Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
An Unconventional Meeting
At twenty-five years of age I had never had a boyfriend and wasn't really looking. The dating game seemed like a great thing to play if your idea of fun was spiraling yourself into a self-loathing cycle of depression and testing just how deep your faith in humanity was. Sadly this was not my definition of fun so I just watched the rest of you play it instead. Of course there is always a string of rejections, that incident with the serial killer you met on that online dating site, and your inevitable long-term relationship with the worst rebound possible. As fun as that sounded I was content alone... but I am afraid the universe wasn't about to let that keep going.
I had been talking to "Fish" for years online and had even met up with him a few times over the years. He was a wonderful person but was married. Aren't they all? All the "good" ones are married, hiding something, or gay, right? Pretty much. I was still hanging around listening to a bunch of whining losers complain about how girls don't like "nice guys" whenever I rejected them. Maybe I should have said what was on my mind.... "Maybe I am looking for something more than nice. Maybe I am looking for someone who can get off the couch every once in a while and knows how to do something besides blame everyone else for all his problems? Besides not having a jail record doesn't really mean you're nice - it just means you didn't have the balls to rob that bank you always wanted to...."
Then something weird happened. Fish divorced and then a few months later he showed up on my doorstep. Maybe I'd grown bored of my ho-hum existence, maybe I felt like I had finally found someone as insane as myself, or maybe it was just meant to happen but either way he was here to stay. Just a few weeks later he sold his home, packed all his belongings, and made the 6 hour trip to my house. Why helloooo roomie!
Lesson #1 - All Immigrants are a Touch Crazy
I know, the title of this blurb sounds like the bumper sticker for a bigot but that's not what I mean. I am merely pointing out you have to be out of your mind to suddenly decide to move to a country many thousands of miles from the only home you've ever known, all by yourself, where you can barely speak the language.
Fish learned to speak English very well by the time he moved in with me but he wasn't content just living the life everyone else was. He wanted to go see the United States - ALL of it. In a few short months we devoted ourselves to a gypsy-like lifestyle, living out of the back of the Jeep, eating Ramon noodles for almost every meal, and traveling every day. Seventy Four days later I finished Chasing Marbles, a blog of our journey, and we had both seen all of the lower 48 states in all their glory. You'd think we'd hate each other after being in such confined quarters, a car, for 74 days but the truth is we didn't fight once and we both came home happy as could be.
Lesson #2 - Language is a Tricky Thing
Everyone called him Fish when he first came to the states, partially because he bred tropical fish, but also because no one could pronounce Ruud in a Dutch fashion. It involved a monkey noise for the uu and the slight rolling of the R in the back of your mouth. It bears mentioning the R thing is impossible to do unless you have a lot of spit and the uu? Followed by a d that sounds like a soft t? AHHHH! A few months ago he started introducing himself as Rudy to people but I can't stop calling him Fish. It seems like such blasphemy since he was never a Rudy to me. Imagine if your boyfriend came in one day and suddenly announced you are to call him Bob now. Total mental meltdown.
Dutch children are often taught four different languages in school. Dutch, German, French, and English. Some might also speak Belgian Flemish if they live on the border. Fish spoke fluent Dutch and German, a tinge of French, and English. When I say English I mean the kind they speak in England... not American English. You'd think this wouldn't be a problem but it really is. Especially when you find yourself alone at a concert, wandering around asking where the lou is and only getting very confused stares in return. This actually happened at one point.
When he first came to the states Fish had a hard time with the th sound. Thread was a particularly difficult word and often came out sounding like Tee-ad. Life could be... frustrating. This isn't to say that the communication was only hard on one side of the conversation. No, sometimes my own English got me into trouble. I remember one day I told him something to the effect of, "Yeah, I don't know why she's listening to my music all of a sudden. I must be rubbing off on her." Of course having never heard this expression before he reacted with shock and confusion. Was that a reference to masturbation? I have never used the phrase since.
Lesson 3 - Dating an Immigrant makes People ask a LOT of Questions
When you date an immigrant you open yourself up to an inquisition. People are suddenly super curious. How did you end up with someone whose Dutch? What country is that again? How did you speak to each other? Is he a citizen? Can he vote? What is the immigration process? Why couldn't you just settle for an American man? Are you going to move back home with him some day? Do you have to be married?
The list goes on... and I have spent many hours discussing it. To make matters worse I can't even tell people what he does for a living because it's so damned complicated that even I can't break it down into laymen's terms. This just makes people more curious.
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Lesson 4 - Everything is Exciting if You've never Seen it Before
Living in a country that you did not grow up in sometimes makes you a bit of a kid again. Suddenly everything is new and you have to learn the language as well, which as it turns out is no different in adulthood than it was in childhood. I tried to learn Dutch when I visited his family back in Holland but all I really managed to do was point at things like a toddler and make funny noises until someone told me what word I was looking for.
Meanwhile in the states Fish is super excited about anything and everything. In Holland there is very little wildlife. I spent a week and a half there and all I managed to spot were two wild bunnies and a magpie. Maybe this is why when he came to the United States he feared no animal. In his first weeks here he plucked a snapping turtle from the pond to get a better look as everyone gasped in horror. Had his hand slipped in any way he'd be fingerless right now. This continues as I am constantly telling him to stay away from something or another.... be it the vicious water snakes that he insisted on inspecting while kayaking or the buffalo, rattlesnakes, and gators we saw on our cross-country trip. Just recently he called me on his cell phone to tell me he finally spotted a moose. Now he only has to cross wolf out on the list - and I mean genuinely, not because he keeps spotting the neighbor's husky.
