Friday, August 12, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Grey skies and the toy store


Grey is the sky in Holland. It comes in different shades of grey, of course. But grey it is. As you hang out in this world, you begin to respond to the small tonal shifts from dark grey to light grey in ways that may not be mentally sound. For example, if it’s a dark grey day, you need to lock away any implements that might cause self-harm — like those two dozen ginger cookies in the shape of Dutch windmills. They may look innocent sitting there on the counter early in the morning, but after the first hour of dark grey skies, you’ll have eaten the cookies and be using the Internet to find the Dutch translation for “Hand over the apple tarts, NOW, or I’ll throw this carved wooden shoe with the little painted Dutch boy through your very clean window.” Not a good turn.

Whereas if there are light grey skies, you awake in the Netherlands wondering if someone from the Iowa Lottery is knocking on your front door. And, now that you think of it, today would be a good day to go back to school and become a people and animal doctor so you can do rescue operations that save small children, and animals that look like small children, but are nicer. Like baby pandas. Why not?

Ah, but today is a dark grey sky.joes1

Through the misting rain, it’s hard to see what shops are in the narrow buildings on the other side of the boulevard.

Slugging across the puddled wet bricks in my squishy tennis shoes, I take a closer look. Past the ever-present bicycles is a wondrous display of lights and colors, stuffed animals and wooden creatures, and puzzles and games. It’s a toy store. A Dutch toy store open on a dark grey Holland day.

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joes2I’m dying to look inside. But a little wary. I was just shamed by a clerk in a downtown store when I innocently went inside to purchase jeans. Why am I purchasing jeans, you might ask? Because, you can’t be a man in Holland and wear anything but jeans. “Really?” I said to my wife. “Really,” she responded. So, off to buy jeans.

“Size 36 waist, please,” I say, after I acknowledge to the clerk that I don’t know a speck of Dutch except the word for pancakes. The clerk in her early 20s cooly appraises me. She shakes her stylish hair and swishes the elegantly tied scarf around her neck. I can tell that she thinks I may not be quite right in the head. She dramatically pulls out a waist size 34 and says, “This is your size.” I smile. I tell her I’m really truly a pudgy old man and wear a 36. She does not smile. “The dressing room is over there,” and she hands me the size 34. I obediently go to the dressing room.

Of course the size 34 doesn’t even fit one leg — I’m being optimistic with size 36. I bring out the pants. Defeated by my pudge. I tell her the size 34 does not fit. Again, she openly looks me up and down. She clearly believes I am lying in addition to being crazy. She says the size 36 jeans are in a back room. Of course they are. No one in Holland is size 36. I shrug my shoulders, hoping the gesture adequately apologizes for the years of eating French fries. She doesn’t move. Apparently, she is patiently waiting for me to break down and come clean about my real size. I smile. Finally, she sighs with boredom and strolls slowly to the back of the store where they must put the jeans that are rejected by society.

After a while, she returns. The jeans fit. I put in my credit card to pay. A long wait. Then, horror of horrors, the “cancelled” flashes on the screen. She looks at me. All her expectations have been fulfilled — “what can one expect from someone who doesn’t realize they wear a 34?” She tries twice more. Each time I am “cancelled.” Now she’s convinced I’m a crazy street person who has wandered in and the police need to be called. I leave before she presses the under-the-counter emergency button.

So, here I am at the toy store, a little uncomfortable. I feel pretty sure that if I walk in the door, they’ll have me arrested for some heinous child crime involving toys. I don’t know. My confidence has been shaken. But I open the door.

joes3A paradise. A jungle of wooden birds and castles and rocking horses and stuffed giraffes. Lights, and small rooms, and hidden alcoves abound. And there is no corner that isn’t overflowing with something you want to lift up, shake up, wind up or give a small push.

A gentle-faced woman pokes her head around the corner from a back alcove of the store.

“Goedenmorgen,” she says.

 stand looking wide-eyed at all the wonders. She smiles. I ask if I can take some pictures.

“Of course you can,” she says with a larger smile. “But none of me.”

Naturally. How could I take a picture of her? She is a fairy godmother. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to take pictures of fairy godmothers.

joes4And there I am. Fairly certain that Geppetto might be somewhere in the back putting together Pinocchio. Why not? And the Swan Princess is still a swan leaning against the far wall. And Snow White is asleep in her bed around the corner. And Rapunzel is draping her hair off the high shelf. And in the upstairs loft? Perhaps the miller’s daughter spinning golden, size-36 jeans out of straw.

Mmmmm. Is that the sun shining through the dark grey sky onto that wooden rocking horse? CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at

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