Qingjing Mosque, February 2018. The arresting ruins of this city centre mosque can be found on Tumen Street, just a five-minute walk down from Guandi Temple. Built in 1009, this is China’s second oldest mosque and a major pilgrimage point for the country’s Muslim community.
Yongmunsa Temple, February 2015. “Hi I’m River, so nice to meet you!” he said, clamping a hand down on my shoulder. It was early morning in Seoul and I was incredibly hungover after a beer-fuelled night of noraebang (Korean Karaoke) had led to full-on alcohol carnage at Club FF. I was a virtual zombie in the car as River sped off for the fifty-three kilometer journey. Located in the sleepy country province of Yangpyeong, the walking trail up to the temple complex begins here in the forest valley of Yongmunsan Mountain.
In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?
“Leighton… you are on de computer again, your eyes will become like squares!” said Papa S with a patronizing chuckle. Looking up briefly from my CV, I shot him a polite smile through gritted teeth and tried to keep my reply as cheerful as possible. “Yes, I’m looking for a job… remember?”
I knew life with Mama and Papa S was going to be challenging; I hadn’t been under any illusions. But with no jobs, no place to live and just a modest pot of joint savings to draw from, S and I had to bite the bullet and accept their kind offer of letting us stay until we got on our feet.
Nevertheless, I’d spectacularly underestimated just how testing life at the S house would be. I found myself chastised on a daily basis for my many failings. Mama S was into etiquette, if that’s even a thing to be into, so I got pulled up at the dinner table for a misplaced elbow, or an offending knife that I’d set in the wrong position (knives have to face towards one’s plate apparently). One time I was told to remove a tissue that I’d rested by my soup bowl, while my shoes/sweater/teacup had invariably been put in the wrong place and needed an emergency relocation.
My crappy Dutch meanwhile was always an issue. With minimal English on offer (they could, but mostly wouldn’t), I either misinterpreted the general flow of the subject or made such a mess of my own contribution to the point of all-out confusion. Not that a sudden injection of linguistic ability would have made all the difference. More often than not I had no interest in what was going on with Auntie Boring, nor did I need any hot details on Uncle Inconsequential’s new leather sofa. Anything directed purely at me was mere small talk: the weather, my static job search, household practicalities like if I needed to use the bathroom I better do it now because… zzzzzz.
It’s not that they hadn’t been welcoming. Meal times were always a culinary treat and my hosts were forever asking me if I was ok and whether there was anything I needed. But somehow this just managed to make me more anxious. Especially as such questions were usually accompanied by a searching, narrow-eyed look from Mama S, who still didn’t know what to make of me five years after I’d started dating her daughter.
S Headquarters was located in a quiet, Edward Scissorhands-esque suburban road in the sleepy town of Goirle, a fifteen-minute drive from the city of Tilburg in Holland’s Brabant region. With no friends in the area and little on offer in the way of entertainment, it took about a week for an acute sense of claustrophobia to set in.
It was a sunny June morning and I was on de computer again applying for jobs I didn’t give a shit about. Desperately trying to get something… anything that could move S and I out into a place of our own. “Leighton, can you stand up a moment please!” Papa S was hovering over me again and I could see he was in one of his restless moods. He’d been pacing up and down the living room looking for something to keep him occupied and now he’d finally found it.
Scooping my laptop up into my hands, I rose as per his request, looking on in quiet disbelief as he proceeded to pull the armchair I’d been sitting in an inch away from the wall. “You can sit back down” he said, adjusting his spectacles, “The chair should not be against the wall”.
“Leighton, you have changed the settings on my computer!” he huffed some time later, his cheeks rapidly reddening. I groaned to myself, wishing I’d never gone up to his study, cursing my luck that I’d needed to use his scanner for one of my job applications. Of course I hadn’t done anything to his computer; the poor old guy just didn’t have a clue how to use it. He knew as much about IT as an eagle knows about macroeconomics, but my proclamations of innocence fell on deaf ears.
A few hours later tensions reached boiling point in the kitchen after lunch. It was my turn to do the washing up and Papa S had taken it upon himself to micromanage me. “The water is not hot enough,” he said, flicking the red tap as far to the right as it would go. “It’s fine,” I said, pushing it back a little, the temperature beginning to physically burn my hands. But he just swished it right again, telling me that if the water didn’t get hot enough the plates wouldn’t be clean. I was reaching the end of my tether and suddenly found myself walking out of the kitchen with a sardonic chuckle. And then Papa S was rushing after me. “Leighton, I don’t like it that you are laughing at me! This is very rude and…” Instinctively I quickened my pace and strode through the living room into the hallway. Grabbing my coat, I headed out the front door, ducked into the garage, grabbed one of the S family bicycles and pedaled off into the warm afternoon.
I’d been cycling without purpose for about fifteen minutes when I stumbled upon an amazing little residential street decked out in orange flags, posters and streamers. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was well into its final stages and the Dutch national football team had reached the semi-finals. With all the drama of washing-up-gate still bubbling in my head I’d completely forgotten that the big match against Uruguay was taking place that night!
