Ik spreek een beetje Nederlands

Yes, friends, you read that right: I speak a little bit of Dutch.

Last week marked the end of our first Dutch course. We did a 5-week program that met twice a week for 2.5 hours per class. I’m not going to lie: it was a lot. And when you add in a full-time job and a few social activities and just your basic life administration stuff  (you know, like managing to eat dinner before class), that doesn’t leave much time for focused language learning. Still, we both passed Level 1, and we’ve gotten a good foundation in what is said to be “the second hardest language in the world”. Oddly, no one seems to know what the first hardest is…

It has been a long time since I attempted to learn something as an absolute beginner. When I started studying French more seriously a few years ago, I had my high-school French and a little Haitian Creole and some intermittent private study to fall back on. My conjugations were bad but there were words and rules rattling around my head – they just needed to be dusted off and re-ordered and put to work.

With Dutch, I was literally starting at zero. Dutch pronunciation is difficult. The “g” makes a phlegmy, throaty sound we don’t have in English. The “ui” combination is said like the “o” in “out”, and those double vowels, in words like “stroopwaffel”, don’t get pronounced the way you think they do. The words are difficult and try as I might, I just couldn’t commit them to memory. It took me weeks to remember the word for please. (If you’re interested, it’s “alstublieft”.) I had to keep reminding myself that I actually LIKE languages and that I’m pretty good at them. My performance in class did not reflect that.

Midway through the course we had a weekend field trip, in which we did a scavenger hunt. Finding answers to questions about the meaning of Dutch expressions forced us to talk to (gasp!) actual Dutch people! And I found that all of the Dutch words I spoke that day I remembered days later. Once I said them out loud, I owned them. They were just, boom, in my head.

It was an important reminder about the different ways we learn, and how I need to diversify the approaches I take to language learning. The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been studying French for several years, shared this thought about managing emotional health when it comes to intellectual challenges,

Part of that long-term management—beyond French—is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

Well, I guess I was due for that feeling of “sucking at something”. I haven’t yet gotten to the “improving at it” part, but since I’m just at the start of the process of Nederlands leren, I’m hoping that will come, someday.

“Pretty pictures will distract them…” she thinks.

Well. I have been a very unreliable blogger. It’s been over two weeks since I last wrote, and almost that long since I thought about writing. Honestly, sometimes I forget I have this blog. Whoops.

The past few weeks have included some very busy days at work, visitors passing through Amsterdam, the end of our first Dutch class (we both passed Level 1), and a wonderful, delicious trip to Italy to meet up with friends from the U.S. And to top it off, I just confirmed a trip back to Boston and New York in early June.  Life is full. Too full, in fact, for me to try to get a handle on it and write something sensible. So instead I’ll share some photos of our recent travels, in and around Amsterdam and Italy. Enjoy…and more to come.

At the Matisse exhibit

At the Matisse exhibit, Stedilijk Museum

Amsterdam Biblioteek - the view from the terrace.

Amsterdam Biblioteek – the view from the terrace.

Sienna, Italy

Sienna, Italy

Sienna, Italy

Sienna, Italy

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena

Leaving Montalcino

Leaving Montalcino

I shouldn't need to caption this one, right?

St. Peter's Square, Rome

St. Peter’s Square, Rome

Celebrating history

I heard it said once that if you want to know what is important to someone, look at their checkbook and their calendar. (These days, I guess you’d have to look at their mobile banking app and iCal.)

I can’t speak to how the Dutch spend their money, but I can say that their calendars are filled with holidays, especially in the coming weeks. Today is a national holiday, Liberation Day, commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II. Yesterday was Remembrance Day, and we joined thousands of others last night in Dam Square to watch the King and Queen lay wreaths at the National Monument. Our beginner-level Dutch didn’t let us to follow the nuances of the speeches, but sadly there are some phrases – kindertransport, concentratiekamp – that can be understood across any language.

It is a powerful thing to join strangers in two minutes of silence – a silence which was full and deep, despite the size of the crowd and our location in the center of the city. I was aware that my thoughts in those moments were likely quite different from those around me. A great-uncle of mine was killed in the war, his transport plane crashing in North Africa. Still, I know that the American experience of war, and especially of World War II, is far different from the European experience. The deprivation, the danger, and the loss are still in the memories of people here. Colleagues of mine in their early thirties know well their grandparents’ stories of the Hunger Winter. Holocaust memorials can be found throughout Amsterdam, and take on additional significance in light of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and attacks on synagogues and Jewish community centers in recent years.

I don’t pretend to know enough about Dutch history or culture or politics to have fully-formed opinions about how they both commemorate their past and address the current challenges. But last night, watching the ceremony and listening to the music, I felt a seriousness – a reverence – from the crowd that had gathered. Whatever their collective understanding of their country may be, they clearly understood the need to stop, to reflect, and to honor those lives that were lost.

Today, Liberation Day, has a slightly different tone, and will be marked by many events, including a musical festival, community dinners, and a concert on the Amstel River. If the Dutch recognize that there is time for reflection, they also know that there is a time for celebration.

Abraham and Sarah?

File this under “Strange Things Dutch People Do”. One of my colleagues is turning 50 tomorrow, and in addition to saying “gefeliciteerd” to her and congratulating everyone she knows, we will also be surprising her with a Sarah doll.


Apparently when someone turns 50 here in the Netherlands, they are given an Abraham doll (for men) or a Sarah (for women). I can only assume this is a Biblical reference to the advanced age of our religious forebearers Abram and Sarai.

Tomorrow is the actual birthday, and my colleague will bring in cake or sweets for everyone in the office. Yes, on your birthday, YOU are responsible for providing the cake. And I’m told that in my office the standards are quite high: you can bring in a store-bought cake if you must, but you will be judged for it. Homemade is the way to go.

I suppose every expat has a list of the strange, seemingly inexplicable traditions and habits they encounter in their new culture. The only thing more fun than commiserating with other expats about these, umm…unique Dutch characteristics is discussing them with the Dutch themselves. People are either completely unaware of the behavior in question, or they are experts, who will then offer differing (and contradicting) opinions of the origin and meaning of the behavior. I’ve sparked a few lively debates by asking a seemingly innocent question.

The unexpected benefit to uncovering things about my host culture is that it also calls into question my own culture, and makes me think more critically about elements of American life that I would normally take for granted. That is a benefit of any travel, but living and working abroad lets you see a bit more of what really goes on behind the curtains. That is, if the Dutch believed in having curtains.

So tomorrow we’ll eat cake at a ridiculously early hour and I’ll get to practice that rough Dutch “g” sound in “gefeliciteerd”, and maybe I’ll learn a little more about Sarah. I’ll be sure to report back if I do…