The other day, a friend and I were complaining about the unusually wet weather in Atlanta, and she asked me where the sun went.
“Holland,” I told her, and it’s true. It’s like Mother Nature decided to switch things up this year, whisking our sun across the ocean to dry out Northern Europe and sending their low, leaden skies to dump torrential rains all over Georgia. Vampires get more sun than I’ve seen this past month, and I found myself wishing I were there instead of here, homesick for a place that’s no longer my home.
There are so many things I miss about the Netherlands, especially when the weather is balmy like it is now. Lazy days on North Sea beaches. Biking through fields of flowers. Amsterdam and cafes and canals and french fries with mayonnaise. Friends and family.
Before I moved to Holland all those years ago, I never really gave much thought to the fact that I’m an American. My nationality was as much a part of me as my curls and hazel eyes. And then suddenly there I was, in a country where I knew exactly one person. I was a foreigner, an outsider, an expat. Ugh! It didn’t take me long to detest the word expat. Am I less of an American patriot just because I moved to a foreign country? I daresay anyone who has ever been in an expat’s shoes will tell you the experience only heightens their feelings of nationalism.
But after more than a decade in the Netherlands, I’m part Dutch, too. Some of my favorite places on earth are in the Netherlands. Some of my favorite memories happened there. Some of my favorite people still live there. It took a long time and an enormous effort to put down roots, but then suddenly, without my even noticing, they took hold and became firmly entrenched. There to stay, even if I’m not.
Even though at this very moment, I wish I were.
Last week, I met a woman named Nakia. Or actually, first I met her son, an adorable and well-behaved boy of four named Jahking.
I was sitting in a shaded corner on a coffee shop terrace with my laptop when he showed me his toy truck. His mother was on the phone, but she kept a close eye on him as she paced back and forth, back and forth, talking. It didn’t take me long to hear her conversation was not pleasant. She was working her way down a list of emergency shelters she’d gotten from a local police station, trying to find a bed for herself and her son.
While Jahking wolfed down a box of doughnut holes, Nakia shared her story. She’d lost her job, was evicted from her apartment, lost pretty much everything except what she could cart away in a couple of Hefty bags. A recent transport to Atlanta, she didn’t have local family or a support system to fall back on, and her savings didn’t last long. She and Jahking were literally on the streets as of noon that day.
How hard could it be? I thought. Atlanta is a big city, with an extensive support system for the needy. Together we called the rest of the shelters on her list.
As it turns out, finding a bed in this town is like winning the lottery, and here’s why ::
On any given night in Atlanta, there are some 10,000 homeless people — and more than 40 percent of those are women and children — and a shortage of 1,700 beds.
Nakia’s “problem” was that she wasn’t beaten, mentally ill, or a substance abuser, (and the fact I even have to type those words is preposterous), so she didn’t qualify for most of the emergency shelters we spoke to. Other shelters, shelters with long-term programs to help mothers like Nakia regain self-sufficiency, had long waiting lists and extensive application procedures. Every single emergency shelter we spoke to was full and operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, which meant finding a bed is a game of chance. What if Nakia hiked all the way down there and was turned away? Then what?
I wish this story had a happy ending. I wish I could tell you Nakia and Jahking found a bed, a job, a program that fed and clothed and sheltered them until they got back on their feet. What they “found” is a ticket back home, to family and circumstances she thought she’d escaped years ago.
And what I found is a new cause.
This summer, on our annual trek to visit family and friends in the Netherlands, we decided to stay in the heart of Amsterdam, in one of the many houseboats that line the canals. It’s tiny and it’s cramped and it’s noisy, but honestly, our little boat couldn’t be more perfect. The grocery store is around the corner, the bikes are at the front door, and the entire city is at our feet.
Here are a few things we’ve learned in the past week or so ::
- Geese are bullies. They will swim right up to your open window, stretch their beak wide, and honk, loudly and often. None of them will give me any indication of what they want. A bit of conversation? A giant hunk of bread? For us to get out of their canal? I don’t know. All I do know is that as water fowl go, they’re the ones most deserving of their place, stuffed and roasted, on a Christmas platter.
- A plaque on the living room wall kindly requests we not feed the canal birds — not even the adorable (and quiet) little mother ducks who swim by, a row of fuzzy babies trailing behind — in order to keep the canals free of rats. Um, say what? There are rats in our canal? That makes me almost feel sorry for the geese.
- When the sun is out, as it has been most of our time here so far, the people of Amsterdam take to the terraces, the streets, the canals. Some of the boats that putter by our houseboat are so old and rusty, so loaded down with passengers and crates of Heineken, it’s a minor miracle they’re still afloat. None of the riders seem to mind that it’s 50 degrees and windy or that their feet are standing in a few inches of water — though they probably wouldn’t look so happy if they knew about the rats.
- Folks in Amsterdam ride their bikes faster than me. Faster than the rest of the citizens of the Netherlands. Like, way faster. I’ll be pedaling and puffing down the Prinsengracht, working up a light sweat and zoom! A woman flies by, her bike loaded down with a couple of kids, giant grocery bags dangling from each handlebar, a folded-up stroller tucked under one arm, leaving me coughing in her dust. Seriously? I work out. I bust my butt at spinning. Still, I see a lot more FlyWheel in my future.
- Sound carries, and I mean carries, over water. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I know a lot more about our neighbors than their taste in music… and likely they about us.
Check out http://www.iamsterdam.com for more on this fabulous city.
My son recently completed his freshman year at college. With 1500 miles and two time zones between us, for me this past year has been a lesson in letting go, in sitting back and believing we taught him right, in trusting him to make his own choices.
I thought I was doing so well, too. And then Sunday happened.
Sunday was the first day massive tornadoes tore through the Midwest, and the first day of his trek, alone and by car, from Denver to Atlanta. The same trek I’d offered, countless times, to fly out and make with him, so I could keep him company, so his father and I wouldn’t worry.
But he chose to make the trek alone, and I was okay with that. He’s a good kid, he makes good choices, so I had to be. Practice what you preach, right?
Or I was, that is, until I checked Twitter.
Okay, so clearly he was joking but he also was not. He really was huddled under a bridge, mostly because, he told me later, it was raining too hard to drive and he followed a parade of cars there. He said he figured there was… well, if not safety than at least comfort in numbers.
Words every mother wants to hear.
His second tweet was even worse.
That’s when I pulled my I’m Your Mother and I Command You card and told him to find shelter for the night, preferably underground. He was already on his way to the nearest and sturdiest hotel. He made it home a few days later, a little shaken but safe and sound. Looking back at the footage from Sunday and Monday, I know he was one of the lucky ones.
When faced with an EF5 tornado, my son made the right choices. He found shelter under a bridge, then as soon as it was safe, found better shelter. He watched the radar and listened to local radio, and planned his route accordingly. And his mother, had she been sitting beside him, wouldn’t have done anything differently.
Still. He was blessed, and so am I.