TITLE: Chapter 1 of "Something not quite right" - A true story of dealing with mental illness and God’s healing
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CHAPTER 1 The train to Paris
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1980
It was six in the morning and not my favourite time to be awake. I was mighty glad I had made it to Central Station and plonked down in a seat in the train carriage that was going to take me to Paris. In Rotterdam, my friend Tom would join me and the plan was to hitch-hike from Paris to the Dordogne in the south-east of France to do some work on my dad’s holiday house. After a whole night’s party and I don’t know how many beers, I had arrived home at four in the morning and desperately tried not to fall asleep. I had cycled to Central station and I still felt quite drunk. Now I had made it to the train and started to relax. I could go to sleep and if I didn’t wake up in Rotterdam, I was sure Tom would find me.
Behind me, some people spoke in German. It jolted me because I thought I was in the wrong train. I had noticed that there were two trains waiting back-to-back on the platform. One had a sign that said Frankfurt, Germany on it and the other one Paris, France. “Was I in the wrong train? I knew I was in the last carriage but had I stepped onto the German train in my drunken state? I better get up and check.” With difficulty, I got out of the comfortable seat, took my bag and walked out of the carriage. When I was standing in front of the sign Paris, France, I noticed I was still swaying somewhat; my legs were unstable. I heard a female voice behind me, asking: “Excuse me, is this the train to Paris?” I said: “I think so” and turned around to see who was talking to me. It was a young lady, probably approximately my age. She was very well-dressed, had long blond hair and make-up on. She looked very fresh compared to me who had been up all night and hadn’t had a shower for more than a few days. I suddenly felt unclean, something that never normally bothered me. As a student living in a room on the fourth floor with no shower, hygiene was not high on my list of priorities.
“Are you going to Paris?” I asked and she said she was. “Where are you from?” I asked her because I didn’t recognise her accent immediately. I could hear she was not British and not American and obviously not Dutch, since she started the conversation in English. But it wasn’t clear to me where she was from. “I’m Australian.” She stepped into the carriage and started walking along the aisle to find a place. I was following her, wondering whether I should sit next to her. Would that be too pushy? She didn’t really look like my type anyway, way too sophisticated and not like the unkempt female university students in Amsterdam, I was used to. Then I heard a clear voice in my head saying: “You are going to Australia with this woman.” It was almost audible and I looked around to see if anyone else had heard it but no one looked surprised. The girl suddenly turned around, stuck out her hand and said: “My name is Jenny Penning.” We shook hands and I introduced myself. “Are you from here?” “Yes, I am Dutch and I live here in Amsterdam. I am a student.” The conversation had started and it was easy to continue. It probably would have been rude not to sit next to her, so I did.
Tom joined us in Rotterdam and we talked for five hours, mostly in Dutch, because Jenny said she wanted to learn the language. It was years afterwards when Jenny told me she only understood about 10 percent of the conversation but was just happy to be laughing with us. We were joking about Australia, the funny accent, the lack of culture and, of course, the kangaroos.
When we arrived in Paris, we said goodbye. She was hoping for an invitation to join us but I never asked her. I thought it would be too difficult to hitch-hike with three people and I wasn’t really sure how I felt about this girl anyway. It was clear she was not my type, not intellectual enough, and I couldn’t imagine she would be interested in me. I also thought that she would like Tom more than me because that is what usually happened with girls we met. They would usually fall for Tom. He was a bit shorter than me and much better built. He had blond hair and blue eyes and was a very sensitive guy. I felt somewhat inferior next to him, since I was 1.92 and very skinny. My dark hair and greenish eyes were also nothing special. On top of that, I was normally very shy, except when I had a reasonable amount of alcohol in me.
The only thing I thought was in my favour was that Jenny also lived in Amsterdam and I invited her to a party at my house when I got back in two weeks. When we said goodbye she looked lost and sad but I had no time to worry about that because we had a long way to go and first had to find our way out of Paris.
When we were working in my dad’s house, I slowly started to realize that I was falling in love. There was a pop song playing on the radio in Holland called ”Falling in love with Jenny” and although I couldn’t stand the song, it kept coming up in my mind and I found myself singing it aloud while I was working. Tom caught me a number of times singing and thought it was hilarious. He told me he had no interest in the girl and I was surprised to feel a great relief when he told me. This was all very strange. How could I be interested in a girl who was not a student and was not a rational, analytical thinker? My head and my heart gave me completely opposite signals. However, in the end, I just enjoyed the feeling of falling in love because it had been a long time and I thought I’d sort it out when I’d meet her again. I had forgotten about the voice in my head.
