When the doorbell rang late Sunday afternoon, it took a moment to register in my brain.
Lounging lazily in the family room with my feet propped up on the coffee table and the Sunday Times Culture magazine section spread across my lap, I suddenly felt my shoulders tense and the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
‘Uh oh,’ I muttered under my breath as I tossed the newspaper aside and stood up. ‘D@mn…’
The Dutch rijtjeshuis we call home in the middle of our quiet, one-block street rarely gets all that many unexpected visitors.
If it’s midday during the week, the chime of the doorbell usually signifies a delivery package to be held for one of our neighbors; similarly, if it’s a weekday early evening, it’s likely someone collecting for the latest Dutch charitable foundation or overseas humanitarian crisis.
But a Sunday afternoon?
That could only mean one thing: Catarina was back.
Now many of you know Catarina as my darling nine-year old Dutch neighbor who has given me many wonderful moments in our 3+ years living here. I close my eyes and can see her wide smile, head cocked to the side and eyes squinting in the dappled sunlight weaving its way through the leafy coverage of our tree-lined street.
She always rushes to greet me, pulling on my arm while her Dutch words tumble out, telling me the latest in games, friends or school projects.
She is such a happy, easygoing child, unembarrassed to be seen talking to a middle-aged American woman. She is friendly and outgoing, and I love being pulled into her world, into the creative mind of a child.
My (adult) friend Nicky – yes, I do have friends my own age – always says that if she were reincarnated she would want to come back as a Dutch child, and I can see why. Catarina is a poster child for that belief.
As I explained in Learning the Language? Child’s Play, my intermediate language skills are well-suited to conversation at the 8-12 year old level. I understand most of the vocabulary, the sentence construction and verb tenses aren’t overwhelming, and they tend to speak at a pace reasonable enough that I can keep up.
But as I’ve written in the first two installments of this trilogy (An International Trade Rep’s Got Nothing on Her and Head of Delegation Written All Over Her), there is a darker, more sinister side to Catarina that has me shaking in my boots.
Is she mean? Of course not.
Rude? Perish the thought.
Demanding? Well, not really.
Let’s just say she is very persuasive, what with that sweet smile and the head tilt/squinty eyes/innocent face thing going on.
It’s just that she gets a little…
possessed caught up in the excitement of collecting and trading the promotional freebie of the moment.
Sort of like a junkie, desperate for the next hit, the next fix, the next score.
[Note to self: better lay off the late night crime shows...]
She’s always pleasant but politely insistent.
I can’t blame her: after all, there is much at stake. And with her entrepreneurial mind, the wheels are always spinning. This time the Albert Heijn giveaway features animal cards.
‘Ze zijn super dierenkaarten!’ she exclaimed breathlessly as I opened the door. Oh dear, no semblance of the usual pleasantries and polite greeting, just straight to the point.
This was serious. She was caught up in the thrill of the hunt, and she had it bad.
But that’s how we peeps roll, her just blurting out the treasure in the grocery store’s latest giveaway promotion, me instinctively understanding just how AMAZING super animal cards are without having a clue what they even look like.
She knows me. I’m her loyal lieutenant, someone she can depend on to come up with the goods. I’ve got her back.
‘Heeft u gedaan de boodschapen nog?’ she asked, eyes gleaming with excitement. ‘Moet u naar Albert Heijn?’
Patiently I explained that I’d done the grocery shopping the day before so no need for a trip to Albert Heijn. The crestfallen look on her face was like a knife in my heart.
‘Oke, misschien morgen?’
‘Ja, ik denk zo,’ I replied, making a mental note to be sure to go shopping the next day.
The famously furrowed brow softened slightly, and she turned away, tossing a heartfelt ‘Bedankt’ and a half-smile over her shoulder.
Catarina took two steps and suddenly swiveled around.
‘Vergeet niet om ze in de brievenbus!’ Her instructions to put any dierenkaarten immediately in the mail slot rang out as she ran off.
As if I could forget.
I know what I’m up against. She is a formidable presence, a force of nature.
Her obsession is nothing short of intimidating. The pressure is intense, the stress excruciating.
I couldn’t leave too much time between grocery trips or she’d be on my doorstep in a heartbeat. Sure, she’d inquire in that sweet voice of hers, but her disappointment if I failed her would sear into my soul.
As I slowly closed the door and headed back to the family room, an idea came to me.
No more amateurish attempts to duck behind cars to avoid her on the street or hide behind the curtains, quaking with fear, if I were remiss in my efforts to score the valuable trading cards.
Not because I am a grown woman, but because this time I would be prepared. I’d have a plan.
Since you receive one animal card for every 10 Euros spent on groceries, all I needed to do was ensure that I didn’t ‘leave money on the table’.
If my grocery tab looked like it would hit 16 Euros, I’d simply grab a bottle of wine to round it up to 20 Euros and nail a second kaartje.
Similarly, if the bill was headed toward 12 or 23 or 31 Euros, time to put back an item or two until the next visit.
More importantly, every afternoon I would place a card in Catarina’s mail slot.
By doling out the kaartjes one by one, I’d be covered even on days when I hadn’t shopped, and she would be none the wiser.
Flush with the confidence that comes with a well thought out plan of attack, I smiled. I was secure in the knowledge that I had resumed the upper hand in our relationship, or at least some semblance of balance.
That is, so long as she doesn’t find fault with the pace of my deliveries…