There’s something about a seaside town. Today, that something is a Bugatic wind from the Arctic Circle. We arrived from Amsterdam yesterday to Dan Haag – The Hague – and to our hostel 200 metres from Scheveningen beach. Thankfully, we were staying at the ‘cheapest and only’ hostel in the place: the Jorplace. Unthankfully, Andrew had booked us in for the week after we were there. It’s this bright, lit-up backpackers with English graffiti covering the walls, a bar, and a live-in VW campervan that you can hire for daytrips, or drink in at the bar. This is the best hostel I’ve stayed in, and that’s all I’ll say.
I was thinking, this morning, on my 5k run along the beach (not on the sand, I’m not crazy), that if I were involved in some sort of terrible international incident of which I was the supposed ring leader (framed, of course), tried, and provided with an ultimatum: death or isolation in one town in the world, I would choose to live in Scheveningen. Which is why I think it’s both a good, and bad, place to send war criminals. If I were ever given that ultimatum as a war criminal, or the brains behind an elaborate Dutch jewellery heist, I’d just ask for the fare for a taxi down the beach. The kilometres stretch of white-yellow sand; the millions of beach lounge chairs to which they bring you little drinks from the restaurant; the fact that it’s a) in Holland and b) no one has really ever heard of the beach here, so as to make it not too popular outside of Holland; its proximity to the UN court of justice (although my recent fictional experience is putting me off the UN); the clothes shops; the cafes that can ALMOST do a good coffee (Didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, but still good); the fact that the Dutch are so cool and laid back; all these things would make up for the fact that I would never be able to pronounce the name of the place I was banished to. Shevinginging. Sheveningon. Shevingon. Or something like that. Andrew told me that they used to ask the people they suspected of being foreign spies to pronounce it.
This isn’t looking good for me.
We were here before. We stayed in Rotterdam, at a friend of a friend’s house (the house’s interior decoration was lovely, and I will publish the sneak pics I took, of my room, below). The next day we went to the beach. It was the perfect weather: mid twenties, which in Holland is to you what, say, the final episode of the West Wing season one is to your cheese on toast under the grill on a Saturday afternoon. You’d better bring the sunscreen. They sell Australian. You will have to remind your husband that when he’s putting sunscreen on your back, he needs to go under the straps, rather than around them, though, or you’ll end up looking like you’ve got flames tattooed around the silhouette of your bra, later on, like some post-anti feminist anti-bra burning statement, about keeping your bra on, or burning it while it’s on, or something.
We sat for most of the morning on the beach and made lists and goals and things. Or I did, and Andrew made positive grunting noises. By lunchtime, the amount of people on the beach had probably doubled.
The water is only intimidating because it’s the North Sea. The kind of thing pirates and old men of the sea, their boats as weathered as their faces, talk about. Stepping a toe in feels like jamming it in the refrigerator door. But then you realise that you’re a wuss, and it’s not really any colder than Rye on New Year’s Eve. It’s fine. The sand is so fine, or shaped in such a way, that it remains buoyant and colours the water brown, almost green. I’m pretty sure it’s too cold for sharks, but that’s just something I’m telling myself to balance out the fact that you can’t see them on the final approach. The water is so thick it’s almost chewable. We pack up for lunch, and are one of two parties for lunch at one of about twenty deserted beach restaurants on the sand, whose umbrellas and branded lounge chairs extend down onto the beach. We walk then to the pier. Andrew has said that this is the longest pier in Holland – but we agree that he must have misread that fact, because no one would purposefully draw attention to this structure if length was an enviable quality. It is a building pier – it’s got three floors (I think), and shops in on the middle floor selling bathing suits and souvenirs. It must have Perspex windows, because they’ve got that opaque plastic look about them and are not clean. It’s kind of like all the air has been taken out and replaced with the comingled breath of the stall operators. Which I suppose it has. Bird droppings make it difficult to get a good photo of the beach from inside, which we want to, because suddenly there are fifty million people down there. The beach is absolutely packed with locals who’ve only just woken up. Which is also weird because it’s Monday. Giant jumping castles and slides, and big cartoon animals on tall poles so that you can find where you were sitting. A panda, a giraffe, something that looks like one of the Angry Birds. I try to see all of them, following the line of them in the beach as far as my eye will take me, but they are absorbed into the throng of skin and beach colours.
At 4 o’clock we decide to beat the afternoon rush home. Pulling out of the car park, we stop at a light two minutes down the road.
‘It smells terrible here,’ I say, and Butters agrees. It takes us a couple more minutes to put the smell together with the smoke I see coming out of the gap in the bonnet.
