zaterdag 29 november 2014

The School Dentist

In the fifties there were a few things distributed for free to schoolchildren in the Netherlands.
Most striking was the school milk. This was delivered every day from a factory and two of the oldest boys had to bring the crates of milk into the school and in the wintertime place them close to the heating. The milk came in small bottles containing one pint. It was obviously not skimmed; there was a thick layer of cream on top. You had to shake it before drinking it straight from the bottle.

Another thing that was installed by the government was for the good cause too: the school dentist.
All around the country there were mobile dentists working their heads off to reach all the children who didn’t have proper dental care. And these were in bigger numbers than the ones without.

When I think back, I’m convinced that these school dentists somehow were not able to start a proper practice. Whether this was caused by the quality of these people or another reason was not clear. I now know that there are only a limited number of practices in a region.

Still, I am grateful to my oldest sister for having endured the torture of the school dentist in our village. The results of his treatment were clear very soon after it was done. But my parents always have a strict belief in anyone who has or should have a higher education than them. But after two days of terrible pain even my parents had to realise there was something wrong. They took her to a real dentist. He was in shock and said that the man who did this to her belonged in prison.

He treated her and also my parents bank account. They had to bring her three times to him to repair the damage. That made them decide to write a note in which they declared that I was forbidden to be treated by the school dentist, he was not even allowed to take a look in my mouth.

It was a big relief, but every year I could sense the nervousness of my schoolmates when we saw the bus of the school dentist in front of the school. They always froze in their footsteps and turned a bit pale. I really felt for them. With some brave boys we would stand around the vehicle, sometimes you could hear his drill howling and kids crying. Most disgusting was the little stream of water mixed with blood that streamed in the gutter.

Sometimes the assistant would walk into the class room while lessons were going on. She would ask which kids not had been treated yet. I would always be on that list and every time the remark would come that I had to go along and let the dentist have a look. He would only have a look. And I felt a sort of pride to be able to say that I was not allowed to go by my parents. The teacher would nod and the assistant would leave with some unfortunate kids. They would return with painful faces. Looking in this case meant poking around with a sharp hook in your mouth.

It was remarkable that year after year more children were having a note. Less and less children were “treated” and finally one year my classmates realised that the school dentist didn’t show up at all. Some told stories that the man was sentenced to life imprisonment. We asked the teacher and he didn’t know anything about it either.

Years later I heard that the reason was very simple. The government stopped subsidising the program because the majority of children had gotten in the hands of dentists with a practice and their teeth were under control.

But sometimes in bad dreams I still see that stream of water mixed with blood streaming in the gutter in front of the school.


The Connoisseur

On the ferry between the Hook of Holland and Harwich we heard a man explaining wines to his girlfriend or wife. We had to laugh a bit:  there’s only one kind of wine aboard.  It made me think of a man who married into my family.

With his father he maintained their family’s wine cellar.  It sounded like a lot of work: they saved every label of wine they drank, discussed how long a bottle should rest before being ready to drink, and he would turn the bottles once a week.  He even had a written down journal about the wines.

At parties in the Netherlands we normally sit in a circle, have our drinks and snacks and talks.
He would always show his knowledge about wines.  After getting his glass he would stick his big nose in it and sniff loudly.  Sometimes he would ask for the cork of the bottle and sniff at that too.

The next thing would be sipping a little bit and rinsing it in his mouth. Sometimes with a sound like “mmm”. Finally he would gulp the wine down, after which he would look to the ceiling for some time. The suspense would almost be killing, he would wait a little more and then would say something like: “Anjou, chateau Perrigord, 1979 and ……I would say, mmmm the south slope.” 
His wife would look at him in admiration. “Yes, my husband is a true connoisseur!”   The host would get the bottle and yes, it was completely right.

A brother in law and I suspected him to have seen the bottle every time he did this. How he managed to do this we didn’t know.  It was just a suspicion.  We decided to put him to the test on the next birthday party.

I bought an excellent wine, a Grand Cru of a famous chateau and a great year as well according to the salesman. After that I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of Bulgarian Bull’s Blood.
This a very cheap wine, not from a chateau or such, you could even buy it in cartons.   I put the excellent wine in a normal position in the cupboard. The Bulgarian bottle was hidden.

At the birthday party after the coffee and birthday cake had gone, the beer, soft drinks and wine was served. Our wine expert got a glass of the Bull’s Blood.  His nose went in the glass and the normal procedure followed. He was really delighted! “What an excellent wine!”, he exclaimed.
“This is a Grand Cru! You’re spoiling me!” He named the name of the chateau and the year of bottling.  And then he asked for the bottle.

I brought him the Bulgarian bottle and he fell very silent. We didn’t notice anything of him the rest of the evening.  His wife started a conversation about a lot of different things.  My brother in law almost slammed through my shoulder, together we had a big laugh.

After this evening we never got his show any more.  He lost his title of “Connoisseur” that night. Only the sniffing in the glass remained. 

Liberation Day

In the Netherlands they celebrate the 5th of May annually. In 1945 on that day the Second World War came to an end for the country. In 2010 only a small group of people really can tell about that day. And a very tiny group of people can tell even more. They are the veterans who came together with the Canadian soldiers to get the German army out. Every year they have their own ceremonies. From all over the country they travel to a central point to do this together.

I saw them in the train compartment I got in. He, in his late 80’s, dressed in official clothing. His medals were very prominently pinned on his jacket. Next to him his wife was in her super best dress; she couldn’t have been much younger. They were very ready for the celebrations. They didn’t need many words to understand each other. After so many years of being together a little nod of the head or a little squeeze in the others hand was telling enough.

Their peace was disturbed by a noisy group of teenage girls. They held their conversation while they kept their earpieces of their I-pods in. So it took some shouting to get things over to the others.
A discussion started where to go to. In the city they were going to a music festival which was held, like every year, as far as they could probably remember. They hadn’t decided yet which bands they were going to watch and listen to. There was such a great choice!

One of the girls announced that she had the latest piece of a very well known artist on her device. So the others asked her to let them listen to it. The earpieces were removed and a few seconds later the music streamed into the compartment. Some people, who were working on their laptops, looked up and just went on with hammering on the keys.

The veteran looked at his wife and shook his head. It was hardly to be seen. His wife took his hand and placed it on her lap. Together they obviously had made a decision. The rest of the route they looked out of the window, not giving the music lovers another look.

At the next station almost everybody needed to get off the train. Very politely the girls gave way for the veteran and his wife. Behind each other they left the train. The girls were singing the last song they had been listening to.

It looked like the veteran was still slightly shaking his head on the way out but it was accompanied by a faint smile.


The Combi System

According to the company that rented out the apartments we and the other people who were going to live in the building, were about to enter the Valhalla. Heating and warm water were going to be supplied by the new invented Combi system. This would reduce costs and would be a lot better for the environment. Showering with water that was used to heat the house really seemed to be a good idea.

Unfortunately the system quit on us already after three days. So we had to phone the 24 hours service. It was a Sunday so we did understand that help would arrive the next day. A mechanic would come by between eight and twelve thirty. Bad luck, it would cost me half a day leave from the office.
At eight the next morning I was ready after a quick splash with cold water. The morning was spent with reading the newspaper and a book, the man showed up at a quarter past twelve. If I had known I could have handled this thing in my lunch break!

