04 December 2006

what does it feel like?

I have an older brother who spent a lot of time living abroad before I ever had a passport, and he was the first real flavor I got of what life might be like living and travelling outside of the US. I remember him telling me that the days never could seem as crappy because at least you were living in this much-desired place, and that there were lots of tortoises in Athens. He told me this because it's always those little things that make the difference between being somewhere and reading about it in a book. There's always something that makes it personal for you.

Here in Holland, those things are accumulating for me- I can find the shops that sell marzipan shaped like partly gutted fish and school satchels, and I've tasted the bottlecap-sized ginger cookies available at every reception desk and shop at this time of year. I now know that some people still DO wear the iconic wooden Dutch shoes, and that carrying an umbrella while cycling must be a somewhat effective method for staying dry in the rain. I've learned that a side dish of potatoes must come with every meal, even if the main plate already has mashed potatoes, and that Dutch men like a lot more hair gel than the average Icelander.

I always wanted to see the minutiae of everyday life in new places- what is sold in grocery shops, what the advertisements on TV are like, what people do on a Monday evening in a village. This evening I watched that unfold as I ate dinner alone at a brasserie around the corner from my hotel. The butter yellow windowframe at the front looked out over a carless street full of activity. The rain that started an hour before had glossed the road and made the people coming from shops across the square hurry past, their parcels clutched close. Just outside, under the restarant's awning, a single candle flickered in blue glass on the wicker cafe tables, and across the way, people ducked into a glowing pub. There were pool tables in play inside- I could see the flash of cue ball as it rolled across the felt, and outside a man leaned against the doorframe in the middle of an involved conversation.

Monday evening was in that winding down stage: to my right, the waiter from the adjacent restaurant set out the trash barrels, a lit cigarette illuminating his face slightly, as couples paired beneath umbrellas passed. There was a bit of wind that made the awning trimming flutter and set the white Christmas lights swinging along the length of the street, and inside I could hear the sound of scrubbing in the kitchen, a extra rhythm section for the tacky French Christmas tunes that played in the nearly empty restaurant.

The bells of the church struck ten as I settled the bill, then I went from being observer to participant as I too stepped outside into the street and joined the dispersion of people, everyone headed home to a warm, dry place somewhere in this short Dutch town.

6 comments:

tsduff said...

Looks like you eat dinner late. Is that an everyday occurance, or only on the weekends? As always, I enjoy reading your everyday details of the life around you, no matter where you are. Do you like Holland? I used to have a pair (blue) of the wooden shoes brought back to me by my aunt after a trip she took to Holland) I loved those shoes - and was terribly disappointed when my feet outgrew the rigid carved out interiors. One of the first things I do in a foreign country is check out the supermarket. I love to see what lines the shelves, and try to figure out what is what. Last time we were in Iceland, G and I picked out some tinned pate for his mom - but seeing as how I could only read a small portion of the ingredients, I was unsure exactly what kind of pate it was! Whatever it was, she thanked us for it :-D She is leaving for Hafnarfjordur tomorrow to spend the next few months with her sister in Kopavogar. Wish I was too.

semiIcelander said...

Do you also enjou this amazing buidling structures that sinks in the mud during the last centuries and stand like old man right beside of the street or chanel. You should do a chanel ferry tour, if you have time.
By the way, I deliverd my report right in time :-)....

ECS said...

terry- I eat dinner wheneverish, but yesterday the shops were open late so I browsed before dining. Growing up though, we were not the family that ate at 6pm, partly becasuse my mom grew up abroad and was not accustomed to eating so early.
We also had wooden shoes that fit my brother for a while- he liked wearing them when taking out the compost or some other short outdoor errand.
I do like Holland, and it's growing on me more as I spend more time here. I've met some really nice people and because I am working rather than visiting, I see a very different picture of life here.

Hi F :) Took me a while to figure out who you were. I know the buildings you are talking of, but the town where I am staying is not so heavy on the canals.

Jen said...

These are the posts that I love. Being in a different country - even if its just being in another city much like our own - alleviates the feeling of loneliness even when you're alone. Thanks for your report from Holland.

sb said...

I hope you get the cups :D when you get back.

If you ever make a tour around Scandinavia, I'd say try Copenhagen. It still is scandinavian yet with tremendous European flavours. You know me, I've been all over.
But ones own pleasures are not neccesarily yours. There are so many beautiful places in Europe and Scandinavia.
Where did your mom grow up again, I know you told me a long long time ago.
I'm curious as in how you'll be spending your holiday. It's interesting to hear another persons idea, to be away from home. But that is all I know for the past 15 years.

ECS said...

jen- I've had some great times alone while travelling actually. My first trip abroad was by myself, and the trend has continued. Plus, on these work trips I spend so much time working on projects with lots of other people, that these hours alone are just what I need.

S- I would love to visit all kinds of places, and Copenhagen is definitely on The List. For the time being though, I'm just enjoying Amsterdam.
My mom grew up in Brazil and also spent a lot of time in Europe, but never made it to Iceland in her travels until this year.