Train stations were exceptionally noisy places. this one in Rotterdam was under a glass gallery, immense amounts of glass and steel. The sound of voices, hurried footsteps and screeching metal train brakes drowned out even thinking. Our train was just pulling in. The first few coach cars were first class. The people in the cars looked down smugly on the world, their well-coifed hairstyles resting gingerly against the crisp white lace doilies pinned in the velvet upholstered seats.
“Fist class” my father announced, with the disdain one would fully expect from a post war socialist. Now he second class cars came rolling in. These seats were upholstered in vinyl, some dark res and some dark green. These people were well dressed but not nearly as well coifed. My hand was being tugged to keep on walking to the back of the train. Third class.
In third class you were seated on plain benches, if you dared. There were all sorts of stains and puddles and malodorous sticky stuff everywhere. Most of it no doubt left behind by all manner of animal, livestock, baskets of pigeons, Dogs and pigs both on leashes. It was a good idea to cling to my daddy.
As I understood it we were going for a fun weekend out to the country with my father’s university friends. We each packed a small bag with just the necessary things like clean underwear and toothbrushes. The dog was staying with the next door neighbour for the weekend. Mum and dad wore matching corduroy pants and black hand knitted sweaters. I was in my favourite flood pants and striped shirt.
It was not long before our stop, just as my nose was getting accustomed to the smell. The pig on the leash had gone to sleep. I felt somewhat envious of the pig.. I was told that Jaap’s mother was an excellent cook and was excited to have a little girl staying the weekend. I hoped I would like her, if I did I would pretend she was my grandmother, I really wanted a grandmother. It had rained lightly and the cobblestones of these small streets in Leiden had my shoes make a klip klop sound, I made a game of dancing noisily along the cobblestones to my father’s whistling. We passed the canals with ladies putting laundry on the lines strung along deck now the rain had stopped.
Jaap poked his head out of the door, apparently he had been waiting. there was a great deal of hugging and his mother was very nice, really grandmotherly as I had hoped. I was there not five minutes and a hot chocolate and cookie appeared before me. Jaap had also put a fresh heap of sand in the back yard for me to play in.
The afternoon was lovely, I had to go to bed early because the next day included a long walk in the forest for me. I tried to imagine what a forest looked like. I’d grown up in the polder with just the occasional tree. No wildlife other than marine birds and insects. Forests as I understood it has rabbits and deer, and foxes. I was a bit apprehensive after all these would be wild animals and I also had heard frightening stories of little children being eaten by wolves. I asked my father about wolves when he put me to bed and he said simply “no, the wolves all live in Germany these days”. That suited me, after all according to my mother Germans were terrible people so they deserved to live with wolves.
The next day was absolutely beautiful. We left early and could see the mist rising from the gardens and the water of the canals. Jaap’s car was coughing and sputtering it’s way to the forest. He had salvaged the aged Citroen from a junk yard and with my father’s help had somehow managed to get it going. We passed through large fields of brightly coloured tulips, row upon row of greenhouses being built, and finally trees, many, many trees.
From here we would walk. As Jaap stopped the car the engine gave one last full-body shudder. Jaap patted the hood with considerable affection. There were trees everywhere, very tall trees, as we walked into the forest there was less and less sky. I missed the sky, my whole life it had been there and now all I could see were branches, and stuff was falling from the branches, insects, leaves, sticky stuff. I was so focused on the missing sky that I kept tripping over the stones and branches strewn about. (I was getting tired and I hadn’t seen one rabbit.
Mom kept pointing out all the interesting mushrooms but they could not be eaten or touched, pretty boring after a while. I had hoped for flowers and bunny rabbits, but it was not summer so there were no flowers in the forest and bunny rabbits were apparently very shy around people. We reached a clearing where dad wanted to do some sketches and Jaap sat to smoke a pipe. Mom and I had a small sandwich and she told me forest stories, most probably designed to frighten me into never letting go of her had as we walked through the forest.
I screamed, a blood curdling full-body scream, not a scream that was planned, it had taken even me by complete and utter surprise. Searing pain from my calf had completely consumed me. suddenly there was a whir of activity all of it with my leg at the centre. I kept trying to look to see what hurt, but people were in the way. Daddy scooped me up and ran with me all the way back to the car I could see my mom and Jaap running after us. I leaned a new word “adder”. That’s what Jaap was yelling.
In the back of the car mom told me an adder bit me. Daddy explained that adders were like small snakes, but it could make me very sick so I was going to the hospital. I looked out the window and saw the sky, it was blue and the sun made the drops on the car window sparkle and I fell asleep.
