Happy Thanksgiving, America

It is a clear, crisp November morning. Sunny, for now, though it’s early and clouds are inevitable. In a few hours most of the east coast of America will wake up and, groggy, pop a turkey in the oven and start preparing that most American of meals, Thanksgiving Dinner.

In Amsterdam, it is an ordinary Thursday morning. The minds of the Dutch – children especially – are focused on Sinterklaas and December 5th.

And so we make our own holiday this year. No attempts to find or buy a turkey, no “orphan dinner” with other expats, no pumpkin pie, no Macy’s parade. Instead, we’ll be heading to the airport and hopping a flight to Malta. No real reason to go to Malta, except that it’s there, it’s close, and it’s warmer than Amsterdam. We’ll spend Thanksgiving wandering around a place we’ve never been, together. We’ll have dinner at a brasserie. Or maybe Italian. Tomorrow we will be more adventurous and spend a day at the Maltese Falconry Center. Black Friday indeed.

Wherever you are today, wherever this finds you, and whatever you’re celebrating, may it be a wonderful day. If you can read this, if you are somewhere warm and dry, if there’s food in the fridge and some money in the bank, if friends or family are within reach, then there is reason for gratitude and thanksgiving.  Today. Every day.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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Mother tongue

I live in a place where I don’t speak the language, at least not beyond the basics. I live comfortably and easily here because almost everyone speaks English. Still, as the months pass, I’m increasingly aware of my deficiencies in Dutch. The introductory class we took back in April is a distant memory, so I decided that it was time to get back into some kind of language study. A free 3-week on-line class seemed like the right way to ease back into things. And then, in the middle of week two, I also resumed weekly French lessons with a tutor, after a break of about 8 months. Two foreign languages. Same time.

I had originally stopped my French lessons when I started the Dutch class, convinced that if I attempted to study two languages simultaneously, my head would explode. This time around, I had a different theory. I thought that learning two languages night somehow crack wide open the language center in my brain, and rules and grammar and structure would suddenly all make sense. In short, I hoped that my head would explode.


 

I am fascinated by bilingual or multilingual people. I always want to know when and why people code-switch, or what language they use at home, or what language they dream in. In my eyes, you polyglots basically have super powers. (You’re smarter than the rest of us! You could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease!)

In reality, I know that language acquisition is actually something that mere mortals can do. It’s likely that my French will never be fluent or un-accented, since I’ve acquired it as an adult. But it can be good. It can certainly be better, if I’m willing to put in the work.

And the other truth is that we’re all multilingual, even within the confines of our mother tongue.

If you speak English, if you have ever been to a ballet or seen an alligator. If you’ve ever talked about your angst or ennui, played a guitar, smoked marijuana, sipped champagne on a yacht or studied algebra in the boondocks, you have already been speaking the language of the other.

-Ana Menéndez, “Are We Different People in Different Languages?”

My current language-learning hero is writer Lydia Davis. While I have yet to read her work, I read an interview in which she discusses both the reasoning and the process of teaching herself Norwegian. Davis says:

“It all started with a resolution. After my books started coming out in various countries, I made a decision: Any language or culture that translates my work, I want to repay by translating something from that language into English, no matter how small. It might end up being just one poem or one story, but I would always translate something in return.”

Imagine: to invest the time and labor of teaching oneself another language – and doing so well enough to make a faithful translation –  as a way to return the gift of your own translator. The curiosity, respect, and playfulness that Davis brings to her learning is inspiring. She is a language detective, a decoder. And she is a reminder to me of the rich rewards that come from study and exploration of a language not (yet) our own.

Few words, less wisdom

Once again, I’ve been absent for a bit…nearly 3 weeks, according to the helpful stats provided by this site. The time seems to pass more quickly now, as it always does this time of year. Maybe it’s the shorter days and the lack of daylight.

That’s not to say the time hasn’t been full. We had a wonderful and long-awaited visit from my sister and brother in law last week. Although, as I’ve done with other guests, I struggled with my desire to give them a “perfect” visit. I want people to have fun, to see the city as I do, to experience some off-the-beaten-path secrets of Amsterdam. I don’t want anyone to leave with regrets, things unseen. And so I probably err on the side of over-scheduling, and end up running my guests ragged, when they would be just as happy to sit in a cozy café with a beer or two. Lesson learned.