The mechanic was carrying little more than an attaché case and was ready within five minutes.
He asked me to come to him: he was going to show me something. He started to open the tap and said: “You always have to open the red tap com-ple-te-ly!”. He asked me to feel the water: it was hot indeed. He closed the tap. “Now it’s your turn!”, he announced. I started to open the tap and he added: “Now open the tap com-ple-te-ly!”. He nodded approvingly when I did and packed his things while I noticed that the water was hot. He left the house saying: ”Don’t forget it!”

That evening I instructed my wife in the same manner; she almost started hitting me.
A few days later: no hot water. And again we didn’t get the help the same day. This time I was wiser and demanded an appointment that was a bit more precise. Between three and five.
So I left the office early and sat waiting from three on. At three thirty another mechanic arrived.
He had a tool-box and started hammering and banging in the combi heater.
He paused for a moment to ask me accusingly if I had been messing about with the thing. In disbelief he went on. It took him almost an hour and when he left there were several screws, bolts and even a little stone on the floor before the cupboard with the combi.

We had high hopes, but again things went wrong. The third mechanic came while we were being home together. He brought a huge tool-box along and an even bigger ghetto-blaster. Without music he couldn’t work, he said. He was a lover of reggae and obviously thought we liked this too. Sometimes he joined in with the singer. Once he came to us bewildered: “What kind of idiot has screwed up this system?”. We could only point at his colleagues. He could hardly believe it and he announced he was going to check who had been doing this job. We were more interested in a working system.

After working almost half a day at the thing, he was satisfied. He made us try it and yes, the thing was working again.
When it broke down again after some days, I was through with it. I collected all the tools in the house and opened the white metal cover. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I noticed one thing that made me think. In the lower part was a switch. It had two positions: 0 and 1. At this moment it was on 0.

I switched it on 1 and asked my wife to open the hot water tap com-ple-te-ly.
The result: hot water!
I closed the metal cover and looked at my wife in a triumphant way. She admired my technical skills. I hoped the thing would at least work a few days to keep this respect.


A Men's Thing

Like he had told me the day before, my father woke me at four. He had given me a fishing-rod for my tenth birthday and till this day I never used it. It certainly was his own hobby. Once in a while he would disappear a full day with his fishing gear; sometimes Big Sister would go along.

But this day would be different: we would have a real men’s day and do men’s things.

He whispered to me I should be very quiet; no need to wake everybody. When I came downstairs he already had made a peanut butter sandwich for me, served with a glass of milk. Obviously he had been downstairs a bit longer. His plate was empty and in the kitchen sink. The moped stood packed next to the window. I could see our fishing-rods sticking out from the back. He was busy pouring coffee in a thermos flask and hummed a song.

It was a long ride to the big channel and he had to shout a few times I should hold him tighter. We didn’t want to lose me of course. At these times my hands would seek a better grip and would get the smell of his leather jacket even more in my nose.

Slowly I saw the sky getting lighter and when we got to our goal, the day was there. I got off from the moped and must have walked in a funny way. He smiled when I tried to get my legs going in a normal manner. My behind felt like it was made of wood, but slowly I got a tickling feeling and things became back to normal again.

He held a piece of barbed wire up so I could walk bended into the meadow that bordered the water. I picked up my share of the things we were dragging along and we went straight to the water. There was one pile of cow poop and of course I stepped in it. He laughed out loud, announced that this would make a nice story at home. I was not amused and tried to scrape the stinking stuff from my rubber boot. He went on and returned to get the rest of the gear from me, it took me quite some time. Things went better when I found a stone. I scraped the rest off and joined him.
My father put two folding chairs on the bank and had the other gear arranged in a nice manner. This way we could get to almost everything, even without getting to our feet. He poured us a coffee in plastic mugs and we warmed our hands with these. Halfway the coffee he announced that we would get to action.

First he took his fishing-rod from its cover, planted it in the ground and opened a small tin with little holes in the lid. It was full of maggots, wriggling white worms trying to escape. He picked one out and speared it on the hook. He took the rod in his hands and threw the line into the water.

The rod was planted in the ground again.

It was my turn, so he did the same thing with my fishing-rod. While busy with the maggot he said that I should learn this too; there was a little trick to it, because if the insect was not attached in a good manner it would slip off in the water. And if this happened you would never catch anything.

We sat for some time staring at the floats and said nothing. Father asked me if I liked it here as much as he did. “Mwah”, I said and looked a bit better around. I wondered how a painter would paint the colour of the water on canvas. I thought he needed brown, green, grey and black. The sky was just grey with some darker grey clouds that drifted along the horizon but slowly were getting near. At the other side of the water I could see a church tower very far away. A dog was barking on a cargo-boat that passed by. A man talked to that dog and waved at us. It was the third boat that passed since we sat down.

Once a bigger boat passed and made big waves. We had to step backwards to avoid getting wet.

Later a miracle happened, my float went up on and down. Father was even more excited than me. “You got one!” Following his instructions I gave it a big fight and got it in. Father scooped the fish out of the water in the landing-net. He fished it out and showed it to me. It was a few inches big, maybe five. Shaking his head he fiddled the hook out of the lip and nose of the fish. He saw me looking in disgust, exclaimed that the fish would be fine and threw it in the water. I saw it disappear slowly, laying sideways in the water. Father explained that this was because the fish was shocked, he would come to his senses soon again. Lucky for me he did the new bait for me on the hook again.

A man with a fishing-rod walked up to us and asked if they were biting a bit. Father shook his head, told the man I was the only one that got something till now. He nodded in approval to me and rolled a cigarette. He asked father about the bait we were using and nodded again. Father showed his different hooks and the man put one thumb up and spat in the water. He walked away and got seated almost out of our sight.

“Nice day, right?”, father said to me. “Fourteen”, I said and he looked at me in astonishment. I looked at the sky; the darker coloured clouds were winning from the lighter ones.

It had started to rain and father gave me a poncho to stay dry. “It will stop soon, according to the weather forecast.” But it didn’t. Once he told me we would wait ten more minutes for the rain to stop. “Nineteen”, I answered. “Oh, we’ll see.”

It was raining harder now and he had enough. We both got the lines out of the water. My bait was gone. “No wonder you didn’t catch anything”, he said. He took his bait off and put the rods in the covers. We collected everything and were off. I looked at the water one more time. Twenty-one.

This time I manoeuvred around the pile. Father was quite handy with building the gear on the moped again. I stepped up behind him while he was telling a story about other fishermen. They would buy fish and take it home. We were honest folk so we wouldn’t do that. This I fully understood.

It wasn’t very long before the rain stopped and the sun came out. A bit bleak, but this really was sunshine. “What a shame you wanted to go.”, he said. I didn’t react.

At home my mother asked how things had been. Father told about the fish I caught and explained that the fish wouldn’t bite because of the threatening rain. I found my book and read on while he took care of the stuff we had taken along. “Of course you should help him”, mother said to me.

So I ran up to him and offered my help. “No need; you don’t know where I keep the stuff.”

It was the last time he asked me to go along; months later I noticed that my fishing-rod had disappeared. I never asked where it had gone.


vrijdag 28 november 2014

A Cup of Tea

 Things had changed all of a sudden. I was used to travelling all the way to the north, to the city where Grandma lived, but now there was another goal. And it was in the same city.

