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Canal tour reclaimed sense of identity after fifty years in U.S.

How Bob Vlugt became ambassador for the Netherlands

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

MIAMI BEACH, Florida - Amsterdam is more than ever ‘home’ to Florida resident Bob Vlugt who in 1947 as an eleven-year old boy with his parental family left the Dutch capital to join family in Philadelphia. A four-week visit to the Netherlands in 1979 served as a reminder to Vlugt - who took along his American born wife Barb and their daughter Christine - that ‘the old country’ had far more pull than he previously had realized. A canal boat tour Bob took a few years ago gave him a view of the Netherlands he hardly knew existed. Last year, an enthusiastic Bob Vlugt organized a boat-bike tour for fellow Americans and introduced them to slow-paced Holland. An unforgettatable holiday.

The road to (re)claiming ancestral roots has been one of hard work. The Vlugts upon arrival in the U.S. joined family members who had little interest in keeping their Dutch identity and who always spoke English. In Philadelphia they rarely met people who spoke Dutch. A upholsterer by trade, Vlugt Sr. (Daniel) first worked for Sears Roebuck and later set up his own floor covering business in the Miami area, also an area with very few Dutch immigrants. Bob’s stint in the U.S. Air Force pushed his Dutch identity even further back.

An invitation to visit a family event in the Netherlands which all the American Vlugts attended, was a turning point in Bob’s sense of identity. Before immigrating, he only knew Amsterdam, now he also saw other towns and villages. Some time later, correspondence over the estate of a distant relative netted each of the Vlugts $47.63 plus a list of thirty second cousins Bob never had met before. The subsequent contacts with some of these cousins led to another visit to the Netherlands in 1986.

Canal travel once common

Over the last number of years the visits “home” have not only been more frequent but also far more exploratory. Reading an article in the Windmill one day about canal boat tours and visits to castles, Bob - his wife Barb whose greatgrandmother was a Vanderploeg (raised in the Groningen quarter of Chicago, Illinois, no longer can travel long distances - booked such a tour with operator Holland Aqua Tours (HAT). During their canal trip Vlugt saw a side of their home country he previously had not known, with tour hosts showing him the constantly changing landscapes: open spaces, quiet waterways, picturesque sceneries of tranquil meadows, herds of farm animals, farms, woods, tree-lined fields, roads and ditches, villages, castles, and small town harbours. He saw the Dutch at work - from fixing cobbled streets to manning market stalls - and watched the local world go by from village square sidewalk cafes.

Sold on immersion into everything Dutch, Vlugt soon was back for another waterside experience, not realizing that this mode of travel was still very common as late as only 150 years ago (the Dutch road and rail systems are a fairly recent phenomenon, the 1820s travelogue by poet Van Lennep and his friend Van Hogendorp will confirm this). Bob Vlugt since traveled every tour advertised by HAT wich includes a combined a canal boat/cycling experiece. He has inspected ruins of castles and visited others open to the public. He also followed the footsteps of famed 17th century international law pioneer Hugo Grotius, except Vlugt did not follow his example by escaping the Loevestein castle in a book chest.

Smoke house

Last year, Bob Vlugt took his Amsterdam-born sister Elisabeth and 23 fellow Americans on a week-long boat/bike tour with HAT. After breakfast the group would take off on its biking excursion and meet the boat at a pre-arranged point in the evening. Vlugt calls the sightseeing by bike one of the best ways to get the feel of the country, largely because cyclists, have the time to take in their surroundings (a walking tour might beat it still) and stop when something special is seen. While most of the fellow travellers returned home the day the tour was finished, Vlugt stayed for another week in Amsterdam.

During one of his visits, Vlugt stopped in Harderwijk at an eel smoking operation and was fascinated by the tradition of this old trade. He since has built a smoker with a capacity of 100 eels and perfected his skills with an old Dutch recipe. Vlugt prepares the eel - bought locally from an experimental farm - for the events of the Netherlands Association of South Florida where the hobbyist “palingboer” recently was elected Vice-President for social activities.

In addition to having regained his Dutch identity, reclaiming fluency in the language is a bit more elusive. “Just try speaking Dutch with an accent in the Netherlands,” Vlugt complains, “people at once switch to English, because they want to show off their mastery of the language.” At the club which prescribed fluency in Dutch as a membership criteria, they are bending over backwards to accommodate their “Amsterdammer” who arrived so long ago at such a “tender” age in the U.S.