There’s nothing like going to a new country where you are unfamiliar with the language, its customs and food to remind you how little you really do know, or for that matter, what you really care about… especially if you’re tired and it requires effort.
We spend most of our years developing habits and routines that help us in our daily lives, and we engage in them over and over to the point where we don’t even think about it. We just want it done. Understandable, but I wonder how much we miss when we get bogged down in a particular way of doing things. Sometimes a little thing called inconvenience is all we need to give us a fresh perspective on life.
For example, I thought I knew how to walk through an intersection, although one could argue that I’m out of practice considering how much time
I spend driving in my car. Like many things Dutch, a pedestrian walkway signal is not silent, and the tic tick ticking sound it makes is a warning that the halted traffic, which includes a deluge of bicycles (many without brakes and driven by students who are also new to the city, and are trying to balance themselves on it with a cell phone in one ear, and a crate full of laundry on the back of a broken fender) … are all about to run me over.
It’s like being in the middle of an episode from 24 wondering whether or not Jack Bauer can disable the bomb in 3 seconds. Can I make it to the other side without hesitation? or will I once again freeze in the middle of the street and do this awkward dance of go forward go back, cha cha cha, then run quickly from embarrassment, just as the traffic flow is about to mow me down.
As for washing up, while it’s not the same as going down to the local swimhole and slamming my sweaters and dirty jeans on river rock, I’ve taken up handwashing these days. It’s a lot easier than trying to use the one washer and dryer located in the tiny damp crawlspace below street level in our apt building. To get there, I walk down the skinny spiral staircase (3 floors, worn wood, and marble) descend or shimmy down five steps, then angle my short body to avoid coming in contact with the low ceiling while going down three more narrow steps, all for the pleasure of possibly pulling my back out or bonking my forehead. It’s a little like doing the limbo at your third cousin’s wedding. The person who wins is either the most limber, a dancing with the stars wannabe or the only one left not passed out on the floor. Once in the laundry area, i dodge the wet floors which are paved with cobble stones so water always collects in the elegant but never dry grooves.
By the time I get to the actual washer, I am so exhausted that I have little patience for decoding Dutch dials, so I finally ask the nice man in the office next door to come help me interpret the machine so that I won’t shrink everything and end up with Barbiedoll size clothing. He patiently explains to me that you put the soap in a tiny plastic cup that you then put in with the wash so the soap and the cup spin around with your clothes. Forget about wringing or softening…too many steps, and well, there’s already enough of those. Because there’s no sitting down here like you do in a Laundromat back home, I trudge back to our apt on the top floor ( no elevator). Because it’s difficult to predict how long the cycles take or how dry clothing will get in all the dampness, I’ve been up and down these spiral stairs at least four times a load. All that enthusiasm for walking and getting exercise quickly pales when it’s uphill. By this time I’m thinking, disposable clothing is a good idea.
Lest you think all I do is complain about laundry, let me move on.
I’ve always felt comfortable in the kitchen, but it is true that the duller the knife, the worse the cut, and not just to the vegetable. There are four knives in the drawer and none of them are sharp. There’s a colander, a pot for boiling water, and a fry pan. There’s a coffee pot but no MUGS.
No mugs….so just for fun, I bought a cheap glass mug, sold in the same section as the very large expensive ceramic mugs, and I was sooo looking forward to a hot cup of tea. Once the water boiled in the electric kettle, I poured it…then the entire mug separated in about 10 pieces…I must admit it was awesome to watch it crack. But Walter White, everyone’s favorite television chemistry teacher and top crystal meth dealer would not be proud of my limited knowledge of what happens when you put boiling water into glass. I knew it but in the excitement of having a cup larger than dollhouse size, I forgot. There’s no oven, my friend Martha informs me that Dutch folks like to cook on top of the stove. There is a combo microwave convection appliance but even Ralph, the rental agent, acknowledges he doesn’t know how to use. So I’ve never had my stove speak to me before, but when I tried to “touchscreen” the correct setting for cooking my stir-fry, my fingers must have exerted just a little too much pressure on the stovetop, and suddenly the LED display was flashing “Error, error.” What ever happened to just plain old gas cooking? Can”t you just hear the ancestors whining? “If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.”
