France, March 2004
The sky was grey. Trees and bushes were still bare after another long winter, and a hard wind tugged at the branches. The old farmhouse was chilly. I pulled my cardigan closer around my body as I went outside to get some more wood. When I came back in the kitchen with a basket full of logs, the telephone rang. I put the basket on the black and white checkered floor and picked up the phone from the heavy wooden table.
“Domaine du Vieux Chêne, bonjour!”
“Hey, it’s me! I am just calling to let you know I’m headed in the right direction!” I heard Jan say, almost shouting with joy. “I spotted flowers along the road! Spring has already begun here!”
His words warmed me at least as much as the stove did. We were ready to live in a milder climate after having lived more than five years in the Haut-Languedoc at an altitude of around 3,000 feet and enduring long, cold winters. Jan was on his way to Italy to prepare for a new start to our life. Yet again.
The first time had been in December 1998, when we moved from the Netherlands to France to live out the dream of many Dutch people–running a campsite in the south of France. Jan was forty- seven years and I thirty-seven. We had given up our business careers, bought an old farmhouse with some land around it, built the campsite, and made it a success. That is the story in a tiny nutshell.
During the first years, I had panicked every time Jan talked about the possibility of moving on, changing life one more time and leaving our domaine, which was set on a hillside among woods and within close proximity to a beautiful lake. Each time we had waved goodbye to the guests who, after their holiday, went back home, I had felt relieved; I didn’t have to go away.
I didn’t want to leave that gorgeous spot, not for all the gold in the world, in spite of the long winters which, of course, we hadn’t foreseen when we actually moved there. In fact, one week after our arrival, we found ourselves caught in a blizzard on the parking lot of a supermarket, trying to get the groceries into the back of our Land Rover. The next day we woke up in a white world, with snow at least 1.5 feet deep!
However, Jan had always known that France was a temporary station for us. He just felt it, and while his faith and his relationship with God deepened in the isolation of the French countryside, he grew more certain about it.
I had arrived in France without any faith, any god.
I was born into a non-believing family. Officially, my mother was Protestant and my father Catholic. They were both baptized as babies, but neither of them believed. My father was very explicit about this matter. As a boy growing up in Amsterdam, he had lived through the atrocities of the Second World War. He saw how Jewish people were rounded up, how innocent people were shot to death, how his own father died of starvation and his body decomposed because no one took care of it. In fact, he had hardly survived himself during that last war winter before the allies set the country free.
Immediately after the liberation, just twelve years old, he was placed in a Christian farming family in the countryside to regain his strength, but there he received only the leftovers from their well-stocked table, and little warmth to nourish his soul. Later, while studying at a Roman Catholic school, he witnessed how the Catholic Brothers who taught at the school were unable to keep their hands to themselves.
As an adult, he also experienced much disillusionment. He had to work with lying and stealing people, including many so-called Christians, while he always followed his feelings of what was right and fair.
In our family, we believed that God didn’t exist, couldn’t exist. First, because we couldn’t imagine that he would allow so much injustice in the world. In addition, if Christianity was what the many professed believers were practicing, it was worth nothing. Finally, because it simply wasn’t intelligent to believe in something that you could not see. Plainly said, we thought that Christians were no-brain hypocrites.
From the time he was in his forties, Dad was severely stressed and never worked again. He was a disappointed man, a psychologically broken man. However, although he had little formal education, he was also a very smart man–one of the most broadly developed people I have ever met in my life. To him, intelligence was the highest good. He encouraged my brother, sister, and me to study and to get important jobs and, thereby, to earn other people’s respect. It would also help us to remain in command over our own lives, so that we would never become victims of injustice ourselves, or so he thought. He wanted us to be tough, to put ourselves first, and to speak up, because “modest people turn out shitty.” He wanted nothing but good for us, to prevent us from having to go through the same heartbreak that he had experienced.
At the end, my father was ill, very ill. In addition to the damage caused by several heart attacks, a cruel disease had gradually diminished his lung capacity. The lack of oxygen ruined his organs, and he was in constant pain. Nurses who visited my parents’ house several times a day to help care for my father said that they had never seen a person so ill. He was afraid to die and held on to life as long as possible on pure will power.