Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pain and Strength

I live in the city center of Tilburg, the 6th largest city in the Netherlands. Every year the city center of Tilburg is taken over by one of the largest fairs in Europe, Kermis, with kilometer after kilometer of rides, games, food, and other attractions. It is noisy, sometimes messy, sometimes wonderful, today it was very moving.

This past Monday was Roze Maandag or Pink Monday. Roze Maandag is a celebration of all things gay but it is not a gay celebration. The entire town joins in, gay and straight, from the oldest to the youngest, to enjoy the best and biggest party you can imagine. It shows just how well integrated the LGBT community is with the rest of the Netherlands. Being a gay man from the Southern US it was a pretty amazing sight and something I will remember for a very long time.

Today was completely different. The weather was nicer, the crowds weren't quite a large, drag queens weren't dancing with little kids in the streets. Games were being played, rides were tossing people around at high speeds, it was like a lot of other days during Kermis except today, at 3:55 in the afternoon everything came to a sudden halt.

Today around the time Kermis went silent, two planes landed at an airport in a city very close to Tilburg. These planes carried the first 40 bodies of the 193 Dutch victims of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 disaster. Most of my readers are from the US and 193 may seem like a small number to them, but the Netherlands is a nation considerably smaller in size than many, if not most, of the individual states in the United States. The Netherlands population is around 17 million and so it is quite small population wise as well. Proportionally the 193 Dutch that were killed in this horrible event represent a larger portion of the population of the Netherlands than the thousands who died on 9/11 represented of the American population. Over 40 of the dead came from Noord-Brabant, the province Tilburg is located in. This has hit the Netherlands very hard.

Today at Kermis everything shut down for ten minutes in remembrance of those who perished. The rides, the food stands, the games all fell silent. The tens of thousands of people here all stopped what they were doing and joined in the silence. The only sound to be heard was the bell of a local church ringing out once for each of the 193 who died. There were no words, no speeches, no crying, nothing. Just the acknowledgment of what was happening by the gathered crowd as they started applauding as the bells went silent.

Soon a long line had formed coming out of the church and into the heat as people waited to sign condolence books. When we sat down in front of one of the books to sign it we saw a multitude of statements in somewhat emotionally scrawled Dutch. Occasionally a word would be blurred by the stain from a tear that had fallen on it. People prayed and lit candles and then walked back out into the sun light.

The lack of obvious signs of emotion might confuse some Americans, trust me, just because they aren't showing it doesn't mean they aren't feeling it. The Dutch are a proud, stoic, and strong people who are also very protective of their privacy. They are grieving, just not in public, they refuse to let this tragic event turn them into a tragic nation. They will remember for ever and suffer for years to come, but they will still be Dutch and they will deal with this tragedy as they have dealt with the other terrible events the people of the Netherlands have endured, by preserving and enduring. There is strength in community, the Dutch are an entire nation that is also a community.