And to the first full day in the homeland of Holland.
I rose early and went for a trot along the canals, stopping off at a delicatessen-type place upon turning home. After enquiring whether or not they had “spotty cheese” (they did) I proceeded to have a lovely leaf at the wind (I.e., “shoot the breeze”) with the man on the counter about my trip and what not, promising to return with PMS for him to get amongst the edibles.
I went home to shower and such lark then Annelies, PMS and myself set off to Alphen a/d Rijn, the village-like city where my Opa was born and raised.
I was carbonating. Ever since I was a young teen and especially in the most previous few years, I have said to my Opa that one day I would go to where he grew up and take a photo of me in front of his adolescent abode. I have a real draw to my Dutch side and (as I have said before) I love the idea of retracing the steps in places that loved ones once were. So be to be in the place of his sprouting? Why, it set me off in tingles.
First Annelies, PMS and I went into the city centre where we sidled down the primogenital (I.e., oldest) street (now much more modernised with the ever-present McDs, the staple H&M, an amazing aromatherapy-type store called Rituals (products of which shall become part and parcel of my own daily rituals) and the “very Dutch” Blokker homeware store). We saw two kerks (churches) that had been there since the city’s heyday (thus Opa would’ve busted around them on his bicycle), some stores and shops that had ties to the old fam (some tante – aunty – worked in one, a neef – cousin – in another), and Annelies bought me a little Dutch language book to aid me in attaining ablement in my native tongue (well, not native. But DNA dialogue). (I love Annelies so much).
We had a lovely lunch next to the river (with stealthy PMS sneaking off on pretence of the bathroom and paying the bill, the scallywag) talking of family and such lark. One thing that really struck me which I have pondered plenty of times since is Annelies telling of her father’s passing in 2003. Annelies described his having died in the garden as, he having “flew away between his flowers”. I don’t think I have ever heard anything so beautiful in my being.
Another thing that really clobbered me was that of chatting about the Dutch educational system. My wordo, is it structured or what! So kids go to a primary (lagere school) and a middle school as per home ways, but tests and exams set them into streams which decide their way forward as to future study. So from age 12 to 16, kids are split into distinct facilities; there are the “kaders”, being basis, Vmbo and T which are four years (4 jaars), then the Havo which is five jaars, and the MBO which is the same. These range from getting students passing level one, two, three and four, and upon passing level four pupils are able to move onto the HBO.
If you are a tad cleverer you can go to the VWO, where Latin is an option. Or if you are even more up on your niftiness, you are granted gateway to the gymnasium where Latin and Greek are part of the curriculum. If you complete studies here, you can move onto University, the le jaar propedeuse.
Confusing? Ja, it was for me too until Annelies just came and sat beside me with a post-it note to flow chart it out (how fucking fab are charts? I totally could fist pump Marshall on How I met Your Mother for his fixation on diagrams and could wollop Ted a hefty hit for his ending of Marshall’s exhibits).
So simply put: if you are smart at school and on top of your homework, you stand well for less time behind the books after you graduate. Take my third cousin Sharon; because she was a stellar student in her earlier teen years, she has shaved a year off her studying to be a nurse while Dennis (her big bro) has an extra jaar (year – see, I’m getting you down with the Dutch too) because he was a fanatical gamer and COD took precedence over projects.
So yes. Extremely strictly tiered. (I would’ve been beside myself in my quest to ensure I was the apex of the gymnasium class to be top notch come uni. Mate, how glad am I my perfectionistly purist self did not go through the Netherlandic tutelage configuration).
Righto. Back to Alphen a/d Rijn.
Before I came over to embark on my EEE I spent an afternoon with Opa discussing being Dutch and trying to make sense of the byzantine web of Wortmans. When we talked of his being a little boy around the dikes (canals I mean; Alphen wasn’t overrun with lesbians, I must clarify) he said how to this day he still dreams of walking down the street he grew up on as a boy. “I can remember each and every pothole,” he said.
I wanted to go there and see the road of his reveries (and for a misminded moment, I determinedly decided I wanted to take photos of the potholes, before I realised that the asphalt would no doubt have been redone more than once since his day back in the 1930s).
So Annelies drove me to see the iconic Alphen bridge. A longstanding boat park that would’ve been there since Opa’s day. The house she was both born and grew up in (remember me saying about mothers giving birth in the family home as being the norm?) and the place where she and Richard wed. Then she pulled up across the road from number 130.
