Thursday, June 18, 2009
In sixteen forty-two, Abel Tasman sailed the ocean blue…
This little rhyme taught me when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to discover New Zealand. Somehow it’s stuck in my memory, which is strange because when I was at school I couldn’t have cared less about New Zealand’s historical connection with the Netherlands. Nor would I have dreamed that one day I’d be living a personal connection between New Zealand and Abel Tasman’s homeland.
But maybe that’s not so strange. After all, my family was Dutch. We moved to New Zealand in the 1950s and I grew up speaking English, just like a proper little Kiwi. That, by the way, is what New Zealanders call themselves. It is not the same thing as that furry brown kiwifruit you might know but our national bird, a flightless nightwalker. In actual fact Actinidia deliciosa used to be called the Chinese gooseberry. It was rebranded by those who wanted to market it as a 100% pure New Zealand product.
Fast forward to after I left home, and in the good old Kiwi tradition, it was time for my Overseas Experience. To my surprise, on applying for a passport I found I had a choice of nationality. According to length of residence I was a New Zealander but following birthright I could stay Dutch. Feeling disloyal to my upbringing I chose the nationality that would let me live and work in Europe.
Not long afterwards I left Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud – and landed at Schiphol, Amsterdam Airport. Now, nearly 30 years later I speak Dutch fluently but still haven’t lost my Kiwi accent. It’s not unusual for me to be asked where I come from.
Before Lord of the Rings (shot by Peter Jackson in places where I spent my holidays herding sheep) launched our landscape onto the wide-screen world, many Dutch people knew little about New Zealand. Even now some still confuse it with Tasmania but I can’t hold that against them. Look at how it gets depicted on TV – as a squiggle on the world map! You can’t be blamed for not knowing how Long that White Cloud is. Listen to this: it’s long. From the top of Cape Reinga to the bottom of the Bluff is the same distance as from Amsterdam to Barcelona. All those long empty miles, all that wide open space for only four million people and forty million sheep, give or take a few.
So okay, the Netherlands may be tiny and crowded compared to the rugged land of rugby, racing and beer, but apart from the odd bout of nostalgia, I’m rarely homesick for my old homeland. Before leaving Amsterdam and moving north to a small village near Abel Tasman’s birthplace, I did miss the space at times. But now I’ve got that where I live, in the wide open Ommelanden.
I came to the Netherlands needing to work out the irony of being Dutch yet inescapably non-Dutch. I settled here with some vague ambition to search out my roots. I’ve lived here long enough to accept that I’ll never be as Dutch as my passport says I am. It doesn’t matter. I feel at home in my second homeland.
Two homelands are enough for me, but here’s someone who sounds as if she’d be at home in at least 21. Let me leave you now with Amy Walker and her little linguistic tour of the world. Take it from me, when she gets to New Zealand, her Kiwi accent is spot on. Enjoy, and see you next week!