Personal stories

My favourite shop in the Netherlands..

A place which helped me deal with the feeling of homesickness.

I love the Dutch for being punctual about shutdown time.

“Shall we wind up?” This phrase is absolute music to anyone that is used to working in countries like India and Singapore, where official timings are from 9.00 AM to 5.00 PM and unofficially from 10.00 AM to 8.00 PM, if you are lucky and more if you aren’t.

I love the Dutch for being punctual about shutdown time. Whilst my Indian friends and their husbands, eat, sleep and live in their offices, my husband and I are able to bundle up before the TV by 6.00 every evening. Every single evening. Sounds slightly boring, I agree. But that is because there is no place to go to after 7.00 PM. Shops close by that time even in the most ‘happening’ places. In fact, there were times when I was shown out of shops because it was 20 minutes to closing time. Oh, well.

I forgot my homesickness in the bright lights of AH and lost my heart to their spongy muffins. It even served as my guide to basic Dutch.

In a place that practically goes to sleep by 7.00 PM, Albert Heijn is a perfect godsend. No milk for an early morning cuppa? Rush to your nearest AH. Craving a late night desert? AH is your answer. Lonely night? A bottle of two Euro wine is waiting just for you in AH. Emergency tampon? AH again.

I have a special relationship with this chain. It was my first go-to place when I was new to The Hague. I forgot my homesickness in the bright lights of AH and lost my heart to their spongy muffins. It even served as my guide to basic Dutch. Aardbei, tarwe, boterham, roomboter… common everyday things and their names. I learnt to speak a sort of broken Dutch with the help of their labels. Being a chocoholic, there once came a time when I forgot my purse and walked into the chocolate section of AH. While bars of Lindt gleamed at me, I rummaged through my worn jeans to find a Euro. And who do you think saved my day? The AH home brand of hazelnut-choco bar. Of course, an AH chocolate bar isn’t exactly like Lindt, but it is pretty good, especially when you are pining for cocoa and don’t/can’t want to spend much.

That’s when I discovered a whole new world of possibilities. The quality of their products come very close to that of big brands. I have tried their honey, nut  butters, pasta sauces, baking supplies, cleaning products, dairy, olive oil, sanitary products.. you name it, there is a chance that I have used it. In fact, I might well be their PR person. A normal, mid sized store stocks the basics and a little more, while the large ones typically bring in a range of consumables, all including vegan, gluten free and lactose free foods as well as tea straight from the gardens of Sri Lanka and India, decorated with the picture of Ganesh – the elephant god of Indians. Glass noodles with Teriyaki sauce, Kenyan Cassava chips and even Tikka masala with naan breads. These are not very authentic, but would satiate your craving for home like food – sort of. Add to this, a mix of several nationalities popping in and out. Some of them who also care to have a cup of coffee with you, like how an American once did with me, sharing interesting trivia. All this to me, is way beyond impressive. 

Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam, Den Bosch, Hilversum… terrains and towns change but not AH. It is to Netherlands what Walmart is to USA. Years later, when I move back to my country, the Netherlands will evoke the memories of canals, tulips and white boards with AH written in blue 🙂 


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An Indian’s introduction to Holland

Talking double Dutch? Beginning to…

The Dutch speak not with tongues, but with throats propelled by an energy drawn deep from the pits of their stomachs. I have spent two months of my life on this land, yet can only hear winds and gurgling streams from the mouths of those who speak the tongue. Be it a question, a statement or just an exclamation someone expresses to me, the only reply I can give is, “can you speak English?” or play dumb charades. Whilst, some are nice enough to repeat in English, I have come across a few who exasperatedly shake their heads or worse, move their wrists in front of my face ( like swatting a fly) and say ‘never mind’ in the most superior tone one can muster. While this did irk me, I brushed it off (using a few well-chosen names for them in my mother tongue, in the process.)

Back in India, it is difficult to shut me up. I would talk to anyone I come across and when there is no one, I would talk even to the omnipresent crows that feast on the most disgusting things possible, without judging them. Here, irrespective of where I go, I am the sole human being who is oblivious to all that is being said and can’t act until someone stabs me or I see a truck right in front of my face that might run me down in seconds. It starts to seem like people are either studiously ignoring me (which they are) or when they are not, jeering at me in a language I don’t know. In fact, at home, the crack of eggshells, the sizzling oil, the bubbling broth and even the whooshing of hot steam from the shower sound like Dutch to me.

Unable to put up with it anymore, I march to the public library with the wind whispering into my monkey capped ears (in Dutch of course!) in search of any book that would help me regain the use of my vocal chords in public. After about an hour of finding only a Dutch to Dutch beginners book, I approach the authorities for help. While I request the librarian to assist me in my cause, my mind draws up its own imagination of me huffing, gargling and puffing away in Dutch as my husband watches me with a gob smacked expression. “I am afrrrrraid fee do not haf fought you fant,” the librarian peers at me through her thick glasses with absolutely no sign of repentance. ” We only had Dutch to Dutch book,” she says, waving the book in air.