“Your Opa’s house when he was a boy,” she said.
Well. I have to say surges of sentiment swelled up and scoffed me. I was there, really really there, on the very same curb side (well, perhaps. I am unaware of what road works have taken place since) that Opa would’ve sat on to play with his little wooden toys as a boy. The grounded granite I walked up and ran my hands along was the one and same that encased the 17-strong Wortman family (three bedrooms for the lot of them, can you imagine?). The little label announcing it as number 130 was the unchanged one that had adorned the side of the home since its heyday (not the first one I had stood by and stroke, which was a more jazzy affair added on a few decades on).
After a fair bit of ambling about in incredulity, we got back into the car and headed to Zwammerdam (where I now want to live. Like, what better appellation for a place of residence than “Zwammerdam”?). Unsure of where we were actually going, Annelies led me up to a little gate and opened it out to a petite little plot of graves – the cemetery, Beggraaplaats Buitendorp.
When I saw the headstone heralding one (well, three; in Holland bodies are buried three up because of the amount of people, so families are in trios and if you are alone, you are stacked – sorry, terrible word to use but it is unsurpassed as most suitable in this instance – with two strangers) Gusbert Wortman, Maartje Margaretha Wortman-Goebel and Robert Frits Wortman (the last mentioned having passed on in 2006, the first of the 15 children to do so) (although, having been born in 1942 he obviously was no longer a child. But you know what I mean).
Isn’t it incredible the things that you just don’t know? Like, I had no idea my great-grandmother had had her maiden moniker “Goebel”. I had no clue that Gusbert – my GGpa – was born back in 1898. It was such a significant moment in my life, being there at their place of rest, and I know that that will stay with me forevermore.
From there we meandered a few more rows to see the graves of more late relatives (mate, the Wortmans took up a good third of the mausoleum, it must be said). I was astounded at the number of “Hendrik Cornelius”’s peppered about. My wordo! (My Worto?). There were many more than I ever realised! Stemming back through the Goebel line, which I hadn’t realised. And my heart thudded upon seeing one grave of who would be my third cousin, little Erik who died in a car accident back in 1998 at the age of 15 (would be 33 years old now). Like how did I not know about that? I mean, I guess at the time I would’ve only been seven or so wouldn’t have really understood, but it makes me sad to think I never explored my lineage enough to find it out.
(Insertation: throughout the cemetery there are little ornamental black lambs peppered throughout the fields and such; round the corner is a home for people with disabilities and the stone sheep have been scattered around to guide the people around. I thought it such a beautiful notion – it really touched me).
We left soon after, a strange sense of melancholy merged with mellowness in me. We drove along (the insanely narrow streets of Aarlanderveen) and I was captivated in contemplation. It all just meant so much, and I didn’t know how to process the emotion (as per always – Pop and feelings don’t go so well together).
Annelies’ phone rung with Sharon on the end, telling us she had missed the bus. So we swung back around to Alphen to go and pick her nursing pal Jolene up from the station.
The ride home was hilarious. The two girls were telling Annelies how the heat had them all “zwanus” and “zwoksels” – when I enquired as to what they meant by this they torrented out in treasures of merriment. Once in jurisdiction of their mirth, they explained to me that this was a recent Dutch slang-like way to describe being extremely hot, in having “sweaty arses and anuses”.
What followed was a discussion what Dutch I knew. After the ever go-to “Godverdomme jonge”, I dropped in a “domma doos” (“stupid box” – expression along lines of idiot, dumbass and what not) and “klote” (a word encompassing many a meaning, most importantly “balls”). We drove past a sign with a stick figure man reclining under a tree and I commented on the eccentricity of it, whereupon I was told that said sign pointed to the meeting spot for males and males, and was often the point of introduction for chaps on Grinder. Who knew! (And can I just mention here: what kind of awful name is “Grinder” for a male meeting app? “Grinder”? Like really?).
We reached home to find Yvette watching TV with her pal Joey. The same age, the two have grown up as best friends and Annelies described their friendship and being “two hands on the belly” – the Dutch equivalent to “two peas in a pod” (oh how my heart sung out on hearing that). Joey was most intrigued by me as he had done an assignment on Australia and kangaroos the year before at school, and he was enthused to tell us of Netherlandic ways (can I just point out here that “Netherlandic” is not actually a word; I have formed this phrase and am hoping for it to make like Brendon McCullum and catch on).
