Home Grown

Chalk and Cheese

A tale of Dutch — and Southern — hospitality

By Cynthia Adams

There I was, in the Netherlands, shivering in the attic room that a university contact (who called it an “apartment”) had found for me. Hardly an apartment, its highlights were a sink and a tiny window. And it was winter . . . so cold I looked up the meaning of chilblains.

My refuge from the cold room was either the university or the living room, which was also the refuge of my landlady, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, cat-loving chain smoker who was rather thick in the middle, and favored sensible low heels and navy skirts. I’ll call her Anke. The uniform was a throwback to Anke’s KLM air hostess days, which were the highlight of her life. Laid off long ago, most of Anke’s forays were daily shopping for ciggies, cat food, wine and cheese. 

As time wore on, we began to forge a tenuous relationship. She had resisted at first, given I was, in Anke’s words, “a stupid tourist” renting an overpriced, unheated attic. I needed proximity to Leiden and she needed cash.  Yet the very idea of my presence galled her.

The Dutch are blunt. 

She was astonished I had been hired to teach writing at a local university. How could I possibly take a job away from a good Dutch instructor, she wondered aloud?

Then there were the strict household rules: when to use the kitchen and fridge; when to bathe, and in which bathroom; daily airing of the duvet because a detested prior tenant had “sweat feets.” No matter how cold, the garret window was to be left opened in daytime. Ditto for the bathroom window.

As winter progressed, I shivered in bed with a couple of hot water bottles and the duvet tucked under me. It was impossible to get warm. She alone controlled the thermostat.

Yet I learned that Anke loved and knew good wines. Eventually, she agreed to join me for a nightcap of delicious wine after work. Slowly, we came to a rapport — of necessity. Briefly warm, I pretended I didn’t mind endless episodes of Neighbors, the Australian sitcom, or the wreaths of smoke encircling her cropped hair. 

“Chalk and Cheese,” she called us, as in the Dutch expression “as different as chalk and cheese.” I presumed I was the chalk . . . and she was her favorite, Gouda.

Ultimately, Anke would invite me to share dinners. I learned to bring good chocolates, flowers, or wine home.

Anke thawed, and introduced me to her Jewish family. Few males had survived the Holocaust.

This explained the ubiquitous picture windows, pointedly left uncovered after years in hiding. And the ever-present bicycles, which the Nazis had confiscated.

She took me on shopping forays for “more premium” toilet paper in Belgium. I went with Anke to source white asparagus, pannekoek — a pancake smothered in thick syrup — and mussels.

When my semester ended, we parted as friends, although inscrutable to one another. 

Months later, Anke called to say she was coming to the states. On arrival, she wanted use of my car. This wasn’t possible, I explained. Upset, she settled on my driving her wherever asked. I took her to IHOP for pancakes, which she bluntly and loudly declared “shit!” Our many churches troubled her. “There’s one on every corner!”

Anke hated every meal and found Greensboro was a total washout until I took her to a big box store.

Delighted, Anke found a staggering bag of cheese puffs — at least 2 feet high — to lug home. She visited McDonald’s and adored the Big Mac.

Anke, seafood and wine connoisseur, approved of American fast food and snacks.

This time when we parted, she hinted at a future visit. I smiled, unnerved, yet confident I could find enough snacks and bad food to please her. Certain that America would deliver, I gave “Cheese” a thumbs up as she ambled down the concourse in her squatty heels. 

Still baffled yet grinning, “Chalk and Cheese” had reached an international accord.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

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