Holland Mayor has unexpected visit with prime minister during Netherlands trip

There were a few surprises for Mayor Nathan Bocks during a recent visit to the Netherlands, including an unexpected meeting with the country’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte. 

The Oct. 9 meeting was at The Hague in an unofficial capacity celebrating the mutual cultural connection. He also met the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Shefali Razdan Duggal, and the mayor of The Hague, Jan van Zanen.

This informal meeting acknowledged the deep and rich ties between the city of Holland, with its history rooted in Dutch culture, and the Netherlands. Engaging with the Netherlands is always special, Bocks says, and this was an opportunity to build upon cultural ties as the world changes. 

Cultural connections

Bocks, who was elected mayor in 2019 and is serving his second term,  traveled to the Netherlands as part of a cultural exchange trip on behalf of the city and the International Relations Commission. The primary goal was to build a “friendship cultural connection” with the city of Assen, in the province of Drenthe. 

Prime Minister Mark Rutte is presented with a gift from the city of Holland by Mayor Nathan Bocks and his wife, Elizabeth Bocks, during a visit on Oct. 9.

IRC commissioner Michael Start, who researched the history of the immigrant statue in Kollen Park, learned it was made by an artist in Assen and that it was a gift to the city at its sesquicentennial in 1997.

"We've got this relationship with Assen already, and we thought, why don't we see if we can do more with it,” says Bocks, who also met with his counterpart, Assen Mayor Marco Out, on Oct. 9.

Bocks credits the idea of strengthening this bond to the work of the International Relations Commission. Start and City Council Member Dave Hoekstra, who serves on the IRC, were part of the city’s contingent on the trip. 

Joining Tulip Time visitors

When Bocks mentioned the trip to his son, Duncan, who serves on the Tulip Time board, Duncan told him the festival was sending a contingent in October as well. After connecting with the festival about its trip, he decided to extend his stay so he could coordinate with the festival contingent on two days of visits.

The Tulip Time contingent visited the Netherlands to document the cultural connections between the city and the Netherlands in preparation for the 95th anniversary of the festival. The contingent included Gwen Auwerda, Tulip Time executive director, and Maranda from WOOD-TV8, which is documenting the trip. 

“We met with Ibo Gülsen’s family,” Auwerda says. “He is the artist of the Tulip Immersion Garden that has been at the festival the last two years and will be in 2024. We also did a Zoom call with eight kids from the Netherlands and the fifth grade class at Holland Language Academy to talk about differences/similarities in the school day.” 

A trip tied to Tulip Time wouldn’t be complete without seeing tulip bulbs. The Michigan group planted tulips at Keukenhof and visited the bulb distributor that sells the city all of its tulip bulbs. 

Five segments have aired already on WOOD-TV, Auwerda says, and five more will air prior to Tulip Time.

Hoping for more exchanges 

Now back, Bocks says he is thrilled with how much was packed into the whirlwind trip.

“We achieved everything that we wanted to at this stage, and we're hoping to be able to get representatives from Assen to come here to Holland next fall for the International Festival and for the rededication of the immigrant statue,” Bocks said. 

Gülsen, the world-renowned Dutch horticulturist who did the popular Tulip Immersion Gardens the last couple of years at Tulip Time, arranged the meeting with the prime minister, whom he personally knows.Peter Hoekstra, a former congressman and U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, helped arrange a meeting with the U.S. ambassador.

During visit to Assen: IRC Commissioner Michael Start, Assen Mayor Marco Out, Mayor Nathan Bocks, Elizabeth Bocks, Holland Councilmember Dave Hoekstra. (Nathan Bocks)

“We're hoping that we'll be able to do not only cultural exchanges, but also perhaps educational exchanges,” Bocks says. “We see the opportunities for students from here to go over there and study and for students from there to come over here, which will then help with likely business ventures and investments on both sides of the Atlantic.”

He added that he’s laying the groundwork to have the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands and the Netherlands ambassador to the U.S. visit Holland for the Tulip Time festival.

“We in Holland, Michigan, like to think of the Netherlands of the 1800s when we talk about our connections,” Bocks says. “The Netherlands has grown to be an incredibly modern and diverse country. They see the United States as that as well. When we look at the history and the heritage of Holland, Michigan, it's not just the Dutch. It's the Hispanic community. It's the Asian community. It's the African American community. You name it, we have it here. And there is room and space to celebrate all of the different cultures that make up this incredibly rich tapestry of Holland, Michigan.” 

The International Relations Commission voted in early spring 2022 to rededicate the bronze  immigrant statue, “De Landverhuizers” Brons by the late Bert Kiewiet (1918-2008) to launch the 2024  International Festival of Holland festivities. The same bronze statue is in Hof van Saksen, a holiday resort near the city of Assen. During his visit to the Netherlands, Mayor Bocks extended an invitation to the Commission of the King, provincial delegates, and delegates from the city of Assen. 

“The goal of the city and a mission for the International Relations Commission is to build and maintain meaningful relationships between the people of Holland and the wider world through cultural, educational and professional contact,” says Esther Fifelski, Holland’s Human Relations Director. “We recognize the demographics of our community are changing to support the area’s economic growth and development, and we recognize Holland’s historic link to the Netherlands,” she says.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.