It is 7:30 on a Sunday morning here in Haarlem. It is still dark outside and the house is silent. The radiator is making its soft clunking sort of sound. Even our talkative cat, JoJo, is still asleep somewhere in the house.
“Somewhere in the house” makes it sound huge. By lower-middle class, suburbs of GA standards it is. I don’t remember how many meters it is or what that would equal in feet. It’s much smaller than we’re used to but somehow exactly enough. And right now it is blissfully still.
So what’s it really like moving to a new country at the ripe old age of 150? It’s amazing and terrifying and exhausting and mind blowing. The history and beauty here is astounding. I know we have history and beauty in the US (and long before we barged in) but we didn’t live on a street Nazis could have stomped down. We didn’t bike down the cobblestone streets of a city established in the middle ages. These are the thoughts that baffle me as I’m standing outside Game Mania while my kid talks Fortnite with the clerk.
It’s true most people here speak English. And nearly everyone I’ve met has been incredibly patient and gracious when I sputter out “Sorry, nee Nederland.” Even the elderly lady in the pet food aisle of the grocery store immediately switched to English to chat about how she spoils her cocker spaniel with treats. But it is still scary. I still find myself mentally whispering, “please don’t talk to me please don’t talk to me” as I avoid eye contact with store clerks or stall vendors… terrified they will speak Dutch. OF COURSE THEY WILL SPEAK DUTCH, YOU IDIOT! And when they do, and I look at them like a deer in the headlights, they either gesture and smile until we’ve figured things out or they jump into English like it’s no big frigging deal. And yet, I panic.
So everyone here speaks English but guess who doesn’t… the street signs. And for a girl who has a terrible sense of direction anyway, I am quite literally lost most of the time. A good friend said, “You aren’t lost, you are on an adventure!” This is perfect. Unless the wind is blowing my bike backwards and it is raining and I’m cold and I just want to get home. Those are the times I want to click my heels and be back on familiar territory in my warm, dry, not-about-to-tip-over car.
You know who else doesn’t speak English? The announcer on the trains. Your ass better be paying attention or you will go right past Heemstede-Aerdenhout and end up in Vlissingen Souburg. So while everyone else is reading or quietly chatting (only the American tourists are loud on the (clean, comfy) trains as far as I can tell), I’m staring at my phone, watching the little blue dot slowly move toward my station.
On biking: It’s true that once you know how to ride a bike, you always know. The tricky bit is DOING it. I know how to give birth to a child. Doing it again might be daunting. Okay riding a bike is nothing like giving birth but … it can be difficult when you are 150 years old. And that’s just the basic riding-a-bike issue. Now try doing it on narrow bike paths with a billion (or a handful) of people passing you or WAITING FOR YOU TO GET OUT OF THE WAY. *sigh* What seemed like a lovely bike ride to the store is now a nerve wracking game of Frogger or Pacman or one of those games where I’m sure I’ll be run over or eaten. It can be physically and mentally exhausting.
Once I’ve reached the store I lift my bike into the rack, lock the lock and tuck my key away. I enter Vomar Voordeelmarkt to find my favorite 3.00€ bottle of wine and know it was worth the trip. Until I have to translate which checkout lane takes cash and which accepts bank cards and I’m asked if I want a receipt and I freeze because … “Sorry, nee Nederland.”
See what I mean? Amazing and terrifying and exhausting and mind blowing. Every. Damn. Day.