|It's going to be a long, cold winter|
It seems that Christine is adapting easier to daily life in the Netherlands than I am. It is over two decades ago that I lived here permanently and things are very obviously different now.
The country has changed, I have changed and I have a hard time getting used to (my opinion) the rigidity and sometimes harsh insensitivity of this society, where it’s a positive character-trait to be as frugal as possible. Embarrassment of riches anyone?
I admire Christine for her light-heartedness and stoicism about the issue. Of course, she is not from here (I am, could that be the frustration ?) and she has very different 'fish to fry' right now; the character of the Calvinistic Dutch populace is not high on her list of priorities. She says, with some understatement, that every country has its pros and cons and that the Dutch (although they may be a little bit unusual) are no exception. Much like Tajikistan, she remarks, tongue in cheek.
The food is bad, the attitude of the people hard to understand and the confusion of the myriad traffic signs enough to make you scream . BUT, the Dutch medical system is among the best in the world and that’s the main reason we are here. Moreover, you can drink water from the tap and there are no power outages to speak of…...
ALWAYS RINGING TWICE (written end May 2012)
The houses and addresses are very familiar but the name-plates tellingly, have changed. I am biking through the Scheepvaart-Kwartier (literally translated as “Shipping Quarter”) one of the most beautiful parts of Rotterdam, the city I grew up in and spent most of my youth. My mother still lives here and we have gratefully accepted the upper floor of my old parental home during Christine’s treatment.
Rotterdam (the harbor, specifically) was bombed at the start of the Second World War but, miraculously, the Scheepvaart Kwartier remained unscathed. There is a memorial on one of the side streets that shows where the bombs hit and which parts of the city were destroyed by the ensuing fires. The Quarter survived and now, for the first time in about 45 years, I am able to admire the architecture and beauty of this district, something I wasn’t interested in at all as a kid.
I have accepted a temp job as postal delivery man for the Dutch National Postal Services and biking through the streets, push mail through slots where my friends used to live and where we used to hang out and play during a long-forgotten age (end sixties). Van Vollenhovenstraat 17 B (Job and Raoul Laboyrie), Maasstraat 8 D (Max and Peter van der Loo), the Spido, a boat ferry company (Willemsplein 85) where we built rafts along the rivers’ edges. We even swam in this river, the Maas, oblivious of the poisonous nature of its contents in those years; yet so far, we have all survived although Christine remarks, that I have always glowed in the dark…..
Four times a week I pick up six to eight bags of mail at a depot, put them on the back of my bike and then am on my merry way, sliding letters, cards, envelopes and small packages through slots and into boxes. My colleagues are students, a hard-rocker, a Sudanese refugee and a former Foreign Legion Soldier. Jointly, we form the guild of the postal delivery crew of the 1500-1600 districts. Our enemies are the too small or old mail slots (they injure your fingers), dog poop on the street and the occasional flat bike tire. But over-all we are a pretty happy and positive bunch.
In December, we had to deliver through driving rains and winds and in February it was minus 10 centegrade; but that didn’t deter any of us. Through sleet and snow is the motto but I (still, it's May) secretly look forward to the summer, when we can dispense of our winter clothes and are allowed to deliver in shorts and T-shirts, a right which was acquired last year by the postal delivery Union after a very long fight; I am glad they won..Now, and it is almost June (!!) I am still totally decked out in three layered gear, supplied by my employer (don’t get me going on the Dutch weather).
Rotterdam is the last place I thought I would ever spend another prolonged period of time of my life again but hey, there you have it. Tajikistan had prepared us well for the unexpected. We learnt pretty quickly there, that planning is a very remote concept and that “Inshallah” a far better motto to go by.
So I resign myself to my fate; like my colleagues, I have quickly learnt where the “good” addresses are, where shopkeepers might offer you a hot coffee, cookies or cocoa and where you can shield yourself for a couple of minutes against the rain or cold.
We just got word, that the delivery statistics (does all the mail arrive in time) for our district are really good this year so far so I haven’t let down my old city, Rotterdam, where one (semi) jokes that everybody is born with his or her sleeves rolled up.
Keep you posted
One very positive element here is that we are surrounded by supportive family and wonderful friends; all of them wisely advise us to take the good and leave the bad. That’s what they do, they say. So, this is what, with some grumbling, as a "re-implant" I accept.
When there is a 'freeze' in February, I skate with my old buddies along Dutch windmills and farms on the canals and lakes of the lowlands. Although we don’t traverse the distances we used to skate in the old days (40 km is the max now, we used to cover 100 km a day, but that was then) it still doesn’t get much better than that.
Christine wants to visit the famous Flower gardens in Lisse. Even though these Keukenhof gardens are always busy and considered a tourist trap, it’s a yearly spectacle which shouldn't be missed. In between her treatments, we visit one early morning in April, avoiding the inevitable crowds. Even the cynic in me has to admit it’s a colorful and enjoyable experience.
We have become regulars at the big Rotterdam Saturday market and joke with the fish mongers and stall-holders of Moroccon descent as if we have been around forever. The coffee here is not bad either and we enjoy the small talk with Jan, who sells coffee and tea and always has colorful observations and comments, in true Rotterdam brogue, on the local politics (they are all thieves) and the national football team (overpaid millionaires, where did we hear that before) a continuous point of contention among the football obsessed Dutch.
At the end of Christine’s treatment, we rent a house in the historic village of Veere in the South Western part of the country. Here, we enjoy a week at leisure at the seaside, eating lobsters, mussels, sole and other lovely seafoods. We meet new friends and enjoy the company of old ones. We have a wonderful, gentle, time and our spirits are on the 'up' again.
In April, we found the perfect retreat for our one week
'break' in June.
Our cozy living space
View from our holiday home - looking out the front
Bird's eye view of our little back garden
Peace and tranquility!
In June, we take a last look at the beautiful
Dutch beaches of Niew Hamstede
Looking back now, we first and foremost, realize that good friendships and a supportive family are hard to beat, wherever you are. Secondly, in the context of a changing society and culture, I am reminded of the words of good old Plato who professed “ ta panta rhei kai ouden menei”; loosely translated, everything moves, nothing stays the same. Ain’t that true? Things change my friend, better deal with it. Combine this with the wisdom we picked up in Central Asia that circumstances might, now and then, be out of your control (Inshallah) and you come to the conclusion that there is little to complain about, much to appreciate, also, maybe even especially, in the Netherlands.
But, in spite of that, we are glad to get back on the road again. Rolling stones don’t gather moss. Off to the Bowron Lakes, in Canada, where we will fight helicopter-size mosquitoes, moose, eagles and grizzlies, it seems. Pack the bear-spray and paddle. Anyone for a bit of portaging? Thought not…. to quote our brother-in-law, "....we despise portaging..."