I look out the tiny plane window onto a perfectly Dutch vista of geometric brown-grey fields, lined with barren trees. So, this was home. Once.
I’d fantasized about the moment for eight years. Coming back to the country where I spent my childhood. Always a romantic, I’d lay staring at my ceiling at night thinking about the poetry of it all — leaving as a child, coming back as an adult. A real coming of age transformation. Standing by the baggage carousel, I wait for my cathartic moment to arrive. It doesn’t, but my suitcase does, so I just take that and head out to the arrivals hall.
There’s incredible awkwardness in not knowing someone who knows you well. Like when you’re with your mother in the supermarket, and she runs into someone who knew you as a child. They’d pat your head, and say “oh, how you’ve grown!”, while you’d be left wondering who the hell they were. This is sharply in my mind when I meet my grandparents at the arrival gate. They smile and hug and kiss me, but I feel like I don’t really know them.
My arrival in the Netherlands has coincided with one of the biggest ice storms the northern part of the country has seen in years. All the roads have transformed into an icy slide. My grandparents braved the weather to pick me up from the airport and take me home, but after that, they were too afraid to venture out any further. As a result, I’m spending the next three days inside, in a room that seemed a lot bigger when I was six. I’m unable to look outside the ice-covered windows, and I constantly hit my head on the sloped ceiling above my bed.
On the fourth day, the weather has markedly improved. Over my third cup of filter coffee, my grandmother suggests that we visit my old house. It’s in another province, about a forty-minute drive away.
“Yeah, sure,” I say, sipping at my coffee. Here was my chance, the moment I’d dreamed about. My own personal episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, without the trouble of actually having to become a celebrity.
Endless fields fly by the car window. I put the tip of my nose against the cold glass and breathe onto it, creating a little patch of fog, stopping myself from drawing a face on it, because I remember being told off for leaving marks on the window. I don’t recognise any of the roads leading into town, even though I must’ve ridden my bike along them many times.
We finally park the car and walk the short distance to the house. I remember this path, though I thought it was longer. I peer over the faded green back fence to my old house — my old home. Who lived there now? I feel a moment of shame for invading their privacy, and look away.
The house backs onto a football pitch and a nature reserve. Once, me and my best friend, who lived in the house next door, had made a secret hideout in those bushes. We played there every day, revelling in the feeling of this private space that was ours, and only ours — until one day a bird fell dead from the sky and landed right in the centre of our hideout, desecrating our space. We never went back.
Suddenly I feel uncomfortable.
“Do you want to walk a bit further?” My grandmother suggests. But all I see is ghosts. Ghosts in a house that isn’t mine anymore. Ghosts in the canal where someone else’s kids now swim, and ghosts along the path where someone else rides their bike to school.
“No,” I say, awkwardly, “let’s go home.” I used to know this neighbourhood well, but it doesn’t know me anymore.
“Oh, how you’ve grown,” I mumble to myself, and leave the ghosts to play.