How I Learned Dutch

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820I love to fly and it shows. The big screen and its cheery hieroglyph at the front of my section of seats shows the little airplane icon on a happy, secure and predictable downslope, just over the western seaboard of continental Europe. The fact of the airplane’s hellacious roaring contrail is represented in this illustration with a fat and cheery dotted line, the kind you see on a cereal box. Explosive decompression, stripped jackscrews, failed bulkheads and non-responsive hydraulics – all such in-flight mortality events are safely hidden behind the airplane cartoon on that little screen up there, next to the galley where the flight attendants chat amiably in the half-light, smiling and tossing their heads back in laughter with their arms crossed while blood-freezing turbulence covertly loosens the rivets that hold the fuselage together.

Throughout the longish flight over iceberg-littered glacial bays and rolling open ocean I feverishly remind myself that all is well, that the suspension of 90 tons of metal and wires and bolts and stiffening chicken piccata six miles up in the empty air is a physical inevitability and not a fragile miracle. As long as the plane keeps charging forward it is lifted on velocity itself – it doesn’t have time to fall. Unfortunately this inviolable rule of airfoil technology depends on crazily enormous steel wings that bounce and wobble like sonsabitches in the azure vacuum over Greenland. The screen up front, though, assuages and soothes, the funny dotted line and inert little airplane glyph a warm blankie of familiarity in the long, dimly lit tube of concussive, horror-dealing plausibility.

Nervous-Flying Expat, Peanuts and a Prize

1986. I’ve left the band and decided to join my new girlfriend in Holland. As chronicled in an earlier column, we’d met in Rocky Galenti’s, whose ghostly skeleton is at this writing the Spanish Revival jewel in the crown of lower State Street’s plywood-and-cash kingdom La Entrada. May Rocky’s rest in peace. The club had launched my band here in SB, and shortly thereafter ushered me into the rest of my unlikley life. Now as I travel to parts unknown, I giddily imagine Holland (or The Netherlands as the misguided locals call it) as one verison or another of the ineptly dubbed afterschool specials of my youth. I foresee apple-cheeked Dutch kids on tractors wearing alien-looking overalls, their words and mouth movements marvelously unrelated as they say things like, “Hans, your heaviness and girth amuse us so!”, and the cars will have funny-looking license plates, and there will be windmills and canals everywhere, and those van Gogh stacks of threshed wheat – a half-accurate and delirious premonition.

Now the dotted line on the screen slopes downward in a cozy parabola of life and warmth. The familiar and deeply beloved Earth is rising slowly to greet our airborne idiot machine. We’re headed in for a happy landing, in Holland of all places! A new life awaits me! The boiling English Channel is behind us and we’re coming in fast over a green, steeple-punctuated landscape as flat as a tabletop and peopled with flight-path cows that don’t even glance up as the screaming spaceship overhead applies air brakes and lurches jarringly into landing speed. It would seem we’re going to actually land in a cow paddy but the tarmac suddenly appears and we’re on the ground with a happy-if-unnerving jolt and the mantra “I’ll never fly again” briefly reasserts its primacy in the promises-to-be-broken category. Then the thronged cavern of Customs, an Ellis Island mockup where hundreds of confused passengers are herded through rope mazes and a few young Dutch officials with badges and comically stern faces and completely disarming apple cheeks glare down unconvincingly from atop raised pedestals, a pouting gang of Benetton models. This one looks at my face, then the passport, face-passport, face-passport, face-passport, the old trick, until I’m sure some little European guy in a Gendarme cap is going to appear and whisk me away. Finally my passport is scrutinized and stamped and relief floods in.

Samsonite and Delilah

Schipohl Airport in Amsterdam. I and the other passengers herd-shuffle into the big brightly lit room with the baggage carousels, and then before I can exit my retrieved suitcase is vivisected by more Dutch models, blush-cheeked and charmingly businesslike. I realize with a start that all these Dutch airport officials look like the grown children of ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog. After some official-looking fuss my mock-Samonsite is peremptorily slammed shut with my underwear sticking out, like a tongue. And there a wall of glass gives onto the crowd of waiting people, and my new family are there, two of them, Karin and Marcel, and my adorable new girlfriend is there waving madly. My knees weaken and through the surreal fog of jet lag I realize that’s Judie who I met in Rocky’s between sets that night, and I’m in her world now, I’m in Holland, this is her home and her world and I’m seeing her as if for the first time and her mad waving and jumping looks like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined, like nothing I’ve ever felt.

