Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tracking my Gypsy Heritage

Off to the Netherlands in search of my roots

One of the many things I love about Spain is the gypsy roots of flamenco.  No matter that I am one-sixteenth German gypsy; all gypsies migrated from India to Europe in the 12th century, and my ancestors just didn’t ever venture so far south.  Clearly my affinity for all things Spanish, particularly flamenco, is in my blood!

Old-school gypsy?

¡Óle Gitana!

My mother relished telling us about our Gypsy great-great-grandmother, die Relle, who would delight and terrorize her great-grandkids with gypsy stories, popping her false teeth out at the scariest parts for emphasis.  Born into a gypsy family that traveled from town to town in a horse-drawn caravan, she would admonish her children and grandchildren to “ganget, Kinder, und stehlet!”  (Go, children, and steal!!)  My grandmother Hilde, herself quarter gypsy with black eyes and hair, was a free spirit with a wild streak who was transformed, a la Eliza Doolittle, into a stylish flapper by my elegant, arrogant grandfather. 

Hilde at 16

Hilde shortly before she died

Hilde was killed during World War Two in a retaliation bombing meant to kill my rocket-scientist grandfather, inventor of the V-1 Buzz Bomb launched at London during the final months of the war.  She left behind five children, my mother only seven years old.   Hilde’s older brother and sister remained in Stuttgart, where they had grown up, but her two younger sisters, Gusse and Jule, both married Dutch men and spent their adults lives living 30 minutes apart in Northern Holland.

Dutch-Gypsy relatives

The Stuttgart siblings became stolid, solid Germans who never talked of their gypsy past (this was particularly dangerous to do during the Nazi regime, when gypsies were persecuted similarly to the German Jews).   But my two great-aunts, living in Holland after the war, celebrated their roots, living a bohemian lifestyle.  My great-aunt Jule, in particular, could be considered one of the first hippies:  she sought out alternative medicines and organic foods, eschewed all technology, and raised her own goats for cheese and milk in a thatched-roof ancient house amidst fields and forest in the flat Dutch countryside.

Jule's house

My mother’s cousin Annette still lives there, and we visited her for several days in late August, along with her daughter Rozemarjin.  Although Dutch, they felt immediately like family, even though I’d only spent a short amount of time with each of them many years ago.  Annette in particular had the dark, wise eyes and wildly curly hair of my grandmother, remembered in pictures saved from war-torn Germany. 

Annette with Jule's artwork
Jumping for joy in Uffelte

“What are we having for dinner?”  is Todd’s favorite question of the day.  His eyes opened wide as Annette displayed the beautiful wild mushrooms she had gathered in the forest that day. Their backs were brown and shiny, slightly slick with mucus, and the insides spongy with a tinge of green.  I knew Todd was fixated on the memory of my aunt Heide, Annette’s cousin and my mother’s sister, gathering mushrooms at our cabin in the Sierra Nevadas of California, and the desperate wild car ride she and her son Dean took to the emergency room of nearby Placerville, where they were both treated for mushroom poisoning after vomiting their guts out. 

Delicious dinner?

I’m going to give the girls a no-thank-you helping of the mushrooms,”   Todd whispered to me when Annette left for a moment to retrieve some home-made butter.  “Just so that if we die our genes will be passed on.”   But Annette’s mushrooms were delicious, fried up with onions, garlic, and heaps of butter, and ladeled onto rice.  Home-grown tomatoes, cucumber, and basil along with a savory soup created from an enormous green pumpkin rounded out the meal.  Even Tia and Sasha loved the soup and gobbled up the rice, picking around the mushrooms (which they avoid even in the best of circumstances). 

Lunch with cousin Rozmarjin

No one died.  In fact, the next morning Annette announced that we could go to the Pannekoekenhous for dinner, or get more mushrooms.  The girls and I did both, roaming in the forest looking for the sponge-bottomed delicacies, which Annette taught us to identify, just as her mother Jule had taught her.  “And here is another one I looked up in my book,”  she laughed,  showing us a rusty red mushroom with turned-up edges that looked straight out of Alice in Wonderland.  “It says it’s okay if you cook it, but don’t eat it raw…I haven’t yet dared to try it!”   We left that one for another day.  Biking past a small lake on the way home, Annette sighed about how we didn’t bring things to swim.  Out came my gypsy blood—“Let’s swim anyway!”  and we all did, stripping naked and jumping into the slightly coppery water, silky from the minerals of the peat bog underneath.  “Your hair will be so soft!” said Annette, and she was right—my hair and skin had never felt so smooth and sleek. 

Peat lake

We spent the day at Staphorst, puttering a boat through the tiny picturesque canals, eating ice cream and several bags of the 50+ kinds of licorice the Dutch adore, and feeding the ducks.  Rozemarijn was a wonderful tour guide, taking back routes through the absolutely gorgeous countryside with some of the most amazing skies I have ever seen.  Rembrandt was right to paint here; somehow the light takes on a other-worldly quality, and the sky fills with contrasting cloud formations and colors that made me stop to look over and over again. 

Rembrandt knew the Dutch sky

And it really looks that way!

Holland is all about canals

We left the next morning for Amsterdam in search of a history lesson.  With just an afternoon to spend in this beautiful water-crossed city, we headed for the Anne Frank House.   I highly recommend the movie and this visit to spur dozens, if not hundreds, of questions about the whys and hows of WWII and Nazi Germany.  Then to The Hague, where our friends Greg and Anna Townsend, plus their sons Kai and Milo, graciously fed us and put us up even though it was their first day of school. 

In Anne Frank's neighborhood

Click here to see the Anne Frank movie, highly recommended

Amsterdam canals ALMOST looks like this

The Escher museum was the right choice for our morning here, as it was highly entertaining.  The contrast of Escher’s precise, elegant, clean art against the Queen of the Netherland’s opulent palace was ideal, and we laughed at the Perspective room.

Bizarre lighting for a palace

An Escher study
They grow so FAST!

Rounding off our trip, and bringing us full-circle to gypsydom, was lunch with old friend Chris Fraass on his caravan-like, tiny little houseboat.  I’ve known Chris since 7th grade, when I would beat him regularly at arm-wrestling, but Chris left California in the late 80s and never looked back.  With Dutch citizenship in his sights within the year, Chris fed us well using his dozens of years’ experience as a cook for his own catering business in Moordrecht, and the girls had a ball jumping from the roof of the houseboat into the canal.

Chris's houseboat, a perfect diving board!

Friends for 40 years

Chris knows how to have fun!

(link to video)

My mother loved her gypsy heritage, and she passed that love on to me.  Throughout the trip she accompanied me, from the silhouette of Annette, who has her exact figure and is spookily similar in terms of energy and vibrance, to the memories of visiting Jule with my mom in 1994, to the meandering Hexenhäuschen (little witch houses) scattered across Annette’s farm property.   And the gypsy blood continues to call:  Annette and I danced the sevillanas together, she an accomplished ballroom dancer, I in love with flamenco.  We can only hope that she really does come to visit us here in Spain to learn the bulerias!

Rocking the American caseta, gypsy-style

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