Sound Check

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

Moving abroad sends our senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell into overdrive, and in this month’s NSEW offering, we explore an element of expat life through one or more of the five senses.

In Sound Check here on Expatria, Baby, Linda (North) finds that it is distinctive sounds that remind her where she is. In Bottling the Essence of Beach Life, Russell (South) walks us through the multitude of sensory experiences found at the beach. In Tastes that Tell Our Stories, I (East) admit that I do, in fact, cry at Cheerios and roasted chicken. And in Nasal Manoeuvres, Maria (West) knows that no-one knows France like her nose knows France.



Sound Check

by Linda A. Janssen

Every place has its own distinctive pattern to be discerned by our five senses. A unique signature, if you will, that identifies exactly where we are or where we've been.

When I think back to living in Mexico many years ago, I can easily recall the sickly sweet smell of the meat carcasses displayed in the local mercado, the pungent odor of unwashed bodies crammed into the hot confines of the raggedy old bus slowly winding its way to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and the gentle, fragrant breeze of indigenous flowers wafting through Cuernavaca.

In travels far and wide, I remember the dry, hot wind blowing across the Western Sahara, the coarse sand between my toes in Majorca, fingertips clutching a coin to toss in Trevi fountain in Rome, snowflakes brushing against my cheek in the frigid Czech Republic, the sticky tropical humidity of the lowlands of Jamaica and the rainforest of Panama.

Visual recollections are far too numerous to catalogue: who can forget the overwhelming splendor of the Hermitage Museum, the Louvre, or the Prado, the view from the Pont de la Tournelle in the City of Lights, Mount Etna rising majestically out of the Sicilian landscape, the Sphinx in Giza or Urquhart Castle standing silent watch over Loch Ness?

And tastes? Don't get me started. The velvety creaminess of fine Belgian chocolates, the smoky richness of Hungarian goulash, the tang of fried ox blood after cold cerveza with lime in a tiny Mexican village bar, a sizzling steak in Buenos Aires from cattle grass-fed on the Pampas, a baguette (any baguette) hand-selected from just about any French boulangerie, freshly caught Alaskan salmon and crab, bracing white Maltese wine, the most amazing ravioli with gorgonzola cream sauce in Florence...

But when I think about the Netherlands, my home of almost three years now, the sense most deeply ingrained into my memory is that of sound.

My other four senses have certainly been fully engaged, natuurlijk.

There are the windmills, of course, old and new standing side-by-side in the flat countryside. And then there's the light. It's a little difficult to explain, but the light is different here. (Isn't that often the case?) It's filtered somehow, almost gauzy in springtime. How else to explain the glorious genius reflected in certain paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, early Van Gogh?

The magnificent beer, fabulous cheeses and delicious appeltaartje met slagroom. The smoother texture of Euro bills and the added effort of maintaining your balance while strolling on old cobblestones. The sweet smell of chopped onions mingling with the briny sharp scent of the fish during herring season.

Yet it is a host of sounds captured by my sense of hearing that most clearly inform me 'you are here, you are in Nederland':

49604sk6o62c48bA North Sea wind howling across the reclaimed Dutch polder.

In the warmer months, the sporadic cry of seagulls in The Hague, even a mile or more inland.

The thwap and immediate little splash of a voetbal landing in a field-side canal.

The calls of the fishermen after a hard day's work as they dock in harbors up and down the coast.

The low-key hum of bicycle tires, the tinny trill of the bell reminding you not to step into the bike lane as you turn to cross the street.

The steady clop clop clop of a horse as it cantors past, its rider lost in reverie under the dense forest canopy.

The singsong quality of the high-pitched 'Dooie' heard as Dutch women and children bid their farewells.

The clackety clack of trams busily transporting people from one stop to the next.

The distinctive pop of an opening swing top on a Grohlsch beer bottle, forever immortalized in a current television commercial.

The simple melodies and catchy refrains of levenslied (life songs), an accordion-based music popular here.

The phlemmy-throated sound of the Dutch letter 'g' that always brings to mind my cat coughing up a hairball.

Even the eerie silence of the modern windmills is itself a thing of beauty.

These are the sounds that tell me where I am, root me to the present, and will always remain in my heart and in my mind.


Image credit: Photostock, portfolio 2125,