It’s time for another story – this is what the blog is about – so here it comes:
He was born here but did not really recognise any of it, the imposing square, full of history and long forgotten pomp and circumstances. It seemed slightly dreary in the slow falling rain, the chilly wind and the few bedraggled tourists paying exorbitant prices for basic bread and cheese, the Dutch staple food. The Dutch themselves would never pay this for a tea bag, a slice of bread and a thin sliver of cheese, he said. They walked through the town centre, along the canals and the curiosity shops with ‘hand painted’ Delft blue, and the cheaper end of retail. He talked about his wish to move back to England, once he’d done his year of traineeship with the company in Holland. Yes, he liked being here, but his life and friends were in London, that’s where he felt at home and had links, where he felt comfortable. Yes, his mastery of the Dutch languae had improved since he’d arrived a couple of months ago, and he felt he was genuinely bi-lingual now, nevertheless, he did not feel that he would want to stay here, he would be too far away from what he felt at ease with, the Dutch were insular, lived their own family life and it was hard to become part of it, the sense of alienation would not leave him.
Back in Rotterdam, the sky is still grey and the wind as chilly as earlier on in the day, this is how I remember Holland, blustery rain and then the chilly sun coming through the fast moving clouds, like an old Dutch painting, never different, always clogging your sinuses and the sense that you will have an incipient cold for the rest of your life. Just when you think you’ve got over it, the sun is shining, then the clouds will gather, and once more you are wet and shivering, wishing you’d dressed warmer than seemed necessary that morning.
I remember all those years back when I used to live in this flat country, cycling to school, always the wind against, morning and evening, because miraculously, whilst you were busy filling in your day in classrooms and around school, somehow the weather changed and the wind would come from a different direction that same afternoon when you were on your way home. The 14 kilometre bike ride each way always a challenge, and unlucky for the two people whose turn it was to head the snake-long line of cyclists exposed on this river dyke and on their way to and from the provincial town where the secondary schools were located. Aptly, in Greek mythology the word ‘dike‘ denotes the god of moral justice. Perhaps there was a moral message somewhere that escaped us at the time.
It all appears so utterly familiar, not much changed since childhood, yet at the same time it is all so different. People are different from what we were then, they are even more self assured, accomplished, and at the same time there is this intriguing mixture of ethnicity, all treating this country as theirs, adapting to the towns and villages as if they have always lived there. The Dutch way of life, the cyclists, the focus on their children, the markets and the shop windows are all so utterly familiar. I am different though, wedded to England now, this England that has got hold of us, has given us refuge from this grey and cold country, so full of self-confident people who know their worth and who know that they are always right and would not want to live or do things differently. They happily share the small bit of land they have with others, Delft is such a good example of a town that gladly takes in refugees and people with different convictions and beliefs, is not that what the House of Orange was all about? I do remember some history from all those years back at school. Why is it that this country has not been able to hold on to me, to us? Nevertheless, there is the change in the air, even here, the sense that perhaps it is not all as well as it once seemed, a less tolerant air? However, this is not the time for politics, I am trying to work out why I do not yearn to go back and live there once again.
We will go back to England, to the shabby mess of Stansted Airport with its obsessive security and disorganised tantrums, and we will be happy to be part of that, because we can complain and are comfortably aware that everyone will complain, yet live it. We will understand the language it speaks and the separateness of everyone else, no one expecting us to think as they do, leaving us the space that Holland, with its preconceptions and communal understanding of what is right and proper and how to behave have never been able to provide for me. The protestant ethic still persecuting me, never letting go. In England, we will be able to disappear and lead our own lives without being expected to fit in with how things are done, or not, and we will not turn round and have preconceived ideas about what is right and proper and how we should live our routines. We will not have the conviction that how we live and approach our lives is so much better and understandable than how the rest of the world does it, we will not yearn for peanut butter and chocolate chips on our bread, we will leave all that behind, happily and assign it to oblivion. We will only once in a while yearn for the routine and cleanliness of Dutch town and country life, the peaceful quietness of a bicycle ride on flat countryside and city streets, and then we will happily turn over and forget all about it and live a life less constrained.
When he gets on his bike, later that night, turns and waves goodbye, he suddenly seems so Dutch and I wave back.