At Home, Abroad
The city of Amsterdam had romanced me over the last few days with its peaceful energy and biking culture, causing the personal connection and love I had for the city and its people to grow. Although I was born and raised in the United States, I felt at home with the Dutch, with the rhythm of the city, the 17th century canals, charming architecture, burgeoning restaurant scene and eclectic shops. I was grateful to connect with my roots, and had a newfound pride in my heritage. Scenes from the prior few days replayed in my mind as I collected my belongings for the next leg of the journey.
I placed my duffle bag on the queen sized bed that I was fortunate enough to rest my head on. Its contents, which had started off neatly packed and arranged, were now a mix of wrinkled, semi-folded clean and dirty clothes. I glanced around the bedroom and double checked to make sure I had my passport and phone charger on my person before heading toward the kitchen to return the apartment keys to my gracious host.
The Gift of Groceries
With warm smiles, we exchanged pleasantries and recounted highlights from our time together over the last four days. As we said our goodbyes, I reached in my pocket to hand over the keys along with a few crisp Euros for groceries purchased earlier in the week. Without thinking twice, my host insisted that I save my money for the remainder of my trip – the food purchased was on him.
Although it was difficult to receive, I was in no place to turn down this kind gesture as I still had almost a week left in Europe and no paychecks waiting for me back in New York. On top of his monetary generosity, my host offered to drop me off at the train station on his way into work. As I closed the car door behind me, my Dutch host sped off to work, much like his Swiss counterpart that took me to the airport earlier in the week.
The click-clack of the rails beneath the car picked up speed like a rhythmic drum beat. Light broke forth as the train emerged from the dark tunnels of Centraal Station. We accelerated by urban structures covered in graffiti as we left Amsterdam.
A Little Town In Friesland
Although the landscape lacked rolling hills and mountains, the Netherlands possessed a simple charm. The Dutch countryside was an impressive combination of both natural and man-made beauty, with a significant portion of the nation having been reclaimed from the sea. The windows of the train and bus provided a great vantage point to enjoy the windmills, farms and canals that sped by.
I arrived in Dokkum, a small town in Friesland most well-known for the assassination of the Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface. Despite this more violent historical event, the town itself was quaint and peaceful, yet still offered the urban amenities of a larger city. Boasting two picturesque windmills, canals, shops and restaurants, this little town was a hidden gem, bubbling with life.
Radical Trust and a Pink Room
My next accommodations were in a small residential neighborhood a short twenty-minute walk from the center of Dokkum. I received a message from my next host providing directions along with instructions where to find the spare house key. His e-mail encouraged me to make myself comfortable until he returned from work later that day. I was shocked with his level of trust in opening his family’s home – providing a complete stranger with a key to his parent’s uninhabited residence.
A few hours later my host appeared, peddling home on his bike. He showed me to the room I would be staying in. The fluorescent pink walls suggested it was his sister’s old bedroom. The bright decor gave me a momentary flashback to being in the Limited Too with my mom and sister as I placed my luggage on the floor next to my new bed.
As we made introductions over a refreshing Grolsch, I noticed that we had much in common. Although we differed in appearance, he was my age, around the same height, Dutch and also had a younger sister – I strangely felt like I was meeting myself in a parallel universe. In addition to his level of trust, I was surprised with his enthusiasm and intentionality as he asked genuine questions and opened up about himself.
Shared Meals and Shared Perspectives
We decided it would be best to continue our conversation over a proper meal. In true Dutch form we both peddled off to the local grocery store to pick up fixings for dinner. During my time in Dokkum some of my favorite times were spent cooking dinner and sharing meals outside on his parents patio.
Each night we recounted the day’s events over dinner or drink. Like a winding river, the conversations changed direction and tempo as we traversed life experiences, beliefs, hopes and dreams. Although our perspectives differed and we did not always see eye to eye, there was a mutual respect and interest that I had not experienced before in such deep dialogue. Thinking back on these times I can credit my host’s inquisitive nature, patient listening and honoring demeanor.
A Brief Breakfast and an Unplanned Bike Ride
One of the more interesting evening discussions occurred around a spontaneous day trip to a distant relative in a small town called Blije. I awoke to an e-mail from my Papa, providing a phone number and suggestion that I reach out to his cousin who lived a few towns over.