When I picked Jenny up for the party two weeks later, I was extremely nervous. By then she had become a fascinating, highly intelligent super-woman in my mind and I was concerned that I would not fit her expectations of a boy-friend. In addition, I was worried that the picture in my mind was utter fantasy and that she would be a great disappointment. The only thing that gave me some confidence was the fact that she had laughed a lot at my jokes. I knocked on the door of a small apartment on the third floor where she was staying with her aunt and uncle. We had some quick introductions and we left. She still looked very fresh to me and I was glad I had had a shower and a shave and looked more presentable this time. It struck me that night that she was certainly not the superwoman of my imagination, but she was very down-to-earth and uncomplicated. However, this was somehow refreshing. It was also obvious that she was a pretty quiet person and the conversation was somewhat one-sided. After a few beers, it was always easier for me to talk, but I had decided not to get drunk. I didn’t want her to think that that is how I usually was and that I could only function socially with alcohol in me.
The silence was somewhat awkward at times and I left her a few times on her own pretending to have to attend to something to keep the party going. I still wasn’t sure what I was doing with this girl, but there was some strange attraction, in a way I had never experienced before. Her simplicity and unpretentious attitude was disarming and quite sexy. All previous girlfriends had been intellectuals and I had always built friendships with girls first before falling in love. The intellectual discussions would turn me on and suddenly I’d see beauty in women that were not very attractive at first sight.
With Jenny, it was different. She was fairly plain, except for her beautiful blue eyes. Although I didn’t feel physically attracted to her, half-way through the evening I gave her a kiss. When I took her home in my old car, we kissed for a while before saying goodbye. It felt really good and I had a feeling that this was going to be an unusual relationship.
In the following few weeks, we saw each other almost every day. We went for long walks in different places and talked. She told me about her life and family in Australia and I told her about my life. We were both surprised that we got on so well, because we were so different. We had very different backgrounds and were used to very different kinds of friends. I was an intellectual who loved studying and discussing issues, whereas Jenny was from a working class family, had left school at fifteen and had worked ever since. At the age of twenty-three, she had decided to leave Australia and fly to Holland to see where her parents had come from. They were originally Dutch and had migrated to Australia in the early fifties.
In Sydney, Jenny had friends who were much older than her. She was used to going out with guys who were in their late twenties or early thirties and found people of her own age in Australia usually too immature. She was surprised at the depth of conversation she could have with me. She was also surprised at the fact that I was not in a hurry to sleep with her; guys in Australia were always in a rush, she said.
We really enjoyed each others’ company in those few weeks, but the bad news was that I had to go to the UK for the next seven weeks. I was booked into a study programme with the Wycliffe Bible Translators to learn about field-linguistics. I considered canceling the course but it had taken a friend of mine and me a long time to convince our professor at the University of Amsterdam that this was a good course and would complement our linguistics master’s degree. Jenny became very quiet and gloomy when I told her this. To my surprise, I also felt sad at the thought that I wouldn’t see her for all that time, so I suggested she would come to England to visit me. She was keen. She would take a week or two off and come to the UK. This was perfect as she had come to Holland to travel around Europe anyway.
A few weeks later I was in High Wycombe, halfway between London and Oxford.
It was a quiet, little town in the hills and the slopes were full of wild flowers at this time of year. The course was run in an old army camp and the accommodation was fairly simple. It was not my idea of a good time to be in the middle of a camp, full of Christians who were eager to learn about linguistics and foreign languages so they could be sent out as missionaries and translate the Bible. At the time I was not a Christian. In fact I was extremely anti-Christian and I considered myself an atheist. There was quite a mix of people in the group – from very pleasant and accepting to very pushy Bible bashers. My friend and I were told that we had not really been alive, because we didn’t know Christ. That didn’t make any sense to me. At night, we escaped to the Studley Arms, a beautiful, old English pub which happened to be right opposite the army camp.
