The commuters

Travelling by train is my favourite part of the day. Especially in the morning, when commuters along my route don’t yet have the energy to be rude or unkind. I have always wondered where all the people go, one after the other, as I see them disappear at stations where I have never been, and where I still hope I will never have to be.

Between my stops I see the tired commuters go by, day after day, and I have even learnt to recognise some of the faces. They are now as familiar to me as my own. I wonder if they recognise me. Most likely not. It seems as if they are only preoccupied with procuring their first cup of coffee.

Commuting in the Netherlands is an exact science. Navigating the intricacies of train schedules, of knowing that every second counts and that two or three minutes may are the difference between making it to the bus or spending 15 long minutes idling away in some grey and godforsaken station in the middle of the great Dutch outdoors. Knowing which compartment to run towards so that you get those precious extra thirty seconds so you don’t have to run to the bus stop. Card in hand, so you don’t forget to check out at the check-out stations that are inconveniently situated throughout the station.

There is no delay today in spite of the mist that covers the morning landscape and makes it surreal. Men and women in their khaki rain coats sit still, furiously checking their phones. I only speculate, but in my mind they are playing one of those stupidly addictive games, the ones we play on days like these.

Some of the commuters read the free newspapers. Of course the last thing these newspapers offer is information. The Sudoku are good, but most commuters these days have an app on their phone and so, the occasions when I find a half-worked out Sudoku to finish are now few and far between. Somehow I always forget to pick up my copy of the free newspaper and must rely on the kindness of strangers who leave the masses of paper behind for other commuters to read. That is probably an unspoken rule. Free reading material should always be left behind for the enjoyment of other commuters.

Commuting in the Netherlands is also an art. The art of asking a woman carrying two bags, one artfully placed on the seat next to her and another on the seat opposite on a busy commuter train, to move them so that the commuters can sit, without exchanging a single word. The deafening silence that surrounds a group of colleagues who could only find a place to sit together in the stilte coupé, where silence is much appreciated and harder to come by. The music that results from one angry, caffeine-deprived man in a suit who points to the silence sign and politely hisses: “This is the silent carriage, if you want to talk, go elsewhere.”

There is also the perfectly manicured landscape, punctuated here and there by semi abandoned industrial parks that look like relics from an industrial past. As I pass station after station, and my partners-in-commute are slowly regurgitated from the belly of the yellow beast, I cannot help but wonder who these men and women are.

There is no intimacy like the intimacy of a commute. Without words we all understand the others. We look at those who don’t belong–the woman with luggage, the card driver with a discount coupon, the lost tourist en route to the airport–with derision. They don’t know what Monday morning on a train feels like, before the first coffee of the day, when the world opens up just enough to see the landscape before closing back again with the whooshing sound of an automatic door.

My horoscope

My brain was not yet fully functional. My hand reached out for the mouse, instinctively, almost.

With a double click I found myself browsing through the website. A trusted friend  during my high school years, it had coached me into wearing more blue–almost to the point of a  uniform–and into reining in my spending impulses (Taurus: Saturn is aligned with the moon on your 19th house of frivolous expenses. Beware).

It had also helped me get into guys (Taurus: auspicious day to talk to that boy you’ve had a crush on, like, forever). Mostly into guys who were not into me, as it would then turn out after talking to them. It also helped me to handle rejection (other fish in the sea, avoid Piscis though).

Once I found stability in my life, I felt I no longer needed the horoscope to know that earthly tones are best for me, or that I had finally met The One. Curiously enough my horoscope did not prepare me for that.

There was no warning, no parting skies when he came into my life. My horoscope had not mentioned the proverbial “tall, dark stranger” that would very soon knock on my door. Or that I would be swept off my feet. It also did not say anything about our dates, our weekends away, our travels.

The horoscope remained mum regarding the dinners I never helped craft although it did say I would always enjoy eating much more than cooking. The shared passion for travel, the luxury always unattainable due to budget concerns, were never
even dignified with a line or two.

My horoscope predicted home life would be a bliss. We were the most compatible sign pair ever known to mankind. There was no other way of putting it. It was written in our stars.

It did not predict, however, what would happen when Saturn left the house of eternal love and commitment. And now I scroll through the website hoping this time, I won’t miss the sign.

A bigger suitcase

If you had had a bigger suitcase none of this would have happened. No heartache when you moved across an ocean. Your heartbreak would have been contained within the limits of your old and battered box.

Nor would you have had problems to carry your beloved books, those who would sustain you during the sleepless nights that followed your departure. Now that you need them, they are nowhere to be found.

If you had had a bigger suitcase, your shoulders would not ache under the weight of that carry-on, heavy with your fragile dreams and hopes. Some of them have already shattered as you walk down that airport road with no particular destination.

