Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime. - Herbert Ward
It was my first trip abroad. The airport reeked of stale air, cigarettes, and hot dogs. The sound of thousands of hasty tense feet pattering against the hard cold airport floor reverberated in my ears. I glanced at the adults scuttling by, detecting the angst and gravity in their faces, and wondered if all grown-ups were always so frazzled.
The immensity and power of the airplane was unfathomable to me. I sat in my seat, stunned and afraid. I was mesmerized by the sound of the thunderous engine, and as it picked up speed along the runway and then brought me to the clouds, I felt I understood the freedom that all birds and angels and gods must feel. The reality that, from the perspective of those who were walking around my hometown down below, the sky was dismal and dark, yet above the clouds, it was the sunniest day I ever saw, filled me with a sense of hope I had never before had.
Holland was a peculiar world to me: rain that dispirited no one, grass the color of emeralds, bumpy cobblestone streets, and throngs of lazy cows along every highway. A quick tour of the Red-Light-District, which my cousins thought was tremendously hilarious, offered me my first glimpse into the world of sex, but not the only glimpse I would have on this trip. Voluptuous women wearing scraps of lacy red lingerie danced in windows, swaying their hips and beckoning onlookers. Every so often, I caught a peep of a naked woman moving in ways that seemed unnatural and foreign to me. I was both embarrassed and fascinated, and embarrassed that I was fascinated.
In my Oma’s small apartment, however, I felt no awkwardness, embarrassment, or guilt in enjoying all that it had to offer me. Oma was a plump, affectionate cherub of a grandma whose perfume was so strong I could taste its bitterness across a room, and whose kisses were so wet they drenched my cheek in saliva and love. Oma was a minimalist, yet objects of importance were kept well-supplied. She stacked her various wigs on the posts of her twin bed, had a plethora of perfectly ripened plastic fruit, and kept a healthy stash of my favorite Dutch goodies: chocolate Hagel Slag, Stroep Waffles, Mentos, and salty black licorice to which I quickly became terribly addicted.
One night, an ice cream truck slowly pulled up to Oma’s apartment building, and I was sent to fetch ice cream cones for every one. I waited in line and watched all the Dutch children ask for treats with ease; I was last in line. When it was my turn, I mimed licking an ice cream cone to the ice cream man. He didn’t understand me and so waved me onto the rickety truck.
I can’t remember what happened on that old ice cream truck. But when I later returned to my family with treats, I was a changed girl.
I learned a lot on my first trip abroad. I learned that the sun always shines in heaven. I learned that weather and buildings and languages are different in other parts of the world. I learned how to feed bread to ducks, how to make a healthy chocolatey breakfast, and that two people who don’t speak the same language can communicate just fine, especially when they love each other the way Oma and I had.
I also learned that strangers are not to be trusted.