It is a warm summer evening 1999. A grey-haired man is sitting opposite of me at an authentic ceramic table. We are in his garden. He hasn’t been living there for long yet. “I always wanted a garden with large trees, now I have it.” We drink wine, he talks. He tells me a story about one of his seamen having an accident on the open ocean. He fell, he broke a leg and there was blood, lots of blood. They are hours away from the closest port, and he needs medical treatment. The adrenalin is pumping through his body. He is afraid of losing a man, a colleague, a father, a human being. He is the captain of the ship; he tries to stay calm and changes direction. Singapore is the new destination. They make it. They make it in time. His colleague is weak but still mostly conscious. He needs a blood transfusion. But Singapore, at that time, did not give blood to foreigners for free. Blood needs to be paid with blood. No pay, no cure. Four needles enter four seamen’s arms. When they collect enough the treatment starts. He recovers. After several days of hospitalisation the ship can continue its way to the next harbour.
He hands me over a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. The package isn’t decorated with black lungs and scary massages yet. The text on the pack is Russian. “I got them today while piloting a Russian ship in the port. There are more in the wardrobe.” For months already I am smoking cigarettes produced in countries of which I neither understand the culture nor the language. He is bringing them for me, and I smoke them while he tells me stories about his life on sea, crossing oceans, entering ports and the occasional inland holidays he connects with it.
On warm summer evenings we are sitting in the garden under a large birch. During the other seasons we chill on the old green sofa next to the fireplace. I listen to how he travels with small boats through storms to reach large ships. How he climbs rope ladders swinging through the wind to get on board and how he pilots the ships into the local harbor. He tells me stories about warm welcomes from Russians, Chinese, Philipinnos… How he bridges the language barriers and experiences the cultures.
I am 16 years old, dating his son. I am coming from a small village in an economically dead part of the Netherlands. My parents have a middle class income, and we live in a typical free-standing family house. My sisters are both studying, I just changed schools. Apart from our yearly holidays in the Alps, we don’t see anything. I know nothing. I am a teenager, doing things that teenagers do.
He taught me about cultural differences, about life and about how to cook rice and pasta in the same pot. He showed me how to be creative and be happy with the things you possess. He inspired me, broadened my mindset and opened my eyes. He gave me a goal. I wanted to see and experience the versatility of the world. I wanted to travel and work in other nations, so I did. I just made one mistake: I never came back.
It is the year 2000, I finish school, leave the village and start to study. Most evenings I would still take the train back to listen to his stories and smoke Russian cigarettes. I studied Biology and started to plan my trips. First a few months travel in Asia, then an innocent semester in Spain. A year in Shanghai, thereafter the UK. I learned how life is when you can only communicate with hands. I ate three meals a day with chopsticks. I drank Vodka with Polish friends, supported Spain in the World cup, the Scottish rugby team in England, and Bayern Munich in a pub in Edinburgh. I learned British insults, Chinese politeness, and later on, how to complain like a German.
I got addicted to moving. Addicted to meeting new people, learn new languages and find my way around in a new town. I felt free, being anonymous somehow. In the beginning I was still coming home a few times a year, but as the years passed by my trips got shorter and less frequent. I felt more and more detached from my home country, my family, my friends. It was not that I wanted to detach from all of that, but I simply wasn’t there to stay in touch. I missed parties, dinners and could not offer “real” support in times of need. People started to point out language mistakes I made when speaking my mother tongue and their understanding of me staying abroad faded.
After my PhD I had the decision between coming back home or traveling to my next destination. Something inside me wanted to go back. Living in a country where I can vote and where the pub culture and food is how I like it. Where people live the life I want to live. A country where I know what to buy where and can easily find my way around. But the thought of moving back made me scared as well. Scared of losing my anonymous status. Scared of what people would say about my spelling mistakes. But mostly scared of being a misfit in my own country. Deep in my heart, it was probably my fears that made me decide against this move. I simply felt safer to move somewhere else. Continue to live anonymously, being the strange Dutch girl in the street.
For the fourth time in 6 years, I left everything behind, including most of my belongings and made a move.
Now it is 2015, and I’ve lived in Germany for a few years. I learned another language and live in a different culture. I speak Dutch to my children, German to my friends, and English to my partner. None of the three languages, I feel, has developed to 100% proficiency. I can write and read, but somehow feel analphabetic. When I talk to strangers the first questions is “Where are you from?” The first few years in Germany, people often guessed I came from the UK. I probably brought the Scottich accent I gathered. Now they hear straight away that I am Dutch. I pay taxes, but can’t vote. I struggle to find clothes I like and which fit a Dutch body. My children are learning songs I do not know. I dress them up for festivities I do not have any emotional attachment to. They say things I would never say. My children are being raised in and by a country where I do not belong. I like it here. I have my work. I have my friends. I learned to get around in a new country. I have no problems supporting Germany in the World Cup and loved it when my children spoke their first “foreign” words…. But I miss something as well. I miss my “old friends” who live all over the world. I miss people and a nation I associate with. I miss belonging to a place.
Last weekend I traveled to the Netherlands, to my sister´s wedding. As always, I realised at the airport that I find Dutch guys attractive, that people wear things I like, and that their direct way of communication is something I am familiar with. At the party I see faces I have seen before. For one evening I have a name and an identity. I am not anonymous. I feel uncomfortable and at home.
Written by Karin Bodewits