Although I’m studying Asia Pacific Studies, I chose to study in Utrecht, the Netherlands for my exchange. While possibly a blow to future employment in Asia and definitely a step backwards for my Indonesian, I wanted the chance to get to know my Dutch family as well as to spend a semester living in Europe. My Oma (grandma) and Opa (grandpa) migrated to Australia from the Netherlands after the Second World War, leaving their extensive extended families behind. My Oma is one of fifteen children and my Opa was one of eight and before I set off to the Netherlands I was sent a fifteen page word doc of email addresses and contacts. Slightly overwhelmed, I sent off a mass email to what seemed like half the country. I only received one reply. It turns out when you have hundreds of cousins, one random Australian second cousin studying nearby isn’t really that exciting.
Having said that, the family I did meet while I was studying in the Netherlands welcomed me with open arms. Two of my Oma’s sisters fussed over me and fed me. My meagre Dutch and their limited English wasn’t a problem when they took me for walks in the tulip fields near their house and each of them took one of my hands and held them tight. They sent me off with a backpack of hand-me-down clothes and insisted I also keep the backpack.
This was repeated with other cousins I met. I’d go for dinner and come home laden with the rest of the wine, which they’d opened for me but didn’t drink themselves, a container of pickled onions which I’d been too polite to say I didn’t like, plenty of stroopwaffels and biscuits and the hole in my shirt neatly sewn. My cousin Josephine would often grab my arm and tell me I was ‘such a Himmelreich.’
“Oh you’re always hungry and snacking, such a Himmelreich”
“Oh you like walking, such a Himmelreich”
Even though I’d just met most of these people, we moved from being acquaintances to family in the blink of an eye. All the normal markers of getting to know someone were ignored and I was suddenly a part of the family. Combined with typical Dutch directness this was sometimes a bit overwhelming, but overall was a wonderful addition to my semester abroad. In the end I was distracted by new friends and by study and I spent less time with family than I would’ve liked, and I certainly learnt hardly any Dutch. But I was able to come home with stories for my Oma about her family and her little town, and talk to her about riding my bike around and about funny Dutch customs and King’s Day celebrations and occasionally throw a Dutch word into conversation. I felt like ‘such a Himmelreich’.