I woke up in the bedroom at Jaap’s, his mother was knitting rhythmically in the chair beside my bed. As soon as I started to get up she yelled for my mom and dad. I was safe and I had no desire to get back to the forest, ever. Forests were not safe places for little children, nor little Red Riding Hood, or Hansel, or Gretel or me. We had bunny rabbits in our community garden and there were lots of wild flowers growing all over the polder. I liked the world inside houses and near houses, familiar sounds like the clicking of knitting needle and the whistling of a tea kettle. The forest belonged to adders and bugs and other wildlife. I would not go intruding on it again.
The rituals of the Christian calendar were a mystery to me when I was little. I lived in a predominantly protestant part of the Netherlands, but, in my case, my parents raised me without a religious identity of any kind. My parents were not of the same religion, one was protestant and the other Roman Catholic, neither attended church, in fact both had turned their back on the religion of their childhood in favour of those being explored by my somewhat eccentric and always existentialist parents. By age four, when this memory of mine takes place, my parents were following the teachings of the Buddha quite seriously, and also exploring the occult and paranormal as a bit of a hobby.
I had come to accept Christmas as a time for decorating trees and eating lots of good stuff with friends and family, who were rarely seen the rest of the year. The significance of the history of this wonderful feast were not known to me. Easter also was a time for special foods and candies rarely seen at other times.
Eggs of course were part of daily life, or at least nearly so. My eggs were normally soft-boiled and in an egg cup accompanied by a slice of toasted bread. The anticipation of this breakfast was in itself an event. My mother miraculously timed the egg to perfection and the toast had been toasted alongside on the cast iron stove in the kitchen all was warm and fragrant, and the egg was soft and runny.
This was before the mass raising of chickens who never saw the light of day. These eggs came from chickens most often known to us personally or from one of the merchants at the market, who came with cages of birds also sold (unbeknown to vegetarian me, to become meat for soup). The eggs had bright yellow yolks and were mixed brown and white, some had feathers and straw stuck to them so they always required washing before cooking with them.
I very much liked chickens. I had spent much time sitting with them in the chicken house at the back of my grandmother’s house in Rotterdam. Not unlike cats they cuddled of you stroked and petted them, and they made a wonderfully calming sound when you did.
Easter was a time for hard-boiled eggs, lots of them, best of all we painted them. They were boiled with beets and others with onion to turn them red purple, yellow and orange, and the rest was painted with watercolour paint and a fine brush. My mother would meticulously plan the painting and first pencilled the outline on the eggs and then I was allowed to fill in some of them with pain in whatever colour I chose. some also had words on them, but I could not read. Mostly I filled in the circles and flowers and triangles. The eggs were for friends and family and neighbours so there were several dozens of them.
We kept some, of course, and I always hoped some would not be claimed and we would have even more. Hard boiled eggs sliced on toast with mayonnaise and a little black pepper was a bit of heaven and we so rarely had them that way. At new years when there were visitors we had them on small squares of toast with mayonnaise and pickle. Being that we had little money, the slices had to be very thin, as we had many friends and not so many eggs, and pickles. It was not looked down on or thought of as cheap, everyone was pretty much in the same boat, the point really was one of hospitality, sharing, not showing off.
The most often seen wildlife in the Netherlands was the bunny. Rabbit was a frequent pet and a staple meat, across the street one of the families who lived in a house with a yard used the bunnies to keep the lawn trimmed and every spring there would be a new set of bunnies doing the moving. It did not occur to me then but I suppose the previous year’s bunnies were used in soup and stews through the winter.
At the baker and the local candy shop (Jamin’s) bunnies, chickens and eggs appeared this time every year in chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even white chocolate. some were covered in tin paper, pink and blue and green. Baskets holding several confections on a grass made of stringy tissue paper and tied up with a bow was the thing of dreams. I’d never had a basket like that and I was jumping up and down in front of the window to see it better. Oh if only I could have the pink basket with the chicken and little eggs on green grass tied up with a bright blue bow.
Easter morning my feet hit the cold linoleum but the cold was not a concern, I was wholly focused on what the Easter bunny might have brought me. I peeled around the corner to the living room and there sitting on the coffee table was the most beautiful basket with a big brown chocolate chicken surrounded by a variety of little chocolate eggs, some in tin paper and others covered in a sugary shell of candy pink and robin’s egg blue.