I was twelve years old and suddenly I had a Grandfather. I visited him once with my father, but this time I wanted to do this on my own.

The train journey was always interesting, even when it took such a long time. In these two and a half hours there was always a lot to see on the train and through the windows. We lived in the woods and the journey took me through meadows and passing lots of stations. The people in this part of the country even spoke in a different manner.

Grandma lived in the middle of the city and Grandpa lived halfway the walk I had to take. So I had decided that this time my day would be divided between both of them. I already knew that she was not going to be happy about this and would complain the first hour after my entrance of her house. But the old man was very intriguing and I didn’t really understand why I never met him in earlier years. Maybe he would tell me more, my parents didn’t give anything away about it.

I did know about his two marriages: my fathers mother gave birth to five children and after she died he remarried and this wife gave him twelve more. And I didn’t know any of these twelve.

The street where he lived was very easy to find again and he hardly seemed surprised I was there when I rang his doorbell. We had a chat about trains while drinking coffee and he offered to show me the neighbourhood. Half of the living room was filled with clocks. Some were open, others had their contents completely spread out next to them and a few were running. Grandpa explained that this was one of his hobbies. I was interested in his large house too but didn’t dare to appear to be curious.

So we went outside and he showed me two old cars I had noticed before. They were his; he didn’t have a drivers license, they both were not usable, but he was busy making one car out of them.

It was amazing! He did all these things and he was in seventies. I always thought that people of that age were dead or close to that. I told him I admired his ability to work on these cars. He explained he got help from workers from the garage next door. He waved at them and they greeted back.

On the other side of the street was a warehouse full of cheese. We walked in and we were greeted again by workers. He showed me around like he was one of their colleagues. On every floor the cheese was of a different age. And on every floor I was offered a bit of cheese. The oldest cheese was tasting really great.

When we got out of the building we saw a lady walking by. She must have been in her late sixties but her way of walking made her look a lot younger.

She asked my grandfather if he liked to have a cup of tea with her in an hour. He agreed and she went in her house. Grandpa said that he drank tea regularly with her, smiled and gave me a wink.

I didn’t understand why he winked, maybe this was tea of a special brand? I didn’t want to look ignorant so I nodded understandingly. We went in his house again and he gave me a sandwich and a glass of milk. After I finished he told me I’d better go to Grandma now, she probably was already a bit worried.

When I walked out of the street I had a last look. I saw him coming out of his house and walking up to the house of the old lady.

I looked at my watch and decided to walk as fast as I could. Grandpa was right: Grandma would be angry with me arriving this late.


War on the Playground

It had been a great relief to have moved to the south. As long as I remembered I had been very careful going outdoors and always very keen on ways of escaping from being beaten up.
I was 7 years of age now and we lived at the edge of a forest in a part of an ancient villa. So instead of seeing the sombre little houses with their small gardens filled with tiles or gravel I now saw trees wherever I looked. The villas were at a very quiet road with a disturbing name: Road of Death.
Later I understood that this name was given because of the two cemeteries at the end.

To go to school we had to walk to the nearest city, a walk of almost thirty minutes.
In school the children from the villas were left in peace, they were hard to understand by the others because of the dialect they were speaking. Big sister was very anxious to adjust herself to this new world and I went along with this. Even at home we tried to speak in what was considered to be quite a posh manner.

The school was not really peaceful at all; sometimes ambulances appeared in front of the school. Normal things were children who got hurt while having gymnastic lessons, but once in a while we heard stories about the oldest children.

The tallest boy in school was Ricardo. Not even his first name sounded foreign, his last name was like that too. But he spoke very much in the local dialect. I was a bit impressed by this red haired boy. He already had acne and missed one of his front teeth. On his forehead he had a large vertical scar. Story went that this was caused by a teacher. The man had literally kicked him out of class. The boy had landed with his head on the hook of a coat-rack.

He was the leader of his own gang and it was easy to see who was his adjudant. That was the boy who got a piece of his red pepper once in a while. We all doubted if he really enjoyed this treat.
There was another gang: the leader’s name was not known by me. Everybody called him Fat Boy. He was from Asian origin, had raven black hair and already a vague beginning of a moustache.

Normally the gangs tried to stay away from each other. Sometimes there were incidents; the leaders would both chose a boy to fight their fight. One would win and that would end the problems.
This time it seemed to be different, Fat Boy had insulted Ricardo in a terrible way. So this should be straightened out. The leaders chose a total war, what meant that every gang member would take part in the fight. Ricardo was one man short, so he walked up to me. I was announced a member, refusing was not a possibility I felt. Ricardo pointed at a boy who was almost as tiny and skinny as I was. “You take care of him!” He spat some pepper seeds on the ground.

Suddenly the fight had started; everywhere around me boys were hitting each other. The little boy attacked me. I stretched my left leg between his legs and made him fall. Some instinct told me I had to jump on top of him. So my legs were on top of his and I held both his arms on the floor. Somehow I forgot everything around me. I was in total control, I won! Somebody shouted at my ear that I should hit him. I had no idea how that should be done, I only had two arms and they were busy. The little boy started to cry, his eyes filled with tears and snot ran from his nose. I was totally in confusion, never I had made a person cry before. I had very mixed feelings: I pitied the boy but also wondered if this was my revenge for all the times I had been beaten up.

I woke up from a sort of trance because I felt a big hand in my neck. I looked up and it was the head teacher. He pulled me of the boy and together with the other boys I was sent into the school. We all got punished, had to stay part of the normally free afternoon in school. The leaders were taken apart from the rest. The next day we would see them again. It was a few months later that Ricardo got expelled from school after a fight with a teacher.

When I walked home I felt like an unbeatable fighter, felt myself walking proud and straight. At home nobody asked why I was late. Mother just send me back to the city to get some groceries.

The Pigeon Man

Most houses in our street were terraced, only a few had an alley on one side that attached the street to the alley that was behind them. Ours was one of them. Officially you owned that part of the alley that bordered your house and garden but you could not refuse anybody to use it to pass.

We sometimes had discussions whether people had the right to sit next to your garden in the alley and observe your movements in the house. Some people would enjoy the sunshine at the end of the day over there because they had completely filled their garden with all kinds of goods. Mostly junk, but one neighbour had his garden stacked with all kinds of wooden buildings that housed pigeons.

This man was a middle aged man who obviously was divorced. Once in a while there were teenagers visiting. We assumed they were his children. When it was the season for competition between the pigeons he would spend complete weekends on a stool accompanied by his mate. There would be a crate of Amstel beer next to them and they would look anxiously at the sky for any signs of his pigeons. Less nice was that they constantly were looking into our house too. It made us feel uncomfortable, especially when they would say something to the other and had a good laugh. Sometimes we could see pigeons getting in. Another reason for the two friends to open a new bottle.

On Sunday evening he would go to meetings where the results were made known to the contestants. So sometimes he would celebrate with new beers and at other times would drink a few to be able to accept his loss. After that he would he have to go home on his moped. And every time the same thing would happen: he would try to ride through the alley and he would not make it. So we could hear a big bang and a lot of cursing and he would walk the rest of his way home. It was a miracle he never got hurt.

