The more time I spend in Holland, the more it feels like Melbourne. Or Australia. I sent a message to a friend, Dave, on Facebook the other day. He was in the Netherlands in 2012. I said, ‘Holland is great, right?!’ He said, yeah the Netherlands are … like home. I’m not sure whether it was a positive or a negative comment, but I can hazard a guess. It was neither. Holland is not Melbourne, and not Australia – it’s comfortable. It’s like home. Anybody’s home. Well – probably a middle class home, one in which everyone has a decent relationship, there is a BBQ in the back yard every Sunday, and the family is fit and healthy. And they’re all tall. It’s a place you can be relaxed in, and you want to come back to.
We’ve been here for three weeks now, will be staying a month, in a smallish city (Enschede has 150,000 people), and I wouldn’t say it’s jumping – but I wouldn’t say it’s boring. It has a stadium that holds 30,000 people, three large swimming pools, a large town square (actually a circle) circumference by pubs, in which you can’t get a cappuccino to take away (meaning, it’s a real pub, not one of these new cater-to-all-types pubs); it has a (the) Grolsch brewery, it’s two hours from Amsterdam, the Hook of Holland, Utrecht, Rotterdam and the Hague (although, to be fair, everything in Holland is never much more than two hours from anything else) – and all of this is easy to get around, and to. Almost everyone speaks English, and isn’t precious about it. (I am learning Dutch, but though I have learned a lot, I have trouble remembering how to speak it somehow, when I’m in the situation. I didn’t have the same trouble with German). All of the window displays – and there are a lot of windows, glass everywhere, probably a reaction to the ‘window tax’, which used to make windows a sign I great wealth – are symmetrical. All of them. It gets weird. I would have better photos, but I feel like a stalker taking photos of people’s living rooms.
Our neighbours are friendly. Next door is Erik, who has the wide, square face of the Dutch, sported by the Dutch royal family, hair the colour of sand like the Dutch, blue eyes, and wears camouflage fatigues with bright orange tee shirts and a khaki cap. He plays reggae music all night long, and grows three well-kept marijuana plants outside, lined up next to the window. He has built an outside run for his cats, so that they can’t leave the property and get shot by farmers. Enschede is a farming town – when we arrived, we saw one tractor for every twenty cars, and all of them brand spanking – and Erik has non-judgemental negative things to say about the safety of cats in the area due to both farmers and children. Hence the cage. One night, when we were absolutely be-duggered from the day before spent in Utrecht, having a quiet day without sunlight and loud noises, the phone rang. I let it go to voicemail the first time. Then it rang again immediately, and when I picked up, it was Erik.
‘Hello, it is Erik, you neighbour. I am having a bonfire, and a drink. It is Friday, you know – thank god, no more work. You are Australian, and you like to drink, so how about you come over,’ and a lot of things like that. I found it hard to get a word in. We went over, and Erik was smiling from the get go. He is a delicate, positive guy with an honest love for the things he loves. He works for a major international electronics company, as an electrician. He used to play sport – table tennis, bike riding, and a lot of others.
‘Now,’ he says, rolling a cigarette without any weed in it, ‘the dope, you know’ he smiles, raises his eyebrows, as if I know what he’s saying. He seems quite happy about the fact that the weed is holding him back from doing some things. I wonder whether it’s holding him back from his work as an electrician. I tend to believe that that sort of intelligence is hard wired into him, though – he has the solid look of someone who knew a lot about the world from an early age, and allowed his intelligence to give him the room to cruise through life. He has principles, and he seems happy. We hear reggae into the night, sometimes, as the sun goes down at 11pm. Christina (who rents the house we are in, and has an eighteen month old boy, Oscar) says that if the Reggae gets too loud, she just texts Erik, and the music turns low instantly.
‘Sometimes Christina texts me,’ he says of the music. ‘I turn it right down straight away.’
Erik isn’t just into reggae – he volunteers to set up the electrics for one of the biggest reggae festivals in Holland.
‘The festival was five days before,’ he blows out with the smoke through his teeth, ‘but the head of the festival had a major illness, and died. It has not run for three years. Now, it is just one day.’
