Wednesday afternoon at 20 minutes after one I looked out the kitchen window and saw Lauren and Nico walking up our street, small travel bags over their shoulders. I knew they were coming. I had known for months they were coming. But seeing them there, within the context of our new Dutch lives, sent a wave of excitement through my body. I set down the dish I had been washing and ran outside. I hugged each of them firmly, amazed that my friends, who had been represented by Facebook and phone calls for the last two and a half years, were now there in 100% physical form—which in this world of keeping in touch through technology, seemed somehow unreal.
I had also experienced this strange sensation back when I was dating Arie Jan long distance. I was in Santa Barbara, California and he in Amsterdam, Holland. He was a voice on the phone, an occasional picture, a letter, instant messaging (our dating period pre-dated Facebook). Then, after two and a half months of knowing this person intensely as a voice, a collected series of thoughts, opinions and emotions, suddenly he was there in the flesh. A body holding the mind, writer, and conversationalist I had gotten to know. It seems rather appropriate, then, that Nico and Lauren, also a Dutch-American couple, are the reason Arie Jan and I met and our first U.S. visitors to our new home in Holland.
So there they were, in the flesh. They looked like themselves, but of course slightly different. Lauren looked great. She always does, from the beautiful collection of exotic rings on her fingers, each with an intricate story of purchase, to her hair, clothing and large blue eyes. Nico seemed to have settled into his role as a banker: still handsome, a bit more salt in his pepper black hair, clean shaven, dressed in khakis and a comfortable sweater. With some people you haven’t seen for a long time, there’s a bit of a transition time. Not with Lauren and Nico. Immediately, we launched into conversation after conversation and laughter came easily. Before I was even aware of what was happening, tears came to my eyes; tears of joy and release at feeling so comfortable with friends. I can talk well enough with people here, but having a long and deep history with others provides you with a level of comfort that lets you be more fully yourself, and thus more present.
Ezra was shy at first, but it didn’t take long before he was flying balsa wood airplanes with Nico in the garden and screaming with laughter at a voice warp recorder—just two of the many presents bestowed upon him by our guests. The evening was filled with interesting conversations, first at the house, and then at De Tuyn, an excellent restaurant in our neighborhood on the bezuidenhout of Den Haag. After dinner we walked back to our house, and the conversation didn’t miss a beat as we settled back into our living room. We covered everything from politics, our individual health, our outlooks on life, Osama Bin Laden, Snow in New Hampshire, our jobs to Dutch culture and more.
We knew we had just one evening and two days, but the rapid rate of topics we covered was not in effort to cram it all in, but rather the pace we fall into when together. When Arie Jan threw in the towel at half past midnight, saying he needed to get some sleep, I was shocked. I hadn’t intentionally stayed up that late since we left the States.
The next day, we had a leisurely start that belied our short time together. By 1pm, we were on a fleet of bicycles cruising to the city center for a tour led by Arie Jan, a Hague native. Lauren and Nico rode the tandem, Ezra rode with Arie Jan, and I was solo on a second hand bike we picked up that is perpetually stuck in third gear. As we followed Arie Jan through Den Haag, I realized I had fit more pieces of the geographical puzzle together. I knew which neighborhoods to expect next; I looked to the old church towers, the modern building of the Central Train station and other buildings to confirm my location. But then, Arie Jan peddled to a side street, and suddenly I was somewhere I had never been before. Or so I thought.
We cycled down a wide street with older, Dutch row houses in an area called Archipelbuurt after the archipelago Islands of Indonesia. We all marveled at the style and craftsmanship of the buildings, some more than two centuries old. Then Arie Jan turned down another side street, and there it was; a beautiful hidden neighborhood he had shown me 8 years ago on the residential end of Malle Molen. The mini-community of sorts suddenly emerged as we turned the corner behind an ancient wall. There, a brick lined entry led to a row of white washed old Dutch homes no bigger than 25 square meters. A small, tree lined path led between the little homes, and it seemed this was the idyllic community model. How could you not know and depend upon your neighbors when you lived this close, in homes that had held Dutch families for hundreds of years? It was a peaceful setting. A young woman who had one of the side residences sat in the sun in a wooden lounge chair reading a book, apparently undisturbed by our arrival. Although I felt drawn to walk down the little path, it was also clear that to do so would be intrusive. On my last visit with Arie Jan, almost a decade ago, we had arrived at dusk when the lights burned in the windows. It was strange to see that the tiny neighborhood hadn’t lost any of its intimacy or charm.
In the center of Den Haag, there was a lot to see, as the Dutch celebrate their liberation from Germany on the 5th of May, and the city was partying. The squares were transformed into performance areas with scores of people watching singers and dancers on the stages. Another area had a carnival going on, and much to Ezra’s dismay, we cycled right past the rides, cotton candy and booths full of cheap stuffed animals. We cycled through Binnenhof, where the Dutch government conducts its business in a stately square of buildings surrounding an interior courtyard, crossed by Malieveld, a large field where Dutch citizens gather for organized protests and ended the tour in het Haagse Bos with a view through a large gate to Huis ten Bosch, Queen Beatrix’s palatial residence.
By the time Lauren and Nico gathered up their belongings and headed out the door, it seemed we had put a shiny new coat of varnish on our enduring friendship; tying our old and new lives together.