The Punto is small enough – you wonderful car – to pull in to the parks in the middle of the divided road almost perpendicular. We open the bonnet, and Andrew has a look around. The water is empty (it’s so hot that the windscreen water has evaporated, too), but he’s not sure that it’s what’s wrong, as I get the water from the back. We know that the car is supposed to have issues overheating, but we’ve been checking regularly, and somewhat optimistically hoping that the heat gauge on the dash, which is perpetually on even, actually works. It turns out that that is not the case, later on. We wait.
After 45 minutes waiting, I’m tapping the steering wheel.
‘Can we start it up, now?’
‘I want to wait a bit longer.’
‘Oh, come on. It can’t need that long.’
Andrew looks pensive. ‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure what we’re going to do, anyway. I don’t want to do further damage.’ I roll my eyes. Waiting is not my strong suit. He looks at me. ‘Well, what would you do?’ he says, looking like a wet towel wrung out, on a backdrop of heat waves.
‘I don’t know,’ I shrug. ‘I’d probably take my chances and drive to a petrol station.’
He frowns. ‘We don’t have a sim card. We can’t make a call.’
‘We could use their phone.’
‘We can’t risk doing further damage,’ he says, looking at the banked up traffic we’d have to idle through to get to the end of the road, let alone a fictional service station. He looked at the houses. ‘We’re going to have to use someone’s phone.’
‘Oh, and I bet I’m going to have to do that,’ I said, dreading it, but getting my teeth smile ready.
‘I’ll do it. Someone has to stay with the car.’
The balustrade in the middle of the road went for about 100m, and I saw him walking tentatively past the houses on the other side. He waved, looked apprehensive. I had seen a woman walk into one house with pretty curtains, which were all matching, unlike the rest. I had already wondered what the interior was like. There was a bike parked outside. I pointed to it and raised my eyebrows, and he went for the door. A middle aged woman appeared; Andrew made hand gestures and pointed at me. I smiled weirdly, and she waved. He followed her inside.
Five minutes later, a bike pulled up in front of the car and a guy with orange and black leathers got off. He was from the same company Andrew was calling in Germany, but the Dutch branch – but he hadn’t been called. He’d just turned up. I looked at the house, but I couldn’t leave. I’d just have to wait for him to come back. Twenty minutes later Andrew was back and the car was fixed – the relay for the radiator fan hadn’t been working. He replaced it with something that made the car sound like a jet plane, whether the engine was on, or off. We’d get a proper replacement later. We drove home with no issues – but getting odd looks when we stopped at the lights in the beautiful small canal town of Gouda. We really did sound like something from space. .
An aside: Sitting outside in the garden to write this, in Enschede, along which runs one of the walking paths running through the estate. A blue and green tit lands on the bird feeder and takes a peck at the peanut butter. It pecks, and then works the stuff down into its gullet with whatever it uses as a tongue. They love this stuff, but I can’t help but wonder if they find it as difficult to get down as we do. It pecks, then darts its head around, looking for predators. Like a child taking a biscuit from a jar, and another one. From off in the distance, on a sweep of wind, I think I hear a ‘tink’. A few more moments and it’s certain. The tink, tink, tink, blunders closer, reaching a crescendo as it passes the garden. I imagine the sharp, purposeful steps of a herd of living baby robots from War of the Worlds, marching toward some dark meeting. But they start talking in agreeing Dutch accents. It’s walkers. A team of them, out for a ten o’clock wander, dawdling without intent through the forest, each with two aluminium walking sticks – the ones hikers use – which they wield along the severely level bitumen and wooden planked forest walks. One wonders what kind of Mad Men genius was able to sell walking sticks to middle aged women in the flattest country in the world, which must have as many dedicated walking and riding paths as it does… tall people. I saw one woman who had put little rubber stoppers on the end of her sticks, to dull the tinking – one had obviously fallen off in the grass, giving her movement a lopsided noise. But then again, I think it’s a general thing that once you get past fifty, you’ll buy anything, and especially if it is made from a multicoloured fabric, or something in various forms of blue and mauve. Or any kind of wool that will make a scarf that Will from About a Boy would say made you look like you were wearing a yeti costume. (Not my mother – she seems to be immune to post fifty bowerbird-isms. Good one, Mum.) I’m looking forward to burying myself in blue, in about twenty years. My favourite colour is green, though, so something chemical will obviously have to occur.
We drove to the justice centre, which I desperately wanted to see, in the pouring rain. There is a park visible, but no building. There is no parking but for cards, and you must have a Dutch card. Great for tourism. I went into the closest, nearest open business, a real estate agent’s. I walked in and three men, the closest of them one of those long haired blonde businessmen, who could have decided to give up surfing the day before and start a business. Up got his dog, which is the biggest thing I’ve seen on paws in this lifetime. All shaggy. He told me that you had to use a bank card, and winked, went back to work. I will be sad to leave Holland.