One of the places I insisted on going to for our European trip was Groningen, Netherlands. If you’ve never heard of it you’re excused because it’s not well known to those of us in the States. But I had a reason to go there. To visit my friend, Deniz, whom I hadn’t seen since we met in 2002, when I was one of her subjects for Med El cochlear implant research that she conducted for her doctorate. Deniz’s and my backgrounds couldn’t be more different; she grew up in Ankara, Turkey in a somewhat traditional though nonpracticing Muslim family with one sister, still in Turkey, and several close cousins living in the States. I’m a product of the Midwest with a Protestant upbringing and quite a few years older than Deniz. Yet we hit it off during my five days at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, realizing we were simpatico in our views on women’s rights, our hesitance to marry, and our drive as professional women.
We kept in touch over the years, mostly through Facebook. In 2005 I emailed her when Dave and I were in Istanbul to ask about a dessert made of chicken breast that we’d had to see if she’d heard of such a thing. (It’s a real thing, called tavuk gogsu.) She got married a few years after we met and moved with her husband to Groningen soon after for a research fellowship at Groningen University. In 2011 they had a little girl.
So when Deniz mentioned last fall that her group at the university medical center was doing interesting research on speech recognition with CI users and that they needed research candidates, I half jokingly told her I’d come. That’s all it took for her to get excited since they’d not tried the research on English speakers. Dave and I had already begun to talk seriously about a trip to Europe, and with no real details of exactly where it seemed reasonable that we could put Groningen in the plans some way or another. And so Groningen stayed in the mix, in spite of other revisions as the time drew near to nail down our itinerary.
We arrived in Groningen after dark on a bus connection from Bremen, Germany. Our trek from Bacharach, Germany to Groningen was an all day affair on a train we’d opted not to reserve seats (to save 10 Euros each) and then the bus connection from Bremen. What we discovered, to our dismay, was that to not reserve seats on the train meant that there really were no seats to be found that were unreserved, compelling you to sit in ones whose occupants hadn’t yet boarded the train and then move again once they did. We ended the last 20 minutes of the trip sitting on the steps at the back of one car, awaiting our exit in Bremen. Since the train ride was about 4 hours long, we were pretty fed up with the numerous moves from car to car by the time we reached Bremen.
Travel builds character, so they say. It certainly provides for entertaining stories.
We hailed a taxi at the train station in Groningen, where our bus left us out, and gave the driver the address to our Airbnb digs where we’d be staying for the next three nights. A short drive later we pulled up in front of a three-story apartment building that filled the block, with an identical building across the street. I was having trouble squaring the image of our little backyard stand-alone rental with these apartment buildings. But the address was correct, and when we got out of the taxi our hosts, Diteke and Henk Peter, appeared at their door to welcome us. They’d moved into and renovated their ground floor unit a few years prior and built the separate small house/workshop in their back terrace with the intention of fulfilling Diteke’s dream of becoming an Airbnb hostess. They trooped us through their home from front to back door, their cat Jeanna coming out to greet us and making her presence known.
Yay!! A kitty to share some time with!
As advertised, the little house sat prominently in the back yard with a separate entrance via the back alley. It was modern in every way, with high end cabinets, a comfy Murphy bed, and a wood pellet-burning heat stove to keep us warm during the chilly nights. Diteke and Henk Peter gave us a rundown of the apartment buildings and their history. The entire area for several blocks was filled with these 40’s style three-story buildings with back terraces. Standing next to the little house we were surrounded by the back sides of the adjoining buildings.
As it turns out, the buildings were finished in 1940 and the first occupants were Nazi soldiers after the German invasion of the Netherlands. We talked a bit about World War II, comparing their parents’ childhood during that time and my several uncles’ experience during the war in the European theater. History in evidence as we settled in for our first night in Groningen.
Next morning we made our way through the back alley (very narrow and pedestrian and bike traffic only) toward downtown. Groningen is like the rest of the Netherlands and much of Europe. People travel principally by bicycle and to be a pedestrian is to suddenly realize you’re more in danger of being hit by a bike than a car.
The sidewalks are split to accommodate both those on foot and those on two wheels, including motor scooters. You learn quickly to stay out of the bike path and watch carefully for bike traffic when crossing streets.
Groningen is also a canal city, though there are not as many as in Amsterdam. They ring the central city and meander outward, the northern ones eventually connecting to the North Sea. We crossed over and made our way along several on our way to the city center. After a fabulous brunch of focaccia and frittata, we continued down the automobile-free streets to the Vismarkt to meet Deniz on the steps of the Albert Heijn, a grocery store now occupying the old market house building that heads the square.
The Vismarkt, Groningen’s open marketplace, was going full tilt with Saturday crowds mobbing the stalls selling cheeses, Dutch sausage, produce, and nuts, as well as traditional stroopwafels, two thin waffles with a caramel layer between. I kept watching people coming and going, wondering if I’d be able to recognize Deniz from her recent pictures on Facebook. A little late and a bit breathless, she appeared out of the crowd, stopping to talk to a friend for a second before making her way up the steps to us. “Sorry! I’m always late because I’m a mom!” We hugged and it seemed like no time since we’d last met. Maybe that’s the wonder of social media that allows us this remote contact, but there was still this strong connection and gladness to be together again.
For the rest of the afternoon Deniz was our tour guide and hostess to the city. She showed us the University of Groningen, founded in 1614, which is a major part of the city center with buildings dating from its early years. We wandered the downtown streets filled with Saturday shoppers, and I was surprised at all the variety of stores and the high-end feel apparent in so many of them. It was a bustling, cosmopolitan street scene with people on foot and bicycles everywhere. Kind of like a mall but way more cool.