‘One day is a good start,’ I say.
He smiles. ‘Yes, one day is good. You go there and there are thousands of people all doing the same thing.’ Grin. ‘It is great thing to be a part of.’
Another of our neighbours is Henni, who is a marathon runner and running teacher. There is a communal garden out the back. One day, while I was out weeding Niels and Christina’s patches, Henni was working his patch, which has concrete pavers, bamboo sticks put together in a wide weave thatched wall for the climbers to run, and a big, pine compost bin, whose lid is too heavy to lift with one hand, to keep out the squirrels. I said hello, and we chatted about plants. After a moment, Henni was over telling me which of the plants was weeds, and what to do with the tomatoes. He’s 52, I would learn later, and finding it hard to find a job in Enschede as a builder. Which is hard to believe, when you see that he created the entire garden, Niels and Christina’s fences, the fence around the garden, some of the roof or something in this house, and the giant compost bin. But not hard to believe, because he’s 52, and people don’t hire older people who are great, because people are stupid.
‘You should come with me, when I run. On Thursday, or… the day that is after Monday.’
‘Yes. Tuesday, we go running, in the forest.’
‘Ah, running. Okay, that sounds… Tuesday?’
‘Okay, that’s very nice of you.’
‘Do you know where you are going, in the forest?’
‘Ah, no, not really.’
This is what I do. Henni seems a nice guy, and I mean it. But I can’t go for runs through the forest with men I don’t know. It’s just not a smart thing to do. It’s better to be safe than but chopped up into a thousand little pieces. Which is so insulting to Henni – if he wasn’t more of an understanding guy; he would probably get it. But I don’t know this.
I let this niggle at me, nibble at the edges of my brain, for about a week. How could I say yes? As stupid as it was, as unlikely to be a threat, I just couldn’t do it. So I take him some broccoli from the garden, and tell him I like to run alone.
‘Here – have this broccoli!’
‘That’s okay – I have some of my own.’
But then, when Erik invited us over, over came Henni. I talked to Henni as much as possible, to show him that I don’t think he’s weird. I think we came away understanding each other. Then he said, ‘You come for walk training, on Tuesday?’
I said yes. Then, as we left, I turned around, acting as if it was an afterthought.
‘Can Andrew come?’
‘Yes!’ said Henni. And everything was fine. Andrew would be there, and I had, at the same time, volunteered him for a workout without his permission. Double bonus!
When we turned up on Tuesday, Henni started jogging, through the forest. Henni is an experienced runner, and I set out after him, Andrew after me. We kept running. I thought to myself, ‘Don’t worry. You’re probably jumping to conclusions. We’re probably going to do what he said we would do in a minute. As we get further into the forest, I decide to ask. Andrew doesn’t run, and he’ll probably get tired.
‘Henni, are we walking today?’
‘No! We are running,’ he said, and kept moving at what he called ‘dribble’ pace.
We stopped in the middle of the forest. We were on a deserted dirt road. Henni made a long mark across the road, in halting movements, with his shoe.
‘Now, we do walk training.’
He made another line in the road, about five meters from the first.
Henni took us through drills that showed us how to use our feet from the middle foot, rather than the heel. We did each three times.
Then we ran for eight kilometres.
We chatted along the way, and he told us everything about the surrounding area – the crops, which were corn, a crop the government decided to subsidise for the local farmers as a support for the industry. He told us that Enschede used to be a textile town, and showed us the railway station between Holland and Germany, where the customs used to be.
‘Over there? Past those trees? That is Germany.’
Henni used to train as a body builder. He now trains and runs marathons. He has a scar on his shoulder where he came off his bike in the snow, and tore through three quarters of the tendon. He didn’t know until it wasn’t healing properly, and his doctor said he should have an MRI.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so happy, in that specific kind of way, to be talked to. To have someone to share things with. I am fairly sure he lives alone.
We ran eight kilometres, and I had only been planning 6.5. It was the easiest run I think I’ve ever done, and it was one of the hottest days in Enschede so far – about 35, and humidity like a bucket of hot water to the face.
Henni took us into the forest, so that we could run in the shade.