Your tiny wheeled bag was not enough to contain your enthusiasm, your will to love and to discover, your thoughts and your wishes. And now, as you stand there, in the cold of the city and embrace your lot, you curse under your breath wishing that, at least, your bag were big enough to carry a coat.

Football times, a recap

As soon as I had agreed, I knew it was something I would regret. Occasions to play out your relationship on a field, by proxy, do not come very easy. And yet, during the negotiation I thought it would be a good idea to exchange time for time. We watch the match, we meet up with my friend. Sounds easy, right?

Pre-match commentary

We’d been walking north for about twenty minutes, hoping to find a place that would broadcast the match, without much luck. Then we found this dive of a bar, “broadcasting all World Cup matches”. I have never liked football. Yet here I am, about to sit down for the longest two-hour lunch of my life.

Fittingly, we walk into a bar where they are playing the match on a large screen, but in the basement only. Normal people are enjoying their drinks out in the sun and I am in a badly lit cave. The sound is cranked up and two men that seem very knowledgeable are talking about defence tactics. Apparently defence is key to winning this match. They also talk about injuries, and the teams’ strengths. A guy will be key to winning the match. It seems everything is key to winning the match. The basement is not very full, because apparently not as many people care about this match as is thought by him. All I can think about is where to focus my attention between now and the moment they take my order.

I like how, when presenting the players, there is a shot of them crossing their arms. Some go for scary, some for angry, and most don’t know what to do with their hands. I don’t know any of them, but I pretend I do while reading the names off the screen, thus impressing him, and someone else sitting next to me.

1′
We are off!The place grows quiet as a guy kicks the ball. I am informed that’s a kick-off, and that the match has begun. I order a salad. Trivia: it is 32 degrees Celsius where the men are playing, and humidity is at 80%. All of a sudden this dingy basement doesn’t seem so bad in comparison. “Holland were said to be thinking of going to the classic 4-3-3 but looks like they are lining up in a 5-3-2,” says the knowledgeable commentator. It is apparently an important fact.

9′
Guy in orange limps to the side of the field and has to leave. My salad arrives, which annoys him. He does not appreciate the waiter stepping in front of the screen. Lemonade makes its appearance two minutes later. The waiter steps in front of the screen again. Yellow card for him! He cannot yet be expelled because the other side is still missing an order of fries.

13′
I should not nobody is wearing official colours around here. Neutral colours are your friend in case of national matches. Fries arrive, the most exciting thing that has happened so far. They are covered in cheese. An unexpected move.

17′
There seems to be a bit more movement. To a slow match corresponds a slow inflow of people into the basement. Everyone yells at the screen and, though few in numbers, their screams are powerful. I still don’t get what’s going on. Apparently the guys in green are not as bad as expected. Apparently as well, they are “my team” for the purposes of this match. Long faces are in the majority, probably not cheering for green, but who knows?

31′
Drinking pause on the field. It is too hot and humid to play for 45 minutes straight. They show a shot of the stadium, where all fans sitting in the sun area have left because it is just too hot. Why you’d want to be there is beyond me.

I ask to see the menu again. This time nobody steps in front of the screen. Chance missed.

45′
Bathroom break! In 45 minutes nothing more exciting has happened than discovering they changed the croutons on my salad for walnuts. That was a good surprise. Asking questions about the match in the middle of the match is a no-no. So I still have no idea if what the commentators are saying about the goalie on the green side is true. They say he is very good, but very short, so he’ll never make it big. It begins to sound familiar. Then I lose the trail of the comments, that can’t rise above the complaints of the fans.

49′
We’ve resumed play. Goal from the green side. Fists in the air. Despair. Total and absolute loss. I apparently should brush the smug smile off my face. I am not even smiling. Waiter comes around again, I order dessert.

I am devastated to see there is no Wi-Fi in the basement. I go outside to check my email out of sheer boredom. Two emails from people wondering how my relationship is doing. At this point, as well as the orange team, which is to say not good.

On my way back to the table I notice that the kitchen staff is watching the match on a cell phone. Perhaps that explains the walnuts?

53′
I am sitting here, eating blueberries. Nobody cares. There’s a guy on the field who has been jumping to the ground at any opportunity. I am told that this is war, and all is fair. Apparently the definitions of fair play vary according to region.

88′
Goal from the orange side! General rejoice. I know the word overtime well enough to know that, if nobody scores again, then I am stuck here for another 45 minutes, at least. Someone have mercy and score.

90′
I am told one of the players has magical shin that everyone wants to kick. They succeed! Or maybe not! Who cares? A penalty is given to the orange side and they score! My prayers have been heard. I don’t have to sit through overtime! In spite of it “not being my team”, I am happy if they win. That means I won’t have to go around the city hearing about how awful this was and the opportunities they missed. As the match draws to a close, the commentators keep on saying that it was a close call for the oranges, and plain bad luck for the greens.

