Saturday 7 November 2009

Home is where the heart is

I was half expecting a knock at the door from the burgemeester with a brass band in tow, striking up the first few bars of the Wilhelmus. My nostrils could almost smell the fragrance of the spray of flowers he held in his outstretched hand. In my mind I could just about make out the bright orange strip of ribbon the mayor was clutching in the other. But instead, my reveries were rudely awakened by the sound of the latest afvalrooster (that's the waste collection schedule) landing on the doormat.

Spending 25 years as a resident of a ‘foreign’ country is quite an achievement. I have to keep pinching myself to somehow believe I’ve passed that amount of time in the Netherlands. My approach has been not to dwell on it too much, so it’s perhaps a good idea the doorbell never rang.

Nevertheless, dwell on it I have. First of all, I kept thinking about how - if at all - I ought to celebrate the occasion. Should I take a stroll down to the frituur and indulge in a frikandel special? Or should I simply slope off and catch the next boat to Dover? Well, in the end I did the latter, but this was more by coincidence than by premeditation.

For some reason, over the last couple of weeks, independently of my own musings, people keep reminding me of my expatriate status. Whilst I was in England, I was asked the question as to where I considered home. Back in Holland, a friend’s daughter asked me (as an allochtoon) to fill in a questionnaire as part of a school project on the pluriformity of Dutch society. The other night, when I was on my way to teach a class of English learners, I bumped into a Welsh girl who’d recently moved here and had started taking Dutch classes, just like I had all those years ago.
So it’s been hard to ignore the issue.

I like to think I hover between two cultures.
Perhaps I’ve become more objective towards them both, but then again I could just be culturally schizophrenic. For example, in Holland I have no problem with wishing a friend a Happy Birthday, but I’ve never felt comfortable about congratulating their nearest and dearest on this fact as well (except perhaps the mother who gave birth to them). I mean, they have their own birthdays, don’t they? And I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to tell people that English beer is lukewarm because it's supposed to be - the taste is better that way (and doesn't get obliterated as a result of chilling or bubbles).
By the same token, I was at the barbers in England last week when the conversation inevitably turned to Holland. Well, Amsterdam and coffee shops actually, as most Brits’ preconceptions about the country seem to be similarly limited, even though their knowledge of the Dutch capital is probably better than mine. All I could say was, I live in the hilly bit. (When news of flooding reached the international media ten years ago or so, I used to get worried friends phoning me up from England. They just couldn't get their heads round the fact that I lived at a higher altitude than them.) Needless to say, I was left squirming in my seat, made all the more embarrassing by seeing my reflection in the mirror.

Of course, it would be unfair to apply these generalisations to a whole 25 years. As for home, I can’t really say where it is. Home is where I feel most comfortable and my comfort levels are determined by many different factors. For example, I love my house and I enjoy the company of the friends around me, knowing that I can rely on them, but after a while it can be too much of a good thing. To appreciate it properly, you need to get away. So I travel to England (or elsewhere in Europe), enjoy the company of (family and) friends around me, knowing that I can rely on them, but after a while it can be too much of a good thing. To appreciate it properly, I need to get back to my house. Home really is where the heart is.

At the moment I can’t imagine living elsewhere. I feel slightly privileged. I mean there’s few places where I could jump on my bike and be in three different countries (and speak three different languages) in the space of an hour.