“Patat zonder alstublieft,” I asked the girl behind the counter of the train station snack bar.
There was a brief look of confusion that flashed across her face.
“Patat zonder,” she repeated in a way that suggested the words felt strange coming out of her mouth.
It was a reaction I had become use to. The Dutch are deeply confused by anyone who would want to order fries without mayonnaise. I think they sometimes forget that the two can exist independently of each other.
Since I didn’t do anything to correct my order (even after the rather obvious pause she had left) she turned around and started to scoop up some fries. A moment later she turned around again with them in a little cardboard container. I reached out to take them but she had already automatically moved towards the mayonnaise dispenser, either out of habit or out of the strong belief that I really did want or needed mayonnaise.
“Wilt u mayonaise?” she asked, her hand hovering just above the mayonnaise plunger.
Could she really have forgotten my mayonnaise free request already? Was she blocking it out? Was she unable to mental process it? Or was she simply waiting for me to correct my earlier mistake? It was one of the strangest Mexican stand offs I have ever been in.
“Nee dank u,” I replied quickly (and slightly too loudly) before it was too late. I was sure she had been about to push the plunger.
The girl looked deeply confused by my response. Why didn’t I want mayonnaise? Didn’t I like it? Was that kind of thing even possible? Luckily for me she managed to come to terms with my decision and slowly put my fries up on the counter.
I handed over the money, surprised that she didn’t automatically charge me the extra 20 cents for mayonnaise in her confusion.
“Fijne avond,” she wished me as she returned my change.
“Fijne avond,” I wished her, hoping that she would recover from this traumatic experience.
As I turned around and started to walk away with my mayonnaise free fries I heard the next person in the queue step up to the counter and place their order.
“Patat met alstublieft.”
Balance was restored once again.
The following is a dramatic re-enactment of how I spent part of my holiday.
It is day two of our voyage across the Waddenzee. We are returning from a small island just off the coast of Friesland that we discovered the day before. I have decided to call this island Vlieland (because that is what it is called). We are sailing back with the many exotic and wondrous goods that we discovered on this tiny island (in the small harbour shop). Even though we only departed from its shores a short while ago land already seems like a distant memory and I wonder if I will ever see it again (within the three hours of estimated travel time).
Communicating with my fellow crew mates has proved to be a challenge. I am the only Englishmen on board and I find myself surrounded by a crew of Dutch and German men and women. However, over time we eventually found a way to understand each other (they all spoke English to me).
I am now accepted by the Germans who insist that I join them for a traditional drink of beer (at eleven in the morning). Likewise I have been accepted by the Dutch (who are all my family-in-law and already know what I am like anyway).
Through our fragmented conversations I am able to piece together that there is talk of a traitor on board, a would-be mutineer, someone who has eaten all the wine gums out of the Haribo Star Mix and left only the drop. No one on board knows who the guilty party is yet but the accusations have already started. I remain silent and nervously push the remaining wine gums deeper into my pocket in the hope that my confectionary based guilt goes un-noticed. I do not wish to walk the plank.
Luckily for me there are bigger concerns occupying the minds of the crew and our captain. We have sailed directly in to a storm, an ever present danger during the Dutch summer months. The boat lurches (slightly) from side to side as we attempt to navigate the treacherous sandbanks that lay hidden just beneath the surface of the water. No one says anything. We have all heard the stories of those poor souls unfortunate enough to run afoul of these dangerous obstacles and become stranded on them, lost forever (until they were safely towed back to open water or until high tied came along). We can all hear sand scrapping across the bottom of the hull as we get too close. No one says anything but we all fear we might be next.
Waves crash against the side of the old ship and salty sea water sprays over our waterproof jackets (which most of us have bought especially for this trip). Wearing shorts suddenly seems like a bad idea.
Even without the dangers of the storm conditions on board are harsh. We have been forced to leave behind the comforts and luxuries of life on land. Life at sea requires a tougher resolve but some of us are having trouble adapting than others. Out on the open sea we only have a 3G network connection, not the fully high speed 4G connection we are all used to. Without a fast connection to Twitter or Facebook I fear that it is only a matter of time before cabin fever sets in and we all lose our minds to the sea.
Some of the crew are already talking about areas of sea where there is no network connection at all. I pray that we do not find ourselves in such bedevilled waters.
We sail on. Towards land. Towards Friesland. Towards hope. Towards the harbour we left so long ago yesterday. With any luck we just might make it (before I run out of dry clothes).
I had spent the last ten minutes shouting similar words of frustration at the Dutch football team each time they had kicked the ball at the goal in front of them only to miss, have it blocked or bounce it off a goal post.
“YOU’RE SO CLOSE!”