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All the planning and daydreaming, the angst and sorrow of leaving my friends and quitting the band after finally making it to California, and then bidding my family farewell in the carport back in Phoenix, my saddened quiet little brother suddenly turning and running back into the house for reasons unknown. Goodbye, Patrick; goodbye! Now I see my Dutch love through the glass and the blood hurriedly rushes upward into my teetering, overburdened imagination, I lumber forward with my dumb suitcase and two-ton electronic typewriter, the ceremonially weighted glass door is pushed open with some effort and in the crowded concourse I set down my suitcase but keep a grip on the typewriter, dazedly grab my new girlfriend and touching her after all these hours of reality-tempering travel is a crazy workaday miracle. Can this be happening? Then the three Dutch kisses; not the two cheek-pecks of the exotic French which we’ve come to know from the movies, but three. They want to better the French. You get two pecks and think giddily ‘holy crap, this is real’ and then the third little peck, just to throw you off your pins, and you know you’re in for it.

I Heart the Wright Brothers

On the drive home, my future brother-in-law Marcel is driving, my soon-to-be sis-in-law Karin cranking the radio. In the back seat, 19-year-old Juud is leaning heavily against me, her arm intertwined in mine, head on my shoulder, the radio blaring strange pop music. Every time I look down at her in dazed wonder, her eyes are looking right back up at me wth the same stunned expression as my own. I can’t stop alternately looking at her and staring out the windows at a landscape that is a living daydream, vivid green and furry and flat to the horizon, the windmills near and far with their heroic vanes slanting in the light, amazing to see, steepled Olde World townscapes like movie paintings poking up in the near and middle and remote distance beneath an enormous blue verticality decorated with puff-ball clouds.

Can an airplane do all this? Yes. And the terror of the flight is commensurate with this thrilling sensory bombast, with all this wonder, the Wright Brothers my new best friends. All the insane rocketry we strap ourselves to and pretend to trust – this is what all the noise is about, these changeling moments of stunned dislocation. Spires and towers and high peaked roofs in mid-day silhouette decorate these receding fields and meadows, the little towns are cheek-by-jowl and are nearly joined, the flatiron landscape means you can take them all in at a glance, but what you see are steeples. You can bike from one town to the next with little effort and I will do so often, sometimes in freezing squalls of rain. Today the sun shines down with a forceful message, the boundless green dotted with cows, heads down.

Vier winden s'avonds 10-15pm Aug 4 2015
my second home; Juud’s homestead on the Dutch channel coast

Then off the A4 freeway and onto the surface roads of the Dutch channel coast as we near Judie’s hometown, soon to be my own; the village of Monster (no, not “Muenster”). The scene is fluffy fields, occasional homes with penned goats and sheep, then the outsized Kweker mansions, surmounted by acres of entrepreneurial peaked glass behind which are grown everything from petunias to palm trees. These are the region’s kingpins and employers. This is het Westland, agricultural nexus of Holland. Close your eyes and throw a rock and you will likely put a hole in a greenhouse. My bro-in-law Marcel is driving now in what I would later come to know as Dutch Grand Prix, negotiating the narrow little inter-town roads like the car’s ass is on fire, and only as we enter the neighborhoods do I come down somewhat from my reverie and realize I’m being threatened anew with explosive death and maiming.

Then a quick right followed by a quick sharp left onto Wassenaarstraat, a screeching halt in front of Judie’s house, two and half floors tall, red brick and narrow. Through the large square huiskamer window an indistinct figure spins quickly away into the shadows and then out runs Riekie through the front door in an excited half-jog, my beautiful heartfelt future Dutch mom-in-law whom I am meeting for the first time, and she is wildly grinning and her arms are outstretched in a guileless loving welcome and she enfolds me like a long lost son, then holds me out from her to look at my face and her sunny expression, to my surprise, is ecstatic and teary, and I tear up and then a few others are gathering around me and I’m dazed and happy and already feeling the love of my new home, my new household, and I look down the row of houses and a few smiling neighbors have come to their doorsteps and are smiling grandly, one with her hands clasped. I look over and there is Judie again, like that night in the club, the serene, green-eyed beatific smile, a settled smile of contentment to match my own.

Then a peaked attic bedroom at the tippity top of a flight of narrow spiral stairs, a bedroom through whose canted ceiling window one could stare straight up at the enormous black birds endlessly battling the Dutch gale, their desperate caws sounding like cries for help. Then nuptials in Amsterdam, much horizontal rain, long nights drinking in Naaldwijk with Juud and Marcel, then biking back to Monster through the Dutch countryside in the whisperingly silent wee hours under scudding moonlit clouds. Freaking magic. And a whole new, deeply beloved family in a cozy little seaside town, nestled against the dunes on the Dutch channel coast; my second home and the Monster in my id.

Sevenentwintig jaar geleden was dat allemaal gebeurd. Nou ja; Juud is net jarig. En ja, het gaat heel goed. Gefeliciteered, meid. Ik hou zoveel van je!

 

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