After breakfast consisting of the treasured toast with hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and black pepper we were going for a walk. The day turned out o be very sunny and quite warm. I only needed to wear my green cardigan over my lilac dress. I wore my Sunday best shoes and little white gloves. I would not leave the basket with the chicken behind. I carried it proudly over my arm. I resisted eating any of it since it looked so beautiful just as it was and I wanted to be seen with it.
As no day is entirely perfect it was inevitable some part of the day would not deliver only that which was good. The sun, the warm and wonderful sun, alas proved a little too warm. slowly during our walk on the sunny side of the street had melted the chocolate chicken into the green tissue paper which looked like grass. I noticed it only when we were nearly home. I was inconsolable.
My parents who were not made of money, and even if they were there was not one candy shop open on a Sunday, would and could not replace the chicken, or the one or two eggs that had also melted. Instead, very patiently my parents sat with me several hours, and slowly peeled the tissue paper away from the chocolate as best they could. The smallest bits of chocolate found their way on a thickly buttered slice of fresh bread, happily consumed by a little girl. A little girl who’d just learned something about sunlight and the effects it can have on substances such as chocolate. Happily the bow and basket were spared being mucked up with melted chocolate so the basket was entirely useable still and for years to come was taken shopping to the market (real and imagined) and later would house my Lego. We received many compliments on our painted eggs, and received so many eggs in return that happily there were many more days of eggs on toast than I dared hope for. What a lovely holiday!
The little boy across the street was quite horrible to me when I was in kindergarten, and his older brother would stand and laugh as he kicked and hit me. Prompted by my father one day to say what was bothering me I spurted out “the boy across the street hits me”. Dad asked me to point out the boy next time he came by.
A few weeks later, there he was, walking by with a sneer on his face. He was quite the mature bully for one no more than 6 years of age. He was walking along the dyke road, alone but as was often the case carrying a whipping stick. It must have been something he used on other children and quite probably the neighbourhood cats and dogs. I know that hat my dog didn’t like him one bit and would growl as he came near.
“That’s the boy” I told my father.
“Hey”, said my father in one of his most commanding tones, which was rare and I was quite taken aback by it. The boy reeled round, and his mouth was falling open with that look of not knowing whether to stay frozen or turn and run. He stayed frozen on the spot. For what seemed like a very long time as my father slowly came toward him.
My father was a tall and lanky man, and this weekend was still in his army uniform which must have added considerably to the impact. “I hear”, he said, again at a most commanding tone and clasping his hands behind himself, “You’ve been hitting my daughter.” He motioned to me and stayed glued to the spot also, not knowing whether it would be acceptable to smirk or not.
“My daughter is not allowed to hit anyone, and she is a good girl”. Well, now I was positively gleaming with something very near pride. “However, I should have told her she can hit back if she is hit first.” Then daddy turned to me. “Aletta”, which was my cue to come near, “Aletta can really hit quite hard, did you know that?”
By now the little boy’s eyes were flitting around, making eye contact with dad and the ground ahead of him equally, not looking at me at all. “No”, he answered.
“Show this boy how hard you can hit”
I made my best fist, just as daddy taught me with my thumb on the outside. Clenched my jaw and threw an air punch.
“and,” he continued “she can hit even harder if she stands with her knees slightly bent”.
Suddenly I remembered the last time dad tried to teach me fighting styles, he knew some jujitsu and savate. I put my feet slightly further apart and bent my knees slightly, digging the balls of my feet into the gravel on the dyke road. My fist was tightly tucked into my waist and I looked the little boy (who was still quite a bit taller) straight in the eyes. I was feeling very ready and able, but also a bit nervous. As all the possible bad things that could happen, were flooding through my head. I could fall, and look foolish, was the most horrifying. I’d take my lumps happily, but not have to look foolish, not in front of my father.
“Well, Aletta, hit him.”
Remarkably without hesitation my fist sprung from my waist and exactly in the little boy’s mouth. His tooth grazed my knuckles. I had hit him just hard enough to make him groan and yelp. He looked at my father, wondering if he could run or should continue standing there for another. I was winding up for another, he had hit me plenty. He wiped a tiny bit of blood from his lip, but all the teeth were intact. Strange but I wouldn’t have been happy if any of the teeth were damaged. That would have been too much. Even this had sickened me slightly. I really didn’t like hitting at all.
“She hits pretty well doesn’t she”
“Yes Sir” the boy said, nervously changing his weight from foot to foot.
“From now on, if she hits you, she will hit you back, understand?”