When Jenny arrived, I was settled into a routine of study and other camp duties, but was happy to get out and see her. We found a nice bed-and-breakfast in town and stayed there for a week. Every morning we had English breakfasts in the dining room which had a view over the hills. One morning the landlady knocked on our door early and urged us to come and have breakfast. When we asked why, we were told that Prince Charles and Diana were going to be married that day and that she really didn’t want to miss a minute of it. We went out that day to explore the surroundings and ended up sitting on a hillside in a most beautiful spot in the afternoon sun. The view was stunning – rolling hills full of coloured flowers waving in a gentle breeze. I was sitting behind Jenny and put my arms around her. I was happy to just sit there quietly and enjoy the memory of a perfect day together, when I noticed that she had a very sad expression on her face. “What’s the matter?” She said that she suddenly felt really low for no reason. She probably missed her family. I couldn’t really understand this. First of all, why would you miss your family? And secondly, how could you feel low, while you were in such a beautiful place and after such a great day together? Did she have enough of me? Did she suddenly realize it wasn’t going to work for her? I was bewildered for the first time.
The next day Jenny was her normal cheerful self and we didn’t discuss what had happened the previous day. We had a great week together and enjoyed each others’ company. At the end of the week we said goodbye and she returned to Holland and back to work. Five weeks later I went back home myself. Lying on the deck of the ferry over the English Channel, soaking up the sun, I felt tremendously relieved to be out of the army camp and away from those Christians. I just couldn’t understand them and their beliefs. I would have laughed if someone had told me then that I was going to be a born-again Christian myself one day.
When I arrived in Amsterdam, I went straight to Jenny’s house. I was so looking forward to seeing her again. She had been this completely new breeze in my life because she was different from any person I had ever met and I was now really in love with her. We had been writing letters to each other over the time we were separated and they had turned into traditional love letters. We had really missed each other and had been very frank about it in our writing. She had also changed her accommodation. When government housing is being renovated, the city of Amsterdam provides the local residents with temporary accommodation in the form of relocatable cabins. A friend of hers had found some that were no longer in use. It was common in those days to just break into one of these cabins, claim it as your new home and rock up at the Department of Housing and pay a nominal rent. So they did. These cabins were fitted out with all the comforts – a bathroom, kitchen and two small bedrooms. It also had a big gas heater in it. It was luxury compared to my student room.
When I knocked on the door, I expected Jenny to be extremely happy to see me. Instead, she seemed in a bad mood. She had been expecting me much earlier in the day and had been waiting for hours and hours. It took some time to reconnect with her, but soon we were back where we had left off in the UK.
The next year and a half Jenny and I became inseparable. I couldn’t stand being away from her for more than one day. There was such a strong pull to be together and we had both accepted that we were supposed to be together despite our big differences in personality and background. We went on holidays together and we decided she would give up her cabin to save the rent money. Although we didn’t discuss it, we both knew that she would have to move in with me when we returned from the holidays. And so we started living together.
My room was quite large for Dutch standards, but had only one tiny window that looked out onto De Lairessestraat, a main street through the old southern part of Amsterdam. One day I found Jenny standing quietly staring out of the window. I asked if she was ok. Without turning to me, she asked “How can you live in this place?” I didn’t understand the question. I had lived in many rooms in Amsterdam and this was the best one. It was spacious and it had some nice antique furniture in it. I had some good friends living on the same floor and the floor beneath, so I was very happy there and, in fact, quite proud of my abode. “What do you mean?” “Look! There is hardly any light. When you look outside, you only see multi-story houses and no blue sky. It’s so depressing. Come and look.” I walked over to the window and although I was looking at the same view as her, I could not see what she saw. She told me about the vast blue skies in Australia and the endless sunshine, the outdoor life and the enormous space in this almost empty country.
Jenny grew more and more restless in Amsterdam and became homesick. We decided she would go back to Australia for a short time. I was hoping that she just needed to see her family and old friends, realize that nothing had changed there and she would come back to Holland with her mind at ease. She agreed and organised her flight back. I had no money to join her at that time and was still very busy with my study and a part-time job I had. So Jenny left and I was on my own again. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to see her again.
A week later, my neighbour from downstairs woke me up at 2.30 in the morning. “Jenny is on the phone.” I ran downstairs and still half asleep picked up the receiver. “Do you still love me?” “What? Are you ringing me in the middle of the night for this?” “Yes, sorry, but I need to know now.” Her voice sounded urgent and nervous. “Yes, I do,” I said not too convincingly. I wasn’t sure whether this was real or whether I was dreaming. “Why do you need to know that now? What’s going on?” She told me that she had met her old boyfriend in Australia and he had asked her to marry him. He had never stopped loving her and wanted to settle down with her. I gathered from the conversation that he was in many respects the opposite of me - he was about 10 years older, was a psychologist and had a Porsche. I asked her what she wanted to do. I was not the type to push her in any direction. I strongly believed that people should be free to make their own choices and if she felt strongly about it, it was up to her. “I don’t know. I need to know that you love me and you want me to come back.” I hated this situation. I didn’t want to make a decision for her, because I was not a hundred percent clear about my own feelings. My mind was frantic. I wasn’t even properly awake and I had to make a major decision about my life. What to do? We talked for a while longer and my mind flashed to the future – a future without Jenny. Imagine I would never see her again. I would not know what would happen to her. I would never kiss her again, hold her in my arms and smell her hair. It looked empty and dreary. I told her that I wanted her to come back. She sounded relieved. Before she hung up the phone, she promised to book a flight back as soon as possible.
