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It would be difficult for visitors to look around this bucolic, pastoral country and imagine it as a hotbed of quarrelling neighbours, all with verbal daggers drawn and their backs up. But it is hard to ignore the evidence. Vitriolic emails have been flying back and forth that reveal anger and resentment that boggles the imagination. We have been coming here since 1987 and have never seen anything quite like it.

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We are not here long enough to have a good understanding of the fracture lines, but things have always been a bit dicey in this little backwater hamlet with the pretty French name. It has been farm country for several centuries now, and the French peasants who settled here in the 1680’s needed to cooperate to carry out the extraordinary kind of farming they did, building dykes and reclaiming land from the sea. But it is never been free from conflict.

Even though the Acadian peasants who settled here among the native Mik’maq natives tried to remain neutral in the wars between the French and British, they suffered regular raids by New Englanders. In June, 1704, Benjamin Church led a devastating raid on Grand Pre, burning houses and destroying dykes. When the British took Port Royal in 1710, they became the titular “owners” of “Acadie,” a land populated by natives and French farmers.

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In 1745, the French laid siege to the fort they had previously held, now called Annapolis Royal. They were rebuffed after a six week siege. The next year, Versailles launched a massive expedition with seventy ships and thirteen thousand men to take back the city of Louisbourg, seize the fort at Annapolis Royal and raise hell up and down the eastern seaboard of the Colonies. Fortunately for the New Englanders, everything that could go wrong did. The expedition was plagued by incompetent admirals, horrific storms, scurvy and other diseases.

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Soldiers from Boston were dispatched by ship to come to the defence of British at Annapolis Royal. It was fall when the New England militia arrived, so the commander of the fort sent them down to Grand Pre to settle in for winter. As soon as the “Bastonnais” arrived, an Acadian went out on snowshoes to alert French land forces, known to be holed up about 200 kms away in a French fort. When the French soldiers realised they would be up against superior numbers, they chose to attack in the middle of a snowstorm in the early morning hours. The battle left some eighty new Englanders dead, including the commander, Colonel Noble. It was the bloodiest battle on the Nova Scotia mainland.

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Eight years later, in 1755, the infamous oath of allegiance would be set forth by the Governor of Nova Scotia, a proclamation that would trigger “le Grand Derangement” — the expulsion of the Acadian population of Nova Scotia to lands far and wide, with the majority landing in Louisiana. Grand Pre would become the symbolic centerpiece of the expulsion, thanks to “Evangeline,” the long narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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The UNESCO brochure talks about an Acadian “re-appropriation of the land of their origins… in a spirit of peace and cultural sharing with the local area community.” My own view is that the Planters, the settlers who came after the Acadians, have had as much, if not more impact on shaping and preserving this place than the Acadians, but it is not politic to say so. And I am biased, of course, since my wife’s ancestor was a Scot who took advantage of opportunity to buy property in the fertile land.

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You would think that in an area like this, “No Farms, No Food” would be a safe bet. Think again. It has riven friendships among our neighbours. Fences, property lines, rights of way, pets, and even potholes can set people off. We are a quarrelsome species, ready to take issue with one another over the least slight.

It is hard to get riled up about much of anything on a balmy summer evening, when the sun sheds the longest light of summer. Take a walk with me out along the dykeland, listen to the birds, feel the soft breeze on your face and fingers. You won’t want to be anywhere else.

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If you want to have a nice, leisurely taxi ride from Ataturk Airport to a hotel anywhere near Taksim square, you should avoid booking a flight that will put you into Istanbul at rush hour on the eve of a Rihanna concert within walking distance of a park called Gezi. Your three hour trip may run to five and a half or six hours by the time you reach the hotel.

Some years ago, my wife worked for a top Wall Street law firm with offices all over the world. Unlike most law firms, hers valued the bonds established by associates who put in long hours on their behalf. It tries to maintain those relationships through an alumni association and by having reunions in North and South America, Europe and Asia.

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There have been twenty-five European reunions in places like Tuscany, Crete, and even Lapland, but we have never been in the right place at the right time. This year’s event, booked for the weekend of May 31 through June 2, was to be held in Istanbul, only three hours flying time from Amsterdam, not far from where we are living out of suitcases. Nomads that we are.

Most of the alumni were booked into the huge Swissotel, a spectacularly situated hotel overlooking a soon-to-be-demolished concert venue. As our taxi crawled up the steep slope to the hotel, a huge billboard told us more than the driver had during our two and a half hour ride– Rihanna, May 31. We didn’t yet know about the events unfolding in Gezi Park and Taksim Square.