At breakfast my host was kind enough to dial the number from his landline. I sat next to him, listening to five minutes of unintelligible discourse. As he hung up the phone, my host translated the conversation, uncovering what had happened – if I left immediately I would be able to catch my Papa’s cousin before he left for work. I gobbled down the last bit of toast and refreshed the Google Maps application on my iPhone to see the spontaneous journey that awaited my bicycle and I.
With my phone on “airplane mode” I was able to navigate my way through the countryside on “roads” or bike paths that were wide enough for two bicycles passing in either direction. As I cranked through the gears, the small town of Dokkum faded into the distance. It began to seem like more of a metropolis as I biked past lush fields, quiet canals, quaint farmhouses and the whirring arms of countless windmills.
Freedom and Release in Anonymity
After twenty minutes of biking I felt like I had entered a time-capsule. The steady headwind that I was biking into provided slight resistance, but also carried crisp, fresh air into my lungs. My legs pumped up and down, propelling me towards my mysterious destination, in the same manner that one of my long distant relatives would have done in the 1800s.
At times, no evidence of civilization was seen within a 360 degree view aside from farmhouses off in the distance. Jackrabbits ran through the fields along the hard-packed dirt, bike path. The thought hit me in that moment that no one in the world knew my whereabouts. A few weeks earlier I was in a skyscraper in the middle of Midtown Manhattan, and now I was on two wheels biking through the countryside of northern Friesland. I felt emotion welling up, I was connecting with something deep inside that I could not name or place – something was awakening within me.
A Distant Relative
I swung my leg over the side of my bike as the tires crunched over the fine, stone driveway. I set the kickstand and sauntered over to the front door to announce my arrival. I felt butterflies in the pit of my stomach, matching the awkward mechanics of each step as my legs regained their mobility after the long ride.
After a few knocks a tall, solemn, Dutch man arrived at the door. With a non-threatening smile I sought to disarm the eyes that were searching me up and down, reminding him of the morning’s phone call. To further prove my good intentions I scrolled through a few pictures of my relatives who had also visited a few years prior. A smile began to curl the sides of his otherwise stern mouth as he recognized pictures of my Papa and Grandma. With a strong handshake he gestured to enter his home, confirming that I had gained his trust and acceptance.
I was offered a refreshing glass of water that satiated the thirst I had built up over my journey as we toured his property. I felt strangely at home as I saw many traditional Dutch items that reminded me of my mother and Grandmother’s decor. After an enjoyable conversation surrounding family and my time in the Netherlands, he pushed a napkin with a hand drawn map across the table – his parting gift as he had to leave for work.
An Old Church
If navigating the Dutch countryside via Google Maps on airplane mode was not hard enough, I decided to follow the hand drawn squiggles that resembled varicose veins more than a map. This next destination was an old church that my Papa’s grandfather used to attend.
Although I was less than confident that I had adhered to the directions, I somehow found the old church, which rested atop a small hill with lush trees surrounding the brick structure. A small cemetery marked what was left of a once-thriving congregation. The lifeless building left me wanting, evoking more questions than answers and creating a newfound interest in those who came before me.
To Sea, or not to Sea
I finished taking in the scene and glanced back at my iPhone to see how I would get home. Droplets of water formed on the glass surface as the grey clouds overhead announced their presence from above with raindrops. Another ominous sign caught my attention in the top right of my screen – my battery was now below fifteen percent.
Based upon my current location I estimated that I was about an hour away from Dokkum. I was also approximately thirty minutes away from the Wadden Sea, an area of Friesland that I wanted to check out before leaving for the next portion of my trip the following day.
I had to make a hard decision – would I venture further away from home? I had a strong premonition that something was awaiting me at the sea – a person, a revelation, a sight that I had to take in. After trying my luck following paper napkins and dirt, bike paths, I decided to not toy with the idea of meandering further away from home as the battery on my phone dwindled.
A Soggy Retreat
The feelings of freedom and life that I felt on my ride out of Dokkum became a distant memory as the rain and headwinds picked up. Beads of water streamed down my face and I could now feel the rain soaking through my jeans and socks – an audible squishing sound could be heard from my shoes as I pressed down on the pedals.
