This weekend I caught the train to Duisburg to visit my stepmum and younger brothers. Duisburg is just across the border from the Netherlands, so I wasn’t sure that I would be able to tell when the train had crossed over. I expected the landscape would be similar to the one I’m familiar with (mainly the western portion of the Netherlands) and that the border would be indecipherable. After the train pulled out of Arnhem, which I knew was very close to the border, I watched attentively from the train window. And there it was, a subtle shift in the lay of the land, a change in the palette, and the thought popped into my head – we’ve crossed the border. A little further along I saw a German flag, which confirmed my suspicion (though I later saw plenty of Dutch flags (and even Union Jacks) in Duisburg, which made me question whether the flag was really a reliable guide).
All weekend I puzzled over it, and tried to pay attention to my surroundings as we drove around the countryside outside Duisburg. How had I known that we’d crossed the border, how was the landscape different? There were certainly some big changes – no more polders, no canals full of barges. Indeed, I found myself missing water this weekend, but the fact that the thermometer stayed around 30°C could have something to do with that. The landscape was still flat, but it had a roll to it that made it appear less flat than the Netherlands. The colours seemed different, more trees adding layers of green, more fields of wheat adding splashes of golden yellow. There were hills too, though the hills were deceptive since they are made from slag heaps left over by the former mining industry. The areas ties to industry are also still evident in the large inland harbour and the tall chimneys that exclaim the landscape.
I know it shouldn’t matter really. After all, why should a place be boiled down to a few defining characteristics? Yet it is still a notion I find myself clinging too. Like the notion that drinking tea and eating Marmite are somehow crucial to my sense of Britishness.
I tried to play the game of spot the border on the way home, but the spontaneity was gone and I questioned myself. Just when I thought I saw a defining feature of the landscape that meant we must have crossed over, I saw fields or houses that didn’t quite look right. It wasn’t until I saw a sign in Dutch that I knew for sure (though I suspect, like flags, languages do not adhere to strict borders).
Seeing the sign made me reflect on the role that languages play in our understanding of place. There’s an online game I enjoy playing called GeoGuessr, which plonks you down in the middle of Google Street View and you have to guess where you are. My strategy is always to try and find a sign post – something that might narrow down my location based on the language. It is as though language is writing the land. It is language that distinguishes places and languages are often the first victims when others try to claim ownership. Language can engender a sense of belonging but it can also disorientate.
I read an essay in Aeon Magazine recently that put into words exactly how I felt when I first moved to Amsterdam. The essay is by a young woman who describes the experience of moving from Nigeria to Belgium: my Dutch was limited to the phrases the Teach Yourself book had assured me I needed to survive the country. ‘What time is it?’ ‘When does the train leave?’ ‘Where is the post office?’ Phrases so useless in company that I felt for the first time what it must be like to be deaf and dumb, but without the privilege of knowing sign language.
I instantly recognised that feeling of being deaf. I felt it again this weekend, as I found myself once more surrounded by an unfamiliar language. Stepping onto the train home in Duisburg, my ears felt the relief of hearing Dutch again. Even if I only understand a few words, the fact of having listened to Dutch everyday for the last seven months makes it seem almost, but not quite, comprehensible.
My younger brothers have grown up speaking English and German, but they have only recently moved to Germany. I worry that they will forget English (as though unknowing a language is like going to the supermarket and forgetting to buy milk). Without English we will be deaf to each other, but to my mind something else would be lost to, a part of what ties us all to that small and not so distant island. But like I said, I suspect languages, like flags, trees, rivers, sense of place – all these things can survive the lines on a map.