a. The former Dutch Reformed church in Etten-Leur, now dubbed the Van Gogh Church. 

b. The very first picture I took, sitting down for coffee at the Markt, a very modern square... 

Starting this project in times of Corona 

Friday morning, eleven, bright August, 2020. A year to remember. It’s quite warm in Etten-Leur, the Netherlands, even at this relatively early hour. Bright blue sky, no clouds, picture-perfect.

When I set out this morning, sat behind the wheel, I had to put the windscreen wipers on. It had felt like autumn. Windy, rainy, a cold edge to the air that had felt unfamiliar. Not at all like the tropical nightmare of the past two weeks, forty degrees, more, even.

So I’ve brought a jacket today, on my first trip, and there is an umbrella in my bag. By end of day these precautions will have proven ludicrous, but I’ve only an inkling of that yet. I pay ten euros to park my car, the maximum amount, which means I’m allowed to park here until tomorrow morning. It feels overly optimistic.

I’m nervous. I’m something of a failure, in a part of my own mind at least. Plenty of people would tell me different - rationally, I tell me different - but that’s not how this works. I’ve spent five years writing novels, serious ones, “edgy” ones, as they’ve been called. They haven’t sold. I had an agent, a woman a few years younger than me, London-based, one of the agencies recommended to me. She’d been about to send the manuscript of my latest one to publishers, then told me over email she’d changed jobs, deal’s off. I’d have to start again.

As I follow the road signs to the Markt, walk past empty chairs and tables outside still-empty restaurants, I think perhaps this is where my fascination with Van Gogh originates. I took my failure to heart. I shouldn’t have. It’s part of this world, I’d been told, this job, but I had been desperate to prove myself, had chosen a career where that is terribly difficult, and I hadn’t managed to.

At the time, I already knew I wanted to write. That was just about the only thing I was entirely sure of, me wanting to spend the rest of my life writing, and I wasn’t going to let the loss of an agent stop me from doing that. So many writers face far more dire circumstances, and I’m very much aware of my good fortune, being white, having been born in a prosperous country to prosperous parents who’d paid for my education, who supported my fledgling aspirations. So I wrote another novel, one about a woman recovering from a sexual assault, and it was about me, really, even though I’d hidden my own story in more layers than I could count. It was a difficult, gross, disgusting book to write, and when I’d finally finished it, had relived some things in convoluted ways, set down some hard, unflattering truths about myself, my life, I’d wanted to do something entirely different.

And it is different, I realise, as I stride down the Oude Bredaseweg, past snackbars and a curtain shop and the church reveals itself, the centrepiece in a very modern square, bigger than I’d expected but still instantly recognisable. Scooters and bikes whizz by, locals drinking coffee, juices in startling greens.

This blog is about Vincent van Gogh, and how he managed to keep working as a painter and draughtsman for ten years whilst encountering rejection and derision almost every single day. As I explained before, I believe that exploring the places where Van Gogh lived and worked as an artist, the traces that remain in our modern-day world of the houses he lived in, the cafés he visited, the landscapes he painted, might help me gain a better understanding of the miracle that is Van Gogh’s creativity and perseverance, and allow me to connect his experiences of creative life with my own.

As I sit down at a table in the centre of the square, scan a QR code to order coffee, another to fill in my contact details, it’s impossible not to reflect on the circumstances that made me decide to start this blog here, in Etten-Leur. After all, Van Gogh decided to become an artist back in the Belgian Borinage, spent a few months in Brussels before coming here just in time for Easter, 1881. But travelling to Belgium right now would mean having to spend ten days in quarantine on my return, and after months of national lockdown, I’m not eager for more.

I finish my coffee. Ignore the nerves. Pay, contactless, rub my hands with disinfectant gel, turn towards the church, begin.

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.