Do you have a camera? One of these nice little digital numbers? As a traveler, a globetrotter, or an expat, you most likely take photos of the foreign places where you live or visit. It’s all so different, beautiful, weird, amazing.
Then you go on home leave to your own country and you visit with family and friends and you go shopping for underwear and you watch dumb local stuff on TV and you never take a single picture. Because, well, it’s the place you are familiar with, the place you visit often. There’s nothing particularly exciting about it except it is home and it feels good to be there.
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting my family in the Netherlands, in the small northern town of Sneek (pronounced, unfortunately, snake), the town where I was born. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I had the sudden urge to take my camera and wander around and see what there was to see. Here’s what happened:
It’s early Monday morning and my man and I are taking a walk around town. It’s quiet because most of the shops don’t open until 1:00 in the afternoon. This is to make up for being open part of Saturday. How else are you going to have two days off in the week? Sundays most commercial establishments are closed as well.
I see a lovely old building and take a picture. I’ve walked by here countless times, but never actually noticed it. As I am taking various shots from different angles, a woman walks by. Stops. Points at the building.
“I work here,” she says. “On the second floor. See the leaded glass at the top of the windows? When the sun comes shining through the colors slide across my desk. It is so beautiful!”
“Oh, how nice!” I say, pleased to have her tell me this. She smiles and walks on, away from the building. Maybe she’s out running an errand.
We stroll around a corner and come upon the old jail, anno 1841. It’s not much of a building architecturally speaking. I’m studying it through the lens of my camera. An old man on his bike comes pedaling along. Stops, get off his bike, watches me. He points behind me.
“Over there in that house,” he says, “the biggest communist in the country lived there.”
I’m not sure what to do with this information. Last I heard, being a communist in Holland was not a major news item. For years there was even a Communist Party (one of a dozen or so political parties), but it died a natural death because of lack of voter interest. Democracy works that way.
“Really?” I say brightly.
He nods. “And then they came to arrest him.” He grins, allowing a pregnant pause. A story teller, he is. Then he points at the jail. “But his son was the jail warden!”
So I take a picture of the jail anyway, to honor him and his story. It’s a disco these days, aptly called Alcatraz, decorated, I read later, like a jail. Really now, that shouldn’t have been a major renovation
On we go, with me snapping pictures. And would you believe, another man, also on a bike, also older, stops and starts telling me a story too. Something about the Second World War and the Germans. But I don’t quite get the point of it. What I do get the point of is the fact that in all the years I’ve come here, no one just stops and talks to me out of the blue. My camera is what makes them think I must be a tourist and need edification.
A few days later I’m sorting through a rack of T-shirts on the sidewalk outside a nice clothing store. They’re dirt cheap and they clearly want them gone. Grandpa number three is leaning back against the shop window and watches me, probably notices my camera hanging around my neck. I’ve been snapping pictures of the street.
“Those are for poor people,” he tells me, indicating the clothes.
He must be joking. I smile at him. “But I can look, right?”
“They’re for poor people,” he says again, and I realize he’s not joking. He’s a bit . . . confused. Or, as my mother would say in Dutch, hij heeft een steekje los, he’s got a little stitch loose.
For two weeks I take my camera along every time I go into town. Somehow I see now what I never saw before: beautiful buildings, canals, streets, bridges, bicycles, people.
The photo above was taken at sunset. The bridge is from 1887. The buildings in the background are babies. Notice the sunlight reflected in the windows. I must confess it was my man who pointed this scene out to me. I clicked the camera.
Do you think that as a Dutch person it would have ever occurred to me to take a picture of bicycles? It took me years of being an expat to learn to see the fun in a bunch of bikes. Yes, they’re useful, convenient and cheap transportation, and I did know that. Check out this site with photos of the Dutch on bikes, Different Folks, Different Spokes.
Sneek is a well known watersports center, especially famous for its sailing events. Lakes galore, boats galore. I’m lucky to be here during Sneekweek (unfortunately pronounced Snake wake), a week of big sailing races and partying. The town is full of people who have come here for the festivities. The young ones live on their boats and party half the night.
One day I’m shopping with my mother and near the supermarket I see two hunky guys with bare chests pushing a shopping cart along the street away from the store. It’s loaded with nothing but cases of soft drinks and beer, a tower of cases they have to steady with their hands to prevent the lot from crashing to the ground.
My mother is not amused. “They won’t bring that cart back, you know. They’ll just leave it sitting there along the canal somewhere.”
Another day I’m at the open street market and watch two tall guys strolling along in identical ankle-length blue bathrobes, looking real casual. Bathrobes in the street in the middle of the morning. People are watching, laughing. “Sailors, just off the boat,” somebody says, rolling his eyes. I’m dying to take their picture but my courage fails me. I’m gutless when it comes to photographing people I don’t know. It seems sort of rude to stick a camera in someone’s face, don’t you think? Even if they’re nut cases like these two. I’ll never make it as a papparazza.
“Hey!” the flower vendor calls out to them. “Going to have a shower, are you?”
“Tell me,” I say brazenly, “are you walking around like that for a reason, a cause, a charity?”
They laugh. “No.”
One of the guys shrugs as he opens the car door. “Why not?”
I have no good answer for that so I point my camera instead. “May I take your picture?”
“Sure. Do I have to smile?”
“Not if you don’t want to.” And I snap. And here’s the result. Looks like they were parking in a handicapped space, shame on them.
On my last day in town I go out a little too late in the day to take a photo of the Waterpoort, which is a fancy old bridge that is the proud symbol of Sneek. Pictures and post cards with its image are everywhere. I should have gone earlier, so what you see here is a bit dark. (You can click here to see a daylight picture by a brighter photographer.)
The Waterpoort has special significance for me. My parents used to hide in the corners when they were young, after the curfew hour imposed by the Germans during the Second World War. Hide and smooch in the dark. My mother still tells me this at times. It gave them a thrill, a dangerous one. You really didn’t want to get caught after curfew.
So I stand there in the failing light, snapping away at my parents’ old make-out place, and a couple comes strolling by, walking hand in hand. The man turns around and grins at me. “They’ve got postcards, you know,” he informs me.
“I know,” I say. “But I want my own pictures.”
And so, dear readers, here you have them. What do you think?
We are so used to seeing old, familiar surroundings, we often don’t appreciate them. Have you ever come back to your home town and seen it with new eyes? Or through the eyes of someone else — a friend, a child? What were your impressions? What had you been taken for granted?