I walk back in the cold, cursing my school for having taught me a fourth and even a fifth language, but no Dutch. On recounting my experience, my cool husband whips up his phone to download Duolingo, an app that teaches Dutch. Duo, the owl its mascot is now my teacher. And I should say, it has started changing my life. I have begun to take baby steps in Dutch and wish my mom a goede morgen (good morning) every day. I learnt the names of vegetables, fruits and animals in Dutch and have now proceeded to learn simple sentences too. My sole competitor is none other than the husband who, I should admit despite having only limited time to learn, comes alarmingly close to my skill level. That’s when I push myself to stay at least a level ahead and show off to my only audience – my mom.

It sure isn’t easy to construct grammatically right sentences with words that use the sounds of every other alphabet but their own (for example, vegetables are groente, pronounced hoonthe), but I think I am getting there. At least I hope I am.

Meanwhile, I have also started to practice pranayama and stomach- muscle strengthening exercises that would help me speak Dutch from my navel.


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I Amsterdam(ned)

My first hand experience in The Netherlands..

A nearly empty plane landed in the dead of a dark, Christmas night. A bunch of sleep deprived, airplane-food/scotch-smelling passengers spilled onto the jet-way. Who would travel on Christmas, those without a life? Possibly. Or maybe there was someone trying to get a life in there. Me.

The most liberal city on Earth, said a banner in Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.

A new place. A husband. A new life. Or so, I hoped. Tightly wrapped in sweaters, gloves and scarves, I trudged along the airport corridors taking in the sights (or in my case, you could say stores). Bodyshop, Prada and Diesel, it was a long alley of such shops- all shut of course, yet they seemed to stretch out their long invisible hands to pull me towards them. Shooting a wishful glance at them, I tried to match my pace with that of my long legged husband and was soon walking out into a wet, cold night where a taxi was waiting for us. The chauffeur was a turbaned Sikh called Muhammad and I realized that no matter what we lose upon migrating to greener pastures, we Indians still carry with us the core of our existence- contradictions.

Home to Spaarwaterstraat in The Hague.

I was occupied the first few days, trying to keep myself warm and fearing the cold outside. Oh, and also with calls to my parents and extended family, assuring them that I am fine and haven’t married a demon who threatens to gobble me up for a snack. And then with constant chivvying from my dad who wondered and then got appalled at my apparent lack of curiosity, I slowly ventured outside, taking walks in the park that is bang opposite our apartment and going to a supermarket where I spent at least an hour each day.

The BGM is always the same. Rooks cawing, fat grey pigeons gurgling and an occasional vroom of a car. Misty skies and the bright flowers against a gloomy background constitute a scenic landscape. And babies. Babies everywhere. Blue eyed, green eyed babies sucking pacifiers and shaking mitten covered wrists at people are a common sight. Parents, mostly smart looking mothers push the trams. I see baby carts of every shape and size. Double and triple carted, with covers and some that resemble a vendor’s cart. I wonder where I read about the woes of thinning population in continental Europe.

I see scores of dogs being taken for walks.  A few are etched in my memory. A tiny one that could fit into my handbag, a noodles-maned dog and a violently violet dog that matched its owner’s hair color. Trust me, life of a dog in The Netherlands is coveted, if you ask me. I walk on cobbled roads, peeking shamelessly into windows that are open, taking in the decor and vowing to grow potted plants like the residents here. Until now I have managed to kill and revive a coriander plant, I guess I will let my green fingers practice the greenness before getting them on to orchids and croutons.

I miss India.

It’s only when I step into the city center do I see people of African, Chinese and Indian origins. I get regularly excited on seeing fellow countrymen, but might as well be one of those aimlessly pecking pigeons, as far as they are concerned. They speak a curious mix of Dutch and Hindi that sounds like one is gargling and also spitting simultaneously.

Oh, the Indian market. It is quite an adventure to get there for it requires travel in bus and then tram through a creepy looking neighborhood. Nobody stops or meets the others’ eyes here. And if you see anyone stationary, they are the ones puffing cigars in those corners where wind blows papers and eerily clanking tins. There are a few Indian (read Punjabi) stores here that sell everything from curry leaves to canned sambhar for a fortune.

How do I feel?

I miss India. I miss her in the order and discipline people possess here. In the market which is as bleached and quiet as a mortuary. In the impassivity of people.  I miss her.  A lot. I can’t wait to go back and wear just a single layer of clothes, bask in the scalding sunshine, eat panipuri on the streets, play with stray dogs , get shoved by huge aunties in trains, haggle with vegetable vendors who give away free curry leaves, and most of all feel at home.


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