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lost and found
By Margo Fallis 1999

If you’ve ever found yourself lost in a strange place, you can imagine the terror I felt the day I was lost in Amsterdam. I was traveling with a group of fifty people on a bus tour throughout Europe. Our last stop before heading back to France was the Netherlands. It was everything I imagined. Windmills dotted the landscape and as it was springtime, the fields were filled with rows and rows of tulips. They looked like a rainbow outstretched among a sea of green. The colors were striking shades of yellow, red, and orange. I was delightfully surprised to see white, pink, and purple tulips too. We spent our first day sailing down the canals, gazing up at the tall and narrow ‘canal houses’, with their traditional step façade roofs. We visited Anne Frank’s house, went to the wholesale diamond sellers, and saw the works of Rembrandt and other famous Dutch artists in the Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam was indeed a tourist’s paradise.

The next day was a ‘free day’ to do anything we wanted. I decided to go shopping. I wanted to pick up a few souvenirs for the family and for myself. High on my list of priorities was to purchase a pair of wooden clogs, a piece of Delft pottery, with its blue and white pattern, and most important, I wanted to find a bakery and try some of the pastries and cookies that had been highly recommended by the others in my tour group. Perhaps it was foolish, but I wanted to venture off on my own. I’d gained confidence after traveling around Europe for the past month and I wanted some time to myself. We had been given strict instructions that if we wanted a ride back to the hotel, we must be back at the bus by four o’clock in the afternoon; otherwise we’d have to find our own way and meet up later for dinner. Everyone warned me not to go alone, but seeing that they couldn’t stop me, they felt obligated to warn me about showing caution and stay out of the infamous ‘Red Light District’. Shrugging them off as worrywarts, I waved goodbye and headed down some of the side streets of Amsterdam, away from the usual tourist spots

After walking only a block or two, I was captivated by a delicious, sugary aroma wafting through the open door of a bakery. The smell lured me inside. I stood at the counter drooling over the pastries. There were two things in particular that caught my attention. One was a six-inch in diameter cookie. It was labeled ‘Nature’s Delight’ and was full of raisins, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pecans, and almonds. That was right up my alley. I bought half a dozen of them for later. I was on my way out when I spotted the Stroopwafels. They were a waffle-type cookie with caramel filling. That sounded delicious and unable to resist, I bought several, keeping one out to nibble. I shoved the rest of them, along with the nutty cookies, into my bag.

After leaving the bakery, I turned down one street and then another, disappointed that I was not seeing many shops. The further away I went from the center of town, the more garbage I noticed blowing about. The streets were littered with empty beer cans and bottles. I started getting nervous. Some of the characters I saw standing around looked cagey and a tad dangerous to me. I’d seen people on hard drugs before and recognized these same traits on the men I was passing by. I grabbed hold of my bag and held it tighter to my body. After an hour of being ‘adventurous’, which is a nice way of saying I was terrified, I was eager to get back to the others in my group, or at least to the tourist area.

I spotted a small, clean looking shop with postcards in the window and darted inside. As the door shut behind me, I immediately felt safe and protected. I was thrilled to see a few pieces of Delft china sitting on a dusty shelf. Stalling for time, I examined each one thoroughly. “You like Delft?” a voice asked from behind me. I turned around to see a short, rather plump looking woman. Her cheeks were chubby and rosy red. Her hair, gray mixed with light brown, was pulled back off her face in a bun, with a gray bandana holding it down. Her eyes were as blue as the sky on a clear spring morning “You like Delft?” she asked again, not sure if I understood her. I was wondering how she knew I spoke English. I must have ‘tourist’ written all over me. (I was wearing a tee shirt with ‘I love the Dallas Cowboys’ on it.)

“Yes, thank you. I’m looking for a piece to take home,” I blurted out, chastising myself for seeming too anxious.

“You don’t like those pieces?”

“None of them are exactly what I am looking for,” I replied, placing the one in my hand back on the shelf.

“I have more. Come and sit down and I’ll bring some more out for you to look at.” She disappeared behind a paisley-patterned curtain. I was relieved to sit down. I saw her cup of tea, still seeping and steaming hot and wished I could sneak a sip. The cup was very British looking - made of delicate china, with tiny pink roses and green stems and leaves.

She came out with a cardboard box. “You’ll maybe find something in here you like.” She put the box down on the counter and sat down to slurp her tea.

I picked up a few pieces and found a plate. “This is just what I was looking for. I love this piece,” I said. It was decorated with blue windmills, tulips and designs. “How much is it?” It cost more than I had with me. I sighed, remembering that I’d left my credit cards at the hotel in my other wallet. “Maybe I could get something less expensive. I do so want a piece.” My eyes went back to her teacup.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked, holding up a matching empty teacup.

“I’d love some. I’ve got some cookies in my bag. Would you like to share them with me?” She nodded and went into the back room. Carrying a cup, saucer, and a teakettle, she shuffled to the counter. “Are your teacups Royal Doulton?” I asked.

She turned the cup over and looked at the signature on the bottom. “Royal Doulton. You are right. Very good.” Her attempts at speaking English were quite impressive, but I had to struggle to understand much of what she was saying. Her accent was very broad. I pulled out the Stroopwafel. “Ah, Stroopwafel. They go well with tea,” she smiled and took a bite of one. She dipped the rest of it quickly in her tea and took another bite. “It’s good!”

