Back home in Maastricht after 40 years abroad
April 2, 2011 11 Comments
It was a mild day in mid-October in 2010 when I was waiting in line in a supermarket at Plein 1992. I was buying a flower, and heard a voice behind me: “Mooie bloem!” I knew the Dutch woords “mooi” and “bloem”, but I didn’t know how to answer back. So I turned around and replied in English: “Thank you. I don’t really speak Dutch”.
The good looking old lady standing behind me continued: “Don’t worry. I just moved back here from Florida. My husband died of cancer last year, and I decided to come back here after spending 40 years abroad.”
I asked her if we could meet for coffee one day because I wanted to hear the story of her life. She said yes. That’s how my friendship with Marlene began.
From Maastricht to New York
Marlene Maka was born in Heerlen on the 25th of January 1935. (Should I mention that I was born on the same day 49 years later?)
Marlene was born in Heerlen
In 1970, after living 35 years in Maastricht, Marlene’s husband Matt announced one evening that he could get a job for Lufthansa at Kennedy Airport in New York. She told him: “Let’s go, because we’re young and if we don’t like it, we can always come back.”
A few days later, they were flying to New York. With Matt working all day, Marlene had plenty of time to get acquainted with New York by foot. One day she was having coffee and cake at the German restaurant “Café Geiger” in Manhattan when the manager asked if she wanted to work there. Located in the heart of Yorkville, Manhattan, at walking distance from Lexington Subway station, “Café Geiger” was best known for its continental atmosphere. Marlene worked there as a waitress from March 1970 to May 1985, until the building hosting the restaurant was sold.
Marlene as a child
She waited on celebrities such as Dustin Hoffmann, Lee Remick, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters or Telly Savalas. “In New York, when somebody orders a Beefeater on the rocks, they mean the name of a drink. In the Netherlands, we simply say a gin and tonic. This was the hardest thing for me, but it was also a good experience because that is how I started picking up English”, she remembers with a smile.
Marlene in the 1950s
Matt’s job at Lufthansa led them to travel the world. Marlene’s stories about Alaska, Japan, Hong-Kong, Thailand, Curaçao, Peru, or Ecuador still echo in my mind. Her favourite trip was to Japan, because it was “so organised, safe and very clean.”
Marlene modeling for C&A
In 1994 Matt took early retirement and the couple moved to Florida, where houses are less expensive and the climate healthier than in New York.
Marlene’s husband Matt Maka
Marlene and her husband were enjoying a typical retiree life when fate struck. In 2008 Matt was diagnosed with cancer. His condition came as a shock because he was a healthy middle aged man, and he passed away within a few months, Marlene was suddenly left with many uncertainties. Should she keep on living in Florida? Or should she move back to Europe? It took her about 14 months to decide, but after an unsettling experience with a stalker who started harassing her, she finally put her house up for sale and moved back to her native Netherlands.
Coming back home
The move back to Maastricht proved tougher than she had expected. Even if she and Matt paid yearly visits to their extended family in Limburg, it is only when she started living here again that Marlene noticed all the changes that had taken place. “Things used to be easier before. I had so many problems to open a bank account and registering at the city hall,” she explains.
Marlene stands by her decision: “Wherever you live, even if you have the best life, you always feel an urge to go back home. It’s funny. André Rieu travels the world, but there’s only one place he always needs to come back to – Maastricht. And that’s true for me as well.”
Marlene celebrates the Indian Republic Day with Narendra Kumar,
President of the Indian Student Association Maastricht, January 2011
I visit Marlene on Saturdays, I take her out for coffee and cake, we cook together, she tells me war stories from the time she was a child and the Netherlands was occupied by Germany. We discover and rediscover Maastricht together. She listens to me when I am having a rough day or when I miss home. She gives me hope that love doesn’t happen just in movies. She hugs me as if she could sense when I need to be hugged, she makes the tastiest coffee in the world, and her eyes always smile at me. “Look,” she says, “what can we do, we have to go through good times and not so good times.”
Why does Marlene fascinate me? Maybe because there is always something new to find out about her, fun facts like the time she broke a pipe smoking record in the 1960s in a male dominated competition. Maybe it’s because she’s an Aquarius, just like me. Maybe because when I look at her black and white photographs and listen to her memories, it almost feels as if I am seeing myself. Marlene used to fix scooters and I used to fix bikes. This is just one of the many coincidences that bridge our lives.
Marlene repairing scooters at a gas station in the 1950s
Marlene is the closest person I have to family here in the Netherlands. It’s a wonderful miracle that we have met, and even if I have known her for less than a year, I don’t know what I would do without her.
By Catalina Goanta
Dedicated to Marlene Maka, my 76 year old friend.