Besides animals other every day things can be sources of amazement or confusion. Sometimes I find myself explaining morbid things like crypts and why our old churches in New England have horse stables next to them. Other times I point out things from my childhood I know he'll never understand. The food can be a real test for both of us and sadly we have gone out of our way to feed each other traditional things to see what kind of funny faces our partner will make upon biting into them.
Lesson #5 - Someone will Think Your Foreign Boyfriend is a Terrorist
I know, Holland isn't exactly a great source for terrorists but we still get to feel the love on this one, especially when he tans up and looks oddly Mediterranean. Before bringing me along on plane flights he was always taken out of line for "random inspection." When he still had an accent people were quick to make judgements which were pretty much always wrong.
Lesson #6 - All Holidays are Weird
Can you imagine trying to describe Groundhog's Day to a foreigner? It's not easy. In fact it sounds downright crackers. "So basically we have this groundhog who comes out of his burrow every February 2nd, and if he sees his shadow we get six more weeks of winter and if he doesn't we get an early spring..." What makes the groundhog magical? I HAVE NO IDEA.
Easter is no better. What does a candy-crapping bunny have anything to do with Jesus? ..... I'm drawing a blank on this one. But just think about it this way, Dutch holidays make no sense either. For instance on Saint Nicholas Day good children get presents in their shoes. Bad children get switches - so they can be flogged by burly black men, I mean Saint Nick's slaves. I get the fact saint Nicholas had slaves and this is historically accurate but beating bad children...?? And how is it Fish had no idea whatsoever that Carnival is actually a Catholic holiday? It's his country celebrating it, not the US! "It's for drinking, not religion!"
Halloween has been the most fun as it doesn't really exist in Holland. Every year we put up a crazy amount of decorations, some that jump and scream, get into costume, and hand out candy. This has always been my favorite holiday but to have someone who is even more crazy about it as my boyfriend is even better. As we speak he's building a tin UFO for next year. I'll be making the beat-up alien mannikins to litter the ground with.
Lesson #6 - America is Great at BS
That's right! We can make anything sound great. Now imagine this... you are at the Alamo with your foreign boyfriend and he's asking you what it's all about. You're midway through telling him when all of a sudden he reads a sign and blurts out, "Wait! You guys LOST this battle?! Then why are we here?!"
Now imagine you are with your Dutch boyfriend and his family taking a leisurely stroll through Boston when you're asked to suddenly explain the beginning of the revolutionary war.
"Well... the Boston Massacre was when British soldiers shot down some people in Boston."
"Really? How many?"
"Uh... I don't know? 5 or 10?"
"That's not a massacre! That's a farming accident!"
"It was the shot heard around the world!" As I said that I realized how stupid it sounded. Like anyone cared if some people in a distant colony got shot by British soldiers. And heard 'round the world? Who are we kidding? Even if they did care it'd take months for the news to reach Europe and the rest of the world as it'd have to travel across the sea by boat. Telegraphs were a long ways away from being invented. I think history just blew up in my head.
Lesson #7 - America's Children are Wusses
It's true. I couldn't agree more. Our children have very little chance in this day and age to let Darwinian selection take them away. They're coddled, padded, and given led-free toys.
Toys are a weird thing. In Holland toy guns are illegal and have been for decades. Something about a World War really putting people off possibly instilling violence in their children... Anyway! In leiu of guns their children get KinderEi. (That means child egg.) These are hollow milk chocolate eggs that have toys inside them, often ones that come in many tiny pieces that you have to build yourself. You can buy them in Canada... but not in the United States! Something about a choking hazard. I am delighted by these things and make sure we buy them every time we're in Canada now. How can you not love a milk chocolate treat with a possible side of tiny plastic dinosaur?
Lesson #8 - Culture Shock can be Really Shocking
One of the most surreal moments of my life was when I was visiting Fish's family during the Christmas season. Now Dutch people do celebrate Christmas but they don't have Santa Claus. Santa Claus as Americans know him (being led by reindeer) is an invention of Coca-Cola. Dutch people, as well as the rest of Europe, instead have Saint Nicholas. He was a real guy and did some real nice things like giving gold to the needy. Children still get presents from him every year.. but he's not alone. He brings with him his favorite black slave, Pete, also known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete.)
I had heard about Black Pete but nothing could have prepared me for meeting him. We were having a large gathering of family and close friends when I heard an enthusiastic bang at the door. I was told to go open it. I refused. Not my house and I'm suspicious now. BANG BANG BANG! And then someone let him in... Black Pete himself, a 17 year old boy, dressed in tar face, who was now pelting dog food at me as I sat on the couch. There was no reaction I could have had other than absolute shocked confusion. As it turns out he was pelting ginger snaps at me, not dog food, although they looked the same. Also Black Pete is normally displayed as a dude in blackface... In fact you can still get chocolates in this form, like an Easter Bunny, just with really big red lips and really abnormally black skin. I also have a mug with this image on it sitting cold and alone in the very back of my cupboard.
Black Pete isn't all bad. He's supposed be jolly and funny. This one made me attempt to sing Dutch Christmas jingles which I am sure came out as a lot of funny mumbling.
The Run Down
I have learned so much since Fish came into my life that I can't begin to sum it up. Every day is a new adventure, a new treasure, a new laugh as he asks for the turkey blaster which I am supposed to know really means turkey baster. I have learned not only about his country and culture but also a lot about my own. In the end we still don't fight and we still love each other dearly and maybe this constant source of positive energy is why. It seems most of my female friends are currently living in foreign countries, dating long-term foreign boyfriends, or are single. I have to wonder when the American men are going to start seriously competing for our attention??