Voices and Silences

A reflection on Delft by Sílvia Quinteiro. Sílvia was in Delft during the Closing Symposium: Writing Urban Places, June 2023.

In a late October afternoon, I stroll through Delft. I leave the center behind and follow along the canals, traversing the circles that shape the city. In the center, monuments and historic buildings; surrounding it, picturesque first-floor houses. Drawing a third circle, modern houses. Beyond, the forest and scattered buildings.

The hour allows for a leisurely walk. The flock of cyclists, donned in trench coats and fluttering scarves, has returned to their nests.

Houses, whether old or recent, adhere to a similar construction model. A large window opens to the street, the living room, a spacious kitchen, and, finally, a new window revealing the backyard. The windows are invariably adorned. With more or less imagination, they showcase flower vases, porcelain tulips, miniature houses, wooden birds, elves, rubber ducks, candlesticks… There’s no sign of curtains or blinds. The house unabashedly opens itself to the street, eagerly drinking the last drops of light the day offers. I don’t have time to ascertain if privacy is not valued or if the concept here has a different understanding than mine. Do they reveal themselves or simply not hide? A father and son in pajamas watch a movie cuddled in an armchair. A girl brushes the tips of her blonde ponytail on the carpet and reads, while her toes play blindly with the painting hanging above the sofa. A smiling couple prepares dinner in the kitchen. I find this way of life strange. Light as the gliding of bicycles.

The next morning, I am invited to visit the Jaffa cemetery. Like the city of the living, that of the dead is intersected by canals. The vegetation is dense and verdant. A child rides a tricycle while the father eats a sandwich on a garden bench. Numerous crows hop and caw around us. I head to the old part of the cemetery. The contrast between the wide-open lives of the living and the almost absolute void of information about the deceased impresses me. Tombstones bear only names and dates. Sometimes not even that—just loose stones forming a rectangle on the ground. A menorah stands out. Among Catholics, a Jew is buried.

I cross the small bridge over a canal full of water lilies, and ducks leisurely trace lines on the green water. So distant from the cemeteries I know. I think about how I would like to offer this peace to my departed.

I notice that some newer tombstones are varnished and have photographs. There are some fresh flowers. But the same silence. The same absence of any window through which I can peek into their lives. I continue walking. I search for the mural dedicated to those who fell for their homeland in 1940. To my left, a unusually tall and shiny pink tombstone catches my eye. The base is a small garden, bordered by vases and flower jars. Hearts and butterflies, pierced on wires, hover over the grave. It would go unnoticed in a Portuguese cemetery. Not here. I approach to read the long text engraved in the stone. I learn that Anabela was a “beloved wife, mother, and grandmother,” just as Fernando, who shares the grave, was a “beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.” He a bit older than her. The narrative takes shape in my mind. Immigrants fleeing dictatorship and poverty in our country, I imagine, who found refuge in Delft and created a family now in its fourth generation. Statues of Our Lady of Fatima and white porcelain angels reveal their Catholic devotion. The Buddha statue adds intrigue to the story. I sit on a bench across from it, and, like them, have lunch in the cemetery. I continue to imagine the story of this family and reflect on the abyss that separates the two cultures. The Dutch, with wide-open windows in life and absolute privacy in death. The Portuguese, more reserved about the home and family life but not granting the same privacy to the deceased. We cover the graves with clues about who they were and what they liked. Perhaps we want those who pass by to speak with them. Perhaps this is our way of inviting them to sit down and have lunch while engaging in conversation. Perhaps for us, maintaining the dialogue is a way of granting them eternity.


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