Indo Henk Muller describes his family’s first winter in the Netherlands after repatriating from Indonesia after World War 2.
My First Winter
I was five years old. It was snowing and it was freezing cold. My mom had wrapped me up with clothes I’d never worn before. We got them, she said, to protect me against the Dutch cold.
My dad had always told me how cold it was in Holland. He would blow up his cheeks and make weird noises and silly movements. Then I tried to copy him. The cold seemed like fun to me.
I couldn’t remember much about the long boat trip from my home country to Holland. They said I got sick, seasick. I do remember I was racing my tricycle on the deck and a Dutch woman grabbed me. She was furious at me. I wasn’t allowed to ride my tricycle anymore.
We’d been in Holland for days and nights already. I didn’t like it at all. Just sitting inside and looking out the window, almost all the time. I just wanted to go outside and play. At home I was always outside, with Hadi and Siti. But the weather was not good and home was here now, my mom said.
She pulled my hat further over my ears and showed me how to breathe in deeply through my nose and to breathe out slowly through my mouth. And then we went, my dad and I, finally outside for real.
You are a preschooler, my brother had said. He had already been going to school every day and now I was supposed to go to kindergarten. There you sit on a bench with other kids, he explained, and a teacher will tell you stories. I was up for that. I loved stories.
I inhaled the open air deeply through my nose. It was stinging. I tried to do it more carefully but it kept stinging. It hurt. I got a sharp pain in my ears, in my head. Soon my feet and hands started to hurt as well. “Are we almost there yet?”, I asked. We walked on the bike path, next to the road through the woods. When we were still living at home, I did nothing but play in the woods, with Hadi and Siti or other kids from the neighbourhood. At home I had never been cold.
My dad first took one hand and then the other. He rubbed them one by one between his hands. I was hurting all over. I wanted to go back, inside, near the stove. “Just a little further”, my dad said. I cried. Pain, terrible pain. He unbuttoned his coat, lifted me up, held me tight and wrapped his coat around me.
“There, the nursing home”, he said. I could see a building through the trees. He carried me there. At the entrance he put me down and rang the doorbell. A woman appeared. She had a kind face and was all in white. “Come right in”, she said. She took us to a small, bare room. It just had a round table with some wicker chairs around it. I had to sit down and my dad was kneeling, to take off my shoes. She brought a blanket that she and my dad wrapped around me. On the table she had put two large cups. They were steaming.
Slowly the pain disappeared. I looked at my dad, who had folded his hands around a warm cup of tea. I loved my dad.
We didn’t finish our trip to kindergarten. How we got back to my mom, I can’t remember.
Later, when the snow was gone, I ended up at kindergarten after all. The teacher looked like the woman on the boat, who had been so angry at me. The teacher wasn’t angry but she hardly said a word to me. Neither did the other kids, except calling me small and weird and smelling like garlic. My mom told me to be above them but I didn’t know how. They were all taller than me.
School was like sitting inside all the time and looking out the window. I would dream of all the things I was going to do after school in the woods, with Jan and Roosje. I met them in the street where we all lived. Jan had a scooter and always wore a green hat with a feather. He was going to be a park ranger. I loved Roosje. She and I once went to go poo in the woods together. After that, her mom wouldn’t let her play with me anymore, but she still did secretly. They were my best friends. Hadi and Siti too, but they were at home.
The teacher told my dad and mom that they should have me tested. I wasn’t paying attention in class, she said. I was just staring. And during recess, in the school yard, I wasn’t playing with the other kids. She thought I wasn’t ready for elementary school after summer vacation.
We took the bus to town for the testing. I was sitting next to my mom and my dad was sitting in front of us, next to a man. It was getting crowded in the bus. A woman said something to my mother. I had to sit on my mom’s lap. When the woman sat down next to us, she pressed herself against us. She smelled bad. That was because Dutch people only took a bath once a week, my mom told me later. I thought that was weird.
The testing was fun. I had to look at ink blots and tell them what I saw. I immediately saw they were Boeto Idjoe and Lemboe Tjoeloeng, the green and the blue giants. Boeto destroyed the rice fields and homes of the people and then Lemboe helped them by fighting Boeto. There was also a tray with wooden shapes. That was difficult. A woman turned over the tray and all the shapes fell out. I had to put them back, but they didn’t all fit anymore.
At the end of the testing there was a man who read questions from a notebook. Then I had to say something and he started writing.
Suddenly the sun was out and warm, day after day. I no longer had to wear a coat and I didn’t have to go to kindergarten anymore. No more sitting inside, only playing outside, all day long. I loved summer vacation.
A letter arrived. The people from the testing place had written that I could start at elementary school after summer. I couldn’t care less.
When I was older, I read the letter, a psychological report. The examiners thought I was capable – provided I would receive the right guidance – to adjust to life in the Netherlands and to become just as tough and level-headedness as my Dutch peers. I should cultivate a sense of reality instead of wasting my time by daydreaming, was their message.
Well, now sixty-five years later, I feel fortunate I can still dream the day away. I couldn’t care less about level-headedness.