My vision narrowed to a tunnel-like gaze on the bike path in front of me. I was no longer focused on the beautiful scenery around me, but on what I was not able to experience at the sea. The lens of lack clouded my mind as I became more cognizant of the lactic acid building in my legs as I raced back to Dokkum.
An Unexpected E-mail
Tired, wet and defeated I squished through the door and up the stairs to the pink room, whose walls were the polar opposite of my mood. I traded in my waterlogged clothes, which put up a solid fight as they clung to my damp skin, for a t-shirt and gym shorts.
I plugged in my phone and plopped down on the bed, closing my eyes to recharge from the previous seven hours of exploration. The vibration of my phone broke the sound of raindrops on the bedroom window. I opened my eyes to see what had disturbed my nap.
I received an e-mail from one of the folks I had reached out to regarding accommodations in the city of Groningen. Conveniently enough she was from Dokkum, and at home visiting her parents. The message asked if I would like to meet up for a coffee in town within the hour.
Aside from my nap I had no plans for the rest of the day. Although the bed that I was laying in did not make me want to get up, I knew I had no reason to turn down this offer – after all, I did not travel to Europe to experience it by myself in a room with my eyes closed. I replied back, suggesting a central meeting point.
Dessert, the Common Denominator
A few minutes later we sat down at a table outside the Hotel De Posthoorn. The hotel had a cafe overlooking the historic center of Dokkum. The scene was picturesque, and the sun was starting to burn through the clouds.
We sat side-by-side, peering out over the canal as we sipped our cappuccinos. She had a kind, gentle, yet adventurous spirit – I knew we would continue getting along when she was up for getting dessert along with our second cup. She encouraged me about the steps I was taking vocationally, and inquired about my time in Europe. After paying the bill, we continued to exchange laughter and questions back and forth as we walked around her hometown.
Meet the Parents
Fifteen minutes later I found myself sitting on the couch next to her father. The local Dutch news crackled in the background as the family cat played near our outstretched feet. Her mother, who could speak English, offered me a drink and spent some time inquiring of who this new American guest was.
After fielding questions and learning more about their family and life in Friesland, the daughter asked if there was anything that I wanted to see or do during my last evening in Dokkum. When she mentioned that she had a car and was happy to drive, the thought of heading to the sea popped into the forefront of my mind.
Band of Horses
A hug and a handshake with her mother and father marked the end of our time together. I hopped in the passenger side of her hatchback – the seatbelt clicked as we reversed out of the driveway toward the sea. She commanded the manual transmission with ease as we sped through the narrow, curvy roads. The further away from the city limits, the taller the Friesian grass on the side of the tarmac seemed to grow.
At this point the rainstorm that sought to dampen my afternoon had passed, the sun was shining with a warm and gentle hue as it descended through the vibrant sky. The present moment began to sink in, evoking gratitude in my heart and a smile on my face. Not only was I able to see the Wadden, but I was also given a personal tour of Northern Friesland, passing through fishing villages along the coast on our way to Lauwersmeer National Park. It would have taken me a full day by bike to see what we saw in an hour from the window of her car.
My favorite memory of the spontaneous tour was not the sea, but a band of wild horses. The brown, black and white coats looked like brush strokes on a green canvas, their powerful muscles flexing and straining as they ran unbridled through the Friesian countryside.
A Wooden Table
On our return to town the sun settled over the horizon marking the closing of another day. I found myself, yet again, blown away by the radical generosity of a stranger, now friend. I could not have recreated that experience on my own outside of relationship.
The least I could do to express my appreciation was treat her to dinner before parting ways. We settled on the Stadscafe Artisante, a Mediterranean restaurant in the historic city center. The brick walls and wooden tables created a warm and inviting ambience overlooking the canals. Our conversation ran the gamut from laughter, to slight jealousy (after learning she had recently tracked a Porsche 997 GT3), to a more serious and somber tone as she opened up about her life. It was incredible to discover the similarities of our life experiences, allowing us to empathize and encourage the other with our present circumstances.
Lights along the canal illuminated my way home, hands in my pockets and present in my thoughts. How much freedom comes from letting go of expectations, of control? How much joy comes from trust and generosity? People are one of the greatest treasures.