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Thinking of Holland8 November 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
It all started immediately after crossing the border, as I was travelling back home from London by train the other day.
It’s familiar to most of us: after returning from a trip abroad you see your own environment in a new light, as if your senses stay tuned in to new experiences just a bit longer.
There were only two seats left in the carriage. A woman of about seventy took the seat next to me and a boy sat down in front of her. He must have been eighteen.
The boy turned around to say a few times that it was a shame they couldn’t sit next to each other and gazed at her looking almost lovingly. She bent towards him. ‘You need to get off at the next station,’ and she took a second to place a kiss on his mouth. I began to feel a bit uncomfortable.
‘Do you know we are actually sisters,’ the woman said in a loud voice to the boy. She stopped for a moment, sighed, and continued, ‘We were sisters in a previous life.’
Give me strength, I thought, what have I done to deserve this?
The next day, around dinner time, I found myself on the train to Zevenaar, the Milton Keynes of the Eastern Netherlands, but only a sixth of its size. I had an appointment in this town as a creative writing tutor. The train was a so called ‘sprinter’, which meant it made quite frequent stops.
This type of train had made international headlines because it has no toilet facilities. One of the train operators had suggested providing a piss bag which could be used in an emergency. It would have to be operated in the train driver’s compartment.
The train drivers’ union had already made objections and the Dutch Women’s Institute, too, had resolutely rejected the piss bag.
Zevenaar is located in a rural area, a fifteen-minute drive from my home town, Arnhem. From the station, it was a one-kilometre walk to the people’s university.
It was deadly silent, this commuter village; so quiet that I could hear the sound of my own footsteps. I could spy into every living room. People were bathed in blue television light. It suddenly reminded me of the smurfs.
The people’s university building was an old 1970s school. I had time to spare, so I sat down on a low wall to smoke a cigar. Several people emerged from the houses opposite to have a look at me in the dim streetlights. Well, they were walking their dogs, but it seemed to me they were checking me out. (The same people, pointedly saying ‘good evening’, walked past three times.)
At the people’s university I was warmly welcomed and offered a cup of coffee. Announcements about courses were stuck on the notice board. Later, at home, I checked them out on their website: ‘Twittering for the over fifties’, for example. In one year’s time I’ll be eligible to join, but when will I be the right age to take a course in ‘Using a mobile for the elderly’?
You can also register for the course ‘Creative wrapping’ (‘the course concludes with the wrapping of your own presents using the newly learned techniques’) and the course ‘Laughing Yoga’ (‘Laughing Yoga combines simple breathing and yoga exercises with several laughing techniques’).
This one comes out on top: the ‘Hats Tree’ course. ‘Halves of polystyrene balls are covered with leaves and rose petals, followed by attaching these hats to decorative twigs placed in a tall vase.’
I had visions of living rooms up and down Zevenaar full of smurfs dancing around a hats tree.
That evening I met two ladies for a one-to-one evaluation of their work. They were entering a writing competition, and the idea was that I would help them put together their entry.
Both ladies were so attractive that I immediately wanted to marry them. Well, of course, I didn’t really; they were probably married anyway.
One had written love poems, so obviously I asked her to read them aloud. I was beginning to like Zevenaar more and more.
I had to travel back by bus because someone had jumped in front of a train on the edge of town.
All of a sudden I realised that during the past twenty-four hours I had glimpsed a Dutch society that mostly stays hidden.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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