Circling to the northeast just past Grote Markt we took in the Martinikerk, the oldest church in Groningen, dating from 820 AD. Its associated tower, the Martinitoren, dates from 1220 AD and was built successfully higher over a period of centuries after destruction from lightening and wars. You feel the history here everywhere you look, from the architecture of bygone eras to the traditions of the canal system. But there’s a forward-looking atmosphere about Groningen with their eye toward an eco-friendly presence and the prominence of the university.
But touring aside, we were on a mission. Our last stop was a concentrated tour of the stalls in Vismarkt to find some necessities for dinner. Deniz and her partner, Etienne, would be our hosts and cooks for the evening, and that meant a little shopping.
Fresh chicken, some gorgeous produce, and a variety of yummy Dutch cheeses. Deniz made suggestions while we tasted and ended up buying some for ourselves to sneak across the border home. Europe is full of cheeses with French and Italian getting a lot of attention. But you’re missing out if you’ve not tried any from the Netherlands!
From city center we made our way west along a busier thoroughfare that bordered the Reitdiep canal heading west. The wide avenue was lined with shady trees and multistoried old townhouses whose low front fences were littered with stabled bikes. Soon Deniz indicated which house was hers, and we followed her into a small entryway with steep stairs curving up to the second floor. “Don’t judge,” she warned as we made our way into the main living area, inviting in its homey atmosphere and overflowing with the evidence of children in residence. In no time the rest of the family came home – Etienne and his two children along with Deniz’s daughter. Not to be outdone, one of the resident cats came out from hiding to also greet us. Somewhat shy and reserved introductions led to increasingly inquisitive questions from the kids. Which led to an impromptu lesson in Dutch, all three children, ages 7 to 11, well versed in both languages. Within 10 minutes we were part of the family, lounging on the sofa, petting kitty, and luxuriating in the rare undivided attention of school-aged children. Somehow I felt like we’d won the lottery.
All those goods we’d schlepped from Vismarkt were languishing in the kitchen demanding attention as well. So, in order for Deniz and Etienne to be able to whip up our dinner in peace, we were pressed into service to supervise all three kids on a trip to the park across the canal. With our charges alternately leading us and circling around us we soon made our way to the park only to watch in horror as they made a mad dash to a copse of trees which they began climbing in earnest.
As the smallest and most determined made her way to the top of her conquest I could only think of a similar experience from childhood when a friend’s brother climbed a very similar tree, and grabbing hold of a dead branch near the top, plummeted downward through a web of branches to the ground. Result – a broken arm. Dave and I suddenly felt like novice parents in the care of youngsters experienced in the art of pushing the envelope to their advantage. After many entreaties and warnings the three clamored down to the safety of the ground unharmed. From there they had a go at the rope jungle gym, again demonstrating their adroit climbing skills, and then it was back to another grove of trees where there ensued an unintended collision between sister and brother. Tears, accusations, apologies, followed by reassurance and hugs all around. Time spent helping to soothe hurt feelings and a small bump to the head of the younger. By then it was time to head back home, feeling that sufficient time had elapsed for dinner to be well on it’s way and before greater mishaps occurred.
Dinner was a fabulous Mediterranean dish of chicken with oranges and raisins over rice. A tangy melange of both savory and sweet that I loved and was pleased to note that the kids loved as well. Not the picky mac and cheese eaters I am used to seeing at home in the US. They even devoured the sampling of cheeses that ended the meal.
On our last evening together, Etienne and Deniz took us to dinner at an incredibly chic French restaurant, Paviljeon van de Dame, on the banks of Paterwoldsemeer Lake south of Groningen. Like a glass box illuminated from within, it sat overlooking the lake with the sun’s slanting rays casting shadows from behind. We started on the terrace enjoying the evening air as the light dimmed all around us until I could no longer see faces well enough to read lips. So we went inside to continue with the main course and enjoy our evening. Which was really a celebration of our getting to spend time together and also a thank-you of sorts, I think, for my once again playing research subject for Deniz. I’d spent a couple hours at the medical center going though a series of video audio tests to determine my ability to discern between higher and lower frequencies, among other things. Over dinner Deniz and Etienne revealed that I’d proven to be as high a performer as I’d said I was with my CI, maybe better. My results showed that I ranked in their highest percentile, which made them (and me) curious as to why that was so. What makes one person do so well with a CI while others with the same devices score lower? We spent a good deal of the evening talking about that and plotting how to get me back there for more research.
What makes a friendship? Sometimes it’s proximity, working together day after day. Sometimes it’s learning together, spending time in a class, or being a neighbor. But sometimes it happens through serendipity, being thrown together because of unique circumstances and then finding out how similar your view of the world is. Over our short time back together, Deniz and I renewed our friendship started over 15 years ago when I was new to cochlear implants and she was beginning her career as a scientist studying cochlear implants and related endeavors. Time changes everything – neither of us have been exempt from that. She’s now a mother and embarking on a relatively new relationship with a fellow scientist in the same field. I’m back in nursing and pushing along my art career that was in a more nascent form when we met. But we are still passionate about women’s rights, both doggedly independent, and share a curiosity about the world. Dave noted early on our similar approaches to life, our curiously similar mannerisms, enough that he felt we could be sisters. We’re back home in the routine of our daily lives now, yet I am grateful for this continued connection that we had the opportunity to renew. Thanks, Deniz, for this special time together. Until next time.