Omdat het RaDa ook steeds meer mijn digidump wordt, zet ik hier ook mijn internationale debuut, geschreven voor no. 102 van de Village Voice, tweemaandelijks parochieorgaan van het dorpje Dersingham in Norfolk, waar we onze zomervakantie doorbrachten.
The gangway of the Harwich ferry was out of order, so we were driven to the terminal in a ramshackle bus. Before it had completed the 200 metres to its destination a haggard-looking Englishwoman sighed audibly and blurted out: “They have been saying the same bloody thing for three years and it still hasn’t been repaired.” She paused for effect and continued: “I have been away for a fortnight and now I’ll just have to put up with it all again.”
Welcome to Great Britain! Had things become that bad since my last visit? I must admit I had had some misgivings about the mood of the country, post-referendum. Dutch television had shown ugly scenes of haranguing demagogues and harassed, cowed foreigners. In that sense we felt lucky to get ashore without the natives jeering or pelting us with unwanted fruit.
I should explain I am not a complete stranger to these parts. Since I studied English Literature in the late seventies, I have spent most of my summer holidays on the British Isles. Speaking of Anglophilia… This year we had settled on Norfolk, as after 30 years I still cherished happy memories of a cycling trip through East Anglia, with its quiet country lanes and ancient Norman churches, many of them unlocked (and unvandalised!). A pretty cottage happened to be available in Dersingham and that is how we ended up in Jannoch’s Court, off Chapel Road.
This being number 102 of your ‘Village Voice’ it would be absurd for me to sing the praises of Dersingham’s many charms. You know them much better than I do. What may surprise you is that I did not fall for your village at once. This was mainly due to the traffic, which was a lot busier than expected. During our first reconnaissance walks cars were forever roaring by. They OWNED the place, or so it seemed to me, and as a pedestrian I sometimes felt a second rate citizen (especially that time my wife and I returned from a glorious walk to the Salt Marshes and it took us ten humiliating minutes to find a gap in the A149 traffic wide enough to scamper across to safety).
The ubiquitous cars made it harder for us to get the feel of the place. Through the noise they produced, for one thing, but also because they hide from view the good folk of Dersingham. An Englishman’s home is his castle, as the saying goes, and the same might be said of his car. In my home town of Haarlem (150,000 inhabitants) many people go about on bikes, which means you can look at each other and sometimes establish a fleeting rapport. In our first few days in Dersingham we only saw the trolley-pushing shoppers in your Spar and Budgen; beyond the parking area we barely saw a soul, with the notable exception of the white-clad players on the bowling green, who made us feel as if we had timetravelled back to Edwardian times, if not the Regency Period. But at least these were real people; one of them kindly invited us to attend one of their Saturday ‘roll ups’ or ‘roll ins’ (unfortunately the day didn’t suit us).
Mind you, my wife and I were having a marvellous time – picking samphire, exploring creeks and cliffs, and pottering about in our cottage – in spite of the lack of ‘real people’. And if approachable individuals were few and far between, crowds made up for their absence: at Sandringham House, at the Food and Drink Festival and by the the seaside in Hunstanton. We could not help noticing how many of these people were shockingly overweight (men, women, children), as if they had given up on themselves ages ago. Were these the voters, I wondered sarcastically, who had proudly decided to steer their own course, independent of Europe? And as for those maligned foreigners supposedly taking over the country, where were they hiding? So far in the Dersingham region I had spotted more ornithologists than refugees and asylum seekers.
I must admit I did not quite understand what had got into me. Why I found myself being so rude and negative about my beloved England. Was I irrationally waiting for a Brexit-apology, I wondered after some self-analysis. Some justification? Some reassurance that we could still be friends and that the invisible British (ensconced in their cars) had not all turned into Europhobes or rabid populists? Something rankled, that was for sure…
As it happened it took exactly two hours to mollify me. On a notice board we had seen an announcement of a 4,5 mile walk in Brancaster on 10 August. Starting point at the church at 2 p.m. On a whim we decided to join. We took the Coast Hopper and allowed ourselves some extra time to visit St. Mary’s first. When we emerged from the churchyard gate just before the hour, some twenty people had already gathered, most of them sporting grey hair or cotton hats. I did not find out until later they were Dersingham-based. Leader Elizabeth Fiddick shook hands with us, glanced at her watch and blew her whistle in military fashion. She outlined the day’s route and pointed out the ‘backwatch’, a functionary whose task it was to round up any stragglers and to propel laggers. The whistle was blown furiously once more. Everybody paired off purposefully and marched off at a fairly ambitious pace. My wife and I followed suit, supervised by the backwatch on duty.
Without exception the pairs were nattering away quite happily. My wife and I (neither of us ardent conversationalists) exchanged the odd phrase in Dutch. Nobody took any notice of our presence. After a quarter of an hour, just after I had facetiously said to my wife that as post-Brexit foreigners we would be in for a long and lonely march, each in our own rut of the farm track, we suddenly – I am not sure how it happened – found ourselves involved in a little chat about the Olympic Games. Had we, unbeknownst to ourselves, passed some secret test? Anyway, from then onwards conversation never flagged. Not a stiff upper lip in sight and everybody I talked to proved eloquent, knowledgeable and outgoing.
I now know that the white mud-pecking bird I saw is an ‘egret’; I was also told that in Spanish it is called ‘garza’ and the Dutch name (here Google obliged) turned out to be ‘kleine zilverreiger’ (= small silver heron). As the walk neared its end I daringly broached the subject of Brexit – and much to my relief I got an elaborate, well-informed answer. Not only were these real people, they were reasonable people to boot and socially aware. One little niggle I feel I should mention: at the halfway rest I was disappointed to see no spectacular exhibition of homemade cakes and sandwiches – they were not that sort of club apparently – but leaving that aside it was a perfect afternoon.
When we arrived back at Brancaster church (on schedule, at four on the dot) there was no loitering. Most participants withdrew into the privacy of their cars instantly (as if the whistle had been blown), turning themselves into invisible Brits again. But by then my confidence in the viability of the species had been largely restored. There were still some very fine specimens around, in Dersingham anyway.
Among them Brian (of badger fame), who offered us a lift to Thornham, where we rounded off the afternoon with a visit to All Saints Church. We returned by bus to Dersingham, where he Coach and Horses (such a great pub!) provided us with an excellent meal, two pints of real ale and, would you believe it, some more real people.
Bonus: de raampjes van bovengenoemde pub vervormden de huizen ertegenover op intrigerende wijze (en na de biertjes nóg intrigerender):
En zo ziet het er bij Google Street View uit (minder Reinaldahuisachtig):