A few minutes later we sat facing each other, with a cup of steaming tea and the Stroopwafel disappearing quickly. “My name is Marysa. I own this shop. My husband died last year. There is nothing else for me to do with my time. I don’t want to stay home alone always. Not many people come in here and buy things, but I am comfortable and can’t complain. What are you doing in Amsterdam? A tourist?” She pointed to the camera around my neck.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” I laughed.

I surprised Marysa by taking a photograph of her as she was taking a bite of her cookie. “I’ve got Stroopwafel on my mouth and you took my photo,” she scoffed, unhappy with me for taking it.

Realizing I’d not told Marysa my name, I introduced myself, apologized for taking her picture when she was unprepared, told her what I’d seen so far in Holland and how much I loved Amsterdam. I soon confessed that I was lost and not wanting to go back out and wander around trying to find my way through the maze of streets. “I have no idea how to get back to the bus or the hotel.”

“What hotel are you staying at?” she asked. I pulled out a pad of paper that I’d brought from my hotel room. Thankfully it had the name of the hotel across the top. I was relieved that Marysa knew where it was. “Don’t go yet though. Stay for a while and look at the Delft.”

I could tell the woman was lonely, so I stayed. I really wanted to get to some other shops and buy a pair of wooden clogs, but after looking in her eyes and seeing the emptiness, I realized that nothing was more important right now than keeping Marysa company. We ended up eating all but one Stroopwafel and nutty cookie. I must have drunk ten cups of tea. She wanted to hear all about America and my family. I showed her pictures of my grandkids and she showed me hers. “I only have two grandchildren and they don’t often come to see me, but my daughter, she is busy with her life. You know how that is.” I nodded yes. She told me about her husband and how they had once lived on a farm outside of Rotterdam. They’d had their very own windmill. “I live in a smaller place now, closer to Amsterdam.” I was mesmerized by her stories of tidal floods, bitter cold winters, ice-skating on frozen canals, and her cow, Anika. “She gave the best cream. The butter I made was as yellow as the sun.”

Time passed quickly, as it does when one is enjoying theirself. “Oh no,” I gasped, looking at my watch. “It’s five o’clock! I’ve missed the bus.”

Marysa’s eyes twinkled again. “Don’t worry. I’ll call you a taxi and make sure you get safely back to your hotel. Don’t worry.” She patted my hand lovingly and disappeared into the back room to use the phone. Pushing the curtain aside, she walked towards me. “A taxi will be here shortly. Show him the paper from your hotel. He’ll know how to get there.”

I helped her clean up the Stroopwafel crumbs and carried the teacups into the back room. “I’ll take this piece of Delft.” It wasn’t the one I wanted, but it was better than nothing. I put the money down on the counter. While she wrapped it up she shook her head back and forth. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

“This isn’t the piece you wanted. You wanted the plate.”

“I know, but I have to pay for the taxi too. I just don’t have enough money,” I sighed.

The taxi honked. Marysa handed me my bag and a piece of paper with her name and address on it. “You write to me, will you?” I promised I would, gave her a hug and hesitantly climbed into the taxi. She stood at the window, waving as I drove away. I wiped a tear from my cheek.

Back at the hotel I paid the taxi driver, went up to my room, and then took the elevator down to meet the others for dinner. “Where were you? We were worried sick about you!”

“You didn’t go into the ‘Red Light District’ did you?”

“Did you see any drug dealers?”

“Did you get your wooden clogs?”

They bombarded me with questions, which I answered only to appease them. I did feel a bit disappointed that I’d hadn’t picked up a pair of wooden clogs, but that was all right. I had my piece of Delft from Marysa’s shop and that would have to do. We feasted on a Flemish stew made with onions, apples, and beef, with a touch of nutmeg sprinkled on top. I gobbled down a dish made of brussel sprouts and chestnuts and nibbled on Gouda and Edam cheeses. Boerenjongens, or brandied raisins, topped off the meal. I ate so much my pants were tight. Eager to get to my hotel room and relax, I excused myself early.

Back in my room, I collapsed on the bed. I thought of dear Marysa and her twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks. I emptied my bag onto the bed. Crumbs and bits of broken Stroopwafel spilled out onto my bed sheets. I brushed them off into the trashcan. “What’s this?” I wondered, seeing a strange package. I unwrapped the paper. “Oh, Marysa.” I laughed tears of joy. The dear, sweet Dutch woman had snuck the Delft plate and some tiny wooden clogs into my bag when I wasn’t looking.

There was a note inside. I read it out loud. “Thank you for spending your holiday keeping an old woman company. This is a gift for you in return for the gift of self you gave me today. I will never forget you or your kindness toward an old, lonely woman like me. This is the least I can do to repay you. They aren’t real wooden clogs, but I hope they will do? Please write me a letter when you get home. Love, Marysa.” I held the note to my cheek and cried for her.

Marysa and I have written to each other for the last four years. She’s doing well and is still running her shop. The wooden clogs, tiny as they may be, are treasured to this day. They sit on a shelf in front of the photograph of Marysa, with the cookie crumbs on her lips. My other mementos and souvenirs of my tour bring back fond memories. The Delft plate hangs on my wall and needs to be dusted often. Both are reminders, not of the touristy places of the Netherlands, but of the woman who touched my heart in a small shop on a back street in Amsterdam.

lost and found - netherlands