“I’ve forgotten my residence permit”, Rosa said as I waited for her on my bike. “I’ll be right back.”
I was a bit worried about making it to the ceremony on time. We should have left five minutes ago. This was important, even ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ important, and with none of the hyperbole that so often goes with that phrase.
The chill in the air had subsided. At last a real spring day was in the offing. I took off my jacket and put it on the fietsmand, the bicycle basket in front of me, a common sight on Dutch bicycles.
“Zou jij wat foto’s van ons met onze camera willen maken?” (Can you take some photos of us on our camera?), I hurriedly messaged a friend who was coming to attend. As I stuffed the phone back into my pocket, I saw Rosa come out through the back alley from our house. We began the cycle ride to our Dutch naturalization ceremony.
I wish I could say I had moments of deep reflection on our six-and-a-half years in the Netherlands on the way to the Speelklok museum in Utrecht, where the ceremony was being held. About things like pride, which I don’t understand very well, or about what it meant for me to change my nationality. Or what we meant by ‘home’. The truth is that I was preoccupied with getting there on time. More importantly, these were thoughts I had wrestled with before.
When we arrived in the Netherlands on a cool October afternoon in 2009, I was excited to visit a new place. I’d ordered a Sangria on the flight over and I remember the German steward telling me, “We’re not a Spanish airline!” He still got me something similar, he was just trying to be funny. Our driver was a bit late and I was in slight panic-mode. When he did arrive, our apartment wasn’t ready, so we were temporarily housed in a hotel. As I crossed the street, there was a light directing us when to stop or walk at the pedestrian path. I hesitated to cross because I didn’t know if I was supposed to follow the lights. I did not know how to function in this system.
We ordered room service for lunch. My jet-lagged brain ordered a carpaccio when it meant a ciabatta. When the raw meat slices arrived, I was severely grossed out. Rosa dug into it, enjoying every bit and eventually I tried a little myself after realizing that this was edible. It was a sign of things to come.
Over the next six-odd years, there were to be many flip-flops on the question of changing citizenship. Stability, security, convenience, pleasure, pride, identity and guilt would be in constant debate with each other — all presenting equally valid arguments. There was never a clear winner, but I doubt there ever is in matters such as these.
And we changed too. We didn’t become ‘more Dutch’ or ‘less Indian’, whatever those things mean. But we look different, speak a new language, eat differently and have had our share of hard knocks. We value our past more, but are critical of things we don’t agree with. We have new friends we can count on, in addition to some old friends who have stayed and our family. Irrespective of what the official documents say, I will never cease being Indian and I don’t think I will ever be completely ‘Dutch’. In this, we probably join the leagues of first-generation immigrants all through human history, although we definitely have had it easier than most of them.
When the time came, we walked up to the podium and swore confidently to uphold the laws of the Netherlands into the microphone. We shook the hands of the lady who presented us with a paper that changes something about us fundamentally.
“Congratulations!” I hugged Rosa six-and-a-half years and fifteen minutes later at the museum of curious street organs. The ceremony was over and we were ready to enjoy a beautiful Dutch spring.