The situation got worse when we got a cat. When he grew up he showed that he was a bit wild. The cat was not very fond of staying indoors and would scratch furniture and wallpaper to convince us to let him out. Like all cats he was a nature lover, in particular a bird lover. So the neighbour soon yelled a few times to me to keep the cat indoors. He would sit in front of the pigeon houses and make the birds nervous. So he threatened to splash buckets of water over him. That was okay with me, I told him. So a few times the cat came home really soaked.

On a regular basis the cat brought birds to the house. He was acting very proudlv and we praised him and tried to save the life of these poor animals. Most of the times they were just a bit shocked and after some rest we could put them back in nature and they would fly away. The cat we would lock in the bathroom for some time where he would moan like hell.

Once the cat came home with a lovely little pigeon. And – bad luck – this one got really hurt. It died in my hands and I felt very guilty towards our pigeon man. My wife saw it as a sort of compensation for the harassment she felt because of him looking at us all the time in our house.

I was in doubt: should I go over to him and tell about the death of his pigeon and give him some money to compensate the loss?
Nonetheless I sneaked into the garden at a moment I knew he was not there and buried the pigeon.

Within an hour he was in front of our door. I was about to start about the pigeon when he showed me an official writing from the city hall. He asked me to read it for him. He admitted he was not able to read or write. I helped him with this letter and also with his tax papers that he showed me after that.
He told me he had been discussing with his mate if we could be trusted with his problems. After a lot of hesitation he had come over to ask us.

Later that week he proudly showed me the buildings for his pigeons. He didn’t have any small pigeons, he only owned competition pigeons and didn’t miss any. And he told me that our cat never came in his garden after the treatment with the buckets of water.


Black Water

It’s a beautiful day, just what the family has been hoping for.
The boat trip has been planned weeks in advance but the problem is that you can’t predict the weather in a country like ours. Great advantage is that there are loads of lakes and canals that connect these. That way you can spend days on the water going through the flat landscape.

I’m three years old and Big Sister is six. Smart as she is she will tell everybody that it is six and a half. We are the only children aboard and we enjoy all the attention from the aunts and uncles.

The boat is gliding through the water very easily and there is hardly any wind. Yet the adults hold us tight when we want to look in that water. Sometimes we think we see a fish and big sister shouts for father. Maybe he should angle here, or there.

One of the uncles knows a lovely spot he has said. We’ll have a picnic over there.
Big Sister and I don’t have a clue what a picnic is, but it sounds very interesting and we dance around from joy.
It takes longer than we expected, so after a while we forget about it.
Until the uncle yells: “There!”. We all look and it’s a meadow with three trees standing next to each other. It will be possible to be in the sunshine or in the shade, what Mama always wants.

The engine is stopped and the anchor is thrown in the water. Big Sister and I don’t understand how to get on the land. There is still quite a gap between the boat and the grassy land. But the adults pick up a plank that has been there all along and put on the edge of the boat to the shore.
Uncle Hank goes first over this plank, does something with the other end and announces that it is secured.

First the aunts and Mama go ashore with baskets full of drinks and nice food. Then some more uncles follow. Papa now grabs me and starts swinging me a bit. I know this and it always makes me giggle. But this time it’s different: Papa throws me in the air! I close my eyes in ultimate fear. It looks like a long time but I land safely in the arms of Uncle Hank.
He puts me down, but I’m shaking like a leaf.

Papa now wants to grab Big Sister. She has seen me flying and starts screaming: “No, no, I don’t want it! I’m scared!” Papa explains the only other way to get on the land is to walk the plank.
Big Sister nods, she understands.
One of the aunts wants to take me from the spot but I fight my hand out of hers. What will happen to Big Sister?

I can sense her fear when she steps on the plank. Papa is holding one of her hands and Uncle Hank is already reaching out for the other one. Progress is very slow and the adults are encouraging her: “Come on! You can do it, Big Girl!” I can see that she has to make two steps on her own and I feel myself freeze. The first step on her own she makes but the second one goes with stumbling and she loses her balance. Hands waving desperately in the air she falls in the water. I can see the black water closing over her head.

After what seems ages Uncle Hank has his arms in the water and out she comes again. Spitting out water and crying like anything. Mama comes to her with a towel and clean underwear. While drying Big Sister she tells her not to cry anymore. Nothing has happened and we’re all okay. She has to stop crying otherwise the aunts and uncles will think she is a baby.

The adults all get to sit on a few blankets they have put next to each other on the meadow.
Big Sister and I get our own blanket, a checkered one with green and red squares. She is told again not to cry anymore and we both get cakes and a mug with lemonade. “But don’t let it fall over!”

Mama has gone to the adults and I see Big Sister in her white underwear behind her mug, now crying in a silent manner.
I feel I should do something and go on my knees towards her. She smells a bit like the potato bucket in our kitchen. When I sit next to her I take her hand in mine and feel how I start to cry along.
On the other end of the blanket I see through my tears my tripped over mug. The lemonade is on top of the squares and slowly changing the colours into dark green and dark red.


Unwelcome Pleasure

It was in the days that nobody ever had heard about double glazing and if the neighbour sneezed, you would say: “Bless you”. And he would thank you from the other side of the wall.

We had an unpleasant reason for all being together in my grandparents house. It was the day that we had to bury my grandfather.

One of my aunts already had shown me grandfather in the coffin. I could say goodbye to him, she said to me. My parents thought it would be too shocking for me, I never saw a dead person before.

I was prepared for something terrible, but all I saw was a sort of big puppet. It was a bad remake of grandfather. I only felt very guilty for not being able to be in tears once in a while, like some aunts and big cousins were.

All of a sudden a very loud music started: the barrel-organ that came by every week. It always came at about the same time and I could see at the clock today was not different from any other.

One of the aunts started to cry almost louder than the organ and a few others joined the lament. The uncles reacted different: some were cursing out loud. This caused some hissing from other aunts, of course this was not very appropriate.

Father said aloud that crying and cursing was not going to change anything in the situation. With big steps he went to the front door. I followed him and got almost blasted over by the loud sound of the music. The barrel-organ was right in front of the door. Father stepped up to the man standing next to the organ. The man was shaking his metal mug, so clinging the coins together that were already in there.

Father shouted at him that he would give double if they would move to the next street, explained that we were waiting for the cars for a funeral. The man tapped his cap and excused for the embarrassment. He signalled the man at the wheel to stop turning it. The music died in a sort of wild mess of tones. My father thanked the men, took me by the hand and we went inside the house again.

Within a few minutes the music started again, less loud but you still could hear it very well.

The uncles started to curse again and one aunt resumed her loud sniffing. Would father send the men away again?

“Let it go”, father said: “Life goes on. You can’t expect the planet to stop turning”.

And I tried to figure out what melody they were playing.


donderdag 27 november 2014

Fear of Falling

Sometimes it could be very lonely in the house. After the divorce the house seemed far too big for him; even when his 18 year old daughter would spent the weekend with him. This officially happened every other weekend but in fact he was alone most of the time. Reading in the newspapers about old people who were found after having died weeks before didn’t make it feel better. And there was this item in the news about a lady who slipped in the bath, broke her hip and had waited for 3 days before she was found.

But really worrying was that this could happen to younger people too. A young colleague slipped in the bath and broke his leg while being home alone. After a few hours his wife came home from shopping and found him. He had been shouting for help the first hour but nobody could hear him.