Dismounting my bike, I walked down the road to take a closer look. The locals had really gone to town, with all the houses covered in Orange netting. “Hup hup Holland!” cried one massive banner, while another warned the South Africans to “Watch out, the Dutch Lions are coming!” Strolling down the street, I caught sight of a balding, middle-aged man watering his plants in the front garden. He was wearing a Dutch football shirt from the 70s with Cruyff emblazoned on the back in chunky black letters. Glancing up, he saw me passing and shot me an aggressive fist pump. He certainly wouldn’t be missing tonight’s game and I instantly decided that neither would I. In fact, a party atmosphere was just what the doctor ordered. All I had to do now was convince S to head into Tilburg to catch the game in Pub Street.
S couldn’t have cared less about football, but she was passionately patriotic and therefore happy enough to head into the city to enjoy the festivities. With England long ago knocked out and having performed so miserably, I’d decided to throw all my support behind my adopted homeland and even bought myself a Dutch jersey.
An uncomfortable silence wedged itself between us on the bus into Tilburg. She’d heard her father’s skewed version of the day’s events and it seemed there wasn’t much I could say to shake off my appointment as the villain of the piece. “I hope tonight is gonna relax you” she said dully, gazing out the window.
Tilburg was an amazing sight that evening. Everyone was dressed in orange from head to toe, while you could hardly take a step without knocking into a bicycle. They were chained to fences and squashed up together against trees. Others were resting against the backs of the tables and chairs that lined the pavement, a few even strewn across the ground, seemingly abandoned by their drunken owners.
And then there was the game itself, an almighty glass-shattering roar penetrating the entire city as Arjen Robben’s bullet header gave the Oranje a 3-1 lead that would eventually be enough to secure a place in the World Cup final.
Everyone around me was so jubilant… so proud… so damn drunk. There was hugging, cheering, kissing, beer glasses smashing to the floor and loud guttural Dutch dialogue rattling through the airwaves from all directions. But as much as I was enjoying myself, this unified jubilation only served to remind me how anxious I was feeling about everything. Was I going to get a job soon? Would I be able to settle in this country? Were S and I really gonna live happily ever after? “Let’s head back,” she said, tugging on my arm. And so we left the delirious masses to their celebrations, setting off back to Goirle where recriminations lay in wait.
The atmosphere over the next days was awful. Papa S wasn’t really talking to me, Mama S wasn’t talking to Papa S for some reason and I’d become so withdrawn I wasn’t talking to anybody. And then, to cap it all off, Mama slipped in the garden, cut her knee and called an emergency family meeting where I was pretty much hung out to dry. “This happened because of you!!” she spat, the beginning of a lengthy tirade that painted me as the houseguest from hell. I was so angry I made the mistake of shouting back at her. Poor old S, completely caught in the middle, began crying on the sofa.
Hiding away in the tiny little upstairs bedroom we shared, I knew I’d fucked up by letting my frustration get the better of me. Now I was gonna have to repair this, for the sake of S if nothing else. At a complete loss as to what I should do, I began scouring the job sites for the umpteenth time that day. It had only been an hour since I’d last looked; I wasn’t expecting to see anything. And then it caught my eye… a position so ridiculously up my street I initially thought it might be a joke advert of some sort.
Writer/Editor/Voiceover needed for media production company in Amsterdam North. Applicant must speak excellent English and be passionate about movies/have strong knowledge of all things Hollywood.
Wow! I remember thinking. While on the face of it I seemed to tick all the boxes, surely this was a job I had no chance of getting. Right!? I sat there for a minute or two chewing it over. I mean, what exactly did I have to lose? Without even consciously making a decision I began tinkering with my CV, digging up an old movie review from my archives, constructing a lengthy cover letter. An hour or so later I was ready, my finger hovering nervously over the mouse. Checking everything one last time for good measure, I returned to my Hotmail screen, took a deep breath and pressed send.
This short story was taken from my collection Notes From The Netherlands.
Khao San Road, June 2015. I very nearly didn’t bother with Khao San Road, Bangkok’s most famous street. In fact, the more I read and heard, from delirious recommendations to stark warnings, I just couldn’t figure out why so many people would fly halfway across the world to get really pissed and hang out with lots of other westerners. Couldn’t they just do that back at home? Even after I’d drawn up my extensive Bangkok to-do list, Khao San Road found itself rooted firmly to the bottom of the league table.
Bangkok Snake Farm, April 2015. Bangkok’s fascinating Snake Farm is one of the city’s most underrated attractions! Tucked away in the gated Red Cross Institute compound at the intersection of Rama IV and Henry Dunant Roads, it’s also a tricky place to find! So get maps going on your phone and be prepared to wander into a couple of hospitals before you find it!
Kent Ridge Park, May 2015. As insultingly expensive as a week in Singapore can potentially be, visitors often overlook the fact that many of the city’s highlights are completely free! As with the stunning Singapore Botanical Gardens, you’d be a fool to leave town without hiking The Southern Ridges, a nine-kilometer trail connecting a number of gorgeous parks along the city’s southern ridge. The route starts here in the pretty Kent Ridge Park, with moody views out over Singapore Port.
Singapore Botanical Gardens, May 2015. One of Singapore’s biggest draws is the incredible amount of greenery on offer, from leafy parks and meticulous urban gardens to the stunning hiking trails of The Southern Ridges. But the epicenter of this flowering majesty comes in the form of Singapore Botanical Gardens and its 60 acres of UNESCO Heritage parkland. Better still, it’s free to enter and open daily from 5am to midnight.