90’+
My phone is overflowing with messages. Mostly people ask about how I am doing, how my fight-by-proxy played out and whether I saw “that”. What they mean remains a mystery. “It wasn’t a penalty”, seems to be the accepted opinion. Again, what that means is not clear to me. I, for one, am just happy to be out of the basement and into the scorching city sun.

Epilogue:

For those of you in the know: #Noerapenal

Time for some serious thinking

As I was leaving work yesterday my phone flashed with breaking news:

“Flight departing from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport has disappeared from the radar and is presumed crashed”

There is something about news in the age of fast messages that I immediately opened twitter and the news started slowly pouring in. Much, much slower than my curiosity allowed.

I was in the train with a colleague, and I said tongue-in-cheek that Twitter allowed us to be “disaster tourists” without leaving the (dis)comfort of our train seats. But it is true.

As the evening went on, more information became available and, with it, the inevitable realisation that someone in my circle of friends or acquaintances would be touched by this tragedy.

As of now, I know of 5 people who lost family, friends or acquaintances in that crash. None of those who were on the Malaysian flight were my friends. I don’t know them. I never got the chance to get to know them.

So I must confess I feel a bit guilty about saying all this. Because it is not my pain, not directly. And I feel like a voyeur just thinking about it.

Injera

This is for you, Ruth said and handed me a white bag, together with a booklet about the World Cup that her church had provided her.

The book is a bizarre trinket. Talk about salvation is mixed with trivial facts about the World Cup. I now know that Lev Yashin, a Soviet goalie, was called the ‘Black Spider’. It is probably the first such fact I learn without looking it up on Wikipedia. Irrelevant as that information is, I am certain I will never forget it. Right below I could read Luke 12:4-9, “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”

‘Refugees’, they are called by politicians. Refugees whose numbers are growing too hard for their–and our–own good. Refugees, the word pronounced as if its mere utterance carried contagion with it.

They sit through my class. Nominally I teach them English. In reality, this is a place they can go and forget that the world outside sees them as a nuisance because they have decided to leave their own behind. They all listen to me as if I were preaching on a Sunday.

The white bag was full of injera. To eat it, you sit around a large table and slowly break off the pieces of soft, acid pancake. This was Ruth’s way of sharing a meal with me. She cannot invite me to the rancid flat where she must spend her days now. She sits there and waits for some merciful bureaucrat to give her a stamp of approval that she knows may not ever arrive.

I suppose she makes the best of it. But she clings to her English classes and her Sunday church services as if her life depended on it. This is all the contact afforded to her. Her life is one large fence placed around all the places where she cannot go. Church and class, the rest of her day idle at home because she cannot work. Preparing injera, with expensive teff flour, was a show of gratitude, but I also want to believe it was a way she found to keep herself busy.

The issue of Ethiopian coffee comes up in class. Ethiopia is not her favourite topic, but Eritrea has the same coffee. And the way the coffee is prepared, ‘it is very special, it is extreme good coffee’. She learned the word extremely today, but it is too difficult to focus on all the syllables right now. So extreme good coffee it is. She comes up with a promise to show me her home, and have an extreme good coffee with me, when she can.

We say goodbye after she has given me the bag and explained what I must do with it. Eating injera correctly is not difficult, but it is certainly different. Feeling the texture of your food gliding through your fingers. That is the kind of experience you shouldn’t have on your own.

As she sees me leafing through the booklet she looks at me. She’s determined to save my soul, through food or the bible. I am more partial to the first, I must admit.

Reflections on a sunny day

I am sitting at my desk, wishing I could break away from the infernal typing that I  have chosen as a lifestyle.

I could go for a walk to clear my head. But it wouldn’t be responsible. There is work to do.

I can hear the birds, get some tea and see the wilting flowers under the unforgiving sun.

I have no right to complain. It is probably too warm outside for my liking either way.

I remember being a child and hating the sun. I liked rainy days.

And now I am an adult, with adult responsibilities, and all I want is to go out and feel the sun in my face.

Balloons

I have begun writing this piece more times than I can count. Somehow I could not bring myself to finish it.

Last week I received a picture from my parents. My mother was with a friend. Her loose, creamy linen clothes made her look ghostly. But she looked straight at the camera and smiled, a reassuring smile directed to me, and me alone.

It was Christmas. She was trying one of usual fad diets. This was a family tradition, like the bacalao. Nobody at home liked the overly salted fish, the potatoes that took ages to cook and the capers. If there is anything I dislike to this day is the taste of capers in tomato sauce. Somehow bacalao always ended in the Christmas dinner menu and, as much as we couldn’t stomach the smell, it would not have been Christmas without it.