This story gave the man the shivers. He himself could fall and nobody would show up for days. People in the office were used to the fact that he worked from home a lot. If he did his colleagues were instructed not to disturb him.

He talked about it with neighbours and one gave him the solution he was searching for; the anti-slip mat!

They were remarkable cheap and it didn’t even look too bad in the bathroom. Looking at it he felt really relieved.

The next weekend his daughter came to stay. When she came in she already told him there were two parties she was going to. So there was not a lot of time to be shared. But he was already happy seeing her and knowing she was going to have to share some meals with him.

That evening he had made her favourite dish and even had a nice dessert for her.

He told her about his colleague and about the desperation this man must have felt on the floor while being wet and in a lot of pain. The girl nodded in silence. He explained about the mat and that it would take away a lot of his worries.

His daughter said she needed to hurry, someone was going to pick her up for the party in an hour. And she needed a shower, had to dry her hair and put on her make-up.

So she almost ran up the stairs and while he was doing the dishes he heard her enter the bathroom.

And the next sound he heard was the ripping out of the anti-slip mat.


woensdag 26 november 2014

Weak (A Dilemma)

In the centre of my native city is a street that consists almost totally of bars and fast food shops.
The bars are officially owned by a foundation, which is in the hands of the local bikers club. Police is seldom seen over there, the bikers are used to solving their own problems. And they don’t like to see the police being involved. I’m not a regular visitor over there. The last time I was there I witnessed something that I didn’t like.

In these days I followed a course of a few months to get a better position. The schedule was quite nice: one day I would have lessons, the next day was meant to be dedicated to homework and there was no work in all this time. The homework was supposed to be a lot and would keep you busy all day. I might be different than most other participants in the course. I would have everything completed in a few hours and had the rest of the day to relax.

Once in a while I decided to get to a bar in the afternoon, sometimes I would meet people I knew.
So on this day I ended up in this infamous street. Only a few people were in, nobody I really knew. But I had set my mind on a beer, so I got one.

After a while a guy came in. I didn’t see him for ages. We both years ago were members of a chess club. We played in the club house of a football team and we had a bad name. The chess club drank per head more beer than the football players. And instead of playing our game we had fierce political and cultural debates and had a lot of fun. Not a normal chess club I would say!
It was not hard to see it was him, he still had the same kind of glasses on his head as he did in these days. It gave him the looks of a scholar.

The guy already had drank a few I noticed. He recognised me immediately and we talked about the old days and had a good laugh. When he ordered, the girl behind the bar gave him his drinks without hesitation.

He told me had quit chess too. After the club house had burnt down the club was moved to a former city hall where they didn’t serve beer or liquor. So the fun was gone. I didn’t know about this at all, had left the club years before. He told me that one of the chess players had dropped a cigarette stub in a plastic bin. The stub had been smouldering and had set the bin and the club house on fire in the night after the members had left.

We had two more beers and we talked about jobs and such. All of a sudden his tone of voice changed. He was in the middle of a divorce and was very angry. He blamed all the women in the world for his misery and so started to call the girl behind the bar names. It was quite awful and I felt embarrassed. So I tried to quiet him a bit. It didn’t work.

When he asked for another drink the girl refused and he became really foul mouthed. She asked him politely to leave the bar, which he didn’t. Instead he went on with his swearing.
Two bikers walked up to her and offered help which she eagerly accepted. They took his glasses of his head…

I asked them to just push him out of the bar, explained he was in big trouble. But they just slapped him in the face. I pleased them to stop. And they offered to give me a few. But they did stop, put his glasses back on and told him to pay. He paid and even wanted to tip the girl. She refused the tip and just told him to get out immediately. He did without saying anything to anybody.

My beer suddenly had a weak taste, just like I felt myself. I paid and left.

The Draught Dog

In the bad old days we lived in a grey and smudgy city in the north of the Netherlands. Our house was situated in the worst part of this city. Our street ended at one side on a stinking canal with pitch black water and at the other side on a road that lead to a gas factory. The houses consisted of a living room, a kitchen , a passage between these rooms plus front door and an attic. In the attic my mother hung sheets to create separate bedrooms for my parents and their three children. The toilet was a barrel placed in a wooden throne in a little wooden shed. On top of the seat it had a wooden lid. The toilet paper was cleverly shredded newspaper pieces. In the winter it was freezing cold over there and you’d better not drop anything in the barrel for it would disappear forever. The breathtaking smell in that shed never disappeared. Even getting a new barrel once a week from the barrel man didn’t help.

Most things that a family needs were being brought in by merchants with wooden carts drawn by horses. There were different people to deliver a new barrel, bread, milk, fish and vegetables and such. Even pickles were delivered by a pickle man.

Old clothes were taken in by the old clothes man, but he had not much business in our part of the town. You would normally wear clothes that older kids had grown out of, sometimes a bit adjusted by the mothers.

Our potato and apple skins were collected by the waste food collector. He sold these to farmers outside the city. His business must have been very poor because he couldn’t afford a horse to pull his cart. Instead he had a big dog of a breed that could not be specified. This draught dog had a broad chest and very sad eyes. When it rained or snowed he would take shelter under the cart when the man was emptying the buckets that the people had put in front of their houses.

The kids in the street considered the man a cruel dog abuser. Sometimes he would hit it with a little stick to walk faster. He would sit on a little seat on the cart himself. We never saw him do anything nice for the dog. In hot weather we would smuggle some water to it and we even gave it half of our cookie, always that boring digestive biscuit, if the man was a bit out of the way. He would shout at us to leave the dog alone. It never came to our mind that a fat and lazy dog would kill his business.

We didn’t have many toys so we were always very happy when cold winter weather would freeze the clinkers in our street. We would make impressive slides and had a lot of fun on these. The elderly of course were not very happy with the slippery street. The parents would ruin our fun by putting down salt to make it possible for everybody else to go outdoors.

One day our parents just let us have our fun. It was very cold and they all seemed to have decided to stay in the warm living room. We didn’t mind the cold and made the longest and best slides ever. We didn’t think about the elderly.

We did care about the poor draught dog that even on this day appeared with his boss. We felt sorry for him but that didn’t stop us from playing on. There were hardly any buckets in front of the houses and the boss hit the dog extra to get on. It half slipped and had a hard time to keep walking. The boss cursed and hit him some more and somehow he was able to get some speed. At the end of the street he couldn’t make a turn and went straight on into the stinking canal. We were in shock but were smart enough to call for help. The waste food collector was pulled out of the water by some men, the cart and the dog disappeared forever.

Months passed before someone came to collect the skins again. The next summer another man came with a cart drawn by a horse. We never saw the old waste food collector again.

dinsdag 25 november 2014

Problem Solved

It really was a struggle for life and survival of the fittest in my neigbourhood in this city in the North of the Netherlands; the city where the schools had no names but numbers. I was not fully equipped for life over there. You needed to be able to hit hard or run fast. I was very tiny and learned to walk at a late age. So I lacked both qualities. Our family was considered a bit posh: as I remember my father was one of the few to have a job, and my sisters and I were the only children in the street without lice or fleas.

My big sister and I were the only ones who owned a child’s scooter, so we were envied by the rest of the kids. She was my security, but whenever she was gone with friends I was going to get it. If I only had her long legs and could run like she did! She told me she had gone through difficult times herself. The other kids once forced her to eat worms and then informed our mother. That night she got punished by my father. But now they all called her “The Long One” and were a bit afraid of her long arms. She was able to hit without being hit.