Finally we come to eating food. I’m no stranger to foreign grocery stores…in Philadelphia there are Korean and Russian and Spanish ones and my heart does rush a bit when I go for the gusto and purchase something I hope is really what I think it is ….but that’s a temporary fling. I always go back to my regular haunts…the Acmes, the Weis, the Wegmans where my brain doesn’t have to work so hard. But here in the Netherlands, I want to catch on pretty quickly. So at the local grocery store, I thought I could recognize beef, or ham but in my stupored state I feel really uncertain…so I just keep asking sympathetic people who speak English (and yes everyone does speak English and I can hear the exasperation in their voices when I do ask …do you speak English? as if there is a cartoon bubble caption over their head.. yes you idiot, we all speak English, and French, and Dutch). At least in a store it’s easy to recognize a tomato or a head of lettuce….. But in a restaurant…all those years of romance languages, and I cannot read a damn thing on the menu except for kaffee, bier or cappuccino.
While I don’t consider myself a foodie, I do try to keep an open mind. Over my 55 years, I’ve eaten rabbit, and pigeon, cow brains and stomach, even testicles, mutton and octopus…god compared to others who despise anything resembling a vegeatable, I’ve even had the elusive sunchoke, or white asparagus or exotic microgreen. By the way if any of you out there want to get together and buy me a 60th birthday present, I would love to have a genuine truffle with tagliattelle in a Piedmontese retaurant high in the French-Italian alps. I hear they go for $3600 pound, and that’s not including airfare.
But I do think asking for a translation of what is on the menu is different that asking what it really is. In my first 24 hours here and still high from lack of sleep, we went to a winbar café.. At first it seemed empty, but once past the red velvet curtains at the entrance, it was packed, very trendy and fun, even though we waited a long time for our food, or more accurately our table…you choose what you want to eat, then they cook it to time it just as a table is free. Meanwhile everyone is drinking quite a bit of beer and wine. I flirted with the young waiter Tarz and asked his opinion of trying something local. He said the meat stew is very nice, a kind of sour sweet meat, and so I said sure., what the heck.
About an hour later, they escorted us through the kitchen around to the other side of the bar, and sat us at a table under the stairs going up to the 2nd floor. We shared it with another couple, American,from all places, morristown nj. He was complaining loudly that they hadn’t gotten their food yet when our plates appeared. Michael had ordered his usual go-to meal, pasta, and his penne arrabiata, came with some nice bread…my stew smelled very sweet, accompanied with the famed French fries with mayo that I read about. The stew ‘zoervleisj’ which literally means sour meat looked like it was brewed with jam, and in fact contains vinegar, ginger and syrup. I took a bite and it was okay nothing spectacular but heck it was local, I was doing it, and it reminded me of sauerbraten and I’ve had that beef many times. When our companions finally got their meals, a diminutive tomato salad with mozzarella and fresh basil, and a ham bone the size of a town square, we talked a little about travelling. After about five minutes or so, They asked me what I thought of the stew, and before I had a chance to respond, they told me it was made from horse. I was perplexed. Surely the waiter would have told me when I asked about its ingredients. When he reappeared, he confirmed that it was horsemeat, and I gently told him that I just couldn’t eat it. Despite all the other animals I had eaten, I just couldn’t cross the threshold. So I munched on the French fries..after all, a potato is still a potato. Rule number one in restaurants…ask ask ask. It may look like Swiss cheese, but it will taste like Gouda.
So the truth is… the Netherlands has everything we could possibly want….laundry service, great restaurants, fresh bread, even sharp knives, and mugs that won’t shatter.
Travelling is about many things to many people, and each of us embarks on our individual journeys for different reasons. For me, it isn’t just about seeing new things because I’m bored and want a break from familiar responsibilities. Nor is it because I want to learn a new language or move to a foreign country.
I think the daily routines of our lives can lull us to sleep, and we risk becoming numb to what’s happening all around us. For me, travelling helps me to learn where my discomfort lives, and how long I might be willing to sit with it….This edge of where the discomfort seeps into my slackered self, affords me the opportunity to fully wake up, and engage in my life… I have to, precisely because it’s so uncomfortable, so inconvenient.
The world is strikingly beautiful including the despair that inevitably comes from being open to each other’s suffering and pain.
That’s why doing the simplest of tasks in a new way can show us that it is in these ordinary ways --
how we cross a street, or cook a meal, or wash our clothes, care for parents, or bury the dead….
that give us the best chance to know what we care about, what matters. It gets our full attention, and from that place, anything is possible.
We may even become …. extraordinary.
September 25, 2012