Well, that took me by surprise, sorry, he said, “sorry”. My dad released him by telling him to go home and tell his dad what happened. I had no idea then, but now, it must have been the worst of it, to tell who’d hit him hard enough to bruise and make him bleed. Punched by a little girl. He never hit me again. He was at times even quite nice to me. Best of all, it stopped the other kids picking on me as well. It was for the longest time, the last time I hit anyone.
After we had moved to our second apartment in Hoogvliet, and my father had finished his studies, we suddenly started collecting pets. We had a dog, Cerbie (Cerberus) since I was about two, a half chow, half wolf puppy, ferocious to others but my very best friend. Dogs are the sort of friends only children value above all others. I could dress him up in clothes or endlessly throw the ball or a stick. Because of his fierce loyalty to my well being I could go anywhere in the neighbourhood if I took the dog. The dog was a given, he was family, not really a pet.
My father’s new self indulgence was collecting up birds and fish. The first bird was Oliver, a handed down canary my dad brought home from work one day (for mom, said he, but…). It was a lovely yellow bird with a ring of black around his little head like the hairlines of a Franciscan monk. He sang with my mother as she did her morning voice warmup or as she rehearsed at home. He also whistled along with my father, who could only carry a tune when he whistled, singing was something we did not encourage in my father. I didn’t much care for birds in cages, I preferred the ones I saw everyday outside, like my little sparrows across the street every morning on the way to school for as long as the bread crumbs held out.
The aquarium on the other hand was much more to my liking. I was forever fascinated by the new fish my father would bring home on pay cheque days. Neon tetras, zebra fish, danios, loaches, and the one Siamese fighting fish, a big ruby read one with a streaming purple tail. It was probably about a 10 gallon aquarium, for me it was huge,, my own personal marine world. It was one of those family projects, and much more interesting than television those days. Tonnie had a television, and occasionally I would watch a show with her family. It was black and white and not very interesting compared to the colourful ever-changing world in the aquarium. Tonnie thought so too and often came to sit with me watching the parade of finned beauties. We made up stories to go with what we were watching.
Occasionally a fish would die, usually a zebra fish, they were temperamental and did not deal well with temperature changes in the water. I did not deal well with dead things. I was frightened of all dead things. He could not get me to fish out a dead fish with the net. Whenever he tried to coax me into it I would end up running off and crying in bed for some time. I could however flush them away, after uttering a few words of respect, a fish funeral rite.
There was no heater in the aquarium. It was set up near the warmest inside wall and occasionally on cold days tepid water would be run into the aquarium as the coldest water was siphoned from the bottom. Consequently the aquarium was spotless during winter. None of us minded the extra work at least not that I noticed, and I could not get enough of the aquarium especially in winter when there was not much daylight for playing outside. We had the basic little pump and used sand found around the polder and plants from the slough not far away.
Every few weeks my father would go to the slough for daphnia, little red ones. My father had a small microscope from when he was a boy and we’d look at the organisms he scooped up with the daphnia, another world to explore. I grew up thinking that my father had the be the most knowledgeable person in the whole world. He knew something about everything.
My father would often take me along on his daphnia expeditions. The dog would run alongside the bicycle and I would be in the basket on the handlebars holding a big jar and the net, a fine net made with one of my mothers old stockings and a wire. We’d be off o the slough near Spijkernisse. I liked it there, I could see the windmill nearby and there were lots of wildflowers and tall grasses. My father liked to take his time and fish out examples of this and that small fish or creature to show me. Those expeditions could take a long time if he found much to show me. On the way back I would hold they day’s catch of red daphnia.
One day in particular we had caught an exceptional amount of daphnia, the intent being to keep them alive in the jar and feed them to the fish in smaller pourings from the jar. That was the theory. What really happened on getting them home was a slip of the jar and a large cloud of oxygen hogging daphnia threatened to asphyxiate the fish, the beautiful prized collection of tropical fish my father had so lovingly looked after.
Eventually the fish would have eaten them and the supply of oxygen the small pump provided would be ample again. Right then, however the little fish were struggling for every breath between meals. Some were beginning, after an hour or so to swim sideways and jerking about. My father had set up a temporary solution, explaining the physics of it to me while doing it (he could have done it faster without the explanations). The bicycle pump and an inner tube with a hose running to an air stone he would pump up the inner tube and slowly release the extra air. It was working the fish were recovering and slowly the red mass was getting thinner. The dedicated teamwork of my parents had all but one fish survive the ordeal. My mother heroically, while hugely pregnant stayed up the night with the bicycle pump and inner tube, giving up sleep to save the fish as my father who had to work the next day slept. It was an error never made again. Still, my father was right, the daphnia made our fish spectacularly healthy and colourful.