On the first of February 2020, one of the Frisian bastards of the Frisia Coast Trail tramped the trail section from the town of Bad Nieuweschans to the village of Termunten. It's a hike of 30 kilometres along the southern shores of the Dollart Bay. The day before, in the evening, the bastard arrived at bed & breakfast called Kanonnier, meaning gunner or bombardier. The conversation with the owner brought the bastard from Bad Nieuweschans, to the city of Bremerhaven, to region ‘t Bildt in Friesland, to Grand Rapids, and even into Space. Let’s go to the start, the north-east of province Groningen.
Bad Nieuweschans in province Groningen is the most north-eastern town in the Netherlands. A border town with Germany as well. The suffix -schans ‘sconce’ means its origin is a military one. Nieuweschans, called Nij Schaanze or simply Schaanze in Low-Saxon speech, is a fortress built in the year 1628 during the independence wars of the Dutch Republic. The part bad doesn't refer to being evil but to its spa baths or thermen. This thanks to mineral-rich spring water. So, 'bath new-sconce' is a town that combines business with pleasure. Some seventeenth-century historic reminders of its military past can be found in the town, and are worth a look.
It was quite late in the evening when the bastard arrived, because the train had to stop its service at the town of Winschoten. The reason was a car accident further down the railway track. Waiting for the alternate bus in the evening in January, was, surprisingly, not too bad. The weather was extremely mild. Almost fifteen degree Celsius around seven o'clock in the evening. It was January 31, midst of winter. While waiting for the bus, the bastard informed with a text message at the owner of Kanonnier if it was possible to have something to eat this late. “No problem,” he replied without a word too many. At nine o'clock the bastard arrived at the bed & breakfast.
The bastard turned out to be the only guest. Interior of the establishment was a crossbred between a pub and restaurant. Behind the taps stood the owner. A tall and big man. Bit bold, with a moustache. He watched sports on the big screen on the wall. In our post Grassland Conversations we explained the basics how to (not-)talk and behave if you want to interact with people of the flat grasslands. Well, Bad Nieuweschans is part of these grasslands. The owner, therefore, hardly noticed the bastard entering his premises. Only giving a glimpse at first. Recognizing the grassland conventions, the bastard immediately slowed down in all his behaviour and talking. He put his backpack on one of the many empty barstools. The owner, with both arms resting on the taps in front of him, kept staring at the loud television screen.
“Here’s your key. I can do some fries,” the owner opened the conversation after the bastard had put his phone and reading glasses on the counter. “That’ll do,” the bastard replied. “If you've something to go with it, would be appreciated,” the bastard asked with the most casual tone of voice he could produce. “I've meatballs ready,” he said, offering no choices. “And a lager, please,” replied the bastard without confirming the meatball. The bastard put off his jacket, grabbed another barstool and sat down. He could have walked to the dining area for more privacy but this, avoiding the interaction, would have been perceived as rude. The owner switched to the news. Lot to do about the impeachment of Donald Trump, and about the Brexit. All far away world politics. For now.
After the owner had served a big plate with fries, lots of mayonnaise, and a meatball with mustard, the conversation continued. Slowly, with many silences, of course. The bastard precisely timed the moment to drop he was originally from the port of Harlingen. Doing this too early in the conversation would have been regarded as being too eager, as trying too hard. Convention is that one must connect in these talks on its own merits, without offering one’s northern credentials right from the start.
After knowing the bastard originated from a port town at the Wadden Sea, the big man with moustache told he used to work in the harbours of the city of Bremerhaven in the ‘70s. “There was a lot work there to be done, back then,” he explained. Bremerhaven, a port at the mouth of the river Weser at the Wadden Sea as well, although infinitely much bigger than the port of Harlingen. At the shipyards the big man used to work together with a guy from province Friesland. "His name was Eppie Louwsma," he told. This friend, as the bastard understood he was, came from region ‘t Bildt in Friesland, which is quite close to the port Harlingen. “Come to think of it,” the owner continued, “his cousin was Jack Lousma, an astronaut in America. The bastard had never heard of this Jack Lousma person before.
Whatever this Jack, the bastard loved the whole story. It illustrated how people of the coastal zone between Harlingen in the west and Bremerhaven in the east, used to be connected via the sea. The Wadden Sea. And who knows, they still are. Check also our post Yet another wayward archipelago about this common, Wadden Sea culture.