He showed us a YouTube vid that was actually really cool. It went through ten top things you needs to know about the Dutch, from how it is a kind of conformist culture (“Do normal and don’t be weird”), to the Haagelslag hysteria (I found I had to disagree with the voiceover lad terming chocolate hail as “simple and elegant”) (and aniseed flavoured sprinkles are also a go, with when a baby is born everyone either loading their breakfast beschuit up with blue or ink depending on the new-born’s gender; Annelies came home a few days later with a box of each for me for when the impending Hank III is born (as we don’t actually yet know if it is a boy or not) – such a lovely gesture, but the good 500g weight of each has me wondering where I shall place it in my bag upon departure; knee discreetly under the side upon airport weigh in to cull a couple of kgs? Yes, I think so) and the Dutch language way of being so guttural leading to having a cold making it hard to converse (I still ain’t pronouncing from low enough in my throat).
After a dinner altogether (with Annelies laying everything out separately on the stove as one didn’t like onions here, another didn’t like meat there and a third – I.e., me – only ate veges here) Richard, PMS, Joey, Yvette and I clambered onto bikes and went for a twilight jockey about the town.
Richard was so cute, so proud of showing us about the place where he was born, raised and still lives. He showed us the area where the old town used to be before it was drowned out by the water flowing in, with the peat and turf sold off as firewood, and then we stopped in at his local pub where the owners – Kitty and Job – greeted him like a not-long-lost son. (He had been in here a mere few nights before).
The pub was literally like a lived-in lounge, which Richard said was the aim with it being like a “home” with family. It was amazing – the pub owning pair had been behind the bar for 37 years, from its start out as a discotheque (funnily enough, where Richard and Annelies first met) to its change up to a pub 14 years ago. They laughed that they had literally seen the group of 12 of Richard and his lads grow up, with them all pretty much still living in Alphen and coming in for boys’ beers on the often (with kids in toe chugging back warme chocolademelk – hot chocolate with whipped cream on top – as Yvette was right then). The two loved having us there from New Zealand (though Kitty did make me scull a water upon me asking for a “cider” and then batting back the “soda” she proffered me – cider isn’t big in the Netherlands, who knew?), with Job presenting PMS with two tequila bar matts and then Richard, PMS and I with an “arsehole” shot – a three-layered concoction riddled with Sambuca.
From there we got back on our bikes and headed off to Joey’s house, his father being one of Richard’s best buds. We all sat around the table until about 11pm, me conversing with the mum Meriam and trying to explain to her what an Airbnb and then what a pun is (later on she attempted a pun – completely off point but she gave it a go – and I was so chuffed). Ton – Joey’s father – told us of his 4am rise the next morning to head off to the flower market in Aalsmeer (he jokingly asked if I wanted to come and I enthusiastically said yes had a jolly chuckle – I actually arose at 3.55am the next day, pulled on my Nikes and sat on the bottom step just in case he did turn up to take me) whereupon a flurry of flower puns pelted throughout my mind – what a stalker, new buds, can see it taking seed, raking it in… I’ll stem it there I think before they take too deeper root.
We rode home thoroughly having enjoyed our Dutch as evening. Most people go to Amsterdam, hustle into a koffiehuis, smoke a doob, smash a space cake, watch a sex show, eat some cheese, don some clogs and buy a tulip keyring and think they have “done” Holland.
But I am truly and authentically actually seeing Holland for how it really is. And I’m loving it. Apart from Nepal, I haven’t felt so at home anywhere as much as here (well, aside from actually home I mean). I just feel so happy here.
And mate, do I feel Dutch or what. (Especially what with constantly being asked directions and being addressed in Dutch. I truly feel as though I’m an indigenous).
Just to end, one brief point that somewhat surprised me.
I don’t know exactly what I had been expecting, but having read all up on hoe the Netherlands s one of the most densely populated places in Europe I was a tad taken aback to see all the space. I mean, I know it is the flower capital of the globe and what not and there are many a field, but I guess I had expected to see crammed in cottages with no sections or such.
Rather, there is a lot of area. Families just live all in and up (as in storeys) in homes, which is where the number of Netherlandiacs (again, hoping for a Brendon) comes in. So I had anticipated Opa’s home being in the midst of many, not over the road from a large park and open roads to roam.
So end of full day one, with so much more to come. Feeling as Dutch as a canal vaulter (it really is a thing – Richard played) off to buy edam after chocolade haagelslaag on beschuit for breaky.
And I’ve done one of the main things I wanted to do before I cark it.
Life is good.