|Welcome to Holland, where everyone speaks English, don’t they?|
In the town of Maarsee we make a detour from the main road. A tent icon on our map indicates there is a campsite nearby. But it seems unlikely, as row after row of houses line ordered roads full of smart terraced homes. Neatly dressed people take their evening stroll. I ask for directions to the campsite from two matronly looking ladies standing gossiping by the roadside. They have no English and we have no Dutch, but they quickly understand we need to camp, as we keep hopefully repeating the word ’camping.’ The ladies launch into an animated babble, pointing left, then right, then round the corner. We try to keep up, pointing left then right then round the corner with them, but it’s pretty obvious we don’t know where we are going. An elderly couple walk past holding hands and are dragged into the debate. They have no English either, but shout a lot and point right then left then around the corner. Five minutes later they are still debating, screaming at each other in Dutch, and we are standing helplessly with our bikes, wondering how to close the conversation down when we don’t speak the language. A woman and her daughter walk past with their dog, enjoying the evening sunshine. Soon they too are babbling, pointing right then left then round the corner. When two more people are brought into the conversation and eight people are now pointing right and left and around the corner, we start to laugh.
We spent a week in Holland at Easter, and not a single person spoke Dutch to us. In the last few days we have been desperately swotting up German, unconcerned about the Dutch language as we haven’t needed it. “Everyone speaks English,” we happily agreed, as we bought bread or negotiated for a youth hostel. But clearly, if you venture more than 200 metres off the main road, they don’t.
|First days are full of surprises. How did we end up riding into a shopping mall?|
The woman we initially stopped grabs us by the arm, then points into her house. We shake our heads vehemently; we can’t stay with you. But then she grabs a bike from her hall, and pink flowery dress billowing behind her, she beckons us to follow her. Left, then right then round the corner we go several times, before pulling up at a caravan park. The gentleman at reception doesn’t need much English to tell us we aren’t welcome. A simple ’no’ is sufficient. But now we have two problems; the first is where to sleep and the second is how to dismiss the lady in the flowery dress who seems intent on accompanying us on wherever we go next. It seems the nearest campsite is in Utrecht, fifteen kilometres away. We thank her for her time and she babbles on enthusiastically. We bid her goodbye, and she talks even more. We get on our bikes, cycle left, then right, then round the corner, and she parts company with us at the main road. It’s no place for locals, they speak a foreign language there.
Two hours on and we reach the campsite in Utrecht. Here everyone speaks English, or rather Irish; the run down site has been taken over by a gypsy community.
“How much did your bike cost?” is the first question they pose before crowding us with their queries.
Babies in nappies, cats, teenagers and a goat hang out all over the site, and the men hold an Irish football tournament across the only available field. We put up our tent with an audience of children, and a goat wanders onto the groundsheet and makes off with the Ritz crackers. Our children chase after it and retrieve a box covered in goat flem.
“Is that your goat,” Stuart jokes?
“Yes,” a child shrugs.
The goat is very interested in our bikes and the tent. We shoo it away and it urinates on the tent next door.
|Stuart, learning a trick or two from our new bearded friend|
At bedtime I take all our valuables and our children into the tent while Stuart goes off for a shower. A few minutes after he leaves, there’s a snuffling at the front of the tent, then a shaking, then something rams it.
“It’s the goat,” I squeal, bashing it with my novel. Further along the tent the material shakes violently.
“Go away you stupid goat,” Hannah cries, whacking it with her dolly.
Then, a rustling from the other side.
“It’s the goat, he’s over there,” cries Cameron.
At the same time one of the gypsy girls shouts, “Here goaty, come here goaty.”
I am incensed. “Who brings a damn goat on holiday?”
I start to whack the side of the tent with my book where the goat was last seen, and pull open the zip. Crouched on the ground is Stuart, on his knees, with two fingers against his head to make horns. He’s ramming the tent with his head. I whack him with my book on the top of his horns. My language, I’m afraid, is unrepeatable, but everyone, from the Dutch to the Irish, gets the gist of it.