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The reunion would bring together some eighty-five people, including lawyers, spouses and a handful of grown children. The organisation had been done by the alumni based in Istanbul. Moving all those people around in a city designed for donkey carts would have been tricky at the best times. When the police started closing down bridges and roads to stop the steady stream of people heading for Taksim Square, the logistics of our visit turned into a nightmare.

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Friday went smoothly, with a visit to the beautiful Byzantine church now called Chora Museum, the new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, and the Grand Bazaar. But well before our evening cruise on the Bosphorus, all hell had broken loose. As we descended from the busses, a cloud of tear gas seized our eyes and throats. People were fleeing the Square, holding handkerchiefs and scarves to their noses and dabbing at their eyes.

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From the deck of the boat,the City seemed calm. We drank and chatted and stared at million dollar homes on the Asian side. The boat steamed up to the second bridge as the sky staged a spectacular sunset. Our restaurant was within walking distance of the place we had started. We had a late dinner at a fabulous fish restaurant, but it was almost midnight by the time we got to bed.

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Many, many years ago I spent several weeks in Istanbul in mid winter. I stayed in the youth hostel, hung out at a place we called the pudding shop, haunted the Grand Bazaar for sheepskin coats to take back to the Netherlands. It was very cold. I remember the rose petal jelly I had with crusty bread for breakfast.

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One day I stumbled across a man who was selling postcards outside an abandoned gas station. There were street scenes from “old Istanbul” and titillating French cards as well. Once I discovered the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, I was hooked. I spent hours sorting through the stacks to find each and every one. Their turbans and faces where almost interchangeable, so it was the dates that were important. I had the instinct of a collector and postcards were one of the only things I could afford.

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When I had had enough of the noise and pollution of the city, I got on one the boats that went up the Bosphorus. Someone at the youth hostel had told me about Polonezkoy, a village established as a Polish enclave in the middle of the 18th century. It was getting dark when I arrived and the only building in the village was a concrete block building, combination cafe/store. There were a handful of men sitting around a wood stove smoking hookahs. Silence fell when I walked into the room.

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Then a teenager greeted me like a long lost friend. His uncle was in the Army in New Jersey, he said. There was no guest house for tourists, so he led me home and I met his family. His grandmother had been educated in French and retained it still, so there was one member of the family with whom I could communicate in more than a smattering of Turkish. The next day, after breakfast, she got me up on a ladder to help whitewash their large house. Later on, in a Turkish village on the Mediterranean, I would encounter the same generous hospitality, the same simple insistence that strangers, no matter how unusual in appearance or manners, should be treated with kindness and generosity.

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Saturday had been planned as the big day out, starting with a meeting at the hotel to plan the venue for the next reunion, followed by a visit to the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern and Blue Mosque. Our hosts had booked a restaurant within the grounds of the Topkapi palace for lunch. Later, there would be dinner and dancing at the Sabanci Museum overlooking the Bosphorus. The best laid plans….

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Overnight, the city had descended into chaos. No one knew if two large busses could get to the Sultanahmet and return. A heated discussion took place, the risk-takers versus the conservatives. It may have conjured up memories for those who had been in hot spots before and experienced days of living dangerously. In the end, safety won out. An itinerary was improvised, sending us north along the Bosphorus for a leisurely lunch in a residential neighborhood. The agenda for Saturday slipped forward to Sunday. Lawyers are nothing if not pragmatists.

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Last night in Taksim Square, reports are the police were even more brutal than they have been to date. At least four people have died and thousands have been treated for injuries. Prime Minister Erdogan has met with a hand-picked group of people he designated to represent the protestors, but warned others to stay away from Taksim Square. He has had enough of the protest.

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The Istanbul I saw so many years ago is being transformed beyond recognition to make way for more malls, gated communities and more mosques. A third bridge over the Bosphorus is in the works, as well as the world’s largest airport. The plan to trash Gezi park and build a replica Ottoman barracks/shopping mall is not an isolated oddity, but part of a pattern. It is now far more than a symbol of developmental destruction, it is a call to the barricades.

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The police have used up a year’s supply of tear gas in the last twelve days. Industry sources said foreign manufacturers are now preparing various “solutions” based on advanced technology, including smart weapons and state-of-the-art electronic surveillance and jamming systems. The private security market has its eyes on Turkey, with good reason.

