He speaks no English. I speak no Turkish. We talk in Dutch.
Ever since I moved to this street five years ago, every time I've brought in a pair of shoes to be repaired, I've spent 20 minutes or more in his shop. Sometimes other neighbors are there, drinking tea with his wife behind the counter. He wears Western clothes, but his wife does not. They have been in love since they were children, they told me once. They came to Holland in 1979.
We talk. In the beginning, it was about little things. His Dutch is better than mine, but his accent is thicker.
Then once he asked about my last name. I said my grandfather had come to America from Lithuania, but I'd found a great many Esmans in Holland. "Lithuania and Turkey have a history together," he said. "You are Jewish?" And he began to trace for me the history of war and friendship between Turkey and Russia, Turkey and Austro-Hungary, Turkey and the Jews.
His wife said, "He's always reading about history. At night, I can't get his head out of the books. Other women's husbands watch TV. All he ever does is read." She throws up her hands but he smiles at me, and I smile back. We come from such different worlds, and yet we come perhaps from the same history.
Our neighborhood is small and compact. There's a flower stall and a supermarket at the corner, a greengrocer down the block, and two bakeries between a dry cleaner's, a cheese shop, and a newsstand. Whenever his wife sees me in these stores, she smiles and says hello.
Growing up in New York, I had a next-door neighbor whose mother was Swedish and father, Danish. They spoke English, Swedish, and Danish at home. It was as if they had a secret language, special words and communications that bound them together. I envied that. But they were family. The shopkeeper and I are strangers. We are from, if not warring countries, warring religions.
When I returned to Amsterdam after Sept. 11, the cobbler and his wife were the first people I saw. I was afraid: What would I say to them, or they to me?
What they said was what anyone would say: They were shocked, saddened. He thought it was all about oil a theory that, on Sept. 18, had not had much play. But I smiled a little too hard at him. I tried a little too hard. I was trying to tell them that "I really do not hate you. Really." As if I needed to say it at all.
In New York, a Greek waiter takes an order from a Frenchwoman, a Chinese deli man wraps a bagel for a Puerto Rican guy and his Ecuadorean girlfriend. A Jewish butcher packs chopped liver onto rye for a Pakistani cab driver. All of them speak to one another in English.
Living here, I've found that conversations in Dutch with other non-native Dutch speakers bring me close to them in a way I am not when I speak Dutch to the Dutch.
What we non-native Dutch speakers are saying to each other is: "I am not Dutch; you are not Dutch. Isn't it wonderful that we are both here, sharing this language?"
When he is on his side of the counter and I am on the other, I show my Turkish friend my shoes. His hands follow mine along the lines of the sole, the curves of the leather. We hold them together, and then I pass the shoes to him. He will fix them well, and pass them back to me. He is on his side of the counter, I am on mine. But the shoes, our hands, our words, meet in the middle.