Leeuwarden wasn’t too bad, either. That it is an historic city, they didn’t know. My, my... and they admired the gables and the canals. When we sat down at a side-walk cafe they asked in passing what the local situation was regarding criminality. Unfortunately, Leeuwarden scores high in that area and that’s not anything to be proud of. Later, we paused in silence at the memorial stone of Meindert Tjoelker and strolled through the small alley where Manuel Fetter had been murdered. We discussed the perpetrators and what moved them to such extraordinary violence: drugs and alcohol, the greatest sources of evil. We arrived at the Wirdumerdijk and passed a group of loitering youths. As always, my hands itched to grab those young guys by the neck and drag them off to school. “Study and learn a profession, for heaven’s sake! Loitering and wasting time and probably dealing drugs has got to stop. What future does it bring? DO something!” I know, it’s easier said than done. Problems are not so easy to solve and there has to be some promise of a job to look forward to after school or a study is completed. But loitering and dealing certainly isn’t the solution for the problems these boys undoubtedly are struggling with.

There’s more to do in the city than discussing crime and loitering youths we’d want to grab and shake. We continued our walk and our visitors remarked that there were no street artists, save a few guitar-playing singers. Only during summer street festivals do we see weird characters and street artists here. The rest of the year it probably is too difficult to make a living for artists and sidewalk painters, or living statues. Fortunately, during our city sight-seeing walk, I could show our guests another attraction: the marina in De Prinsentuin (The Princes’ Garden). That’s always a success with visitors from de Randstad. They are fascinated by the boats while, in turn, they’re being watched by the proud boat owners. Apparently, watching and being watched is a fun activity!

We Leeuwarders enjoy looking at our city through the eyes of our visitors, for every city has something beautiful to offer. However, when you’ve just returned from Belgium, like we did, and you’ve been to Brughes, among other places, then Leeuwarden with its few historic buildings and gables really isn’t that impressive. Brughes, paradise of step gables, old buildings, and Belgian friendliness, tops it hands down. However, instead of Brughes, we strolled along Leeuwarden’s “terpenstraatjes” (narrow streets built on top of mounds) back to the centre of town while our guests increasingly praised the glory of our city and were amazed by the bits of the Frysian language they caught but couldn’t possibly understand. Leeuwarden, of all places.... No, it’s not Brughes, but I cannot deny that Leeuwarden has something special: the narrow canals and back alleys, the long “Nieuwestad” (New City), where, finally, we have our own De Slegte (a book store), De Waag (a large commercial scale), Het Nauw (“The Narrow”), De Kelders (The Cellars)...

Next month, an acquaintance of mine from the middle of the country is coming up to visit Leeuwarden. She’ll spend about an hour and a half in the car and the farther north she goes, the quieter the roads will become. There are no traffic jams, at worst a short wait for a bridge to lower, for our province does have an abundance of water. Besides, Leeuwarden can be easily reached by train. So... for all those living elsewhere in the country, come on up and see us! Spend some time on a terrace at the sunny side of De Nieuwestad, walk through the old inner city, take a break on a small bench in De Prinsentuin, and have a good meal in one of the many restaurants the city boasts.

Although it’s not easy to write an enthusiastic piece about my city, the reactions from our guests keep proving that Leeuwarden is worth visiting. You are welcome and, if required, I’d be happy to be your guide.

July 2005, Text: Dini Commandeur Translation: Maria O’Neill

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