The Europeans present ‘The Naval Base: community life’

Marijn van Geel, president of Postduivenvereniging Den Helder in their clubhouse. © Rob Hornstra / The Europeans

Towering over the old town, we see giant grey ships, streamlined, almost without windows to evade the enemy’s radar. These ships, combined with the smaller blue and green fishing boats next to them, and the giant offshore tugs are the lifeline of this city – the naval base of this country. Without them, this city wouldn’t have been founded by the government, sustained by the government and – depending on the available budgets – neglected by the government.

In this naval base, populist parties are popular. The dependance on an ever-changing government makes people distrust the government, and while so many people get their paychecks straight from the ministry, they don’t want them to spend any money on anything else. The populist parties promise their electorate a return to the glory days of this base, and everybody here has a clear view on what their glory days were. These were the days that the streets were roaming with sailors and yard workers, that every street was buzzing with shops and all the great artists of this country visited the special naval entertainment center.

Jan de Leeuw, President, Ernst Kühn, Tweede poetwachter, Ed Pieters, Poetwachter, Stefan den Braber, Protocolist of C.V. De Krabbetukkers in sport- and event complex Quelderduijn. © Rob Hornstra / The Europeans

It were the days that people working for the navy went on early retirement in their  50’s and joined the huge infrastructure of associations, choirs, hobby clubs and sports being played in this town. They had endless time to join the boards of these clubs. Maybe this naval base was the most organised community in the world.

But then everything changed. The Cold War ended, pension age was increased and the introduction of cable tv, mobile phones and the internet brought plenty of diversion to the people at home. No need to go to clubs anymore. The social structure of this town changed, and still changes.

Now, plenty of the clubs we visit deplore the dwindling number of volunteers and board members needed for a thriving organization. Their average increases. Some gave up already, and see themselves as a nice club to have some leisure time, up until the last moment when only a few members survive. If that’s their fate, let it be so, and let’s don’t give too much energy to find new members. The chairman of the billiards club in a local community house reminds that he once convinced a married couple living in his flat building to join the club. But in a few months the husband died, and there went his membership growth.

Ingrid van der Hert, treasurer of Biljartvereniging C.S.A.V. Turnlust in community center De Draaikolk. © Rob Hornstra / The Europeans

The longing for days bygone is partly longing for a non-existing past. When people think about those days, well, community life was thriving, shops were thriving, but remember that you needed to salute every officer in the streets? Remember the low wages? Remember the criminality in the areas with high rises? The times are changing, and actually, the people are increasingly fond of their town. Everyone tells us the local folktale, a quite boring one, about an older guy celebrating his pension and moving back to his birthplace, far away from here. But of course, he misses the naval base. And went back. Within a month. While people from outside this town usually are extremely loud in sharing their negative prejudices towards this town, here, the naval immigrants from all over the country bring their backgrounds, traditions and make this naval base into a free, relaxed and quiet melting pot of the country. No need for tourists or strangers here, they say, we’ll enjoy it ourselves, this place is our secret.

Jan Kraak, president of Modelbotenvereniging Den Helder in their clubhouse. © Rob Hornstra / The Europeans

The Europeans is a portrait of modern Europe. Traveling from region to region and from theme to theme in this multi-year project, photographer Rob Hornstra and writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen have the ambition to create a 21st century time piece on the European Heartland. Hornstra and van Bruggen see Europe on the eve of drastic change. Populism and authoritarianism are on the rise, ghosts from the past seem to return. How does that reflect on the different regions in Europe?

Els Oosthuizen, president, and Lies Hendrikse-Backer, treasurer, of Klaverjasvereniging De Jutter in community centre De Jutter. © Rob Hornstra / The Europeans