Last week I was visiting friends in Groningen (a city in the north of The Netherlands). They recently had their second child, and their house had changed as a result; red, blue and yellow plastic building blocks were scattered across the parquet flooring and all electric sockets had been covered with children safety locks. While my hosts were making coffee and changing nappies, I caught sight of a book called ‘Fiets’ by Charlotte Dematons, lying open on the side table.
I read the book twice and was sorry to put it away when my host walked in with coffee. Later that day, I went to a book store and bought the book, partly because the main characters had won my heart, but more so because an unsolved mystery kept going through my head. No matter how many times I read the book, I could not find out where it took place. It seemed to be set in The Netherlands, and yet somewhere else. Since ‘Fiets’ is a wordless illustrated book, there are no clues in the text either.
The story is about a teenager who lives in a country with countless bicycles – just like Holland. It begins with the teenager dressing up in a bear suit, and cycling towards a party – both typical Dutch things to do. He locks his bike to a lamp post, has fun at the party – which takes place in an avant garde gazebo with people in crocodile, monkey and unicorn suits – and returns to find his bike stolen; yet another Dutch scenario. The teenager is grief stricken, and gets a lift home from the crocodile.
The next day, the teenager arrives at his school. He still hasn’t recovered from the loss of his bike and he loiters in front of the school, leaning into a traffic sign, crying. This attracts the attention of his classmates, who appear to be half his size – another indication the story is set in The Netherlands, since Dutch are generally quite tall. Also, the delivery bicycles, two seater bicycles, bikes with cargo boxes and grandma bicycles in front of the school are what you would find in front of a typical Dutch school. In other words, it seems this story cannot be set anywhere but in The Netherlands.
But then, on page 19 or 21 – there are no page numbers, so this depends on where you start counting – the story switches to a place that has more undulation than the French Alps. So in spite of the bear suit, partying, cycling, bike theft, tall people, and delivery bikes, the story cannot be set in The Netherlands – which is pancake flat. Even the castle on top of the hills, which sports a Dutch flag, can’t alter that.
In the end, I am left to wonder about two things. First: if this beautiful place is not The Netherlands, then where is it? And second: if I can’t solve this mystery, how are the children of my friends in Groningen supposed to?