Our day in Leiden actually started in Zoetermeer. Seeking to visit a temple in the small city, we bought train tickets that would take us from Amsterdam to the small town early in the morning. Our goal was to continue south after the temple service from Zoetermeer to Den Haag, where Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is displayed in the Maurithuis museum. Completely unfamiliar with Dutch railways, I planned to buy our tickets to Den Haag at the station in Zoetermeer but we arrived at a station with no counters to do so and, as we left the temple, we were at a complete loss to find a stand, machine, or anything that distributed tickets. That’s where Maneer Groot came in.
He was sitting on a bench, pleasantly observing passers-by, apparently with no other occupation, and my mother, in her limited Dutch, asked him for directions. He eagerly began giving her instructions in rough and guttural articulations that were difficult for my mother to understand. After a few moments’ incomprehension, he just shrugged and motioned for us to follow him over to the station. To cut a long story short, he led us all through Zoetermeer and we ended up on a bus that took us to a larger station in Leiden where we could catch a train to Den Haag. By the time we arrived in Leiden we were so turned around and caught up in the confusion and spontaneity of our day that we threw our hands in the air and decided to stay in Leiden, whose streets were alive with a festival put on by the University there.
I would never have thought to visit Leiden on my own, but I’m glad I ended up there. It has a distinct charm that remains unspoiled by droves of tourists. When we walked into stores, the workers greeted us in Dutch (as opposed to those in Amsterdam who habitually spoke to customers in English) and even when pressed, many of the workers there could only communicate in basic English phrases. I preferred it, really, to the artificially tourist-friendly environment in Amsterdam. For the first time during our trip, I felt like I was truly among the Dutch in the Netherlands.