The Netherlands is a country known Saint Hubert for its religious, ideological and ethnical tolerance. But what is perhaps less known is that it is also a country religiously divided into a northern part dominated by a culture of Calvinism and a southern part Saint Hubert, which is predominantly Catholic. Today, when people speak of ‘below the rivers’ they refer to the Catholic provinces and when they talk about ‘above the rivers’ they are pointing to the Calvinist provinces north of the geographical border of the rivers Maas, Waal and Rhine, which roughly run parallel to this historical and cultural border.
When the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht and were recognized by the peace agreement with Spain by the signing Saint Hubert of the Treaty of Munster in 1648, ‘the Low Lands’ (as the Netherlands is literally translated), did not include the southern provinces. Only with the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 were these provinces included, and not until 1831 when Belgium gained independence were the borders constituted that comprise the Saint Hubert Netherlands as we know it. Culturally though, the southern provinces and especially the province of Limburg (the hind leg of the Dutch lion) where I grew up belonged to the Catholic sphere of influence. Even in present day the Netherlands, it makes a huge difference in attitude and perspective on life if you are from above or from below the rivers.
As a child I slept in the attic room of our home, which had 5 windows that looked like embrasures cut out in the rooftop. In the small distance that separated the small town of Papenhoven from adjoining Obbicht to the south, I could see the church belfry in the center of town rising high above its surrounding, the short line of farms and single family houses of red brick stone and tilted tile roofs. Looking out of a ‘loophole’ in my little fortress in the attic, to the west I looked over fields of golden grain stalks billowing like ocean waves to a slight breeze. From my window I could clearly see the river Maas cutting through Saint Hubert the landscape meandering along, and at the other bank of the river, Belgium. I lived on the narrowest stroke of land in the Netherlands, where Belgium and Germany squeeze the hind leg of the Dutch lion. On the other side of our house was the Juliana canal and only 2 or 3 miles further to the east lay Germany, the old heartland of Charlemagne, buried in the nearby famous Dom of Aachen. Like in Belgium, most people in Limburg are Catholic, so are the Saint Hubert schools, the soccer clubs and of course the ‘fanfare’, the drill band to be found in each small town in Limburg. The ‘Episcopal College’, my secondary school, was located in Sittard, a border town with Germany and 5 miles from my home. Diligently for almost 6 years, I bicycled every morning through the alternating corn and grain fields, meadows and small villages on my way to school.
I never liked school very much, not even my Catholic primary school, the Saint Joseph school. At first of course, I didn’t think much of it, like small children never do. The world to small children is simply what exists immediately around them. To the young child’s mind, there is no other happiness than the one that surrounds them. At Catholic school we would say our prayers each morning before lessons started, and on Friday and Tuesday mornings the local priest would teach Bible classes. All this constituted my childhood happiness in which I participated wholeheartedly like all children did, even though my parents were from above the rivers, and even though now the faithfulness of Catholicism is a strange entity to me. As a young child I didn’t give it much reflection, nor could I. With the wisdom of hindsight, it might look cruel that it was always Mohammed, the Moroccan kid whom the substitute teacher used to pick on, until one day the teacher, holding him firmly by his neck, pushing him out of the classroom, ended up busting his head through a glass panel in the door. Yet, I didn’t think much of it. Now, of course I recognize the scholastic methods of Jesuitism, and the dominance of structured discipline in Catholicism at my school over the Protestant’s care for nurturing each child’s inner nature and the diversity of individual personalities. I didn’t think much of it, even though my most profound school memory has always been boredom and aloofness from the Catholic methods of education.
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