Speaker by Various Artists

Distant Summer

by Brenda Leeuwenberg

It's been the wettest summer on record in this part of the world. The kind of rain that makes you realise where the phrase 'soaked to the bone' really comes from. After a few days of sitting at work with dripping wet jeans and looking like some kind of bad-hair-day attempt at a wet t-shirt competition, the novelty of such rain does wear off.

The thunder that rattles the windows and sounds like a bomb going off in the street has a kind of charm I don't get sick of though. Massive afternoon storms where the sky grows black, the rain slashes the house and the lightening is so powerful it makes you feel like a flea on the earth, a mere pawn in some cosmic game, it's quite impressive.

Aside from the weather, which everyone seems to moan about wherever they live, it's a good part of the world to be in. I've been here long enough now to start to wonder if I'd rather be here or in Wellington. Not quite long enough to completely forget the contents of the shed where all my stuff is stored. That was one of the original criteria for time away, to come back and be pleasantly surprised to find things I'd forgotten about tucked in boxes of stuff I'd rather not have.

I suspect if I came back now the last 3 years would be like a dream within about 2 weeks. I'm not ready for that. I didn't go through the first 18 months of relative hell to just forget about it in a week or two. I've come to realize how much I underestimated the impact of moving to the other side of the world. Thinking that we're all basically the same, 21st century western people, no big deal, big smeary mess of cultures and all heading in the same direction. Well maybe, compared to moving to India or something, but I didn't move to India, I moved to Amsterdam and there's certainly enough differences to have an impact!

Amsterdam, a city with an enormous reputation, is actually very small. As far as the part where the tourists end up, you can bike across it in 15 minutes. And if you bike another 30 minutes you're pretty much on the outskirts. But there's a shitload of people here – by virtue of living in tiny boxes stacked on top of and alongside each other. We are apparently lucky to have a lovely apartment – all 85 square meters of it – which cost more than twice as much as our 3 bedroom "house by the sea with big garden" in Wellington. Ironically the mortgage repayments are less, and all interest paid is tax deductible, making it considerably cheaper than renting. I'm getting used to it, I feel safe on the 2nd floor, there's a great Greek restaurant downstairs, it takes me 15 minutes to bike to work … there are worse things!

The Dutch are experts at interior design that makes the most of every available centimeter – modular storage-come-seating, fold away tables, beds, wardrobes – anything to make living in a small box possible. Every home is an Ikea home basically – unless they're really wealthy, in which case their stuff often still looks like Ikea (because Ikea stuff is actually quite stylish) but costs 3 times as much. People either live a very modern minimalist existence with lots of white and hard edges, or a much more heavily knick-knacked cluttered, dark-wooded old-fashioned kind of life. Our home looks like a chlid's playpen – but I guess that goes with having a 4 year old.

We're coming into the rainy season now (virtually indistinguishable from the sunny season we supposedly just had) and the days are getting shorter. Initially I was amazed that it was still broad daylight at 10.30pm in the summer, now I'm amazed how little time it seems to have taken to get to a point where it's dark at 7pm. Soon it will be at 5pm. This might explain why the Dutch are so into lights. There are more light shops here than I've seen anywhere before – and really quite amazing lights. Biking or walking down a street when it's dark reveals the extent of this luminant passion – blazing chandeliers, delicate glowing filaments in bizarre patterns, works of art that happen to light up a place and subtle uplights – on show in every living room. Surprising though, for all this emphasis on lights, quite often the subtlety is taken too far – lighting is dimmed to the point where you can't see words on a page, all in the interests of some kind of bizarre chic. Well I don't get it – maybe it's the hick kiwi in me.

Our neighbour from NZ called the other day to say she wanted to build a deck, and quite possibly this would invade the privacy of our home – as she'd be able to see a piece of our house for the 10 minutes of a day that she used her deck. At one time this may have concerned me. But as I look now out each side of my apartment I can see quite clearly into the lives of about 30 other apartments – and they into mine. My concept of privacy has certainly changed. Let her build her deck, she can sit there in the howling southerly and I'll sit on my balcony in Amsterdam within spitting distance of the noisy English people who live behind us. Prost!

But when your bones ache, your eyes burn and your head feels ready to burst it doesn't really matter where you are – the flu's the flu and it's time to go to bed. So that's where I'm headed – tissues and lemsip for me. Consider this the first of an irregular series – how the other half (of the world) live – tell me if you want to hear more.