Johannes Klabbers is a Dutch/Australian writer and posthumanist therapist, currently living in Europe. He is the author of I Am Here: Stories From A Cancer Ward (Scribe Aus/UK 2016), which tells the story of an academic in the Australian outback who takes a voluntary redundancy and reinvents himself as a secular pastoral worker in the largest cancer hospital in the southern hemisphere. The Australian described it as “wonderfully insightful”. His website is johannesk.com and he tweets @johklab, is on Facebook @johkla and blogs on Medium @johannesk.
Johannes Klabbers is thinking through what it could mean to write postfiction. This is the first of four postfiction pieces to be published in Tincture in 2017. See also postfiction.space.
Belonging can be fleeting. I feel it for the first time briefly, six months after moving back to Europe, in the baker’s on Christmas Eve queueing for a tulband cake—as especially requested by Moeder who never asks for anything, almost always refuses everything, and only ever gives you what you mostly don’t want.
I’ll bring a stol too, I tell Moeder on the phone.
—Oh no, I already have two.
Yes but this one is from the best baker in town. Yours are from the LIDL, two for the price of one? And no extra charge for the E202.
It stops mould growing.
—Oh I should get some for the bathroom!
That deserves an audible giggle. I dutifully oblige.
Maybe you should keep your stol from the LIDL there!
I can tell she’s smiling from her voice.
—Anyway, how do you know that baker doesn’t put it in his stol?
They don’t need to. It doesn’t get a chance to grow mould. People buy it the day after it’s baked and then they eat it all!
It takes a good hour to get to the front of the queue but no one really minds. The atmosphere is gemutlich. People who come into the shop and accidentally or on purpose try to jump the queue are gently reproached with a joke and elaborate hand gestures. The old bulldog who lives around the corner waddles in and subjects customers’ shoes to random sniff tests. But when an appelbol is dropped to the floor my suggestion that it would make a suitable treat for the dog is not taken up. The thing is, no one can tell that I’m not from around here by the way I speak. As long as interactions are limited to a conversation about the weather or an order for Christmas cakes, no one would know. I could pass any shibboleth test. But I am unable to find words to voice the immense depth of my sadness.
The thing is, I have been here before. I was a child here.
The bare trees are outlined in white this morning. As day breaks I think it’s an illusion at first, a trick of the famous Dutch light, but no, there it is. A heavy frost overnight has turned the humid air into ice and coated the trees in white, creating a chocolate-box landscape outside my window.
What is it to belong? I lived more than half of my life in Australia but it wasn’t until the last few years that I felt I belonged there. And now I live in Europe. It is winter. It’s not so much the cold—thanks to global warming it doesn’t get that cold anymore—but the greyness that contributes to this feeling of otherworldliness. Belonging is not about longing. I don’t long for ‘Australia’. From my current vantage point I am sad to say Australia seems somewhat pointless. But I long for blue (cobalt, emerald, turquoise) skies and the smell that a leaf from a lemon-scented gumtree releases when you crush it with your fingers as you walk in the early morning before it gets too hot. That’s not nostalgia, it’s a simple fact.
What have I come here to find? I have no idea, but one thing I’ve discovered is that I don’t belong, even though this is where I lived for the first fourteen years of my so-called life. Just there is the bridge over the canal where I told Irene de Groen that I loved her. The shop where I bought her an ice cream is gone, but over here is where I watched her eat it.
The thing is, the ones who have been here all along can withhold the belonging.
Random walks reveal half-remembered spaces, streets, buildings, and sometimes I hear the voice of my grandmother, clear as day, say a street name: Predikherenstraat. As I turn left and right here and then right and left there, connections become apparent between the streets and buildings that I never knew existed.
Half the city was torn down in the late sixties/early seventies and replaced with buildings that now too are being demolished.
What does it mean ‘to belong’?
Soon after I turned fourteen, my parents decided to move from what was then widely thought of by the English as ‘The Continent’ to England. They asked me if I wanted to go and I agreed, but asking someone without any real agency to agree to something when they don’t have another viable option is not very meaningful.
Australians don’t tend to think of distances between European countries as significant, and geographically they aren’t, but culturally and politically all those years ago—and so it seems again now—they were as far from each other as Australia and England; perhaps even farther because of the language differences.
Also, the little country where I was from had only recently been invaded and occupied by the fascists that had come to power in the east. More than a hundred thousand of its people were told by men with guns to leave their houses and put on trains bound for extermination camps. Only a few thousand came back.
I spent a lot of time in my childhood years in the company of an old Mischlinge—a half Jew—who would have been dead too had her race been recorded in the usually meticulously maintained population register, or if she’d gone to register as Jews and half Jews were required to do under the Nazi laws introduced soon after the invasion, or if she’d worn a star as she was supposed to do. But my grandmother wasn’t someone who did what she was told. So there. It runs in the family. That’s why I am here.
The old people never tired of talking about what happened during the war but they didn’t speak about what didn’t happen or what could have happened to them. And no one told me about what did happen to over a hundred thousand others who lived around here, spoke the same language, looked the same as us.
I’m not from around here either. I’m from over there.
What does it mean to be of a place, to be from somewhere? Where are you from? people would ask me, mispronouncing my name. I never knew what to say. I changed my name to suit them, to make it easier for them to say. You can be different in so many ways, in what you wear or how you walk, or by what you say and what you don’t say and in Australia too, I was an outsider, with my strange name and unconventional ways of being a person. I lived there longer than anywhere else but am I from Australia?
On my frequent visits to the Moederland I felt awkward, like an intruder. People didn’t understand where I’d come from, or why I went there.
In Australia, do people live in houses? My aunt wants to know.
—No Auntie, they live in huts.
I doubt if she’d ever left Holland.
Until a few years ago I didn’t have an Australian passport. I had a permanent residence visa because I was married to an Australian. The marriage didn’t last but I would lose the visa only if I lived outside of Australia for any length of time. I never intended to go back to Europe but. (They don’t put ‘but’ at the end of sentences here, neither in Dutch nor in the odd form of English most people speak.) When the law changed to make it possible for Dutch subjects to hold dual nationalities, I became an Australian citizen. I’d hung on to my Dutch passport because the idea of having to apply for a visa to go to the country where I was born and raised and where my mother still lived was not something I could contemplate, but not because I felt like I belonged there.
And now I am here: a foreigner in my own country.
The thing is, belonging can be withheld, and it can be withdrawn. Someone can just decide one day that you don’t belong here and if there are enough of them and they have guns and they’re pointing them at you then it’s true and it’s as true on this side of the world as it is on the other.
When they came back—the ones that did—they found other people living in their houses, sitting on their chairs, eating at their tables. They told them to go away.