The Winking Waiter from Canterbury18 October 2010 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Armold Jansen op de Haar
It was during the summer of 1980, just a month before I turned eighteen. I still had a full head of hair. My parents had arranged the ferry for me and my elder sisters, and had booked an expensive hotel in Canterbury. For the first time they spent their holiday at home. They did ask us to phone every day. Three years later my eldest sister would emigrate to England.
Dover smelled of past fortunes. The entire coast had a Fawlty Towers feel. The train to Canterbury could have come straight out of a railway museum; small heavy doors separated sets of four seats, it looked as if Virginia Woolf could board at any minute.
At the hotel it transpired that I was too young to drink alcohol but they turned a blind eye. However, the waiter winked at me each time he brought a beer: ‘Here is your pint, Sir.’ Thinking back, he looked like the butler in The Remains of the Day, played by Anthony Hopkins.
After four days we longed to eat somewhere else. When we left the other restaurant we promptly ran into the headwaiter from our hotel. We felt like we’d been caught red-handed. Suddenly ‘Anthony Hopkins’ bore a much closer resemblance to Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ from The Silence of the Lambs, although this movie was yet to be produced. How did he manage to turn up right at that moment? Maybe he was on his evening walk. Luckily he winked again.
Since that first time, now thirty years ago, I have been to England 63 times. At first it was a country in decline. There were still coin operated electricity meters; high duties made it virtually impossible to buy a decent bottle of wine; graffiti wasn’t yet being removed – ‘ANARCHY’ popped up everywhere. It was a country of dance palaces for old age pensioners, bingo evenings, tea shops, fish and chips, and strikes. Nonetheless, even back then it felt like home.
During those thirty years I travelled up and down the country. A revolution was taking place. Steaks no longer resembled shoe soles, even in the remotest corners. Suddenly wine bars and top restaurants appeared, old inner cities were done up and London became trendy again.
Other things stayed exactly the same. Everyone continues to avoid eye contact on public transport. The Dutch have made staring at people a national sport. In The Netherlands when you pick a table in an otherwise empty restaurant, the next guests to arrive take the table next to you. In England, they prefer to sit as far away as possible from each other. In this respect I have become very English: I am a bit shy and keep myself to myself.
Once, when in England I would mainly visit castles, country houses and cathedrals. However, at one point I couldn’t stand another ‘Capability’ Brown garden. I have slept in countless Bed and Breakfasts, in rooms smelling of lavender and with flower covered wallpaper. It is an excellent way to form a picture of English furnishing. It is ‘a reasonably sized room’ they would say on BBC’s Escape to the Country. This usually means that you can just fit in a bed.
I progressed from tourist to frequent visitor. Nowadays I immediately make my way to my favourite pub: The Prince Bonaparte in Chepstow Road, London. Recently I read a bad review about its food, about ‘my’ pub!
It is quite possible that I have become more English than I realise. I abhor beer with froth. I am a great fan of the first past the post constituency voting system. Each time a mad looking person with strange hair gets 112 votes in a by-election, I shout at the television: ‘You would have made it into the Dutch Parliament!’
I would love to wink at all the beautiful red haired English ladies. Unfortunately I haven’t yet managed to master the art of winking. So now you know how it all began. There is little chance that the audience at my first performance in England, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London, will include a winking waiter from Canterbury.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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