I chose Haarlem for no reason. I left on the day that Holland got a Danish beating at soccer. It was raining. Like everywhere else in the country. At the Bed & Breakfast the owner and I shook hands. “Welcome in Haarlem”, she said. Did I know I was very fortunate? I had just arrived to the most beautiful town of the Netherlands. And if that wasn’t enough already, I also happened to be amongst the happiest people in the country.
I wiped rain out of my eyes, while listening to her emotional account of how she became homesick every time she lost eye of the church tower. To me that sounded like a terrible handicap, but somehow she managed to give me the impression that it was she who was feeling sorry for me.
How could anyone, not living in Haarlem, even dare to dream of happiness? She spoke funnily. An Amsterdam dialect, with some Frysian thrown in. Not the accent of which I was told in school, that it was the purest Dutch. When I asked her where she was from, she looked at me with amazement.
She spoke the one and only Haarlem accent ofcourse. What was I thinking? My thoughts returned to Appelscha. Once, a very long time ago, I happened to be in the neighborhood of Appelscha. As a 10 year old in geography class, I had to be able to point out this town -I assumed it was a town – blindfolded.
If you have to be able to find Appelscha blindfolded, you are led to believe that it is a town of some importance. I knew that if a war broke out I’d be able to find Appelscha no matter what. After all I had been practicing for years. So when, by chance, one day I happened to be in the area, I decided to check out this city.
For over an hour I biked along a dreary canal, not really seeing a lot of human activity. When I finally stopped a man to ask him for the center of Appelscha, he looked at me flabbergasted. “But lady, this is the center of Appelscha!” It was then that I realized that teachers have no clue what they are teaching.
I’m still wondering whether Haarlem is a cultural town or not. The upcoming football disaster had put an end to all activities I had planned. That day theatres and museums kept their doors closed. Because of the pouring rain my city map was torn before I even entered the old city.
So there was little left to do but the one and only touristic activity that Haarlem claims to be the best at: shopping. I took my task fairly serious. Not that that was hard. I’d barley thrown my suitcase on the bed of my Bed and Breakfast or I was seduced by a note on the shop across announcing there was a 25 percent discount on all clothes.
Bum and breasts
The shop was run by a stout woman. A lot of bum and even more breasts, so standing bent over seemed to be her permanent state. She ignored my “good morning” and didn’t even pretend to be eager to help me. Maybe she figured that anyone entering her store was in need of help anyway.
While I was waiting in line for one of the fitting rooms, I observed how other women, price tags showing in their necks, were turning in front of the mirror. One of the women was in serious doubt whether the dress made her look pale. The bent over woman looked at her and then snapped: “nothing wrong with the color.”
Another woman who was flattening her stomach with her hands was told: “clothes don’t make you fat. Only you do.”I left the fitting to braver women and rummaged through some shirts. “Do you have this in size L?”, I asked holding up a shirt size M. “One size only”, she said without looking up.
I decided to spend my money elsewhere and entered a gift shop. It was busy. I started reading the labels of colored bottles on a rack. According to the labels you would never ever forget the name of a lover once you had consumed the yellow or blue substance.
Behind the counter a women in her fifties was busy wrapping presents. A young pimply boy holding a helmet, was waiting for her to attend him “You look good”, he said to her. I snuck up to the counter passing a trays of flowered wallets.
“Matter of good sex” she answered and continued wrapping without looking up. “Really?” said the boy eagerly. “Whom did you have sex with?” “Yes”, I thought, “exactly what I would like to know.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one interested because all of a sudden it was alarmingly busy at the counter. “None of your business”, the women said and glued a bow to the wrapped present. “So who’s next?”
Across from the gift shop, was a design shop I walked in next. Or at least I would have done if the entrance wasn’t blocked by a man on the phone. Annoyed he stepped aside while he sighed. “Hang on honey I’ll call you right back. I’ve got a customer. Not that she looks like she can afford anything.”
For a minute I considered placing a huge order but then I turned around to find him blocking the exit again. Before I even could step outside he shouted into the store to no one in particular. “Can I help anyone or are you all from the looking but not buying department?”
I continued aimlessly through a very wet Haarlem. Gusts of rain concealed the church tower, the only positive thing as far as I was concerned. In a small shop, I tried to purchase something for the last time. “Looks good”, the lady said when I stepped out of the fitting room in a blue dress. “But may I give you some advice?”
We always advise our customers to wear their clothes inside out. To spice things up a bit you know.” I nodded and left the shop without a dress. Inside out, upside down. It’s just not me.
In a men’s store I took shelter from the rain. A man with heavy eye make up and extended eyebrows that would have made Frida Kahlo jealous, was smiling at himself in front of a mirror. Slowly he walked my way and then leaned over a rack with Italian suits. “Can I help you?”
“Sure”, I said. “I’m looking for a shirt that I can wear inside out without looking fat and that guarantees good sex.” For a moment he was quiet than he said: “You’re not from around here are you? “No,” I said. “I’m from the great city of Appelscha.”
Text: Anneke de Bundel – Image: Jaap Kroon