The big man and the bastard also came to talk about living here in Bad Nieuweschans. From what the bastard understood only during summer B&B Kanonnier had some guests, mainly cyclists visiting the Dollart area. He also explained it was quite lonely. Because he was all on his own, he always had to be present at his B&B. Six days in the week, and seven if he had guests. A thing he wished for was that once in a while he could go to a football match of his favorite club FC Groningen. But buying a ticket and hiring someone to take care of the B&B, cost too much. Ticket and personnel maybe 200 euros in total. So, the big man was confined to his private prison.
After a few more beers, the bastard grabbed his pack and jacket, and went upstairs to his room. A basic but clean room with two beds. Before falling asleep, he googled who this Jack Lousma is, and if he really exists. He does. Jack’s father emigrated from province Friesland to the United States. Jack himself was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan State, in 1936. For NASA he made two voyages into space, including space walks, and stayed there in the big nothing for ca. 1,600 hours in total.
Jack Lousma's nickname is the 'Flying Dutchman'. Just like that other famous Flying Dutchman, the seventeenth-century sailor Barent Fockesz. (check our post History is written by the victors – a history of the credits), it's good to know this modern Flying Dutchman is, in fact, also a flying Frisian. The same goes for the current Dutch gymnast Epke Zonderland. He won the Olympic Games, and many times the World and European Championships on the high bar. His nickname is the Flying Dutchman too, in spite of being Frisian.
Breakfast was served at half past eight the next morning. That was the earliest possible time for the owner. The big man had to get fresh bread at the bakery before. As the big man explained, the bakery wouldn't be open yet before. “How sweet, he's really taking care for his only guest,” the bastard thought.
The hike was in windy and drizzly weather. Leaving Bad Nieuweschans, the trail immediately crosses the German border via a slim, white drawbridge over the canal Wymeerer Sieltief. A sign explains the bridge, called the Noaberbrug, was used by Jewish refugees during the Second World War. To flee from Germany in the remote north to the Netherlands, when this small country wasn't occupied by the Nazis yet. From the bridge, the hike continues up north along the east bank of the river Westerwoldse Aa, all the way to the sluices and water pomp station at the hamlet of Nieuwe Statenzijl. There, crossing the border again back into the Netherlands. From Nieuwe Statenzijl, skirting the tidal marshlands, the trail follows the southern shores of the Dollart Bay, in western direction to the old wierde (also terp) of the village of Termunten.
An old local legend about how the Dollart Bay came into existence is the following.
When the heathen king Radbod, king of Frisia and nicknamed the Enemy of God, was travelling from Farmsum to Termunten, to cross from there the lower reach of the river Ems to the county of Ostfriesland, he became bored. Radbod spoke to his horse and said: "We'll jump it." Without hesitation the stallion took a run and flew across the broad river. Enormous chunks of earth were removed, such was the force with which the horse set off. These great holes filled themselves with water from the Wadden Sea. This is how the Dollart Bay was created, and why it has the shape of a horseshoe. The spot of the display of strength is named Hengstegat 'stallion's strait' ever since (Savelkouls 2016).
Today, in region Ostfriesland the saga exists that when it thunders and storms over the Dollart Bay, you might see king Radbod on his horse crossing the bay; the Wild Hunt of Radbod. Check our post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians for more sagas about Radbod.
Frisians, mathematics, and astronomy
The town of Franeker in province Friesland is the tiffany's of Frisians obsessed with astronomy and deep space. In this charming town you can find the tiny but truly unique Eise Eisinga Planetarium Museum. Eise Jeltes Eisinga, a wool carder, built between 1774 and 1781, in his living room, an orrery. The amazing thing is it still works, it never stopped, and it's still accurate! With this it's the oldest working planetarium of the world. In 2023, the Eise Planetarium was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Franeker is also the birthplace of another Frisian astronomer, namely Jan Hendrik Oort (1900-1992). He is famous in his world and discovered among other the Oort Cloud.
