In Holland, my husband sticks out far more than I do in Australia. It provokes rather intense feelings of how home can change, and change a person.
A few weeks ago, I became a grandmother to another lovely little girl. She is called Vosse and is, I am sure, better, smarter and more special than anybody else (apart from her sister, obviously). Vosse’s birth meant, of course, that we went to Holland to have a look and help out. Scrimping and saving we try to do that once a year, just to remind the family that we exist outside of the Whatsapp screen.
As you may remember, I am married to an Australian, although he has been here so often that when the Dutch women played the Americans in the World Soccer finale, he considered himself part of the ‘us’ that needed to win. I find that really interesting because I see him slowly go through a similar process I experienced when I came to Australia.
He’s finding himself in between two countries, he is trying to figure out where he fits and who belongs to what. And that teaches me a lot about identity; his, mine and what that concept means in general.
To get ourselves fit to help out with the children, we have taken up swimming. Jim is a water baby and in Australia, his favourite part of the day is his time in the ocean pool near our house. Navigating the fish, the tide, the swell and sometimes the seaweed is what he is born to do. So, being in Holland without hitting the water is simply not an option.
A few days ago, Jim said how he likes the fact that in the water everybody is equal.
That is an old Australian idea, of course: in cossies, you can’t see who is a millionaire and who is temporarily on Centrelink. The problem is, though, that in Holland you can. First of all, because you can hear it. In the Dutch language, the way you were raised, the education you have received and even what your parents do for a living: it is all audibly there.
Although we don’t have a difference between the Queen’s English and the secret handshake language of the East End of London (also called rhyming slang), everybody can hear somebody’s background in their voice. Another tell-tale sign is (believe me or not) the way people, especially men, have cut their hair. And the movement of their hand when they brush it out of their face. It is impossible to explain and when I show Jim he doesn’t see the difference. But I do. And so do most of my ex-countrymen and women.
Also, I know they look at my husband and see immediately that he is not Dutch. He is built differently, moves differently, takes up more space than people in a very overpopulated country are used to do.
All of this makes me think. I’ve got it much easier in Australia than Jim does here. I speak the language, have a job, friends, a house, a cat, a newly purchased van. After thirteen years, I belong Down Under. Because what am I missing? Which clues am I not seeing? And why is it that after all that time people still immediately recognise that I am an outsider?
Come to think of it: is it even possible to become what you weren’t before? Are you just one thing only, however much you try? They are questions worth contemplating. For me, for Jim, maybe for you, and for the 257.7 million migrants and 68.5 million refugees in the world today. All searching for a place.
Come to think of it: is it even possible to become what you weren’t before? Are you just one thing only, however much you try? They are questions worth contemplating.
A little postscript to this story: at the moment, my town of Utrecht is hosting the annual conference of the Jehovah Witnesses. 42,000 people from all over the world have descended, most of them impeccably dressed and probably lovely. But yesterday I had a little run-in with a delegate from Western Australia. I was passing him and a few of his colleagues from Cameroon (it said on their badges) while he was presenting them with unidentified food from an enormous eski he had in front of him.
He was just telling them that they should eat what he was offering because the alternative would be to eat what was being sold around them. That would not do, since ‘this is a socialist country and the devil is in their produce’.
So he had brought all his nourishment for the week from Australia and was now sharing that bounty with his mates. I told him I absolutely agreed.
That I had been cooking with my 3-year old granddaughter that afternoon and that she and I would surely go to hell now: cod with a mustard sauce, mash, rhubarb, beans, peach cobbler. Straight into the fires of the underworld. The dumbass didn’t even realise I was attacking him, and earnestly said that he would pray for us.
The theme of the conference? ‘Love never fails!’ Sometimes I despair about humanity.