So, it happened again. Before I knew it, I got surrounded and they hit me on my hands and back till I let go of my scooter. My hands were completely red and hurt like hell, so I had one option left. Crying I went home. My mother was busy changing a nappy and there was a big tub cooking with sheets so she had no time for my sorrow immediately. When she had the time she came to me where I was sitting. I told her what happened. She walked with me to the front door and opened it. My scooter was laying in the street in front of our house. She just sighed and walked back into the house.

That evening I got a lecture from my father. The next time he saw me crying or heard about it, I would get a sound spanking. After that I was sent to bed. The next day he proved to me this was not a threat but a promise. My bleeding knees were not able to soften him. My sister tried to teach me to get more speed on my scooter the next day. Somehow my legs didn’t want to do what I wanted. But she said that the way I did it now really would help. I wasn’t satisfied and tried to sit down on the board you normally use for one foot. I could sit and put one foot on it. And I tried out a sort of peddling. Somehow I could put more power on and it gave me speed. Big sister watched it shaking her head. It was a ridiculous sight according to her. But it worked for me!

With my hands alongside my head and looking on the street from under the steer I went on. My sister was applauding behind me. But I had to pass these horrible gangs again and I already heard: “Get him!”. But I steered around them and I heard the sound of their clogs behind me. They were losing on me! But there was trouble ahead: the end of the street. I was forbidden to leave it by my parents. Far away I heard my sister shouting: “Go on! Go on!” .

I almost flew round the bend out of the street and felt so free. The attackers were left behind. I knew how I could escape them any time now, just had to take a good look where they were. I could leave the street in both directions.

That night big sister and I heard my parents play music, like they did often. We got out of our beds on the attic and sneaked to the top of the stairs. “You want me to play Slim Whitman again?”, my father said. She answered that some kids had rang the doorbell and had told her that I had left the street. She was worried. He told her that she had to let go now, next year I had to go to school, so I would be leaving the street for sure. And he told her that he solved the problems, that the boy didn’t come in crying for days. “You can’t wipe his nose all the time while having 3 little children and one on the way. I’ll play the record of Joe Peters, I like that one very much!”. Big sister and I listened some more and then sneaked back to bed.


Good food and a Tooth Brush

Good food and a toothbrush

In the Netherlands, a Chinese restaurant can be found in almost every neighbourhood in city and village. Chinese meals have become a sort of fast food and so you can see on Sunday evenings a lot of people popping out to get a meal in a hurry. They have to get back before sport programs on television start. So quality is not important. They want it to be a lot and made fast and cheap.

So you can hardly see anyone going to sit in the restaurants, they are merely interested in take away service. And it’s far from brilliant anyway, when you really want to enjoy a good meal you go somewhere else.

My wife and I are a bit into discovering the differences in quality in restaurants. Just for ourselves, there are no Michelin stars to gain when we enter somewhere. And sometimes we go to places that are not really expected by other people.

This evening we tried a new Chinese restaurant, named China Palace. Not a very imaginitive name, but maybe the food had more to it than the name promised.

Only three other people were dining there, normally not a good sign for the quality. We were greeted and seated at a nice table by the window.

The menu showed a list of meals we never saw before on menus at other Chinese restaurants. They were meals from Northern China. We got nice dumplings with the beer we ordered while we were deciding what we should pick from the menu. We both chose a four course meal.

It was all served on square plates. We made the standard joke that when you get your food on a square plate it will be twice as less than normal and twice as expensive. And yes, it was less but it was all made with great care and tasted wonderful. The service was swift and quiet and where needed there was an explanation what was on our plates. We really enjoyed this unexpected quality.

The other company consisted of two men and a lady. All three were not very slim. They probably had to eat outdoors a lot because of working late. I came to this thought considering their conversation about their work in a bank. Like us they had drinks, and they became louder and louder. The reason for this could be too that they thought we were foreigners. But being Dutch myself I could not avoid hearing everything they were discussing.

After a while the discussion really wandered far from the original banking problems, the complaints about difficult customers. It became obvious that the lady was without a partner. The men were very interested in the way she lived. So she described this very vividly. I think I would like a bedroom like she has too.

The men became a bit bolder; they asked what she had on her bedside table. First she disappointed them: there were no toys, she said.

But then she gave an explanation to them what you can do with an electrical toothbrush. She told them even that she had extra parts that made more fun possible. The bill was brought to them, they paid and all three stood up. The men were adjusting their trousers. The lady advised them to get their bellies over their belts. Laughing out loud they left. I thought the men walked a bit awkwardly. Maybe this was caused by the drinks?


Hiding with Julie

Hopefully my father would not be very angry because I went along with my friend John instead of mowing the lawn. The grass would not run away, I could do this little job tomorrow just the same.

But this beautiful weather might be gone soon. Summer was almost over and this was a wonderful evening to do some nice things.

Most of my class of last year was grouped next to the school. We were all 12 years old and would go to different schools in one week and probably would lose sight of each other. So we were happy to see each other this evening. We stood together for some time, and didn’t know what kind of fun we should have. Nobody had taken a ball along, so this type of game was not possible. Most we disapproved of, because they were too childish for us. After some discussion we decided to play hide and seek.

We all ran away in different directions when the counting started. I ran towards a perfect place to hide, that I had discovered some weeks before. It was at the end of the little neighbourhood park; there was first a small lawn and then a few yards of bushes with prickly leaves. I had found a way to get in without being scratched. While I was bending some branches to get in, I heard Julie asking me softly if she could come along.

No problem for me! There were only two real nice girls in our group: Monique, whom everybody had a crush on, and Julie who was a bit wilder and more fun. So she followed me behind the bushes. We let the leaves bend back and I knew it would be very hard to be discovered, while we even had a little view on the scene because this part of the park was a bit higher.

Pretty soon the first victims were discovered and there was a lot of running going on. I noticed Julie acting a bit strangely under her skirt. She had her hand over there and was sort of wriggling. Whispering I asked what was the matter. She had to pee! This was not perfect planning; they were searching quite near us. But she could do this pretty silently I noticed. A familiar smell came to my nose. Somehow urine of girls smells different than boys. I knew, because we were not allowed to pull the chain at home, only after a big deliverance.

I saw the yellow stream going down! It would ruin our hide away. Very quickly I stretched out my right leg and made a little hole in the soil with my heel. I saw it stream in there and sink in. She was finished and wriggled again under her skirt; probably adjusting her panties.

We sat over there in perfect silence after that for some more time. We saw that we were the only ones that were not yet discovered. Everybody started to help searching for us. They continued for some time and then John yelled that it was enough. We won, they agreed.

We made our appearance with our hands in the air. We had our victory. Julie gave me a kiss on my cheek to thank me. I felt my face turning purple and stammered something. John was asking with a big smile what we were doing there together. We didn’t have to answer this because some parents were yelling that their children had to come home. It was almost dark and the street lights were switching on. We agreed that would all go home.

When I walked home with John, he asked me what we were doing there together.

