It’s an odd exercise to try to sum up a country having only lived in it for a few weeks, but let’s have a go.
I’ve been living in The Hague for a little over a month now, give or take a couple of trips elsewhere. Over the course of my travels in the last decade, I’ve found that first impressions can be lasting: Paris as a city of nooks and crannies, Vienna as just So Extra™, London as confusing and a bit frustrating but always worth it. When it comes to Holland, my distant impressions – formed through reading, a love of its history, and one week-long trip when I was nineteen – have actually, surprisingly, been surpassed, because I’m not sure I’ve ever found it so easy to call someplace a home.
From my little canal house garret (yes, I’m living in a canal house’s garret, it really is like that), I see comfort and routine. I see skinny children screaming as they cycle through an unexpected downpour. I see the walking path I can take out to a nearby rosarium, and further, to the best pancake house in town. I see modern office towers looming over seventeenth-century mansions. I see more trees and bushes and quiet ivy-covered houses than in any urban center I’ve ever been in; even the tram tracks are overgrown with grass and occasional wildflowers.
The light is getting low here, making it feel like evening in the middle of the day, but never gloomy. It rains easily and often, and for the entire length of time I’ve been here the weather has hovered right on that edge where you don’t know whether you’ll be too hot or too cold in what you’re wearing when you step outside. It’s a nation of straightforward work (and efficient work, too, which subsequently leads to short working hours), flatteringly practical clothes, and what, from the perspective of a relative couch potato like me, seems to be a perfect balance of health and pleasure. It certainly appears easy to work off the abundance of bread, chocolate, coffee, cheese, and biertjes that are indulged in here when you spend at least an hour on a bike every day.
I myself haven’t yet taken up cycling, for fear of misunderstanding the rules of traffic or losing a bicycle that belongs to my hosts. I definitely have become far more aware of my body in space, given that the major roads you cross on foot here require that you look out for bikes, then cars, then trams traveling both directions, then the cars again, and finally another string of bikes and scooters, before you make the safety of the opposite pavement. At first, the prospect of seeing a cyclist coming towards me down a narrow side-street, with no hands on the bars, staring down at a mobile phone (or even a book!) seemed madcap and dangerous – now, it is part of a rhythm. I know I won’t be hit, and I know when to stop and when to wait or when to step slightly aside, and my muscle memory changes apace.
Everyone here has been utterly generous with their time and support, and gracious in the face of my fumbled attempts at speaking their language. At a medical appointment a few weeks ago, an attendant actually apologized to me for not knowing a – very technical – term in English. (Try expecting that in France!) I find myself growing rapidly jealous of the entire system of life and education which has produced so many people so open to the world, or at least to moving within it. Dutch schoolchildren typically start learning English by the age of ten, and usually take on French, German, or other options in secondary school; pilot programs currently being run across the country are experimenting with completely bilingual education from the get-go. It’s hard to think of how this is anything but fantastic.
My own immersive experience with Dutch is proceeding in fits and starts, since I still find self-directed study a serious mental and habitual challenge. (Which is why it makes total sense that I’m doing a PhD, right?) At the moment, I’m in what I would call the ‘scrambled egg’ phase: I am picking up more and more words, and feel more comfortable every day hearing Dutch around me, but my touchstones for what a well-wrought sentence consists of – in any language, frankly – are a scattered mess. I still find myself running every Dutch phrase I write, even the simplest of responses to the simplest of emails, through Google Translate. Sometimes I let slip French words instead of Dutch ones when I haven’t a clue of the vocabulary I’m grasping for. Every time I turn on the well-connected TV in my bedroom, I try to pay as much attention as possible to the Dutch subtitles that are provided on every English-language show – one of my current struggles is with the word ‘tegen,’ which when translated directly often means the more old-fashioned ‘towards’ or even ‘against’ when it’s equivalent in English is usually just a simple ‘to.’ (Say ‘Yes’ Against the Dress! Oh dear.)
But for all that, it’s not a particularly difficult language to learn in a basic sense. It has far fewer basic verb conjugations to remember than French or Spanish; it doesn’t take cases, like German; its vocabulary is often closely related to English words, especially American English. That sense of ease is something that is palpable about my whole experience here, and perhaps that is in fact down to the nature of the place – easy to enjoy, easy to discover, easy to love.
I plan to write in a future post about a certain list I keep in the back of my mind: a list of places where I know I could live, long-term or even permanently. Holland is rapidly rising to the top of that list, and I suspect it might stay there for a long time.