It’s that time of year again; after weeks of frenetic activity in June and early July with people packing up and moving out, the tide has turned. The first container trucks are appearing on the narrow leafy streets of Wassenaar and unloading furniture and boxes arriving from the four corners of the globe.
New families are swooping in jet-lagged, tired and shell shocked. Wherever they’ve come from this will be a new place, a new language, a new culture.
Some are here before their belongings living in hotels or short term furnished rentals, getting to grips with their new environment before the containers roll up and life fills with the unpacking of the familiar in an unfamiliar place.
We noticed the new migrants for the first time last week. Shopping in the local store with Harry, he breathlessly dumped an armful of junk food in our cart and headed off with a,
‘New family – back of the store, gotta go and help.’
Peering round the end of the cereal aisle I saw his disappearing back heading towards a family group stood in a dishevelled huddle at the rear of the store. Mom was clutching a dairy item in her hands, looking as if it were a grenade with the pin removed, desperately trying to figure out the contents.
All of them had the the deer-in-the-headlights look of the newly landed. Paralysed, confused, dazed and bewildered. The family stood frozen as the wash of customers flowed round them oblivious to the fish out of water in the midst of them.
I watched Harry walk over and start talking. Immediately you could see the relief as Harry’s american accent filtered through and connected with the overwhelmed brain cells. Shoulders relaxed, bodies became less rigid, breathing returned to normal and direct eye contact was made, bringing them all back to the here-and-now.
I saw smiles, hand shaking and the expat speed introduction. The mother’s face was towards me and I saw a look I recognised; close to tears, incredibly grateful, holding it all together in front of the children who wouldn’t be able to cope seeing mom cry. Especially not in public.
By now Harry had taken control of their cart and shopping list and was guiding them round the store. The mom was listening with rapt attention and the children clung to every word in hero-worshipping awe.
So much for Harry crawling out of bed and reluctantly coming to assist me with a major family shop.
I kept glimpsing him as I struggled to steer our over stacked cart round aisles full of boxes of store supplies waiting to be unpacked and stacked onto half empty shelves. (The concept of stacking shelves after the store is closed and empty is one that hasn’t penetrated the Dutch culture.) He was pointing, smiling, laughing and being unbelievably empathetic with their situation.
I admit to feeling a warm glow somewhere in the pit of my stomach.
I could see he was advising them as to the best Dutch equivalents on their shopping list, he was probably better at this than me, being fluent in Dutch. Let’s face it, the family are probably still in shock that ‘slagroom’ is dutch for ‘cream’, the container the mom was holding when Harry approached.
In years past I have done what Harry did, spotted a ‘newbie’ and rushed to help, remembering that awful sinking feeling of not being able to construct a meal from the array of foreign labels amongst the fresh and packaged produce. I so remember the wonderful feeling of thinking you’ve figured it out, only to sit down to a meal which no-one will eat because it ‘tastes weird’.
I didn’t rush over on this occasion.
Apart from navigating my cart round an obstacle course and getting in the way of every tutting and eye-rolling Dutch shopper in the store, with me muttering ‘sorry’ like a record stuck in a groove (Harry’s back into vinyl), I figured my son had it covered. I’d caught his eye a couple of times on the circuit and winked at him, he was doing great.
He’s been around long enough to know this time of year is when we spot new people and help if we can, because people did that for us. Those wonderful people who helped us in the store, the post office, the bank, the park, the parking lot when we first arrived and were clueless. Expats and Dutch natives alike.
We couldn’t pay them back for their kindness but we can pay it forward.
As I struggled through the check-out and headed to the car Harry was nowhere in sight. It was only as I lifted the last awkward heavy bag into the trunk I caught sight of him on the other side of the parking lot, unloading shopping into a rental car. As he closed the trunk and handed the keys to the mom I saw her reach forward and give him a grateful hug. I saw his bashful smile and knew he understood.
‘Sorry about that mom, but what else could I do? Did you manage ok without me?’
I ruffled his hair and gave him a hug too.
Then I asked him about the rather cute teenage girl around his own age who was the oldest of the four children in the family . . .