Let me call her Sylvia. That’s not her real name--her real name would only confuse things. People make all kinds of assumptions when it comes to names, especially when a name isn’t from around here, when they don’t have a clue about how to pronounce it, let alone spell it. So let’s just say that it’s not a Dutch name. My wife is not from Holland. Where she is from is something I’d rather leave up in the air for the time being. Those in our immediate surroundings, of course, know where she’s from. And people who read the newspaper and watch the news with any regularity can’t really have missed it either. But most people have bad memories. They may have heard it once, then forgotten.
Robert Walter? His wife’s foreign, right?
Yes, that’s right, she’s from . . . from . . . Come on, help me out here . . . People associate all kinds of things with countries of origin. To each country its own prejudices. It starts as soon as you get to Belgium. Do I need to repeat here the kinds of prejudices we Dutch people have when it comes to Belgians? When it comes to the Germans, the French, the Italians? Go a bit farther east and a bit farther south and the people gradually change color. At first it’s only their hair: it gets darker, and finally it turns black altogether. After that, the same process repeats itself, but now with their skin. To the east it turns yellower, to the south it gets blacker and blacker.
And it gets hotter. South of Paris, the temperature starts to rise. When the weather’s hot, it becomes a lot harder to work. One feels more like sitting in the shade of yonder palm. Even farther south, one stops working altogether. Mostly, one just takes a breather.
When our daughter was born, the name “Sylvia” was the second on our list of names. The second on a list of three, the name we would have given her if we hadn’t named her Diana. Or to put it differently: if we’d had three daughters instead of only one, they would have been named Diana, Sylvia, and Julia. We also had three names ready for any boys who came along, but I won’t list them here. We don’t have boys. We also don’t have daughters. We have only Diana.
It’s probably clear to you by now that Diana isn’t our daughter’s real name either. First of all, for reasons of privacy--she has to be able to live a life of her own, which is hard enough already when a girl has a father like me. But it’s no coincidence that all three of those names have three syllables and that they all end in an a. When it came time to choose our daughter’s name (her real name), I made a concession. I felt that my wife had a tough enough time of it as it was, in a country not her own. That I shouldn’t go burdening her on top of all that with a daughter with a Dutch name. It would be a name from her country. A girl’s name she could say out loud each day, a familiar name, a warm sound in the midst of all that harsh gargling and bleak hawking we call the Dutch language.
The same goes for my wife’s name. In addition to her person, I also fell in love right away with her name. I say it as often as I can--long ago, too, in the middle of the night, all on my lonesome, in the boarding house where I had to spend the night because there was no room for me at her parents’. It’s something in the sound of it: somewhere between melting chocolate and a wood fire, in terms of the taste and the aroma. When I don’t call her by her first name, I call her “sweetheart”--not in Dutch, no, in Dutch I’d have a hard time getting the word out of my mouth, only ironically at best, as in: But sweetheart, you should have thought about that beforehand.
“Sweetheart” in my wife’s language, though, sounds precisely the way “sweetheart” should sound. Like the name of a dessert, or more like a hot, sticky beverage that leaves a warm, tingling trail behind as it goes down your throat, but also like the warmth of a blanket someone lays over your shoulders: Come to me now, sweetheart.
My wife--Sylvia! Her new name is starting to grow on me--is from a country that shall remain unnamed for the time being. A country about which a lot of preconceived notions exist. Notions both favorable and unfavorable. From “passionate” and “temperamental,” it’s only a small step to “hot-tempered.” A crime passionel (the term says it already) is a crime we tend to situate more readily in the south and east than in northern climes. In some countries, they just happen to lose their tempers more quickly than we do; at first it’s only voices shouting in the night, but then suddenly there is the glint of moonlight on a drawn blade. The standard of living is lower there, the discrepancies between rich and poor are immense, stealing is viewed with more sympathy than in our country, but the culprits are viewed with less--they consider themselves lucky if the police get to them before the injured party arrives to settle accounts.
I myself am absolutely not free of preconceived notions.
In light of my official capacity, though, I’m supposed to be--and I just happen to make a good show of it. In the last few years I’ve had a cup of tea (or a beer, or something stronger) with every minority group our city has on offer. I’ve swung along with music not my own, raised a slice of some vague meat dish to my lips--but that doesn’t make me free of prejudices. I’ve always cherished my preconceived notions as something bound up inextricably with my own person. Or, to put it more precisely: without those prejudices, I would have been a different person. That, in the first instance, is how I look at the foreigner: with the naturally suspicious eye of the farmer who sees a stranger entering his yard. Is the stranger coming in peace, or shall I turn the dogs on him?
But now something has happened that has thrown everything for a loop, something with my wife. Something that perhaps has more to do with her country of origin, her place of birth, than I care to admit--with her cultural background, I venture cautiously, in order to say nothing of that dubious concept of “national character.” At least, not for the time being.
I ask myself to what extent I can hold her responsible, and to what extent it might be the fault of her native country.
I wonder whether I’m capable of telling the two apart--whether I ever will be capable of that. Whether I would have reacted differently if Sylvia had been just another Dutchwoman. Sometimes a prejudice can serve as a mitigating circumstance, sometimes as a damning one. That’s just the way those people are, it’s in their blood. What it is precisely that is in their blood, well, everyone can fill that in for themselves: the thievery, the knife fighting, the lying, the wife-beating, the bashing of other population groups that don’t belong in their backward village, the cruel games with animals, the religious customs involving the shedding of blood, the intentional mutilation of one’s own body, the overabundance of gold teeth, the arranged marriages of sons and daughters; but on the other hand also the food that tastes so much better than it does here, the parties that go on all night, the sense of “we only live once, tomorrow we may die,” the music that seems much more stirring, more melancholy, closer to the heart, the men who let their eye fall on a woman and can never be discouraged, the women who want one specific man, only that one, you can see it in their gaze, in the fire in their eyes--but when they catch their husband with another woman they jam a knife between his ribs or cut off his balls while he’s asleep.
And that’s as it should be too, I think to myself, I who try to remain free of prejudices but am not--and never have been either. And what if those prejudices suddenly turn against you? How do you react then? As the Dutchman who wants to be seen as tolerant of other peoples and cultures? Or as something a little more in line with the country of origin, with the national character, of the other?
Until now, the two have always been good bedfellows. Night after night I’ve shared my bed with those preconceived notions. But what if you wake up early one morning to find the sheets beside you cold and unused? It is still dark, through the curtains a crack of light from a streetlamp shines on the turned-back feather bed. What time is it, for God’s sake? She should have been home ages ago.
You prick up your ears, you hear bare feet padding down the hallway, but it’s your daughter, who’s now knocking on the bedroom door.
“Where’s Mama?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” you answer truthfully.