My grandmother’s name was Fenny, but to my brother and I, her only grandchildren, she was granny. In my lifetime, our granny lived with our grandad in Amsterdam, in a second-floor apartment on Amstelveenseweg by the Overtom drawbridge.
We did not see our grandparents often, as we lived overseas. Nevertheless, before I was a year old, they did take a propeller plane from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, stopping at all sorts of exotic places as they travelled across Africa, to visit their daughter (my mother), my father and me, the long-awaited first grandchild. While of course I don’t remember that visit, I feel like I do, as I always loved looking at photo albums and regularly poured over my grandfather’s wonderful black and white photos with lovely almost calligraphic descriptions of their incredible adventures. My grandad took great pride in creating beautiful photo albums and adding postcards and little souvenirs to animate the pages.
I was eight the next time I saw my grandparents. By then, we had moved to New York where my father was Consul General of Canada. My grandparents and Pigalle took the boat from Rotterdam to New York, bringing beautiful Dutch bicycles for Guy and me. They stayed with us for 7 months, there for my birthday and Christmas, before returning home in late May! I had occasion to discover what a truly special woman my granny was.
A year later my parents decided they would like to visit my grandparents in the Netherlands and take the opportunity to show their children the beauty, history and culture of Europe, which they both knew very well. It was our turn to take the boat to Rotterdam.
We stayed a few weeks with my grandparents at both ends of the European excursion. Being in the apartment on the canal was an adventure. At the back of the apartment was a huge deck which the apartment opened to from the kitchen. Curious children could enjoy looking at the courtyard below and the balconies of all the apartments which faced the Vondelpark – a beautiful central park a block away.
What a surprise it was when a year later my father got his new marching orders from External Affairs and we were off to Le Carre’s, Small Town in Germany. While the Canadian Embassy was in Bonn, we lived outside the city in the hamlet of Muffendorf near the town of Bad Godesberg.
For my mother, an only child, this posting was such a gift. Indeed, for all of us, it was a special time as we were able to frequently travel an easy 4 hours by autobahn to visit granny and grandad. The visits to Amsterdam were always fantastic! Everything about the two-bedroom apartment on the Amstelveenseweg enchanted Guy and me.
We would cross the bridge on the Overtorm and park our car in one of the spots along the canal in front of the apartment. The apartment had a beautiful orange awning over the living room window. Oranje, seemed fitting. Once across the street, Guy and I would run up the outside stairs and press the buzzer at the door to the flat. Then up another short flight of stairs inside, and we were in. The smell of grandad’s cigars permeated the air. Beautiful paintings, primarily of Dutch landscapes covered the walls in all rooms but the kitchen and bathroom, many of them painted by my one of my mother’s uncles.
From the landing was a door to my grandparent’s bedroom with a big window at the back. Turning left one took a couple of steps into the living room with its pullout couch where my parents slept, and a lovely round oak coffee table surrounded by comfortable chairs. Off the living room was the den/dining room. A dining room table covered with a Persian run stood in front of the window, a bookcase stood against the far wall and a big desk with an adding machine, that provided hours of amusement for Guy and me, playing store or some such game. Turning right from the landing one walked a few steps to the bathroom on the right which housed a big storage cupboard and a washboard. Another couple of steps down was my mother’s old room which had a trundle bed and next to it was a very compact little kitchen with a half fridge and a small stove and oven. The rough granite kitchen counters smelled of the green soap my grandmother used for dishwashing. Pots hung on the walls for ready access. I loved the compact kitchen and was always quick to do the dishes. It was fun.
On the bottom floor of the apartment was a small grocery store, Nell’s. Nell, made and sold the best fries which she put in a cone and slathered with Dutch mayonnaise. So good! Going to Nell’s became a ritual. Once our suitcase was put in the room, Guy and I were off to Nell’s. Another ritual was het borrel when we would have drinks with peanuts or little cheesy crackers. Then there were granny’s amazing meals. She was such a good cook and her vegetable soup with homemade meatballs was simply the best. Mmm, so good!
Granny always made sure to have a small container of orange juice in the fridge as a take-over from her visit to America and the morning glass of OJ. Tea was the main breakfast drink and around 10 am there was coffee with a lovely piece of boterkoek or speculaas. Best of all was when we would go out for poffertjes, little Dutch pancakes that come smothered in butter and sugar. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.
In the living room there was a cupboard which housed the most beautiful tins which contained various sweet and salty treats. Granny was always sure to have a well-stocked supply of licorice, which we consumed all too quickly. When the supply ran out, we would delight in walking around the corner to a charming “drop” shop to pick up some more. Everything you needed was close by and everything was bought and prepared for the day on which it was bought. Nothing was wasted. I remember when the Boerman (a local farmer) would come once a week and pick up the scraps of vegetables for his animals.
And then there were the walks to the Vondelpark where the swans and ducks swam and the willows kissed the water, as all and sundry enjoyed this green oasis in the heart of the city.
Guy loved playing at Grandad’s big desk and for many years he just loved standing at the front window to watch the boats gather to wait for the drawbridge go up at frequent intervals on the canal.
As we got older, we were allowed to ride the trams and would often take off and head downtown to explore on our own. We went to museums, we played pinball, we bought croquettes from a vending machine, we discovered Amsterdam and had a ball.
At the end of the day, we would gather for “het borrel” and talk about our day, everything from the state of the world, memories of the war years, my mother’s childhood, recent travels. There was no tweeting, there were no pings. We conversed, we laughed, and it was without a doubt, unforgettable.
The ever-comical Guy came up with a little ditty about our gran which would have her in stitches…My granny’s name is Fenny because she comes from Fennyland, and indeed for the two of us, the apartment and surroundings was indeed our Fennyland.
We left Germany in 1969 for a four-year post in New Delhi, India. Granny wrote weekly letters and shared newspaper and magazine clippings. We visited once in 1971 but a year later would get the news that granny was dying. And while I never saw my granny again, my memories of Fennyland are vivid. Whenever I smell 4711 Eau de cologne, a cigar or a peppermint, or when I taste salted licorice, eat beef croquettes, patate frites met mayonnaise, Gouda cheese or oliebollen, I am transported to Fennyland in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, where I discovered my heritage and happy childhood memories were made. Lang zal se leven in de Gloria.