It is exhausting being a foreigner

One day I shall write a novel about foreigners living in Holland. Like Anthony Burgess's book set in Rome, where people who had scaled the innumerable flights of stairs to the top flat had to lie down, gasping for breath (books and magazines were supplied until they were able to speak), there will be one running joke throughout: every time anybody steps outside he will be narrowly missed by a cyclist, who whizzes by on the pavement, shouting rude words at him.

These contacts with cyclists, however glancing, do wonders for one's vocabulary, and their righteously contorted faces and raised middle fingers could go straight into Desmond Morris's book of typical national gestures. It is probably the first thing foreigners notice about this country - and could very easily be the last - and the most frightening thing about it is the self-control needed not to do it oneself. I don't swear, yet, but I have definitely developed the same reluctance to stop once I get on my bicycle.

There are other habits to be picked up; one that I am proud of is remembering to congratulate parents on their children's birthdays. Husbands and wives are held responsible for each other's birthdays, grandparents for their grandchildren, probably evil stepmothers too. I was thrown into confusion once by being congratulated on the birthday of my husband's granddaughter; when in doubt it is best to congratulate everyone in sight.

Birthdays are important in Holland. Toddlers in playgroups stagger around the circle of children offering them chunks of sausage and cheese on their birthdays, in primary school the teacher announces that tomorrow she will be celebrating her birthday and expects a present, people in offices treat each other to cakes on their birthdays, and the only exclusively Dutch public holiday in the year is the Queen's birthday (although it is, like the primary school teacher's, an official birthday, not her real one). On people's birthdays you drop into their house and sit round in a circle, in de kring, just like the children at playgroup (and then I always hear the words from Cranford about the circle of chairs: `the circle around the fire, which reminded me of Stonehenge, I don't know why.').

Once there you get a slice of tart with whipped cream - the sausage and cheese are only for those too small to protest - and a cup of tea so weak that it is no more than water with the faintest memory that a tea-bag was once associated with it. This will be in my novel too, as a useful restorative after a near miss by a cyclist. I once saw seven people served tea from a pot with one tea-bag in it; later more water was added and seven more cups poured. In England you have to wait until six o'clock before having a drink; in Holland you can start at five, and you can see why, after such a tea.

I have been a foreigner for years, first in France and now in Holland; after a bit you get the hang of it, despite moments of paranoia. So in France, if you say `bonjour' to people towards the end of the afternoon, a certain proportion of them will reply `bonsoir'. To the next person therefore you say, brightly `bonsoir', and he replies `bonjour'. It is exactly the same here: if you say `dag' people answer `hallo', and if you try `hallo' it will be their day for `dag'.

When this happens I feel like Manuel, the Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers, the one who never understands, who gets everything wrong, yet keeps trying. When he is completely baffled all he can do is say, desperately, `¿Qué?' And then John Cleese says, `Don't mind him, he's from Barcelona.' It is exhausting being a foreigner; there you are, doing your best, copying the natives and pretending to understand them, your beliefs shaken to the core every time you say hello to someone. And yet, just as there are Dutch people scattered all over the world, so there are many more foreigners here than you might think. In fact there is a strong chance that in the Stonehenge of chairs at the birthday tea there is at least one other foreigner; I was at a large family gathering here once where only one of the spouses was Dutch – all the rest of us were from Barcelona.