“Hiding”, I said and tried to smile mysteriously. I looked at my right foot and saw some earth on my shoe where it had got wet. I thought I could still sense her smell.


maandag 24 november 2014

A Mistery

The little town of Trittenheim in Germany is situated in a bend of the beautiful river Mosel. At the border is a camping ground that was totally occupied because of the great weather in this week in May. It is divided into two parts because of a bridge. Very near this bridge that leads to the main vineyards there’s a restaurant with a lovely terrace. Of course they offer white wine, the specialty of the whole area, but they also serve a lovely Weissenbier. This is a special beer because they use wheat instead of barley in the brewing process.

My wife and I were enjoying our Weissenbier on this evening. The terrace was completely full with people enjoying wine, beer or incredibly big glasses filled with ice-cream and sauce. There was small-talk in different languages and you could sense everybody was enjoying this lovely night.

All of a sudden two boys on bicycles came racing from the direction of the bridge. They were around ten years old and they seemed to be in a race. After passing us the smallest one made a fearful fall on the asphalt. The terrace became silent immediately. But he started screaming very loud and limped further. The other one threw his bike on the street and followed.

Everybody seemed to know the theory that as long as children make sounds and keep moving, they’ll be alright. Lots of times I’ve been amazed by children: they seem to be made of rubber.
So nobody came into action and pretty soon the sound of talking, eating and drinking resumed.

All eyes were on the street again when two women of around forty came running from the direction in which the boys had disappeared. They both were a bit overweight, the running was obviously not for pleasure. They disappeared near the bridge.

After a few minutes a bald-headed man of the same age ran toward the bikes, took one and spurted away in the direction of the bridge. His knees kept being bent because he was way too big for the small bicycle. He took the side-road after the terrace. The tallest boy appeared again, took the other bike and rode away from us in the direction he had run before.

After this the road was empty again and we seemed to forget the set of scenes we witnessed.
We had just ordered another beer when an ambulance appeared from the direction of the bridge.
It was not making a sound and the siren was not in use.

My wife and I started to discuss what might had happened. It all seemed a bit weird. I think there’s only one solution:
The boys were with another relative (grandpa, grandma?) on the camping ground in their camper.
The older person had a heart-attack or a stroke and the boys rushed in panic to their parents who were on a terrace a bit further from the bridge. The women ran to offer help, just like the bald man raced on the bike to the rescue. He had to take a side-road because coming from the main road you have to use a flight of steps to get to the camping ground.

The way the ambulance had passed us, meant there was not much good news for the relative. There was no hurry in transporting him or her anymore.

Or might there be another story that can be told?

The Importance of Being Patient

A lot of people have the theory that when you fly with Flybe you should be prepared to flap your arms to get into the air. They fly old types of Bombardier equipped with propellers. I must admit that I never had any complaint while flying several times with them. I never had a delay and the staff was always friendly and very professional.

So it was no surprise that my flight arrived on Norwich Airport even a bit early. All 15 passengers got off. There was a British couple with two children, two British gentlemen who travelled together and the rest of the people, including me, came from the Netherlands. There were two girls among the Dutch who really drew my attention; one was quite small and had dark hair and the other was the tallest blonde that I had ever seen in my life. Because they had been sitting in front of me, I had overheard that they were heading for Great Yarmouth. This should be quite a lovely beach-town according to them.

Like always we were lead to the airport building on an outlined path. Two women in yellow jackets kept an eye on us in case we got out of line. The passengers were well trained and so we arrived safe and sound in the luggage reclaim room with its single luggage carousel.

When waiting for the arrival of my luggage I always have to think about that famous 12% of luggage that worldwide get lost on flights. It happened to me three times but after some days it always shows up. It is a nuisance but the most important things like money and passport will not be in it and there’s always the insurance to get it even with.

The fifteen of us had been waiting for half an hour at the luggage-carousel. Luggage for so few people shouldn’t take that long, we grumbled. New passengers already had boarded the plane.

The children were led off by the mother and were having a drink. The rest of us stampeded to three women with yellow jackets behind a counter. One of the British men became our spokesman. He explained patiently that we would be very happy if we could have our luggage. The three yellow-jackets just smiled at us. We should be patient and wait.

The dark-haired Dutch girl had a vision: “Our luggage is still on that plane!” So we now shouted all together that they should get it off. One of the yellow-jackets told us that the procedure not allowed the staff to go to the plane now. The engines obviously had been started. We threatened to get the luggage ourself but the women behind the counter just smiled at us.
A fourth woman with a yellow-jacket appeared and she joined her colleagues behind the counter.

We started to yell at her too. She mentioned us to be quiet and she took a sort of walkie-talkie out of her jacket. She mumbled a bit in it and then waited. A few minutes later she was able to tell us that all of our luggage had been taken from the plane. She spoke a bit longer with her colleagues and then went away.

The plane taxied away to the runway. “Bye bye luggage”, said the dark-haired one and she almost cried. A man who stood behind me cursed loudly and suggested that we should demand to see the management. The blonde Dutch girl exclaimed that she would drag one of the yellow-jackets over the counter. Our spokesman advised not to do such a thing: it would not help us very much. Their only action still existed of having these smiles, to me they seemed amused, like they would have a nice story for a next birthday party. The fourth one appeared again with a tray of four coffees. The passengers were not exactly amused, some were ready to explode.

The plane had flown off and we still stood there in despair. All of a sudden the other British man shouted: “I think I know what to do! Follow me.” I thought he would lead us to the management or such, but instead we walked through some corridors. It all looked very poor, some doors had “STAFF ONLY” on it. There was no-one to stop us. I thought this was the wisest the staff could do regarding our state of mind.

Behind the last door we met on this quest, was a room that looked like a shed. And here was another luggage carousel, maybe the first this airport had got in its existence. And here we found our long-lost luggage.

I think we all showed a lot of anger on our faces, customs never worked quicker. And after almost two hours I could finally go to my wife who had patiently been waiting all this time. I told her about the reason of the delay and she told me that this had been the last Flybe flight between Amsterdam and Norwich. I couldn’t have cared less!

Was I rude?

On the ferry between Hoek van Holland and Harwich you can normally hear two languages:  Dutch and English.  I have heard Fries (spoken in the north of the Netherlands) and Hindi too.  Sometimes there are huge families from India and Pakistan.

When I came to the bar this time carrying a beer and a newspaper, I noticed a family sitting at the next table talking German. They were having a nice time. Mother and daughter were discussing what items you could buy for the girl’s new Barbie doll. The son asked his father if there might be planes landing on the ship, or helicopters. When the boy asked about what would happen if the ferry sank,  father explained about the safety measures and  pointed at the messages on the video screen. There was also a little film about this, but it was in Dutch and English.

Most of the Dutch can speak German a bit and certainly can understand it.  For a long time we had five channels on our tv and three of them were German.  So it’s not so special that I can understand German quite good, but speaking it is far from perfect in my case.

They were obviously having a great time, it was all new to them all.  The father decided to have this moment saved for a longer time and took  photographs.  After he took some, he decided to have one of the whole family. He placed the camera on the table, installed the timer and ordered his gang to put their heads flat on the table.

It looked a bit weird from my point of view.  When the camera had flashed he checked the result but was not very happy with it. So again they put their heads on the table, the adults sitting at the end of it. But he was not satisfied with this one either.
I couldn’t keep back any longer, so I asked in my best German whether I could be of service to them and take the picture for them.

His eyes almost popped out and he stammered: “Nein danke”.

