Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Homecoming in The Netherlands

When I was a senior in high school, I worked in the school office a few days each week. Early in the school year, I was in the office when a girl I didn't know came in very upset. I overheard her speaking to the guidance counselor; she was an exchange student from the Netherlands whose original host family had backed out and she had nowhere to live for her year abroad. Having stayed with a French family in the suburbs of Paris for a few weeks the previous year and imagining how scary it would have been if they had cast me out with nowhere to go, I was very sympathetic to her plight. Without hesitation I told her I would go home and ask my parents if she could live with us.
Martine is on the left in the peach blazer holding a tennis racquet
That is how Martine Neutel became a member of my family. She slept, at first, in the closet under our stairs as we did not have a spare bedroom to offer. Eventually my parents bought a mattress and she slept on the floor in my mom's sewing room, which, at least, gave her a little more space. Martine lived with us for the entire school year, from August 1991 to June 1992. Her boyfriend Jacco came to visit over Christmas break; her grandparents came during her birthday the following spring; and her entire family (mom & dad, sister & her husband, and Jacco) came to the U.S. after our graduation and traveled together for six weeks from the east coast to the west in a camper van.

Martine was the big sister I never had. While I was very busy with school activities & sports, applying for college scholarships and in a serious relationship with my boyfriend Billy, Martine was a breath of fresh air. Mature, smart, funny and laid back, she showed me how to enjoy life more fully. It helped that she had already finished her studies at the same level back home, so grades were not so important.

When they left Tennessee that summer, just after my 18th birthday, I did not see Martine and her family again until the fall of 1998, although we had kept in touch by writing letters. Martine was just finishing her specialized university studies. I was having a sort of early-life crisis, not sure what I wanted to do next, so I had quit my job and was backpacking solo through Europe for two months. My first stop was Amsterdam, where Martine picked me up at the airport and I spent the first five nights of my trip with her & Jacco at their apartment in Groningen. Later, after two weeks of traveling on a very tight budget, I got sick with the flu and, wanting the comfort of home, returned to northern Holland to recover at her parent's house in Emmen. I also stopped in again one more time, at the very end of my trip, to attend Martine's graduation before I returned to the U.S.
I took this photo of Roelof & Jellie (Martine's parents) with Martine & Jacco in Emmen, 1998
I visited again briefly in 2003, when I took my paternal grandmother to the Netherlands to see the spring blooms at Keukenhof, the largest flower gardens in the world. Martine & Jacco had moved into a beautiful house in Emmen, very near to her parents, and had one daughter, Rosalie. Her sister Edith, now divorced, also had moved to a house in the same neighborhood with her three children, Hielke, Sietse and Amarijns.
Jacco, baby Rosalie, Sietse, Grandmother Smartt, Amarijns, me & Martine at Emmen Zoo - April, 2003
So it was with great anticipation that we finally met again a few weeks ago. Plus, I had a surprise: my mom and step-dad Ronnie would also fly over to visit. When Martine met us at the Emmen train station you can imagine the emotions as it was her first time to see my mom in almost 20 years! After picking up her two youngest daughters from school, we returned home and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening relaxing and catching up.
a tearful reunion
On our first full day in Emmen, Martine's parents, Roelof & Jellie, brought us to their house to look at the photo albums from their trip to the U.S. in 1992. After reliving the happy memories, we drove to Giethoorn, the Venice of the Netherlands, where we ate a delicious lunch of pannenkoeken (traditional pancakes with your choice of ingredients) and gehaktballen (Dutch meatballs) then took a private boat cruise along the canals with their picturesque thatched cottages. Next we stopped in Blokzijl, an old seaport which was cut off from the ocean in the early 1930's when the Noordoostpolder was drained to reclaim land for farming. Blokzijl still has dozens of 17th century houses, as well as the Grote Kerk, one of the country's first Protestant churches. We enjoyed a nice walk along the old harbor and through the small town before returning to Emmen.
Ronnie & Diane, Greg & I, Jellie & Roelof in Blokzijl
For dinner that night, we had a reservation at Flamingo Plaza, a popular buffet-style restaurant in the city center. The entire family was present (Roelof & Jellie, Martine & Jacco and their three daughters, Edith and her three children, and the four of us). It was a special evening of delicious food & drinks with our Dutch family.
the entire family at Flamingo Plaza
The following day, a Friday, everyone skipped work & school so we could go to the market and the zoo. The weekly Emmen market takes up most of the pedestrianized center and has everything from food to clothing to auto parts. We browsed for over an hour, eventually stopping for lunch at one of the fish stalls, where they were not only selling a wide variety of fresh fish but preparing some of it to eat immediately. We had a stand-up feast of kibbeling, raw herring and fried mussels then proceeded on foot to the Emmen Zoo, which is in the heart of the city.
enjoying a seafood feast at Emmen market
We stayed at the zoo until closing time, doing our best to see every animal in residence. Then we returned to Martine's house, where she & Jellie prepared a delicious spaghetti & salad for dinner. While they were cooking, Ronnie, Greg & I joined Jacco for Ditte's riding lesson. Seven years old, Ditte loves all animals and, after playing field hockey in previous years, opted to take horse riding lessons this year. Once the lesson got underway, we grabbed beers from the equestrian center's bar and watched as she and her classmates pranced around on the ponies.
Ditte's riding lesson
After two active days, we decided to have a leisurely Saturday. The women went grocery shopping while the men went fishing in Jacco's father's boat. We regrouped back at the house then Jacco took us to his office (he owns a construction firm) and showed us some of the local projects he has worked on recently.
Ronnie "catches" a neighbor's chair
As it was our final full day in Holland (Mom & Ronnie would try to fly home on Sunday morning), Martine's sister, Edith, invited us all over to her house for afternoon tea. After first enjoying some sweets (apple pastries, muffins, doughnuts, cookies and more), the next thing we knew glasses of wine & beer were being offered. This was followed by a beautiful party tray filled with Dutch cheeses, smoked meats and other savory snacks. Afternoon tea soon gave way to an evening dinner party, where platter after platter of delicious finger food was served. The original plan had been to return to Martine's house where she would cook dinner, but with all the food lavished on us at Edith's house, we certainly didn't need another meal! Instead we chose to continue hanging out with the rest of the family, lingering in the warm embrace of love & kinship.
a specially-prepared party tray at Edith's house
The following day we had to say tearful goodbyes. Who could have foreseen that a random meeting in a school office 20 years ago would blossom into a lifelong family connection? We were so lucky to have Martine in our lives that year and every time that we have gotten together since has been like a homecoming for me. This visit was no exception, made all the more special because Mom & Ronnie joined us. The Neutel's (as I collectively refer to the entire family) are absolutely wonderful people in every way; I just wish we could see them more often. Of course, we are all hopeful that they will plan a trip to the U.S. in the near future!!!

Jacco, Martine & their daughters Vlinder, Ditte  &Rosalie with Greg & I and Mom & Ronnie at Emmen Zoo
The link to all of my photos is embedded in this post's title.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Alethea, for this extensive story. It is very special for me to read this. Although we live far away from eachother we have a warm and close history together. Not just you and me but also our families. It must destiny, that we met 20 years ago in the schooloffice in Nashville! Love you and your family very much and hope to see you again (in Portland!) very soon. Lots of love, Martine