The weeks between my posts have also brought some sadness, on both a global and personal level. Along with the rest of the world, we watched events unfold in Paris last Friday night, and saw a much-loved city under siege. I generally steer clear of politics here, and I have no particular wisdom to offer up. I have only the hope that we (and our leaders) have learned from the mistakes of the past when it comes to our response to terror; that we choose to turn away from fear and allow the more generous parts of ourselves to direct our actions.

On that same awful Friday, I learned that a colleague – a young, vibrant, and warm woman – had gone into premature labor. Her baby was delivered safely but she had a health crisis and fell into a coma. She passed away on Monday evening. Only a week earlier, I had commuted home with her, as I often did. It was her last day of work and she was excited about starting maternity leave. She and her husband were scheduled to move to a new home and were ready to welcome their child.

It is unbelievable to me that she is gone. To die in childbirth is something from another time, at least in the developed world. I know too well that maternal mortality globally is a critical issue, and that giving birth is, in some places, a very dangerous undertaking. But here? In Amsterdam? In 2015?

These losses – a colleague, safety (real or perceived), time, balance – accumulate. Sometimes it seems that there is little we can say to lighten the burden. Maybe it is enough to be present – with ourselves and with others – and let our presence speak.

 

A Bridge Too Far

After a wonderful string of weekends hosting visitors, we’ve found ourselves with several weekends that are blissfully free. We’ve taken advantage of this time and the incredible autumn weather (which I’m told is unusual) by doing some day trips. One day was spent exploring Utrecht, which was much more enjoyable than my report of my bike crash would lead you to believe. This past weekend we took the train to Arnhem.

Anyone familiar with World War 2 will know Arnhem as the site of the Battle of Arnhem and the target of Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was led by Field Marshal Montgomery of the British 1st Airborne Division, and it was the single largest airborne operation in military history, up to that time. American, British, and Polish airborne troops participated in the drop and the fierce fighting that followed. Ultimately, due to a series of tragic events – poor intelligence about German presence, equipment drops into enemy-held territory, ammunition shortages – the operation failed. The British suffered heavy losses, the Germans recaptured key bridges, and the civilian population was forced to evacuate. The goal to end the war by Christmas of 1944 was not met; instead, the war continued. The Dutch – who had earlier greeted the Allied troops as liberators – endured the Hunger Winter.

Hotel Hartsenfeld

Hotel Hartenstein, Oosterbeek.

We learned all of this at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek. (We had, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, brushed up the night before by watching an episode of Band of Brothers. You could also watch the film “A Bridge Too Far” or the British movie “Theirs is the Glory”.)

The Museum is housed in the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was the British headquarters during the war. The exhibits were very well done, especially the exhibit about the evacuation of Arnhem after the British defeat. The stories are told from the perspective of survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, who were children during the war. These children and their families packed up their few belongings, believing they’d be back home in a matter of days. It was 10 months before they were able to return, and when they did, they found much of their community destroyed. The reflections of the survivors – and their own children, who never fully understood the impact the war had on their parents – were made even more relevant when one considers the millions of displaced people seeking refuge and safety today.

What I found most moving was the monument outside the museum, which was given to the residents of the entire province of Gelderland by the British troops, several decades after the war. The monument speaks to the fact that the British came to liberate the Dutch, but instead brought death and destruction. In spite of that, the British were – and still are – treated with gratitude and respect by the residents of these communities. Many Dutch continue to tend the graves of British soldiers buried in the nearby cemetery in Oosterbeek, and annual ceremonies of remembrance bring the community together.

I think it is difficult for Americans to truly appreciate the impact of World War 2 on Europe. I don’t say this to imply that American involvement in the War wasn’t both tragic and heroic. My family suffered losses, and there was deprivation and difficulty throughout the United States. But the experience of occupation, of exile, is one that Americans, thankfully, cannot relate to. And the effect it has on a population – on their collective psyche, on their health – doesn’t end when the war ends.