Erdogan maintains huge popular support despite recent signs of irrationality, paranoia and despotism. He seems unwilling to show any signs of a conciliatory posture. The protestors, coming from all stripes of the economic and political spectrum, cannot put forward any one leader to represent them. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, waits and watches, no doubt hoping that his political rival has gone too far.

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Michael Petersen-Gyöngyösi, one of the alumni, has been good enough to share his photos with the group and with me. I have re-posted many of them to my Flickr account with attribution. He managed to cover a lot more ground than I did and got some wonderful shots of people in the street. All the pics can be browsed and downloaded by clicking any one photo running alongside this post. Many thanks to Kerem, Asli, Norma, Graziella, and our great guides and drivers.

I look forward to another, much longer visit, in peaceful times.


Simon van Gijn had the good fortune to be born wealthy. After studying law in Leiden, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a banker. Then he married into a wealthy family. Despite his wife’s penchant for hobnobbing with high society, it seems to have been a happy marriage.

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Simon had an interest in the arts and he was encouraged at a young age to start collecting historical prints. The pursuit became a passion, and his interests as a collector expanded as he aged– from prints to arms, model ships to coins, silver to ceramics. He needed a large home for his ever increasing collections, and the canal house at Nieuwe Haven 29 in the old city of Dordrecht would do just fine.

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The house was built in 1729 for Johan van Neurenberg, a wealthy regent. There is a wide hallway, reception rooms, a ballroom, a dining room as well as plenty of bedrooms upstairs and rooms for the servants. Simon purchased the house in 1864 and lived there until his death in 1922. He left the home and most of his collections to the Old Dordrecht Society. I was not expecting to be impressed after visiting the van Loon property in Amsterdam, but a big fish in a small pond can live very well indeed.

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Dordrecht was not always a backwater. In 1220, when the town was granted its charter, it was the most important and powerful town in Holland. It remained that way until well into the 16th century. Dordrecht was one of the first cities to declare against the Habsburgs, so it was the obvious site for the Free Assembly of the United Provinces. Trade took off when the city was granted “staple rights” in 1299. All ships that transported goods over the river were obliged to store the goods and trade them from Dordrecht. Large warehouses and town houses went up on the banks of the river.

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The St. Elizabeth Day flood of 1421 destroyed over seventy towns and villages in the surrounding area, killing over 100,000 people. It permanently altered the landscape, helping to establish what is now called called the Biesbosch, a large wetland unique in Europe.

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Dordrecht hosted a whole slew of doctrinal conferences in a constant attempt to mollify the various factions of Protestantism, who argued more vociferously with each other than they ever had with Catholics. In 1574, the hot topic at the Synod of Dordt was whether or not church organs should be dismantled so as not to inflame the emotions of the church goers. In 1618, the Remonstrants took on the Calvinists over the issue of predestination.

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We had come to Dordrecht to test ride some recumbent bikes and trikes at one of the only dealers in the area. When I checked out the selection of available accommodation, I was struck by one place that was totally different from every other place we have ever stayed. Villa Augustus used to be a water tower. How could I resist?

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Construction was started in 1881 and the tower was finished in a year. With a height of thirty-three metres. (about one hundred feet), it was a squarely-built building with four octagonal towers surrounding a large, round water basin. Two towers accommodated a spiral staircase between the staff residences and the reservoir. One of the towers contained the chimney for the smoke emanating from the steam engines pumping up the water from the basements to the reservoir.

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The fourth tower was intended as an outlet should the pressure inside the reservoir run up too high. The smaller towers were eliminated in 1938, when the reservoir was raised by means of a metal shaft. The tower silhouette looks rather like a castle. The floors above contained five apartments for the operators. As an extensively remodelled hotel, the building is bizarre but quite stunning. The old pump house has been transformed into a huge restaurant and shop for foodstuffs. The restaurant certainly does a roaring business on Saturday night.

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Our ride took us on some bike paths through the Biesbosch, and we were fortunate enough to enjoy some fine weather on Saturday. I had booked us in for an early dinner, which was, in hindsight, a mistake. The restaurant does a thriving trade in family dinners on Saturday, and the staff are simply overwhelmed. Think Disneyland and you will not be far off the mark.

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Sunday mornings are quiet. After a good breakfast, we wandered through the old part of the city, which seems to have survived the war and urban planning pretty well. By early afternoon, some of the stores were starting to open, which happens just once a month in Dordrecht. Sunday shopping is a rare event in the Netherlands, something which must drive most Americans to distraction.

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I suspect the Synod has it under advisement.

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