It would also not be Christmas without the announcement of the newest, safest, and foolproof way to lose weight. This time for real. Atkins, Dash, Mediterranean. Low carb. High protein. Only fruit juice for the weekend. I was surprised it lasted until 18 January, every year without fail. Then, on the eve of my father’s birthday, he would order a three milk cake and that would be the end of the charade. Breaking the diet was a given, as were the constant, half-hearted complaints.

Then 7 years ago she actually began to lose weight. It turned out that kale juice was not responsible for that. Cancer was.

(There, I’ve said it).

She was always so proud of her hair. Liz Taylor hair, she used to say. And when she began turning grey, she refused to colour it. She said to people that she was proud of her age. The truth is that the one time she tried it went so wrong that she wouldn’t leave the house without a hat to cover her misery. Now her hair has disappeared. It has been replaced by colourful bandannas that announce to the world the truth that she perhaps would like to keep hidden. The straw hats she always wore to the beach now protect her face.

For some reason, every time I think of my mother these days I think of the time I was a child and wanted a red balloon. My cousin had gotten one from her dad and I, for the life of me, could not understand why I wasn’t getting a red balloon too. But I didn’t get one that day, nor the day after. I cried and begged and crossed my arms and stomped in protest. And I still did not get the red balloon.

Then, it must have been a few weeks later, I had a birthday party. The living room of our narrow house was packed with neighbours, classmates and family. Red balloons hung in every corner, but they were still out of my reach. After everyone had gone home, we spent what seemed like hours just playing with red balloons. My dress was white, with little green apples. And my mother kept on throwing the balloons at me. I would run around the tiny house, kicking and hitting balloons back. I was enchanted. When it was time to go to bed, I got to keep the one balloon and the rest was swiftly popped with a needle and disposed of neatly in the garbage.

When I was back home a few years ago, I hugged her and noticed that she had become light, frail, almost ethereal. I feared that my embrace would break her in two and I confess I shied away from her. That was not my mother I was hugging. She never mentioned it to me, but it makes me cringe to think that she thought I rejected her.

Now I wish I could take it all back and put my arms around her with all the strength I have in my body. To tell her that the small puffs on her head will soon grow back into beautiful waves, like they used to. That she will once more be able to lift her arms and hit balloons around with me.

They still live in the narrow house, my mother and father. He has become devoted to her care, he’s almost a shadow. All attention is on her. Their day is quickly filled with doctor’s appointments, nurses, well-wishers and a few other curious souls. This year, as usual, the smell of bacalao will fill the living room at Christmas. There will be no fad diets, and no red balloons.

A moment of catharsis

Dear friend,

Promise first that you will keep this secret.

I am just writing to let you know that in spite of not sharing the same belief system, the stories you share about your faith make me believe that there is kindness in this world. Also, knowing that there are people like you, who are really proud of the work they do helping others, is comforting. There may be no god, but there sure are good people.

I don’t mean to shock you. I don’t think I ever told you, but those last few months before we parted ways for good were sheer torture. Whether you know it or not, you were one of those few whom I always felt was kind to me. In spite of everything that I did and say to push you away. Yes, I do accept my share of responsibility. 

Those days are now over. I have a good and stable life, and I like it, in spite of the occasional (major) hiccup. I just wanted to let you know that you made a difference in my life when I was very, very vulnerable. I realised just now I never properly thanked you, nor did I ever say goodbye. 

My opinion is immaterial to your life, I know. But your calling (what I, a non-believer, would call your profession) will bring you in contact with many others like me. One such person wants to thank you for having shared your heart in such a way. The kind, almost invisible, gestures did not go unnoticed. Even after 10 years I thought you should know. 

The perennial optimist

The perennial optimist

 A serial expat, having lived in at least three continents, Isabelle never imagined moving to the Netherlands would be anything but a piece of cake. And it was. At first. After all, where she grew up is just around the corner, compared to Uganda at least.

She arrived in Amsterdam due to “the usual”, her shorthand for a Dutch partner. Everything was new and full of promise. It was also closer to her own culture than all other places where she had lived before. At some point, however, she began noticing that people interacted according to a different code. Fully aware of her otherness, home became elsewhere, and she was torn.

She worried about her two children—both grown-ups with budding careers. But it is not about that, not really. She knows they will manage. It is also not about the cultural gap, although she never imagined it would be so great. For Isabelle, understanding that there is no deadline for return challenged her view of herself, and her approach to life.

She used to be demanding and harsh, holding herself to impossibly high standards. “Us human beings are experts in haunting ourselves with negative thoughts”, she says. Now she knows doing so is a waste of life. She can choose to dig a hole and despair, or she can choose to be an optimist. Frankly, at this point the latter seems a much better option.

Isabelle still travels back to see her children whenever she can. However, she has managed to stop herself from saying that she is travelling back home.

Creative writing exercises

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers