the women in my family are cursed. we attract the most lonely, desperate, weirdo men. i’m not talking the men we choose to have relationships with – i’m talking about standing in line at the grocery store (ice cream shop, library, post office), minding your own business, and then they flock to you and just start very personal conversations. it’s as if there’s a halo above your head with a little tag attached that says “lonely? come talk to me!”
i’ve seen this sort of thing happen to my mom and aunts for years, and those of us in the next generation are adding our stories at a quick rate as well. since i’ve moved to europe, it happens to me more and more often, but this could largely be due to my frequent use of the public transportation system and the large population of northern african immigrants residing here. (i hate to stereotype here, but it is just that a huge proportion of these men who feel they can just come up and talk to me – or worse yet, touch me! – are from northern africa. i’ve had many conversations with girlfriends about this, and there are various perfectly understandable reasons why, which i won’t bother with now.)
this week has been quite a busy week for lonely men in holland. instead of my once-a-week annoyance, i’ve had 5! FIVE! in the last 3 days at that! as you will see, i’ve not managed to figure out ways to cope with all of these types, but i’m learning that from standing there minding your own business to innocent things like friendly smiles, answering questions, and general politeness can all get you in a lot of trouble. the list:
Lonely Man #1 was actually more of a kid. he must have been 17 or 18. there i was, standing at the tram stop on thursday morning, minding my own business, looking all over the place, like everyone else, when i noticed this guy run up from across the street. i glanced at him, like everyone else, and then looked away and kept waiting for the tram. then i heard some mumbles and sighs, and some grunt-like sounds. i wondered if he was trying to get my attention, but decided not to look over. more mumbles, then he said an actual sentence, obviously directed at me, but it was in dutch, so i said “sorry?” (what if he was asking a legitimate question?) he repeated it in english, something like, “whew, i made it just in time.” i tried my smile-and-nod tactic, followed-up not with a question, but by more gazing off wistfully in the direction of the tram. however, this guy felt the need to keep talking. and once he started, there was no stopping him. i heard all about the cafe he was just at, and then he remembered he’d left his book on top of the garbage can by the tram stop and was so glad it was still there when he came running back, and where are you from, why are you here, and do you like holland. blah blah. the weird thing was that this guy never blinked. luckily, when the tram came, he (oddly enough) wasn’t getting on it. but, while still not blinking, he made a point to say, “good bye, nice to meet you, very nice talking to you.” i just said “bye” and didn’t look back, or even in his direction when the tram passed him.
Lonely Man #2 was at the library, on the very same day as Lonely Man #1. these men were separated by a mere 3 hours, yet also about 45 years. this older man spotted me in the library cafe, having a bit of soup before i met a friend to work on a project. there i was, happily finishing my soup, sharing my table with a nice grandmotherly woman with whom i’d been making small talk, and Lonely Man #2 just came up to me and said, “oh, soupe! wat lekker! is het lekker?” (“oh, soup! yum! is it good?”) to which i replied, “ja, lekker.” (“yes, it’s good.”) my tactic here was, just answer the question, and he’ll get his own soup and go sit down somewhere. wrong! he heard my accent and wanted to know where i was from, and oh, was i married? look, he had a great book about tourism in the hague right with him! (he did.) he’d just come from a lecture about the archiving of dutch something-or-other. where did i live? oh, i must have met my husband in arkansas, and he’s dutch and just brought me back to holland. i chose not to correct him on those details. i was distratcted by what seemed to be cookie crumbs on his coat. why was this guy talking to me? what sort of signal was i giving out? then he asked if the grandmotherly woman was my mother. she must have given him some subliminal signal or something, because after confirming that in fact, she was not my mother, and in fact, i am married, he left. i rolled my eyes after he left, and she laughed empathetically and asked, “are you really married?”
Lonely Man #3 was a little drunk after a Friday night out. A man in his 60s, he was travelling by train from Utrecht to Gouda. I noticed him on the platform waiting for the train, because he seemed a little bit unsteady. Once on the train, he struck up friendly conversation with a group of teenage boys, who thought he was funny (maybe he was. some people are funny and friendly when drunk. i was tired from a concert and recording session, sitting on the last train home, listening to my ipod.) from where i was sitting, i could see him carrying on and glanced at him not more than twice, and only when things got noisy enough to disturb the mood of the traincar. he had to pass by me on the way out of the train at Gouda (i stayed on till Rotterdam), and he took the opportunity to make a very obscene gesture with his entire body, accompanied by some slightly slurred text which i couldn’t make out, partly because of his poor enunciation, and partly because “this american life” was pumping in my ears. halfway through this display, i turned away and stared out the window. there was sort of a mood change, like a collective sigh of relief, when he got out of the train.
Lonely Man #4 was also riding the train late last night, and i’ll be the first to admit that late-night trains are full of very interesting people. i regularly get unwelcome lonely-man visits on my late-night treks home. this was from Rotterdam to Dordrecht, and i’m pretty sure this guy was in my train car with Lonely Man #3. what concerns me is that Lonely Man #3’s fermented words of parting may have encouraged Lonely Man #4 to follow me, but apparently i’ll never know. as i waited on the platform, i saw this 55-year-old guy notice me. i looked away, walked down a bit further, and continued waiting. when the train pulled up, we both got in the same doo. ladies first, and once i stepped inside, i passed a potential Lonely Man sitting alone in a seat group. (i’ve learned to never join a man who is sitting by himself. it just never works out.) however, when i chose my seat, Lonely Man #4 chose the seat opposite the aisle from me. here’s where my new iphone comes in really handy. not only was i engaged in my second “this american life” of the evening, i could conveniently also divert my eyes to my iphone screen and send my husband an email! even if i were doing nothing but just playing games on my iphone, i think the signal would still be given – my ears are busy and my eyes are busy, so don’t bother! he tried to make eye contact for about 5 minutes, and eventually got up to go to the bathroom. when he returned, he sat several seats away. success!
Lonely Man #5 and i literally bumped into each other at the grocery store. one thing to understand about public spaces here: everyone looks out only for themselves. it has taken a while to get used to it, but people regularly cut in front of you, cross your path a little too closely, bump you with their grocery cart rather than ask you to scoot up in line. old ladies are the worst. anyway, the technique is to just bump and go, without even looking at the other person. i think the problem was that by the carrots when i bumped into him (or he into me, it’s hard to know), i said, “oh, sorry,” albeit without looking at him. i noticed in the sliced cheese section that we were standing next to each other. i glanced at him, as one does, and kept going after picking out my jong belegen. he circled around me a couple of times, checking out apparently more than just the different kinds of cheeses, because i noticed him staring at me when i was by the beers. oh, and again, by the flour and sugar. a deceptively nice-looking man with graying hair and a beard, a blue and red wind breaker, and big square glasses magnifying – you guessed it! – non-blinking eyes! it was the eyes i noticed… not simply because they didn’t blink, or maybe because of that, they carried a sort of perpetually startled gaze. when i made it over to the ice cream, he was on the opposite side of the freezer bin, so terribly obviously pretending to read the back of a package of frozen french fries. but where was his grocery cart?? i turned the corner to the butter later, and there he was, sitting and having coffee at the little free coffee table by the eggs. i could feel the stare on my back as i debated salted or unsalted, store brand or name brand. half expecting him to come up to me in line or follow me out the store, i was secretly grateful my bike was waiting loyally on the other side of the big window for the quick escape it has helped me make on more than one occasion.
i’m not going out any more tonight, and i may possibly stay holed-up in my apartment all day tomorrow as well. it’s hard to know what is drawing these guys to me – maybe my pheramones are in overdrive or something – so better not press my luck.