It’s been rather quiet here at The Wig recently. Even Snorri has been otherwise occupied.
I’m not sure what his excuse is, but mine is a rather busy schedule that involves working 15-hour days, seven days a week for the Canadian Tulip Festival. And… uh, why yes, the Tulip Festival still exists. And no, I can’t tell you much about tulips; ask the NCC. What I can tell you, though, is I have gained a new appreciation for a 60-year-old festival that in the era of the “world-class” city is too easily dismissed as ‘provincial.’
And with that, I’d like to introduce you to my new friends Marg and Dirk, proprietors of a stand on the grounds of the festival that sells a too-delicious pastry treat called poffertjes. I’d like, if I may, to share their story with you. After reading it, perhaps you’ll better appreciate why this world-class city still hosts a tulip festival.
But I’ll have to be quick — still five days left in this year’s festival, doncha know.
THE POFFERTJES FILE
You’ll find them stage left, clad in traditional Dutch garb, peddling poffertjes, an addictive bite-size grilled pastry basted in butter and powdered sugar. Over the course of the festival’s 18 days, many poffertjes will be raised – one order at a time.
Marg Alberts, 79, and Dirk Alberts, 81, have been a fixture on the grounds of Tulip Plaza for a decade, travelling each year from north of Barrie, where they settled after immigrating to Canada 55 years ago. This year, like the Canadian Tulip Festival, the couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary. And in this special year they have brought with them to the festival three additional generations of poffertje ambassadors. The Canadian Tulip Festival is undeniably one thing in which the whole family shares.
The year of Marg and Dirk’s marriage, Canada introduced a new festival, born of an idea by photograph Malak Karsh and an annual gift of tulips — a display of friendship and of gratitude for Canada’s help and support during five long years of German occupation of the Netherlands.
Marg remembers those dark wartime days well. She was but five when German troops arrived in the streets of her village.
“That was very exciting,” she recalls of her naïve reaction to the new visitors. “They were coming in covered wagons, pulled by horses. And they sang. They sang beautifully.”
For the people of the Netherlands, the singing would soon stop. For Marg and her family, excitement would turn to hardship. And heroism.
“At first,” she recalls, “I didn’t notice much difference. Then all hell broke loose, because mom was high up in the Resistance and we hid Jewish people who tried to get away. Those people didn’t have a life! And the resistance workers, we had to hide them as well, because if the Germans would ever catch one of those guys and torture one of them… too many lives were at stake.”
Marg unwittingly became a member of the Dutch Resistance, relaying messages for her mother.
“Mom had a shortwave radio and she would get messages from the [Dutch] government [in exile] that was based in London. She would pick them up and she would have to write out little notes for the various Resistance workers — what they were expected to do, that there was a weapon-drop and where they would have to get it.
“They couldn’t have a grownup for that, because [the Germans] would be wandering around the town to find these people. So one of them had a very good idea: to have a child do it. And they made this special pair of wooden shoes – I didn’t even know about it – but it is quite normal in Holland that you leave your shoes outside, so when I came to one of the houses for one of the Resistance workers I just kicked off my shoes and then they would ask me if I’d like something to eat. Well, that was a silly question: We were starving! And they would open up the wooden shoe, take the message and close it back up again, and I was happily going home again. I never got caught – because I was so cute.”
Marg estimates her part in the Resistance lasted all of 18 months. Then, all hell broke loose once again.
“We had four Jews living with us, and [someone noticed] there was too much bedding [on the clothesline], because my mother was very clean. That’s how they caught us, and we were picked up in the middle of the night. My stepfather was sent to a concentration camp with the Jews as well as one Resistance worker who was engaged to my stepsister. My mother and I were sent to Amsterdam at what used to be a jail, and that had also become a concentration camp.
“I must admit they never did anything wrong to me, until the Resistance were trying to kill one of the German bigshots in Holland, and it backfired on them. And the Germans said, ‘Whoever did this, we want you to come forward so we can punish you.’ They couldn’t – they knew too much and there would be too many people in trouble. So they took 13 guys out of this concentration camp and put them up against the wall. But they also picked a bunch of innocent people – among them, my mother and I – and we had to watch them being shot.”
“We were only there for six days ‑- just long enough to be traumatized.”
With that, she waves off further discussion. “End of story,” she says.
Except, of course, for her memory of the day Canadian and other Allied soldiers arrived in her hometown of Edam.
“We learned of it by shortwave radio,” she says of the Liberation. “There were no telephones. There was no means of communication other than talk. And then we had the town crier going through the town: ‘The war is over!’ And everybody raced to the front of the town hall. That’s where they all gathered. And my mom, being in the Resistance, she was right up front, because they were all lined up in their blue coveralls and their rubber boots – that was their uniform.
“I’ll never forget that moment. Mom was standing and all of a sudden she realized that she could sing the national anthem. And she sang. She sang beautifully. I still get emotional.”
She remembers the Canadian soldiers. She remembers the food-drop that provided her people with their first proper nourishment in five years. And she remembers, not long after the war’s end, realizing that as another war – the Cold War — threatened her native land, she and Dirk had a decision to make.
“The minister we attended church at, he said, ‘You guys need to go to Canada.’ He had been to Canada and he told us, ‘You have to go.’ And that’s how we did it.”
Building a new life in Canada, they settled in Southern Ontario. Marg would go on to become a newspaper reporter and even that most Canadian of jobs – a colour-commentator for radio broadcasts of local hockey games. And when they learned of the Tulip Festival that takes place each year in the nation’s capital, they decided that, too, was somewhere they must go.
“We fell in love with it,” Dirk says. “We loved it!”
That was in 2003… maybe earlier. It depends which Alberts you ask. They agree, however, that the couple at first greatly underestimated the size of the festival, bringing only enough material with them for a weekend’s worth of poffertjes. The popularity of the pastry, however, called for reinforcements.
“We bought all the self-rising flour Ottawa had to offer,” Dirk recalls with a laugh. Another tradition was born. Since then, “we’ve been here a lot and we really like it.”
“We still do,” Marg adds. “I’ve got these stupid poffertjes in my blood. Without sugar!”