The first thing you lose is your sense of self. It goes so quietly, you won’t even notice it leaving you. Entranced by the mist and the rain and the cold, you think you have finally landed in paradise. You shake off the coats your parents-in-law offer you, and open your face to the sky, to taste the air that is crisp and cold and clear, so unlike the heavy metal taste of air you have left behind in your home country.
“Come,” they say to you.
And you come. You follow behind them, dragging your footsteps because you want to bask in your first view of this land you are adopting. Already, you are falling in love.
Everything, everything, everything enchants you. Houses made of brick, red tiled roofs, the streets washed clean by autumn rains, and the silence.
You let the sounds of conversation wash over you. Your husband, responding to your parents-in-laws inquiries – his voice, quiet and tender in counterpoint to the sound of wheels whooshing on the black asphalt. You do not understand what they are saying, but you don’t mind this exclusion. You are falling in love with the shadows of trees beyond the mist, with wide, open fields, and the flock of quail so white, against the freshly turned blackness of earth.
You fall so, so, so much in love that you forget the discomfort of travel. You forget the cramped seat, and the constant stumbling over the legs of your sleeping seatmate. You forgive all of these discomforts because finally you have arrived in this land your heart embraces without second thought.
Maybe, that is the way to fall in love.
Over time, the strangeness of this land will eat you up. No matter what you do, the cold will seep in through invisible cracks and crevices. You will wrap yourself in layers and layers of socks, in thick sweaters whose collars make you sweat, but you will never be truly warm.
Not even in the summertime.
You don’t see all of these just yet. When you arrive in this little town, when your car turns in to a street lined with bricks, you see everything through the eyes of a woman whose heart has been captured and won over.
You are charmed by the hospitality of neighbours who have come to greet you, delighted by their flowers, enchanted by their attempts to speak to you in English, you say to your husband, “Oh, but this is such a wonderful place.”
And for a while, you are happy.
But, when the newness has worn off, and the flowers have wilted, you find yourself alone, facing empty windows and faceless walls. Your neighbours, and your husband all have busy lives. They drive off in their cars, and you are left, wandering through an empty house, listening to the echoes of emptiness bouncing off walls through the entire block.
You determine not to confine yourself to solitude, and taking up your courage, you visit the town.
“Everyone speaks English,” your husband said to you on the plane.
After your first visit to town, you realize he does not really know the extent of his illusions. You scurry through cobbled streets, hugging yourself inside your coat, wishing you could go back home.
Nederland is een land van de individu. (The Netherlands is a country of the individual.)
Even then, you cannot bring yourself to leave. Already, this country has trapped your heart.
You cannot bear to leave without exploring it and discovering what secrets it keeps.
Oh, you won’t notice your loneliness at first. In those first weeks, the silence is a treasure you hug to your chest. You welcome the luxury of not waking up till late. You bathe in this silence that is undisturbed by off-key karaoke singers who persist on singing until way past midnight, you grow used to waking without the sound of the rooster crowing and the neighbour’s jeepney revving up in early dawn to destroy your sleep.
You keep yourself occupied with unending projects. You ravel and unravel threads, write long descriptive letters and when your impatience grows too much, you call home, asking them why they never answer your mails.
In response your father writes:
“We got your mail today. Busy here. Will write you again soon.”
You do not mind its brevity. To you, this e-mail is an affirmation of your existence. Even though you have vanished from their line of sight, you have not fallen off the edge of the world.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the silence unravels you.
Like the threads you no longer care to stitch into your abandoned embroidery, the silence becomes an enemy eating away at the first blush of love.
You no longer prance around the house in sleeveless dresses, with slits up to your thigh that make your sister-in-law’s eyes grow big with shock, and make her say in heavy English.
“You are not cold?”
Decorum, decorum, as you learn the decorum of this land you are infatuated with, you begin to understand what people mean when they say, love-hate relationship.
Oh you love, you love, oh you love this country. You love the wide open fields, and the sky that is so broad, sometimes you imagine you can see far away into forever.
At the same time, you want to break this world and crush it into pieces so that you can take it up and mould it again into that image you first fell in love with.
(This excerpt was first published in Hope Away from Home, published by OMF Philippines )