Excuse me while I reminisce.
Most of you probably don’t know this, but I’m not just Dutch in name or ancestry: I’m actually Dutch by birth. I was born and (partially) raised in Heerlen, a city in the province of Limburg in the south-east of the Netherlands (Nederland). (I kan nog een beetje Nederlands spreeken en schrijven.) Here is its location in the Netherlands and in Limburg:
I was seven when I moved to Canada and I haven’t returned to my hometown in more than 15 years. My parents tell me it has changed significantly, that it is very modern and filled with high-rises. Even my neighbourhood isn’t the same any more.
My memories are faint, but there are many of them. I remember, for instance, the sound of doves outside my bedroom window and that none of those windows had screens on them. I remember the smell and feel of the sheer drapes on our living room window. I remember the evening skyline of the city, looking out from my bedroom, the most prominent part of which was the oval, red and blue sign of the department store downtown. I remember all kinds of minute details, including my neighbourhood.
Here’s a map of my neighbourhood:
#1 on the map is approximately where our (town)house was. We lived on Valeriusstraat. I don’t remember our house number, but I know it was on or around the bend driving South.
There was an alley — a walkway, really — that ran behind our house. It made a y-shape, running north-east from Diepenbrockstraat; it split shortly after it passed our backyard, with one arm heading north to Eikenderweg (I’m not sure as I never went that far) and the other arm continuing north-east for a while, before curving and coming out on either Sweelingstraat or Gebroeders. If you’re from North America, you are probably picturing a wide alley with room for cars and people’s garages backing out onto it. Not so: it was quite narrow — no room for cars — and most people’s yards were surrounded by 8-foot walls or fences. I would bike in that alley, doing the loop from Diepenbrockstraat around to Sweelingstraat and back to Diepenbrockstraat.
For a time I had a friend, much younger than myself as I recall, near the end of the north arm of the alley. I also had a friend, Maik, on the south corner of Valeriusstraat and Diepenbrockstraat (#7). Another sometime friend, Roje (I think), lived further north-west on Diepenbrockstraat, but, of course, we got to their house by an alley. I don’t remember much about Roje, other than that I once got a bleeding nose while at his house. I didn’t venture a great deal farther into the city.
#3 is another large open field. I never went there alone for some reason. It remains in my memory because they would have some kind of carnival or beer gardens (or both) there from time to time. Whenever I smell a mixture of beer and cigarettes or see cardboard beer coasters (especially if they’re marked with the Heineken logo), my mind goes to that place: the covered tables, traditional Dutch music and early 80s pop music (“Chameleon” by Boy George is one I heard there, I believe), and other sights and smells.
#4. If memory serves, this was where my preschool was located. We walked there from our house. I made a friend on my first day of preschool and we’ve been friends ever since. Well, I haven’t actually communicated with him in any way for a couple of years, but I still consider him a friend. We maintained the friendship for at least 16 years, even after we moved to Canada. He’s currently touring the world with his girlfriend (he’s got a website dedicated to this trip. I’ll have to hunt it up).
#5 Just down the block from us was Arie de Friteman. This was a small restaurant that specialized in french fries (frite), frinkandele, krokete, and a variety of other Dutch delicacies. I don’t remember much about Arie or his restaurant, other than that is was small and was mostly take-out, as you could only sit at the counter. His french fries would be served in a red and white plaid paper cone and covered in frite sauce (mayonaisse — but the real, good Dutch kind, not this pansy “Miracle Whip” or “Hellmans” stuff). When we went back to visit in 1990, we stopped by Arie and he recognized all of us and, as I recall, gave us free food.
#6 Just south-east of the field where I picked Madeliefjes for my mom (#2) were some low shrubs in the space between a major highway (“Antwerpseweg” on the map) and the residential area. For some reason I thought “Hashkickers” (direct translation: Hash Frogs) hung out in those bushes. I had no idea what a “Hashkicker” was, but I imagined them to be hippie-like bogeymen — emaciated, long hair, unshaven, tattered clothes. I don’t know what the real story behind the Hashkickers was — presumably some hypodermic needles or something else related to drug use were found in the area, or it was just something local parents made up to keep us kids away from the highway. Whatever the case may be, those bushes gave me the shivers and I kept my distance.
Just north of #6 and west of #2, across Pijperstraat, dad and my brother and I used to go sledding. It wasn’t much of a hill, but it was enough for us.
#7 This was an active corner for us kids. My friend Maik lived in the house on the south-east corner (it has small black “19” on it on the map). Across the street (the small black “4”) was a hazelnut tree. I’m not sure if the owners of that tree minded, but we would pick hazelnuts, stomp on them to crack them open, and eat them.
#8 I’m not sure why I marked this one, because it didn’t play much of a part in my childhood. It did make some impression on me, obviously, as it comes easily to mind. There was a school of one kind or another there. The grounds were surrounded by a low brick wall. I don’t know why, but it was always a mysterious, almost spooky place to me and we rarely ventured that way and certainly never entered the school grounds.
My world was very small in those days, but it felt like a universe.
After all that work with the map, I just found out that Google maps has satellite shots of my neighbourhood (and the rest of Nederland as well). Here’s a picture:
When we moved to Canada, my mom made an effort to keep us speaking Dutch at home. My dad took more of a “We live in Canada, so let’s speak English” approach. At the time I was quite self-conscious about my nationality. My accent disappeared for the most part within weeks, but some kids would tease me. I refused to speak Dutch at home and when my friends would ask me to.
I regret this now and wish that our home would have been Dutch-speaking. That friend I had made in kindergarden, along with his parents, visited us in 1995. He said I spoke Dutch remarkably well, considering I was 7 when I moved away. Still, my Dutch is rusty.
So in an effort to keep up on and even improve my Dutch, I’ve started re-reading the Dutch comic books I still have, including a large collection of Jan, Jans en de Kinderen (a comic strip for adults) and a couple of volumes of Suske en Wiske (a comic strip for children). With the help of the Dutch-English dictionary I checked out of the library, I should be able to make some progress, though I’ll use the dictionary as little as possible.