It wasn’t even midday and my brow was beaded with sweat. Summer break in the Netherlands had only just begun, and my kids were already whining from boredom. In another life, far away in Southern California, I would have hopped into the car and driven to Starbucks: frappuccino for me, pink Tazo tea for the kids, air conditioning.
The Dutch version of that suburban escape plan looked a little different, applied to my life here a good hour away from Amsterdam. It involved a bus ride, a train trip and the Starbucks at Schiphol, the country’s main airport. The café there is the biggest of the few Starbucks cafés within my reach. The cheesecake is pricey, sliced small and very American. But it’s worth it, because of the airport. We love it, even when we’re not going anywhere. My kids watch the planes take off and land, while I rest in the buzz of the travel and transition around us.
But not today.
Today, Schiphol Airport is different. It is a space brimming with collective pain. It is the first point in a pilgrimage of parting, powerlessness and sorrow.
Schiphol Airport has also been the setting for a popular Dutch television show called Hello Goodbye. For years now, cameras have trailed behind Joris, a Dutch fellow with an open, smiling face and a radar for deep conversation. He waits by arrivals and departures points, seeking out people to interview about who they have dropped off or who they are waiting to pick up. Joris has a way of getting to the core of strangers, their life stories and the reasons why the travelers in question are important to them. Hello Goodbye is a real tearjerker.
Yet after living here nearly a decade, I have realized this program isn’t about sentimentality. Hello Goodbye reflects a strong Dutch tradition, an enduring rite of passage for the family and friends of travelers: the act of seeing people off at the airport.
The Dutch make a big deal about this. “Driving someone to Schiphol” is a cultural value. It is a way that the Dutch honor each other and their relationships. There’s no kitsch or drama, it’s just what one is supposed to do: go to the airport with your loved one, see them before they go, accompany them as far as anyone can go. And say ‘goodbye.’
I used to think this was provincial, this marking of the moment when someone stepped onto a plane. I used to think that it happened here because the Dutch collective unconscious had difficulty letting its homegrown folk go anywhere beyond its borders. But I have since accepted the ritual, judgment aside, because it is important to the people around me. In a country of sixteen million, as big as the driving time between my native Los Angeles and San Diego, this Dutch ritual is universal, and it counts.
Just as it counts, here, at the Dutch doctor’s office, when you walk into the waiting area and say good morning to a room of complete strangers.
Just as it counts, here, at Dutch Christmas, when you fill your sleeping children’s shoes with gifts — regardless of what you think about Dutch Santa’s controversial helper, Zwarte Piet.
Just as it counts, here, on game day, when you wear orange.
These are the things that are important to the people in the place where I live. In a small country, you quickly pick up on the small things — rituals, gestures, values — that define an entire folk. It’s a big change from my own American experience, where cultural diversity is a way of survival and we are taught to celebrate our differences. I have learned to cherish the way in which the people of this small country, the Netherlands, cherish the same small things that lend the Dutch community its social cohesion.
As I scrolled through my Facebook feed yesterday, two days after the crash of MH17, I skimmed the items Americans had posted while I had slept. I read about Weird Al, gay marriage and vacations. I saw pictures of dogs leaping through sprinklers, babies with first teeth and frappuccinos melting on patio furniture. Where was the outcry over the crash? Two days had passed, and my Americans had appeared to have moved on. While we here in the Netherlands were struggling to swallow the reality of 193 Dutch deaths, people in my other home, a world away, seemed to have returned to life as normal.
Dutch posts, on the other hand, reflected the world that had woken up with me.
“We are a small country. 193 people is a lot for us.”
“Everyone knows someone, or someone who knew someone.”
Nearly ten years on, a part of me is now Dutch. I let people take me to the airport. I fill my kids’ Christmas shoes. I know people who knew people who died a couple of days ago, sharing an airplane with eighty children who tumbled out of the sky.
I am in mourning, and that frappuccino at Schiphol Airport will have to wait.