Then we also have to mention the famous sixteenth-century astronomer Jemme Reinerszoon (1508-1555) alias Gemma Frisius from Dokkum. More Frisian astronomers are: pastor David Faber (1564-1617) alias David Fabricius from Esens, Sybrandt Hansz. Cardinael (1578-1647) from Harlingen, minister Johannes Fabricius (1587-1616) from Resterhafe, cartographer Nikolaas Kruik (1678-1754) alias Nicolaus Cruquius from Wadden Sea island Vlieland, philosopher Johannes Phocylidus Holwarda (1618-1651) from Holwerd, lightning rod developer and telescope builder Arjen Roelofs (1754-1828) and his two brothers Pieter and Albert from Hijum, Adriaan van Maanen (1884-1946) from Sneek, Herman Zanstra (1894-1972), Willem de Sitter (1872-1934) from Sneek, and Pieter Oosterhoff (1904-1978) from Leeuwarden. Albeit not a Frisian but also from the Wadden Sea region, is astronomer professor Kees de Jager (1921-2021) born on the island Texel. And because he is a Nobel Prize winner for his research on superconductors, we like to list also Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1853-1926) from province Groningen.
As to why Frisians are so much into astronomy, mathematics and physics, has been debated for centuries. In the eighteenth century, it was broadly being suggested Frisians had a specific talent or nature for mathematics and astronomy. In physical sciences in general. Among others, it was Adriaan Gilles Camper (1759-1820), curator of the University of Franeker, who suggested this. Also writer Waling Dykstra (1895) suggested this special interest of Frisians in astronomy, mathematics and physics. A more sound explanation, however, is that in the early modern period in province Friesland a fine network existed to learn astronomy and mathematics. Including a university, that of Franeker, that distinguished itself on these study areas compared to other universities in Europe. And, also because non-students could receive lectures in mathematics at the University of Franeker (Dijkstra 2021). No coincidence that "door meten tot weten" (meaning: measuring is knowing) was Heike Kamerlingh Onnes' motto.
Maybe, we add to the explanation of Dijkstra, it has to do even more with the unique maritime cultural history of Frisians. Navigating seas only could be done with having a thorough knowledge of the stars in the skies, and of mathematics. Check our post Happy Hunting Grounds in the Arctic and learn about the unique, refined system of private sea navigation schools in region Nordfriesland ('North Frisia') in Germany. But also in the Netherlands, on several of the Frisian Wadden Sea islands, and in the ports of Harlingen and Delfzijl, sea navigation schools existed early. Astronomy and mathematics were core subjects of these navigation schools.
Or, lastly, is it simply the slightly autistic and linear trait of the Frisians? 😉 Check our post Giants of Twilight Land. Door meten tot weten, remember! After all, it was a Frisian from (yet again) the town of Franeker, surveyor Johannes Sems (1572-1635), who drew in the year 1615 the first dead-straight territorial border of the world (Freriks & Storms 2022). The so-called Semslinie ‘Sems’ frontline’. It was a thirty-four kilometer long, straight line marking the border between the provinces Groningen and Drenthe, starting at Wolfsbarge and terminating at the village of Ter Apel. A wet frontline going through inaccessible black swamps and moors.
Note 1 – Besides Jack Lousma, more Americans of Frisian descent travelled through space. They were David Leetsma (born Muskegon, 1946) whose ancestors came from the village of Tzummarum in province Friesland, and Shannon Mathilda Wells Lucid (born Shanghai, 1943) whose ancestors came from the villages of Lioessens and Ferwerd in province Friesland. Lucid also holds the record for being the most days in space, both men and women. Chew on that guys!
Lastly, the first Dutch astronaut was Wubbo Ockels. From October 30, till November 6, 1985, Wubbo stayed in space as crew of spaceshuttle Challenger. When you track down his family tree, his ancestors of paternal line originate from province Groningen, and before that from region Ostfriesland. Just saying.
Note 2 – Molecular biologist, writer and businessman Glen de Vries ‘the Frisian’, born in Hampton Township, New Jersey, travelled to space with rocket company Blue Origin in October 2021. Here he stayed for about ten minutes, after which they ‘dropped’ back to earth. Only a few weeks after his space adventure, Glen de Vries dies in a small airplane crash at the age of only 49.
Note 3 – At the hamlet Nieuwe Statenzijl you can go to the hide called the Kiekkaaste which translates in Low-Saxon speech (i.e. Grunnings) as ‘looking-out cabinet’. It is placed on the tidal marshland of the Dollart Bay, and managed by the trust Het Groninger Landschap. It's very scenic!
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Dijkstra, A., De Hemelbouwer. Een biografie van Eise Eisinga (2021)
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Freriks, K. & Storms, M., Grensverkenningen. Langs oude grenzen in Nederland (2022)
Haan, de P. & Huisman, K. (ed), Gevierde Friezen in Amerika (2009)
Savelkouls, J., Het Friese Paard (2016)