When the loud moaning of air filled the house, I listened for my mother’s solid steady footsteps on the stairs coming up to the third floor, which I alone occupied; and in my memory every tempest brought her up to me. – Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
On Friday morning, I knelt down to my daughter and explained once again what was happening.
“My Mummy is not well and I would like to spend some time with her. You are going to stay with Papa for a few days but I’ll see you soon,”
“Okay,” she bravely responded.
Just as I was about to leave the house, a DHL van arrived with my husband’s 2 year entry visa for the UK. We hugged one another with mixed emotions. I questioned how much my daughter understood as I got on the train to Rotterdam. I was vacating my nest. I was to fly to London City Airport. London, the world capital for airline travel. It was this airport I landed in the first time I moved to the United Kingdom. I remember my older sister waiting for me. She also accompanied me to my boarding school along with my father. I can still see them as they left me there, waving from the back of a taxi. Back in the Geneva area, her nest getting emptier, resided my mother. She had cried very hard at the airport as she knew I would never live with her again. The past may or may not repeat itself but it is certainly recurrent. I hear its echoes all the time. To dispel these thoughts, I reached for a library book in my backpack. I had chosen it knowing it was popular in The Netherlands. I had no idea what it was about other than that the main character is Dutch and it is cleverly titled Netherland.
I looked up the country on Wikipedia, using my phone before switching it to flight mode;
The Netherlands is the main constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is a small, densely populated country located in Western Europe with three island territories in the Caribbean. The European part of the Netherlands borders Germany to the east,Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, sharing maritime borders with Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany.The largest and most important cities in the Netherlands are Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. Amsterdam is the country’s capital, while The Hague holds the Dutch seat of government and parliament. The port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe – as large as the next three largest combined. The Netherlands’ name literally means “Low Countries“, influenced by its low land and flat geography, with only about 50% of its land exceeding one metre above sea level. Most of the areas below sea level are man-made.
I was stunned as I opened the first page of the novel to read that the author is a third culture kid. Joseph O’Neill is of half-Irish and half-Turkish ancestry but grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, and Holland. Both my parents have Irish blood and I too grew up in Turkey as an adolescent. It was his experience of growing up in Holland that allowed him to draw the character Hans and his childhood in The Hague. I live in a house not dissimilar to the ones he details in Leidschendam and I walk the streets the protagonist does. It became apparent why the author called the book the way he did. Hans the expatriate struggles with his identity and self-esteem. It is the memory of his mother, the immigrants he plays cricket with in New York and his estranged, transatlantic wife and son that compel him downward and below. From a subsea he comes back up. It is the people who knew us and more importantly, who want to know us and take the time to do so that involve us in understanding who we are. And we do the same for them in turn.
And what better netherland than an airport, I thought as I read the book, where we are enclosed in a strange land of departures, arrivals and waiting rooms. Where there are shops which advertise Maybelline Jet Lag kits or an advertising billboard asks us; are you undutchable? And finally, we sit imprisoned at 30,000 feet but paradoxically stare and think deep down. The port of Rotterdam was so beautiful at takeoff with its exquisite shipping lanes where goods from all over the world are imported and exported. And the white wind turbine fields in the middle of the North Sea clustered together like giant Christian crosses. No sooner was I admiring them than I heard the captain.
“Cabin crew, prepare for landing,”
How impatient I was at passport control.
“You’re not Dutch,” the immigration officer stated.
“But you came from The Netherlands today?”
“Better to fly I suppose?”
“Better to fly than take the Eurostar from Amsterdam, what with the migrant crisis and all.”
This I sadly acknowledged. How frustrated I felt at baggage reclaim that I lived far way. But I told myself, as I topped up my Oyster card, that at least I lived close too. Each stop on the Docklands Light Railway and I felt stranded and contactless. I dragged my suitcase so that my shoulders burned to Shadwell station. It was my old stomping ground when I was at university but not the new East London line extension which I was so grateful for. It took me straight to Denmark Hill where down the slope and into Kings College Hospital I searched its maze for the critical care unit. I finally found it and went straight to my mother’s bedside. We all have our netherlands and we are destined to return from them.