A notice was shoved through our mail slot, inviting all residents of our street to participate in a neighborhood beautification day. Google Translate really loses the idioms in Dutch, so it read something like “Now is the time to make nice the canal flowers. The town is willing to provide.” There was a date, time, and the mention of a nearby playground.
I nearly didn’t go. The language barrier is still intimidating, and I am so not my mother with plants. It might be better for Delft if I stayed away. But at 14:00 on a Wednesday, I took my gardening gloves and walked to the playground. A small boy greeted me, but when I spoke to him in English he looked confused and pointed toward his mother. I introduced myself and gave my address, and said I had come to help. The playground was full of seedlings and tools that the town had dropped off for the event, and a few people were picking up flowers and loading them into wheelbarrows. “How can I help?” I asked. People seemed perplexed by my question and indicated the flowers, saying I should simply select some and plant them. “Where?” I asked. Apparently this was a more free-form event than I had realized. “Near your home,” someone said.
But when it became evident that I was hopelessly confused, an older couple adopted me and let me tag along with them. We filled a wheelbarrow with plants and headed to one of the small patches of plantable ground that line the canal on our street.
The dirty spot (scene of my one-time attack by ants after the inaugural Haagse Markt visit) was overgrown with weeds and littered with trash, so I began piling rubbish. My companions spoke a little English, and I told them I spoke a little Dutch (if they would speak slowly), but in practice we didn’t talk much. The man would watch what I was doing and say: “So.” I had a hard time telling if this meant I was on or off track. From the pile of tools he pulled a bucket on a string—and proceeded to dunk it repeatedly in the canal to water the plants as we patted them into the ground. Genius, I thought, since with all the town homes and apartments, there aren’t a lot of garden hoses and sprinklers. We were joined by a woman who spoke excellent English, but the conversation soon drifted back into fast-paced Dutch.
We finished our square and by this point similar work was being done up and down the street. My new friend (the bucket-lowerer) asked me if I would like some flowers outside my door. I was unclear on what he meant, but he repeated the question several times, and finally I said yes. Of course I would like flowers outside my door. He disappeared into his house and returned with a hammer. We walked to my door, and to my utter surprise, he bent down and started prying bricks up out of the street (turns out there’s not much holding them). (Is this legal? I’m thinking.) After he’d removed enough bricks to make a small square, he took the hammer and began whacking the extricated bricks into smaller chunks, creating a border. (No going back!) About ten minutes later, I had a small garden.
“Now,” he said, “when someone asks where you live, you can say: ‘I live on the street with two flowers.'”