The Expat Makes a Trip Home

by Miss Footloose

Are you a Westerner living the expat life in a developing country? Then you know what happens when you visit the place where your roots are. We all experience the obvious: We’re overwhelmed by the excesses, the abundance of everything everywhere. Twenty brands of toilet paper, laxatives, painkillers. Supermarket aisles the size of airport runways dedicated to breakfast cereal, laundry detergent, wine. You stand there, paralyzed because you don’t know how to make a choice. Water runs from your faucet at all times, the electricity (almost) never fails and the phone always works. I could go on, but you know what I mean. But something else happens to me also: I notice the little things, incidents or scenes that never would have registered with me. Here’s one of them, a little snippet of life in Holland, the place I sprung from. Oh, and the photo? Authentic working wooden shoes, shot on a farm. And no, I’ve never lived on a farm in Holland, and I’ve never owned a pair of wooden shoes, but I just love this picture. Photo credit: Wessel Cirkel.

Wie wat bewaart, heeft wat. (He who keeps something, has something) – Dutch proverb

I’m in a supermarket in the town of my birth in the north of the Netherlands (twenty brands of toilet paper, a hundred kinds of cheese). I’ve not actually lived here for decades, but I visit regularly so I don’t forget what it means to be Dutch.

The Dutch are a frugal lot. Well, the older folks are. They remember being poor, says my mother, pursing her lips. She judges me and the spoiled younger generations as nothing but reckless spenders and wasteful consumers. My mother washes disposable forks.

The supermarket offers a shoe repair service and they’re running a special this week. Fascinating stuff, I know, but that’s what I’ve got for you right now. A sprightly old lady is handing over a pair of shoes to the young girl behind the counter, eager to take advantage of the reduced prices. I guess her to be well into her eighties. Her curly gray hair is nicely coiffed and rinsed, framing a face with lively blue eyes and rosy, outdoorsy cheeks. Clip-on earrings of faux pearls the size of cocktail onions decorate her lobes. She’s protected from the elements by a neatly belted raincoat, vintage 1970. Support hose and sensible, low-heeled shoes complete the picture. Can you see her?

The brown oxfords she’s brought for repair are equally sensible. She requests new heel pieces, which the young blonde thing behind the counter dutifully enters on a slip of paper. The old lady smiles at her.

“I’m thinking, you know, for this price, it’s worth it. I mean, these shoes are still in good shape.”

The girl smiles back vacantly, apparently not riveted by this conversation. She has purple nails and long dangling earrings in the shape of little skeletons. Clearly, her interests lie elsewhere. She requests name and phone number, which grandma supplies.

“There’s really nothing wrong with them,” the lady elaborates, apparently feeling she needs more of a response. “They’re still in good condition, don’t you think?”

The girl says, yes, they are, and smiles patiently as she puts the shoes away. They’ll be ready for pickup on Friday, she adds.

I can’t see the shoes the girl is wearing, but I have an idea they’re trendy affairs and she’s never in her short life had her shoes repaired because they were still in good condition. Neither has she lived through a depression and a world war. Then again, neither have I.

I’m waiting in line to drop off a roll of film for processing (I’ve not yet gone digital), which service is offered at the same counter. The blonde turns to help the customer in line ahead of me and the old lady steps aside and looks at me, still smiling, happy with her frugal self. Her lips have been colored a modest pink and her teeth have the perfect, even look of dentures. A colorful scarf is neatly tucked into the collar of her raincoat, the blue matching her eyes.

“I was thinking,” she says to me, apparently having judged me friendly and receptive, “with a special like this it’s worth getting them re-heeled. They’re still in good shape.”

“Of course,” I agree, knowing what she wants to hear, “that way you can get some more use out of them.”

She nods eagerly. “That’s what I was saying to my husband!” She smiles, happy to have found a kindred spirit in me.

Life is full of sorrow–find your happiness wherever you can, that’s my motto.

She goes off to do her shopping, walking confidently away in her sensible shoes.

It is now my turn and I hand over my roll of film to the purple-nailed chick behind the counter. My pictures will be ready on Thursday she tells me, the skeletons swinging cheerily from her ears. When she turns away and walks a few steps to put away the film, I catch sight of her shoes. She’s wearing white Nikes, the modern version of sensible shoes. So, I was wrong. It happens, you know.

I do my shopping, making sure to take advantage of the special on aged Gouda cheese. Me, I get off on cheese. How do you like this photo of a Dutch cheese shop? Credit goes to Molly Kleinman, who also loves cheese. Anyway, I’ll put my aged Gouda in my suitcase and take it back with me to Ramallah where I live at the moment, along with lots of chocolate, ginger cake, spice cookies . . . oh, you don’t care.