I shrugged and went back reading the newspaper.  The situation really had changed, the family put their heads close together and resumed their conversation in a whispering manner.  I stood up after a few minutes and got a new beer for myself because the first one was finished.  When I came back I just saw the back of the father leaving the bar as the last of the family.

I was not intruding I think. I wasn’t  impolite. I used the formal “Sie” and not “Du” while addressing him. And I don’t consider myself to look aggressive or such. I’m not a skinhead and have just one colour in my hair: grey.

I still wonder what happened.

A Warm Welcome

Every country has its own way of greeting visitors, that’s one of the charms of travelling abroad. In a huge part of Europe there is no greeting but signs next to the road or at the entrance of the airport saying “welcome to …” .

Travelling to the USA is a complete different story. It starts even before getting on your flight. You will already be interrogated thoroughly about purpose of your journey and such. On the flight you will get a white and a green piece of paper. The crew is willing to give you assistance in answering the questions on these.

We did everything according to the rules and expected no problems whatsoever. Travelling a lot gives you a feeling of trust in things to come. I had not flown to the USA for quite some years but didn’t expect much change in procedures.
We were wished a very nice stay in Philadelphia by the crew when we left the plane. Although we were a bit tired because of lack of sleep caused by crying babies around us on the flight, we were in a great mood. The longest part of the journey was done and we would see our relatives pretty soon.

After some walking the passengers were split in two groups. USA-citizens and non-USA-citizens.
We belonged to the second group; I told my wife that another name for this group is: aliens.
She was walking with a walking-stick and I could only hope the walk would not be very far. It was not too bad and we were led into a huge hall. There were long lines in front of a lot of counters in a sort of booth. On each of them were large warning signs that it was forbidden to attack the officer that was on duty in them. In between the lines uniformed and armed security personnel were walking. Sometimes they shouted something to people.

My wife poked me in the ribs at a certain moment. One of the guards was addressing us, she thought. We had to get out of the line and form a new one immediately. We obeyed and stood in front of a booth that was empty. This looked a bit pointless and this was confirmed when the officer in the booth in front of our former line shouted at us that we had to go back. So we did. There was no explanation about this moving to and from.
The guard was checking the green and white forms of a man belonging to an Asian looking family.

There was a baby in the arms of his wife and he was leading two other children. They must have been younger than four and were half crying all the time. They were probably tired. The guard yelled at the man. He forgot a few lines on the white paper. He was sent back to complete it and she ordered him and his family to get back at the end of the line after doing this.

After twenty minutes it was our turn and the officer in the booth asked the same questions as were asked before getting on the plane. He made iris-scans and we both had to get our fingerprints checked in another scan . The first one of my wife went perfectly and because she has seen detective series she put after her forefinger her middle finger on the scan. The officers face turned purple and he yelled at her that she screwed up the system. He slammed a bit on his keyboard and sighed. It seemed like he restarted his computer. My wife offered to do the scan again, but he refused. She would be sorry for this messing up the system, he said. He slammed some marks in her passport and ordered her to make way for me. I learned the lesson and things went smoothly for me.

We were relieved to have passed the test and went to get our luggage. This was already on the belt so we felt quite happy about that. It had to be sent further on a next flight, so we were ordered to swing it on a pile of other suitcases. That took away some of the happiness. My luggage has been making real journeys around the world before. But we had no choice.
The next thing was getting on our next continental flight.

We came into a room of the size of a classroom. Some hundred persons were packed over here.
Because of no ventilation and no air conditioning it was very warm and smelly. There was obviously one line and it was led in a sort of labyrinth across the room. The red cord used for this was the only nice thing I could find in this. There was a uniformed guard yelling at people and some others prevented you from stepping out of line.

I knew that my wife was not going to be able to stand and shuffle in this room for a long time. So I asked one of the guards if there was a possibility to do something about this. She looked at me in disgust and barked that we had to come with a wheelchair. But she shrugged after this and led us past all the others. We felt a bit guilty towards the waiting people but also very relieved.

Immediately it was our turn. The security man barked something like “Cow Cow”. We both couldn’t make sense out of this. Even louder he shouted “SHOES OFF”. So we did and walked with our shoes in hand towards him. My passport was checked and my backpack screened. It went okay.
My wife noticed the working of the curse of the immigration officer. She was led to the side, she was body searched and her handbag was turned upside down and the content was checked. She was allowed to put everything back again while her walking stick was thoroughly investigated.
And then we could go on. Another guard yelled that we had to speed up with putting on our shoes. Even when we walked from this inferno we were ordered to hurry on. I made a comment about this. You can hardly expect that my wife will spurt away! She signed me to be quiet but the guard only had to laugh about this.

We walked out of this and stepped into a different world. The first words heard were “Can I help you Madam?” And there was air conditioning! And a lot shops and restaurants! We decided to celebrate by having a cup of iced-coffee in one of the cafes and we both said at the same time that we pitied the people who were still in that awful room.

We haven’t decided when to visit the USA again…

Back in the Netherlands

Charter flights are cheap, but often have the disadvantage that they go at weird times.  This time we had to leave Portugal at a real unholy hour.  After the flight we caught the first train of the day to our  home-town of Amersfoort.  We had to transfer twice because of repairs on the track, so it took half an hour longer. And because of that we missed the bus to the part of the city we live in.

We are both not in perfect health: my wife has to use a walking-stick.  It doesn’t stop us making journeys, but of course we prefer smooth travelling without extra harassments. We were very tired when we finally got into to the bus from the station to our destination.

We were not the first to get in but there were still seats available. We took the two seats for disabled people; there was room for a wheelchair, so we were able to put our luggage on the floor in front of us. And we were very happy to sit again with the thought in mind that in less than half an hour we should be home.

The first stop of the bus is in the inner-city, near the shops over there.  A lot of people came in and the bus got really full. A lot of people had to stand. We were more than happy to have stepped in earlier. The bus started moving again and because of the winding roads you could see the standing people had trouble to keep upright.

When the bus stopped again only one person got in, but she made a great entrance. She was walking with a cane you see when people do nordic walking. Normally they use two of these, she had only one. She walked right up to us and started yelling at me. “Is there something wrong with your eyes”, she was asking me, “these seats are for invalids”. I looked at her in astonishment.  She tried to get support from the other passengers. “What a horrible man this must be! He’s taken this seat and makes a disabled person stand in the bus!” I couldn’t see any disability in her, apart from being overweight. But she went on: “Are you daft or what…?”

I didn’t had the energy to go into a discussion and I was fully aware that it’s hard to notice that I’m not totally in good health. Getting the other passengers on my side was unthinkable. They were all looking bland and not interested at all. I just wanted the yelling to stop. So I got up, positioned myself between our luggage and found a pole to hang onto.

She immediately smashed her body on the seat I just left. My wife was being squeezed to the window of the bus because the woman needed one and a half seat to sit properly. And she definitely showed that she wanted to sit properly indeed! I winked at my wife who sat there in great amazement. I can imagine situations like this not often occur in England.

The ride was quite rough but because there were enough people standing, it was not even possible to fall. I was surrounded totally. Even in this time of year, it was almost spring, it became hard to breath. I was smelling a lot of different body-odours, I hoped mine wasn’t the worst.  One man was breathing heavily in my face, his last meal must have contained a lot of garlic.

Two stops later the woman got out.

We were definitely back in the Netherlands.