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Word of the Day: ROUW, mourning

Most mornings on my way to the Direct Dutch Institute I cycle through some kind of no-man’s land on the border between Voorburg and The Hague. To access this area you must pass a small tunnel under a railway which is painted in Lichtensteinian Pop Art style. Once you’ve gone underneath the letters ‘WoW’ and when you’ve passed the ominous word ‘ART’, you encounter the face of a young lady in distress. The phone in her hand suggests that she was just given a sorrowful message. It is a picture of grief that reminds me of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ which was painted some 350 years earlier. Every time I see this girl in distress on the flank of the tunnel, I think of Vermeer’s beautiful painting.
This ‘no-man’s land’ used to be an area for allotment holders and there was a small outdoor manege. A year ago everything was demolished and now there is just an empty field and a winding cycle path. On the other side of the field there is another tunnel under another railway. This tunnel is dedicated to Vincent van Gogh who used to wander these fields here in the nineteenth century. The tunnel is decorated with colourful copies of several of Van Gogh’s paintings from his bright French period when the Sun Flower became very dominant.
There I go on my bike, from the girl in distress to a comic book version of the artist who cut his ear in despair. In the evening I cycle the other way around. O, I forgot to tell you that there is also a magnificent windmill in this landscape along the IJsclubpad. It is called IJsclubpad because there used to be a skating club some eighty years ago. The name of this ancient mill is De Nieuwe Veenmolen and it dates back to the period when Vermeer was born.$After the allotments had been cleared, the field between the two railroads looked bible-black and barren for a while, but a few weeks ago I witnessed enormous changes. Black turned to green and between the shy grass-stalks hundreds of proud sun flowers grew and lifted their heads.

Last week, after the disaster of the Malaysian airplane and the bewildering images of the wreckage in an Ukrainian sun flower field, the Dutch sun flowers I cycle through have served as a living memorial. These flowers help me mourn the innocent travellers who were on their way the place where the sun is said to rise every morning.$The Dutch word for ‘mourning’ is ROUW. It is an ancient Germanic word that goes back to early medieval times. In Old English ‘hreow’ existed side by side with ‘murn’, both meaning ‘to be sorrowful’ or ‘to feel sorrow’. Modern English still has the expression ‘to rue the day’ but I have never heard anyone say that he or she is ‘rueing’ his or her deceased parents.

Today was assigned a ‘nationale rouwdag’ (national day of mourning) and at four pm all the Dutch were silent for a couple of minutes to commemorate the many victims. A moment to remember for the last official day of mourning was in 1962 when we all mourned the death of Queen Wilhelmina. What lines better to mourn with than the unforgettable first stanza from ‘Ah Sun-flower’ (1794) by the Londoner William Blake.

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Ach, Zonnebloem! moe van de reis
Die elke stap van de Zon bespiedt:
Op zoek naar dat zoet paradijs
Waar de reiziger van rust geniet.

(Vrij naar Blake, © Hisgen van der Weel, 2014,
photo’s: Yolande Hisgen)