As I’m putting the groceries into my mother’s zippy red car I see the old lady in her belted raincoat take her bicycle out of the rack (remember, this is the Netherlands, not New Hampshire). It’s an old-fashioned model, but well-maintained and in excellent condition. She walks the bike to the curb. She sees me and smiles. With quick, deft movements she hitches herself onto the saddle and with a cheery wave of her hand she is off.

Clearly, she’s in great shape. No repair necessary.

QUESTION: If you’re living the expat life, what do you bring back from your home country? An Italian friend of mine would bring pounds of fresh radicchio to Armenia; another friend would haul an ice chest full of shrimp across an ocean and a continent, also to Armenia. Then she’d invite us for dinner and share. That’s true friendship! (Yes, Lucy-jan, I remember!)

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I love your blog and all your interesting stories and your writing is so vivid. I love the cheeses in France, Holland and Denmark. When we lived in Belize, I was so frightened of customs charging me extra that all I brought back was face cream, sunblock, favorite shampoos and gum, perhaps batteries.
How long are you staying in Holland. Isn’t there a problem with customs when you go back?

Oh – I love the vivid portrait you paint of the old lady and her shoes.

When I lived in China, I was desperate for cheese, coffee and chocolate.

Now, when I go home to the UK, I find myself bringing back stuff like Branston’s pickle and crumpets. And chapstick, which I just can’t find over here.

Bringing things back to Armenia was never a problem because they never checked people’s suitcases on arrival. Bringing things into the US is not a problem usually unless it is fresh meat and produce, and cheese is fine because it is properly sealed and not “fresh.”

I’m in the US right now (West Virginia). The story was about my visit home to Holland some years ago when I lived in Ramallah, Palestine. When I visit I usually stay 10 days or so.

LadyFi — crumpets! They sound really good but I’m not sure what they are. May find out in July when I’ll be in the UK for a week. Yes, Chapsticks, I bring those too.

Love your story of the Netherlands and I am missing it, but I am also surprised to find out that you never owned a pair of wooden shoes!?!?!?! I know what a great gardener you are as we where neighbors in Armenia. Wooden shoes are great in the garden, you should get a pair. As for myself; I just purchased a old “Oma” bike here in Germany, so I can bike in Vienna (our next assignment) in a skirt and nice clothes. I have not been able to find a basket for my super cool bike yet, but that is… Read more »

I enjoyed this post so much and found myself nodding in agreement. I am from America and can see a huge difference in the values and lifestyles here in Europe. It took a little getting used to, but we love it here! We bring back Bounce dryer sheets, flavoured coffee and Tex-Mex spices in bulk because those tiny jars just aren’t enough 😉 If I could, I’d bring back a huge box of Tide as well. Many things I longed for in our first year abroad I have either found a substitute for or have learned to “make do”. Thanks… Read more »

Just a Plane Ride Away: The foods you mentioned are pretty much the typical snacks or fast foods in Holland, and kudos to you for trying herring (raw?). Of course, there’s cheese, try all the different kinds of cheese. In the winter, learn to make erwtensoep pronounced errtensoup also called “snert”. It’s a thick split pea soup, not to be confused with the stuff you find in cans in the US. It might be an ice breaker if you could ask someone to teach you how to make it. Many people now buy it ready made in the stores, though,… Read more »

Yes, it was raw herring from a herring stand! I am sorry to say I didn’t care for it at the time… I may try again, though. Thanks for the tip about the pea soup. It sounds very nice! I have tried to steer away from prepared foods. It’s one of the lessons I learned living in Texas so long where the restaurants were plentiful and inexpensive. We ate out so much that I hardly ever cooked! So I spent my first year in England learning how to make our favourite foods as well as picking up a few local… Read more »

Just a Plane Ride Away: I’m not crazy about raw herring myself, although I’ll have a bite now and again. It’s an acquired taste! When in non-western countries I always considered it a challenge to fix meals with whatever was on hand. You learn to be creative! I always cook from scratch now because I like it that way. I know what I’m eating — and not eating! The Dutch supermarkets have lots of fresh produce, local and imported and I can’t imagine why Americans would have a problem finding good things to eat and cook. Eet smakelijk!

I love your blog, Miss Footloose!

I am from Seattle, and I bring back smoked salmon, which from my neck of the woods is a much heartier smoke than the pallid stuff that comes from Scotland. Sometimes, I smuggle tiny bottles of vanilla extract into this alcohol-free country, and sometimes special snack mixes and I make them last a long long time . . .

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