The opening scene of Woody Allen’s 1980 movie, Stardust Memories, takes place in two train carriages. Allen is in a grey, unlit compartment filled with unsmiling, stern, silent passengers staring blankly ahead.
Across the tracks is a carriage with a full-on party happening. A young Sharon Stone (making her film debut) in a strappy dress, feather boa and cockatoo hair swoop looks out and blows a kiss to Allen’s character, Sandy Bates. Allen is trapped.
5.55am, Monday, 27 November, The Hague, where the Dutch parliament is situated. Just three days earlier, anti-Islamist populist Geert Wilders, with his strange combed-back silver bouffant, had secured a “dramatic” victory. His PVV (Party for Freedom) won the most votes but not enough to govern (at this stage).
For now, all you need to know is that this writer was there, in the middle of it all for four days, as a late addition to the biennial Festival voor het Afrikaans, which takes place in the Netherlands. More on this later.
I was trapped with what appeared to be European zombies… ‘Ma se p&%#’ was a thought that flashed through my mind.
6am – the warm glow of the tram spotlight signalled its imminent arrival at 6.03 as an icy wind from the North Pole chilled the Gothic city’s streets, pounding faces and hands.
Two other passengers waited on the same platform. The tram stopped. In we got. Everyone else beeped their cards.
But the ticket machine doesn’t take coins. Euros, people, so not the loose change you leave in your car in South Africa. The machine also does not take notes, and rejects my South African bank card.
I turned to my fellow passengers, swaying on the tram like a drunk in Woodstock on a Saturday night, and asked, in Dutch, whether anyone could please help with the machine. Note the please. Alsjeblieft!
I felt like Allen’s character. I was trapped with what appeared to be European zombies.
A silence descended, so loud you could hear it over the clatter of the tram wheels on the tracks. Hollow eyes looked past me, or out of the window. Silence. Like a movie. And I wasn’t even wearing a headscarf.
“Ma se p&%#” was a thought that flashed through my mind.
Travelled for free in the end. Braced myself for an arrest that didn’t come. Nudge nudge, wink wink. They expect you to be law-abiding. I tried, I really did.
The BBC described Wilders’s victory as having “shaken Dutch politics” and said it would “send a shock across Europe too”.
It’s the usual response from the British media over there in Brexitland, but the result did unsettle many in the Netherlands – the rest of the citizens who voted for other parties.
The Dutch spent the rest of the weekend talking about the results on television talk shows. Many felt it was the most significant political turn of events since World War 2 on that genocidal continent.
Arriving at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on Monday, 23 November, the very day these apparently seismic political events were taking place, you would not have known.
If you were a Muslim visitor, you would have been spared the headlines in newspapers. There were none.
Not one single newspaper to be seen anywhere. No street banners proclaiming the win. All just happening in the background.
Outdoors, in the cold and rain, a sort of dampened spirit enveloped the city. Dutch hosts were quick to point out: “It’s complicated.” Don’t we know!
For four days and nights South Africans brought warmth, diversity, literature, poetry, film, music and laughter to the gloomy streets.
Around the corner from my hotel was a Middle Eastern restaurant. Fabulous menu, my best item being falafel. The owner was there the first night. Moroccan first-generation immigrant. An elderly man who prepared my food with care and experience.
Wilders has made it very clear what he thinks of immigration, Muslims and Islam. And in South Africa it would be a hate crime.
The eatery had clearly been there for years because the following night the elderly gentleman’s grandson made my falafel. And, the night after that, the owner’s son.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Humanitarian catastrophe – migration battleground brings out the worst in Europe
On the walls of the restaurant were huge blown-up photographs of the Dutch royal family mounted on wood. The place was festooned with orange flags, the colour of Holland.
What did they think of what had just happened in the elections? I dared not ask in my odd-sounding AfriDutch. The flags and the pictures are some immigrants’ attempts at showing they are trying to “fit in”. “Look, we like you, we mean no harm, have a falafel.”
This is where we came in.
The theatre De Regentes, which hosted the festival, is in Weimar Street, where for four days and nights South Africans brought warmth, diversity, literature, poetry, film, music and laughter to the gloomy streets. Cold hearts were warmed to the very cockles.
Antjie Krog, Frazer Georgio Barry and Deniel Barry, Amanda Strydom, Dean Balie and Bianca Flanders Balie, Stef Bos, Lee-ursus Alexander, Marita van der Vyver and Marlo Minnaar were just some of the artists who wowed the audiences, some of whom came from France, Germany and Belgium to attend.
The festival’s director is the tireless Ingrid Glorie, who deserves much glory.
South African ambassador Vusi Madonsela opened the festival and recited a poem in Afrikaans while also presenting much of his speech in this official language. There was a South African market selling wine, biltong, jewellery and books.
An exhibition of magnificently intimate portraits of the residents of Melkhoutfontein, taken by Hans Mooren, founder of the Dreamcatcher Netherlands Foundation, festooned the venue.
More than 200 families featured, and the relationship Hans and his partner Coby have developed over the years in this village near Stilbaai is evident.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Trevor Noah’s South Africa tourism promo works — because we’re obviously worth it
This is the side of the Dutch I love, but Hans is part of a dying generation. I left Western Europe dejected. The ghosts of World War 2 linger.
Just 100km from The Hague is Nijmegen, where my German father was taken prisoner by the Canadians in the last days of the war. In England he met my Portuguese mother and here I am, a mongrel like the rest of us.
I suppose I have the Netherlands to thank for being here and for tossing me into a mixed South African masala that made me metaphorically want to kiss the runway when we landed back home.
South Africa is the happy carriage on the train in my heart. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.