It will not surprise you that you find me in a bar tonight. Not any old bar, but one aboard a ferry that’s taking me from Harwich International to the Hook of Holland. I’m taking a trip to the past, to the land of my mother. Just me and, I hope, a trunk full of memories. Going back to my roots.
Ever summer, my mum would take me to Rotterdam for the whole school holidays. We stayed with her mother, my grandmother, or Oma as she was known to me. She lived in a small apartment on Leopoldstraat. We didn’t do very much. Mostly, I watched the trams go by and, if it was market day, I would watch the trains go by, too. Evenings, I would play football with the local lads on my field of dreams, which was a small grassy area out the back.
The journey went like this. We took the bus from our house in Brislington to Bristol Temple Meads station, where mum had booked the whole trip many months before. We took the diesel hauled train to London Paddington. From there, with the assistance of porters, we would get a taxi to Liverpool Street Station. A taxi. My mum told me years later she felt like ‘Lady Muck’ in a London cab. Then, it was the ‘Boat train’ to Harwich Parkestone Quay. After which we would board the overnight ship to the Hook of Holland, either SS Arnhem or SS Avalon. We went straight to our cabin and went to sleep. Then, we would wake up to shimmering rainy morning at the Hook of Holland. These days, going to the Netherlands is so easy. Book a flight, you’re there in 45 minutes. Today, I have turned back time.
I’ve tried to do things like they were the last time I went on the boat in 1970. But these days in England, everything is broken and nothing works. Or so it seems. My train from Bristol was late, then terminated at Reading, I then had a manic race to get my connection at Liverpool Street which I managed, albeit greatly stressed and sweaty. The train to Harwich International was not the Boat Train, just an electric multiple unit which decanted almost all of its passengers long before we got there. Everyone else flies with easyJet these days.
I’m in the bar and it’s really busy. I reckon almost everyone else has driven here and parked down below. In fact, it’s absolutely buzzing. And already I know this doesn’t feel anything like the last time I did this. How could it? I’m travelling to a place I call a version of home, yet I do not have a single surviving relative in Rotterdam. I’m not going to see anyone I know because there is no one I know. This is pure nostalgia and in all its self-indulgent ways, this is all about me.
The boat is about to sail and actually, it’s a step into the known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might have said. I know where I am going but I don’t have the first clue of what’s going to happen, if anything. I’ll certainly watch the trams and the trains and I’ll eat chips dripping in mayo. And I’ll enjoy yesterday once more.