When you live abroad, visiting home as an expat can be fun (or difficult or stressful, but I’m going with fun here.) How do you see your home town? Do you have a camera? One of these fancy digital numbers? You most likely take photos of the foreign places where you live or visit. It’s all so foreign, beautiful, weird, exotic.
Then you go on home leave to your own country and you visit with family and friends and you go shopping for underwear and you watch dumb local stuff on TV and you never take a single picture. Because, well, it’s the place you are familiar with, the place you visit often. There’s nothing particularly exciting about it except it is home and it feels good to be there.
But then one day . . .
I was visiting my family in the Netherlands, in the small northern town of Sneek (creepily pronounced snake), the town where I was born. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I had the sudden urge to take my camera and wander around and see what there was to see. Here’s what happened:
It’s early Monday morning and my man and I are taking a walk around town. It’s quiet because most of the shops don’t open until 1:00 in the afternoon. This is to make up for being open part of Saturday. How else are you going to have two days off in the week? Sundays many commercial establishments are closed as well. It’s all about work-life balance, so they say, but the balance is a-changing.
I see a lovely old building and snap a picture. I’ve walked by here countless times, but never actually noticed it. As I am taking various shots from different angles, a woman walks by. Stops. Points at the building.
“I work here,” she says. “On the second floor. See the stained glass at the top of the windows? When the sun comes shining through the colors slide across my desk. It’s so beautiful!”
“Oh, how nice!” I say, pleased to have her tell me this. She smiles and walks on, away from the building. Maybe she’s out running an errand.
And there’s a jail!
We stroll around a corner and come upon the old jail, anno 1841. It’s not a stunning building architecturally speaking. I’m focusing my camera but I’m not bowled over by its charm. An old man on his bike comes pedaling along. Stops, get off his bike, watches me. He points behind me.
“Over there in that house,” he says, “the biggest communist in the country lived there.”
I’m not sure what to do with this information. Last I heard, being a communist in Holland was not a major news item. For years there was even a Communist Party (one of a dozen or so political parties), but it died a natural death because of lack of voter interest. Democracy works that way.
“Really?” I say brightly.
He nods. “And then they came to arrest him.” He grins, allowing a pregnant pause. A story teller, he is. Then he points at the jail. “But his son was the jail warden!”
I laugh. “Good story,” I say. Grandpa nods with satisfaction, gets back on the saddle and pedals away. He has enlightened the tourist.
So I take a picture of the jail anyway, to honor him and his story. It’s a café these days, aptly called Alcatraz, decorated, I read later, like a jail. Really now, that shouldn’t have been a major renovation.
Teaching the tourist
On we go, with me snapping pictures. And would you believe, another man, also on a bike, quite an old man, stops and starts telling me a story too. Something about the Second World War and the Germans. But I don’t quite get the point of it. What I do get the point of is the fact that in all the years I’ve come here, no one just stops and talks to me out of the blue. My camera is what makes them think I must be a tourist and need edification. What did I tell you? Visiting home as an expat can be fun.
A few days later I’m sorting through a rack of T-shirts on the sidewalk outside a clothing store. They’re dirt cheap and they clearly want them gone. Grandpa number three is leaning back against the shop window and watches me, probably notices my camera hanging around my neck. I’ve been snapping pictures of the street.
“Those are for poor people,” he tells me, indicating the clothes.
He must be joking. I smile at him. “But I can look, right?”
“They’re for poor people,” he says again, and I realize he’s not joking. He’s a bit . . . confused. Or, as my mother would say in Dutch, hij heeft een steekje los, he’s got a little stitch loose.
How blind I was
For two weeks I take my camera along every time I go into town. Somehow I see now what I never saw before: beautiful buildings, canals, streets, bridges, bicycles, people.
The photo above was taken at sunset. The bridge is from 1887. The buildings in the background are babies. Notice the sunlight reflected in the windows. I must confess it was my man who pointed this scene out to me. I clicked the camera.
Above: The Dutch love to linger on terraces with a beer, a coffee or a glass of wine. It’s one of my favorite things to do where ever I go.
Bicycles. Are you kidding me?
Do you think that as a Dutch person it would have ever occurred to me to take a picture of bicycles?
It took me years of being an expat and living abroad to learn to see the fun in a bunch of bikes. Yes, they’re useful, convenient and cheap transportation — I did know that.
After bikes come boats
Sneek is a well known water sports center, especially famous for its sailing events. Lakes galore, boats galore. I’m lucky to be here during Sneekweek (gruesomely pronounced Snake wake), a week of big sailing races and partying. The town is throbbing with people who have come here for the festivities. The young ones live on their boats and party half the night.
One day I’m shopping with my mother and near the supermarket I see two hunky guys with bare chests pushing a shopping cart along the street away from the store. It’s loaded with nothing but cases of soft drinks and beer, a tower of cases they have to steady with their hands to prevent the lot from crashing to the ground.
My mother is not amused. “They won’t bring that cart back, you know. They’ll just leave it sitting there along the canal somewhere.”
What’s wrong with being nuts?
Another day I’m at the open street market and watch two tall guys strolling along in identical ankle-length blue bathrobes, looking real casual. Bathrobes in the street in the middle of the morning. People are watching, laughing. “Sailors, just off the boat,” somebody says, rolling his eyes. I’m dying to take their picture but my courage fails me. I’m gutless when it comes to photographing people I don’t know. It seems sort of rude to stick a camera in someone’s face, don’t you think? Even if they’re nut cases like these two. I’ll never make it as a papparazza.
“Hey!” the flower vendor calls out to them. “Going to have a shower, are you?”
They laugh and disappear into a store. I decide I’ll wait for them to come out. A few moments later they do, turn back in the other direction and I follow them to their car parked nearby.
“Tell me,” I say brazenly, “are you walking around like that for a reason, a cause, a charity?”
They laugh. “No.”
One of the guys shrugs as he opens the car door. “Why not?”
I have no good answer for that so I point my camera instead. “May I take your picture?”
“Sure. Do I have to smile?”
“Not if you don’t want to.” And I snap. And here’s the result.
Looks like they were parking in a handicapped space, shame on them.
Smooching in the dark
On my last day in town I go out a little too late in the day to take a photo of the Waterpoort, which is a fancy old bridge that is the proud symbol of Sneek, built around 1492. Pictures and post cards with its image are everywhere. I should have gone earlier, so what you see here is a bit dark. (You can click here to see a daylight picture by a brighter photographer.)
The Waterpoort has special significance for me. My parents used to hide in the corners when they were young, after the curfew hour imposed by the Germans during the Second World War. Hide and smooch in the dark. It gave them a thrill, a dangerous one. You really didn’t want to get caught after curfew.
So I stand there in the failing light, snapping away at my parents’ old make-out place, and a couple comes strolling by, walking hand in hand. The man turns around and grins at me. “They’ve got postcards, you know,” he informs me.
“I know,” I say. “But I want my own pictures.”
And so, dear readers, here you have them. What do you think?
We are so used to seeing old, familiar surroundings, we often don’t appreciate them. Have you ever come back to your home town and seen it with new eyes? Or through the eyes of someone else — a friend, a child? What were your impressions? What had you been taken for granted?