When we met at the airport, Jenny looked quite different. She had lost many kilos and looked quite skinny. She had tears in her eyes when she saw me. We touched hands through the glass and, when she came through the gate, we hugged for a long time. She told me she always stopped eating when she was nervous.
“You were right. Nothing had changed in Australia and although it was good to see everyone, I wanted to come back here. And by the way they didn’t like my new spiky hairstyle at all. They were shocked to see me like that.” In the following months we grew closer and started talking seriously about migrating to Australia.
The summer was approaching and we started to plan a trip. Jen wanted to see Europe and I suggested to cycle. It took a bit of convincing her but we finally decided to buy bicycles, put them on the train to Vienna and follow the river Danube through Hungary into Yugoslavia. After that, we would take the train to Istanbul and cycle into Turkey. Everything went according to plan and we were having the time of our lives. Riding a bike everyday made us fit and strong and many people approached us in a very positive way. With all the sunshine Jenny’s hair became blonder and her skin bronzed. Many times I looked at her during those weeks and considered myself so lucky that a beautiful woman like her would even be interested in me. I fell madly in love with her. When we arrived in Istanbul, I wasn’t the only one looking. Istanbul was a male-dominated city. In fact, we didn’t see any women on the streets at all. We were walking around in shorts and Jen was wearing a loose t-shirt. This attracted way too much attention for my liking. At some stage I looked around and saw about a hundred heads turned eying Jenny. It all of a sudden hit me how naďve it was to walk around in a Muslim country with a beautiful blonde woman in shorts. I gently pulled Jen to the side and said: “We’re going to get you some clothes.” We bought some long pants and a top that covered her figure a little and we continued exploring the city. After six weeks we arrived back in Amsterdam and started thinking about leaving Holland for good.
After numerous phone calls and letters with Australia House in The Hague that authorizes all immigration to Australia, it was clear that the only way I was going to get a permanent resident visa was if we got married. This was not an easy decision, of course. Neither of us was in a hurry to get married and we both still felt a bit young at 24 for such a major commitment. My proposal was decidedly unromantic: “So shall we get married then?”
“Well, if you want to go back to Australia and I want to go there too, and we want to stay together, then we have no choice. We want to stay together, right?”
“Yes, we do. We can always try and if it doesn’t work out in the end, we can go our own way.” So it was decided. We put in all the paperwork to Australia House and waited. We wanted to have our wedding in Australia on a beach with a marriage celebrant. This was explained to Australia House in a letter and we had asked for confirmation that this was acceptable. We heard nothing. When the airplane tickets arrived, I decided to contact Australia House to make sure all was well. They checked our file and told me that we needed a letter from a celebrant stating the date and place of the wedding. We didn’t know any celebrants and we only had six weeks before we were due to fly out. What now? It all seemed so rushed. We rang the marriage registry. There was only one space available on the twenty-first of December. We booked it. We didn’t want a big wedding; we just needed the piece of paper to get a visa.
On the twenty-first of December 1982, I dressed up in my best clothes and Jenny in her new winter dress and we left for our wedding on my pushbike. Jenny was sitting on the back. We had thick coats on because it was cold outside. Fortunately, it wasn’t raining. I cycled through the Vondel Park and then into the inner city along its beautiful canals. The trip to the registry office was not at all how we had imagined to get married but we both thought it was very romantic and enjoyed the fact that it was unconventional. We laughed a lot along the way, because we were feeling so happy.
We met our two witnesses, Tom and Jenny’s friend who helped her squat the cabin, in front of the building, took some photos and went in. We were married by a black lady and signed the papers. Straight after we left for The Hague to hand in our marriage certificate to Australia House. It took them less than five minutes to hand me my passport with my resident visa. I couldn’t believe it. We celebrated with a few drinks and a meal with Tom and his girlfriend in Rotterdam.
Four weeks later, I said goodbye to my family and friends and we left for Australia.
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