Back to Breda
[ Issue 42 ]

Back to Breda intrigues Emily Bronto

Bikwil salutes back to Breda

Back to Breda

Greg Bogaerts makes a spiritual return to his family's mother country — Holland.
 

Breda is indeed a beautiful place: the Grote Market with its stalls selling everything from fish to lace, the cathedral dominating the skyline, the shops selling antique glass, the houses lining the almost medieval twisting of streets.

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Back to Breda — Greg Bogaerts

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I hadn’t been to Breda in Holland before, so why should I call this article Back to Breda?

My return to the place, where my grandfather was born and grew up, was a spiritual return for me. Although I didn’t know that until I got off the train in Breda on the Queen’s Day holiday.

My return to Breda started many years ago when I started writing short stories and eventually some novels. Nearly all of this fiction was about Newcastle, Australia, my birthplace and where I grew up. The stories were peopled with characters I’d met in Newcastle: the cruel and kind men I worked with at the BHP, the recalcitrant but often humorous drunks I picked up early in the morning when I was driving taxis and the sleek and snide solicitors I encountered when I practised briefly as a lawyer.

After a number of years of pouring out fiction about Newcastle, I stuck my head out the front door and realized that something had changed. What had happened was that I’d written so much about Newcastle that I’d come to know it too well. Too clearly. Something was missing in this industrial working class town and it was this missing bit that I now needed to define myself.

Many months of restlessness followed after this discovery. My discontent infiltrated my fiction and I found myself writing increasingly scathing stories about the dark side of Newcastle: the ever-present violence, the legion numbers of unemployed on the streets, the parochial view that a rugby league team defines a whole community, the battler mentality of struggling against the odds that ensured that Newcastle was treated with contempt by both major political parties because many Novocastrians didn’t have the self-esteem to expect anything better.

I had come to a personal and artistic dead end. So I went to Breda.

Getting off the train, I walked up Willemstraat, the street where one of my father’s cousins had lived sixty-something years ago. The only records I had of my grandfather and his family was a small collection of photographs and documents left in my grandfather’s sea chest. My grandfather, Antonius Martinus Bogaerts, was born in Breda in 1883, left via Antwerp in 1911 and sailed to Canada then later came to Newcastle, Australia, where he married my grandmother, Barbara Shepherd, the daughter of a coal miner.

My grandfather died when my father was seven years old. Antonius Bogaerts was a mystery. No one seemed to talk about him at all. I can only recall, when I was growing up, one or two mentions of him by my grandmother and father. So there was the other motivation for going back to Breda; the writer’s natural, or unnatural inquisitiveness, the desire to know the truth at all costs, and to write about it.

Breda is indeed a beautiful place: the Grote Market with its stalls selling everything from fish to lace, the cathedral dominating the skyline, the shops selling antique glass, the houses lining the almost medieval twisting of streets.

But the real highlight for me was meeting Hanke Bogaerts, someone I’d managed to contact via the internet. No relation but a handy person to know seeing he just happened to work in archives in Breda. Hanke had provided me with a family history that went back to the 17th century, but details about my grandfather were sketchy. So when I got to Breda I tracked Hanke down, much to his amazement.

To say that my wife and I got on well with Hanke when we first met him would be an understatement. You’d have thought we’d known each other for years the way we talked thirteen to the dozen. Fortunately, Hanke’s English was far better than my Dutch.

Hanke had done some digging and found the house, in the Einstraat, where my grandfather was born and the house, Insulinde, where my great grandparents had lived, almost at the centre of The Grote Market. It was a very moving experience to see these two houses.

I left Breda aware of a strong spiritual connection with the place; something I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to explain in rational terms. My grandfather still remains as big a mystery and Hanke is still digging.

I know I will return to Breda and I know my grandfather and his life somehow form the missing pieces that are still to define who I am.

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