I was not shouting these words at them directly of course. It wasn’t as if I was sitting next to the coach in the stadium (even though he seemed to be shouting similar words in Dutch). In reality I was sitting next to my beloved Dutch wife, in our front room, shouting at the Dutch team via our television. It didn’t seem to be helping much, probably because they could not actually hear me. My wife seemed deeply amused by my actions nether the less.
“And I thought you were not that into football that much,” she says with a sly smirk.
It is true. Normally I have no interest in football at all. In fact, under normal circumstances I have about as much interest in football as most people have in the study of agricultural crop rotation. I just seem to get sucked into it when the world cup starts, more and more each time… Although I still was not going to admit that I have no clue what the outside rule means, especially to my wife who is the football expert of the house.
“Yeah… Well… I’m not but this game is really tense,” I offer as a shorter explanation as I sit there wearing my orange t-shirt and little Dutch flags painted on my cheeks. Maybe she has a point. Maybe I do get a little too enthusiastic for someone who claims to have no interest what so ever in football.
But I am quickly distracted once more as the Dutch team suddenly gets the ball again and starts running like crazy towards the other team’s goal as if they just stole the dinner of a particular hungry, fast moving pack of wolves.
The ball is suddenly kicked and it sails through the air towards the goal.
The members of the defending team try desperately to knock it off course. Each one of them fails. The ball continues its journey towards the goal until…
“YA… COME ON! COME ON!”
… it bounces harmlessly off a goal post and flies off in a random direction.
“You do know you’re not actually Dutch right?” My wife asks, just to make sure. I get the impression that she is no longer watching the game and is instead transfixed by my out of character football enthusiasm.
“England is already out. I have no one else to support. Don’t take this away from me.”
On my way back from having a few beers with friends I decided to pass by my old Amsterdam apartment. I’d been curious to see it again for a while.
As I cycled through the old neighbourhood and saw that much of the area had been torn down, rebuilt and renovated I suddenly felt myself getting nervous that my old apartment might no longer be there. What if it was gone?
But it was still there, looking as old and run down as ever. I was surprised by the level of nostalgia that hit me upon seeing it. I certainly had not lived there for long. Only three months in fact, back when I first arrived in the country 13 years ago.
It had not been an amazing apartment either. In fact it was badly run down and in desperate need of repair even back then but seeing it again made me feel happy as a flood of memories came back.
As I cycle back to the station I began to looked around me and suddenly noticed just how much Amsterdam had changed. There were parts that I couldn’t even remember how they used to look and some that I was happy to see had not changed at all.
Once again I was surprised by the nostalgia that this made me feel. Not because the nostalgia itself felt strange but because, in that moment, I suddenly felt more nostalgia here, in this city I had moved to when I was 21, than I sometimes feel when I return to my home country of England.
At first I wondered why I would feel this way but it did not take long for the answer to come to me.
I was 21 when I moved to Holland. I had not yet fully worked out who I was and what I was going to do with my life. I was taking my first steps of independence in a country I didn’t even know and of course I made a few mistakes and had to find my way.
I am 35 now. I have a wife and a child of my own. My goal and meaning in life are clear now.
I might have grown up in England but I ‘grew up’ in Holland. I became my own person in Holland. I think that tonight I suddenly realized, in some ways, Holland is now more my home than England. And I’m strangely ok with that.
Not because I have anything against England or that it has less of a place in my heart. It will always be my true home, I will always love it and I will always miss my parents. But Holland is the place where I really figured out who I am and grew into the person I am now.
And that is why the places along that personal journey, like that old run down apartment that I only lived in for those first three months feel so important to me.
That is why I felt so happy to see the old place still standing and looking as run down as ever.
This post was originally written sentence by sentence on Twitter. Only a few alterations and fixes have been made. At the time I was thinking about writing it down on paper first to get it just right but I knew that I had to get it committed somewhere (twitter) before I tried to put too much thought into it and analyse what I was feeling. Thanks for reading. I know it’s a big departure from my normal writing.
The story you are about to read is not for the faint hearted or weak of stomach. In fact, if you value your sanity at all you would be wise to stop reading these words before it is too late… If you are foolish enough to continue reading you have been warned…
Never before has such a story been told. To read a single word of it is to invite madness. It has given the bravest and manliest of men nightmares. It has reduced the strongest of minds to quivering wrecks and it has made things that go bump in the night cry out for their mummies! It is a story of true horror. Turn back now and read no further!
Still here? Have my warnings done nothing to scare you away? You must really want to know the horrors of my story. Very well… If that is the case, come closer and I will tell you…
The other night I accidently ordered fries with pindasaus… and it did not taste as bad as I remember.
I do not know how to live with myself any more.